Sexuality, gender and disrespect for scripture

By Savi Hensman
February 1, 2017

In 2017, the Church of England, along with several other churches, will be looking again at sexuality and gender identity. In late January the House of Bishops issued a reporti which held fast to the view that sexual intimacy was only right in heterosexual marriage, while stating the wish to be more welcoming to lesbians and gays.

There was no admission that numerous theologians believe that a biblically-based faith does not rule out same-sex partnerships, and most church members agree. Nor was the possibility raised, even as a future option, of letting those with different views follow their consciences, as on so many other issues.

However in a press conferenceii Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, admitted that “there are very different views on same sex relationships within the Church, and within the House of Bishops, mainly based on different understandings of how to read scripture.” Looking at these differences, and their impact within this church, may throw light on similar controversies in various denominations and across the world.

Leaders sometimes shy away from being too inclusive to avoid upsetting those who are convinced this would go against biblical teaching. But such avoidance is unjust and also may seriously undermine respect for the Bible.

Much has been said and written about the impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people of failing to treat them equally. This is rightly a matter of grave concern. However there are wider implications when senior clergy and elders are wary of publicly challenging the notion that exclusion is the result of clear instructions in the Bible.

A few hundred years ago, certain religious authorities, both Protestant and Catholic, tried to defend biblical authority. Martin Luther condemned the idea that the earth went round the sun (which appeared to contradict Joshua 10.12-13 if taken literally) and the Vatican pressured Galileo into backing down.

This may have seemed like a victory at the time. But in the longer term, it did huge damage to the credibility of the church and  of the Bible. Sadly, it would seem that the lessons have not been learnt.

Among Christian thinkers in recent centuries, much work has been done to find better approaches, sometimes echoing the work of early theologians. This has made faith more clearly credible. Anglican theologians have joined in this task.

Yet in recent decades, to please those most insistent on their own interpretation of the Bible, church leaders have sometimes seemed willing to throw away this legacy. This has undermined the intellectual and moral credibility of Christianity.

Worse still, it has opened the door to dangerous distortions, at a time when deeply oppressive and often violent interpretations of religion are on the rise. Recent developments in the USA and elsewhere highlight the risk.

In England and beyond, Christians at grassroots level, along with scholars, may sometimes have to take the lead if further damage is to be avoided, working with those leaders bold enough to speak out.

Interpreting the Bible

The Bible is of crucial importance in enabling Christians to encounter the Divine, the Church’s tradition indicates. Many non-Christians too have been drawn to some biblical stories and teachings, and to art, music and poetry based on these.

However the Bible is not an instruction manual. And it is inevitably understood in the light of tradition, reason and experience. At the most basic level, how it is read and heard is to some extent shaped by the work of translators or, for a few, by those who have taught them ancient Hebrew and Greek.

Indeed, its very complexity, as a library of books by different authors written for different purposes over a long time period, is part of its strength. This has enabled it to resonate with diverse people across the ages and to challenge readers and listeners to engage actively, rather than as passive consumers.

Christians may further be influenced by what they regard as rootedness in Christ, the living Word of God present even before human civilisation (e.g. John 1.1-18, 15.1-5), and by the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16.12-13).

In the Gospels, Jesus is repeatedly attacked by those who think he is disobeying Scripture, whereas he reflects what is at its heart. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”, he says (Matthew 7.12); and the strength of God’s love is shown when he is lifted up, drawing all to himself (John 12.32).

Other New Testament writers also indicate the value of experience as well as sacred texts. The Law given to Moses was written on stone but Christ’s followers “show that you are a letter of Christ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3.3).

From this perspective, when communities and individuals prayerfully strive to follow Christ, attentive to their surroundings and the joys and sufferings of their neighbours, the Bible can come alive, so to speak. Even if sometimes they may take a wrong turning, they can be guided back.

Some leading theologians in the early church were well aware that biblical interpretation was not straightforward and that texts should not necessarily be taken literally. For instance, Augustine of Hippo wrote in On Christian Doctrine that anyone who “thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

But even if someone misinterprets part of the Bible, if this “tends to build up love... he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads.”

In addition, in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he warned against ignoring scientific and experiential knowledge: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world... about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics.”

He pointed out that if non-Christians “find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions” supposedly based on the Bible, “how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

To understand the Bible properly might mean looking beneath the surface meaning, Gregory the Great advised, writing about the book of Job. In his view anyone “who looks to the text and does not acquaint himself with the sense” of the Bible “is not so much furnishing himself with instruction as bewildering himself in uncertainty, in that the literal words sometimes contradict themselves.“

Time and again throughout church history, Christians have forgotten this advice, with serious consequences, because the Bible has been brought into disrepute or misused to promote unloving actions.

Anglican tradition and the Bible

When the Church of England broke away from the Pope’s authority, there were varying views among the reformers. Some wanted to play down the value of tradition, reason and experience in seeking truth, as if the Bible could be detached from these and was self-explanatory on all important matters.

This was meant to be liberating but risked giving human leaders even more power, if they could select biblical passages, insist on their own interpretations and claim to speak for God. Theologians such as Richard Hooker managed to chart a middle way between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism.

For some Calvinists and Puritans, this was unsatisfactory. They believed the Bible gave clear guidance to true believers on important matters, with no room for uncertainty. However the Anglican approach offered a foundation for faith that was deeply biblical but also able to respond to advances in knowledge. Repeated splits or excommunications were also less likely if it was acknowledged that Christians might sincerely disagree on a particular issue without necessarily rejecting God.

This is not to say there was not much to criticise in the Church of England. This included a tendency to defer to the powerful and privileged and periodic attempts to stamp out zeal shown by members who were evangelical, Anglo-Catholic or both. But at best Anglicanism allowed space for deep theological thinking and dialogue and allowed people with varying views to unite in worship and in love of neighbour. So, while some nineteenth-century Anglican leaders such as Bishop Samuel Wilberforce opposed the theory of evolution as unbiblical, other key figures such as Frederick Temple, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, welcomed it.

Amidst rapid economic, social and cultural change, some people yearned for certainty and looked to religious leaders to tell them how to think. Others rejected religion or adopted watered-down versions: for instance a Christianity which heavily downplayed the Bible and placed too much faith in reason, without recognising how even the most educated could be deeply irrational. An approach which avoided either extreme was much-needed.

In other denominations too, thinkers tried to create approaches which opened the door to respectful disagreement, allowing time and space for truth to be discerned. By the twentieth century, an increasingly influential ecumenical movement was promoting dialogue. And working-class voices and those of women and/or people of African, Asian and Latin American descent were prompting fresh thinking.

There was growing awareness that the Bible had sometimes been quoted to justify the slave trade, women’s oppression, anti-Semitism, militarism and other wrongdoing. God had sometimes been perceived as cruel or capricious. At the same time Scripture had inspired those striving for justice.

Against this background, the 1930 Lambeth Conference,iii bringing together Anglican bishops from across the world, agreed on some principles for biblical interpretation. While – like other resolutions – these were advisory, church leaders rejecting them could reasonably be expected to explain why.

The Conference declared, “We affirm the supreme and unshaken authority of the Holy Scriptures as presenting the truth concerning God and the spiritual life in its historical setting and in its progressive revelation, both throughout the Old Testament and in the New. It is no part of the purpose of the Scriptures to give information on those themes which are the proper subject matter of scientific enquiry, nor is the Bible a collection of separate oracles, each containing a final declaration of truth.

“The doctrine of God is the centre of its teaching... As Jesus Christ is the crown, so also is he the criterion of all revelation. We would impress upon Christian people the necessity of banishing from their minds the ideas concerning the character of God which are inconsistent with the character of Jesus Christ. We believe that the work of our Lord Jesus Christ is continued by the Holy Spirit, who not only interpreted him to the Apostles, but has in every generation inspired and guided those who seek truth.”

In using this approach, Bible-based Christianity was fully compatible with scientific advances and the highest moral values. The truths about humankind emerging from a non-literal reading of Genesis 1-2 could be reflected on, and it was not essential to believe that a just and merciful God ordered the slaughter of civilians, including children (Deuteronomy 20.10-18).

The 1938 report of the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission,iv chaired at the time by Archbishop William Temple, looked further at how the Bible might be approached reverently, with openness to fresh truths and without ‘cherry-picking’ some passages while ignoring others. It took the view that:

the Bible is the inspired record of God’s self-revelation to man (sic) and of man’s response to that revelation...

the theme of the Bible as a whole is God, though the working out of this theme is in parts obscure. At times the limitations of the human writer and his age distort for us the presentation of this central theme, as when vindictiveness is attributed to God; but the theme itself is never wholly obscured, and in its completeness the Bible produces the conviction that it is not only about God but that it is of God. God speaks to men through the Bible, which may therefore be rightly called “the Word of God.”...

It sets before us that historical movement of Divine self-disclosure of which the Gospel is the crown...

The tradition of the inerrancy of the Bible... cannot be maintained in the light of the knowledge now at our disposal. It will already have become apparent that this belief in its inerrancy is in our judgment in no way necessary to a full acceptance of the Bible as conveying to us God’s revelation of himself...

It is the duty of the Church and of the individual to undertake, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret Christ’s teaching and to apply it to the particular problems in every age...

It is to be noted that the commands of God are never arbitrary, but proceed from his righteousness and love, and that he always wills the highest good of his creatures.

Biblical morality

While it is useful to learn from Catholicism and Calvinism, the Anglican tradition of Richard Hooker and his successors has valuable features, according to the great theologian Michael Ramsey writing in 1945. These include “an appeal to Scripture which refuses to treat Scripture as a self-contained law.” In ‘What is Anglican Theology?’ he emphasised the importance of balance and warned against aspects of Neo-Calvinism, which can treat use of reason as if it were a revolt against the divine.

“High-churchmen, valuing tradition but missing the more dynamic aspect of the Word in the Scriptures, have sometimes been led into a ‘traditionalism.’  Evangelicals, holding the Bible in high esteem but divorcing it from the living tradition of the Church, have sometimes been led into a ‘scripturalism.’ Broad-churchmen, reverencing reason but missing the significance of certain aspects of Scripture and tradition, have sometimes been led into a sort of ‘rationalism.’ In each case there has been a tearing asunder of things which in the Anglican vocation are bound together,” Ramsey wrote. He would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. He might have been surprised to know that, seventy years on, while many Calvinist and Catholic thinkers had fully embraced the Bible’s complexity, Church of England bishops would lag behind.

In line with this approach, the 1958 Lambeth Conferencev acknowledged “our debt to the host of devoted scholars who, worshipping the God of Truth, have enriched and deepened our understanding of the Bible, not least by facing with intellectual integrity the questions raised by modern knowledge and modern criticism.”

An international committee provided the Conference with a thoughtful report on The Holy Bible: Its Authority and Message. This warned that “At a time when religious men and women are hungry for authority, many in different parts of the world have been turning to the Bible to find authority within it. But have often interpreted it in ways which lead to extravagance or sectarianism.”

It explained that the church looked to the moral teaching of the Bible but it is “never easy, and sometimes agonisingly difficult, to use this moral teaching in the right way.... The Law, which had been given to lead men to Jesus Christ, was reinterpreted by him. He taught a more radical obedience, involving not only actions but the motives and inclinations of the heart, and he summarised the Law in the twofold commandment of love to God and love to one’s neighbour.”

Christ’s moral teaching is not “a code of rules or a set of definitions.” And the “morality drawn from the Bible involves... both constant reference to the teaching and person of Christ and belief that the conscience which takes Christ as its guide will be given new insight by the Holy Spirit.”

By that time, theologians had begun to throw doubt on whether the Bible gave clear guidance on faithful, non-exploitative same-sex partnerships. This shift would continue, as scholars deeply committed to finding and applying biblical insights came to understand these differently with regard to sexuality and, later, gender identity.

The Bible was produced by many individuals with different perspectives and grappling with controversies, a Church of England Doctrine Commission report on Christian Believing pointed out almost two decades later, in 1976.vi “How then could the Bible be anything else but a collection of many different insights, most of them passionately propounded, many of them inevitably in tension with one another. That is how, in the Bible, truth is communicated...

“The Bible is not an exhaustive compendium of spiritual wisdom nor a collection of rulings and definitions that can be automatically applied without error to any new situation. The miracle of the Bible is rather that it is inexhaustible; its creative power goes on stimulating new developments in tune with its own spirit... At the present time, for example, we see this spirit still at work in guises such as the Latin-American ‘theology of liberation’ and in ‘Black theology’, which employ the biblical writings as aids to a dialogue with and illumination of their own existential situation.”

In line with this tradition the 1978 Lambeth Conference, while regarding “heterosexuality as the scriptural norm”, called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them. (We note with satisfaction that such studies are now proceeding in some member Churches of the Anglican Communion.)”vii

Churches then studying sexuality included the Church of England. In 1979, a working party chaired by the Bishop of Gloucester concludedviii that there were “circumstances in which individuals may justly choose to enter a homosexual relationship involving a physical expression of sexual love”. In other denominations too, members were drawing on developments in biblical scholarship to revisit views on sexuality and gender.

A hunger for certainty

There were some Anglicans and other Christians who were not yet convinced by the arguments for change but were willing to consider them, and who did not see such matters as central. But there were others who thought that people calling for acceptance of committed same-sex partnerships or unconventional approaches to gender were challenging the authority of Scripture.

Some were hostile to LGBTI people. But others genuinely believed that they had a responsibility to try to save the souls of those who broke God’s clear commands and so put their immortal souls at risk, as well as rescuing the church from going astray. In certain instances they formed links with overseas allies.

Many were not biblical literalists but did believe that the Bible gave clear guidance on important matters. Though history had shown that even the greatest theologians were sometimes mistaken, people with this view were convinced that they themselves could reliably identify biblical truth. Unsurprisingly, they found themselves at odds with not only extreme ‘liberals’ but also mainstream Anglicans.

Ironically, their very insistence on the clarity and supremacy of Scripture could lead them to downplay or explain away parts of the Bible that did not fit the ‘party line’. This applied not only to sexuality but also such issues as how Christ atoned for sin and what happens to non-Christians after death. From their perspective, someone arguing for the most obvious interpretation of a biblical passage, if this did not fit their ideology, might be regarded as deeply wrong or even heretical.

Despite the efforts of such activists, attitudes to same-sex partnerships and not fitting neatly into ‘traditional’ gender roles were becoming more accepting. But as such groups lost ground in the pews and wider society, in some ways their power grew within the leadership of the Church of England. All too often, senior clergy seemed to value them far more highly than their fellow-Anglicans, especially sexual minorities and women, and moves towards greater equality were blocked or delayed.

One factor was the frequent threats by some that they would leave if there was too great a shift towards affirming same-sex love. There was a genuine risk of a break-up of the Anglican Communion. However, arguably, frequent concessions to Neo-Calvinists and Neo-Puritans increased their expectations, intensifying problems. Unity – mistakenly understood as willingness to bow to those most insistent on getting their way, whatever the human cost to others – became almost an idol.

Those committed to a broad church also often wanted to be generous and recognised that those with different views might have something valuable to offer. However this was not always mirrored by the people who saw themselves as sole guardians of the truth.

Church of England leaders tended to shy away from pointing out that the approach of these these groups was different from that of traditional Anglicanism as understood in the early-mid twentieth century. Indeed, archbishops strongly criticised overseas provinces which had undertaken the study and dialogue urged by Lambeth Conferences and, as a result, felt called to be more inclusive. This fed into the popular misconception of a faith in which ethical issues were decided by rules and regulations in an ancient text.

In turn this deepened anti-Christian sentiment and the tendency, even among some Christians, to be dismissive of the Bible. It was sometimes spoken of as largely outdated as a source of moral guidance, the product of a world where slavery, war-crimes and mistreating women were seen as acceptable.

Senior clergy increasingly focused on management and evangelism – often understood as convincing others of a pre-packaged message – rather than theology. Some UK-based theologians aware of the wonder and complexity of the Bible were poor at communicating, except with other scholars. Polarisation in the church grew.

Meanwhile preachers, religious writers and broadcasters from various denominations who saw themselves as championing biblical supremacy were skilfully putting out their message. Sizeable sections of the UK public came to believe that this is what ‘real’ Christianity was, whether they liked or loathed it.

Proclaiming the Gospel, debating sexuality and gender

The past five years in the Church of England have involved the production of the Pilling Report (the Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality).ix This was followed by ‘shared conversations’ to build understanding and trust among those with different views.

During this latest round of study and dialogue, various voices have been heard. These included some ‘conservatives’ open to being persuaded on this, as on other ethical issues, and some ‘liberals’ who gave little weight to the Bible. But to a large degree, it has been a contest between those trying to defend a traditional Anglican approach to Scripture and, on the other side, Neo-Calvinists and Neo-Puritans seeking victory for a supposedly purer form of Christianity.

For instance, the 2013 Pilling Report – despite a number of weaknesses – was recognisably Anglican, except for the sections written by the Bishop of Birkenhead, Keith Sinclair. As conservative evangelical member of the working group, despite major concessions, he refused to sign the final version.

The report, after examining biblical and other evidence, made the point that “The Anglican approach to social ethics is profoundly Christian in its refusal – in theory if not always in practice – to countenance premature foreclosure on matters where discerning the mind of the Church and the mind of Christ is elusive. In the flawed way of all institutions, that can be a counter-intuitive gift to a world fixated on immediacy, certainty and intolerance of difference.”

Sinclair recognised that “Those who have been part of the Working Group on Human Sexuality have gone out of their way to listen to my views. They have sought to produce a report that, in their view, goes as far as possible to meet those concerns.” But he was unwilling to be as open, and stated, “I do not believe the Report’s attempt to prove the lack of clarity in biblical teaching about homosexuality succeeds.”

As debate took place within the Church of England and other UK-based churches, Christians also joined in public discussion of marriage, sexuality and gender identity. Christian MPs and peers argued for and against equal marriage. Vicky Beeching, a singer-songwriter popular in contemporary Christian music circles, came out as lesbian and urged acceptance of committed faithful partnerships.

Her story, as told to the Independentx and elsewhere, reflected that of many other LGBTI people who had worshipped in the Church of England, especially evangelicals. She had become aware of her sexuality in adolescence and battled it for decades, pleading with God in prayer and even seeking exorcism, until she was physically, emotionally and spiritually shattered.

Unusually however, she had studied theology at Oxford University and was able to articulate why her views on sexual ethics had changed. “What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at 13, sobbing into that carpet, I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did”, she told a journalist.

Many fellow-evangelicals had been on a similar journey of change, sometimes prompted by their own or a family member’s experience. Others were sympathetic to her story while holding fast to the ‘traditional’ view. However some responses highlighted the risk of portraying God rather like an authoritarian ruler who cares little about people’s suffering as long as they do as they are told.

Andrew Symes is the general secretary of the (misleadingly named) Anglican Mainstream. He criticised Beechingxi for speaking out publicly, trying “to leverage the secular media to influence the church from without,” though what she proposes is “clearly against what the Bible teaches.”

He wrote of the need “to identify the anti-Christian secular or neo-pagan ideologies at work here, and address the problem of those promoting these ideas now openly attempting to force the Church to abandon its core doctrines. Then we need advocates of a positive theology of sexuality, marriage and spirituality” in which “the pain and stress of unfulfilled desire” leads “either to learning to find rest in Christ and abiding in the Vine, or to the false satisfier of the abandonment of chastity.” Here the yearning for a life-companion which leads heterosexuals to marry is briskly dismissed as mere hunger for sex, and Beeching’s attempts to do just what he advised, until she was desperately ill, treated as irrelevant.

Another example is the reaction to Journeys in Grace and Truth: Revisiting Scripture and Sexuality, edited by Jayne Ozanne, published in 2016 by Ekklesia on behalf of ViaMedia.News. The contributors were mainly well-known evangelicals in the Church of England. They largely advocated approaches to the Bible which would have been commonplace among Anglicans fifty or sixty years ago, even if their readings of specific passages would have been less common.

For instance Colin Fletcher, the Bishop of Dorchester, wrote that he gets “worried when I am told – as I was very recently – that this is a ‘Gospel Issue. Whilst I fully agree... that questions to do with humanity and sexuality are not merely matters of marginal interest or indifference, I do want to challenge the assertion that places them on an equal footing with the great credal truths of the Trinity or the humanity and divinity of Christ.”

David Ison, the Dean of St Paul’s, made the point that “looking for ‘what the Bible says’ as if there is a single biblical perspective on everything isn’t a valid way of reading Scripture.”

The Church of England Evangelical Council published a fierce attackxii on the book by Martin Davie, who had served as a theological consultant to the House of Bishops. The title of the review was ‘Journeys into Darkness’. “A good case can be made out for excluding unbiblical teaching on sexuality and those who promote it,” he wrote. “Someone who argues in favour of same-sex relationships has moved outside the orthodox fold in a serious way.”

Human pain and joy get short shrift: “Those with same-sex attraction may want to be in a sexual relationship with someone. However, this does not mean that such a relationship is what they need. Like all human beings what they truly need is to live in obedience to God and that involves sexual abstinence outside heterosexual marriage.”

Valuing the Bible again

The 2017 bishops’ report, Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations, does not seem to engage with the theological thinking which went into preparing the Pilling report. Nor is there any obvious response to the biblical perspectives provided by affirming (including LGBTI) Christians during the “shared conversations”.

During the past five years, there have also been reports by churches with which the Church of England is in communion which have examined the Bible and sexual ethics, and occasionally gender identity. Various books have been published by eminent scholars offering biblically-informed views on these issues, including a profound and original work by a theological consultant to the Pilling working party. It is not obvious whether the bishops took any account of these.

The 2017 report does mention “the classic Anglican triad of scripture, tradition and reason” and the difficulty of reaching agreement. For “many holding a conservative view of scripture the underlying issue at stake is that of faithfulness to God’s word and this raises ‘first order’ questions in relation to the heart of the gospel. For others, the imperative to read scripture differently stems from a parallel conviction.”

But there are plenty of people who are ‘conservative’ on this matter without thinking that they are infallible. The bishops fail to recognise that it goes against Anglican tradition to insist that the Bible is clear on moral issues and a particular grouping can speak authoritatively for God.

Indeed the bishops might appear to have come down on the side of Neo-Calvinism as a substitute for traditional Anglicanism, though softened a little to show pastoral care to LGBTI people. The apparent refusal even to consider revisiting current doctrine on sex and marriage could be read as taking the side of those who would regard any change as unfaithfulness to God’s word.

Individually many bishops continue to approach the Bible in a way that builds on the legacy of earlier Anglican thinkers. But collectively this inheritance appears to have been largely abandoned. This carries serious risks, especially since the Church of England influences how the UK public views Christianity as a whole.

To begin with, those opposing the Christian faith on scientific or moral grounds have been handed a powerful weapon. If they can quote a biblical passage that seems to contrary to reality or ethical conduct, it can be used to discredit the God of the Bible.

But a worse danger exists: that some may seize on this way of reading the Bible to justify large-scale hatred and violence. Mass atheism would be preferable to the twisting of the good news into something diabolical.

Most of the current leading ‘conservatives’ in the Church of England would be strongly opposed to the gross mistreatment of minorities or extreme nationalism. (Some are aligned to international movements led by overseas bishops who stir up anti-LGBTI hatred and promote criminalisation, but are critical of such actions.)

However the approach to the Bible which they promote can condition people obediently to follow leaders who claim biblical authority for their own views. There has been a surge in recent years of supposedly ‘Christian’ nationalism, racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia and authoritarianism. In recent weeks, Christians believing they were following the Bible plunged the USA into crisis. Others decriminalised much domestic violence in Russia, though thousands already die each year. In Europe and North America, much of the extreme right claims to be Christian.

Thankfully, in some churches, careful reading of the Bible which takes account of its complexity is encouraged. This can guide and inspire people to strive for justice, be more compassionate and live with uncertainty and difference.

In the Church of England, if leaders fail to draw on the thoughtful work of theologians and other Christians through the ages, it is up to other members to take on this task.

Ekklesia associate Savitri Hensman has worked for greater equality in church and society. She is the author of Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613


i Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations, House of Bishops, 2017, https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3863472/gs-2055-marriage-and-same-sex-relationships-after-the-shared-conversations-report-from-the-house-of-bishops.pdf

ii General Synod Press Conference, Church of England news release, 27 January 2017, https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/01/general-synod-press-conference.aspx

iii The Lambeth Conference: Resolutions Archive from 1930, Anglican Communion Office, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127734/1930.pdf

iv Doctrine in the Church of England: the Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957 (first published 1938)

v The Lambeth Conference 1958: The Encyclical Letter from the Bishops together with the Resolutions and Reports, SPCK, 1958

vi The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, Christian Believing: The Nature of the Christian Faith and its Expression in Holy Scripture and the Creeds, SPCK, 1976

vii The Lambeth Conference: Resolutions Archive from 1978, Anglican Communion Office, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127746/1978.pdf

viii General Synod Board for Social Responsibility Working Party, Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion, Church Information Office, 1979

ix Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, 2013, Church House Publishing, https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1891063/pilling_report_gs_1929_web.pdf

x Patrick Strudwick, ‘Vicky Beeching, Christian rock star “I'm gay. God loves me just the way I am”’, Independent, 13 August 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

xi Andrew Symes, ‘Vicky Beeching is gay: Why it matters and what the Church needs to do’, Anglican Mainstream, 19 August 2014, http://anglicanmainstream.org/vicky-beeching-is-gay-why-it-matters-and-what-the-church-needs-to-do/

xii Martin Davie, ‘Journeys into Darkness, A review of Journeys in Grace and Truth’, Church of England Evangelical Council, 2016, http://www.ceec.info/review-journeys-in-grace-and-truth.html


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.