Listening with love: sex, gender and mutual flourishing with Evangelicals

Living with division and separation is part of the Anglican way. I still remember weeping when, while I was at Theological College, Synod made the decision to ordain women to the priesthood. I knew immediately, had already prepared for the fact, that friendships would be strained. It is 25 years since I was ordained deacon. In that time dear friends have chosen different paths. Some as members of the Ordinariate, others as Roman Catholics, lay and ordained, by the mainstream route. I love to concelebrate the Eucharist with my sister and brother priests; with some of my dearest friends this has not been possible for a long time.

I believe, profoundly, in what we have come to call ‘mutual flourishing’. I think if we can offer the world this sign of ‘good disagreement’ we are doing something important and profound. I recognise that ordaining women to the priesthood is God doing a new thing, I rejoice in it, but I do not see how we can condemn those who hold to the belief that it is not possible to do so, they are, after all simply believing what has been believed ‘at all times and in all places’ until now.

As the Church of England’s discussion of same-sex relationships moves along many people believe that some sort of opening up of possibilities is going to happen. I have no access to any of the discussions so I can’t tell if that expectation is real or not. I am certain, though, that if it does some people will want to distance themselves from that.

Last week I attended two meetings aimed mainly at Evangelical Anglicans where these issues were discussed. A member of the Liverpool Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship (DEF) suggested I attend their meeting, I checked this out with a few other friends who all said I would be welcome. At that meeting, the speaker, the Bishop of Birkenhead, Keith Sinclair, mentioned a day conference in Oxford (at St Ebbe’s church) put on by the Coalition of Christians for Education which would be examining themes of sexuality, gender and identity. I attended both of these meetings for several reasons:

  • to listen
  • to understand
  • to learn
  • because I believe in mutual flourishing

I hope that I am always open to recognising that I might be wrong about something, and to changing my mind.

My friends were right. I was made to feel very welcome at both gatherings, and, of course, knew lots of people. It is good to be among friends.

I am always impressed by the priority given to Scripture by Evangelicals. At the DEF it was Revelation that Bishop Keith chose as his text. At St Ebbe’s in Oxford, Vaughan Roberts, the long serving Rector, chose Daniel 1. In these last weeks of the liturgical year we have had lengthy doses of Revelation and Daniel at both the Office and Mass. It was good to hear them being applied. It is interesting though, that both chose apocalyptic literature.

For Bishop Keith, Revelation is clear in putting the church (or churches) under judgement, but most of all he used the text to show that, for him, exclusion is as much a part of the Christian tradition, if not more so, than inclusion. There was time for small group discussions before Keith spoke again, this time about the practicalities of what is happening globally among Anglicans. There is a clear sense that the recent letter, Remaining Faithful within the Church of England, from 13 Evangelical Anglican Bishops to the Gafcon organisers expresses a strong feeling that their proposed solutions will not address the crisis within the Anglican communion.

At St Ebbe’s the morning began with a really brilliant exposition of Daniel 1. It was just a joy to see a great teacher unfolding the text without notes and in such an engaging way. For Vaughan Roberts the key learning from Daniel was:

1 Don’t withdraw

2 Don’t compromise

3 Don’t be afraid

The day was chaired by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the second speaker was the Conservative MP Rehman Chrishti. It was good to have a practising Muslim at an event like this. Chrishti spoke about the Manifesto to Strengthen Families published by a  group of Conservative MPs.

The keynote speaker was Professor Stanton Jones of Wheaton College in the United States. I was thrilled that he began with what he (like me) considers the key Biblical text on education, the Sh’ma in Deuteronomy 6. I was equally pleased that he referenced St Augustine heavily in his talk. The talk’s title was “Identity, Sexuality and the Gospel: A Better Story for Our Schools”.

Jones talked about the fragility of many ‘identities’ that people choose for themselves and because of this fragility the difficulty in engaging in dialogue. He demonstrated (well, I thought) the need for us to know our history and for our sense of self to be God-centred not self-centred. He stressed the need to recognise human Wholeness, and that we are in our very being God-centred creatures. I agree profoundly with all of this.

He went on to talk about the Genesis narratives and the fundamental significance of gender and the creation of male and female. While I would agree with this I found the assertion that human marriage, in which male and female become one flesh, is a sign of the One-ness of the three persons of the Trinity to be unconvincing. I am not sure this can be biblically justified or shown in the Tradition. Marriage is an icon of Christ and his church. The internal unity of the persons of the Trinity is a different thing. It raises complex questions about gender in the Trinity that just don’t seem to work.

Jones’ talked about the significance of faithfulness and was very strong on the importance of celebrating those who are faithful in singleness. In the questions afterwards one member of the audience asked about the apparent unfairness by which heterosexual people have two choices, marriage or celibate singleness but lesbian and gay people (in common with everyone at both events, and conservative Evangelicals generally, he spoke of people ‘who experience same-sex attraction’ rather than use the identity language of gay, lesbian or LGBT+) the choice only of celibate singleness. Jones talked about the unfairness of life and the need for a more robust theology of suffering.

***

In reflecting on the two events and my conversations with several people at both of them a number of things stand out for me. I will write about these generally rather than attribute them to particular individuals which I may get wrong anyway.

Against the World

The strong sense of the sinfulness of the world was very evident in my conversations. I was surprised at just how much there was a feeling that things had been better at some point in the not so distant past. “Even when I was growing up …” was a phrase I heard several times. This alternative narrative on even recent history makes dialogue hard. I, like most of the people I know, would not want to go back to, when? The 1950’s? We would regard the liberation of women and the growing equality of women as a good that must not be reversed. Evidence was presented in terms of levels of unhappiness, and even how much sex people are having, as evidence that things are worse now. I was not convinced.

I was also interested in what an Anglican view of this would be. As an established church we are, perhaps more than most, in the world even if not of it.

Inclusion

Working in Education ‘inclusion’ is part of the common vocabulary of schools. It is considered a universal value. Something which no one could argue with. The language of inclusion is known by children and adults. Of course there is tension here. Tension when a school excludes a pupil because of poor behaviour, or when extreme (who is to judge that?) political views or non-inclusiveness are seen as unacceptable. Inclusive can easily slip into believing very little. I believe the Christian faith, that must exclude people who don’t.

Among those I spoke to there was very strong suspicion about inclusion, it was described as not being a biblical word, there being no warrant for it.

To be so against ‘inclusion’ immediately sets up a conflict with the common culture of, for example, our schools.

Against the Church

The sense of being a persecuted minority was also strong. I found this quite interesting since most people would regard Evangelicalism as at the peak of its influence in the Church of England. It was also interesting to me because traditionalist Anglo-Catholic friends tell me the same, as do Catholics who receive the ordination of women as priests who say that we are left out because all the provision has been made for traditionalists.

Fragile Identity of Evangelicals

I’m not sure that my heading here is exactly right, but the phrase ‘victim culture’ occurred to me when reflecting on the last point. In many ways Stanton Jones’ point about the fragility of identities can be applied to our party identities in the church. Everyone feels persecuted!

Mutual Flourishing

Many people expressed the view that Evangelicals have to create a safe place for themselves where sound teaching can be found, and that this must be identifiable. To the point that walking past a church a stranger would know that sound teaching was available there. Reference was made to what everyone regarded as the failure to create a safe place for traditional Catholics, and the events surrounding Philip North’s appointment at Sheffield were drawn attention to. Stanton Jones’ argument that marriage is a sign of the oneness of the Trinity clearly makes this a ‘first order’ issue.

No Better Story Yet

The subtitle of the day conference  ‘a better story’ reference’s Glyn Harrison’s book A Better Story. It is well worth reading. There is much in it that I agree with and I would like to see a much wider conversation about many of the issues it raises in terms of having a better story in our schools. One of my preoccupations in my work is precisely how we can talk about Christian marriage, lifelong fidelity, in a positive way without appearing to criticise children’s parents and home lives. I tried a number of ways to do this as a school chaplain and headteacher. I don’t think I found the way forward. I believe profoundly that we need this as a society. I don’t think the better story was articulated at the conference.

Working Together for Marriage

For Catholic Anglicans there have been some encouraging signs recently of traditionalists working with those who receive the ordination of women on common causes. September’s Anglican Catholic Future conference on Mission is probably the strongest evidence of that. Recent work on maintaining the seal of the confessional another.

Would it be possible for Evangelicals to work with a much wider constituency, some of whom might be in favour of same sex marriage, to find a better way of telling the story of Christian marriage? Saying what we are against isn’t the most persuasive argument. Saying what we are for is really important, and demonstrating the benefits of that.

Church Schools?

I suppose the most glaring thing for me at Saturday’s conference was the complete absence of reference to Church schools. Even the school that presented the afternoon session I attended on RE and Collective Worship was a non-church school. I was the only Diocesan Director of Education present and the church’s official education network was notable by its absence. It must be said that one or two of the attendees from schools were surprised at the content of the morning session, they had not interpreted the conference literature or recognised church politics, and signed up for what they thought was a general education conference for Christians.

***

I hope I have presented faithfully what I heard and my interpretation and perception of it. One of the strongest words that Keith Sinclair used, repeatedly was ‘contend’. At St Ebbe’s there was also a significant sense of ‘us’ against ‘the world’. I believe completely in the spiritual conflict so I have some considerable sympathy for this position. However, I don’t think the conflict is best won in condemning others but in finding the positive way forward for everyone. Throughout these two events I was looking for the gospel truth that is under-emphasised in other traditions in our Church. What is the ‘gift’ that evangelicals bring to the church, and to me? What is God speaking to me in this teaching?

The real point about mutual flourishing is that we are all diminished when we don’t make it work. Regular readers of this blog will know that I attended the New Wine Conference for leaders in February and the New Wine United Week 2 in the summer. These were hugely positive events and encouraged me enormously. The recent events were much more defended and less energised. From them I will take away the need to work on our better story for marriage and relationships if we are to persuade young people to make choices that lead to their flourishing.

The greatest gift I have received in my life, that any of us can receive, is to be loved. I have been blessed with a family in which there have often been profound, even brutal disagreements. But I have never felt less than totally loved. No one should be condemned for not in good conscience accepting same-sex relationships, they are simply believing what has been believed ‘at all times and in all places’. Our task as Christians is to love one another. This is where the belief that our true identity in Christ becomes meaningful. We belong together in Christ at our deepest level with all our differences. We cannot un-baptise people, the Body of Christ includes all those we agree and disagree with, approve and disapprove of.

“God is Love”, it said above the heads of all the speakers at St Ebbe’s. The proof of that love is staying put, sitting at the table, however hard that is.

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1 Comment

  1. As you say, Richard, schools are not inclusive of all behaviours! That inevitable policy of schools is the same as what has always been the inevitable policy of churches: it is absolutely obvious that not all behaviours should be accepted and included, and it is also absolutely right that all people should be accepted and included. This behaviour/people distinction is a very old and well known one, so it is wrong that people should continue to have to make it: it must have appeared as a (or the) central point in practically every discussion of the topic. Discussions which are honest move forwards; discussions which are dishonest involve people not listening to or digesting the bits they don’t like (with the result that they have to keep on being repeated), as though what we ‘like’ has anything to do with the case.

    Exclusion is brought upon ourselves by failure to repent, since not repenting is the same thing as saying one belongs to the old way of life and thereby rejecting (not turning to) the new one and so excluding *oneself* from it, ruling oneself out.

    Like

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