Last week, the Church of England Evangelical Council, which is a network of evangelical groups and organisations, including bishops, theological colleges and evangelicals in dioceses, released a video entitled ‘The Beautiful Story’ which articulates a clear and confident belief in the current teaching of the Church of England that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that this is the place that God gives us for the expression of sexual intimacy. Only a week on, it has already been viewed 20,000 times.
It was primarily produced to give confidence to those who accept the Church’s current teaching as a faithful understanding of the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament, and the wider story of the Bible, but are worried that the current process of discussion might undermine that. The Church has just published a suite of videos, resources and a substantial book under the heading Living in Love and Faith (LLF), the product of more than three years’ work by more than 40 people. It sets out the range of views amongst members of Church, explores the reasons for difference, and will lead to some ‘next steps’ in the debate—though the bishops have confirmed that the Church’s teaching and discipline remains unchanged.
It has been fascinating to see the responses to the video—all of which raise challenging issues for the Church of England.
The first response has been to view the teaching here as that of a narrow, extreme group whose views many do not share. When I have pointed out in online discussion that it actually articulates the current teaching of the Church, many have been surprised to hear that the Church actually has a position, and what that position is. This perhaps highlights the need for a continued process like LLF – but there is a much deeper issue for a Church where many of its members don’t appear to know or understand the Church’s own teaching.
A second response has been to criticise my claim that a very large number of ‘liberal’ scholars agree with what ‘conservatives’ say: scripture prohibits, in every way, in every form, same-sex sexual relationships. The difference is that they believe the Bible is wrong, or out of date, or does not apply to our modern context.
Progressive Methodist scholar Walter Wink summarised it well: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”
Thirdly, there has been anger at the idea that those believing in the current teaching of the Church appear to be closed to changing their mind. But when I have asked those who want to see same-sex marriage recognised whether they are open to changing their mind and agreeing with me, there is usually a very speedy refusal! One commentator has posted a video asking that we all listen to one another—at the same time as running a campaign to have the CEEC video banned from YouTube.
The saddest response has been to accuse those in the video of being “anti-gay” despite the fact that the video includes a number of contributors who are themselves same-sex attracted. It appears that, to critics, these are the wrong kind of gay people.
The most interesting response has been the most theological. The video welcomes us with these words: “We are not innovators in faith—we are inheritors.” A friend of mine who works in theological education challenged this, saying that doctrine changes and has changed through history – so why should it not change again now? My response was to ask whether our understanding of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement were also up for negotiation.
To be sure, our understanding of God has deepened and developed, and our expression of these doctrines has changed as we have tried to articulate them in new contexts in ways that make sense as language changes. But do we know God because he has revealed himself to us in Jesus through the scriptures as he opens our understanding by his Spirit? Or do we decide what God is like as we develop doctrine ourselves? This is the crucial question and the real heart of the matter.
There is a move afoot to produce a counter-video, offering another ‘beautiful story’ in which gay people tell their own stories about sex and marriage. And that illustrates the difference: the whole point of the CEEC video is that the most beautiful story is not about us, but about God. It is only when we see ourselves as part of his beautiful story that we can really discover the truth about ourselves. As C.S. Lewis commented: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
Rev Dr Ian Paul is a theologian ordained in the Church of England. He is a member of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, and blogs at www.psephizo.com
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