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Bishops’ report on marriage and same sex relationships

Now the shared conversations are finished and the bishops’ report has been published, Matthew Sleeman pauses for a moment to reflect on how might we live in light of it. He asks: Has any thing changed fundamentally? How do we read canon law differently? And, indeed, should we?

Last week, the Church of England’s House of Bishops released a report for General Synod on the subject of marriage and same sex relationships (Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations, GS 2055). Having spent time over the weekend reading the report, I welcome its affirmation of the Bible’s understanding of marriage. But many other questions remain, especially looking ahead. Some of these issues the report recognises, some it might well create. How, then, should we look ahead, with confidence, obedience and faith?

Reading the report, I appreciated its explicit reference (in para 48) to Canon A5:

‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.’

Paragraph 48 then continues to describe the 39 Articles of Religion and The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal as ‘sources of doctrine’, and ‘particular sources of doctrine, not exclusive ones’ (emphasis original). No other such sources are named, so the reader is left to wonder what might be in mind here. Also, Canon A5 states more than that. Paragraph 48 fails to note that, given their place in canon law, these three are authoritative sources of doctrine. Indeed, perhaps ‘source’ is not the best term for them: on their own admission, these three are themselves submissive to scripture. As such. they are authoritative expressions of doctrine that arise from Scripture and are Scripture’s servants, subject to it.

In this light, my reflections on the report as a whole recall not only Canon A5 but also Article XX of the 39 Articles as a helpful and necessary reading companion for it.

Here is Article XX in full:

‘The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.’

The content of this article provides a vital lens for reading the report as a whole, alert to its strengths and weaknesses, its challenges and its invitations. And, looking ahead, both Synod and the wider Church will need the clear light of Article XX for future steps forward.

What would a report shaped by Article XX read like?

First, the ‘classic Anglican triad’ of Scripture, tradition and reason, referred to in para 2, would be able to work faithfully. Scripture would provide the arbitration where reason (in this report very much clothed in the garments of cultural context) and tradition disagree with each other, and where they conflict with Scripture itself. The ‘centre of gravity’ referred to in para 18 would be located in and under Scripture.

Second, this distinctively Anglican harmony would permeate the whole report. Article XX opposes ultimately alignment, as paragraph 8 of the report seems to do, of ‘faithfulness to God’s word’ with ‘the imperative to read scripture differently’ as ‘a parallel conviction’. According to the article, these seeming parallels will, if pursued, lead not in parallel but apart. Article XX will also provide an important reverse-view on how the Church’s teachings are ‘perceived through the prism of much in contemporary Western cultures’ (2). What the report calls ‘changing approaches to human knowledge and reason’ will themselves come under the gaze and commentary of Scripture.

Third, Article XX will also oppose attempts to set one part of Scripture against another, judging this ‘repugnant’. Rather, the Church must struggle to find and keep a clear mind and heart based on, and submissive to, the whole of Scripture. In the ongoing trajectories of this debate, Article XX expects of us an integrated biblical theology, across the whole of Scripture, and the Church’s ordering and life to reflect it. The report avoids detailed exegesis, but examples of the need for Article XX to inform conversations and debate are not far away. Thus, for instance, the article would declare that Romans 14:1 could not be interpreted as set against the clear teaching on sexuality within Romans 1:18-32. Or, returning to the report, the God of Love’ must not be set against his other attributes as we move ahead with these issues, if he is to be the God revealed in Scripture. That, too, would be repugnant.

Fourth, Article XX needs to declare over any future ‘fresh tone and culture’ that this report, in time, engenders. This will be especially important where the report’s tone and implications are at their vaguest, such as in the suggestion in para 30 that where ‘current tone and culture’ are ‘deemed to be unhelpful’, there could be ‘some wider consideration’ as to ‘what might be done to change it.’ The same paragraph suggests that ‘It might also be important to identify specific opportunities for the Church of England to express its welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and those who experience same-sex attraction, and to encourage those responsible to make good use of those opportunities.’ Article XX will ensure such opportunities, such as they might be, are neither missed nor mistaken.

What would a Church shaped by Article XX look like?

Above, a Church shaped by Article XX will be submissive to Scripture, and seeking to let the clarity and integrity of Scripture as a whole be its rule in life and doctrine. This would be challenging and confronting, no doubt, for all.

For clergy, it would mean the same kind of attention regarding the exemplary role of clergy of any sexuality and marital status, and a willing submission to accountability and, where needed, repentance and discipline on that basis. The report makes clear that heterosexual clergy should be explicitly and equally open to questioning of their relationships and an expectation to celibacy beyond marriage and faithfulness within it. Rather than less accountability for some, this might mean more and equal accountability for all. Trust and accountability can work together, under a clear biblical mandate for discipleship of Christ in light of Scripture’s bounds.  Article XX provides the framing for such relationships. This would look towards perfect freedom, perhaps, ‘in whose service is perfect freedom, to quote the Prayer Book, rather than headlining ‘maximum freedom’. Mere maximising, detached from Article XX, looks more likely set to lead to repugnant readings of Scripture, and to the decreeing of practices against the harmony and governance of Scripture.

For bishops, this will invite and require a Bible-shaped confidence in their duties, both as to what they ask of clergy, and what they do not ask. Just as priests are, according to the ordinal, to ‘proclaim the word of the Lord’ and to be ‘formed by the word’, so bishops are ‘guardians of the faith of the apostles’. Only within this framing can para 67 rightly assert that ‘it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church’. Article XX will keep them to their work, and direct them faithfully and boldly in it – and, if necessary, judge them for it.

For the Church of England, Article XX envisages real limits to what is legitimate unity. Paragraph 59 suggests that ‘unity itself’ can be a ‘unifying theological theme’. This is either tautological, or needing qualification. Crucially, against para 49, ‘resistance to institutional fragmentation’ can be ‘a bad motivation’ for pursuing unity. Churches can err, and church history has sufficient apostate churches which are unified to ensure that unity in and of itself is not a virtue. Article XX, however, provides an irresistible framework for an Anglican appraisal of bad or good bases for unity in coming seasons and years.

I’ve pressed on Article XX so much because it can bear the weight of these present times and, without it, the Church of England cannot stand as a faithful Church of God. Nor can Christian theology properly cohere without it. Paragraph 58 rightly commends ‘pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology as cardinal points of the compass in navigating towards a right understanding and true judgement in this area’. Agreed: so long as Article XX provides the compass needle, and Scripture as a whole becomes our magnetic north. With that in place, the future looks hard and complicated, the terrain difficult, but the journey can be faithful and unifying.

May Article XX by in the hearts and minds of Synod, and the Church, and governing our thoughts and actions, as this report is digested and acted upon.

Matthew Sleeman

Matthew Sleeman
08 February 2017

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