Albert Einstein once said: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence."
As a trained journalist (now church minister) that is a sentiment I echo! And it is in that spirit I approach the current controversy about issues of sexuality and gender that we find, wearily, once again dominating the Church of England.
So here are some questions for, firstly, the Bishop of Oxford, who has declared that we should embrace same-sex marriage; secondly, for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC); and thirdly, for evangelical bishops. They are genuine questions – and the mindset in which they are written is one of genuine curiosity. Maybe, who knows, some might even answer...
So, to begin with, some questions for the Bishop of Oxford. And I start with a typical parish scenario – doing marriage preparation with a couple whose wedding is coming up in a few weeks or months. I usually use a simple course (ok, the one here since you ask) which people seem to enjoy and benefit from.
In one week of the course material there is a part of the Bible that I tend to introduce by saying something like, "This is a Bible passage that may make you leap ten feet in the air to begin with." It's the classic outline of the theology of marriage in Ephesians 5, with its seeming "hand grenade" (to many) line about wives submitting to their husbands.
(Just in passing, I find that once I have explained the context and talked about what it actually means, and that it doesn't involve wives being a doormat or oppressed, couples actually see how well the whole concept works and find it liberating and helpful).
My question for the Bishop of Oxford is: you are sitting there with a same-sex couple. How do you apply the theology of marriage set out in Ephesians 5, in relation to husbands and wives, to them? You state in your booklet that "the analogy does not depend on differentiated or complementary genders..." But, er, it does; the text could not be clearer.
It is, of course, true that all Christians are called to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v21). However the analogy that Paul goes on to give is absolutely gender-specific: husband and wife are equal, but different, and can't just be swapped around for convenience. Indeed, husband and wife are no more interchangeable in that context than Christ and the Church.
I suspect, however, that the Bishop of Oxford would never open up Ephesians 5 with such a couple, let alone get to a point where one of them could say to him, "So which of us is the husband here, and which of us is the wife?"
My other question for him is also for others who have supported him. It is simply, with sadness, this: if they want to depart from the teaching of the church, how then do they want to depart from structures of the church? They want to leave behind orthodoxy? Their choice – but with that should go leaving behind the church organisation that they have already left theologically. How do they plan to do that?
You can, of course, access far better and much more substantial critiques of the Bishop of Oxford's views in the free booklet by Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe's Oxford (and in effect now the genuine Bishop of Oxford) here, and on theologian Ian Paul's blog here.
My second set of questions is for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC). I am a keen supporter of the CEEC which in so many ways does such an amazing job. And, as we know, trying to bring together evangelicals is like herding cats.
My question comes against a backdrop that they themselves have set – that of an expectation, which the CEEC itself has seemingly fostered, of a plan for such times as this. Indeed, there have been years of conversations and discussions about it behind the scenes, we have been told on many occasions. Presumably all sorts of scenarios have been anticipated and planned for in some detail.
So I want to say to the CEEC that if I was a minister in the Diocese of Oxford (which happily I am not) I would now be unable to accept the episcopal oversight of the Bishop there. This must be one of the sorts of contingencies that has been considered and planned for over these last years: the public departure of a diocesan bishop from ethical orthodoxy.
And yet ... all we have actually had from the CEEC is another statement without any hint of any part of any plan for clergy in that diocese even starting to kick into action. It is hard for me to understand this. So my question is very simply: why? Why not even a hint of any plan for those in Oxford diocese?
You can read the actual CEEC statement which came out a few days ago in response to the Bishop of Oxford here. It is welcome, of course.
But I had hoped the statement would say something bolder (and pastorally warmer) like this: "The CEEC notes the statement from the Bishop of Oxford. It not only seeks to usurp the whole Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process but also departs from historic, global Christian orthodoxy. Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Oxford. We appreciate – especially for those of you who are clergy – that in addition to the constant ongoing pressures of daily parish ministry you must now feel very undermined in what you preach and teach. Some – if not all of you – will feel a rubicon has been crossed. Do not lose heart! This is, of course, exactly one of the contingencies for which we have been planning in detail for years now. While the situation remains distressing, we are pleased that in these extraordinary circumstances the Bishop of ............ (perhaps an English or more likely Global South figure) has agreed to provide alternative episcopal oversight for you with immediate effect for all who want it. We also have an information booklet answering some of the many legal, financial and other questions that you may have in these circumstances. We hope that in due time the Bishop of Oxford will consider his position and resign so that you can return to more usual arrangements."
Providing alternative episcopal oversight in this way, of course, crashes through all sorts of organisational niceties and customs. But what should be remembered is that it is far less serious as a break with the past than the Bishop of Oxford's far more corrosive theological departure from historic orthodoxy. Has this sort of practical planning been done?
I like the CEEC and wish it well – it is full of good people. We should continue to pray that it may provide truly effective leadership for C of E evangelicals and find ways of turning aspirations into actions. My questions are not meant to needle its members – they come from genuine pain and perplexity.
Thirdly, and finally – some questions for evangelical and other orthodox bishops. All of us in the wider evangelical constituency are keen to support you, encourage you, pray for you and spur you on. We appreciate that you may want to be above criticism in respect to the LLF process and so don't want to be seen (unlike the Bishop of Oxford and others) to be railroading it in one particular direction.
However, given that some Bishops have now indeed broken ranks and are advocating "strange and erroneous doctrine," do you not have a duty to refute it in the same public way that it has been advocated? As a parish minister my congregations can read statements by liberal bishops – but none by evangelicals at the time of writing. And that is more deeply depressing and demoralising than I can begin to explain.
Surely your first duty does not lie with the LLF process, but with the flocks under your care who are currently confused by this issue? Does it not also lie with the harassed under-shepherds (parish clergy) across England who might well currently feel (as I do) that they are not getting the support and leadership from you that they need in order to be able to discharge their duties most effectively?
Either way, we should be praying for these bishops; I can hardly imagine the unconscious pressures to bend and conform they must be under. Again, my questions are not meant to irk them – they come from the heart with genuine distress. And I do not think I am the only one; far from it.
Questions are important. As Albert Einstein also said: "Never lose a holy curiosity." Perhaps there will even be answers forthcoming. I'm not holding my breath, but we can hope.
David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of the newspaper and website EN, available at less than the cost of a cappuccino per month at https://www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.