The bishops or the Bible?
How does a denomination respond when it faces a potentially fatal split? The Church of England's answer is a frantic fudge.
At their meeting next month the most contentious issue facing the CofE's governing body, the General Trustees, will be same-sex marriage. Many are vociferously pressing for the church to solemnise such marriages, others are unequivocally opposed. Despite what the newspapers report, same-sex marriage is only the presenting symptom: underneath there is an unbridgeable theological divide.
How not to satisfy anyone
The formal teaching of the CofE, set out in its canons and authorised liturgies, is that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. To get round this the House of Bishops have recommended that, while continuing to forbid same-sex marriage in church, the General Synod should create a church service for same-sex couples. This would include prayers of dedication and thanksgiving and asking for God's blessing following a civil partnership or marriage conducted elsewhere.
The fudge satisfies no one and only prolongs the agony of a denomination at war with itself. The recommendation has prompted anger from pro same-sex marriage campaigners for whom same-sex marriage 'has always been a central demand of LGBTQ+ Anglicans and remains a priority for our continued campaign'. Christians holding the biblical position see this recommendation as the institution paving the way for same sex marriage 'in all but name' and will vigorously resist.
A bizarre recommendation
Anglican Futures sums it up as nonsensical: 'Offering prayers of blessing to those in same-sex marriages while claiming to maintain the doctrine of Holy Matrimony as a marriage between one man and one woman for life is illogical.'
The bishops have reached the bizarre conclusion that something which is not fit to be celebrated in a church building can yet be blessed within that building, but only if it initially occurs outside the building. How can a denomination which has existed for five centuries and has produced theologians of note get itself into such a confused situation where its ethical stance is influenced by architecture?
The Bible is pretty unambiguous about human sexuality, and is clearly not in favour of homosexual activity: such behaviour is deemed sinful. The bishops nevertheless conclude that it is proper to ask God to bless something he has specifically condemned as sinful.
Jumping through theological hoops
The real question is: how does a bishop convince himself that the Bible doesn't really mean what the Bible clearly says it does mean? One master of the necessary theological gymnastics is John Inge, Bishop of Worcester. In an open letter to his flock, he explains why he believes that the celebration and honouring of monogamous same-sex relationships by the Church of England would be consonant with the Scriptural witness.
Bishop Inge's starting point is: 'I have observed good, faithful, monogamous relationships between people of the same sex which I cannot believe to be inherently sinful.' Thus, human morality is decided before the bar of Bishop Inge's personal morality and not the bar of Scripture. This is the heart of revisionist liberal theology: if he can't believe it, it can't be true.
Why can't he believe this? It is because his interpretation of Scripture is being shaped by factors and authorities external to Scripture. He holds in practice that if there are two authorities which are irreconcilable, viz biblical authority and his own emotional response, the Bible is the one which is going to have to give way.
Some of the most trenchant arguments on LGBTQ issues are made by the Apostle Paul. Bishop Inge reckons that 'those who adhere literally to Paul's injunctions have therefore lost sight of the spirit of the gospel'. Whoever argues that to take the words of Paul literally is to miss the spirit of the gospel has just adopted what Paul terms 'another gospel', a false gospel. This, like all theological liberalism, is to undermine the authority of Scripture and consequently the life of the church.
Bishop Inge's letter is a revolt against both historic Christian teaching and biblical authority. In his commentary on Titus 3, Thomas Aquinas said that if someone teaches that God is not a Trinity, or that sexual immorality is not a sin, he is a heretic.
Which authority for the Church?
Bishop Inge argues: 'My understanding of Anglican polity is that we are bound by the Scriptures interpreted within the living tradition of the church through the application of reason and experience. Reason and experience have caused me to come to the Scriptures anew and reassess my reading of them.'
What the bishop terms a 'living tradition' is the interaction between church tradition and the culture of the moment. Thus living tradition is really a malleable tradition which is no tradition at all. When the biblical text is understood in this way, the culturally influenced living tradition has in reality become the authority of the church.
Thus Bishop Inge can write: 'It must be admitted that wherever instances of same-sex sexual activity are found in the Bible they are unequivocally condemned.' Yet he can go on to claim that when the Bible speaks of homosexuality it doesn't really mean homosexuality as we understand it today.
The sad truth is that when a church can accept the authority of secular society, it not only can, it will. In this the CofE is no different from those other denominations which have become hostages to the culture.
As Martin Luther put it, Scripture is norma normans non normata – Scripture is the norm of norms that can't be normed. This means the Bible is the authority of authorities that cannot be compromised. Other avenues of truth can be useful in understanding what Scripture teaches, but they all sit below the one authoritative source of truth, the Bible.
Campbell Campbell-Jack is a retired Church of Scotland minister. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.