Gary Waddington continues his reflections on the Shared Conversations
Is Sex the “Evangelical Problem”?
More than once throughout the Shared Conversations process I was struck as being not only a participant, but also an observer in what felt an overwhelmingly “evangelical-centric” debate. Almost everyone who spoke from the platform appeared to come from an evangelical background: be that “conservative”, “liberal”, “progressive”, or whatever tag you might dream up. It felt very much at times as if this wasn’t the whole Church of England talking – rather we were, to differing degrees, engaged in an inter-pan-evangelical family argument (albeit one heavily influenced by events from outside).
It often felt like a proxy debate for at least three issues. First, there the very serious question “what is the authority of the scriptures in the Church?” To put it another way, “how can we read the Bible, and do we agree on what scripture says?” That’s going to be a very difficult question of hermeneutics. For some, the Bible is very clear, and is to be read at least in general terms as a form of interpreted literalism. For others, there are important ranges of exegetical readings to be applied. For more still, there are significances of how newer biblical hermeneutics might be brought to bear, influenced by feminist, queer, liberation, and other contexts. That itself should illuminate the difficulty of the theological question “what is the right way to read the Bible?”
Secondly, there sits another thorny question. What is the determinable authority for Anglicanism? Is it sola scriptura, tradition, or reason? Is it that the historic Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Episcopē – is breaking down? Whilst I wouldn’t agree with my evangelical brothers and sisters that Scripture alone is a defining authority, there is a real sense I perceive within this debate that for them the place of Scripture is under threat, as well as specific ways in it might be read. I absolutely realise that “conservative” is no more a hegemony amongst evangelicals than “traditionalism” is so amongst Catholics. The point, though, is where the balance lies.
That is perhaps the third issue in this proxy debate – where now? The shape of evangelicalism is today very different to what it was at the start of the 1970s. What I can remember from my childhood as being “Low Church” is different from much of the evangelical world today. I’m by no means an expert – but sung Mattins with the Vicar in a surplice, scarf, and hood is, I suspect, a much rarer beast than a charismatic, worship-band-led, non-robed “service of the Word”. I stand to be corrected, but evangelicalism’s 1970s revival has now created a section of the Church which has its hands on many of levers of “power” – and just at a time when an issue comes along which threatens to break up that growing monopoly and influence. Could this be the issue which breaks the evangelical ascendancy? Is this debate not just about human sexuality – but the outplaying of an existential evangelical crisis, unable to deal with the present cultural Zeitgeist?
The Justice Question
For at least some of the more generally liberal parts of the Church of England this is an equal crisis, but one in which this group feels firmly themselves to have an upper hand. After all, if the question of the ordination of women was about “inclusive justice”, then surely the context of this debate bears as many, if not more, of the hallmarks of that debate. Since those arguments held sway then, surely they will triumph now.
That view – whilst a theological solipsism of reason, just as much as the ordination debate was – is now hitting buffers not easily foreseen in the law of unintended consequences. Surely the sisters liberated from the yoke of patriarchal oppression will rally to the cry of liberation of all similarly oppressed? There’s the rub. It turns out that some of those who have scaled the dizzy heights of preferment aren’t so keen to cry publicly for freedom for others. No wonder there was a sharp intake of breath from some when newly-appointed women bishops demurred from a full throated defence of others facing proscription. If the ordination of women was ever seen as a Trojan Horse to deliver full acceptance of human sexuality, it has failed yet to release the Greeks in its belly.
There can be little doubt that society has moved on. For many today, sexuality is of little import or consequence. Of course, outside metro-political circles, that’s not quite the whole story; but in most social and media circles the argument is won, even if there are pockets of resistance. Is this just a question of the necessity of righteous justice as a Gospel imperative? Or is this playing out as an overarching metanarrative of an inbuilt conservative position? Just as the conservative position clings to a claim to scriptural warrant, so a more progressive position clings to an appeal for reason to triumph.
The problem is one of inherited position – and the inherent weakness that a three- or four-legged appeal to a theological argumentative “stool” cannot stand on one leg alone. “Justice is blind”, runs the maxim. But this argument isn’t impartial, and rightly so. In order for the justice argument to have weight, it has to have a theological backup – one which is at present, it seems to me, sadly lacking.
To be continued.
The Revd Gary Waddington is Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, in the diocese of Leeds, and a member of the General Synod.