Gary Waddington concludes his thoughts on the Shared Conversations
The Theological deficit?
A colleague of mine is fond of saying that if the arguments about the ordination of women were primarily lacking a theological response but found a justice argument, so the debate about human sexuality should be precisely the reverse. In other words, if the previous argument had found deep and resonant theological foundations, then what now follows would have had a much easier a path. The fact that the former didn’t, means that the latter has a far more tortuous pathway.
Anyone who might have posited this as a zero-sum argument missed the point. This is, I predict, about to become a battle which, in the Church of England, will make the issue of the ordination of women a row of the order of magnitude of which comes first, milk or tea?
Our theological grounding is partial, based too often on perspective, and necessitates from both sides a degree of unsubstantiated proscription that sets the scene of what may well be a fractious battle. This is about a battle between the soul of evangelicalism and the soul of progressive liberalism – and the stakes are high.
What’s missing is the sound of cogent theological voices. Above the loudspeaker claims and counter-claims needs to be a persuasive range of voices that carry real weight. My worry is this: where are the scholars, and the scholar-bishops – on both sides – who can weigh in? This has to be a much wider consideration than simply the repetitive exegetical attempts to corral some Bible verses as proof texts one way or the other.
That there is recognition that this debate needs wider parameters is good; but my worry is that in a landscape in which – apparently – we no longer trust experts, there is an increasing cultural norm that what we need is a better slogan, rather than depth of understanding.
In a fast-moving debate both in the Church as in society, there remains the propensity that the Church will find itself behind the curve. I’m convinced that where we are now is far from a sensible position. Some movement is required – but, as ever, the theological and political balance is a difficult question.
Imagine the scene. Slogans multiply, with claim and counter-claim aplenty. Those leading the debate have a soupçon of charisma, but aren’t necessarily the main players. The leader has taken a real gamble that this might pay off, but it’s a huge investment on what might be an uncertain outcome. Potential splits abound.
It is more than a passing coincidence that Synod began with a debate about Brexit. Yet that debate was framed, illuminated, and overshadowed by the debate still to come about human sexuality; and there were quite a few speakers who drew parallels, or sought to make inferences about the sexuality conversations from and in the Brexit debate on the floor of Synod. The parallels are striking.
In what is increasingly called a post-fact, post-truth, post-reason political environment, the Church can no less be immune to the cultural battles that seem no less reducible or illuminating at times than the taunts of a playground fight. That might well be a harsh judgement – but one which I am happy to defend. Sex is the Church of England’s Brexit moment: a take-it or leave-it argument, and one for which, on either side, there are significant dangers and potentially unintended consequences.
The danger isn’t that we embark on a zero-sum, no-win argument that fractures the Church: it is that we engage in a damaging no-sum, zero-win debate in which all are hurt and damaged. There is a real danger of a scorched-earth outcome. This is the age of theology by megaphone, and that simply will not do.
The Church’s treatment of non-heterosexual Christians is little less than shocking. That should, I believe, be rightly called out, denounced, and condemned: eirenic statements are simply not good enough. But a debate characterized as being between Bible fundamentalists and revisionist Gnostic relativists also falls short of where we ought to be. There are serious theological considerations to a debate which ought to be about justice; but which skirt important doctrinal themes because in previous debates they have been ducked and avoided.
Calling all conservative Christians “homophobes” is as insidious as calling all Brexit leavers “racists”. I don’t deny that there are homophobes in the Church – of course there are – but tarring everyone with the same brush isn’t just disingenuous; it fails to flush out what the real arguments are. Equally calling all non-heterosexual people “abominations” isn’t where the vast majority of people are today.
We might like a bit of gladiatorial conflict, but it is very wearing. Trying to seek out what is God’s purpose, prayerfully and deeply discerning what we are called to do, can’t be packaged as an ecclesiastical version of The X Factor. This should rightly be a grounded, robust, and passionate conversation, debate, and journey. But it must not be reduced to vacuity.
What we’re watching is an action replay of a previous car crash. The issue at hand is different, but the hermeneutic and pathology is almost identical. The question that faces us is this: are we willing to live with this for thirty years, with the attendant realities for mission, for the implosion of a section of the Church, and for the contingent consequences as yet unknown?
Or might we be able to do something far more grown up, get our story together, and provide credible witness-statements which, rather than doing damage to each other, bring us together in a narrative that propels us beyond the present? We are, after all, sinners redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t shy away from difficulties, or from debate. He did, though, say that it is better to acknowledge that we’re all sinners and to put our stones down before we start shouting at each other.
Only time will tell what comes next. Time, that is, and the House of Bishops. Only those involved have the ability to make a difference; so let’s drop the slogans, stop shouting, and keep talking.