Nicholas Turner looks for something better than the bishops’ discussion document

Smart, stylish and not concerned to be reader-friendly. 368 pages of densely packed, numbered paragraphs, in measured crypto-academic prose. This is Some issues in human sexuality. The bizarre title, it tells us, ‘exactly defines its purpose. It is a guide to the theological debate on questions that have arisen in response to the 1991 House of Bishops report Issues in Human Sexuality.’

If, like me, you were fooled into buying the accompanying booklet A Companion to Some issues in human sexuality, then all one can say is that you have wasted £2.50. Be thankful you did not buy a dozen or more as a useful précis or introduction for your parish. It has a couple of pages on how to be sensitive in any group discussion, how to listen to the experiences of others, how to avoid being patronizing or offensive. The rest is an outline cum table of contents for its larger companion. Think of it as a summary of a summary of a summary; it is like listening to an unimaginative deanery synod rep giving a report to the PCC of a meeting two months ago: the words may make sense but it is as close to meaningless as one could devise.

The sub-title of the main book is even more bizarre. A guide to the debate. The debate? What debate is this? It is all very well for the dear bishops to refer back to what they wrote eleven years earlier, but the point of that document was not to initiate debate but to hold the line. Many a bishop has avoided confrontation by the simple expedient of saying, ‘I abide by IHS.’ And in many contexts, I would not blame them, but now to suggest that it was the basis for the debate is somewhat disingenuous.

The notion that good Anglicans have been engaged in serious discussion, reflection and prayer over ‘this’ issue for a decade or more, under the wise tutelage of our bishops, is nonsense. It has been far more a case of keeping down in the trenches, and sniping at anyone who sticks his neck out, ‘You tell me what you think. So that I can disagree,’ or for the less irenic, ‘First give me your opinion, and then I will condemn it.’

Good material

One is tempted, therefore, to welcome this guide; it is full of good material; it quotes widely from a number of theologians. Yet once again, in a manner that has become a defining characteristic of the CofE from Common Worship onwards, its only value is as a resource. It does not teach, it only provides material for use in teaching.

It states clearly that it ‘does not seek to change the position’ expressed in IHS. However, it opens the discussion not with a review of biblical exegesis or Church teaching, but with a chapter on ‘The current debate on sexuality’, which proves to be a survey of the rise of moral relativism through some related twentieth-century themes. We failed to hold the line on remarriage after divorce, on contraception, on abortion; now let us talk about homosexuality.

You think I am being unfair? Chapter 2 is entitled ‘The use of the Bible in sexual ethics’. Does it use the Bible to establish a foundation for sexual ethics? No; instead it offers a range of hermeneutical problems, citing a number of contemporary scholars of differing opinions. Excellent for a student seminar, but not as the basis for discussion in parishes. Its implicit message is that unless you have gained a theology degree, it would be better not to get involved in so complex a debate.

We may mock (the temptation to indulge in vicious satire is strong), but the fact remains that PCCs will be asked to debate these questions in 2004, and report back to deaneries and diocesan synods, with nothing more helpful to work with than this impenetrable, academic ‘guide’. That is the point! This SIHS is not a guide; it is only a book of resources.

It comes from a parallel universe. We are those who have been battered by the events of New Westminster and then New Hampshire and now pray for the future of the Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops, who offer us this ‘discussion document’, act as though nothing so specific or dramatic or political has been happening, as though there were no ecclesial crisis, as though this were a debate that could meander gently on, without arriving at any firm conclusion.

As I have already said, it is full of good, measured and stimulating material. But it is not a guide. To present it to the church as though it were does seem to be a dereliction of duty, the duty of the bishops to fulfil their teaching ministry. In this sea of ill-directed vagueness, which SIHS represents, the temptation to retreat into blanket condemnation or do-what-you-like liberalism, according to one’s existing predilections, is overwhelming. It is a debate we did not want; and we just wish it would go away.

A slight hope

It need not be so. If you remember, we felt the same pessimism during another House of Bishops’ ‘debate’ when they set out to get rid of the CofE’s marriage discipline. It did not seem likely, back in 1999, that our constituency would be able to respond to the Scott-Joynt proposals, and the probable General Synod votes, with anything more substantial than a bad-tempered ‘No!’ As it happened, the Holy Spirit surprised us.

The Marriage Statement issued at the Sacred Synod of March 2002 is a fine document. Of course there is more than needs saying, and perhaps in retrospect it was a pity we did not spend more time considering it, more time chewing it over so that we could own it more fully, but when the rest of the CofE was coming up with nothing and less than nothing, it was a clear and practical statement of traditional teaching.

Can we hope for the same in the present debate? Yes, I think so. Some time before the publication of SIHS but after the Gene Robinson sports stadium drama, there was a joint meeting of the Bradford and the Ripon FiF clergy chapters, and the subject not surprisingly was the ‘gay issue’ and the future of the Anglican Communion. It was, to our surprise, an extraordinarily exhilarating meeting. We suddenly found ourselves talking about problems that we have all prayed and agonized over for a long time; we found we could actually talk like priests, not church politicians; and best of all we discovered that we were neither brutalist homophobes nor marshmallow inclusivists, but Christian pastors seeking to be faithful to the tradition and our calling.

Of course we are bad and inadequate (that goes without saying) but the sense that we have something to teach, that this is a responsibility we must shoulder together; that here is a part of the gospel to which we must witness; this came as a powerful movement of the Spirit. And I do not think there was anything special about that particular gathering of traditionalist parish priests.

The great fear

The great fear, for our constituency, may be this. We desire passionately to be faithful to the tradition we have received and to be true to God’s word. We do not want to be drawn into the liberal world, where new values are invented, and where the Bible and the Church have only secondary authority. We also desire, as those with a pastoral charge, to be open and generous and tolerant, to mediate the love of God, to welcome all people into the body of the Church. But the manner in which the crisis is presented by the bishops (perhaps) and by the media (certainly) is such that we believe (as does everyone else) that it is impossible to fulfil both hopes together.

We shall not keep the militant inclusivists happy, nor satisfy the rigours of certain Evangelical fundamentalists, but theirs are not the only ways in which to be generous or faithful. The great merit of the Marriage Statement from the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the Bishop of Fulham was that it spoke about the Christian understanding of marriage, unlike the General Synod which considered the modern understanding of divorce.

Similarly, it is clear that the focus of our own teaching is not ‘homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexualism’ for these, as SIHS acknowledges at the very beginning ‘are all inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ and it is ‘therefore, strictly speaking, anachronistic to use the modern terminology when referring to these earlier discussions,’ not excluding the Scriptures themselves.

At the other end of the debate, there is the whole notion of tolerance. The core truth of the inclusivist position is an a priori rejection of tolerance. It is only when tolerance is unacceptable, that the demand for inclusivist assertiveness makes sense. Indeed, there is rather more to it than that. The inclusivist demand has not necessarily improved the position of faithful gay couples who are Anglicans. It has helped to outlaw tolerance more quickly than it has legislated the new dispensation. A couple of good friends, now Roman Catholics, are happy to have re-discovered a church that can still be tolerant. Ironic perhaps, but true.

What we shall come up with in our joint chapters, I do not know; but we shall work at a common basis for any debate that is thrust upon us. My hope is that we shall cut through that fear, peculiar to our own integrity, that makes us to want to avoid the whole debate. Let me repeat it in conclusion.

We wish to be utterly faithful to God’s word, to the teaching of Christ’s Gospel, and to the tradition we have received. We also wish to avoid offending gay people and to continue to be tolerant and compassionate of all our fellow Christians. The fear (that has prevented us speaking openly before) is that these two deeply felt desires are incompatible, that to hold to one is to make the other impossible.

God be thanked for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Our Lord. Was there anyone, called by God, who was more loving and open and generous? And again, was there anyone, to whom he spoke, more open and obedient to the word of God? Mary managed what seems impossible. We cannot claim to be as gracious as Our Lady, but her example inspires us.

Nicholas Turner is Curate of the Parish of Thornton-in-Craven.