At the recent Lambeth conference, Archbishop Justin Welby showed his deep, and no doubt thoroughly sincere, desire for the Anglican Communion not to be split over same-sex marriage.
Since all the faithful are ‘in Christ’ – those united with him in eternity, as the bride is united in one flesh with her husband – we know that division in and between churches is an offense to that most assuring of doctrines. We know too that union with Christ reveals the Christian faith to be about far more than (dare we say) mere salvation and forgiveness of sins - it is about enjoying all the blessings of being united with Jesus Christ, including sonship of God and eternal justification.
So, we know we tread on delicate ground when we challenge any desire to maintain that unity.
Yet tread we must
Yet tread we must, because Archbishop Justin’s teaching (for that is what his leadership is) raises questions for all of us about the impact of our teaching on human sexuality and our response to our inconsistency.
During the Lambeth conference, Archbishop Justin spoke to the bishops as they gathered to discuss issues of human dignity and sexuality. He is reported to have said:
“For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.”
The logic of the Archbishop of Canterbury would appear to suggest that Scripture does not teach clearly on issues of sexuality, allowing provinces to respond to their cultural context. His argument appears to be that because the society where the church is located believes that certain sexual activity is acceptable, the church should conform and seek to bless such activity, lest the church is alienated from the majority of her mission field. Other provinces should then bear with such provinces (implicitly because perhaps their culture might change one day too).
But Lambeth 1.10 speaks of far more than same-sex relationships. Specifically, point b says:
“in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;”
Which raises the question of how we should address other sexual relationships outside of marriage. Is abstinence still right? Or should our teaching and practice reflect the culture in which we live, to avoid derision? If the latter is true, then surely the church has been unfair to heterosexual couples for forty years.
In the US, the majority of citizens believed that sex outside of marriage was acceptable by the early 1980s.
In the UK, by 1983 half the population believed that sex before marriage was ‘not wrong at all’ or ‘rarely wrong’, with the number of ‘not wrong at all’ surpassing 50% by the early 1990s.
If Archbishop Justin believes the church should be free to follow the culture of the day on sexual relationships, why has he not offered heterosexual couples, who make up at least 90% of the population, the same freedom?
As recently as 2019, the House of Bishops published a Statement which said,
“In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively" (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings.” (Paragraph 9.)
It is true that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York then issued an apology for ‘jeopardising trust’ with the LLF process, but it was unclear as to whether this was because of the impact of such a statement on heterosexual or homosexual civil partners.
Contrary to what some claim, Jesus most certainly does speak about sexual relationships. He speaks very seriously about them. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29)
There is no mincing of words here by our Lord Jesus, nor consideration that alternative views are acceptable, even if the majority favour them. But instead, he speaks to all who would come to him, not just certain people with particular categories of sexual attraction. Obedience to God’s word is not optional.
So, we return to the Archbishop’s statement at Lambeth.
Might it not be that our relative silence, as Anglicans, on all matters of sexuality over these last decades, combined with the contemporary focus on gay and lesbian relationships, has acted to focus on, and further alienate, gay and lesbian Christians?
It is undoubtably cruel of the church to point to same-sex attracted people when we are silent towards heterosexual people who sit loose to sexual purity in their hearts and minds.
There is a huge place for corporate repentance here, for our failure to teach fairly.
But rather than suggest that the solution to this problem is to submit to the situational ethics of our cultural context surely we need to return to the words of our Lord and Saviour.
Jesus came not to redefine sin in such a way that we marginalise and diminish it. Rather he highlighted just how far we fall short of living God’s way in God’s world, and that by recognising this, we might run to him for forgiveness and, by his Spirit, the strength to repent and live differently.
 https://news.gallup.com/poll/3163/majority-considers-sex-before-marriage-morally-okay.aspx  https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-30/personal-relationships/marriage-matters.aspx  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Civil%20Partnerships%20-%20Pastoral%20Guidance%202019%20%282%29.pdf  https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/7-february/news/uk/archbishops-issue-apology-over-civil-partnerships-statement