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Pulse
25 January 2023

On 18 January 2023, the Church of England announced on its website that ‘For the first time, under historic plans outlined today, same-sex couples will be able to come to church to give thanks for the civil marriage or partnership and receive God’s blessing.’

The report goes on to state that ‘[t]he Bishops of the Church of England will be issuing an apology … to LGBTQ+ people for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have faced in churches and the impact this has had on their lives.’

Congregations are urged to welcome same-sex couples ‘unreservedly and joyfully.’ They are exhorted to commit to what the bishops describe as:

[a] radical new Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and Christian faith as the Church of England has received it – based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st Century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

The bishops are at pains to stress that in accepting and blessing same-sex unions they are not changing the Church of England’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recognises that the approach the bishops have collectively taken ‘will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others.’ But he hopes that it will be received ‘in a spirit of generosity, seeking the common good.’

He thanked those who have participated in what he describes as a ‘deeply prayerful and theological grounded process of discernment over the past six years.’

However, to many Christians who wish to remain true to the teachings of Scripture as they are understood by God’s universal Church, the decisions that were announced cannot be described as theological discernment. Rather they smack of nothing but an unavailing compromise.

New pastoral guidelines – it was announced – will soon be published to replace the 1991 statement entitled Issues in Human Sexuality. It will be interesting to see how this new document will defend the bishops’ decision to bless same-sex unions on the basis of Scripture, tradition and reason.

SCRIPTURE

Are there passages in the Bible that can be said to be even remotely supportive of same-sex relationships? The answer to this question is a resounding No!

In fact, there are numerous passages in Scripture that categorically and unequivocally teach that homosexual acts are sinful in the eyes of God (Examples: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:10).

These passages must be understood in light of the equally clear teaching of the Bible that marriage is the union between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 7:2). Sexual relationship must only take place in the context of monogamous marriage of a man and a woman. Outside of this context, the Bible deems all sexual relationships to be sinful.

Revisionist scholars have tried to challenge the traditional interpretation of the various biblical texts on homosexual relationship by providing alternative interpretations. For example, many revisionist scholars argue that these texts only condemn promiscuous homosexual behaviour and not faithful same-sex relationships.

In a similar vein, revisionist scholars have also tried to show that same-sex unions are found in the pages of the Bible. They thus imagine that David and Jonathan and Jesus and John had homoerotic relationships.

These arguments and baseless speculations, however, have been roundly and decisively refuted by Bible scholars such as Robert Gagnon and theologians such as Stanley Grenz.

It must be pointed out that the Church of England continues to uphold the traditional understanding of the teachings of the Bible concerning homosexual acts. Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference – which has hitherto not been rescinded – states quite categorically that ‘homosexual practice [is] incompatible with Scripture’ and must be rejected.

In her endeavour to achieve a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’, the Church of England has willy-nilly put herself in a farcical situation: she joyfully endorses, celebrates, and blesses the relationship which she is certain is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture.

To put this even more plainly (and brutally), the Church of England endorses, celebrates and blesses behaviours that it believes and knows that the Bible explicitly condemns as sin.

TRADITION

What about the tradition? Which bits of the Christian tradition would the bishops appropriate in support of the practice of the blessing of same-sex unions which they are endorsing?

The Church has, throughout the centuries, consistently and categorically condemned same-sex intercourse. The evidence for this is so overwhelming that the bishops will be hard put to find data that would suggest otherwise.

Of course, the bishops could appeal to the work of revisionist scholars who, in disputing the view that homosexual practice is universally condemned in the Church, have tried to provide a counter narrative.

The most celebrated among these revisionist scholars is arguably the Yale historian John Boswell. The University of Chicago Press has recently (2015) published the 35th Edition of Boswell’s 1980 book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.

In this book, Boswell argues that although the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality has changed over time, there was a significant period in its history during which it was tolerant of same-sex relationships. Boswell even provided evidence of certain Christian rituals that were purportedly used to bless same-sex unions.

Scholars, however, have found Boswell’s research to be fundamentally flawed.

The distinguished scholar of early Christianity, Robert L. Wilken, describes Boswell’s book as ‘advocacy scholarship.’ By this Wilken means that the book is ‘historical learning yoked to a cause, scholarship in service of a social and political agenda.’

The eminent church historian David Wright agrees with Wilken’s assessment. In an article on homosexuality published in the Encyclopaedia of Early Christianity, Wright dismisses Boswell’s book as ‘influential but highly misleading.’

‘The conclusion must be,’ Wright adds, ‘that for all its interest and stimulus Boswell’s book provides in the end of the day not one firm piece of evidence that the teaching of the early Church countenanced homosexual activity.’

Boswell fails to supply such evidence simply because there isn’t any.

REASON

We turn finally to reason. Are there arguments from reason that same-sex unions should receive legal recognition in society and the Church?

Any argument from reason in favour of the recognition of same-sex unions would, in my view, be extremely strained. In fact, there are overwhelming reasons why such unions should not be recognised. These reasons are carefully and comprehensively laid out in a 2003 document issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

This is not the place to rehearse the excellent arguments of this document in detail. A couple of examples would suffice to show why same-sex unions are contrary to natural reason.

Firstly, homosexual union goes against the biological and anthropological order. ‘Homosexual unions,’ the document states, ‘are totally lacking in the biological and anthropological elements of marriage and family …’ This is because such unions ‘are not able to contribute in a proper way to the procreation and survival of the human race.’

Secondly, the recognition of same-sex unions will bring about disruptions in the social order in such a way that is detrimental to the common good. ‘If, from the legal standpoint, marriage between a man and a woman were to be considered just one possible form of marriage, the concept of marriage would undergo a radical transformation with grave detriment to the common good.’

This is an important point that has been blithely ignored by the bishops who insist that the doctrine of Holy Matrimony will remain unchanged with the blessing of same-sex union. The failure of the bishops to see how the introduction of the latter will be consequential to the former boggles the mind.

CONCLUSION

There are no tenable and solid justification from Scripture, tradition and reason for the decision by the bishops to bless same-sex unions. We are therefore led to conclude that perhaps the decision is the result of an uncritical acquiescence to the ‘21st Century understanding of being human and being sexual.’

However, in conforming to the prevailing culture and in its anxiety to maintain its unity, the Church of England has chosen a path that can be described as theologically indefensible and pastorally irresponsible.

It has adopted a theologically naïve understanding of Christian inclusivity. True Christian inclusivity does not give the Church the license to ignore what God has clearly prohibited.

As the CDF document has put it so well: ‘The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.’

The bishops of the Church of England also need to listen to (and take heed of) the Responsum of the CDF published in 2021. To the question, ‘Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?, the CDF replies:

… it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.

In choosing this path, the Church of England has painted itself to a corner. From here on, there is only one direction it can take, if it is to show itself to be honest and consistent, and not duplicitous. It has to change its doctrine of Holy Matrimony to include same-sex marriage.

It has to embrace a union which God has never ordained.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.