The report from the House of Bishops on Marriage and Same-sex Relationships is not without its admirers and detractors in equal measure. I want to come at the report and the responses to it, especially from evangelicals who have given it more than a generous welcome, from a slightly different angle.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the magisterial Reformation. The iconic picture of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle may seem light years away from the blog blitz that has resulted from the House of Bishops tentatively presenting their proposals to a mildly interested press conference. I want to argue that at least one of Augustinian monk’s arguments is penetratingly relevant to the current Anglican scene on the whole matter of same-sex relations and the constellation of issues surrounding it.
A Luther moment
It is there in theses 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
For Luther the theologians of glory extrapolate from what they see in nature to the supernatural being of God. This underlies much of the present thinking of the gay identity problem in the Church. The fundamental stance is that this is the way God has made me, (with the odd Bible verse thrown in to back it up as in the Bishop’s report ‘The Psalmist rejoices that human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139.13).’), which in turn is confirmed by a secular society’s view that personal identity is not simply connected with sexual identity, but that the latter is the dominant, defining feature. This results in a belief in a god who is very much like us who, invariably, affirms us. This is nothing less than an attempt to domesticate God. [See Kevin J Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Christianity (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2016) 40]
The resulting god is, in fact, no god at all. As Feuerbach argued (with which Luther would have agreed) such religion is nothing but an idolatrous, human construction. It is “a dream, in which our conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves.” [Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans, George Eliot (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1989), 204.]
The Bishop’s report is a contemporary instance of such a theology of glory. What is singularly lacking is any doctrine of the fallen condition of human beings and the willingness to call a thing for ‘what it is’, in this case, that homosexual genital relations are sinful. Whilst there is no explicit statement whereby ‘evil is called good and good evil’, the implication is that when it is said that the church needs to ‘welcome and support lesbian and gay people’ it includes those who are actively engaged in homoerotic sexual activity. When this is considered with the permission that clergy may ‘pray with same sex couples’, say, following a civil partnership, then no other conclusion can be drawn but that God is being asked to bless that relationship. In which case the line has been crossed and evil is being called good.
The ambiguity of this document contrasts markedly with the General Synod Motion of 1987: “This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and an expression of God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:
That sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;
That fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
That homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and compassion;
That all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, and that holiness of life is particularly required for Christian leaders.”
How things have change in less than 30 years!
But of course ambiguity is the hallmark of a theology of glory which feels it can construct its own religion, often at the behest of a surrounding pagan culture. One may go even further in seeing this document as a working out of Joseph Goebbels dictum, ‘We do not talk to say something but to obtain an effect.’ The intended effect here is to give the impression that it is business as usual (affirming biblical marriage), but moving things forward very subtly in a revisionist direction (the acceptance of homosexual genital relations).
It is at this point that another insight of Luther is pertinent.
In his The Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church Luther argued that the gospel had become captive to the institutional church. However many times the term ‘gospel’ may be used in this report, it seems little more than a ‘hooray’ word, a token which lacks any clear definition but which is assumed will gain everyone’s allegiance. Of course, its cohesive effect in the toxic belief mix which is the Church of England is dependent upon it being ill defined. The result is that the gospel which is of ‘first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, which constitutes the gospel’s material principle) is obscured and so held captive by the institution of the Church of England and, indeed, by no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. In his lecture on evangelism given at Lambeth Palace in 2016 Justin Welby said, ‘There is obviously a huge amount that has been written about the content of the Good News, the Gospel, and there’s a good amount more that will be. We will never plumb the depths of the wonder of the Gospel; there will always be more to be said. I am not going to enter that debate, apart from saying that the Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s the announcement of a person in history, and what God has done in this one life for everyone who has ever lived and ever will live.’ One would be hard pressed to find a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon who would disagree with such a definition, but it is hardly the Gospel of the New Testament. Here too, the theology of glory weaves its work.
The theology of the cross (theologia crucis), by way of contrast to the ‘double speak’ of the theologians of glory, ‘calls a thing what it actually is.’ Theology of glory has an anthropology which lacks any notion of the fall. Rather, our problem is perceived as social or maybe metaphysical but not moral. And so working from what we can ‘see’ regarding our perceived self- worth as ‘God made me’, any questioning of the moral validity of our state is considered to be not only an attack on the individual, but God too for how can one claim he got it wrong in making his creature so fearfully and wonderfully gay?
But the theology of the cross presents us with a less flattering view of ourselves. In the Book which marked Luther’s breakthrough, Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle demonstrates that it is humankind’s natural bent to be theologians of glory, making god in their own image and so dethroning him for an idol. Three times in chapter 1 Paul speaks of us engaging in an exchange. In v 23 we exchange that which is immortal- God, for that which is perishable and non-God as the main object of our affections, human beings or even animals. In v25 we exchange the truth about reality that God is the centre of all things, for the lie, that we are the centre. And then in v26ff we exchange natural sexual relations for non-natural which deface our God given image of male and female bonded together as one flesh. The gay debate is really an expression of this threefold exchange which God’s special revelation presents us with. It is calling a thing what it is which is missing in this report.
An Elijah moment
But calling a thing what it is will often be met with downright hostility because it does not flatter our ego and cuts across our ‘glory’ religion. This most notably occurred a few years ago at the 2003 National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Blackpool when the Old Testament scholar, Dr Gordon Wenham, pointed out that many modern attitudes, including those towards homosexual relations were in fact examples of ancient paganism, "(Paganism) is raising its head again. Other examples are religious pluralism, abolition of Sunday as universal rest day, abortion, cremation, easy divorce ... we should not be intimidated by the charge of being old fashioned: it is the so-called liberals who are really taking us back to the dark ages." He was right. The Baal cult (a theology of glory if ever there was) was a fertility cult- very popular in the nations surrounding Israel. Not surprisingly the ‘church’ of the day succumbed to this cultural enticement and accommodated itself accordingly. But there came the crucial time when the people had to decide who was really Lord: Baal or Yahweh (1 Kings 18:17ff)? Like Luther many years later, Elijah was very much in the minority. The sight of all the prophets of the ‘establishment’ (all eight hundred and fifty of them) in their fine regalia lined up against one ragged individual must have convinced the on looking crowd that it was a no contest even before it started. But (again like Luther many years later) Elijah was captive to the Word of God and stood against the corrupt and corrupting paganism of his day, as Luther did against the effective paganised religion of his time. That is when the fire came down and people saw the thing for what it was.
Is this not a time for a Luther and Elijah moment in the Church of England today?
It is bewildering; to say the least, that evangelicals have welcomed this document so positively. That it affirms traditional marriage is no surprise. What did people expect? But what is given with one hand is taken away with the other as the way is clearly being paved for the acceptance, without any call to repentance (which is part of the Gospel call of the cross –‘Christ died for sinners’) of those engaged in homosexual genital relations which the Bible expressly forbids. To think that the door can be shut on the latter in some General Synod debate amounts to nothing short of self-delusion. Compare the 1987 ‘Higton motion’ with what has been produced in Synod in recent years and the trajectory is clearly there for all who want to see. But there is the rub. There are some who don’t want to see.
Those in REFORM and ReNew and indeed GAFCON, have been seeking change within the Church of England to bring it in belief and practice more in line with Scripture as its supreme authority. There are three options open to those in the denomination as things stand.
1. Slow death. This is what is occurring in the Church of England at large and by all the social indicators. This characterises those (including some evangelicals) who want ‘peace with pay (or a prelacy) and so will not rock the boat. These will be favoured by the establishment over any perceived trouble makers (like Luther!).
2. Quick Exit. Leave the denomination. If things continue along the trajectory as laid down by the Bishop’s report there will be more evangelicals taking this option (as well as less evangelicals coming into the denomination at a leadership level).
3. Deep Change. This is a term developed by the writer Robert E Quinn to describe how long term and significant change is effected in an organisation with a resulting revitalisation. There are three features which characterise ‘deep changers’: [Robert E Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within ((Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series), 1996)]
A. They must be willing to break the rules which hinder growth.
B. They must risk their jobs- willing to court the opprobrium of the establishment.
C. They must be willing to “walk naked into the land of uncertainty” or build bridges while still crossing them. This means going ahead, not recklessly, but moving forward without knowing beforehand what the outcome might be.
Of course option 3 is the way of Luther and marks the theology of the cross- weak, costly, foolish in the eyes of the world and the Babylonian Church, but in the economy of God the genuine manifestation of grace. In practice this will take many forms. It will involve those within the establishment breaking canon law for the sake of the gospel and people’s eternal salvation as the local context requires it. It will mean more church planting outside the compromised denomination through bodies such as AMiE or the Free Church of England or with the support of other provinces. In short, it will mean ‘messy church’.
We must remember that Luther and the other magisterial Reformers did not reform the Roman Catholic Church. It came to the point where many of them questioned whether it was a church at all. What has been happening in the Church of England, very steadily since the Archbishopric of Robert Runcie, has been the institutionalisation of error and immorality. This was not the case at the time of J C Ryle who some evangelicals are fond of pointing to as a role model of ‘stay in it to win it’. Do we honestly think that Ryle would have accepted the present situation for a single second? Of course not! So why is it that his pretended heirs think they can?
The Bishop’s report is a sugar coated pill which in the long term is poison. The theology of glory which is embedded on every page signals its unacceptability. Evangelicals who wish to maintain their integrity have no option but to embrace the theology of the cross and all that that entails- suffering and rejection.