by Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity Theological College, Bristol (1989-1999) and is the former Bishop of Bolton
A group of evangelical bishops have recently written a letter asking for no change or development in our understanding of marriage in the forthcoming Bishops’ “Living in Love and Faith” document (aka the Teaching document). They recognise both that we face many challenges today about sexuality and marriage and also that, over the years, the way we express the tradition in various other areas has developed. In this instance, however, they call for there to be no development because the teaching of Scripture, as traditionally understood, has to be preserved.
At one time I would have agreed with them but, while still holding wholeheartedly to the fundamental importance and authority of Scripture, I believe we should be looking to expand our understanding of marriage in the light of the questions asked of those Scriptures by our understanding of sexuality and gender today.
At the outset, however, I happily concur with the fundamental point they make about the process we face: ‘As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors.’ Amen to that!
For many evangelicals the Bible has one clear meaning which concludes that the will of God can be read straight off from the pages of Scripture so that there is a correct answer to most major questions of ethics. Over the years many evangelicals have added what I believe is a deeper and more nuanced understanding to this starting point.
One major influence has been the approach of the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, and his championing of Narrative Theology. This reminds us that the Bible is first and foremost a story, the story of God’s involvement with humanity. It is the story which provides the framework for the whole of our understanding and way of life. Its authority is transformative, not just in the truths it reveals at first glance, but in the way it invites us to inhabit the story and to discover its life transforming power in our daily lives.
Walter Brueggemann, the renowned Old Testament scholar, also counsels us to believe that there is often more than one appropriate answer to an issue when we consider a particular verse or passage of the Bible. He asks us to see that many texts can rightly be interpreted in a variety of ways to offer different approaches which are valid for different people in different situations. He criticizes ‘the pervasive Western, Christian propensity to flatten, to refuse ambiguity, to lose density, and to give universalizing closure… Classical Western theological discourse, wants to overcome all ambiguity and give closure in the interest of certitude (‘Theology of the Old Testament’ 1997, page 81 & 82).
This more patient approach to the Scriptures adds a greater degree of humility to our theology. While believing in the authority and power of the bible no less, we are cautious not to use an all-too-certain interpretation of a bible verse or passage as a way of exercising power over others.
Many people, and in particular our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters have often experienced being silenced and excluded by a lack of such an approach. The traditional use of the six or so verses in the Bible, which in some way or another refer to same-sex activity, can be experienced as one group of Christians exercising power over LGBTI+ people and forbidding to them what God wills for the whole of humanity. This approach means we are careful not to censor another Christian who has arrived at a different way of following Christ. I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, however we need to hold in faith the fact that we may both be right! This approach fosters a greater generosity – in line with our all-generous God
As the 11 evangelical bishops say in their letter, ‘We recognise that the teaching of the church affects LGBTI+ people personally and deeply.’ My plea is that we allow for readings of the bible that respect LGBTI+ experience and how they are made in the image of God. As one gay friend of mine wrote, ‘We are all created by God to be who we are, including gays and lesbians. It’s just as natural and spiritually correct to be gay as it is to be left-handed.’ No doubt some LGBTI+ Christians will feel called to remain single as their way of following Christ, but some will feel called to be in a faithful loving intimate relationship as part of how they live out their Christian discipleship.
My LGBTI+ friends and I both read the same bible and are called to inhabit the same stories as we consider God’s will for our lives. We both, for instance, approach the paradigmatic story in Genesis 2 which describes the wonder of discovering our life’s partner, and we both feel drawn to the divine announcement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ Central to the story is the need to find a life partner who will be fully suitable to the needs of both and sustain them as they launch out on life together. At first there comes the almost comical process of looking around at different possible partners, and for some of us that can take a long time in reality – though all the ‘possibles’ in our list will be human!
As I read this story for myself, I am presented with a range of possible partners – as was Adam – and I am unsatisfied until I see the other human being – the one who became my wife – and I exclaim, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ For me, and for most others whom I know this encounter has been one of the most thrilling of all life’s discoveries.
This story invites us to is find someone who is equal to our needs, the same as me, not someone who is different (like the animals) but of the same stuff as Adam. The animals will not do – because they are different. For most of us this deepest fulfilment will be in a human of the opposite sex – but that is not so for all….
So, I listened as one of my gay friends told how he inhabits God’s story for himself and, like me, he is there in the garden asking God to find a partner who is fully equal to his needs. He wishes to discover mutual support that will sustain them both as a couple through the whole of their life’s journey together and with God. To begin with, God presents various possible partners to him – as in the original drama – and he sees all of these as inadequate for his deepest needs. He does not recognize one who will be a soul mate in whom depths of sexual intimacy can be found. Then after a while a man is presented to him who evokes a totally different level of recognition and response. This for him is what he has been longing for and he exclaims, ‘This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ They can become one. And, of course, the story is inhabited in their own way by other LGBTI+ people.
My prayer is that increasingly we will see that there are various ways to inhabit God’s story in the Bible. As this happens we can reach out to our LGBTI+ sisters and brothers in a wholly new way.
While preserving the tradition that marriage is a commitment to a faithful, life-long and intimate relationship between two people, we will now be able to see the tradition in a fully inclusive way – or, at the very least, hope that others who disagree will allow blessings of same sex marriages – thus leaving a variety of ways of living God’s story that recognizes the full humanity and equality of our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters.
This is part of a three-part series by Affirming Evangelicals.
Part 2 is by Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford
Part 3 is by the Revd David Runcorn, former lecturer at Trinity College, Bristol
Jayne Ozanne has written an additional blog entitled Bishops’ Letters and the Case for the Defence – “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”