The debate triggered by certain decisions in the Episcopal Church is not just about a single matter of sexual ethics. It is about decision making in the Church and it is about the interpretation and authority of Scripture. It has raised, first of all, the painfully difficult question of how far Anglican provinces should feel bound to make decisions in a wholly consultative and corporate way. In other words, it has forced us to ask what we mean by speaking and thinking about ourselves as a global communion. When ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ fail, what should we do about it? Now there is a case for drawing back from doing anything much, for accepting that we are no more than a cluster of historically linked local or national bodies. But to accept this case – and especially to accept it because the alternatives look too difficult – would be to unravel quite a lot of what both internal theological reflection and ecumenical agreement have assumed and worked with for most of the last century. For those of us who still believe that the Communion is a Catholic body, not just an agglomeration of national ones, a body attempting to live in more than one cultural and intellectual setting and committed to addressing major problems in a global way, the case for ‘drawing back’ is not attractive. But my real point is that we have never really had this discussion properly. It surfaced a bit in our debates over women’s ordination, but for a variety of reasons tended to slip out of focus. But we were bound to have to think it through sooner or later.
And it has arisen now in connection with same-sex relationships largely because this has been seen as a test-case for fidelity to Scripture, and so for our Reformed integrity. Rather more than with some other contentious matters (usury, pacifism, divorce), there was and is a prima facie challenge in a scriptural witness that appears to be universally negative about physical same-sex relations.
Now in the last ten years particularly, there have been numerous very substantial studies of the scriptural and traditional material which make it difficult to say that there is simply no debate to be had. Even a solidly conservative New Testament scholar like Richard Hays, to take one example out of many, would admit that work is needed to fill out and defend the traditional position, and to understand more deeply where the challenges to this position come from.
But it is easier to go for one or the other of the less labour-intensive options. There is a virtual fundamentalism which simply declines to reflect at all about principles of interpretation and implicitly denies that every reader of Scripture unconsciously or consciously uses principles of some kind. And there is a chronological or cultural snobbery content to say that we have outgrown biblical categories. These positions do not admit real theological debate. Neither is compatible with the position of a Church that both seeks to be biblically obedient and to read its Scriptures in the light of the best spiritual and intellectual perspectives available in the fellowship of believers. And the possibility of real theological exchange is made still more remote by one group forging ahead with change in discipline and practice and other insistently treating the question as the sole definitive marker of orthodoxy.
Whatever happened, we might ask, to persuasion? To the frustrating business of conducting recognisable arguments in a shared language? It is frustrating because people are so aware of the cost of a long argumentative process. It is intolerable that injustice and bigotry are tolerated by the Church; it is intolerable that souls are put in peril by doubtful teaching and dishonest practice. Yet one of the distinctive things about the Christian Church as biblically defined is surely the presumption (Acts 15) that the default position when faced with conflict is reasoning in council and the search for a shared discernment – so that the truth does not appear as just the imposed settlement of the winners in a battle.