WG: Today’s sermon is a little different from normal. Penny and I are seeking to present a major discussion document endorsed by the House of Bishops to help the Church of England reflect on Church teaching about marriage and created identity, as society’s understanding of these things is evolving very fast. It is called Living in Love and Faith, and there will be a deanery chance to explore this in a few weeks’ time for any who are interested.
In presenting it, I want to underline something about how differently various generations might address this subject. It should not be surprising that each generation present may have a contrasting experience and view. Just before I was born, male-homosexual practice between adults over 21 became legal, but for many before and after that time, it was viewed as a sin. The moving into the mainstream of psychotherapeutic understandings of human nature along with the separate current of increasing secularism have challenged and transformed that premise, so today’s young people discuss sexual and gender identity and morality in very different terms.
The Church’s teaching in this area and the limitations we are under legally about marriage of same sex couples, risk leaving the Church is a place very far distant from where much of society is.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example in relation to euthanasia, I hope the Church will retain its clear objection without fear. But in terms of understandings about marriage and sexual identity, there is the need first for discussion to help clarify what we mean, and second there is increasing need for interpretation of terminology. All this is for the Church to be seen to engage with the realities of how people live, and not to be seen as redundant.
This is not about mere compromise, but discovery of God’s will. The Church may learn what God is trying to tell us in this, and likewise society may have something to learn from the Church. The Church will always have something ultimate to say about human beings as beloved creatures of God, made in God’s image.
I just begin personally before Penny and I move into a conversation. As already said in the last 52+ years there has been a dramatic change in the recognition of what it means to be human. Things that may have been tolerated are now embraced. In my childhood, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by all the members of my family, both sets of grandparents lived within a mile of where I was brought up, and we lived next door to my grandmother’s sister. Their parents were born and brought up in the Victorian age. My grandparents did not sport frock coats and crinolines, but I am sure they had been influenced by a very formal and strict set of values. Sex of any kind was just not talked about at all. Perhaps it was prudish, but it seemed consistent with so much of what was taken for granted in wider society. Yes, that reticence was informed by morals shaped by the Church. I say that because without wanting to use the word in a loaded way, it was normal or normative in the world in which I was growing up, for discussion about private things to be impossible. Going to school in the early 1980s when Section 28 was heavily in place in education, discussion of sexual and gender difference was off limits in school. Sex education was entirely about heterosexual relationships. Teachers could not promote same sex partnerships, and some, for fear, and others because of conviction, did not refer to it. Tolerance, acceptance, kindness and diversity characterised the life of university campuses, by contrast. A deliberate intention on the part I think of dons who were liberal minded and student unions which were in full sail against the morally overbearing intentions of Thatcherite education policy. If it had not happened already, one was immediately on sensitised, on arrival at university, to the suffering of those who were gay particularly, and who asked for recognition. It’s not surprising that David Cameron, just a few years older than me, made it a personal campaign when in government to legalise same sex marriage, against the general tone of his own party’s views, because he was a product of his own generation.
Before we go further, I am going to ask Penny to paint a picture of her upbringing and the context in which she grew up.
Hello everyone, I’m Penny. I was born in 2002 and since then mum and dad, Allan and Sophie, have brought me to St Mark’s. My earliest memories of St Mark’s were coming to Sunday School for juice and biscuits, and a little theology. These sessions were often led by Keith, partner of the Reverend Doctor Peter Baker. Peter and Keith living in the vicarage was all I knew they were just another example of a loving, Christian couple.
In my schooling I have been to both Church of England and secular schools. Throughout I have experienced a liberal attitude to sex, sexuality, and marriage: At school we focussed on safe sex rather than abstinence; I have seen the LGBT acronym extend to include ‘Q’, for queer, a term reclaimed by the community to encompass the flexibility of identity; And the plus, to include all the gender identities and sexual orientations that have existed before, but now have labels.
I have now landed at the very secular University College London. Very close by to the House of Friends, the Quakers. They are a denomination who already marry same-sex couples. This shows that in the wider Christian community that finding agreement has been possible and also offers an alternative to people who do not feel they agree with the Church of England.
In my life, Christianity and the LGBTQ+ community have always existed in parallel, but never fully converged. St Mark’s has always been very comfortable with the LGBTQ+ community and has made this Church feel like a safe space for me growing up. But so far, we have managed to avoid these conversations.
WG: Penny and I will not be able to exhaust the material in LLF, and there will be a deanery opportunity to do this later this Autumn, but we thought a Q&A might open up some of the issues.
WG: There are things members of the Church want to discuss, how should we have these conversations?
Penny: It’s going to be tricky! When we discuss sexual orientation and gender identity, we are discussing a key part of people’s identities and so must be gentle, and respectful and move froward in our aim of sharing opinions, rather than convincing others that our opinion is correct.
In 2020 The Church of England published their Pastoral Principles: a list of ways to address evils and encourage safe and meaningful conversation. They ask us to: Acknowledge prejudice; Cast out fear; Speak into silence; Admit hypocrisy; Address ignorance; and to Pay attention to power. Using these key points, we hope to have these difficult conversations without conflict.
WG: What does living in love and faith wish to discuss?
Penny: Living in love and faith wants to prompt conversations about four big topics: Identity, Sexuality, Relationships and Marriage and, of course, their relationship to Christianity and the Church. Of course, there is intersectionality between these four things, making these conversations endlessly complex. For example: when we speak about same-sex marriage in Church, we are really considering the gender identity, and the sexual orientation of the people being married, as well as what marriage means as a relationship between a couple, and God.
WG: At this point perhaps I should say how importantly the teaching about marriage is in the document. There is clarity that marriage is foundational to any teaching about sexuality in the Bible and the Church’s tradition. The sacramental character of marriage, its absolute quality, is key. Clearly, however absolute it is, its image is marred by domestic violence, infidelity and divorce. We have a high doctrine of it, but it is not always the paragon we believe it should be.
Penny: I agree that the Bible is very clear that marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman and God. In the context of the Bible marriage was used to unite families, share resources and to allow for children.
In our modern world the core component of marriage is love, the love two people have for one another and a promise that they will continue to love one another all their lives, declared before God.
Penny: What is love and what does the Bible teach us about love?
WG: God is love, and the heart of the Bible is the love-story between God and his creation. Humanity has a special part in this because we are made in God’s image and we have stewardship of all that was made. That reflection of his image, as male and female, is utterly bound up with who we are and how we reflect who God is. Love is prevenient, it comes first, and as St Paul celebrates “bears all things, believes all things… and never fails”. That is shown most poignantly in the death of Jesus on the cross; it is that ultimate image of self-giving that typifies God’s love. St John says “Beloved let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Penny: This instruction to love and to love unconditionally is used by many Christians, my family in particular, have always emphasised their unconditional love for their children. However, this is not true in all Christian families. In the UK and across the world LGBTQ+ youth are often kicked out of their family home for being gay. In the UK almost 20% of LGBT people This homophobia is often rooted in an interpretation of Christianity, alongside beliefs related to culture and tradition.
WG: These are very important points, and the disjunction between an unconditional view of love, and parents who reject their children is very painful to observe. Here reliance on God’s unconditional love is what we pray will inspire all driven apart in situations like this.
WG: What is gender and what does the Bible teach us about gender?
Penny: What is gender? Gender is a social construct. Historically we have identified two genders: men, and women. Now our thinking has evolved, and we have labels for people who feel neither masculine nor feminine.
In Galatians we can read ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Galatians 3:28
I think this is God telling us that the social constructs of gender, or ethnicity, do not matter to him. That our priority should be in living as loving Christians, whatever our labels may be.
Another idea supporting the gender-neutral identities came from the Rt Rev Dr Jo Wells during the LLF conference William and I attended this summer. Jo described a middle ground in God’s creation: God made day and night, and so also dawn and dusk. If there is a middle ground in the day and night, could there not also be a middle ground between men and women?
WG: I was very taken with this idea of dusk and twilight, that between night and day and the givens of male and female there may be a hinterland. There is work to be done on exploring this. One observation on that might be that in the middle east, night falls very fast, twilight is very short, but clearly in northern climes that is different. There is mileage in exploring this. And there is clearly still much to learn in and from the Bible.
Penny: But how much can we rely on the Bible to answer these questions?
WG: As Anglicans our moral frame of reference is always Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The interplay between each is key. We cannot blot out the bits of the Bible or Tradition we do not like, they are there, but our experience and reason test the contents of the Bible and are in constant dialogue with it and Tradition, which itself is in continuity with the Bible.
Penny: Throughout history we have seen the Christian tradition change and this makes sense, as society has evolved far beyond the context in which the Bible was written. We choose to ignore many parts of the Bible: we work on the Sabbath and we eat shellfish, mostly to make our lives easier. Choosing to acknowledge that modern society has moved beyond what the Bible includes and being able to make our own Christian Traditions will be critical for moving forwards with love and faith.
WG: Does the Church need to have an opinion?
Penny: Every Christian will have their own opinion, and this is unlikely to change because of what the Church says. However, if the Church says nothing, they are continuing the legacy of homophobia in Christian communities. I believe that if the Church leads the way that social attitudes are more likely to follow.
It will also have an impact on the future of the Church as an institution. Every one here today has chosen to come to Church, for all of us, St Mark’s is the safe place I described earlier. But looking out at all of you, I see very few young people. I think that is because many young people are not going to choose to be in spaces where they cannot fully be themselves and cannot see their future families existing.
WG: I am going to close with a difficult question. Because this process is not even begun, let alone finished, it may be very unfair, but just for starters, shall we both hazard a view on whether we think that two people of the same sex could and should be married in church? This gets perhaps to the nub of the where the debate is going.
Penny: In my opinion same-sex marriages should be happening in Church.
In my opinion the key difference between same-sex and heterosexual marriages is the gender of the people being married, whilst the core principles of marriage remain the same: Love, Loyalty and a vow before God. I don’t think gender is significant enough to stop people being married. And therefore to exclude some Christian couples from this rite of passage.
Making the Church an inclusive institution is the only way for it to survive the future and I think this is the next step.
WG: I don’t want to hedge my bets on this, but at the moment, I cannot quite say what I think about this. I do think this consultation is needed. I do think the Church needs to discuss this and demonstrate an openness to the changes in society. I do think it should continue to honour the examples of love, tenderness and commitment between many same sex couples, which are themselves parables of what marriage can look like. There remains much we have missed, it’s a big subject, but fidelity and fruitfulness in marriage is a whole huge area. There is also a vital need for the Church to honour in a wholly more celebratory tone, the single life. There is Theological work to do to say that same-sex marriage can be a sacrament. I think there is unmined material in the Bible to help in all of these areas.
And the overarching, absolute and utterly challenging truth that human love is always a reflection of God’s love, is a mystery that is still to be realised fully. We cannot confine God’s purposes. Our lack of faith, our inadequate words, our limited experience will always be made up for by God’s abiding and unconditional love.