Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: An Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 3)

The Revd David Runcorn is a theological teacher, writer and Spiritual Director. He is presently a Director of Ordinands and Warden of Readers in the Diocese of Gloucester

David Runcorn

I have been invited to offer a response to the recent letter by 11 Evangelical Bishops to the Coordinating Group for Living in Love and Faith (LLF), concerning the church’s understanding of marriage and same-sex relationships. I gratefully acknowledge the helpful contributions already made by Bishops David Atkinson and David Gillett. I also gladly support all they both affirm in their responses to the Bishop’s letter.

I found particularly helpful the way the 11 Bishops’ letter acknowledges the tensions inherent in being communities faithful to the reforming Word of God.

‘The church must always be reformed according to the Word of God, and God has “more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. But neither can we simply abandon what we have received in order to appear relevant and avoid feeling uncomfortable. 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.’

These words suggest a relationship with scripture that is always unfolding, never exhausted and where understandings may need to change and evolve over time. It is precisely this understanding of the re-forming Word that leads folk like me to support the extending of the marriage covenant to same-sex couples. But the letter remains insistent there can be no change in the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage. I want to ask – on the basis of the letter’s own understanding of the re-forming Word – why not?

In his book ‘Having words with God – the Bible as conversation’, Karl Allen Kuhn writes,  ‘Scripture itself provides no indication that the dynamic nature of God’s instruction is suddenly to cease. To insist, as some do, that all of the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all time is to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed.’ (2008:89 my emphasis)

This does begin to offer us a faithful way to address the question of how to read the scriptures for guidance about issues or people it  a) originally addressed in very different contexts, b) does not directly address at all, or c) possibly does not even know exists. This is an approach to bible reading variously described as a ‘Redemptive’ or ‘Christological’ trajectory, a ‘continuing unfolding’ or a ‘developing understanding’ of what scripture teaches and calls us to across time. (The reply fairly made here that while all the other ‘trajectories’ already have positive hints in the New Testament the teaching about homosexuality is always negative. But this is only partially true. The argument needs more care. Firstly, ‘homosexual’ is not a biblical word. The word first appears in any English bible translation in the first edition of the new RSV in 1946. Those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour. So it is more accurate to say that these Bible texts condemn abusive sexual behaviour of any kind. They are not for applying to what is loving, faithful and committed).

The idea of a developing reading of scripture is not as novel an idea as may first appear. We have been reading the Bible in this way for some time. The Church of England, for example, does not believe the New Testament speaks with a final voice on the partnership of men and women in society, church leadership or marriage. And slavery? We believe today that slavery is an appalling unchristian evil. But where does the bible ever say this? There is not one condemning text and a great deal else that appears to allow the opposite.

Furthermore an unfolding revelation is evident within the scriptures. When Peter is told in a dream to eat food forbidden in Torah and then goes into the house of a Gentile and sees the Spirit of God fall on outsiders, where is he to go biblically to explain this? Something very new is going on. Don’t underestimate how disturbing this would have been. On a discussion thread about same-sex relationships a conservative contributor wrote that when people talked about allowing these things, ‘I feel as if my face is being pushed into vomit.’ On his Joppa rooftop Peter would have understood that feeling very well. But he learned that revulsion is not a reliable guide to good theology, divine will and purpose.

Peter and the Jerusalem Council proceeded in vulnerable obedience under the compelling guidance of the Spirit. And when we try to pull out Old Testament verses that talk about the inclusion of Gentiles we are still missing the challenge faced by the first Christians. Those prophecies saw Gentiles welcomed into the Jewish world and religion on Jewish terms. That is why so much of the argument centred around how Jewish Gentile believers needed to become – food, circumcision, behaviour etc.  What they could not even receive yet – except as a nightmare – was that God was creating a community based on radically new belonging and identity in Christ, one that is yet to be fully revealed – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

What begins at Joppa goes beyond the received revelation as long understood. But not surprisingly the Jewish/Gentile tension seems to run unresolved through the whole New Testament church. It was their version of our sexuality debates. Perhaps they too wondered if good disagreement was possible?

I do want to question the way the 11 Bishops letter tends to only set the Word of God/teaching of the church over and against those voices challenging traditional teaching.  A familiar response to those arguing for a more including approach is that they have been ‘influenced by the culture of the day’ (a culture presumed to be wholly negative and faithless). But I would say ‘yes we are – and thank God for that’! What accelerated the movement to abolish slavery in Britain and apartheid in South Africa was not compelling biblical teaching. Large numbers of Christians supported both precisely on the basis of scripture. It began in a very similar way to how opinions and beliefs about the gay community have been changing in recent years. People began to tell stories of what it was actually like. The inhumanity. The brutality. The exclusion. And that led Christians back to the re-forming Word with new sensitivity. The same happened with contraception debates during the 1920-30s (a topic on which it is hard to find any clear biblical texts). It was fiercely opposed by the Mothers Union and by successive Lambeth conferences who could only see it as a licence for promiscuity. Slowly an awareness of the brutal realities of women’s health and life expectancy, of large families living in poverty, of children’s welfare and dire social deprivation began to be heard. (It has been noted elsewhere that the quotation about marriage in the letter from the 1920 Lambeth Conference is unfortunate in being lifted from a highly reactionary and conservative debate opposing contraception. In its original context the quote is supporting a view of marriage and family the church, and these signatories do not hold).

Of course not all cultural pressure is Godly or wise. It needs testing. Christian faith is profoundly counter-cultural. But then, as now, cultural and social pressure play an important part in raising awareness and awakening conscience in a way that has forced a revisiting of how we have been reading and interpreting the bible for today. So, as the letter acknowledges, the unsettling process of reading, re-examining, repenting, re-interpreting and revising even long unquestioned Biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit is not a task the Evangelical tradition is unfamiliar with or unwilling to undertake. In fact its understanding of scripture actually requires it.

In his book ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology ’  the revered evangelical theologian and Bible commentator I Howard Marshall admits the risk involved in this – of going beyond the received Biblical texts. But he insists there is another risk. It is that of misleading the church by dwelling in the first century or earlier and refusing to go beyond the letter of Scripture. ‘We must be aware of the danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice.  Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’  (2004:78).

In all this debate I acknowledge my place in a conflicted community. I contribute to both hope and pain with words like these. I walk with close friends and colleagues who deeply disagree with me. I respect them and long to continue this journey of faith with the re-forming Word. And in that renewing and awakening Word I believe there is another story being told; one that is yet to be fully revealed; one that is found both within and beyond the texts; one that is always breaking through. It is one that we can trust with our lives – and even our divisions.


This is part of a three-part series by Affirming Evangelicals.

Part 1 is by Rt Revd David Gillett, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1989-99) and former Bishop of Bolton

Part 2 is by Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford 

Posted in David Runcorn, Human Sexuality | 9 Comments

Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 2)

by the Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford

David Atkinson 2.pptx

I have been invited to comment on the letter from 11 evangelical bishops, some of them friends or former colleagues, to the Bishop of Coventry as Chair of the Coordinating Group for Living in Love and Faith (LLF).  The letter was sponsored by the Church of England Evangelical Council, and seeks to underline the importance for LLF’s work (‘Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’) of affirming the central place of Scripture, and supremely Christ’s teaching, in Christian mission and discipleship for a Church which seeks to embody Christ’s Gospel. Their approach, they argue, must affirm that ‘we are made in God’s image, have fallen captive to sin, are redeemed by Christ, and are being sanctified by the Spirit.’  All that I gladly affirm.

The writers recognize that LLF is dealing with a ‘complex and contested’ issue; they say they wish to be open to fresh understanding of Scripture as led by God’s Spirit; they recognize that Christian teaching changes and develops, and that the Church must always be reformed according to the Word of God. They affirm the traditional teaching of ‘faithfulness and chastity both within and outside marriage.’  All this I also affirm.

However, when the bishops identify the wording of Canon Law and various Resolutions about heterosexual marriage with ‘the teaching of Scripture’, and that they therefore express ‘the character and will of God’, I believe they being too bold.

I accept that whenever Scripture refers to same sex relationships it does so negatively.  However I cannot accept the Levitical laws with their associated death penalty as a clear guide for Christian discipleship. I am inclined to believe that St Paul’s references are most likely to be to the idolatrous promiscuity of the Gentile world of his day. I have written much more fully about these references in my chapter in Terry Brown ed. Other Voices, Other Worlds.

My question to my episcopal colleagues is this:  are you open to the possibility that there could be more than one faithful interpretation of Scripture on these matters?  Some of your evangelical colleagues believe so.

Christian understanding of the ‘Scriptural teaching’ on marriage and sexuality has developed from Augustine, Aquinas and Cranmer, and within Anglican theology in recent decades, not least post-Freud. The evangelical tutor David Runcorn is one of many who have come to ‘accept the place of committed, faithful, same-sex relationships within the Church on the basis of  (not in spite of) the teaching of Scripture’ (see his essay in the Pilling Report). Such evangelicals believe that to speak about ‘the teaching of Scripture’ on marriage and sexuality narrows down the very questions that are acknowledged to be ‘complex and contested’.

I believe we need to stand back from other dimensions of the ‘teaching of Christ’ to provide a fuller context for our current understanding.  When Jesus pronounces a blessing on the ‘pure in heart’ (which I think means emotional sincerity), that is surely a blessing on Marcus Green, an evangelical vicar whose life was ‘screwed up’ by the church, forcing him to deny his gay identity and ‘hide in plain sight’ until he came to believe that he, too, was loved by God and able to be emotionally honest (see his new book ‘The Possibility of Difference’).  When Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who ‘hunger and thirst for God’s justice’, does that not apply on behalf of so many in our culture who have been oppressed and marginalized because of their sexual orientation?  Jesus endorses the Genesis teaching about humanity in God’s image, male and female, as a basis for the permanence of marriage as God’s ideal, and then allows divorce in certain circumstances as the best way of making optimum moral sense of a less than ideal situation.

With this in mind, some evangelicals have asked the question:  how is a Christian gay person to make optimum moral sense of his or her life?  Is our willingness within the Church to give each other freedom of conscience to disagree about divorce and remarriage not equally applicable to our disagreements about gay relationships?  In other words, although Canon B 30 is right to say that ‘according to our Lord’s teaching.. marriage is in its nature a union, permanent and lifelong…of one man with one woman’,  ‘our Lord’s teaching’ covers many other aspects of discipleship, relationship and vocation as well.

If it is possible for a gay couple to make an act of exclusive, loving commitment within a permanent covenanted relationship and to experience God’s blessing in doing so, and find their lives displaying the fruit of God’s Spirit, then I believe we need a broader evangelical theology of covenanted same-sex friendship than can be found in what the bishops refers to as ‘Anglican tradition’. The evangelical scholar and liturgist, and gay evangelical Christian, Dr. Michael Vasey explored such a theology in Strangers and Friends as long ago as 1995. More recently theologian and ethicist Professor Robert Song opened up a fresh understanding of the fulfillment of all creation, including our identity as sexual beings, in Christ in Covenant and Calling.

I believe we must not give Lambeth 1.10 the status of Holy Scripture, or even the fortieth of the 39 Articles; nor assume that the legal framework of Canon B 30 is all there is to ‘the teaching of our Lord.’

Indeed, we could perhaps add to Canon B 30 (taking our cue from some wording in the forgotten 1979 Gloucester Report):

‘The Church of England also recognizes that there are circumstances in which an individual may    justifiably choose to enter into a covenanted partnership, permanent, exclusive and life-long, with a person of the same sex, with the hope of enjoying loving companionship similar to that which is   to be found in marriage. Such a partnership is not incompatible with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony that is affirmed in Canon B 30.’

I have written elsewhere (Other Voices, Other Worlds) that I think Lambeth 1.10 is ‘too blunt an instrument for an appropriate pastoral response to those for whom this is a pressing personal question, too unclear an instrument for forming any constructive Christian mission to gay communities, and too insensitive an instrument for affirming and accepting what is of God in the lives of many Christian gay people.’

My prayer then was  –  and now is –  that God will give us grace as a global church,  and as evangelical brothers and sisters,  to enable each other, in relation to these questions – as we continue to grow and learn –  to have freedom of conscience to disagree.


This is part of a three-part series by Affirming Evangelicals.

Part 1 is by Rt Revd David Gillett, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1989-99) and former Bishop of Bolton

Part 3 is by the Revd David Runcorn, former lecturer at Trinity College, Bristol

Posted in Bishop David Atkinson, Human Sexuality | 8 Comments

Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 1)

by Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity Theological College, Bristol (1989-1999) and is the former Bishop of Bolton

David Gillett

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

Posted in Bishop David Gillett, Human Sexuality | 15 Comments

‘Cake-Gate’, Discrimination & Established Churches

by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod


A Northern Ireland-based family bakery this week won its appeal to the UK Supreme Court against a conviction for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. You may be familiar with the story – Mr Lee, an activist for the organisation ‘Queerspace’, ordered a cake from Ashers Bakery, run by a ‘conservative’ Christian couple, Daniel and Amy McArthur. The cake was to be decorated with the text ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and a photo of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert, as in the photo above. After initially accepting the order, the bakery later cancelled it and returned the deposit. The McArthurs were initially found guilty of sexual orientation discrimination contrary to Northern Ireland legislation. (There was more to it, but this description will suffice for our purposes.) Although an initial appeal was unsuccessful, the McArthurs were ultimately cleared by the UK’s highest court of appeal.

The essence of the Court of Appeal’s decision was that the McArthurs had objected to the message and not to the messenger. In other words, as the McArthurs would have been happy to have baked a cake with some other message for `Mr Lee, and would have refused to bake the cake with this message regardless of the sexual orientation of the person placing the order, they were not discriminating against Mr Lee on the basis of his sexual orientation, but merely objecting to being implicated in the promotion of a cause with which they fundamentally disagreed.

While commentators argue about the likely implications of this decision for LGBTI people and organisations in the UK (for example, Stonewall claims the decision ‘sets a hugely dangerous precedent’, whereas Peter Tatchell has argued that the decision is a victory for freedom of expression, and Savi Hensman that the decision is no great loss for LGBT rights), I find myself wondering how the McArthurs, and Mr Lee, are getting on.

Take the McArthurs – sure, they’ve had a big win, but what kind of shape are they – and their business – in? Family-run bakeries tend not to be disproportionately represented amongst top-level litigants in the UK. Litigation is inordinately expensive, and especially at this level, so the McArthurs are likely now either bankrupt or caught up in the political machinery and machinations of others in ways they could not possibly have foreseen when they originally gave Mr Lee his deposit back. Of course, it is not only money that gets chewed up in legal proceedings, but also time, emotions, privacy and dignity. What kind of abuse has been directed at the McArthurs over the years since they cancelled Mr Lee’s order? Anybody who has stuck his or her head, however unwittingly, over the parapet on either side of the sexuality issue, will know from bitter experience the sort of invective that has likely been directed at the McArthurs, and no doubt also at Mr Lee, who has now also suffered a major defeat. I hope that the McArthurs have a good pastor and a supportive congregation, and Mr Lee very good friends. They will have needed them.

One of the great ironies of this case is that had Ashers Bakery been part of the business empire of The Church of England Inc, instead of the family portfolio of Mr and Mrs McArthur, none of this would ever have been an issue. Religious organisations are entitled to discriminate. There is no need on their part to distinguish between message and messenger, opinion and person – UK religious organisations, including churches, are permitted (in certain defined circumstances) to discriminate on the bases of sexuality, marital history, gender and religion or belief.

‘Mum and Dad’ family-businesses are bound by legal restrictions from which churches are excluded. The irony, of course, is particularly marked in the case of the Church of England, which is an established church. Even though Magna Carta provides that the monarch is to be subject to the law of the land, the established church of which the monarch is supreme governor may discriminate between the people of the land in ways that would be illegal for those people themselves.

With increasing calls for disestablishment as the Church of England drifts ever-further from the people to whom it is called to minister, and as the evangelism of ordinary English women and men (and especially young people) proves ever-more challenging, it is time for the Church of England to show leadership by relinquishing its special privilege to discriminate.

Probably the McArthurs were not aware, prior to ‘cake-gate’, that churches are entitled to discriminate in ways that they themselves are not.

I bet they know now. I wonder how they feel about it?

Posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, Meg Warner, Politics | Leave a comment

My Struggles with Fear & Distrust

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


As part of a team training exercise in Manchester, I recently redid my Myers-Briggs personality type. I haven’t changed from the previous occasion, at least a decade ago. I’m a firm ENTP, fortunate to be surrounded by a mix of colleagues of different types. I love exploring, in a logical and evidence based way, how things can change and be better. And I really enjoy meetings that I go into with an open mind as to where the Holy Spirit will lead us, rather than ones that are constrained towards a very particular conclusion. If only life were always like that! But it isn’t, and being the person that I am, I need to be sensitive to the emotional dynamics that are going on in meetings and conversations, not least to pay attention to what might be happening subconsciously within my own head and heart.

I’ve been thinking a bit in recent weeks about two particular areas of feelings: fear and distrust. What does good engagement look like when fear is high and trust is low? I’m often perceived as being the person, or the representative of the organisation, with considerable power in a conversation. Others may have good reason to fear and mistrust both of who I am and what I represent. It may be because of what I and the Church might be going to do; perhaps through Pastoral Reorganisation or the Clergy Discipline Measure. Or it may be because of things done in the name of the Church in the past, but where the wounds are rightly still raw.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what are the steps I can take to prove myself less scary and more worthy of trust? It’s still very much a work in progress, and what I offer here does not pretend to be more than a few baby steps along the way. But even the longest of journeys is made up of many small movements forward.

In some of my early meetings with representatives of Manchester’s diverse Jewish community, I was advised to pop my pectoral cross into my breast pocket. I needed to understand that what for me was a symbol of the crucified saviour, the one who must always been on my heart and in front of me, was for them the sign in whose name they had been persecuted, exiled and murdered repeatedly down the centuries. Making the cross less visible was not denying my belonging to Jesus, it was simply removing a cause of fear. As we have got to know each other better, there have been fewer occasions when it has gone into my pocket. Fear has reduced, trust has grown. My personal accoutrements no longer get in the way.

I could take that simple course of action because somebody bothered to make me aware of the issue. And awareness seems to be a key. So, for example, if I am conscious that any or all of the facts that I am a tall, White British, heterosexual male, with an Oxbridge education and a doctorate can be a barrier, then I can work with those with whom I am engaging to put those facets of my identity in the service of us all, not as instruments of domination and power. And slowly, as with my Jewish friends, they cease to overshadow our conversations.

But it’s not just about me, it’s at least as much the institution I belong to. We not only carry an inheritance of racism, sexism, homophobia and a failure to grasp the damage done by sexual abuse, there are still too many occasions when the words and actions of those within the Church suggest we are still to be feared and distrusted, especially by those who have been hurt and abused by things done in our name. The temptation is to dissociate myself from the damage done; to shout “not in my name” as loudly as I can. That might help me to feel that I had exonerated myself, but it would be little more than virtue signalling.

Owning what I am caught up in, and seeking to be the change I long for, feels the better way.

Part of that is recognising my own fear and lack of trust. Some of the places I may need to go will require as a condition of entry that I make myself vulnerable. That’s scary, because there is a real risk of my being hurt.

I realise that in doing so I may need to put my trust in people who have experienced deep betrayal by the Church. My own fear is that some of these people might believe that betraying the trust that I have put in them will in some way help them on their own journeys.

So I have come to realise I cannot do this alone. I in fact will need their help.  They, the fearful and the mistrusting, will in fact need to help me with my own feelings of fear and mistrust, and together we will seek to engage and rebuild that trust. I’m aware that this is an incredibly hard ask, but I believe it is a necessary one as the work is too important for each one of us to let it slip simply because I am unable to do it unaided.  As such we find common ground in our vulnerabilities.

As ever and above all else I will need to deepen my own worship and prayer life further, so that through abiding in the love of God that casts out fear, and trusting in the one who is truly trustworthy, I can fully play the role I hold.

And so I ask for your prayers too – for me, for the institution I represent and for those who find themselves having to engage with us despite all our fears and distrust.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Human Sexuality, Sexual abuse | 7 Comments

Toxic Masculinity & Our Use of Pronouns

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham

Rosie Haarper

Archbishop Justin has some gay friends. He knows them and likes them, and indeed he thinks their relationships are fabulous. So it’s not personal. There is however a way of treating gay people in the Church which has been normalised. There is a level of emotional, spiritual a and verbal abuse which is woven into the fabric of the institution. It  almost feels as if there is a fault line in human nature which cannot be changed. The latest flurry over “Living in Love and Faith” (aka the Teaching Document), we hear, is about the fact it is all happening on the condition that the status quo is upheld.

Well, I’m feeling the same about men!

I know some fabulous men. People I admire, respect and love as individuals. This week however, has left me thinking that gender wars are at the root of most of the evil in the world. I am experiencing a sort of despair. There has been a perfect storm.

I  really struggled with my reaction to the unfolding story in America around the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Virtually everyone knows that Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth, but they still went ahead and appointed Kavanaugh.

In a way we are familiar with the politicalisation  of patriarchy in the Republican Party. What dug the knife in though was the role of the Conservative Christian lobby.

As an email I received from Faith America on October 7th usefully summarised:

‘Franklin Graham said attempted rape was “not relevant.

Jerry Falwell Jr. bussed hundreds of Liberty University students to Capitol Hill to rally in support of Kavanaugh as Christine Blasey Ford testified.

An official at Catholic University tweeted that one of Kavanaugh’s accusers should be treated as a “perp,” not a victim.

If you want to understand why Republicans are voting lockstep to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, look no further than the religious right.

For decades conservatives having been telling Christians to vote Republican because of sexual morality. It’s time to end the charade.’

There is a not a calm, measured way to react to this stuff. I’m sorry, but it makes me want to vomit.

In case you think it’s just Christians, The Times reported (8/10/2019) that Amazon has a scheme that supports the extremist Muslim cleric Haritha al Haddad who condones child marriage, FGM, and stoning people for adultery. He naturally believes that women should remain in the home and not have independence or complain when their husbands beat them.

Ironically in the same edition of the paper there is a report on research that shows that the quality and quantity of men’s sperm is falling so rapidly that were it to continue the future of the human race would be in doubt. Too many pies it seems!

Does it HAVE to be like this?

Is this actually what the story of Genesis is all about? Are we being given an insight into the root cause of so much of our cruelty and suffering?

What most women experience is that “toxic masculinity” has invaded our families , our workplaces, our schools, our politics  and our churches. Patriarchal ideologies are the norm. The Church has been horribly silent in the face of violence and abuse against women. We don’t talk about it even though in our congregations there will be many, some say 87% of women who have experienced some form of harassment, and one in 6 who have been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

Why? Why when our message is about love and transformation and healing, is the Church not the one place where things are different? The one place where we can model a way of justice and equality. It’s all in the bible after all.

Deep breath. But I’m going to say it……

It’s because “God is male”.

At the deepest level we have chosen to create an image of God which colludes with the toxicity of male dominance. So much religious language is violent. It is about heroic leadership, Kingship, subjection, dominance. It’s about who wins and who looses. It’s about punishment and reward. There are wars, physical and spiritual. Every level of oppressive patriarchy is right there in our holy text.

Of course I hear our feminist theologians. You don’t have to read it that way, but we do. Instead of turning the script on it’s head we use it to reinforce male dominance at every turn.

This is about so much more than making a few women bishops. This asks us all if there is a way in which Christianity can be so counter-cultural that inhabits a universe that is free form gender war at every level.

To even begin to make that happen we need to talk about pronouns.

While God goes on being caricatured as ‘he’ the conversation cannot even begin.











Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexism | 16 Comments

Preaching to the Converted?

Colin Blakely, Editor of the Church of England Newspaper and Co-founder of ViaMedia.News

Colin Blakely

We all like a good sermon, and when one is delivered with wit and insight it can bring enormous benefits. And in the wider world when public figures speak out, often on set-piece announcements, everyone of course listens as intently as parishioners listen to the homily. Their words are examined closely and are then interpreted according to one’s perspective, agenda and hopes.

In recent months we have been treated to a string of such announcements, in the political as well as church worlds. The question however, is: who are the words being aimed at, and are they really the full picture?

Take, as one example, the speeches of the Prime Minister. Since she assumed office, Theresa May has often repeated the mantra ‘Brexit means Brexit’. This has served to bolster her support in her own party, although few (even inside the Cabinet) evidently really know what that means in reality.

The fact that her own party is deeply split on this issue means that the primary aim of her messages is to those in her own grouping. So while she wants to reassure those who express some disquiet (because she backed the Remain camp during the Referendum) her words are heard by a much wider audience. This includes those Remainers in the Conservative Party as well as those in the wider community.

But look at the hurdles facing the Prime Minister. Not only does she have to get her Party on board, she also has to get her Cabinet on board. Both are big demands. And that is even before we get to the battles she will face in Parliament. Already we have seen long delays to any legislation on the issue because of the dangers of the Government losing a vote. And that is just as true in the House of Commons as it is in the House of Lords. Although it is much more pronounced in the Upper House.

And should she achieve success there, she faces the bigger hurdle of getting any legislation accepted by the other 27 countries in the EU.

However, it is clear that she is not speaking to any of those. The immediate aim is actually her own survival. So her speeches have to be interpreted in the light of that, even if Remainers are unhappy with the strength of her comments.

Meanwhile, back in the Church world, we can find a parallel situation. Church leaders, when pressed about inclusion and equality, look first to the immediate threats. And that comes mainly from the pews. Whether it is over issues like women’s ministry or how it treats gay Christians, their public utterances are often, like those of the Prime Minister, aimed at those who pose the biggest threat.

And so in recent years when Church leaders have made conciliatory noises, it has been for reasons they underestimated. That was certainly the case when General Synod rejected the House of Bishops’ paper on sexuality. Stunned by the defeat, the two Archbishops made a hurried commitment to ‘radical inclusion’. Of course, they could do no else.

But the term, like ‘Brexit means Brexit’, is open to interpretation. So far, us members of the press are asking what it really means. After all, few LGBT+ members of the Church have been included in any of the discussions about the future. Is that ‘radical inclusion’? It doesn’t look like that from the Press Gallery.

We have to go back some decades to see leadership standing up for what it believed in. Lord Carey showed how it could be done by backing women’s ministry, although Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee demonstrated its hesitance by demanding the Act of Synod. His stance divided his evangelical constituency, some backing his progressive stance, others deriding him. Could a modern Archbishop take such a prophetic stance?

The reality is, like political leaders, concern is about those who threaten.

So speeches and public statements are aimed at those groups. This means that others are left bereft. (Some senior figures in the Government agree that the 48.11 per cent who voted to remain have to be reassured, but that is an issue for another day). Similarly, those who long for acceptance in the Church have to listen to announcements that are aimed not at them but at others. This is deeply unsettling and problematic. But perhaps those want to see ‘radical inclusion’ have to accept that their leaders are human and need to bring as many of their constituency with them as possible. It may not be prophetic, but it is realistic.

On the other side, we have seen situations where Church leaders have made their case with pride. We have seen whole deaneries in Manchester become ‘inclusive’. We have seen the Diocese of Lichfield adopting an inclusive policy. Things are changing, but perhaps more of those in authority should follow the example of George Carey and take the courage to be prophetic.

Posted in Colin Blakely, Human Sexuality, Politics | 2 Comments