by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
I was listening to an American political commentator on the radio the other day, who was saying that the divisions between two political sides in the USA were getting worse. Neither side is listening to the other; families and friends are divided; each side listens to what it wants to hear. He’d convened focus groups of differing views where within ten seconds people were taking sides, and within five minutes were shouting at each other. ‘Everyone wants to be heard’, he said, ‘but no one is listening.’
On Saturday 20th October there was a big march in London calling for a People’s Vote on Brexit. Three days later I sat at my breakfast table in London listening to the chanting of supporters of Tommy Robinson at the Old Bailey. Two sides, two views, and who is working to reconcile them and to listen to the other? Who will include the excluded, on either side? And what really is the truth?
The ‘post-truth’ undermining of rational evidence and reasoned argument makes it hard to know what to believe. In the 2016 referendum campaign opinions were presented as facts; truth may be undermined by innuendo or downright falsehood. With climate change for example, doubt is thrown on carefully monitored conclusions by partial studies, in a similar way to how the tobacco lobby fought for years to minimise the harm done by its products. You don’t have to disprove the science: you just have to enable people to ignore it, by giving them an alternative narrative they want to believe, by creating ‘fake news’.
And the same thing is around in the church’s debates on sex. There’s been huge progress made in the scientific understanding of issues around human sexuality over the last 50 years, and there’s much evidence about sexuality to engage with. But that scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily fit with inherited ways of interpreting the Bible: so how do those who feel uncomfortable with the evidence respond? The Church has been tempted to follow the way of the world: setting up binary splits (e.g. GAFCON), disputing the evidence, finding alternative narratives which undermine credible scientific studies, ignoring the challenges of the experiences of others, refusing to engage with those with whom we disagree.
A presentation at the Church of England’s General Synod in July 2018, about the work of a group reviewing the relationship between scientific understanding and the Church’s views on sexuality, began with reference to St Augustine’s comments on how literalist interpretation of the scriptures (in relation to creation) by some Christians was bringing the faith into disrepute among pagans who knew it didn’t tally with scientific understanding of the world which God had created. Augustine’s point was that, while the Scriptures are authoritative and contain the truth of God’s salvation in Christ, the way they are interpreted needs to be carefully assessed, in order not to conflict with the truth of God made known in the world around us, the truths of reason.
Just as we no longer insist, for example, that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by water, so we need to listen to and engage with the truth of sexuality in the world around us. We have the ability to understand the human body, the human psyche, the human brain and the human condition better than we’ve ever done before – and we should therefore be open to being challenged about our preconceptions and misguided assumptions. The science doesn’t determine our ethical conclusions, but it will helpfully inform how we should interpret and use the tradition.
That’s why I’m hosting a day in London on December 8th 2018, to help Christians understand more about how science is helping to illuminate our understandings of sexuality. This isn’t a polemical event arguing for change: it’s offering the opportunity to listen across binary divides, to listen to scientific truth which may be uncomfortable, but is the reality of how God’s world is.
A particular example is people who are born intersex, whose sex at birth is ambiguous or uncertain. Because they don’t fit the binary model of what’s ‘normal’, such people have often been forced as children, without their consent, to undergo life-changing surgery. If you’re open-minded enough to encounter four brave young people who don’t ‘fit’ and who may challenge how you think, spend four minutes watching this video:
On December 8th, Sara Gillingham will be sharing her own story about how she has been treated, and Dr Peter Hegarty will be explaining how society has responded to intersex people over time and the harm that has been done to them. We also need to be open to the truth about the significant harm many LGBTI people have suffered over the years, as evidenced by high levels of depression, self harm and suicide. Professionals such as Professor Michael King have been studying this for years – and as Christians we need to hear the facts from his studies, and respond pastorally to them.
Jesus says in John’s Gospel: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.’ Chapters 8 and 9 of John are concerned with ‘fake news’: how good religious people didn’t accept the truth of who Jesus was, because of what they believed should be the case. The religious group they belonged to believed the truth couldn’t be like that, and they were more loyal to their group than to God’s truth.
Jesus doesn’t call these good religious people true believers. He calls them ‘slaves to sin’ and ‘not of God’. Because God is the God of truth, even when the truth doesn’t fit with what we believe should be the case about God. Because not living in God’s truth leads us into sin.
God in Jesus calls us to listen to others, to learn and to love. Are we willing to be challenged by the uncomfortable truth? Or will the Church follow the way of the world and avoid the uncomfortable facts which don’t fit what we want to believe?