I have to confess that over the last 13 years, I have never re-read a presidential address that I have given to this Governing Body. Good job too, some of you may be thinking, once is more than enough for anyone!! Before writing this one however, I decided to re-read the first one I ever gave as the new Archbishop and was amazed to discover that I had spoken about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the nature of Anglicanism, decision making within the Anglican Communion, and the place of Lambeth Resolutions, all in one address. It smacked a bit of the first sermon of someone newly ordained, when the person includes all the theological insights they have in one go.
The reason I re-read it was because I wanted to see if I had spoken about discerning God’s will through reading Holy Scripture especially in relation to human sexuality. The discussion we had on that at a recent GB was one of the most eirenic, constructive, balanced and prayerful discussions we have ever had in this Body. There was no consensus about how we should handle same-sex relationships and marriage but there was a respectful listening to what each person had to say.
Since that debate, the bishops, as you know, have issued prayers that can be said with those in same-sex relationships and as you might expect, there has been criticism from those who say we have exceeded our authority and ignored biblical injunctions and from those who say that we have not gone nearly far enough in exercising that authority. Be that as it may, the essential question I want to address this afternoon is the place of Scripture in discerning God’s will. And I will try not to repeat anything I said in 2003.
One letter sums up a view held by some people. It began “My Lord Archbishop”. You know you are in trouble when letters begin like that. It went on to say “I write to express my profoundest disappointment and disillusionment with the moral integrity of your office on the issue of same-sex relationships. The church needs to be guided on this matter by the authoritative voice of Scripture.”
The implication of that statement was that the bishops had ignored the Bible and were swayed by the liberal culture of our age and were not therefore taking Holy Scripture seriously. And I want to reply that far from ignoring Holy Scripture, the bishops have taken the step they have because we took seriously what the Bible has to say in trying to discern the will of God.
I don’t want to confine what I have to say to the issue of same-sex relationships. There is a far wider question here about how one discerns God’s will as revealed by Holy Scripture more generally. First, let me state the obvious. The Bible is not one book but a series of books and within those books, written by a variety of authors, are a number of different perspectives but also shifts in perspective about particular topics. Biblical texts are not God’s words, dictated by Him to human authors, but are the inspired response to revelation. The response is a human response however and cannot be regarded as being identical with that revelation especially since parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts.
Let me give you some examples.
The Second Book of Kings records the massacre by Jehu of the Royal House of Ahab at Jezreel. The massacre of the whole of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s family and anyone associated with them is said to have been done by Jehu at the behest of the prophet Elisha, who in turn is said to have been anointed by God to carry out such a massacre.
In other words, Elisha and God are seen to be endorsing a policy of mass murder. I realise of course that this is not the first story of murder and massacre in the Old Testament, but writing much later about this incident, the prophet Hosea 1:4 says that Jehu behaved atrociously and should have been punished for what he did.
In other words there was a shift in perspective within Scripture about the same incident. +Rowan writing about this incident says “Hosea would have said “I am sure my prophetic forebear Elisha was certain he was doing the will of God and I am sure that the tyranny and idolatry of the Royal House of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended, but was it right for Jehu to murder them in that way?” And +Rowan goes on to say that Hosea’s observation was a very powerful moment in the writing of the Old Testament – a recognition that it was possible to grow in understanding of God’s will and to re-think the past.
Something in Hosea’s world, a prophet who writes so movingly about the overwhelming love of God for His people, had opened his heart to a new understanding of God as a being who would not sanction mass murder. Jesus takes the matter much further when He says “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Forgive your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”
Both Hosea and Jesus therefore talk about God and see Him in a totally different way from that of other books in the Old Testament and they show that Elisha’s endorsement of Jehu’s massacre was not to be the last word on this topic. So if we were to ask ourselves which viewpoint do we think reflects God’s will, how would we answer?
Let’s look at another example, this time from the Book of Deuteronomy.
In Deuteronomy 23 1-4 we read:
“No Ammonite or Moabite should be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. And those born from an illicit union, will also not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted.”
What Deuteronomy is stating is that all those who were products of illicit or incestuous unions or who were descended from Moabites and Ammonites were in perpetuity to be banned from worship since they were not deemed acceptable to God.
But there are at least two stories of incest in the Old Testament which ignore these prohibitions. First, Lot with his daughters, unions which generate Ammonites and Moabites, and then there is the incest of Judah with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Lot’s daughters and Tamar give birth to sons who form part of the genealogical line which eventually leads to David and then Jesus. Ruth, a Moabite, is an ancestor of David’s. If she and her descendants, and Lot’s daughter’s sons and Tamar’s son are banned from the worshipping community, where does that leave King David?
So Deuteronomy passes a sentence of perpetual exclusion on Moabites and products of incest from becoming part of the worshipping community but these people are David and Jesus’ ancestors. The law in Deuteronomy tells us one thing but the stories of the Old Testament tell us something completely different.
David is a descendant of incest twice over with Moabite blood in his veins and yet he is the King of Israel and the voice of Israel’s prayer to God. In the Gospel of Matthew, Tamar and Ruth are named in the lineage of the Messiah, with no hint that incest and Moabite blood should exclude Jesus from participating in the worshipping community, still less from being the Messiah. In other words, Scripture itself supports the radical inclusion of those whom other scriptural texts have identified as being an abomination.
When in the Book of Acts, Peter begins to associate with Gentiles and baptises them, he is directly disobeying the biblical prohibition in Leviticus to have nothing to do with people of other races because they are impure. The Holiness Code of Leviticus is set aside in favour of belief in a God who accepts impure people.
Let me give you another example which I have alluded to before.
Deuteronomy 231-4 says:
“No eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”.
But in Isaiah 564-5 the prophet says:
“Eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and choose the things that please me and hold fast my Covenant, I will welcome to my house and give them within my walls a monument and a name better than my own sons and daughters”.
Finally in the Book of Acts chapter 838 there is a story of the apostle Philip who baptises an Ethiopian eunuch.
Deuteronomy says that eunuchs are an abomination to God and are not welcome at worship because of their sexual ambivalence and because of their reputation for having passive sex with other men. The prophet Isaiah disagrees and says they will be accepted and blessed by God, even more than the Jews, God’s chosen people. And all of that comes to pass in the Book of Acts when Philip baptises an Ethiopian eunuch who has been up to Jerusalem to Mount Zion to worship. The eunuch, a figure to be cast out according to Deuteronomy, now becomes acceptable to both Judaism and the emerging Christian Church.
Foreigners were hated by the Jews and sexual deviants even more so because they did not produce children. Yet an Ethiopian eunuch is accepted by Philip and valued as a person in his own right and his race and his sexuality do not count against him. Isaiah puts aside the prohibitions of Deuteronomy with its purity and holiness laws and the New Testament goes a step further and is willing in the person of Philip to offer baptism to the eunuch.
What all this shows is that within the Scriptures themselves, there are radical shifts in understanding in what it means to discern the will of God. It absolutely will not do to quote texts from parts of the Bible in a simplistic way without reference to their contexts. One has to treat the Bible as a whole and discern, often through stories, the direction in which it is leading. Holy Scripture, in other words, contains not just ethical injunctions but stories, and stories convey truth about peoples’ understanding of God. After all, Jesus spent most of His life telling stories to get people to understand the nature and character of God.
George Herbert, writing on the Scriptures in one of his poems says:
“Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the story.”
All the constellations of the story have to be taken into consideration.
All the examples I have given show that there is no one settled understanding of what the Bible says about a number of subjects and that reading it as a whole can alter one’s total perspective.
Let me give you another example which is even more arresting.
The Bible has a great deal to say about slavery. Abraham had slaves and according to Genesis 24 35, God blessed him by giving him male and female slaves. Joshua, David, and Solomon took captive people as slaves at God’s command. The Ten Commandments take for granted that people will have slaves and the prophets speak about the need to treat slaves fairly. There is nothing in the Old Testament to indicate that slavery is somehow immoral or should be abolished. Nor did Jesus condemn slavery and He speaks about slaves in His parables as if they were a totally natural phenomenon. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters.
There is therefore overwhelming biblical support for slavery. Yes, masters are exhorted to treat them fairly but as an institution it is regarded as being a good thing. Indeed, during the American Civil War, some Christians advanced arguments based on biblical texts for owning slaves.
Why then was slavery abolished given overwhelming scriptural support for it? Why – because if you read the Scriptures in their totality, they are opposed to oppression, domination and abuse. “I have come” says the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel “to set free those who are in prison, to loose those who are bound, to deliver those who are oppressed”.
So in spite of all the passages in favour of slavery, when you examine the Scriptures as a whole and the ministry of Jesus in particular, you realise it is about freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanises people. No Christian I hope would today argue that slavery is good, but for nineteen centuries the Church accepted it and defended it, God through His Holy Spirit has led us into the truth of seeing things in a totally different way today and we are rightly horrified when we read about people who have been kept as slaves by others.
What all this amounts to is that one cannot argue that there is one accepted traditional way of interpreting Scripture that is true and orthodox and all else is modern revisionism, culturally conditioned. Scripture itself is diverse and theological views held in some biblical books are reshaped in the light of experience by other writers.
As the Jesus of St John’s Gospel says: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”. John 16 12-13
Or to quote Pope Francis at last year’s Synod of Bishops: “The temptation is to hostile inflexibility, of closing oneself within the written word (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, the God of surprises, the Spirit”.
So taking the Bible as a whole and taking what it says very seriously may lead us into a very different view of same-sex relationships than the one traditionally upheld by the Church. I don’t want to look in detail here at the texts that are said to deal with this topic – in any case there aren’t many of them. All I would say is that as you examine them, they are not about committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex but about something totally different.
The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah for example, associated with homosexuality and which have given rise to the pejorative word “Sodomite”, is in fact about an abuse of hospitality and what one writer calls “an attempted gang rape by a mob against two outsiders who are Lot’s guests”. Indeed Ezekiel says Lot’s relatives were punished primarily because they refused to help the poor and needy.
In the New Testament too, some of the passages often cited are not about loving, committed, faithful relationships between people of the same sex, but about pederasty and male prostitution. But all that apart, and given that each of the passages purported to be about homosexuality can be interpreted in more than one way, we come to the fundamental question as to whether taking the Bible as a whole, we can come to the same conclusions about committed, faithful, loving, same-sex relationships as we did about slavery.
We are not thereby abandoning the Bible but trying to interpret it in a way that is consistent with the main thrust of the ministry of Jesus, who went out of His way to minister to those who were excluded, marginalised, and abandoned by His society because they were regarded as impure and unholy by the religious leaders of His day, either because of their gender, age, morality or sexuality. Taking Holy Scripture seriously means paying attention to Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity.
And all of that without bringing into the reckoning what we now know about same-sex attraction in terms of psychology and biology and the experience of homosexual people. And surely if God is the creator, He reveals Himself to us through new knowledge and insights so that, for example, we no longer believe the world was created in six days. As I have tried to show, in the Bible there are a number of totally different perspectives on the same issue. What was responsible for this shift was a growth in understanding about the issue in question.
So for past generations, homosexual practice was seen as a moral failure because people had no understanding of human sexuality and how humans are formed biologically, psychologically and socially. For them, it was a disorder. We now know that sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice but of how people are and that ought to make a huge difference to the way we view things.
Andrew Davison, who has edited a marvellous book entitled “Amazing Love” has this passage within it:
“We are most truly ourselves when we live for others and we gain life not by clutching to it but by giving it away. Living for others underlines the truest meaning of sexuality. Christians have discovered that most people flourish best when this living for others finds its focus in a commitment to one other person: when a couple make a lifelong commitment within which sex properly belongs”.
Those of us who were or are married have found that to be the case. Why would we want to deny such a possibility for those who are attracted to their own gender?