The Church of England issued pastoral guidance from the House of Bishops to its clergy on January 23, following the legal introduction of heterosexual civil partnerships in 2019. While the guidance concerns heterosexual civil partners, the document has, controversially, been used by the church to reiterate its position on sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage. It states that “sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purpose for human beings”.
This is squarely in line with the church’s official position on homosexuality, which is that it is “incompatible with scripture”. We have seen recent attempts by liberal members to get the church to take a more inclusive approach towards gender and sexuality, but these have been rebuffed by conservatives. In October 2018, four bishops from the diocese of Oxford published guidance designed “to advise local clergy and congregations in order to support LGBTQ+ people and their families, and to learn from the insights of LGTBQ+ people about being church together”.
Several months later, more than a hundred “concerned Anglicans” signed an open letter criticising the guidance. The letter claimed that the attempt at inclusivity by the Oxford bishops actually served to exclude those who “hold to the traditional reading of scripture”. Their response stated:
We cannot see how it is right to accept as Christian leaders those who advocate lifestyles that are not consistent with New Testament teaching.
The letter writers may be referring to New Testament teaching from Paul’s letters in 1 Corinthians 6:9—10 and Romans 1:26-27 which describe how those who are “sexually immoral” will not enter the kingdom of God.
This example is one of the many cases where conservative Christians deploy biblical verses to bolster arguments against same-sex marriage, transgender identities, adoption and parenting by LGBTQ+ people.
Within the Bible, there are a number of texts which have been used as a weapon against LGBTQ+ people, known as “clobber texts” or “texts of terror”. But using biblical verses in this way is actually an abuse of scripture. It must stop, urgently. Many LGBTQ+ Christians struggle to reconcile their faith with their gender or sexual identities, which can lead to self-harm or suicide.
Not the Word of God
The Bible is often used as a source of authority, but it is misleading to call it “the word of God”. In fact, Christianity teaches that the word of God is not scripture, it is Jesus Christ.
As such, Jesus said nothing explicit about same-sex relationships or transgender people. In the New Testament, it is Paul who teaches about sexual morality, not Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 - 10, he said:
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
While statements like these are cited by conservative Christians to support arguments against the sexual activities and relationships of LGBTQ+ people, it is important to note how Paul himself warns that such use of the Bible is dangerous. In 2 Corinthians 3: 6 Paul writes “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”.
In his provocative book, The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologian Adrian Thatcher cautions that Christians who mobilise the Bible to argue against the inclusion of others actually commit “bibliolatry” – worshipping the Bible instead of God.
Pick ‘n’ mix Bible?
Conservative Christians adopt a pick ‘n’ mix approach to scripture, selecting what appeals to suit their prejudices while ignoring other texts. The excerpt from Corinthians, above, lists alongside homosexuals, adulterers, the greedy and drunkards to just name a few. Thankfully, these and other offerings on the biblical buffet, such as divorce, owning slaves, and the role of women in the Church have, to some extent, been sympathetically re-interpreted by the church.
The Bible is complicated when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, as it is on many other issues. However, many other activities inconsistent with New Testament teaching don’t share the same airtime in religious discussions. There is no longer much concern, for example, about dressing modestly and inexpensively or getting drunk on wine. Besides, there are many inclusive LGBTQ+ readings of the Bible and interpretations of Christianity that raise new questions and have particular relevance for readers interested in LGBTQ+ issues.
One of the yardsticks for measuring how in touch the Church of England is with contemporary life lies in ongoing discussions about the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Church. However, the current situation shows the diminishing authority of the Church and the Bible in everyday life in the UK.
The Church of England faces a generational crisis, with only 2% of young people identifying with it in the UK. The decline points to how the Church’s current position is seemingly hostile and incompatible with socially liberal views, particularly those towards LGBTQ+ people.