Bishop Steven’s Essay arguing for same-sex marriage
On Friday 4th November, the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, published a 45 page essay arguing that the Church of England should change its teaching to embrace same-sex marriages, and that it should do so in spite of 2000 years of universal consensus about the clear teaching of the Bible. Carefully coordinated press releases were arranged which you may well have seen. If you google ‘Bishop of Oxford’ you will find their write-ups.
He is the first serving Church of England diocesan Bishop publicly to argue for this change, and since he also happens to be our Bishop (although his responsibilities are shared with 3 area Bishops, of which we answer most directly to the Bishop of Dorchester, Gavin Collins), I felt it was appropriate to share with the church family my own assessment of his actions. Others, much more qualified than me, have responded to the Bishop’s essay in greater detail, and I would recommend especially a careful and respectful response from the rector of St Ebbes, Oxford, Vaughan Roberts.
Constraints of space mean that what I write here will not address what is a painful and sensitive issue with the depth and compassion it really requires. I’ve tried to do that more adequately earlier in the year in a three-week sermon series, ‘God and sexuality’. Do have a listen if you missed those. Here I simply highlight three areas of the Bishop’s essay that I found concerning.
1. The authority of Scripture
How can we know God and what he says about life as he created it to be? The Christian answer has been consistent through the ages. As the apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “All scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), and as Peter writes to the scattered churches “prophesy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). In answering questions about life, Scripture must always be the foundation. We start with what God says and allow Him, through his Word, to shape and change what we, and the culture around us, might otherwise think.
Sadly Bishop Steven turns this on its head. He starts with his experience of our culture and only then turns to the Bible. With a conclusion firmly in mind, it's no surprise that he is able to find an interpretation of the Bible that fits. These interpretive acrobatics completely miss the basic reality of the Bible’s teaching: God’s intention for marriage is clearly defined as being between one man and one woman, and where same-sex relations are mentioned, such mentions are universally negative.
As Anglicans, our foundational statement of faith, the 39 Articles, is salutary on this point. Article 20 states:
THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
By the measure of the articles that Bishop Steven swore to uphold at his consecration, his actions are unlawful. He pays lip-service to the authority of the Bible, but God’s Word is not operating in any functional way as an authority in his thinking and writing.
2. The mission of the church
The heart of Bishop Steven’s argument is missional. He speaks of the church’s traditional teaching on marriage creating ‘a radical dislocation between the Church of England and the culture and society we are attempting to serve’ (p. 14). So his argument goes that if we are to speak with any credibility in our culture, we need to update our teaching to better reflect that culture’s own deep moral convictions.
As someone who shares Bishop Steven’s desire to bring the good news of Jesus to the people of our present culture and society, I have real sympathy with his motivation for change. However, the teaching of Jesus insists that we are most effective missionally when we are least conformed to the culture around us. Jesus’ words sound a real warning:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
In the late 80s, evangelical leader John Stott engaged in a 350 page dialogue with a liberal theologian, David Edwards. In it Edwards put forward a very similar argument to that being made today by Steven Croft. As part of his response, Stott said “Would it not be self-contradictory to sacrifice the evangel for the sake of evangelism?” (Essentials: a liberal-evangelical dialogue, p. 39)
The mission of the church is not to sacrifice the message God has given us for the sake of making that message accessible! Rather it is to be faithful stewards of the gospel, trusting that God’s unadapted truth continues to be the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). It’s no surprise that the Anglican churches across the world that are growing are those that have not accommodated or adapted God’s teaching, and the churches that are dwindling are those that have. Our mission is not to serve our culture by conforming to it, but to serve our culture by bringing it the life-changing good news of Jesus, unchanged.
3. The role of a Bishop
When Bishop Steven was ordained as Bishop, the following declaration was stated:
Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission. Obedient to the call of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they are to gather God’s people and celebrate with them the sacraments of the new covenant.
We pray for our Bishops because this is such a weighty responsibility. Central to their role is to be ‘’guardians of the faith of the apostles’, in other words, to uphold the teaching of Christ and his apostles, including their very clear teaching on sex and sexuality. Later in the service this question was put to Bishop Steven:
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church… Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
To which he replied, “I do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness.”
Still later, he was asked,
Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?
To which he replied, “by the help of God, I will”.
In short, Bishops make a solemn and binding commitment to uphold the teaching of the Bible, as set forth in the official teaching of the Church of England. As they do this, they become a focus of unity and stability within their diocese, as they lead the way in shepherding the flock. However, when they depart from this, they become a focus of division, instability and confusion. Tragically, this is now the likely trajectory within our diocese, as many orthodox Anglican ministers feel obliged in conscience to distance themselves from their own Bishops' unbiblical teaching.
The Bishop’s essay is one contribution to a wider discussion within the wider Church of England around issues of sexuality. Over the coming months we will be hearing much more about it. As we do, let’s please pray for any gay friends and family for whom these debates are especially distressing. Let’s stick with Jesus and the teaching of the Bible, especially when the teaching of our Bishop contradicts this. And let’s take heart: Christ is the true Shepherd of his Church. He is full of grace and truth, and we can trust him, whatever lies ahead for the Church of England.