If the CofE tell you what can be heard anywhere else, what is the point of it?

The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, has broken ranks and stated that he thinks the Church of England should begin to conduct same sex marriages. You can read more about it in The Times (paywall).

As regular readers will know, I think this is nothing more than another nail in the coffin of the case for evangelicals remaining in the Church of England. As my friend Stephen Watkinson recently argued, evangelicals really ought to be making plans to leave. Now higher ranking bishops are beginning to make public statements to this effect, if it wasn’t patently obvious before (and quite a lot of us have been saying for a long time that it has been for quite some time), it is almost impossible to deny which way the wind is blowing. It won’t be long before Anglican evangelicals have to decide whether they want to remain in the Church of England or remain in fellowship with their evangelical nonconformist counterparts.

But I don’t intend to write about the specific state of the Church of England here. Rather, I wanted to note some interesting points in Bishop Steven’s comments. Interesting mainly because they highlight something of the problem at the heart of these discussions.

The Times report:

Croft said the “obvious interpretation of key biblical passages” seems to support the view that gay relations are sinful but he said talking to gay people had led “all of my pastoral instincts” to seek “a way of interpreting the Scriptures that allows for . . . the blessing of their partnerships”.

He added: “The view of ethics and morality set out in Leviticus has been revised and adapted within the Biblical period and beyond it, in the light of the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Here, I think is the crux of the matter. The scriptures – taken at face value (allowing for context, style and all the other sort of caveats one might make about careful and appropriate hermeneutics) – clearly do not teach the moral benevolence of same sex relationships. The Bishop recognises as such. Then, he notes, that he had been talking to gay people led him to use ‘all of my pastoral instincts’ to find a new ‘way of interpreting the scriptures’ than he had previously held.

There are several things to note about this. First, it is hard to imagine how Bishop Steven’s earlier views weren’t just homophobic. If he came to conclusions about scripture, but upon meeting nice gay people he likes, managed to change his mind, I don’t really know what else to call his previous views? Essentially, he held views about gay people that he changed upon meeting and talking to some whom he liked. That is neither a credible theological position nor, seemingly, a very pleasant view of gay people at large. It seems to rest on a belief that they aren’t very nice and so a theological position some don’t like is fine, because it can change when we chat with some folks we do like after all. This does not seem like theological precision and care, but prejudice pure and simple.

In relation to others who seem to have followed a similar trajectory, I am reminded of comments Tim Keller posted in a review article here:

When I see people discarding their older beliefs that homosexuality is sinful after engaging with loving, wise, gay people, I’m inclined to agree that those earlier views were likely defective. In fact, they must have been essentially a form of bigotry. They could not have been based on theological or ethical principles, or on an understanding of historical biblical teaching. They must have been grounded instead on a stereotype of gay people as worse sinners than others (which is itself a shallow theology of sin.) So I say good riddance to bigotry. However, the reality of bigotry cannot itself prove that the Bible never forbids homosexuality. We have to look to the text to determine that.

A genuine theological position does not change because it interacts with people it likes. Nor is it very caring – if our entire role is to shepherd the flock according to the Word – to go changing the very Word to which we are called to conform. Let’s put it this way, if church leaders are not the very people who call us to conform to the scriptures – but gladly change it to suit social mores – what exactly has the church then got that is in any way unique?

Second, it is difficult to understand the use of the term ‘pastoral’ here. Pastoral care, by its very nature, is seeking the good of the flock. Biblical pastoral care involves carefully applying the scriptures to the lives of the flock. We shepherd through the Word. But it seems here is a Bishop willing to overlook scripture, or re-interpret it, for “pastoral” reasons. Rather than seeking to encourage people to live in light of the scriptures, he is asking the scriptures to change to accommodate human behaviours and desires. As far as I can tell, the word pastoral here is basically a shorthand for being nice. Not actually nice, of course, more a vapid niceness that just affirms whatever its hearer wants to hear. It doesn’t make any sort of waves, no matter how necessary they may be, so that the person comes away with a sense the person was quite nice, even if they didn’t really have much of value to actually say. But don’t kind and friendly people tell people the truth? Don’t ministers of the Word believe God’s Word to be true?

Third, the Bishop insists – as reported in The Church Times – that the Church of England stance on this issue ‘is leading to a radical dislocation between the Church of England and the culture and society we are attempting to serve.’ Herein lies the crux of the whole discussion. Should the doctrine of the Church of England – indeed, of any church – be formed by scripture or should it be determined by society? Where there is a conflict between the church and society, which should submit to the other so far as doctrine and theology are concerned?

This is why these discussions have been so vexed. Everybody knows what society says. Everybody knows the church’s doctrine does not align neatly with current social attitudes. This is news to nobody. The whole discussion centres around whether the Word of God has ultimate authority or whether society should be able to determine church doctrine and practice. The fundamental issue is that the two sides are operating from two diametrically opposed principles of what the ultimate arbiter of doctrine should be. It is an intractable problem for which there is no evident compromise. Either the church stands on the Word of God or it does not. Either it allows society to dictate its doctrine or it roots it in scripture (and, to a lesser degree, the XXXIX which confessional Anglicans would insist are a fair reflection of scripture).

The Times report:

As wider society has grown increasingly accepting of the idea that a man can have a husband or a woman a wife, the church has maintained its opposition, casting it ever further adrift from secular public opinion.

For traditionalists in the church, this is seen as no reason to change centuries of Christian teaching. For liberal worshippers, it is seen as catastrophic for a church that is struggling to attract young people and reverse decades of declining attendance to be turning away faithful Christian couples who wish to declare their love and commitment before God, simply because they are gay.

This sort of thinking is the fruit of pragmatism. The principle that we do whatever seems to work. The calculation can be a bit skewwhiff sometimes – assuming something will work when it doesn’t – but the principle is always the same. If we think it’ll work, we do it. When faced with an ongoing decline in attendance, the question for the pragmatist becomes how we will attract people. If changing biblical doctrine will work, then that’s what we will do. The church could be shorn of anything that makes it a church, but if it might get bums on seats, let’s do it.

Not everyone is thinking this way, of course. Many are not being pragmatic and would press ahead with this position believing it to be right in principle, irrespective of the resulting numbers it attracts. I suspect the Bishop of Oxford is such a one. Which brings us back to the question, if all the church does is parrot back what you will hear everywhere else, and changes its doctrine in line with whatever society already thinks, what – in the end – is the point of it?