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Leading theologians urge the Church of England to celebrate same-sex relationships

A new book by leading theologians advises the church to recognise, celebrate and bless same-sex relationships that are faithful, stable and permanent. Credit: Glenn Lascuña via Flickr.

A new book written by Cambridge theologians aims to set the agenda for sexuality conversations being held at the Church of England’s General Synod in July by urging the Church towards acceptance and affirmation of committed same-sex relationships. The study warns that a failure to adopt such a stance would be “suicidal”.

Amazing Love, edited by Andrew Davison, Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, sets out a case for the Church to bless stable gay and lesbian relationships, arguing that such a position is entirely consistent with the Christian tradition of ethical reflection.  

The book is deliberately timed to reach members of the General Synod, the “parliament” of the Church of England, who will take part in discussions about sexuality from 10-12 July. These conversations aim to build “good disagreement” on same-sex relationships and will set the framework for a debate in 2017 on changes to the Church’s stance.

To date, the Church of England has failed to comment positively on faithful and committed same-sex relationships and the book argues that the time has come for change.

Amazing Love is the result of a workshop held earlier in the year at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. It aims to show that the celebration of gay and lesbian relationships is consistent with authentic Christian belief by tackling the issues on a number of fronts.

Traditional arguments that reject same-sex relationships have often identified passages in the Bible which appear to prohibit homosexuality, but the book argues that there is no evidence that these passages refer to the strong, loving and stable same-sex relationships that are under discussion.

Duncan Dormor, Dean of Chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge, and a contributor to the book said: “The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often seen as a passage in the Bible which condemns homosexuality. The story is more likely to be about the abuse of hospitality, but if it does refer to sex, it is about an attempted sexually motivated attack by a mob rather than committed gay and lesbian relationships.”

“Whatever your view on these passages in the Bible, these are not the only sentences that matter in this conversation. Interpretation of the Bible can never be totally objective - different readings depend on factors such as the age, culture and experience of the reader. The big picture of the Bible’s Christian message should trump the details of interpretation.”

The book cites examples of matters which at one time seemed to be supported by the Bible on which Christian teaching has now changed. For example, it can safely be assumed that modern Christians are overwhelmingly of the view that slavery is wrong, but in the Bible it is an accepted institution, with Job, the model of the righteous person, described as a “just” man because he treats his slaves fairly rather than setting them free.

During their campaign, 18th-Century Abolitionists faced strong opposition from fellow Christians on “Biblical” grounds and similar things can be said historically about issues like contraception and lending money with interest, demonstrating how new insights lead Christians to apply scripture to a particular issue in a new way.

The second chapter of Amazing Love draws upon advances in science and how our scientific understanding of homosexuality has evolved. The book argues that grasping scientific facts should be important to members of the Synod and all Christians as they have a responsibility to examine the full range of information available and understand what they are discussing as best they can.

Human sexuality is complex, but scientific evidence is conclusive on the following points: Sexuality occurs on a diverse spectrum, it is not consciously chosen and for the vast majority it is not easily changed. The book states that there is clear, robust evidence that for some people, same-sex attraction is “natural, inevitable and beyond their conscious control”.

“Pre 1973, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness, but the scientific consensus has changed – we now know that being gay or lesbian is not damaging to people, it is the assumption that it is “unhealthy” that damages them. New discoveries can and should shift the background against which well-informed ethical thinking takes place,” added Dormor.

A key premise of the book is that the most fundamental feature of Christian life is following Jesus and that “loving your neighbour” involves listening to others and their experiences. The book warns of the damaging consequences of a Christian culture in which gay and lesbian people do not feel welcome, or are not able to speak about themselves.

The book also notes a shift in contemporary sexual ethics  away from acts and on to thinking about people, relationships and emotional intimacy. “What should concern Christians is not what x does with Y – this mirrors a reductive, materialistic approach to sexuality which Christians would rightly object to in the secular world. There is much more to sexual relationships than particular acts and Christians should be more concerned with the nature and integrity of relationships and their impact on wellbeing.”

The book concludes that taking a hard line on the issue of same-sex relationships would be “suicidal” for the Church and involve “shooting ourselves in the foot in the worst possible way”. It notes that young people care deeply about relationships and marriage and are increasingly “baffled” by the Church’s decision to excluded committed same sex couples from these aspects of life.

“We urge the Church to make a positive and joyful affirmation of same-sex relationships or risk alienating the younger generation. Maintaining the current silence on this issue will only build a barrier preventing us from reaching young people on other important issues surrounding sexual and social ethics,” said Dormor.

Copies of Amazing Love have been sent to all members of the General Synod.

Amazing Love is published on Thursday 30 June by Darton, Longman and Todd. More information can be found via: http://www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk/titles/2181-9780232532654-amazing-love