By the Archbishop of Wales The Most Revd Barry Morgan
Few people doubt that the 1998 Lambeth Resolution on Human Sexuality – Lambeth 110 as it has come to be known has had a profound effect on the Anglican Communion. In fact you could be pardoned for thinking that the Anglican Communion since then has not been interested in any other topic, since it has dominated the Agendas of Provinces, meetings of Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council. The ordination of a practising homosexual as a Bishop in the USA and the blessing of same sex relationships in Canada might not have had the repercussions they have had, if the Lambeth Conference in 1998 had not had such an acrimonious debate about sexuality. What I would like to do in this lecture is to look at Lambeth 110 and ask why this resolution rather than any other has caused such problems, for after all there were 63 pages of resolutions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
Before doing that it’s worth bearing in mind that the Lambeth bishops were asked to choose from four major topics during the conference. The headings were - Called to Full Humanity; Called to Live and Proclaim the Good News; Called to be a Faithful Church in a Plural World; and Called to be One. In other words the four main topics dealt with were human affairs, mission, interfaith and unity issues. Human Sexuality was one subject area, within the human affairs topic, which also examined themes such as human rights, human dignity, the environment, questions about modern technology, euthanasia, international debt and economic justice. Sexuality then was one topic among many others, but I suspect that by now no one remembers that. 110 seems to be the only resolution that counts. People have also forgotten that the resolution ought not to be seen in isolation from the discussion that those Bishops who studied the theme of Human Sexual Relations had for the three weeks of the conference. This is summarised in the Conference Report and puts the resolution in context. Different Bishops reported on the four main topics and the sub topics within them and brought forward resolutions to the plenary session of bishops. The resolutions on human sexuality however were the only ones that were altered on the floor during the plenary discussion, which illustrates how high feelings were running. What then does Lambeth 110 say? It is worth quoting:
In fact of course little attention has been paid to the above six points even in the 110 resolution. Whereas the report commends faithfulness in marriage in lifelong union and abstinence as the right choice for the unmarried, the wider church has not sought to make an issue out of these. Some of the provinces of Great Britain allow re-marriage in church after divorce and the majority of people who come to be married in church in Britain have cohabited. What has been highlighted since 1998 is (d) “the rejection of homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture and (e) “Cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions or ordaining those involved in same gender unions”. In other words the Anglican Communion has concentrated on two subsections of a subsection of one of the four major topics that were discussed and this has given the impression that nothing else of importance took place or matters a great deal.
Now 1998 was not the first time for a Lambeth Conference to deal with the topic of human sexuality. In 1908, reaffirming an 1888 resolution, it forbade divorce except in the case of adultery and refused to sanction re-marriage during the lifetime of an existing partner. It reaffirmed this in 1920, 1930 and 1968. These resolutions spoke in terms of the indissolubility of marriage and refused to countenance either re-marriage in church or even services of blessing by the church, urging people (in 1968) to remain in unhappy marriages rather than divorce. In 1998 however, the resolution says nothing about divorce and re-marriage only that “it upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”. In other words, it makes a positive rather than a negative statement.
In the same way Lambeth resolutions were more accommodating to contraception in 1958 and 1968 than in 1920. Whereas in 1920 warning was given against “the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of contraception” by 1958 and 1968 the resolutions accepted that family planning was natural and that this was a matter to be left to the individual conscience. Open disagreement was expressed with Humanae Vitae. As far as homosexuality is concerned it passed resolutions on this topic in 1978 and 1988 as well as 1998. In 1978 it asked for “a deep and dispassionate study of homosexuality to include both the teaching of scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”. It reiterated this even more fully in 1988 when it asked for an account to be taken of “biological, genetic and psychological research undertaken by other agencies as well as the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our communion”. It also spoke about the need to listen to the stories of gay and lesbian people in the church. If one looks at the 1998 resolution against this background it is obvious that it is a much harsher resolution than those passed in 1978 and 1988, for it says nothing about taking into account scientific and social factors. Whereas the contraception resolutions have become more permissive with time and resolutions on marriage have been expressed positively and not negatively, the opposite has been the case with resolutions on homosexuality.
Why has this topic caused such consternation? What are the main issues at stake? Obviously it raises the question of the authority of scripture and the tradition of the church but it also brings to the fore the different cultures in which provinces of the Anglican Communion exist. What I would like to do is to examine what both sides have to say about the authority of scripture and then to look at some of the differing cultural contexts of the Communion.
The view of one side as far as scripture is concerned is clear – homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture since all the references to homosexuality in scripture (and there aren’t all that many) are negative. Therefore to be involved in these practices is to reject the authority of scripture and its teaching and to be involved in heresy. The relevant texts are Genesis 191-14 the sin of Sodom, Leviticus 1822 and 2013 where male to male sexual intercourse is explicitly forbidden, Romans 118-32 the condemnation of unnatural sexual practices, I Corinthians 69-11 where homosexual lust is condemned and I Timothy 18-11 which talks about sexual perverts.
For those who take these texts literally the scriptures are therefore quite plain. “God creates male and female together as being the full representation of humanity; marriage alone is the place for sexual intimacy – this is God’s decree; homosexual activity of any kind is proscribed since it rejects the natural order and practice and is an example of the rejection of God’s revealed truth”, (Church of Nigeria paper to ACC 2005).
Those who hold to a different view argue, that all Christians wish to take Holy Scripture seriously, but stress that there are very few texts dealing with homosexuality. They would say that a continuing debate about what it is that Scripture says about homosexuality is still needed:
All that however is to argue about the interpretation of texts. The argument needs to be broadened as far as scripture is concerned in several ways:
How does one define homosexuality? As one Roman Catholic bishop puts it, “it could refer to anyone who once had a fleeting same-sex attraction; to someone else it could be restricted to someone who is sexually active and openly part of a ‘gay pride’ movement. Most people would exclude those extremes, but where is the line drawn in between?”. Or as another writer puts it “What is homosexual practice? Is it to have sex or could it be just to delight in the company of another? What is the significance of expressing affection, or nurturing a relationship? Practice could be defined as any relationship which gives expression to an orientation and any act which fosters such a relationship”. If homosexual orientation of itself is not regarded as sinful, then should any expression of that orientation in a relationship of itself be regarded as sinful? In other words what precisely is the definition of practice?
If scripture re-interprets the tradition even within its own pages, that leaves the possibility open for the church to reinterpret its tradition as it has done on other issues e.g. the re-marriage of divorced people, its attitude to slavery, the ordination of women, and usury. At the Council of Vienne 1274 usurers were to be refused confession, absolution, and Christian burial. Few Churches follow that line today.
It is also a fact that we all read scripture from our own cultural perspective. As Dr Edward Morris put it his 2003 Norman Autton Lecture “Do you regard theology as primarily substantive, quantitative, and static – a body of knowledge exclusively from the past? In other words as the discipline that lectures the world or as an approach which whilst respecting the theological insights of our faith and community, does not view these in static terms but is open to re-definition, reformulation and reapplication?”. Or as the Caribbean theologian Kortright Davies puts it “There is no universal theology; theological norms arise out of the context in which one is called to live out one’s faith; theology is not culture free. Although the Gospel remains the same from place to place, the means by which the Gospel is understood and articulated will differ considerably”.
Bishop Colenso, who was the cause of the calling of the first Lambeth Conference, was so partly because of his view that eternal punishment in hell was untenable. Few people would now want to disagree with him or see this as a communion breaking matter. In other words all theology reflects its context. Doctrine is formed as the result of a conversation between the church and the world and Christian thinking has always adapted itself to its surrounding culture. St Paul in his dealings with the Athenians used the context of the diversity of religions as an aid to proclaiming the gospel, which is why in I Corinthians he says he is all things to all men.
For many people not living in the western world the consecration of a gay person and the blessing of same sex unions is a sell out to the agenda of the age – a church that has given in to the culture of liberalism and a church without morals or discipline, divided and in disarray and a church that has departed from Biblical teaching. As the Archbishop of Canterbury put it in his address to the ACC at Nottingham 2005 “One view is that the churches of the north are tired and confused and are losing evangelistic energy. They have been trying to reclaim their credibility by accepting and seeking to domesticate the modern values of their culture even though this is a culture that is practically defined by the rejection of the Living God. But another story is that the Churches of the North have been made aware of how much their life and work has been sustained in the past by insensitive and oppressive social patterns, with the Bible being used to justify great evils. In recent decades there has been a huge change in the general understanding of sexual activity. Can the Gospel be heard in such a world if it seems to cling to ways of understanding sexuality but has no correspondence to what the most apparently responsible people in our culture believe?”. The condemnation of the Church of England by some provinces for allowing clergy to enter into civil partnership agreements allowed by law also shows the divergent backgrounds of provinces within the Communion. In Great Britain the Church cannot prohibit what the law allows even though it might not necessarily accord with its own ethical teaching. This is obviously not understood in other parts of the world who see it as a laissez-faire attitude by the church.
Different provinces come from totally different cultural contexts and this was highlighted for me in a recent Guardian article by Chimamanda Adichie recently shortlisted for the Orange prize for literature. He says that in Nigeria literature is not regarded highly or read but Christian self help books are such as ‘God’s plan for you’, or ‘The Richest Man in Babylon’. He argues that a new brand of Christianity came to the fore in the 1990’s with a dictatorial government in Nigeria that seemed to focus on materialism and that saw riches as a direct reward from God. Books were valued in terms of what immediate benefit people would get from them and there was little room for subtlety or for works of literature. He writes, “because we are not literary, we are too literal. Because our religiosity is individualistic we have neglected social consciousness”. (Guardian 19.02.05). There is no sense of nuance he says in Nigerian society. A student complained to him that the title of his book ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was confusing as it was not about flowers. That may give an insight into the way in which some African Bishops have regarded the resolutions on Lambeth. The resolutions do not advise the legitimising of same sex blessings. The Church of Kenya writing to the Anglican Consultative Council interprets this as, “the provinces of Canada and Ecusa have taken official actions contrary to Lambeth and by their actions have chosen a different path from the rest of the Communion and should be considered by the rest of the Communion as having broken fellowship. They need to re-consider their official standing in the spirit of repentance, reconciliation and willingness to re-affirm their commitment to the Communion and restoration should only take place after repentance and healing”. That is just one example of some provinces viewing Lambeth resolutions as infallible and non-negotiable statements of truth for all time. They have failed to recognise that those resolutions are precisely resolutions and only have the force of moral authority. They are not meant to be prescriptive in terms of binding provinces. That particular Lambeth resolution was also heavily nuanced. It says that it “cannot advise the legitimising of same sex unions”, but it has been interpreted as meaning that no provinces will do so and if they do they will be called to account and may be regarded as being out of Communion with other Anglican provinces. Some want to go even further and argue that gay practices are incompatible with any form of Christian discipleship and that such people should be barred from the sacraments as well. In this context it is interesting to note that the strongest resolution that has ever emanated from Lambeth Conferences has been on war. It has been reiterated again and again that as a method of settling international disputes it is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. Yet it is a resolution that is totally disregarded by most provinces. It is also interesting to note that when the first Lambeth Conference was called in 1867 by Archbishop Longley it was for “Brotherly Counsel and encouragement”, not to pass prescriptive pronouncements and Longley refused to exclude or condemn Colenso for his views and Lambeth took no disciplinary action against him.
To understand the Anglican Communion one therefore needs to understand the background and the culture of the different provinces. All of us have been shaped by our own geography, culture and religious contexts. In South East Asia for example where Muslims and Buddhists are in the majority and are very conservative on this issue, Christianity has been subjected to embarrassment and ridicule. Anglicans have been discredited by the Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean Governments on this issue and their churches seen as being tarred by the same brush as Ecusa and Canada. In Indonesia and Pakistan the persecution of Christians has increased because of what is seen as the endorsement of immoral behaviour. Many provinces say that evangelisation and mission has suffered because the Anglican Communion as a whole is on trial. The Anglican Church in the Southern Cone says that the Anglican Communion has been dragged through the mud publicly and ecumenical relationships have been affected. “Our credibility has been severely questioned and our capacity to respond in mission gravely impaired”. (ACC submission).
In certain provinces of Africa those pregnant out of wedlock are barred from the sacraments, as are unmarried people living together and baptism is refused to their offspring. In Burma sexual matters are not discussed in public. Many British colonies have savage penal codes against homosexuality still on the statute books. Earlier this year a man in Northern Nigeria was sentenced to death by stoning after admitting to homosexual sex. Many provinces have also complained that whereas the first Christian Missionaries came with clarity about ethical matters, traditional teaching once introduced by the West has now been abandoned by the very churches, which introduced it.
There is a clash of cultures in another way as well. The church in some parts of the world is seen as being mutually accountable to other branches and does not therefore perform actions which harm a sister province. That explains why many provinces in the global south and Africa have found the actions of Canada and Ecusa inexcusable. The West has a tendency to believe in the right of people and institutions to make decisions about their own destinies and lifestyles and Western philosophy seems to be that every taste and preference can be catered for. On the other hand the North American churches argue that they have been studying and discussing human sexual ethics for many decades and that they live in a society where homosexual people are treated without discrimination and that what has happened in their society and church has not occurred precipitately or suddenly.
There is also no doubt that the church in the Southern Hemisphere, for so long dependent on the church in the West, is beginning to flex its muscles. It is numerically strong and is beginning to refuse the dominance of the Western church in theological matters and is calling it to account. The churches of the Global South also feel patronised by the West and identify the church in North America with the same characteristics as American foreign policy, where America does what it believes is right whatever the consequences for the rest of the world – a kind of Colossus striding the world.
Nor can one underestimate that what is being played out on the world stage is the internal struggles of the American Church where unhappy episcopalians, disapproving of events in their own church, oppose it in part through the protests of others. It is shocking to observe people from part of the traditional wing of the American church quite blatantly influencing the more conservative primates of provinces at every Primatial and ACC meeting, making an inflammatory situation potentially explosive. And in case you think I am exaggerating, I quote form a recent website set up by the American Anglican Council and their Bishops’ Committee on Adequate Episcopal Oversight – a website that is meant to be limited to supporters alone. “Our ultimate goal is a realignment of Anglicanism on American soil committed to biblical faith and values, driven by Gospel Mission. We believe this should be a replacement jurisdiction with confessional standards emerging from the disastrous recent actions of General Convention. The leadership of ECUSA has rejected the Christian faith. We seek to retain ownership of our property as we move into realignment”.
What then can be done if the Anglican Communion is not to tear itself apart in the coming years? There is no doubt that the Communion is in crisis. Primates have briefed against one another and some primates have refused to receive communion from the same altar as other primates arguing that, “unity of doctrine precedes unity of worship”. There is no one solution that will fix everything but there has to be an attempt at understanding the situations and cultures of others and a refusal to assume that other provinces take actions for the worst of motives. So then:
I want to end with a question posed by Archbishop Rowan to the Porvoo Primates meeting last week at Trondheim in Norway about the nature of the Church. “Do we” he said, “give priority to God’s act and invitation or to the coherence of our response?” Speaking personally I believe that the answer provinces give to that question will ultimately determine the future of this Communion.