In an address to the Sydney Anglican Synod, Archbishop Glenn Davies invited those within the Anglican Communion who advocate for the full inclusion of LGBITQ+ people into the church to leave.
…The time has come to take action and make decisions, and these recent events have made it all the more imperative to do so. The General Synod must make a clear statement about the teaching of the Bible on the sanctity of sex within the marriage bond of a man and a woman, so that marriage is held in honour among all and the marriage bed is not defiled (Hebrews 13:4). My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us. We have far too much work to do in evangelising Australia to be distracted by the constant pressure to change our doctrine in order to satisfy the lusts and pleasures of the world.”Address to Sydney Synod, reported at sydneyanglicans.net
At the end of his address the Archbishop received a standing ovation.
I have a soft spot for Sydney Anglicanism, having studied at Moore College under the tutelage of both the current archbishop Glenn Davies and his immediate predecessor, Peter Jensen. As a young Baptist fumbling my way out of a folksy fundamentalism, both Glenn and Peter played a significant role in my theological formation, and did so with generosity, kindness and grace. Which leaves me all the more saddened and angered by Glenn’s speech to Synod.
In the years since I studied at Moore I have met a number of LGBTIQ+ followers of Jesus, including some who are Sydney Anglicans. They too have been my tutors. Their love for Christ and their passion for the gospel have inspired me. They are derided in the Archbishop’s speech as those who seek to undermine marriage and overturn biblical doctrine simply to satisfy their lusts. This is untrue, offensive and hurtful. The LGBTIQ+ Sydney Anglicans I know have wrestled with the biblical texts around sexuality, gender and gospel with incredible integrity, honesty, self-examination and willingness to lay down their lives in service of Christ. Indeed, for many it has meant journeying through the long, dark night of the soul and coming out the other side with faith intact and a grasp of the gospel that shames many of its professional practitioners. They have displayed a loyalty and love for their church that has not been requited. They know what it is to be excluded, vilified, smeared, and rejected. But they have also encountered a God who embraces them, wants them, longs for them and delights in them. They still dream of what their church can be. And so they keep showing up.
This at least is what I see.
The Archbishop’s invitation that people such as these leave the church is grounded in the conviction that the bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is straightforward and clear. It is a claim I hear frequently. Yet it is demonstrably untrue.
In 2016 Zondervan Press released a book titled Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Dr Preston Sprinkle, who holds a “traditional” view of marriage, wrote,
…This book is the first of its kind to be published by an evangelical Christian publisher. I don’t think a book like this would have been possible ten or even five years ago. Until recently, there was only one view of homosexuality within evangelicalism: the so-called non-affirming view. Conservatives may protest or simple disagree, but the fact is that there are a growing number of Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, card-carrying evangelicals who are either exploring the affirming view or who have embraced it and aren’t looking back…
No longer is this a Christian versus non-Christian debate. The debate about homosexuality, the Bible, and the church is currently an inner-Christian discussion…Two View on Christianity and the Church
To understand what the bible means for us today requires a three-dimensional act of interpretation. First the relevant texts must be understood in their immediate setting. Second, we must consider how the various relevant texts fit together with each other and with other themes and patterns in the Bible. Third, we need to discern how the themes and patterns that emerge from steps one and two intersect with and apply to our lives and world. Completion of these three steps requires technical skills of literary analysis, cultural and historical analysis, theological analysis and the use of imagination, intuition and cross cultural transposition.
Most of the time we forget how incredibly complex this process is because we default to interpretative approaches and patterns established by generations of biblical scholarship that preceded us and that we learn from the church communities to which we belong. This is as it should be.
It should however come as no surprise that from time to time new experiences, knowledge or cultural changes cause us to rethink some of our interpretations or applications of biblical teaching. This happens quite frequently in relatively minor ways. We see a particular theme, text or teaching of Scripture in a new light, gain a deeper appreciation of what it means/doesn’t mean, draw connections between texts or between texts and our lives that we had not previously noticed. But from time to time our understanding of Scripture and what it means for us calls for a dramatic shift in our thinking and practise.
One of the earliest examples of this is recounted in the pages of the New Testament. The occasion was the embrace of Jesus by Gentile people. The earliest Christians were Jews who believed that when a person joined themselves to Christ, the Messiah of Israel, they were joining themselves to Israel. Given this Gentile Jesus-followers were expected to observe the laws God gave to Israel. The apostle Paul’s insistence that the Gentiles were not bound by the Law of Moses provoked outrage and saw groups of Jewish Jesus-followers tracking the apostle’s missionary journeys so they could ensure the churches he founded were exposed to and embraced the biblical law. The conflict threatened to tear the churches apart, but with patience, perseverance, some stubbornly conceded goodwill, and the guidance of the Spirit, the churches eventually agreed that Gentiles were welcomed on the basis of faith.
Perhaps the most famous example of churches reconsidering the teaching and meaning of Scripture came with the push to abolish slavery in the United States. Early in the 19th century the very strongly held consensus among US evangelical theological colleges, bible scholars, denominations and church leaders was that slavery was an institution given of God. Christians who promoted the abolition of slavery were denounced as rejecting the plain teaching of Scripture and subverting the purposes of God. Yet within half a century (and a bloody civil war) the Scriptures were no longer read to defend slavery.
A more recent example is changes in our understanding of gender roles. I grew up in a church where the biblical commands that wives submit to their husband and banning women from teaching in the church were taken as God’s timeless word to humanity. In the 1970s and 80s “evangelical feminists” were questioning the traditional readings, and by the late 1980s evangelical scholarship was very divided. When this spilled over into the life of the Baptist churches in NSW and ACT (to which I belong) we found ourselves polarised, sometimes irenically but too often with hostility, between those convinced Scripture taught a principle of male leadership and female submission, and those who attributed this to an oppressive patriarchalism and were convinced the Bible called us to push for equality. Yet somehow we muddled through. We discovered we could journey together even with very different positions. Today the majority of state Baptist Associations affirm women in leadership, and though the process of implementing this has been painfully slow, women are serving as pastors in a small but growing number of Australian Baptist churches.
We are now experiencing another of these uncomfortable periods of review and revision. This time it is the traditional understanding of the bible’s meaning for sexuality and gender identity that is contested. Scholars such as Megan Defranza, James Brownson, David Gushee, William Loader and Robert Song are drawing on the lived experiences of sexuality, the insights that have emerged only recently from historical scholarship on sexuality, and the first generation of affirming biblical scholarship to make strong arguments against traditional interpretations and are posing alternatives. As LGBITQ+ Christians gain voice, their experiences and theological and pastoral reflections likewise challenge traditional approaches. These challenges are in turn being taken up by scholars such as Robert Gagnon and Preston Sprinkle who maintain a traditional view and LGBITQ Christians who affirm traditional views and live celibate lives.
This is a discussion that is only just beginning to take place in Australia’s evangelical churches, but it is one that will be with us for some time. To argue that the bible’s teaching is clear or that the debate is done and dusted is a denial of reality. This is then not a time for drawing lines in the sand but for the church to listen to the stories, experiences and insights of LGBITQ+ Christians and to seriously engage with the challenges to traditional readings. Will the outcome be a widespread shift of views across the churches as there was with slavery, a maintaining of traditional views but with a change in pastoral practise as there was on divorce and remarriage, or the emergence of a broad church in which there are diverse views and practises as occurred on gender roles? I don’t know, but I do know that with generosity, humility and love we can travel together.
Postscript. My reflections on the Archbishops speech were made on the basis of its reporting on the sydneyanglicans website. Since I posted this article it has been claimed that the Archbishops comments were directed at bishops and not at the members of Anglican congregations. I have since consulted a transcript of the speech and it is not at all clear to me that the comments were restricted to bishops.