THE RECENT Wellington Anglican Synod provided another example of how progressive Christianity is a beneficiary of unclear and confused thinking. Brothers and sisters on the left of the theological spectrum, I love you. But this is a problem you have.
I’m Anglican. I also oppose the liberal tendency of some Anglicans to want to constantly update the theology and practice of the Church to bring it “up to date” with the progressive concerns of the day, and one of the main such concerns of the day just now is the church’s view of sexuality and marriage.
I recently attended the Synod of the Wellington Diocese, as one of the Synod representatives of our parish. Of some interest me was a proposed motion about “gay conversion therapy.” As written, the motion was clearly opposed to an orthodox Christian view of sexuality. It not only called on Synod to oppose harmful, coercive therapy that sought to re-programme people who experience same-sex attraction, which is understandable (since no sort of pastoral care should be coercive), but it also called on Synod to condemn all forms of counsel or therapy, including prayer, designed to influence a person’s orientation, and to call on Parliament to literally ban “gay conversion therapy.” This would mean that if a person is a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction and who believes that same-sex sexual relationships are contrary to the teaching of Scripture and that such desires are a disordered state of affairs (in other words, they believe what the Church always taught until recently in some quarters), ministers would be forbidden from supporting them in seeking any sort of personal transformation. Regardless of whether it is possible to “change sexual orientation” (although various LGBT advocacy groups acknowledge that a degree of change happens for many people throughout their lives), to fail to support and to oppose by fiat all such efforts is to ride roughshod over what many (likely most!) Anglicans actually think about sex and sexuality and what the Church has consistently taught from its inception. The motion also expressly rejected the view that same-sex attraction is a disordered state.
I was heartened by the fact that before Synod, the motion received a significant amount of pushback, to the point where the original version was scrapped altogether in favour of a different motion, as follows:
NOTING the desire in the recommendations accompanying Motion 30 to General Synod Te Hinota Whanui in 2014: “…to make further response pastorally and prayerfully to LGBT people in [their] faith communities”
AND, noting the current public concern in Aotearoa-New Zealand about the pastoral practice known as ‘gay conversion therapy’, including the call for it to be outlawed by Parliament,
AND, noting that in July 2017 The Church of England passed a motion condemning said practice,
WHILE recognising the challenging nature of conversations around human sexuality in a community that has different perspectives,
AND also remembering that regardless of our differences we are called to responsible pastoral care of each other in the Body of Christ,
THAT this Synod:
- Call upon the Church to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation; and
- Acknowledge differing and strongly-held perspectives on the matter, and therefore call upon the Church to make room for careful and honest conversation that is safe for all participants; and
- Stand against any denigration of the character or personhood of those who hold a differing perspective on matters of human sexuality; and
- Condemn any pastoral practice which is coercive and/or disempowering of the recipient; and
- Call on all church leaders to engage in constructive dialogue with each other and government on ways of protecting vulnerable minorities, especially those who identify as gender and sexual minorities, from these harmful practices; and
- Remind all ministers of the obligations incumbent on them, and the principles to be upheld, when offering pastoral care, as outlined in the Diocesan Codes of Conduct and Ethics, especially that,
- Every person, being created in God’s image, has infinite worth and unique value, irrespective of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, age, belief, social or economic status, sexual orientation, marital status, contribution to society or present psychological, physical or spiritual state;
- All ministry, regardless of its form, should seek to bring glory to God, and further the best interests of those who receive it;
- Every person may expect to be supported in the development of their God-given potential, while recognising the same expectation in others;
- Every person, whether or not presently a member of the Church, may expect to receive objective and disciplined knowledge and skill, to enable that person to grow in the Christian faith; (Code of Ethics, (2) (a)-(d))
- Ministers must respect the ethnic and cultural background, gender, class and sexual orientation of those to whom they minister;
- Ministers should question practices in the church community that appear to be harmful or abusive (Code of Conduct, (3) (vi) (e), (g)).
Holding to an orthodox Christian view of sexuality, item 1) is of concern, but we can read it charitably. Of course we should be sensitive and listen. For many interpreters, however, this will mean being accepting – not simply of the person, but of that particular expression of sexuality, regardless of whether or not it results in behaviour incompatible with historically orthodox Christian and biblical views of sex and marriage. But as noted in the preamble, this Anglican Church contains differing views that its general Synod has signaled are permitted to exist side by side in what has been called a state of “two integrities.” That move was a mistake, but it was made.
There was much to commend in the new motion. Of course as a church ministering to people, our approach in all things should be loving, gracious and sensitive to people. My worry, however, was that behind the motion was the continued push in the direction of accepting same-sex sexual desire and its expression as something to which the church should have no opposition. It is a mindset that says “we acknowledge that there are many in the church who believe such relationships amount to sin, now let’s go ahead and say, as a church, that those relationships are fine.”
As support for the motion, the motion appeals to the Code of Conduct, which says that “Ministers must respect the ethnic and cultural background, gender, class and sexual orientation of those to whom they minister.”
This appeal was concerning for me. In hindsight my real qualm was with the code of conduct itself. Look carefully at the wording. I say carefully because wording matters in such documents. Notice that the code does not call on ministers to respect all people to whom they minister, whatever their ethnic and cultural background, gender, class and sexual orientation. This would be quite appropriate. Rather, it calls on all ministers to respect (for example) the sexual orientation of those people. Exactly what that means is not explicit, but it goes beyond respecting people and involves extending a particular attitude to the orientation itself. How is this consistent with the fact that many ministers believe that same-sex attraction, a sexual orientation, is a disordered state? Does it not require that ministers put aside that conviction on their part? As a church of “two integrities,” how can we place this requirement on ministers?
I spoke to the motion and pointed this out. If this motion is being passed on the supposition that we must respect not only the people ministered to, but their sexual orientation, then the motion is at odds with the commitment to allow ministers to hold and express the historically orthodox Christian view on the matter.
Others spoke after me, responding to this concern, but frustratingly, none of them had listened. There were a couple of them, and one after the other, they stated that it is possible to respect a person while disagreeing with them. But how does this answer the concern? Of course we can respect a person while maintaining that their sexual orientation is a disordered state (just as we can respect a person and maintain that they have a mental illness, for example), but the concern was that ministers were being called on to respect not just the person, but their sexual orientation.
As the newsletter of the Wellington Anglican Diocese, Movement, summarised these interactions:
There was concern raised by some Synod members that the obligation of ministers to respect the sexual orientation of those to whom they minister would prevent them from holding to an orthodox biblical view, however members were reminded that to respect someone does not equate to agreeing with them on a matter. [emphasis added – Glenn]
… people are swayed by confused thinking if it sounds nice.
The careful reader should see what the “reminder” referred to here does not address the concern in the least. This is simply a muddying of the waters, but people are swayed by confused thinking if it sounds nice. I was heartened by the private appreciative comments of others. There are many who do not get involved in these arguments even though they lament the direction the church is taking, because they they cannot vote or speak (because they are not synod representatives), or they don’t want to deal with the way speaking up would harm them. If my role is to be an encouragement to them, then so be it.
The motion was passed, as I expected it would be. The code of conduct ought to be changed, and I invite other Anglicans in this province to support that change, so that in future the requirement reads: “Ministers must respect the people to whom they minister, whatever their cultural background, gender, class, or sexual orientation.”