Editorial note: As the Lambeth Conference approaches, The Living Church has and will be publishing in print and online a series of posts on the state of the Anglican Communion and on issues related to the Conference, including a series of “Lambeth Conversations” like this one. See our prior Lambeth 2020 posts here.
By Robert MacSwain
In “Cleaning Up the Playing Field: Six Resolutions for Lambeth,” Ephraim Radner’s first proposed resolution to be adopted in 2020 is: “This Conference reaffirms the 1998 Resolution I.10.” He explains:
There is no need at this conference to revisit the rationales and counter-arguments about this resolution. It has been reaffirmed several times in other Communion contexts, and in the past 20 years there have been no significant new pieces of information — scriptural, dogmatic, sociological, or medical — that have altered the shape of the theological and pastoral realities surrounding this debate. And the debate has raged unabated, so that it requires no renewed engagement. Let the conference decide.
While I disagree with many aspects of Radner’s essay, let me focus on this resolution in particular. Adopting it would be a bad call: far from “cleaning up the playing field,” this resolution would make the playing field worse than it already is.
Lambeth 1998’s Resolution I.10 was a mistake, one that did not resolve but rather preempted the Communion-wide discernment process on same-sex relationships that began in Lambeth 1978, continued in Lambeth 1988, but was then sadly short-circuited in 1998. If one reads the reports and resolutions in ’78 and ’88, one notes that the issue of such relationships was initially presented as a question requiring further study and dialogue (see 1978, Resolution 10, and 1988, Resolution 64 and Section Report 4). It did not present a crisis but rather called for “deep and dispassionate study … which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognizing the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them” (Lambeth 1978, Resolution 10.3).
Twenty years later, the Lambeth 1998 report “Called to Full Humanity,” Theme 3, “Human Sexuality,” summarizes the Communion-wide conversation leading up to the conference. It states:
We must confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality. Our variety of understanding encompasses:
those who believe that homosexuality is a disorder, but that through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle.
those who believe that relationships between people of the same gender should not include genital expression, that this is the clear teaching of the Bible and of the Church universal, and that such activity (if unrepented of) is a barrier to the Kingdom of God.
those who believe that committed homosexual relationships fall short of the biblical norm, but are to be preferred to relationships that are anonymous and transient.
those who believe that the Church should accept and support or bless monogamous covenant relationships between homosexual people and that they may be ordained.
Further on, it continues:
We have prayed, studied and discussed these issues, and we are unable to reach a common mind on the scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific questions which are raised. There is much that we do not yet understand. We request the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us.
Prior to the conference’s adopting Resolution I.10, this was (and so, ironically enough, remains) part of the official position of the Lambeth Conference 1998. However, as is well-known, fierce debates on the floor then led to the long, disputed, and convoluted final text of Resolution I.10 — and specifically to points (d) and (e).
Contrary to the two previous conferences and against the recommendation of the report, the revised resolution now sought effectively to end the discernment process by, for the first time, affirming one view rather than another, namely to (d) reject “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and to (e) delegitimize both the “blessing of same sex unions [and] ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” As is also well-known, although this resolution was adopted by a large majority, after the conference 185 bishops (including nine primates) issued a minority report as a pastoral statement to gay and lesbian Anglicans, stating: “We pledge that we will continue to reflect, pray, and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church.”
Resolution I.10 cannot be, as Radner asserts, the definitive word on this topic, and the very fact that it has not been fully received across the Communion indicates as much. More problematically, Radner recognizes that the debate in fact continues, but he seeks to put an end to it anyway. One might say that the very fact that the debate has not been decisive means that we must continue to engage with it and not seek premature closure through new resolutions reaffirming bad ones.
Contrast Radner’s attempt to call the question with Ellen Davis’s alternative approach:
[N]o individual or church community can in good faith reach a position on this issue without reckoning seriously with Scripture. Nevertheless, the Bible does not unambiguously endorse any position, either for or against committed same-sex unions, and both positions are open to serious challenge from the gospel. So whatever position we may take, we are constrained in all humility to listen to the views and just criticisms of our fellow Christians who disagree. Based on the church’s historical experience, it seems likely that Christians will disagree on this for a long time, perhaps centuries to come (“Reasoning with Scripture,” in “Homosexuality, Ethics, and the Church: An Essay by the Late Richard Norris with Responses,” Anglican Theological Review 90 (2008), pp. 513–19, at 514–15).
As with debates about the heliocentric solar system, evolution, abolitionism, remarriage, and the ordination of women (all of which have been, and in some circles still are, regarded as incompatible with Scripture), the issue of homosexuality is before the Church and must continue to be engaged with as fully and honestly as possible — including genuine, open, and respectful dialogue with LGBT Christians. And, as with earlier questions of whether the earth moves around the sun and so forth, resolving the question of whether some homosexual relationships are compatible or incompatible with Scripture is a matter of assessing the whole witness of Scripture interpreted in light of other sources of genuine knowledge, not just a matter of citing proof texts. On this point, see Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (London: SCM, 2014).
If Resolution I.10 was a bad call in 1998, it is an even worse call now, regardless of how many times it has been cited as a statement of our common mind, because that’s precisely what it is not and never has been. Rather than reaffirming it in 2020, a future Lambeth Conference will need to apologize for Resolution I.10 just as John Paul II apologized to Galileo in 1992. I hope it will not take 359 years for us to get there, but it very well might.
Radner says that “in the past 20 years there have been no significant new pieces of information … that have altered the shape of the theological and pastoral realities surrounding this debate.” That, of course, is a matter of opinion. Writing from my context as an Episcopal seminary professor, it seems to me that the recent work of Ellen Davis, Stanley Hauerwas, Sarah Coakley, Robert Song, Mark Jordan, Eugene Rogers, Dale Martin, and others has indeed marked a shift in the moral, theological, and biblical landscape. Alongside their contributions there has been a simultaneous collapse of conversion therapy methods, as at Exodus International, and the recantation of prominent evangelical Protestants such as David Gushee. Radner apparently evaluates this evidence differently, but what cannot be doubted is that the advocates for the Church blessing some form of same-sex relationships include those at the very highest levels of spiritual maturity, theological profundity, intellectual acuity, moral integrity, personal holiness, and doctrinal orthodoxy. To ignore these voices or to pretend that they do not present a serious challenge to the contrary view is thus irresponsible.
For example, Coakley and Hauerwas both see the witness of faithful same-sex relationships as providing essential support and inspiration for heterosexual Christians as well. Coakley says that conversations with her gay, lesbian, and transgender students “who long to give a richly theological account of their orientation and of their place in the churches they serve … have been, and continue to be, among the most profound and moving of my priestly life.”
She continues that for LGBT couples “to make public vows (and thus cutting not once, but twice, against cultural expectations) demands of all of us a deeper reconsideration of the meaning, and costliness, of such vows in a world of rampantly promiscuous desires, oppression of the poor, and profligate destruction of natural resources” (Sarah Coakley, “Afterword: Beyond Libertarianism and Repression: The Quest for an Anglican Theological Ascetics,” in Other Voices, Other Worlds: The Global Church Speaks Out on Homosexuality, ed. Terry Brown [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006], pp. 331–38, citing p. 331 and p. 337).
Hauerwas is not sure if we should call monogamous permanent same-sex relationships marriage. However, he likewise reports his surprising discovery that several of “the most faithful Christians I know” are gay, and his deepening friendships with them, caused him to rethink what he thought he knew about such relationships. He writes:
Just as the early church had to come to terms with the reality that gentiles, who probably should not have been followers of Jesus, were in the church, so we discover that gays are also in the church. Moreover they are there in a manner that would make us less if they were not there. I take that to be a stubborn theological reality that cries out for thought. (Stanley Hauerwas, “Gay Friendship: A Thought Experiment in Catholic Moral Theology,” in his Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998], pp. 105–21, citing p. 108.)
Stubborn theological realities indeed cry out for thought, not dismissal. Such realities don’t just go away, and — like Jacob and the angel — must be wrestled with until a blessing is given, whatever it is, whatever the cost.
The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology of the University of the South. The author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Peeters, 2013), he has edited or co-edited seven other volumes, including The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 2010).