Moving the Church beyond the false ‘traditionalists’ vs ‘revisionists’ battle over sexuality

Wedding Rings BibleLast week’s release of the Church of England’s Pilling Report on human sexuality designed to initiate a process of dialogues in the Church of England has brought the conversation on same-sex partnerships back into the fray in Christian circles again. Of course how the Church deals with this has implications beyond its own internal circles. It’s a good time, therefore to go over the ground again and attempt to make some positive progress. This, the first of two posts addressing the subject, is written by regular guest contributor. Edward Kendall. Tweet @Edward_Kendall.


It is clear that Christians hold a spectrum of views on sexuality and marriage. However, the popular idea that there are two warring blocks that may be labelled ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionists’ is simplistic and can be misleading as well as unhelpful. Current tensions could be reduced and reframed significantly if more church leaders acknowledged the extent of common ground in the middle of this continuum, allowed limited flexibility of practice, and enabled their communities to develop practices of discernment oriented towards the “grace and truth” (John 1.13-15) that lies at the heart of the Christian message.

So begins a new paper from the left-wing Christian think-tank Ekklesia.

Founded in 2001, Ekklesia examines politics, values and beliefs in a changing world, from a Christian perspective. It has been a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, but through this research paper it is seeks to reach out to those who approach same-sex relationships from a range of perspectives.

‘Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground’, by Savitri Hensman, identifies and analyses seven widely held viewpoints on sexuality (focusing mainly on same-sex relationships) within churches of different denominations and traditions. It shows that even those with supposedly diametrically opposing positions often have more in common than they may at first realise – even though there are clear lines of substantial disagreement.

The seven main positions could broadly be described as:

1. Me first, anything goes
2. Treat others decently, whether relationships are sexual or not
3. Support marriage between partners of the same or opposite sex
4. Support marriage for opposite-sex couples and lifelong faithful partnership for same-sex couples
5. Support marriage for opposite-sex couples based on equality, welcome lesbians and gays but abstinence is best for them
6. Support marriage for opposite-sex couples based on male headship, encourage lesbians and gays to abstain or try to change
7. The husband is boss, lesbians and gays are not acceptable

Hensman sees positions 3 to 5 as the common middle ground. She writes:

‘In recent years, many theologians have argued the case for each of these three positions. At a leadership and grassroots level in various churches, many members have wrestled with the issue of sexuality and likewise come to hold one of these positions, sometimes shifting their stance. Some are still trying to decide which position seems best.

‘Supporters of position 3 might point to the unnecessary loneliness faced by many LGBT people who are persuaded to steer clear of committed partnerships by advocates of position 5, the loss of faith some experience and the damage to the church’s mission when it is perceived as narrow-minded and unjust.

‘Likewise supporters of position 5 might regard those who favour position 3 as encouraging a way of life that is ultimately unhelpful to the practice of Christian discipleship.

‘It can be hard work to be part of a faith community where sizeable numbers of people disagree on such matters. Yet churches hold together despite disagreement on a range of important issues, doctrinal and ethical. As in the days of the early church, unity need not be based on uniformity of opinion on all matters.’

Bishop Duleep de Chickera, recently Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, is one of a number of church leaders who have already responded positively to the initiative.

“The seven positions are a fair representation of the spectrum in the Church and its reasoning is clear,” he says. What I like most is the reconciliatory thrust… A sensible and timely intervention.”

Bishop de Chickera preached at the opening service of the 2008 Lambeth Conference and spoke at the recent World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly.

The Anglican Bishop of Buckingham, England, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, a regular media commentator, has also personally welcomed the paper, adding: “Anything that helps people understand how they relate to this area of concern is good news.”

The proposal from Ekklesia for reconciliatory moves comes at the same time as the Pilling Report in the Church of England, which recommends some measure of positive accommodation, and processes of reconsideration going on within the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Scottish Episcopal Church and others.

“The churches in Britain and beyond cannot afford to allow themselves to be dragged into many more years of internecine warfare over sexuality,” says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

“Savitri Hensman’s paper shows that there is a way forward for the great majority which acknowledges the reality of change, the possibility of mutual recognition, and the benefit of allowing Christian grace rather than fear and suspicion to guide the way differences among churches are handled.”

The paper finishes with this conclusion:

‘If churches can deal constructively with disagreement on this matter, it will surely also contribute to the overall quality of theological understanding and discussion. Meanwhile Christians sharing the ‘middle ground’ in the spectrum should be able to coexist, jointly seeking to make God’s love known and practised and allowing one another some measure of freedom, recognising their deeper unity in Christ.

Such a stance is not about weak compromise, but is in theological terms truly radical – that is, both deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition and open to the change and transformation that a living community requires in order not to be left behind by the God who, in biblical terms, is always ahead of us, inviting us to discover more of the ways of love, truth and justice.’

For far too long the churches in Britain have been weakened by factionalism and heated debate, especially over issues like sexuality. Like Bishop de Chickera, what I find most appealing about the report is its “reconciliatory thrust”, especially since Christians have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation. This report shows that whilst Christians may espouse a variety of views on sensitive issues, we are all one in Christ Jesus and as long as we keep hold of this there is hope for the future even despite our differences.

The full paper, ‘Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground’, can be read and downloaded here.

Categories: Church, Homosexuality

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8 replies

  1. A welcome move in the right direction. Human nature is a strange phenomenon bound by both innate and cultural evolutionary transitory conditions that impinge on the psyche and the collective.

  2. Oh brother. Are you serious? While reconciliation is necessary, human nature and cultural swings of the moral pendulum have no place in a real church. The Church set its parameters centuries ago. It is up to us to follow them. This type of dialogue is just another attempt to derail everyone from what is ultimately important–obedience to God. The constant focus on sex, and in particular, aberrant sex, is divisive, pathetic, and just plain wrong. The Church is not there to satisfy the cultural whims of the world. Perhaps years of trying to do just that explains a lot of what is wrong with the Anglican church today.

  3. Part of the problem is that the Church has treated gay people very badly in the past. In the effort to address past failures, the danger is that the pendulum swings too far the other way.

    There is great pressure for the Church to loosen its stance and conform to the views of many in society. This of course is always a big mistake if there are no genuine foundations for such a move. I think where the value of this thinking comes is that we listen and understand why others may not agree with us. Are they arguing against the Bible or does it come out of a sense of compassion or desire to make sure all are made welcome. It’s learning to disagree in love and be gracious to those whose motivations are for good, even if the working out of it is debateable.

    • You write of “make sure all are made welcome.” But the church proper is the body of Christ, literally “those called out of the world.” When someone becomes a Christian they repent of all known sin, and by implication will repent of future sin, as God’s Spirit makes them aware of it. Repentance includes a desire to turn from sin and obey God in future. So refusal to TURN from homosexual behaviour suggests a person is unconverted, and still wanting to live according to their own rules, not God’s. Yes, churches may welcome people who are unconverted, and commiters of all manner of sins TO OBSERVE, and sit quietly under the word preached, in the hope that the word may convict them, and they may turn to Christ.But churches should NOT lower standards of obedience to Christ in order to increase numbers, (bums on seats!) To do so would be filling the church with false converts, which damages the true Body, and is a bad witness.

  4. This is a really difficult one. How do you do discipleship if you disagree about what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ, and to walk in his ways? The desire to be radically inclusive in terms of who we welcome and spend time with is an incredibly important thing, and the suspiscion and discomfort associated with the relationship between church communities and homosexuals really needs to be broken and overcome. That should never require, however, that we allow the instruction of the Scriptures about sexual behaviour be nullified or diluted. I would love to have an in depth discussion with someone who passionately and intelligently disagrees with me and learn how they are reading the Scriptures to produce such a different result.

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