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Same-sex blessing: Q+A

The Church of England is getting close to introducing services of blessing for same-sex couples. On the fact of it, this sounds entirely reasonable. Society has changed, so why shouldn’t two people who love each other be given the blessing of the church? Isn’t it cruel and harsh to deny this to them? This briefing addresses both this and related questions.

I write with some nervousness, for this is a subject of real pain for some, and much compassion is needed. It is also the case that someone daring to express concern about this development is soon labelled homophobic, or even abusive. The impression is given that those who hold to what is unattractively called a ‘traditional’ (as opposed to ‘progressive’) view are hateful and bigoted. I have no such motives!  Rather, as a Christian pastor, my task is to examine the Scriptures with honesty and to apply them. For here are the words of life, from our Maker who in love wants our flourishing. He calls us to trust him, not our own (however deeply felt) views: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6).

What’s the big deal with same-sex blessings?

We begin with our Lord Jesus Christ. Questioned by some Pharisees about divorce, he replied: “Haven’t you read… that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5, citing Genesis 2:24). He takes them to the divine design in Genesis.

This beautiful blueprint has a pattern (male and female) and a sequence (leaving father and mother, then cleaving, then becoming one flesh.) Part of its purpose is the  procreation of children, and – based on God’s faithfulness to us – it  is to be faithful.

This divine design – marriage – creates a context for sexual intimacy, and sets a boundary round it. Such a boundary is for our flourishing; we know where we stand with each other. As Rebecca McLaughlin has written, God’s boundaries give us “great freedom to pursue nonsexual intimacy.”[1]

With this background, the Bible sees homosexual activity (along with other sexual intimacy outside marriage) as sinful. It is viewed very negatively.[2] This was assumed in Jewish society in Jesus’ day. Scholar Andrew Cornes has examined every relevant Hebrew text from the period and has found no exceptions to this, so argues that Jesus would have assumed it to be included whenever he used the term “sexual immorality”.[3] When Jesus’ Apostles took the gospel to the Gentile world, however, they encountered cultures at ease with homosexuality, and so we find the letters of the New Testament having to address it: read Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:1; and Jude 7.

It’s important to note that what’s in view here is not normal patterns of friendship – for there can be marvellous friendships between people of the same sex – but relationships based on sexual desire.

But isn’t this a matter of equality?

Many of those advocating change see this as a fundamental question of justice, like racial equality. Gay people are seen as similar to an ethnic group, and it is as outrageous to deny them their rights as it would be to deny rights to someone of a different skin colour.

It is very important to grasp that the Bible does not view the issue this way. I must hit the bold key: This is about behaviour, not orientation. It is not like race. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul uses the normal Greek words for homosexual about men who actually practise homosexuality, rather than those whose feelings point that way. Such, he tells his readers, were some of you – clearly referring to behaviour now in the past. He is not referring to an orientation which has been changed but a set of behaviours dropped. It cannot be orientation, because his pastoral purpose is clearly to help people with a present, on-going temptation.

We need to see through the confusion at this point. In much comment about treatment of LGBTQI+ people, orientation and practice are not distinguished. If you are gay, it is assumed you will enter gay relationships. But God’s Word distinguishes behaviour from temptation. All of us are called to live with self-control, not giving in to some of our desires. There are many Christians who face the particular temptations of homosexuality and who choose not to give in to them. Because the word “gay” makes no distinction between orientation and practice, they prefer the term “same-sex-attracted.”

Almost everyone is tempted sexually in one way or another, and more could be same-sex-attracted in certain situations. In our sex-preoccupied society we assume that only a person who has sex is fulfilled; we forget about the Lord Jesus, who was single and fulfilled – and the large number of single Christians, to whom God holds out a positive vision.[4]

Is the Bible really clear?

Some have claimed that the Bible isn’t actually clear in its condemnation of homosexual practice; since it is not, Christians are free to disagree on the matter, and the door is open to “committed, long-term” homosexual partnerships. However, the rise of the LGBTQI+ agenda over the past 50 years has led to deep re-examination of the Bible’s teaching, and it cannot honestly be said that we have come to a fresh understanding of the relevant passages. Only a tortured, twisted exegesis (of the kind that would never be acceptable with any other passage) can make them say something else. A good place to follow this argument is in Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?, Rachel Gilson’s excellent Born Again This Way? or Ed Shaw’s book The Plausibility Problem.

If the Bible is so clear, how can church leaders argue differently?

Many simply do not regard the Bible as authoritative in this matter. It is, they argue, fallible and only a book of its times. This tragic misperception can ultimately be traced back (via poor theological education) to a lack of gospel preaching in our churches, for it is only the work of the Spirit of God which makes us trust and love the words of Jesus, and his apostles and prophets.

Others do know Jesus, but are simply ignorant of the Scriptural teaching because they have not had the Bible preached fully to them. Perhaps their preachers are afraid of venturing on to this territory!

Yet others do read the Bible, but have fallen for the teaching (widespread for the past 50 years in Western churches) that the Spirit’s words should not be identified too precisely with the Bible; they suggest that God’s Spirit may be leading us into new things.

What motivates arguments for change?

Some want affirmation of a gay lifestyle and to share it with others.[5]  Others are motivated by a concern for justice as mentioned above.

But my guess is that for many churchgoing people wrestling with this issue, the primary driver is fear. In a society in which rejection of homosexual practice is labelled “homophobia” and “bigoted”, who wants to be seen to be speaking thus? Moreover, won’t this drive people away from a church that is so harsh?

In reply, it is not as if we are to make this the first thing in our conversations about Jesus! However, we must also note that the Bible’s own key to how to be effective in helping others to know him is not to give in to the world’s pressure, but to be distinct. Peter says: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).

Actually, it is distinctive and courageous Christian living which will lead to people coming to glorify God – even though for a time people will accuse us of doing wrong.  The shocking truth is that if, as individuals or churches, we just seek to blend in, we’ll succeed! Rather, as the Lord Jesus said, we are to be salt and light in the world. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13). As we lovingly live in the way Christ calls us to, we’ll be met with disapproval – but witness the truth to the world. May God help us, by his Spirit.

Does this actually matter?

Some Christians say that while they personally think that homosexual practice is wrong, this is a ‘secondary’ matter on which Christians may legitimately agree to differ.  They point to passages such as Romans 14:1-15:13 in which Paul deals with disagreements about diet and Sabbaths in the church in Rome, and encourages the believers to get on with each other.  This view appeals to many bishops in the Church of England, because it allows them to keep the peace between people who are pro- and anti- gay blessings.

We must recognise, however, that homosexual relationships are not to be found amongst the disputable matters in Romans 14-15, but in Romans 1 (see especially Romans 1:24-27), as an example of sin. Sexual morality is never regarded in Scripture as debatable. As Paul put it, writing to the Corinthians, Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). This being so, we dare not affirm such practice or we will be leading them down a path that excludes them from God’s kingdom.

We must hear the words of the Lord Jesus: Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.  It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2). No wonder the risen Christ in Revelation warns the church at Thyatira as he does![6] How terrible it would be for future generations, and all those in our churches who are tempted in this area, if the churches bless what God declares sinful. We would be liars.

What about ‘celibate’ partnerships?

One way forward that is suggested is that same-sex-attracted people should be able to form covenanted relationships such as civil partnerships so long as they don’t engage in genital sexual activity. But if the relationship is fuelled by mutual homosexual desire, it is actually based on a temptation, and we are called to flee temptation. The basis for the relationship would not be the covenant one God has established (marriage), nor could it be heading for that. Rather, all of us should seek to serve one another’s deep need for friendship in the means that God has appointed, particularly loving our sisters and brothers in our church family.

Is it any of our business what other churches do?

It is possible that any proposed change will be left at the discretion of the local church; we wouldn’t be required to implement it. We might think, therefore, that this is only a matter for those churches who went that way.

To an extent, this is true. But as members of the Church of England, we at St Andrew the Great are legally and financially related to the denomination. It is also difficult in the public mind to differentiate between what we teach and what, for instance, our bishops teach.

In our personal outreach, one of the objections that’s most often made is, “The Bible’s just a matter of interpretation.” Different churches teaching differently on this very visible issue will inflate that objection.

If same-sex blessings become available, it is possible – though of course untested in law – that we might be vulnerable to anti-discrimination law for failing to provide them.

Moreover, such a change would be no help to Christians who struggle in this area, experiencing same-sex attraction. Friends of mine who face this struggle have told me they’d be betrayed by such a change.

Doesn’t holding the Biblical line encourage bullying or abuse of LGBTQI+ people?

Sadly, some same-sex-attracted people have experienced bullying or rejection in some churches. There can be no place for such attitudes in the Christian heart; we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

But we must also be alert to the growing propagandistic claim that even saying that homosexual relationships are wrong is itself abusive. If so, the Apostles themselves are abusive!

Aren’t we looking down on others?

This is indubitably a great danger for us in this situation. We must look out for the attitude of the Pharisee in the story Jesus told, with his sense of moral superiority (Luke 18:9-14). We need to recognise our own sinfulness. But, whatever the context, sin is still sin.

Aren’t we condemning people to loneliness?

Loneliness can be a real issue for same-sex-attracted people, as it can be for many.  But church can be family – and should be.  All of us should do what we can to love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).

In his book 7 Myths About Singleness, Sam Allberry debunks the myths that singleness means no intimacy and no family. May we as a church be a place of real, lasting and deep friendships! I suspect that some of the impetus for gay blessings has come from people who have not yet experienced real, deep Christian fellowship, or have tragically suffered at the hands of a church family failing to live up to its Biblical calling – how we must pray and strive for deep fellowship to be a genuine feature of our church.

It is also worth observing that for some same-sex-attracted people, heterosexual marriage is possible and can be very good, though of course not for all.

Do we provide for those who struggle in this way at St Andrew the Great?

Yes. We are a gospel church. We have good news, and are there to help each other to live for the Lord Jesus. Our ‘Thessalonians’ group exists precisely to give mutual support for members of the church who find themselves (in whole or part) to be same-sex attracted and want to live holy, Biblical lives. All who would consider themselves in this category are warmly welcome, though we ask that you are a member of an existing church small group.

Nationally, two resources are True Freedom Trust, which runs local groups, and Living Out, which provides a website with useful articles and testimonies.

What might happen, following the authorisation of same-sex blessings?

It is hard to see how, having conceded that such unions can be blessed, full same-sex marriages would not follow. This would necessitate a redefinition of the church’s understanding of marriage. (This has already happened in the Scottish Episcopal Church.)

What process is the Church of England following?

The official position of the world-wide Anglican church is expressed in Resolution 1:10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998, a conference attended by all serving Anglican bishops worldwide. It is very clear in its upholding of the Bible’s teaching as well as the need to listen to, and serve, those for whom this is a struggle. This is what, however imperfectly, we seek to do as a church. This conference included nearly all the Anglican bishops from the global south of the world, many of whom would be outraged by any change to our arrangements.

However, the House of Bishops is producing resources (Living in Love and Faith) which could be followed by a vote in General Synod opening the way to such blessings. A policy which breaks with Lambeth 1998 resolution 1.10 is a real danger.

Although, everything has the appearance of due process and decency, we must not let this blind us to the overall trajectory. Read the account of the original temptation in Genesis 3, and you will see that the way temptation works is to make sin seem reasonable. It would seem that this is exactly what is happening.

Update: In January 2023, the Bishops of the Church of England set out their plans in response to Living in Love and Faith. They proposed draft prayers for God’s blessing for those who have marked a new phase in a relationship, such as entering a civil partnership or marriage. They also committed to reviewing the pastoral guidance on appropriate kinds of relationships and sexual activity for clergy and Christians in general. 

The matter was debated at length at meetings of the General Synod in February and again in November, and, by a very narrow margin (51% of lay members and clergy) Synod voted to encourage the bishops to continue on this path, so that they could authorise such services on an experimental basis. The term “experimental” allowed the bishops to avoid the normal Synod requirement for a 2/3 majority in matters of doctrine or liturgy. They will, however, need in due course to return to Synod for this authorisation. Supporters may hope that by then we’ll have got used to the new status quo. It is likely that the first of these services may come in late 2023 or early 2024. Because of what Scripture says, and in keeping with many other churches, we cannot use them at StAG. For up-to-date coverage and the responses of many churches, see here.

What can we do?

First of all, pray! Then, be sure we are clear on the issues and arguments ourselves.  Next, we must be a community which reaches out to all people, and lovingly supports sisters and brothers who struggle with same-sex attraction. Please pray, too, for our own parochial church council (PCC) as they consider the godliest way for us to respond.

[1] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity (Crossway, 2019), p159

[2] See for instance Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30

[3] From a speech given to General Synod, 9th February 2023. Click here to listen to the speech from the beginning.

[4] See 1 Corinthians 7:1-40

[5] See Jude 1-7

[6] See Revelation 2:18-23