The ABC on ‘Sexuality’ and ‘The Bible’ (Church Times Interview)

You don’t have to agree to be in the same Church’

Posted: 22 Mar 2013 @ 00:03

The Archbishop of Canterbury put his iPad to one side to talk to Ed Thornton

(Selected sections of the interview, on the following subjects: Sexuality and The Bible)


On the matter of sexuality, a fierce point of contention within the C of E and across the wider Communion, Archbishop Welby reaffirms the Church’s official line: “The Church of England teaches that marriage is a lifelong union of one man to one woman, and nothing we’ve done has changed that. There is no challenge to that in anything that the Church has done over the last few years. That remains absolutely clearly our position.”

In an interview with LBC Radio last week, he had said that it would be “completely absurd” to suggest that the love expressed in gay relationships was “less than the love there is between straight couples” (News, 15 March).

If this is so, is it not time for the Church to offer blessing services to same-sex couples? The Archbishop responds: “The House of Bishops made it quite clear there will be no liturgical provision in that area, and that remains very clearly the case, and that’s a view that I support.”

He says that he is attempting to articulate “a fairly nuanced position” on sexuality. “It’s perfectly clear . . . that you find relationships within the LGBT communities that are deeply loving, profoundly committed, and stable. It’s equally clear that you find some relationships within marriage that are dysfunctional, damaging, harmful.

“So the idea that the quality of affection in all straight relationships is always better than in all gay relationships is obviously contrary to the evidence.

“But it remains absolutely clear that the Christian ideal for the upbringing of children is in a stable relationship between a man and a woman, committed in marriage to one another for life, and to the nurture and support of members of that family. Now, the nature of the family will vary culturally; it may be more extended or less extended. But the nature of the family in different forms is the basic building-block of our society.”

At the same time, Archbishop Welby would like to see those on both sides of the sexuality debate exercising “self-awareness as to what assumptions, what framework we’re bringing to the [biblical] text”.

The disagreements over sexuality are complex, and point to wider discussions about “hermeneutics” and “issues around scriptural authority, and the very nature of the documents themselves: are they documents only of their time? Words like ‘inspiration’ – what do they mean by ‘inspiration’?”


HOW does Archbishop Welby approach the Bible? “I think that there are moments – though I wouldn’t want to defend this – when I want to mutter to myself, ‘It all comes down to hermeneutics.’ I certainly don’t want to defend that, because it’s not true, but it sometimes feels like it.”

It is important to employ “a very self-aware hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of suspicion in how we read, in what causes us to read in different ways”. He describes “our capacity simply to circle the wagons and have a nice, safe system, which nobody challenges us on”.

Listening to people with whom one disagrees profoundly is “very important”, he says. He always has at least one biblical commentary on the go, “which will often be deliberately taken in order to challenge my thinking, to be slightly unsettling, because I’m very aware of the partiality of my experience and my reflection”.

He has recently been reading Islamic liberation theology, which has “been very challenging, because there you see from within a different faith-tradition a very different approach, both to Qur’anic interpretation and interaction with Christians”.

Working through biblical books, such as the Psalms, with Christian leaders overseas, often in areas of violent conflict, he has observed the different hermeneutical process “or grid” that others bring to the text. “That is very challenging, and makes you question to a degree how you understand it yourself.”

Archbishop Welby was converted to Christianity in the conservative Evangelical climate of the Round Church in Cambridge. “I’d still describe myself as a conservative Evangelical if I had to put a label on, but the trouble with the label is it brings so much baggage.”

The influences on Archbishop Welby have extended beyond Evangelicalism. In Norwich, he is pleased to bump into his former Vicar at Holy Trinity, Brompton, Bishop Sandy Millar, through whom he became acquainted with the Charismatic movement, in particular the ministry of John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement.

Archbishop Welby has described Fr Nicholas Buttet, a Roman Catholic priest who became his spiritual director in 2003, as one of the “formative influences” on his life; and, since 2004, he has been a Benedictine oblate.

His theological influences are eclectic: he finds Professor David Ford “very helpful”; Professor Anthony Thiselton’s writings on hermeneutics have been very influential; and he finds it “difficult to dip into Karl Barth without finding something of worth”. Revisiting the early Fathers over the past two or three years, he has “been struck by what I haven’t seen before”.


Click to enlarge

Back to his roots: the Archbishop speaks in Coventry last Friday


In a composite Church Times interview with Ed Thornton, we are treated to the report of responses made by Archbishop Justin Welby to specific questions asked – about sexuality and the Bible. In his responses, the Archbishop seems to have been capable of some degree of ambivalence. He speaks, on the one hand of same-sex relationship as demonstrating “no less love” than can be discerned between straight couples; on the other hand, he seems reluctant to commit the Church of England to either the blessing of a Civil Partnership or the legal provision of a Same-Sex Marriage. One can hope that his openness to change might bring some sort of just resolution to the perceived endemic discrimination that presently exists in the Church against monogamous same-sex relationships.

With reference to the limited response given to a question about where the Bible fits into the new Archbishop’s theological stance he offers this remark:

 “I’d still describe myself as a conservative Evangelical if I had to put a label on, but the trouble with the label is it brings so much baggage.”

Is this, perhaps, a hint that he is open to the new hermeneutic that he speaks of, as being a desirable way to proceed in arguments about biblical tradition, and its conflict with present-day understandings of culture and scientific discovery? This will be especially relevant in the forthcoming discussions he will no doubt be seeking with the leaders of the GAFCON Provinces of the Church, who are already at odds with the Church of England House of Bishops’ decision to allow the ordination of celibate Gay Bishops.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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