February 2nd 2017
Dear Evangelical Brothers and Sisters in Christ
We write as evangelicals who share grave concerns about the hardening public stance on sexuality taken by many senior evangelicals in the Church of England. A growing number of us believe that the Church should review its teaching as well as its liturgical and pastoral practice in relation to same-sex relationships. Others of us are not yet clear about what we think should happen. However, we are all agreed that the present stance of evangelicals is creating severe problems for our mission and ministry in today’s world.
There is wide recognition on all sides that one of the central issues revolves around how Scripture is interpreted both in and across cultures. It is our conviction that the hermeneutic task is not simply a matter of ‘correctly’ interpreting Scriptural texts, but must involve reading any given text in the light of the whole gospel, with a heart that is open to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in each and every generation. The Reformation principle of scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture interprets itself) must give us cause to pause and consider such texts in the light of Jesus’ overriding call to ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Luke 10:27)
There are three issues that we believe we, the evangelical community, need to be honest about.
The first, which causes us significant concern, is that of the high levels of homophobia that appear to go unacknowledged and unchallenged. Obviously, we understand that to assert a traditionalist position on same-sex relationships is not in itself homophobic, and that those who take a conservative line may not be individually hostile towards LGBT people. However, we would plead for some recognition, reflection and repentance of the fact that Christian teaching on this continues to function as the lynchpin, not just in the Church but also in secular society, of a widespread and sometimes subterranean nexus of negative attitudes that frequently manifest in overt homophobic behaviour. LGBT people are all too familiar with the impact of this, and whilst some are able to withstand it, many find themselves internalising feelings of shame and self-hatred, which all too frequently then result in depression, self-destructive behaviours, and even suicide. Are these really to be seen as the side-effects of the good news of Jesus Christ? Credible Christian witness cannot just be a matter of repeated verbal denials of homophobia but must involve active steps to combat it. Should not the churches be as well known for their efforts in this area as they are for, say, supporting issues of social justice? The issue is even more pronounced in countries across the world where Christians are known to be condoning and at times positively supporting proposals for severe penalties, including capital punishment, for homosexual behaviour. Should not the repudiation of this by churches in this country be immediate, public, and categorical?
Our second concern relates to our pastoral response to those who are same-sex attracted. We would love to see more honesty about the effectiveness of sexual orientation change efforts. Whilst there are undoubtedly certain individuals who do experience a change in their sexual orientation as a result of such therapies, the vast bulk of scientific evidence – as well as the repeated experience of many individuals – suggests they are vanishingly rare. If there is change it is usually at most along a single point or two on the Kinsey scale, and normally amongst those with a bisexual disposition. If we are honest, the impact of the “therapy” is far more about repudiating an LGB identity or renouncing same-sex sexual behaviour, rather than a change in a person’s sexual orientation itself. We must not be ignorant of the fact that all of the major professional psychiatric, psychotherapeutic, and counselling organizations have placed a moratorium on their members attempting such therapies – not because they have been pressurized by lobbyists with a political correctness agenda, but because they have witnessed all too often the profoundly destructive consequences for LGBT people themselves. The failure of evangelical practice in this area, and the continued refusal to recognise the damage caused by this abuse needs acknowledging. Indeed, we believe this is a matter not just for passing regret but for deep repentance for the harm done.
Finally, we would urge evangelicals to address directly the desperate consequences for Christian mission of the Church’s current teaching on sexuality. As has been well documented, many people in wider society, particularly in the younger age groups, find the Church’s attitudes on sexuality completely incomprehensible. Of course, that is no reason as such for the Church to change its views: it is bound to obedience to Christ, not to the norms of the world. But how are we to assess the fact that many people in secular society regard the Church’s views on sexuality not just as bewildering, but as positively morally deficient, and so fail to see the gospel as a potential source of Good News? Many – not least the young – have decided they have no wish to even engage with a Church they perceive as unjust and hypocritical.
We would therefore ask you reflect on and address three critical questions moving forward:
1. What is God’s “Good News” for LGBT people?
If the gospel is good news for all people, how is the gospel good news for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? How do we convince them that Christ came to bring them life and life abundant, when their experience of Christian teaching and pastoral practice all too often suggests exactly the opposite? Can evangelicals give an account of why their teaching on gay and lesbian relationships is actually good for gay and lesbian people?
2. How do we respond to the mounting scientific evidence that sexuality is neither chosen nor changeable, and that gender is non-binary?
Evangelical attitudes have for too long encouraged the belief that sexual orientation is something that people either choose or have some control over. This damaging and erroneous thinking must be challenged. Even if there is still much that is unknown about the nature and origins of different sexual orientations and gender, the existence of those who are intersex should at least cause us to reconsider our traditional binary approach to gender and gender norms.
3. How do we deal with the reality of an increasing number of LGBT married couples with children who wish to worship in our churches?
Whatever our views on this issue, we cannot avoid the reality that there is an increasing number in society who fall within the categories we most disagree about. They too need to be ministered to, and their children welcomed, baptised and affirmed in our communities.
We do not think that the burden of proof in terms of scriptural reasoning rests entirely on the affirming side. On the contrary, given the incredulity with which the Church’s teaching is now greeted in the society with which we are called to share God’s love, there is a strong case for thinking the reverse.
Moreover, we would add that we remain unpersuaded that this is a first-order or salvation issue. We find nothing in the Bible to imply that it is so: indeed, quite the reverse. There have been many areas of doctrine where the Church has been able to disagree – such as the use of military force and the ethics of killing in a ‘just war’, the remarriage of divorcees, the use of contraception, and the role of women in the ministries of the Church. We believe that this is now a similar issue.
Nothing said here denies the shared responsibility for faithful interpretation of Scripture which lies on all Christians. But what it does suggest is that until we have begun to address these urgent issues together, our credibility as interpreters of Scripture may itself be in question.
Yours in Christ’s service,
Anthony Archer, St Albans
The Revd Canon Simon Butler, Southwark
The Ven Gavin Collins, Portsmouth
Dr Angus Goudie, Durham
Jayne Ozanne, Oxford
Other evangelicals on Synod who are not members of EGGS have also shown strong support for this letter