Monday, 29 August 2016

Review and Review of Reviews: Three Books on Sexuality

Here are three books on sexuality, all published this year, all with a focus on the Church of England, and all making the case for acceptance of same sex relationships.

Amazing Love and Journeys were both published in time for the General Synod’s July session which included ‘Shared Conversations’ on sexuality. They were supplied to all the Synod’s members by their authors/publishers.

Amazing Love is written by Andrew Davison but ‘in collaboration with’ 8 other Anglicans. It is a brief, readable argument based on human experience, scientific study, reading of the Bible, the story of revelation and the Church’s mission today.

Journeys has contributions from 11 ‘leading Evangelicals within the Church of England’, who speak from their own experience of the development of their understanding of sexuality, or for some, the painful journey of coming to terms with their sexuality.

Thinking Again has chapters by 11 theologians and ‘aims to guide readers into the practice of thinking theologically about marriage’. It claims to reflect a broad theological spectrum, but the contributors share an understanding that ‘Scripture neither knows nor speaks of the relationships we understand as same-sex relationships today’, so it certainly doesn’t reflect the breadth of the Church of England. Not that all the authors are Anglican – in that sense it is broader than Amazing Love and Journeys, and it is not so overtly a political tract – but it is clearly stimulated by Church of England and House of Bishops statements, in particular their increasing reliance on a doctrine of the complementarity of men and women as fundamental to all thinking on sexuality.

The Reviews

Numerous reviews have been published already, so to avoid repetition, and because the response to these books is interesting in itself, I will review the reviews before making some brief remarks of my own.

Adrian Thatcher, a prominent academic in the field, wrote an uncritical joint review of Amazing Love and Journeys for the Church Times, which usefully summarises the content and ends briefly welcoming both books as contributions to the task of urging the Church of England to be inclusive.

Richard Peers, a priest and now Director of Education in Liverpool Diocese, has reviewed both Amazing Love and Journeys positively on his blog. Amazing Love has ‘not much new in it but would save the reader searching out many other publications’. The chapter on mission is of most interest since from Peers’ experience the church’s attitude to same sex relationships is widely considered ‘exclusive, prejudicial and simply wrong… In all my years of teaching I have never heard a pupil say anything else’. Journeys is moving testimony. ‘There is raw honesty and most of all deep faithfulness to Jesus and to Scripture’. Each book needs more passion, a sense of a cry for liberation, the fulfilment of the good news; and missing also is a more fully Catholic voice in relation to the sacrament of marriage for same sex relationships.

Peter Sanlon, Vicar of St Mark’s Tunbridge Wells, has written a 5000 word review of Amazing Love, in two parts, both of which are on the Church Society blog (pt1, pt2); the first part only is on Ian Paul’s blog. He claims the book has ‘an embarrassingly simplistic view of “science”’ and that there is evidence to question its claims that same sex attraction has a biological basis (amongst other factors) and that for the vast majority that attraction cannot be changed. There is a ‘lack of academic credibility’ in the chapter on the Bible, and ‘No alternative views… are noted at any point’. The chapter on mission receives the severest criticism as ‘deceptive and manipulative rhetoric’. Part 2 is an extraordinary diatribe elaborating on this last point. The book is ‘an instructive example of the rhetorical strategy being deployed by the homosexualist [sic] movement’. The authors are accused of ‘duplicity’ and of giving warning ‘of the kind of invective and threats which will be levelled at those who do not submit to the views promoted’.

Martin Davie is academic consultant to the Church of England Evangelical Council and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and formerly Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission, Theological Secretary to the Council for Christian Unity and the Theological Consultant to the House of Bishops of the Church of England. He has written a 13,000 word review of Amazing Love (itself only about 19,000 words), available on the Latimer Trust website. The review is comprised of an extensive summary of the book, a section on ‘What we can agree with’ (100 words in length) and a section on ‘What is problematic’ (9000 words). Like Sanlon, Davie questions the presentation of evidence. Amazing Love ‘almost entirely ignores the large amount of evidence that says that involvement in same-sex sexual activity is harmful both to people’s physical and mental well-being’ and ‘fails to take seriously that same-sex parenting is not good for the children and young people involved’. In response to the counter-argument that the Church might model healthy same-sex relationships, Davie argues that the more likely outcome would be that the Church would then accept promiscuity. Contrary to its claim to ‘pay attention to reality’, Amazing Love ignores the reality of the entire biblical picture, and doesn’t face the biological reality that for same-sex relations ‘the pieces simply do not fit’ and there is no ‘potential to be generative’, whereas even an infertile heterosexual couple still has that orientation, a point illustrated by a baseball team that never wins but still has an orientation towards winning.

Tom Creedy, a member of the Vineyard movement, has written a review of Journeys, published on Ian Paul’s blog and Anglican Ink. He finds ‘clever disingenuity’ in ‘the premise of the book that it is possible to be a “biblically rooted evangelical” and also to have a “positive view of same-sex relationships”’. Colin Fletcher is frustrating when he pleads for ‘an openness amongst evangelicals’ because evangelicals are open – ‘we’ve just found certain arguments wanting’. Paul Bayes calls for inclusion but ‘simply doesn’t make an argument’. Personal stories are not enough to change doctrine or practice. Finally, ‘it is telling that this particular book is self-published – it seems to add little genuinely new to the conversation’.

Ian Paul has written his own review of Journeys. He questions whether the authors are all ‘leading’ and ‘Evangelical’, and in the comments states that the editor is wrong to claim that the contributors are ‘affirming of same-sex marriage’. If evangelicals are unclear on sexuality, ‘could it be that people like Colin [Fletcher, Bishop of Dorking] have singularly failed, as evangelical leaders…?’ Paul Bayes (Bishop of Liverpool) uses a disingenuous argument to show how the Church may learn something new. Repeatedly, authors are criticised for not having engaged with scholarship. David Ison (Dean of St Paul’s) offers ‘not much evidence… of collaboration with “traditional” understandings’. Anthony Archer (lay General Synod member) uses the wrong scholarship. Gavin Collins (Archdeacon of the Meon) ‘offers no evidence that he has engaged with good evangelical material’. Furthermore, he contradicts Jesus and Paul by arguing that ‘the notion of celibacy outside marriage “is simply not a tenable position for the Church”’. None of the ‘views and positions expressed connect with anything that would be recognisably evangelical in terms of engaging with Scripture’.

The review of Journeys by Andrew Symes (Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream) summarises and critiques several of the chapters. Paul Bayes is in ‘serious error’ in his ‘conviction that the contemporary discovery of the “goodness” in LGBT relationships is a sign of God changing his mind’. David Ison is wrong to think that Jesus could have learned something new. Several authors ‘do not engage at all with the many conservative commentators’, nor with the liberal commentators who are clear that ‘in order to promote a progressive agenda while being honest with the text one must disregard the Bible’. ‘The views of the book’s authors including Jayne Ozanne on one hand, and those she criticises so offensively on the other – can they really coexist in the same church with “good disagreement”? It is surely time for separation.’ (The offence here, noted by Ian Paul also as superiority, is to regard those gay Christians wounded and scarred by the Church as bearing the ‘stigmata of Christ’.)

Martin Davie’s review of Journeys, entitled ‘Journeys into Darkness’, runs to 15,000 words. For each chapter there is both a summary and a presentation of the conservative position and scriptural interpretation in response. ‘The issue of homosexuality is a first order issue like the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the person of Christ.’ ‘Acknowledging [those who argue for an acceptance of ‘homosexual practice’] as fellow Evangelicals would be wrong…’ Anthony Archer asks ‘What conceivable harm is done by two people of the same sex entering into a relationship which they hope and pray will be lasting, covenanted and monogamous…?’ Such a relationship may be beneficial ‘temporally speaking’, but ‘they face the danger of God eventually saying to them “thy will be done” with the result that they are cut off from him for ever’.

I could only find one review of Thinking Again, by Berenice Martin for the Church Times. It is a an appreciative summary, concluding that ‘All the chapters in the book repay reading, but the whole adds up to more than its parts and is a rich resource for current debates’.

Remarks on the Reviews

It is disappointing that some reviews of Amazing Love or Journeys use the following words: deceptive, manipulative, duplicitous and disingenuous. It would help conversation between Christians enormously if we recognised that, in relation to our opinions, words and actions, in this and other areas of difference, we are in no position to perceive our own motives and honesty with complete clarity. Much less are we free to pass judgement on the motives or honesty of others.

There are moments where I cringed. Words matter, and ‘homosexualist’ is awkward at best, offensive at worst. The use of a baseball team which never wins as an analogy for a marriage without children is appalling. To speak of pieces which don’t fit is a crude reduction.  

A number of errors in some reviews need to be noted. Contrary to Peter Sanlon, Amazing Love gives no warning that invective or threats will be levelled at those who disagree. Contrary to Tom Creedy, Journeys isn’t self-published. Contrary to Ian Paul, the editor of Journeys doesn’t claim that all the contributors are affirming of same-sex marriage; nor is it accurate not to note that Gavin Collins is speaking against forced celibacy. Contrary to Andrew Symes, Paul Bayes doesn’t speak of God ‘changing his mind’.

Several reviewers use a straw man argument by expecting a certain level of academic rigour or engagement with biblical scholarship and then finding Amazing Love or Journeys wanting. (Peter Sanlon even regards DLT as an academic publisher – it is not.) Amazing Love argues a case for the general reader. Journeys is a series of short, personal testimonies. It is unreasonable for each reader who holds a conservative position to expect the particular biblical arguments that weigh with them to be addressed.

On the evidence from science and human experience, it seems to me that Amazing Love fairly reflects the broad consensus in our society. Does it overstate the scientific evidence? Possibly a little, but not in a way which materially changes the conclusions (cf. the recent extensive survey of this controversy by Bailey et al).  If the reviewers above who challenge this think they can provide convincing evidence that the norm for homosexual orientation is that it is changeable or that the best evidence shows homosexual relationships and same-sex parenting to be intrinsically harmful, then they have a job on their hands.

Some Comments on the Books

Amazing Love is likely to become the most popular book making the case for revision in the Church, and rightly so. Several reviewers have commented that it offers nothing new, but that was not the point. However, I did feel that Andrew Davison’s appreciation of Aquinas showed signs of coming through as something new in the short section on ‘Paying attention to reality’, and this could have been developed further. ‘God’s commands are not arbitrary. They are all about helping us to live more fully, to be what we were made to be’ (p8). The conservative reviewers’ interpretation of Scripture appears to be independent of the data from human experience; it would be helpful to their case, but not necessary for knowing what is right, if same sex relationships were intrinsically harmful, for example. Martin Davie is explicit that such relationships may be beneficial temporally, but eternally damning. There are differences here at the level of the doctrine of God and creation.

The section on the ‘unfolding’ of revelation was useful in principle, though I wasn’t convinced by the idea that a progression is due to God only communicating what ‘we can assimilate’. Jesus spoke much that was not understood, and the communication of Christ himself could hardly have waited until people were ready to understand fully. Something of the interaction between faith and the Spirit and revelation is missing here.

The three-page chapter ‘Being in Love’ has come in for some criticism, and it has to be said it leaves itself open by making it all seem so simple: ‘…do we first also need some special theology of same-sex love? No – we don’t. Love is love… We can take this love – these relationships, these people – into the heart of the Church because that’s what we do with love…’ Unintentionally, I suspect, this is open to being read as something like ‘situation ethics’ – just do what looks and feels like the most loving thing – an attractive and dangerous shortcut, bypassing the Church’s discernment as a body. If this reflects some impatience, it is understandable, and on the question of the right balance between passion and cool rationality, it’s ‘no win’ for advocates such as these authors.

Journeys is best read as testimony, very much in keeping with the spirit of the ‘Shared Conversations’, and to be welcomed rather than criticised regarding the scholarship. I’d be just as ready to read a collection from ‘Leading Liberals’ who have come to a conservative position, if it were possible. No chapter alone, nor the book as a whole, is likely to convince many people, and it doesn’t make a sufficient case for me. But it does make the point, as does Amazing Love, that advocates for change include those of conservative theological persuasion. The authors include Gavin Collins, contemporary with me as an ordinand at Trinity College Bristol, and David Runcorn, a tutor there at the time. (The Principal from that era, Bishop David Gillett, is a surprising omission from the book.) All this is useful in exposing the false dilemma, often posed by some who hold a conservative position, which likes to identify advocacy for change with disregard for Scripture.

Journeys is the right word, because it shows that whatever position we now hold, it is not justified by a view from nowhere, as if a supposed dispassionate, objective, left brain assessment of the scholarship is the route to truth. That is no deficiency, simply a recognition that the whole of ourselves is involved in forming where we place our trust, especially including the relationships we find ourselves in. That the Church discerns truth as a body is the wider expression of this.

Thinking Again is a different animal, longer, more demanding, more theological jargon, but not scholarship for scholars either (it includes suggestions for further reading). If Synod members are as well read as they should be, then this is the book which would better have been circulated, to help their thinking go wider and deeper. Copies should certainly be sent to all members of the House of Bishops.

It is most helpful in setting a wider context for thinking about marriage. A common standpoint of the authors is that they are ‘circumspect about the idea that marriage is a “creation good”, something instituted by God at the beginning of creation and understood as basically unchanging’. Mike Higton and Charlotte Methuen demonstrate that marriage is something which people have had to think about through history, and think differently at different times, and our duty is to respond to the ‘call to discover together the possibilities of godly growth and transformation that our created natures give us’. Susannah Cornwall turns around the argument of Pope John Paul II, that the specific embodiment of males and females should not be disparaged, by saying that what matters is that ‘we are faithful to these sexed bodies, not to mythical or theoretical ones’, i.e. thinking more about specific embodiment, not less.

Ben Fulford steps back from the usual biblical texts to see ‘the Scriptures primarily as testimonies to the identities of God and creatures, and as patterns proposed to the people of God for discerning their lived response to God’. This doesn’t bring our thinking to an end but conditions our reasoning, giving priority to the story of Jesus. Some will find it frustrating that he never gets to the usual texts, and argues that he would need to do a lot more work beforehand.

There’s much more, which convinced or engaged me to varying degrees, and it’s all summed up very well by Rachel Muers in the final chapter: ‘…if we were to stop thinking about marriage in terms of an ideal to be “lived up to” (and thus, inevitably, “fallen short of”), and instead to see it more as a vocation to be lived in to, we might be able to recognize and celebrate more of the gifts that real marriages offer to theology’.


  1. Thank you, Mark: a very helpful resume of the reviews and a balanced assessment of the books with their various strengths and weaknesses.

  2. Thanks for such an appreciative reading of 'Thinking Again'. It was a labour of love, and the result of a lot of intense conversation and friendship.

  3. Very helpful Mark. Thank you.