Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Times interviews the Dean of St Albans

Yesterday The Times published an interview with the Dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John.
The original report is behind the Times paywall, but the URL for subscribers is here: Church is the last bastion of prejudice, says gay priest by Ruth Gledhill.

The full text of the Dean’s answers to Ruth Gledhill’s questions is reproduced below the fold.

1. Do you agree with what David Ison said about gay marriage?

Yes, and I admire him for saying it.

2. What are your views generally on gay marriage?

I have always believed that the only possible Christian model for a same-sex relationship is monogamy. I wrote a booklet about it in 1991 called ‘Permanent Faithful Stable’ which will be republished later this year. At that time I took the view that it didn’t matter whether we call it a marriage or not – what really matters is the nature of the relationship and the commitment on which it rests. In a sense that is still true. But of course the obvious, natural term for monogamy is marriage, and most people instinctively refer to civil partnerships as marriages anyway. So I think ‘marriage’ probably is the best term to use for same-sex as well as well as heterosexual monogamy, and it also has the great advantage of making clear that both should be given equal respect.

3. Are you willing to chart your theological journey to that point?

I start from the fact that the Church calls marriage a sacrament because the covenant of love between the married couple reflects the covenant of love between Christ and his Church, and so becomes a channel of God’s own love into the world. The secure framework of marriage helps you to keep loving through the bad times, and in the process it teaches you a deeper sort of love – the sort that involves the will and self-sacrifice and not just feelings. Growing in that sort of love means you are growing in the image and likeness of God.

That is the traditional understanding of Christian marriage. But the big point is, exactly the same love and commitment are possible between two people of the same sex as between two people of different sexes, and it is not immediately clear why the Church should regard such a relationship as ethically or spiritually inferior to a heterosexual marriage.

Of course the procreation of children by two same-sex partners is not possible. But the Church has never seen procreation as a necessity for marriage, and so has always married partners past the age of childbearing. Even in Genesis the first reason given why God created Eve is not childbearing but because ‘God saw that it was not good for man to be alone’. While the Prayer Book states that marriage was ordained first for ‘the procreation of children’ the modern marriage service begins by emphasising the quality of relationship between marriage partners ‘that they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind.’

So same-sex monogamy seems to me to be spiritually indistinguishable from a marriage between two people who are unable to have children together. Admitting same sex couples to marriage would extend the sacrament, not undermine it. Like the Church’s decision to admit women to the sacrament of ordination, it is a lot less revolutionary than it seems at first sight. The ordination of women has not fundamentally changed the priesthood, but has extended and enriched it. The same would be true of extending the sacrament of marriage to people of the same sex. It is not the physical gender of the people involved that matters, but the quality of their commitment and their response to the call of God.

It is often assumed that scripture rules out same-sex monogamy, but that is not true unless you read scripture in a selectively literal way. In the few places where homosexuality is mentioned in the New Testament the texts show no awareness that some people are homosexual in orientation. When St Paul condemns people who ‘exchange’ heterosexual intercourse for homosexual, he is assuming that this is a perverse choice on the part of naturally heterosexual people who are simply choosing the alternative out of an excess of lust. What is being criticized in these passages is the kind of homosexual activity that was most visible in the Hellenistic society around him – promiscuity, prostitution and paedophilia. The case of two responsible, adult, homosexual Christians wishing to commit to each other in love for life is simply never envisaged.

It is also important to notice that those who choose to interpret the apparently anti-gay passages in Paul literally are usually much less literal when it comes to what Paul has to say about the place of women, or re-marriage, or slavery.

4. What is your opinion of the secular, political debate on the issue?

What really pleases me is that the call for same-sex marriage comes from gay people themselves. In the past gay people were often accused of being inherently promiscuous, uninterested in or incapable of permanent relationships. Civil partnerships have shown that to be the lie that it always was. The truth is that the great majority of people, gay or straight, know that their best chance of happiness and fulfilment lies in finding a partner to love and grow together with, someone who will be there at the end of the day and at the end of their life. That is not a heterosexual hope or a homosexual hope, it is just a human hope.

It is illogical to argue that same-sex marriage somehow undermines heterosexual marriage. On the contrary, it confirms the value of marriage and extends its blessings to many more people. From a purely secular viewpoint it is clearly good for the whole of the society when people commit to each other and care for one another without being reliant on the state – and this will become more important as we all live longer.

I was very struck by David Cameron’s statement that he is in favour of same-sex marriage, not in spite of being a conservative but because of being a conservative. I am not a political animal, but I want to say something very similar as a priest. I am in favour of same-sex marriage not because I am a wild liberal but because I am instinctively a traditional Anglo-Catholic. I believe in the sacrament of marriage; I believe we all need a disciplined framework for faith and love; and I believe we all need God’s grace and blessing to live by it. I think most of the 120 or so priests in the London Diocese who recently petitioned for the right to bless civil partnerships would say the same.

5. What do you think of what George Carey has been saying and his new Coalition 4 Marriage?

They seem to ignore the fact that the ten other countries which have already legalised same sex marriage have not experienced any of the horrors that they keep predicting. Marriage and family life in those countries have not been harmed in any way. The ‘slippery slope’ argument that same-sex marriage will somehow lead to polygamy or incest or increased debauchery is particularly illogical and rather insulting. Nor am I impressed by the argument that we should not use the law to bring about social change. If we had not made changes in the law discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and the disabled would still be firmly in place.

6. What message do you think the church opposition gives long term about the church and Christianity and does this worry you in any way?

It is enormously worrying. In the sixties the Church of England was in the forefront of the movement to decriminalise homosexuality. The fact that fifty years on the Church is seen as Enemy Number One of gay people is a disaster, both for our own morale and for our mission to the country. The Conservative Party realised ten years ago that the equal treatment of gay people had become a litmus test of basic human decency and changed its view; but it is a test the Church now spectacularly fails. We have become the last refuge of prejudice.

It is worse because the Church’s opposition to gay relationships is so patently unprincipled. In the Church of England we readily bless the second and even third marriages of couples who never darken our doors, yet we reject hundreds of our own faithful clergy and laypeople who long to bring their love and commitment before God and ask his blessing. While we dare to preach justice and equality in Christ’s name to the world, we seek exemptions to equality laws when it comes to our own employment and disciplinary practices. While we threaten to demote or debar American and Canadian Anglicans for appointing openly gay bishops and blessing gay unions, we are trying to appease homophobic Anglican churches in Africa which support extreme social and legal measures against homosexuals.

Not only gay people are repelled by all this. Many more people of goodwill who instinctively expect the Church to uphold justice and truth are scandalised when it so obviously does not. If secularism has gained ground in Britain in recent years, along with the demand that the Church of England must be disestablished and surrender its voice in national life, then it is our mishandling of the gay issue more than anything else that has brought it about.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 10:39am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

A thought-out argument. Well said.

Posted by: James A on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 12:18pm GMT

Great to see Jeffrey join the fray with his usual warmth and considered responses.

For those who do not have the print version this interview was carried on the front page and was supported by a robust editorial supporting gay marriage.

Quite unusually and significantly the Telegraph carried the full story the next day giving all credit to The Times. Their editorial position is in opposition to gay marriage.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 12:48pm GMT

Dr John's actual words are far more extensive, interesting and impressive than the potted version in the Times article.

His treatment of the issues is concise and compelling.

Posted by: badman on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 1:01pm GMT

That is a wise, thoughtful, insightful man.

It is clearly very, very wrong that he has been prevented from becoming a bishop. Shame on the Cabal of Bishops!

Posted by: Dan BD on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 1:04pm GMT

For once the voice of sanity on this subject from a religious spokes-person. I broadly agree but with one small caveat. The subject emerged during post-Choir practice socialising and one of our top line said that she and her husband knew a number of homosexual couples, some of whom actually preferred to refer to their relationship as something other than marriage. This on the grounds that they felt their relationship is different in type and needs its own label rather than what they see as a borrowed one. I think the real problem is not so much what the relationship is called but parity of esteem. Maybe though Fr John is right and bringing homosexual relationships in under the umbrella of 'marriage' is the best way to ensure this.

For I guess there's always the danger that 'equal but different' will disguise the fact that one or other type of relationship is seen as 'second class'. After all it's the Roman Church which came out with the memorably chilling phrase 'intrinsically disordered' ('Persona Humana': Declaration of certain questions concerning sexual ethics' 29/12/1975, end of paragraph VIII). The same document re-iterates their stand on the 'immutable' word of Scripture on sexual matters. Perhaps they should ask themselves (as Jeffrey John clearly has) just what St Paul would have made of stable, respectable homosexual unions. There are plenty of those including people I know or have known personally. One feels that members of the Vatican hierarchy need to get out more. So much of their arguing seems to be 'a priori' whereas as I understand it philosophically speaking the range of 'a priori' is very limited.

Posted by: Humphrey Reader on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 1:34pm GMT

Here I sit, quite early morning at the village at the foot of a volcano (active) in Central America...I´m absolutely filled with thanksgiving (and confirmation) that Dr. Jeffrey John this in England EXACTLY what I do in the rural campo of Guatemala:

¨So same-sex monogamy seems to me to be spiritually indistinguishable from a marriage between two people who are unable to have children together. Admitting same sex couples to marriage would extend the sacrament, not undermine it...¨

I love the worldwide fellowship and sharing of truth/experience at the Anglican Communion

Please, No Anglican Covenant as ¨we¨, from afar in the ¨third world¨ of Anglicanism, don´t want to be removed from the Anglican ¨family¨...we ARE your family, your sisters, your brothers at The Body of Christ.

Mil Gracias

Posted by: Leonardo Ricardo on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 1:49pm GMT

Humphrey Reader seems to be wondering whether perhaps there's a problem in opening up marriage to same-sex couples because knows someone who has heard of some gay people who really don't want to call their relationship marriage.

Funnily enough, I've met some straight people who don't want to call their relationship marriage either.

I'd never have thought that this was a good reason for banning straight people from getting hitched though.

Posted by: Kelvin Holdsworth on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 2:11pm GMT

I see that the current bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud (no comment) is pictured and quoted on the Oxford diocese "Yes to the Covenant" page.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 3:41pm GMT

I am glad that Jeffrey is able to speak with such wisdom and clarity, and sad that this is an issue which is causing such division today. my own church (CoE) is split on the issue. I believe that scripture should be read through the 'lens' of Jesus who was the most inclusive person to ever walk the planet. In years to come I think (hope) that Christians will see the current injustice towards gay people in the same light that we currently see the injustice of slavery

Posted by: christine rose on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 4:21pm GMT

My wife and I used to look at our friends in the university community where we lived and say, There are a hundred different arrangements, all called marriage. (We decided after many years that our arrangement wasn't what we wanted our kids to know as marriage. My present husband and I don't find that "marriage" has added much to our 29-year relationship, but it has helped to define us to family and friends.)

Posted by: Murdoch on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 7:10pm GMT

Quite a coup for Ruth G to get JJ to speak so frankly. Seems like a tipping point. Although in general I'm in favour of 'fudge', it's only tenable if people on opposite sides observe a certain restraint. Perhaps Sentamu, Williams, Carey and others have broken that unspoken compact, and it is - should be - a fight to the finish on this issue. In which case, they will most assuredly lose, to their great diminishment and disgrace. Incidentally, it was a great disppointment to hear Angela Tilby on 'Thought for the Day' arguing - albeit with liberal charity - against 'gay marriage' in the full sense. But she didn't even bother to consider legitimate and necessary Church-state separation. It was a flabby performance.

Posted by: John on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 7:45pm GMT


Posted by: Judith on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 7:46pm GMT

Can somebody with access behind the Times paywall, or whatever else is needed, help me with the first question in this superb interview? What did David Ison say about gay marriage?

Posted by: Edward Prebble on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 8:19pm GMT

At last, I hear someone speaking with a voice that does not drive me away from Christian Community.

Jesus put love as top priority for us all. By what measure can bigotry hatred and exclusion be considered to be loving?

Posted by: Chris Jeffries on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 9:59pm GMT

Thank God that Jeffrey John's experience of the negativity of the Church towards his admitted homosexual nature has not soured him against the seeming lack of willingness of the Church to accept that monogamous same-sex relationships can be one of God's loving provisions for humanity.

The Dean of Saint Albans has become the focus of many faithful Anglican LGBT people's hope for the future acceptance of them; as fellow bearers of God's image and likeness in the world - and, therefore - worthy of respect and recognition.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 10:25pm GMT

God is the God of love. Let HIM define love!
God is the God of marriage. Let HIM define marriage!

Posted by: Matt Fergus on Thursday, 15 March 2012 at 2:16am GMT

"it was a great disppointment to hear Angela Tilby on 'Thought for the Day' arguing - albeit with liberal charity - against 'gay marriage' in the full sense."

Or, to put it another way, she said some pretty unpleasant things in a nice way. Her TFTD effort was excellently parodied here:

Posted by: Laurence C on Thursday, 15 March 2012 at 8:25am GMT

Thank you Laurence C for your platitude for the day link. Terrific ! I was appalled by her homophobia with its veneer of easy meaningless liberalism'-- great 'bishop material.'

Bring back Lionel Blue.

DO listen to the Moral Maze repeat Saturday night radio 4 for more vacuous balderdash and gratuitous homophobia from Michael Portillo, and vacuous condescension from Clifford Longley - BUT with a great rabbi cutting their cr-p and Ben S from Stonewall.

Posted by: Laurence Roberts on Thursday, 15 March 2012 at 4:56pm GMT

The announcement of Dr Williams departure from Canterbury for Cambridge will take centre stage for a while, I'm sure. But I do hope that it doesn't stop the circulation of Dr John's interview with Ms Gledhill. Whoever follows Dr Williams would do well to read and re-read Dr John's words quite simply for the survival, let alone the growth, of the Church of England.
So, fellow readers of Thinking Anglicans, please disseminate this interview far and wide. But remember, most of all, to send a copy of it to the successful candidate for Canterbury!

Posted by: commentator on Saturday, 17 March 2012 at 9:50am GMT

Here is a remarkable piece from an RC bishop:

Posted by: Spirit of Vatican II on Tuesday, 20 March 2012 at 12:45am GMT

Thanks, Spirit of Vatican II for that link. A very powerful argument from a Catholic perspective. I wonder if the official Church will work on it?

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 at 9:08am GMT
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