Debate within the worldwide Christian church about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is ongoing and, at times, fractious. The deepening divide within the Anglican Church of Australia regarding this issue is a case in point. The recent failure of General Synod to ratify that marriage is only between a man and a woman has caused great angst within the Anglican community in Australia and provided the media with more fodder for critical analysis.
Drilling down into the current debate, it very quickly becomes apparent that the opposing sides of the debate have two disparate and unreconcilable premises upon which their divergent views are based. In many ways the clash of these two opposing viewpoints resembles two icebergs repeatedly bumping and grinding against each other. On the surface, a range of arguments are presented for each position, yet these arguments never make any real impact on the other side and no significant common ground is ever established. This is because underlying those surface arguments are unseen but far weightier premises upon which these surface arguments are founded. When those underlying premises are examined closely, it becomes apparent that the two opposing viewpoints are actually completely separate icebergs, without any substantive connection that binds them together. Unless the polarised (no pun intended) underlying premises can somehow be resolved, the two opposing viewpoints on this matter are destined to remain separate icebergs that smash up against each other without either one making even the slightest impact upon the other.
The surface arguments in this debate have been batted back and forth for years. One side speaks of love and acceptance, inclusion and diversity, non-judgmentalism and tolerance. They speak of a God who loves and forgives, and a Saviour who accepts all. They point to a society that is moving away from the restrictive, judgmental attitudes of the past and evolving into a more mature, inclusive, open-minded society. They appeal to the church to move with the times, to embrace a more nuanced and sophisticated view of morality in order to remain viable and effective in a modern world. To substantiate their argument, this side brings to the witness stand people who have been engaged in loving, long-term homosexual relationships and who profess to love and serve God.
The other side returns serve with a completely different set of arguments. They speak of absolutes and truth, commandments and sin, the need for repentance as well as faith, the need to worship God in spirit and in truth. They speak of the immutability of God’s moral standards and the necessity for the church to stand upon those unchanging standards despite the changing currents of popular morality. This side brings to the witness stand people who were once practising homosexuals who, having been convicted of their sin, have repented of that lifestyle and may now even be happily married in a heterosexual relationship. Others are brought to the witness box who are same sex attracted and who choose to live celibate lives in order to live in obedience to God.
Both sides urge upon the church the need to love and welcome those who are same-sex attracted, with the essential difference that progressives tend to affirm their homosexual lifestyle while conservatives do not. Progressives claim that conservatives are being ‘hateful’ and judgmental in denouncing all homosexual practice as sinful, while conservatives maintain that the Christian imperative to love all people does not negate our need to simultaneously uphold God’s enduring moral standards. And so, the argument goes back and forth. Neither side is convinced by the other. The icebergs keep smashing against each other with little effect.
The problem, however, lies not with the presenting arguments. It goes much deeper. The problem at the foundation of this divide lies in significantly divergent underlying premises, compared to which the presenting surface arguments are mere vapours on the wind. Going back to the analogy of an iceberg, there is no common meeting point for the surface issues because they are being kept apart by a much greater mass under the surface. The icebergs repeatedly collide at their unseen depths and are forced apart, while their visible surfaces don’t even come close to approaching common ground.
What are these unseen, underlying premises? I suggest that there are two layers. The immediate layer underneath the surface arguments comprises a whole range of conflicting theologies regarding the nature of mankind, the nature of God, the nature and process of salvation and various eschatological interpretations regarding God’s ultimate purposes in eternity. Although dialogue and debate is sometimes attempted at this level, these conflicting theological viewpoints have very little common ground for meaningful discourse, because they, too, are being kept apart by an even more foundational issue. It is an issue of such breadth and mass that the whole of each ‘iceberg’ is predicated upon it. It is only at this ultimate depth that we finally uncover the single foundational issue that gives rise to the two vastly different theological world views and prohibits them from ever reaching any satisfactory resolution.
The underlying issue which ultimately separates these two world views and will continue to keep the two icebergs apart is two vastly divergent views regarding the nature of divine revelation and, in particular, the nature and authority of the Bible.
Here we come, at last, to the heart of the problem and to the ultimate cause of the great divide, not only regarding the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but underlying almost all other moral and theological disputes as well. It is their significantly different views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible that divides conservatives and progressives and produces widely divergent and irreconcilable views on a whole range of issues.
Conservatives / evangelicals regard the whole Bible as God’s fully inspired Word to mankind, enduringly authoritative in all matters of faith and practice, taking into account the differences between the Old and New Covenants. They believe that the Bible is internally consistent, taking into account the progressive nature of revelation from Old to New Testaments. In particular, they do not perceive any internal inconsistencies between the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the doctrines developed more fully in the Epistles. The whole of the New Testament is regarded as God’s final, authoritative Word to mankind, completely sufficient for salvation and Christian living, and is not to be added to or detracted from.
Progressives / liberals, on the other hand, hold to a more complex (they would say ‘nuanced’) view of scripture. Although there is a range of beliefs within the progressive movement regarding the Bible, it is fair to say that one particular viewpoint dominates. The majority of progressives regard the Bible as mankind’s imperfect attempt to discern the divine mind and codify his precepts; the key word being ‘imperfect’. The result is a view of the Bible as being helpful but flawed. The Bible is regarded as partly inspired divine truth and partly the mistaken declarations of people who were influenced by the prejudices and superstitions of their culture. The New Testament epistles are regarded as containing theology that is sometimes helpful and at other times deeply flawed as a result of the cultural biases and mythologies of the times. Much more emphasis is placed upon the Gospels, which are regarded as teaching principles that are closer to the heart of God. Furthermore, progressives tend to view divine revelation as an ongoing process, within which the writing of the Bible was an important but not final step. As mankind continues to grow in our understanding of God, guided by his Spirit, progressives claim that we can increasingly discern the mind of God, moving beyond the simplistic and, at times, judgmental tenets laid down by the first century believers and developing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of spiritual truth that is closer to the heart of God.
The upshot of these two views of revelation is that conservatives and progressives are operating from two completely different premises. The former regards the Bible as fully inspired and enduringly authoritative, while the latter, quite simply, does not. This has huge implications. These two divergent underlying premises mean that at no point is there significant common ground for discussing any issue of theology or morality. Whatever the issue being debated, any attempt at meaningful dialogue and agreement is doomed to failure and frustration because, in essence, conservatives are saying, “God says …”, and progressives are countering with, “No, he doesn’t!” This is the case with almost every issue of theological significance. The surface issues are kept from approaching anything resembling common ground due to the massively divergent underlying premises which continually and inexorably force them apart. The icebergs will never meet because of the massive sub-structures that separate them.
Some will hasten to point out that the divide is not as completely binary as I am describing. In the case of the same-sex marriage debate, for instance, there are some individuals who hold to a conservative view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible but who support the blessing of same-sex marriage because of their view that the biblical denunciations against homosexuality only apply to homosexual practice outside of a committed loving relationship. They are effectively straddling the two icebergs: standing on the inspiration and authority of the Bible while simultaneously supporting the progressive case on this issue. But this does not negate or diminish the central differences between to two sides. In parliamentary votes, individual party members may sometimes cross the floor to vote with the opposition, but this does not mean that the core tenets of the opposing parties are somehow diminished or negated as a result. So it is with the progressive / conservative debate on this and many other issues. A minority of people sometimes ‘cross the floor’ for a variety of reasons but the foundational tenets of both movements remain immovably opposed, and it is these diametrically opposed foundations that give rise to the vast majority of ‘votes’.
The two opposing foundational beliefs about the Bible result in two very different sets of arguments in the ongoing same-sex marriage debate. Conservatives point to the Bible’s repeated condemnation of homosexuality as a sin (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10), while progressives claim that these condemnations were either the flawed tenets of ancient homophobic cultures (and therefore, no longer applicable) or, as I have already stated, are only prohibitions against uncommitted homosexual activity outside of the bonds of love, rather than universal prohibitions of homosexuality. One side’s stance arises from the belief that the Bible is God’s final word on the matter, while the other side predominantly believes that the Bible is in error on that issue (and many others), and that society has now reached a more mature understanding of morality.
This is the very essence of the great divide.
Let us be crystal clear about what it is that separates us. The current divide within Anglicanism (and within the whole of Christianity) is not a division over views of marriage and sexuality. It is not a division over specific issues of soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology or morality. These are mere surface issues. The reason why we are unable to come to any meaningful resolution on these issues is that the two sides are attempting to communicate with each other from a great distance. We are kept apart by two hugely divergent underlying premises whose mass and inertia will continue to thwart and frustrate any attempts to convince the other side or reach some kind of middle ground.
This is what divides us and will continue to divide us.
The question that now faces the Anglican Church of Australia, and individual dioceses and parishes within it, is not whether we can continue to remain in fellowship with those who hold a different view of sexuality and marriage. This is a mere surface issue. The question we must surely address is whether we can remain in fellowship with those who do not share the same fundamental, underlying basis for Christian beliefs and practices. The question is whether there is ANY fundamental common ground at all.
This is an issue that we have danced around for decades. We have avoided plumbing the depths and, instead, have fought a series of frustrating surface skirmishes that were inevitably doomed. Surely, it is time to bring the underlying divergent premises to the surface and examine them in the light of the distinctive, historical, defining tenets of Anglicanism. These defining tenets appear, to my mind, to be unequivocal on the issue of the inspiration and authority of God’s Word.
In the Articles of Religion, the defining work of Anglican orthodoxy, Article VI states,
“Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”
Article XX also states,
“…it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same …”
This high view of scripture is echoed in the First Book of Homilies (1547), a collection of authorised sermons which define distinctive Protestant theology. The Preface declares the Bible to be,
“the very Word of God … according to the mind of the Holy Ghost.”
This high view of the Bible continued to be a central tenet of the early English reformers, who regarded belief in the complete inspiration and enduring authority of the Bible as a foundational doctrine that distinguished the burgeoning Protestant movement from the institutional church of the day. (See Mark Earngey’s excellent article, “God’s Word Written: An Anglican Understanding of the Bible” on the Anglican Connection website).
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer continues to uphold this high view of scripture to the current day. The service for the ordination of priests charges the ordinand to be a “faithful dispenser of the Word of God.” More commonly throughout the Prayer Book, the liturgical response to scripture readings is the unequivocal, “This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”
Surely, it could not be clearer than this?
Apparently for some, it is too clear! As I was in the process of writing this article, I read a question posted on a progressive Anglican website asking,
“Are there any responses to follow a scripture reading which are alternatives to ‘This is the Word of the Lord,’ for the many occasions when it patently isn’t?”
There, in a nutshell, is the essence of our division: the progressive view that the Bible is NOT “the Word of the Lord” – at least, not completely. A whole discussion then followed on that website, predicated upon the widely held progressive view that the Bible is a mish-mash of divine truth and human error and that the conservative / evangelical view of the Bible’s complete inspiration and authority is naïve and simplistic.
There is a huge issue at stake here, much bigger than our views of marriage and sexuality or any other surface issue of theology or morality. The question must be asked, which view of scripture remains faithful to the historical, definitive tenets of Anglicanism, and which view has departed from them? Furthermore, what basis is there for fellowship as Anglicans when these foundational, historical distinctives are no longer held by some?
It seems inevitable to me that the two icebergs will eventually go their separate ways. A point will be reached where the futility of ongoing debate concerning surface issues will become obvious (if it hasn’t already!). The two sides must surely and eventually reach a cease fire, finally acknowledging the irreconcilable differences that lie at their depths, and simply agree to drift apart.
What that final separation will look like is difficult to see. Will both movements still call themselves ‘Anglican’? Will there be some kind of official recognition of Conservative Anglicanism and Progressive Anglicanism, while both remain under the central umbrella of the Anglican Church of Australia? Or will the separation require one group to completely walk away? Will the central tenets of the Anglican Church of Australia which have stood unchanged for so long, be officially redefined to align with progressive beliefs (or unbeliefs)? Or will the conservative movement rise up and formally ratify, via Synod motions, the long-standing distinctives of Anglicanism regarding the inspiration and authority of God’s Word, the result of which will place progressive beliefs outside true Anglicanism?
The way forward is unclear, the eventual outcomes uncertain and the logistical details murky. But one thing seems obvious. The two icebergs cannot continue battering each other, endlessly. They must surely reach a point where they acknowledge their irreconcilable differences and simply decide to leave each other in peace.
Kevin Simington is an Anglican minister and Ministry Consultant in the Bathurst Diocese. He is an apologist and social commentator, a senior writer for My Christian Daily and the author of 16 books. His website, smartfaith.net, provides a range of resources for assisting churches and individual Christians in the areas of theology, apologetics and Christian discipleship.