Storms in Southwark!

Hearts on Fire FINAL largeOver the past couple of months a storm has been brewing in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. On one side is the Bishop, Christopher Chessun, the staff at the Cathedral and the Diocesan officers and a majority of the parishes. On the other side are the minority of parishes who adopt a strict ‘bible-based’ understanding of Anglicanism. These parishes are immensely wealthy and network across the world with groups such as GAFCON and the FCA. The standoff began in 2012 when the Bishop was visited by a representative group of these conservative Anglicans. Their complaint was that their constituency was not properly represented in the senior staff of the Diocese. All the recent appointments made had been of people like the Bishop himself, people of a Liberal Catholic persuasion who would be likely to take an accommodating view of gay sex and marriage, to the point of being tolerant of the clergy themselves living in gay partnerships. The meeting that took place with the Bishop did not, by all accounts, resolve anything and now a new initiative is underway. At the beginning of February 2015 clergy and people of conservative parishes were invited to put their names to the Southwark Declaration. This is attached below.

The Southwark Declaration
As clergy and lay people in the Diocese of Southwark:
We affirm the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and their supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. We affirm with Canon A5 that ‘the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.’’
We affirm, with Article XX, that ‘it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.’
We affirm the teaching of Scripture (Genesis 2.24, Mark 10. 7, Matthew 19.5), the Book of Common Prayer, and Canon B30 (‘Of Holy Matrimony’) that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life. We affirm it is the one God-ordained context for sexual intercourse. We affirm resolution 1.10 on human sexuality of the Lambeth Conference (1998).
We call upon all the Bishops, Archdeacons, and the senior staff of the Diocese, alongside all clergy and licensed lay ministers, to affirm these truths, live by them, and to teach in accordance with them.
We call upon the Bishops to appoint to positions of teaching authority only those who hold to these truths in good conscienc
e.

Once again the conservative wing of the church is flexing its muscles. This declaration is thought to be a line in the sand which will identify ‘orthodox’ Anglicans from their wishy-washy ‘heretical’ counterparts. The implied threat is that the wealthy parishes that support this declaration will begin to withdraw their Diocesan payments unless they get their way. As some parishes pay up to £300,000 p.a. to the Diocesan coffers, this threat is indeed quite serious.

The so-called Declaration by this group of Christians in Southwark is yet another battlefront in the decidedly political war to take over the Anglican Communion by conservative Christians. The Declaration itself is, to my mind, an incredibly stuffy pretentious document and anyone who signs this, as many will, is making a political statement rather than one of faith. How can this Declaration in any way provide a description of what I believe and think about the Christian faith?

The whole statement is designed to challenge those who believe that marriage is in fact an evolving institution. We are expected to believe that the Bible is the golden model and everything connected with sex and marriage has to be measured by the standards of the Bible. If we take the example of the Old Testament as a template for marriage and family life, we get a very skewed vision of what it is from this source. Even the heroes of the Testament such as Abraham knew nothing of faithfulness to one woman and indeed the only relationship which combined love and fidelity seems to have been that between Jacob and Rebekah. The idea that we find in Scripture a pattern of consistent teaching that ‘marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life’ is fanciful. Of course we find a stricter teaching about marriage from Jesus and Paul but even here Paul’s grudging tolerance of marriage portrays an attitude of bare acceptance rather than one of joyful celebration. What Paul is really talking about in his comments about marriage is that he believes that it is an outlet for sex. His comment that it is ‘better to marry than to burn’ is probably not brought into marriage preparation classes even by conservative Christians. To conclude that Paul’s scattered comments on sexual matters suggest that he had a ‘problem’ with women and sex is not a revolutionary insight!

In the third statement of the Declaration which gives us three bible quotes to support the Declaration’s understanding of marriage, I refer the reader back to my previous blog post. It is not just good enough to quote scattered passages and conclude that you know what the Bible teaches on a particular topic. This confusing and utterly deceiving way of using the Scriptures is found all over the conservative Christian world. It needs to be constantly challenged and declared an abuse of interpretation, particularly when it is done by those who have studied the Bible and know what it contains. Let them loudly declare that the norm for marriage for much of Biblical history was polygamy, concubinage and other dysfunctional relationships. There are precious few occasions where women are assumed to be an equal party in the marriage process. They are far more likely to be seen as the among the chattels of a father or a husband. Even in the two thousand years since Christianity began, we have seen significant changes and evolution in the understanding of the relationship between men and women. Might not same sex marriage be part of the same evolution that was begun by Christ? In this area of sex and love, Paul in particular was not a good reporter of the insights and teaching of Christ himself.

Once again we have an appeal to the Lambeth Conference declaration of 1998. It is interesting how those who boycotted the Conference of 2008 are those who appeal to a Declaration of the same conference of ten years before. As Stephen Bates has made clear the manipulation of the 1998 conference was a shabby piece of underhand political activity. The now Archbishop of Wales in a conversation with me at the time said that the events of 1998 around this declaration represented some of the most unchristian activity he had ever witnessed.

I have no idea how the Bishop of Southwark will negotiate with this new threat to Anglican unity. We will see. Meanwhile we see grubby political games being played which have as their purpose the wresting of power and influence from those in authority. Let us hope that enough people recognise underhand political activity for what it is and be prepared to resist this dishonest piece of manipulation which is presented as biblical truth. It is not!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Storms in Southwark!

  1. This is very interesting. I wonder how many people who might read it would simply see it as pretty harmless and a re-iteration of what everyone believes without picking up on the political motives? Most ordinary people would think that agreeing that the Bible is right is wholly uncontentious. It needs the Bishop to issue an encyclical! Explaining that there has been a difference of opinion and between whom. Then people will be much less inclined to sign.

  2. English Athena. You have indeed picked the essential point that power politics is behind this declaration, not to mention undergirding the whole grubby GAFCON enterprise. The ‘right-wing’ attitude is that we have the ‘truth’ and because of that we have the right to control, dominate and take power over everyone else. The more tentative ‘liberal’ attitude wants democracy because truth is seen to be a work in progress. We are travelling towards truth so we cannot wish to control people in its name because we have not yet arrived there. Wishy-washy heretical Anglicans uphold humility, compassion and empathy for others even when they don’t agree with us. That is why I would never sign this declaration, because it is a document of hate and control!

  3. I heard a sermon recently where the preacher said that everything the Bible seems to be saying needs to be held up against other things. He was quoting someone, Augustine? And I don’t remember all the things. One I think is God’s essential nature. And I seem to remember that tradition and common sense are the others. You probably know this, Stephen. Anyway, I commented afterwards that he had missed out one. All interpretations need to be held up beside love. That’s the essential test these theories fail.

  4. Your challenge re quoting isolated verses is helpful, in that it points out the need to know the whole of the Bible really well. Then if you do quote an individual verse, at least you can have the confidence that it is in line with the overall message.
    For me, your words “incredibly stuffy”, “Utterly deceiving”, “grubby” and “dishonest” describing your opponents are at odds with your appeal last week that we engage in “Good disagreement”. I think that if you can moderate your mode of expression somewhat, you will have a more powerful argument rather than less. I say this as someone who has had experience of putting people’s backs up by poorly chosen words in debate.

  5. One same point.The Bible has to be read in its historical context.the Jews did not abolish Polygamy until the 4th century AD.Everything about marriage in the Bible has to be seen in this context.Many Christians in Africa have seen the text in 1Timothy 3 v2 as applying to Bishops but not to ordinary members of the congregation who could carry on practising polygamy.

  6. When I was a child in a village outside Cardiff in the 1950s, all my school friends were children of stable marriages that were expected to be life long. Things soon changed. During the 1970s, the proportion of couples living together without marrying changed from 15% to 75%. We first started hearing the phrase one-parent family. The title Ms was first used around that time. By now, I’m told that 40% of marriages end in divorce, and 90% of cohabiting couples break up. Children still having both parents living together by the time they reach 15 are the exception rather than the norm.
    The effects of this blurring of marriage and the consequent sexual anarchy on society have been significant. We have filled the land with innocent blood – we call it abortion. Our traumatised children have addiction problems and the prisons are overflowing. House prices have been pushed up: after divorce, two homes are needed rather than one. We even altered the way deaths are recorded to massage down the number of suicides: unless a person makes it absolutely clear that they killed themselves, the verdict will be that it was by accidental circumstances.
    Statistics are all very well, but I have also witnessed one case of marriage break-up at first hand. My friend’s wife asked him for a divorce because she did not love him any more. He was devastated. He and I used to meet for lunch once a week at that time, and I have never seen such deep misery going on for so long in anybody.
    You say marriage has been evolving, and still is. Personally, I would use the word unravelling rather than evolving. Since Darwin, doesn’t the word evolving imply improvement? I find the phrase you use deeply upsetting.
    Since Jesus and Paul both quote Genesis 2 with approval, (Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh) could we not all agree that this sentence represents the Christian position, along with Jesus’ added words, “that which God has joined together let not man divide?”
    You may be right in your allegations about what lies behind the Southall declaration, but personally, I see it as the response of people who feel very concerned about the damage being done to family life. That concern is to be welcomed, to my mind.

    1. I rather agree with David,

      In 2011 my son and my daughter-in-law were married using the 1662 BCP service proving that marriage hasn’t changed in reality. Clear documentary evidence. Instead marriage is disintegrating.

      Henry VIII didn’t actually change marriage at all – not one iota. Instead Henry VIII was surprisingly enthusiastic about divorce.

      Richard Attenborough died recently and politicians and the media praised his robust (“English”) marriage whilst simultaneously pushing forward new forms of relationship they like to call marriage. Such hypocrisy!

      Marriage, irrespective of one’s sexuality, is actually hard work. Christian marriage is very different now to the casual nature of societal marriage. It is much more than just a relationship and yet marriage is the one thing people don’t actually want to discuss at all.

      1. Interesting Clive. Thanks. I hope your son and daughter-in-law are enjoying married life. Mind you, as my brother told me in the early 70s, you think marriage is a big adjustment until the first child comes along…!

  7. Of course there are concerns for marriage and its status in society among Christians. It is just that I do not belive that this is what the Declaration is about. It is an attempt to play politics in the church and the gay issue is a convenient clothes peg on which to attempt to get unity among a group of politically motivated Christians. We never discussed the gay issue much twenty years ago but there were still power games going on. It is convenient for Western dissidents that they can tap into African horror at the gay issue to bolster up their attempt to take over and in the process destroy the Anglican Communion. Fortunately for those of us who resist this poor theologising, the GAFCON brigade are divided on the matter of women and their place in the church. The Church of England will never go back on this issue and Sydney Anglicans and their allies are beginning to look increasingly isolated in their attermpt to impose the ‘clear teaching’ of Scripture on the matter. To repeat this blog post was never about marriage but about underhand politics and a dishonest use of the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.