Over 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 conscience.
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!