Choose life! My response to the Bishops' Report on Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships

Published by Giles Goddard on Sat, 11 Feb 2017 11:08
Vicar's Blog

The reading set for Sunday 12th February is one of the core texts of my life and faith; it goes to the heart of what religion is all about. ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!’ (Deuteronomy 30:20)


That’s why, here at St John’s, so much of what we do is about unlocking the potential of the people we seek to serve; the Digital Futures course getting young people into work, the Waterloo Festival, all our work on climate change and social justice… it comes from the commandment which runs through the scriptures like the words through a stick of rock; Choose life! Or, to put it another way – God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

Imagine, then, my dismay when I read the recent report produced by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, excitingly known as GS2055: Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations - A Report from the House of Bishops. You may be aware of the report; you may also be aware that twelve retired bishops today published a letter questioning its wisdom.

It is I think unprecedented for twelve retired bishops publicly to question the current House, but in this case it is more than justified. The letter was overseen by my good friend Bishop Peter Selby, and it contains much to be savoured – for example, this: Our perception is that while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice… The result of that focus on the issue of a change in the law is that your call for change of tone and culture, while absolutely right, does not carry conviction.

I very much hope that the current House of Bishops will read it carefully and listen to what it is saying. The report is to be discussed at General Synod this Wednesday, when the Synod are to be asked to ‘take note’. I am closely involved in a strategy and campaign to ensure that Synod does not take note, and that the House of Bishops are asked to bring a new report to a future Synod - one which reflects more faithfully and clearly the voices of LGBT Christians and the many loyal and faithful Christians for whom the negativity of the Church is a source of bemusement and dismay - and the voices of the thousands and thousands of people who have given up on the church because of its inhumane attitude towards human sexuality.

The issue is unusually toxic. Why? Because it touches many different aspects of faith; how we understand scripture, whether sex outside marriage is always sinful, whether the institution marriage can evolve as society evolves, what is the place of tradition in our faith? Above all, what does the love of God mean for the 21st century?

Today we have a fascinating juxtaposition of readings. On the one hand, this wonderful piece of Deuteronomy; and on the other, a very stern section of the Sermon on the Mount, including one of Jesus’ clear prohibitions of divorce. This prohibition is often seen as a later addition to Matthew’s gospel, but whether it is or not, it illustrates very neatly the current situation in which the church finds itself over LGBT Christians.

The church has moved on from a slavish interpretation of this scripture; divorce is now permissible by law and remarriage in church is allowed. After centuries of argument, people finally understood in this context that the overarching intention of the Bible is to encourage life, in all its fullness; and that forcing people to remain married in situations which were destructive was something which destroys life rather than creates it.

The House of Bishops have not, in GS2055, been able to make a similar leap; they are hanging their argument on a traditionalist understanding of marriage and thus undermining and marginalising the loves, lives and faith of LGBT Christians and their friends. Which is why we need to vote down the report, and I very much hope that we will.

I’m conscious that I have a special interest in all this, as a gay man with a wonderful partner. But this fundamentally affects the whole of the Church of England, and indeed the heart of Christianity; how can we enable all those who seek to live and love, as God lives and loves us, to choose life? How can we celebrate life in all its fullness? How can we be the people God created us to be?

I would like nothing better than to be able to move on from this subject; but until we are able to welcome all people, equally, as members together of the Body of Christ, it will not disappear.

But I have much to be thankful for.

I am thankful for the people who make up the congregation of St John's in all their diversity, their commitment, their questioning, their strength.

I am thankful –in spite of everything - to be part of this great Anglican tradition, with all its complexities, its arguments and its joys.

I am thankful that the older I grow the more understand the love of Jesus Christ which is at the ground of my being and which provides a constantly inspiring foundation for my voyage of discovery.

Above all I am thankful that we are all called to choose life; so that we and our children may live, so that we may love the Lord our God. And so that we can in our lives and in our work, separately and together, here in Waterloo, try to create a little piece of heaven.

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