Science and the Bible, debates about committees, hope and courage in mission
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:
Another week, another revisionist Church Times leader article penned by an academic heavyweight. This time a consultant psychiatrist and Professor of Theology insists that we need to allow the latest scientific findings to inform our understanding of Scripture. People used to believe that the earth was static and at the centre of the universe because of a literal interpretation of Psalm 93:1, says Christopher Cook. In the same way, today there are some people who are still like that – who actually believe, for example, Paul’s teaching in Romans 1, that “homoerotic behaviour” (his phrase) is not what the creator intended. Professor Cook patiently explains that these backward people clearly have not read the “impressive consensus” among scientists, that the homosexual lifestyle is a normal and natural variation of human experience, and that any negative consequences (for example mental and physical health problems) are “attributable to adverse social attitudes”. He is particularly worried about the harm caused by “conversion therapy” and those who pressurise people to seek it. He concludes: “we do not have to accept the judgements of St Paul’s world in preference to those of modern science”.
I’m not sure what ‘modern science’ Professor Cook is reading, but I recall a very recent major study providing compelling evidence that there are no genetic factors involved in same sex attraction, and that many people’s ‘orientation’ changes over time. In the 2013 Pilling Report, rather than following the popular but unproven theories about inbuilt and fixed sexual orientation, the authors were commendably very tentative about this and about the potential of changing patterns of sexual feelings and behaviour through voluntarily chosen therapy. It’s clear that in some cases the ‘science’ around this highly charged topic is not exact, and open to manipulation by pressure from lobby groups. As for the claim that gay people continue to be disproportionately marginalised and excluded, this simply does not line up with the realities of modern Western culture. The so-called ‘facts’ on sexuality and morality appear to be changing all the time, so as a Christian I can’t accept the authority of someone who claims that in this field ‘science’ trumps the Bible, even if he has lots of letters after his name.
The constant undermining and contradicting of the biblical and historic teaching of the church by senior figures can be depressing for orthodox believers, which is why many people rejoiced at the unveiling of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s team of Bishops selected to reflect further on sexuality issues and provide a sort of consultancy to the House of Bishops as they edge towards more decisions for the Church at the end of this year. The group appears to contain a majority of conservatives, which predictably angered those campaigning for change in the Church’s teaching, and seems to be a rare victory for the orthodox side.
A storm in a teacup arose on social media after GAFCON UK published a brief comment saying they were “puzzled” as to why such a group was needed at all, given the clear teaching of the Bible and Lambeth 1:10. This seems reasonable and consistent with GAFCON’s stance that the Church shouldn’t be working out its beliefs and practice from endless indabas and Shared Conversations, but many felt it was churlish when they should be celebrating a victory. My understanding is that the Bishop’s group is advisory so it would be premature to put too much weight on what they come up with, which will be confidential anyway. But overall this incident does reveal differences in personality and in strategy among the orthodox, with views ranging from “we can win back the Church of England” to “we need to prepare for separation and exile”.
A healthy mixture of gritty realism and hope has been the mood at the ReNew conference which has just finished in Leeds. The very serious problems in the Church of England were clearly summarised in one session, alluded to in the presentations by a number of speakers, and featured in the discussions among delegates in regional groups. But this was not the main focus – it provided strong background colour but the foreground continued to be evangelism: making Jesus known in and through churches into communities up and down the country. The conference addressed key leadership principles which enable churches to flourish: confidence in the bible as the word of God, courage to take on difficult ministries and to oppose false ideas, humility, prayer, loving people, mentoring younger leaders, perseverance. This year’s conference gave a stronger voice to (in the minds of some) previously less emphasised themes: ministry in the north of England, on council estates; the training and releasing of women in ministry.
There continue to be questions about the direction of the institution of the Church of England in terms of clarity of its message and its relationship to the culture. This gathering of hundreds of committed, biblically orthodox, mission-minded clergy (and some lay people) gave a strong impression that confessing Anglicanism at the grassroots will continue to thrive, even under pressure.
See also: 400 attend ReNew Conference in Northern Powerhouse, from Church of England Newspaper