Archbishop Justin Welby: Reimagining Marriage?

May 10, 2018 by

By Charles Raven, Anglican Mainstream.

It has recently come to light that the Church of England responded to a consultation by the Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) last year about developing liturgy for same sex marriages by warning of ‘stringent consequences’ and the risk of ‘disassociation’.

This letter, written by William Nye, Secretary General of the Archbishops Council, has sharply divided the Church of England, whose leadership up until now has shown little appetite for any meaningful discipline of TEC. The Church Times reported last week that over 300 clergy and laity, including 30 members of General Synod, have signed an alternative letter in which they welcome TEC’s introduction of same-sex marriage. They describe Mr Nye’s letter as a mistake, and encourage TEC to pursue its course, arguing that ‘a gender-neutral approach will enable us to become a loving and inclusive Church for all.’

Surprisingly, though, the protestors seem to have missed something important: there is considerable recent evidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself may actually share their views!

In an address to General Synod in February 2017 Archbishop Justin Welby called for a ‘new radical Christian inclusion’, but did not specify what he had in mind. When asked the question during an interview for GQ magazine in October 2017 ‘Is gay sex sinful?’ he replied ‘You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to’, but in a review of his recently published book ‘Reimagining Britain’, journalist Rod Liddle in The Times concluded that that despite his previous ambiguity the Archbishop was now ‘forthright and pristinely modernist, praising the advent of gay marriages’.

Is that a fair assessment? The Archbishop has certainly not become a complete moral relativist. He realizes that one of the great problems facing Britain and the western world is the breakdown of a shared understanding of what is good and right. He writes:

Underlying the temporary values that spring from changing circumstances, there are the deep understandings of what makes for virtue, of what is good in absolute and permanent terms. It was what Aslan in CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardobe’ calls the ‘deep magic’. In such deep values lies the force that drives us forward and corrects our errors. When the deep values are fractured then all hell breaks out.’ (p15)

This is encouraging, but unfortunately as we read on it turns out that the gendered nature of marriage is for him a temporary value that can indeed change with circumstances. But before this point is made explicit, the ground is cleared by setting up the ‘classical family’ (in other words the family as shaped by the Christian ethic) as a harmful myth:

The nature of families has changed enormously. The introduction of equal marriage in many countries including (since 2014) the UK, the transformation in habits of cohabitation before marriage from something regarded daring and scandalous to something accepted as normal, and other trends and changes, have all combined to challenge the image of the classical family. In many ways, because the image was probably a myth, and where it existed it was often patriarchal, hypocritical and deceptive, these changes have often been more honest.’ ( p55)

So how do we reconnect modern Britain with the Christian faith? For Archbishop Welby the key is to adapt and he sets out a middle way between what he describes as static tradition and the abandonment of tradition:

Tradition that is static dies. Tradition that abandons the past in a paradigm shift loses stability. The same applies to traditions of values, and thus to the importance of embedding our reimagining in what we have been, as well as what we will be. Thus, for example, same sex marriage builds on the presumption that marriage is stable and lifelong (the rootedness of the tradition), while also responding to the massive shift in cultural acceptance with regard to the understanding of human nature and sexual orientation.’

So it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than that the Archbishop’s reimagined Britain includes ‘reimagined marriage’ in which lifelong commitment and fidelity are all that is essential. But of course this ‘reimagined marriage’ actually commends the hallowing of a radical rejection of one of the good purposes of God for humanity. Essential to marriage in Scripture, as taught in Genesis and as reaffirmed by Jesus (e.g. Matthew 19:4), is the union of male and female, a gender complementarity that is imprinted in the very nature of the created order and patterns the relationship of Christ and the Church.

This takes us to the heart of the problem which is the authority of the Bible as God’s Word written. Just as his predecessor Archbishop Rowan Williams did in a more sophisticated way by talking about the ‘grammar of obedience’, Archbishop Justin Welby seems now to be promoting teaching about sexuality which is contradictory to the plain meaning of Scripture as it has been held for two millennia. And once we allow the gospel to be separated from Scripture, it quickly becomes a false gospel.

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