The Church of England’s guide to hearing God’s voice through the bible, according to LLF

Nov 24, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“The bible is crystal clear” on the subject of same sex relationships, says a participant in ‘The Beautiful Story’, the video commending the orthodox Christian view of sex and marriage, produced by CEEC. But is it? According to the Living in Love and Faith textbook (LLF), there are many possible, and perhaps equally valid interpretations of what the bible says on this subject. Not only this – making such a statement about the clarity of Scripture in supporting one’s position could betray unconscious use of power, to demean and oppress others with a different view, particularly oppressed groups, and it shows a lack of self-reflection and humility.

LLF (p328) suggests that certain ways of reading the bible which might seem “obvious” are in fact formed by “the experience of the privileged groups that do most to produce them. So what we take to be just ‘sound interpretation’ may in fact be white, male, middle-class, affluent and Western interpretation and theology”. Instead, we’re encouraged (p329) to consider “queer hermeneutics” which focusses on unmasking the “cisgender heterosexual perspective” behind certain assumptions about gender and sexuality.

In the chapter on ‘the bible’ (part of a comprehensive section on ‘How do we hear God?’, the traditional, conservative method of reading various passages is questioned and set against a revisionist interpretation. So for example, after lessons on how to look at the context and take into account “canonical diversity and complexity” (p280), there is a case study: can we articulate a ‘biblical’ view of marriage? The church did, we’re told, develop a consensus around an understanding of exclusive one-flesh heterosexual union, based on various texts in the Old and New Testaments. But this led to a “negative” perception of intimate relationships which are different from the norm.

LLF asks: Should “grace and mercy” be a more important principle than law? Or perhaps biblical examples were only relevant for the ancient context in which they are set? Maybe heterosexual examples are merely “illustrative” of a more general concept of covenant love, and not “morally normative”? And then, the biblical picture of God’s purpose of liberating oppressed peoples is surely more important than preserving traditional interpretations, in our current context of prejudice against LGBT people. Should we not rather learn from the experience of relationships previously regarded as immoral, but which clearly display the fruit of the Spirit? In the end, whether we follow some scholars in thinking that the bible does provide a coherent, unified witness on these ethical issues, or those who do not, can we not accept that despite our diversity, there is more that unites us than that which divides us?

The authors of LLF warn against simply appealing to Scripture. A number of key texts in the debate  are analysed (eg Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-11, 1 Tim 1:8-11). In each case the traditional interpretation and then more revisionist approaches are summarised. The conclusion asks important questions which are left hanging:

“If we dismiss what seems to be obvious on first reading, are we saying there is no ‘plain meaning’ to Scripture and that only experts can read Scripture well? How do we give particular attention to the experience and understanding of those whose lives are most directly affected by how these texts are interpreted?” (p294).

The authors do not address how such a question (repeated in various forms many times in LLF) could have the effect of silencing anyone not seen as “directly affected”.

A long section (p283f) follows which sets out seven views on how to interpret the bible, and analyses them in turn. One one ‘extreme’ is the view that “the bible is truthful…we simply need to read it and obey it”. at the other end of the spectrum is the view that “the bible is a collection of fallible human voices”. Viewpoints 2-6 outline nuanced views ranging from more conservative to more liberal. As these views are evaluated, numbers 1 and 7 are discounted: 7 because it only sees human authorship, and the conservative view because it does not sufficiently take into account the complexities of authorial context.

It has to be said that this comes across as a blatant form of academic snobbery. In an effort to fairly represent the view of moderate conservative theologians while at the same time opening the door wide for ‘radical inclusion’ readings which use biblical interpretation to support same sex relationships, this section of LLF excludes the majority of ordinary lay Anglicans who would be closer to (1) in their understanding of the bible as God’s word. Those who read the bible devotionally, who study in groups and listen to it in church without external commentary, who fulfil the vision of Tyndale’s plough boy (the ordinary working man/woman empowered by the sacrificial work of translation and literacy), who seek to understand and apply the Scriptures in their simple profundity, who like Mark Twain say “it’s not what I don’t understand in the bible that worries me – it’s what I do understand” – these people are written off by the authors of LLF, who imply that you need a degree in theology and literary theory before you can interpret the bible, and that there is no “biblical truth” in the church, only multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations held together by the overriding principle of ‘love’.

But not all use of the bible in LLF is dependent on academic training. We read a very subjective interpretation of John 6, attributed to the House of Bishops in their ‘invitation’ at the start of the book. Just as Jesus said to his disciples “make the people sit down” in order to receive the bread and the fish, so the Bishops hear this as a word of the Lord direct to them today: ask those with diverse views in the Church of England to “sit down…to learn, listen and pray together”. The LLF book becomes, bizarrely, the bread which Jesus will multiply for the nourishment of the church. And yet later in the book, verses such as “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman”, or “the creator made them male and female” need ten pages of discussion before concluding that God may have meant something else other than the ‘plain meaning’.

To be fair, it is possible to find some good, even profound passages of biblical interpretation in LLF which have clearly been written by some of the more conservative members of the contributing team. But on every occasion such a passage will be qualified; another point of view will be presented; we will be reminded to consider the impact on those who may feel offended; we will be reminded of our prejudices, we’ll be asked to celebrate our diversity, even disunity, and encouraged to witness to the world through the love we have for those with whom we disagree.

***

The Church of England Evangelical Council advise their members to “engage” with the LLF process. There is, I think, a genuine belief in some quarters that the “Beautiful Story” of the bible’s guide to who we are as human beings in the light of the gospel just hasn’t been communicated successfully, and here is an opportunity to win over the liberals as part of a respectful conversation. I would want to plead with anyone thinking of taking part in next year’s conversations on that basis: don’t! No matter how clearly and winsomely you communicate your view, at best it will be immediately relativised (“that’s your opinion”); you will be patronised (“haven’t you read these theologians?”);  at worst you’ll be accused of hate speech. The only justification for conservatives taking part is for those who’ve read up on all the intersectional theory and queer theology to just sit quietly, listen and take notes, seeing it as a research project on what the trajectory of the Church of England really is as illustrated by LLF: a compromise with secularism and neo-paganism. Meanwhile, energy should go into planning for differentiation within and/or separation from the institution depending on conscience and circumstance.

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