the Ministerial Recognition Committee
and the Baptist Steering Group,
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am aware that you will receive some significant angry correspondence in response to the statement by Council from people on both sides of the debate on homosexuality. It is not my wish to be angry and to add to those letters; I appreciate that navigating the conversations surrounding our BUGB response to those who are LGBT+ is something that some of you have put a significant amount of time and energy into over the last few years and so my first job is to say thank you for seeking to steer an emotive discussion well.
It was nonetheless with sadness – although I must say, no surprise - that I received Council’s statement in an email this afternoon. I had so far resisted writing in to join in the polemics but I realise now that my silence may have contributed to part of the view that the BUGB ‘norm’ on human sexuality is that marriage is between a man and a woman. For that I apologise, not least to my LGBT brothers and sisters for whom today’s email means a deferment of a service and a commitment they have longed to make within the church. So let me say clearly: I would marry a same sex couple in a heartbeat if my local church allowed it, and I long for the day when all can be included in the holy discipline of love that we affirm for heterosexual couples. I would also like to take some time to respond to some of the content of the statement.
In your statement you mention that we Baptists have sought to find a biblical definition of marriage. However, it does not take much introduction to hermeneutics to know that who interprets scripture, which bits of scripture they are interpreting, what type of writing that scripture is, when it was written and the context it was written into, not to mention the context we are interpreting it into, matters for how we understand it. Interestingly, although my church is not at the stage of registering for same sex marriage, they have come to the position that someone in a same-sex relationship could be a deacon of our church. It is worth pointing out that this position was formed following taking the BUGB homosexuality discussion day – it was through discovering the complexity behind what the Bible says that drew them into this inclusivity. So if they asked to register for same-sex marriages then I would, in accordance with the declaration of principle, follow the will of my church meeting’s interpretation of scripture. Nor, it must be said, will I ever push registering for same-sex marriage as an agenda; it is the church meeting’s discernment not mine. This Baptist hermeneutic that Christ is the sole authority pertaining to all matters of faith and practice, that this is discerned in the local gathered group of believers, by interpreting scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the central reason I am a minister in the Baptist Union. If that is removed from us as an option, then I would have to consider whether the Baptist Union continues to reflect the theology I have passionately declared. Homosexuality is not and never should be the test case for orthodoxy within our Union; we have three points in our declaration of principle which are for us the litmus test of what it is to be Baptist, and only those three.
This matters to me because scripture will always be something we have to return to on many issues. To quote Helen Dare, we are ‘on the way and in the fray’ as we interpret and reinterpret what God is saying in scripture. This is clear when we consider the statement ‘biblical marriage’. A biblical marriage, by one view of scripture, could mean that arguably my husband has the right to marry another wife as well as me. We have discerned that this is not the case, instead we have theologically reflected and decided that instead what matters is faithful monogamy. We could consider that biblical marriage might mean my husband is my spiritual head, where I must be submissive to him, instead we have theologically reflected that my rights as a human being are not subsumed under him, but that mutual love and respect are important. We could consider biblical marriage to be against the words of Paul, who encourages disciples to be like him: to stay celibate and unmarried and work hard for the coming kingdom, but a quick glance at any church’s under 35’s events suggests that instead we believe the weddings in our churches are something to aim for and celebrate. We could consider biblical marriage to be accepting of a young teenage virgin getting married because her parents decided so, but instead we have theologically reflected that being older and being free to choose are important. We could consider biblical marriage about being fruitful and multiplying, but instead we carefully add square brackets around lines about children in our liturgies and we instead theologically reflect that marriage is also for those who know they can’t or won’t have children. We could argue, strongly, that Biblical marriage includes the understanding that divorce, and especially the remarriage of a divorcee, is against the words of Christ, but instead we have theologically reflected that this is not pastorally appropriate and we have a God of mercy, compassion and second chances. We even ordain those who have been remarried.
So in the light of this ‘biblical marriage’ I would like to tell you about a key theological reflection that is governing our response to human sexuality in the bible. In 2015 I submitted my Master’s thesis to Oxford University on the language we use to argue for women in ministry, realising that overwhelmingly our arguments assume a ‘complementary’ pairing between men and women. I am about to simplify my argument here, but in short we argue that men and women are two halves of a whole who together make up the image of God. We have argued, therefore, that we need to reclaim femininity and we need to encourage women in to ministry in order to have this divine image manifested in our ordained ministry. We have looked at verses like Galatians 3:28, that there is no male and female in Christ Jesus, and we have spent much energy showing that this undoes the hierarchy between men and women but not the differences. This is a debate that has taken an underlying hierarchical view that men and women are complementary pairs, where women should take certain spiritual roles and men others, and cleverly subverted it, arguing instead for an egalitarianism. Apart from simply showing that this is the Union’s theological working on what it means to be a woman in ministry, one of my questions was whether this was helpful at contributing to egalitarian understandings of women in ministry. We know that the percentages of ordained women remain low and are particularly abysmal for those who are from an ethnic minority, and it only takes a couple of women ministers to be in the same room to hear some of the litany of prejudices that they experience week in week out. In response to this I examined some recent gender theory, which offers numerous cautions in viewing men and women as binary pairs. My conclusion followed that we need a better theology of what it is to be sexed or gendered humans in the image of God because ours isn’t leading to the emancipation of women or speaking into contemporary society.
I tell you this because I believe it also matters for our conversation about human sexuality. We still view women and men as complementary halves of a whole and this therefore also means that we read this into our conversation on human sexuality. If women and men are complementary in a way that reflects God, then our follow on conclusion is that women and women, or men and men, or indeed, those who do not easily fit either the title of man or woman, cannot be complementary pairs because they don’t reflect the image of God. I would like to add some note of caution to this conclusion as I have above: in this view someone who is single is also therefore not the full image of God, and when we consider Galatians 3:28 are we not looking at the whole church, not simply a person or couple within it?
Perhaps if we have theologically reflected that monogamous, childfree, women honouring, age appropriate divorcees are able to enter marriage, there will be room in the future to also discern that men and women are not binary and complementary pairs, but that the whole human race in all its creativity and diversity is the image of God? And so, maybe two men or two women could also commit to a disciplined, holy life of love together? I have heard from those who disagree with me on sexuality that it is not our job to change with the world, so let us not pander to a vain, anything-goes, cohabiting, heteronormative society, let us offer something else: that those in same-sex relationships can also live this life of covenant commitment for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death does them part. This is not bending to our society, this is offering the challenge of Christian marriage to a group of people we have and continue to isolate from our churches. This is not a conversation that is going to go away. I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling the church to include those who are LGBT+ in our view of marriage, and so I will continue to work and pray for that to happen, because in my experience standing against God is unproductive.
This is my belief. It is a belief I have come to from interrogating scripture and social science. It is a belief that I have come to from sitting with friends and in pastoral visits with people whose mature love receives discrimination where I would receive praise. It is a belief that has led me to try to leave the church as a teenager, it is a belief that made me deny a call to ministry for years longer than I should have and it is a belief I offer to my many friends of my generation who cannot understand why I would be a Christian when the church is a sexist and homophobic institution.
If we wish to come to a settled place of mutual respect, then any statement also needs to include my voice and it needs to include the unvoiced pain of many who are marginalised or who have already left our churches. Let us be aware of (and honest about) the heteronormative, binary understanding of gender that is our starting point for scriptural interpretation on this issue, and then let us continue this conversation, as we travel the way – and in the fray – of Jesus Christ, our sole authority pertaining to all matters of faith and practice.
With every blessing,
Reverend Elizabeth Allison-Glenny