I want to offer two comments on the ongoing disaster in the Church of England, one about the circumstances of this bishop’s life and one, more serious, about the nature of Christianity itself.
First, it appears that the conservative wing of the church have been somewhat blindsided by the language of ‘gay but celibate’. When this language was first adopted as the official position of what was allowed of clergy a number of years ago, it was assumed by conservatives (with some relief) that what this meant was that it was acceptable for the clergy to experience homosexual attraction but not acceptable to follow through on it. That is of course correct; all Christians are tempted by the desires of our flesh, of all sorts; godliness consists not in whether we are tempted but in whether that temptation is resisted.
What they apparently did not foresee was the way that phrase has in fact been applied, as demonstrated in this case: that it is fine for a man (or woman) to live in a pseudo-marriage with a same-sex partner, provided that it is claimed (contrary to all appearances) that the relationship is not sexual. This is, to say the least, stretching credulity; does anyone really believe this to be true? If a man in my church calls a woman his ‘girlfriend’ and entertains her in his room for the night, I am not inclined to believe his protestations of chastity. Moreover, the Bishop of Grantham describes the relationship as ‘faithful’. What could this possibly mean if the relationship is not sexual? I am faithful to my wife because I make love to her and to no-one else. ‘Faithfulness’ (in the sense of exclusivity) as a category simply does not apply to non-sexual friendships.
Of course we could never know whether the bishop is telling the truth, much as it might be somewhat naïve to take it at face value. But that is beside the point. We are told by God in Scripture to flee immorality, to give no opportunity for the flesh, to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin. At the very least his domestic arrangements are a dramatic failure to do any of those things, and to expose himself to temptation in a drastic and constant fashion. If sodomy is a serious sin (as the Bible is so clear it is, and as the C of E still officially maintains) then for a man who confesses himself tempted by it to do anything other than flee as far as he can from it and lead himself not into temptation – as he, if he is a Christian, should pray daily that God would do for him – is itself a moral failure of a very serious kind. If a man confesses to me that he is strongly attracted to a woman who is not his wife, I do not pat him on the back if he says that, while they regularly spend the night at each others’ houses and refer to themselves as ‘partners’, they never actually have sex. He is either lying, or deliberately putting temptation in his (and her) way, or, most probably, both. Neither is, of course, remotely compatible with being a man who can be an example to the flock.
It seems therefore that the only course for evangelicals in the C of E is to cry foul; ‘gay but celibate’ is not a good enough definition of an acceptable lifestyle for any Christians, clergy included. ‘Recognising the sinfulness of all sexual sin, homosexual activity included, and living in a way which demonstrates diligent fleeing from it and avoidance of temptation’ would be far better. The archbishop of Canterbury’s failure to insist on that in this case is of course a matter of the gravest concern.
But second, serious as this matter is, it is not in my view the most serious thing which is going on here. For that, we should consider the bishop’s words in his BBC interview. Twice he said, ‘my sexuality is part of who I am’; and used that as the basis for justifying his lifestyle. He has conducted his ministry, he said, ‘as a gay man’. And in saying that he demonstrated a total failure either to understand, or to believe, the Christian gospel.
Because the gospel is about how God, in Christ, rescues us from who we are. At the heart of Jesus’ message is that evil begins, not outside of us, but within us; it is from the heart that all evil springs. That is why Christ’s mission is one of rescue, of opening blind eyes, of softening hard hearts, of enabling us to see our hearts for what they are, so that abandoning our love of self we will flee to him to save us from what we are and transform us into what we are not. Jesus’ death on the cross was precisely to atone for who we are; to take away the corruption of our flesh, to crucify it along with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Jesus’ was raised from the dead by the Father so that, as the risen crucified one, he could give life to the dead. For we were ‘dead in our transgressions and sins’, ‘carrying out the desires of the body and the mind’ until ‘God raised us up with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:1,3,5). Christianity is about the risen Christ saving us from who we naturally are.
But the liberal wing of the C of E, as exemplified in this case by the bishop of Grantham, takes ‘who I am’ as being something fundamentally good. Because I find a certain sexual desire in my heart, it must be right for that desire to be fulfilled. More than that, to accept that ‘gay’ is a valid identity marker for a Christian is to accept that we are defined by the desires of our hearts. But the whole nature of the Christian gospel – Galatians 5:16-24 would be a classic example – is that while we might have been defined by our desires before we were Christians, Christ has saved Christians from them. Our identity is no longer in our lusts and passions, it is in Christ. They no longer define us; he does. ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’. In the place of the works of the flesh we are given the fruits of the Spirit.
And so – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – the divisions in the Church of England are not over the rightness or wrongness of certain sexual acts, nor even over the definition of marriage. They are mere symptoms. The division is over what the gospel is. For a century and more the liberal wing of the church of England has been redefining Christianity as being essentially an exercise in moral self-improvement; we are by nature good, albeit with some problems, and Jesus’ function (and the Bible’s too) is to have set us an example and given us moral ideas and inspiration for how to improve ourselves and our world. In that century Liberalism has shown itself quite willing to amend the moral example and ideas it sees in Christ according to the prevailing winds of the culture, from Victorian moralism to wartime nationalism to today’s liberalism. That is of relatively minor significance; what matters is that it is a version of Christianity which is essentially Pelagian, a belief that human nature is fundamentally sound. Who we are is definitively good, our natural instincts, desires and capabilities are to be valued, and God merely offers his help to our programme of self-improvement.
Over against this stands historic Christianity. Which is, fundamentally, about redemption. That is, that God in Christ has come to do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. He has come to save us from sin, as his very name tells us (Matt 1:21); which, as the entire New Testament demonstrates and teaches, includes both the guilt of our sins and the power of our sins. Christ died to save his church from the wrath of God. And along with that, he died to save them from the enslaving power of sin. What we naturally are is glorious, for we are the images of God; but also so drastically twisted by sin that for our desires to do anything other than lead us to condemnation before God’s throne, they need to be first overcome and redeemed by the miraculous work of the Spirit in our lives. Being a liar is part of who I am; being an idolater is part of who I am; being proud and self-centred is part of who I am. And at the heart of the gospel is that the eternal Son of God became flesh, lived a righteous life, suffered and died and rose again in order to deliver me from who I am. So let me say: my sexuality is part of who I am too. And I, like everyone who has encountered the grace of God in Christ, I am eternally grateful to him for having delivered me from who I am, my sexuality included. For my sexual desires, like those of every human being, are twisted from their God-given function in marriage towards all sorts of destructive ends. And it is only by the grace of God that I have been delivered from slavery to them. ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romand 7:24-25)
So the height of the tragedy of this case is that this bishop – and countless others like him in the Church of England – has apparently never known the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ stands ready to save us all – including him – from who we are, and from God’s righteous judgment upon who we are. Christ gave himself up to death in order to deliver all those who will come to him from the slavery that our passions and desires are to us. Christ commands all of us, this man included, to repent of our sins and believe in him. And he promises to all who do that, although it might feel like plucking out our right eye and cutting off our right hand, that nevertheless it is the entrance into an eternal life of freedom from sin and enjoyment of God himself that infinitely outweighs what we have lost. No-one who has experience what it is to be delivered by Jesus Christ from what we naturally are could possibly want to cling on to it, or be identified with it, any longer.
If the conservatives in the C of E want to stand firm on this, that is what they need to be saying. It is the gospel of salvation from sin which is at stake here. And that is Christianity itself.