Sunday, 7 March 2010

Bishop James Jones and the challenge to unity

“ ... it is rather the force of custom, whereby the Church having so long found it good to continue under the regiment of her virtuous bishops, doth still uphold, maintain, and honour them in that respect, than that any such true and heavenly law can be shewed, by the evidence whereof it may of a truth appear that the Lord himself hath appointed presbyters for ever to be under the regiment of bishops, in what sort soever they behave themselves. Let this consideration be a bridle unto them, let it teach them not to disdain the advice of their presbyters ...”
Before he composed his recent address to the Liverpool Diocesan Synod, Bishop James Jones would have done well to have considered the above words of Richard Hooker, found in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (VII.v.8).
One wonders, for example, from how many of his presbyters Bishop Jones sought advice before advancing the opinions he has presented in his speech. One wonders also how his presbyters now feel, given that Bishop Jones has clearly decided that ‘his’ diocese will henceforth adopt a more liberal position on the question of homosexuality.
Earlier signs
Sadly, Bishop Jones signalled his changing views (dare one say his ‘changing attitude’?) on this matter two years ago with an essay entitled ‘Making Space for Truth and Grace’, published in A Fallible Church (Darton, Longman and Todd, edited by Kenneth Stevenson). In this, he defined four ‘walls’ within which he believed debate about human sexuality ought to take place in his diocese.
The first was, in his words, “the authoritative Biblical emphasis upon the uniqueness of marriage as a divine ordinance for the ordering of human society and the nurture of children.”
The second, however, was what he also claimed to be “authoritative Biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender.” Those he gave were “Jesus and his beloved and David and Jonathan,” but I have noted elsewhere the contentious nature of Jones’s exegesis in applying the latter case to modern same-sex relationships.
His third ‘wall’ was “the role of conscience in the Anglican moral tradition,” which, he argued, trumped even the oath of canonical obedience in that, “should you be pressed to do something which in good conscience you deem not to be honest then conscience would demand that you dissent.” That point may yet come back to haunt him.
His fourth ‘wall’, meanwhile, was the need for unity, on the basis that, “disunity saps the energy of the church.”
The last theme is very much to the fore in his speech to his Synod:
As Bishop called to “maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace” in the Diocese of Liverpool where we have the full spectrum of moral opinion on human sexuality I believe that to have “diversity without enmity” ... provides a safe and a spiritually and emotionally healthy place for Christians of differing convictions to discern the will of God for our lives.
A plea for ‘ethical variety’
In short, Bishop Jones believes that Christians can, within the Church of England, accept varying views on homosexual practice, just as they have long accepted varying views on pacifism:
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully.
(For which latter phrase read, ‘having sex with each other physically’.)
One of the most peculiar things in his whole argument, however, is precisely the Bishop’s choice of the “sixth Commandment”, for he certainly could not have pulled off the same approach with the first, second, third, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth. Thus there are, one imagines, very few ‘pro-adultery’ Christians, even within Anglicanism, and, in all probability, just as few (apart from the odd eccentric) who support stealing, lying, idolatry, and so on.
Actually, the Bishop could have made a much better case with the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” particularly since the word translated “kill” in the sixth commandment generally applies to murder or accidental slaying, and thus has no real bearing on the issue of pacifism, which (given the rest of the Old Testament) has surely been argued on other grounds than that the Commandments absolutely prohibit killing anyone ever.
Once again, the Bishop’s biblical exegesis is contorted on a subject where the need is for clarity. Doubtless he has his reasons for choosing pacifism as the ‘test case’. But as I have indicated, a quick comparison with the other commandments shows that it is in danger of being ‘special pleading’ rather than convincing proof.
The reality of division
But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that the, precisely on the basis of a plea for unity, the Bishop has committed his diocese to a position which will exacerbate division because it is not the adopted position of the Church of England. This is clear even within his own pronouncements. Thus he says,
I bring it to you today to say that this is where I now am, and where I believe the Diocese of Liverpool now is and where I hope that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion might also move. (emphasis added)
He is not where he once was, he believes he has positioned his Diocese where he now is, and he hopes the rest of the Church may catch up! And that position is thus:
... we do already as a Diocese accept a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality in the same way that the church has always allowed a diversity of ethical opinion on taking human life.
In other words, some say this, and some say that, and who is to say who is wrong? Yet this is not a recipe for unity but for disaster. Bishop Jones needs to read Richard John Neuhaus on ‘The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy’, and to look at what the revisionist lobby is saying. The midway position on this topic is not one that can be sustained, not least because it is not one that the key protagonists wish to hold.
A divergence from Issues
Yet we should be in no doubt that Bishop Jones himself has already adopted the view that there is little if anything wrong with the sexual expression of same-sex attraction:
If on this subject of sexuality the traditionalists are ultimately right and those who advocate the acceptance of stable and faithful gay relationships are wrong what will their sin be? That in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them? And if those advocating the acceptance of gay relationship are right and the traditionalists are wrong what will their sin be? That in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they missed the principle in the application of the literal text?
In this, Bishop Jones is at odds with the House of Bishops, especially as that House expressed itself in the very substantial 2003 document Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A guide to the debate. There we read this:
The teaching of Issues in Human Sexuality ... does not have legally binding authority in the Church of England [...].
However, because it reflects the current collective position of the House of Bishops, and because the Church of England is an episcopally led Church in which bishops have a particular responsibility for guiding the Church in matters of faith and morals, it should be accepted by those in the Church as possessing considerable theological and pastoral authority.
Bishop Jones clearly now regards the teaching of Issues in Human Sexuality as a matter, fundamentally, of indifference — as something on which we ought simply to agree to differ:
... I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
He must, therefore, be somewhat out of step with the other bishops, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to his attempts to reposition the Diocese of Liverpool — not least in the international arena when he refers to,
... a partnership between an African Diocese taking a traditional stance on gay relationships and a Church of England Diocese which is moving toward embracing a range of ethical convictions on this issue and which is also in partnership with a Diocese in the Episcopal Church of America. (emphasis added)
Note again, it is clear from his language that he regards the Diocese of Liverpool as no longer being where it was (where the rest of England is), and now nearer to the position of TEC!
Conscience and obedience
But in closing we must return to the question of conscience and canonical obedience, raised by Bishop Jones himself. The number of traditionalist clergy in the Diocese of Liverpool may be large or small, but they must surely be waking up this morning with troubled consciences. The Bishop has declared not only his own position but, ostensibly, that of his diocese as being one which accepts diversity on sexuality. Is this a position which his ‘presbyters’ would advise him (following Hooker) to adopt?
If not, then they might like to consider the rest of what Hooker said to the bishops,
Let this consideration be a bridle unto them, let it teach them not to disdain the advice of their presbyters, but to use their authority with so much the greater humility and moderation, as a sword which the Church hath power to take from them.
Of course the Bishop of Liverpool may not be deposed by his presbyters — not under the present arrangements of establishment. But he may be disobeyed on the basis of conscience, and it is Bishop Jones himself who has advocated this.
Sadly, Bishop Jones has not merely strained his own credentials, he has challenged the unity of his diocese and his national church. The situation is tragic, not least because this has been done in the name of unity. The question now is what the other bishops, and his own priests, will do in response.
John P Richardson
March 7, 2010
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. James Jones shows exactly where the 'open evangelical' position today ends up: in embracing liberalism.

  2. I should add that it's a long time since I looked at the 'Fulcrum' website - I glanced at it this morning to see if they had picked up on the Jones farrago but quickly decided I should give it up for Lent.
    'open evangelical' contineus to morph relentlessly into 'post-evangelical' into sentimental universalism.

  3. There is another good response to James Jones at

    Best wishes,
    David Baker

  4. That bastion of reason, The Christian Institute, has almost as unhealthy interest in the subject of homosexuality as this blog; but its take on the subject is a little contradictory. e.g. In Aug 09 it reports that there is a reduction in the number of civil partnerships, concluding that the government got it wrong and that there is less demand civil partnerships and that there are far fewer homosexuals in the UK than the gov. estimated – barely 1% of the population. Yet in March a whiny article appears about Civil Partnerships being forced upon churches. Given the C.I. has already stated homosexuals are a tiny minority and civil partnerships are declining, you’d think they’d see the issue as irrelevant, but no, where there can be salaciousness there you will find the C.I.

    The C.I. example demonstrates that on occasion the Evangelical preoccupation with the subject of homosexuality is disproportionate to both its impact and importance in society. My knowledge of the Anglican Divines is sketchy, tho’ I seem to remember Richard Hooker suggested the foundations of Anglicanism should be Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Reason is certainly something that has been applied to many Scriptural requirements that even Evangelicals have been happy to mollify or ignore. Jesus is clear on his teaching about divorce, it is permissible only for adultery. Those who marry a divorcee are committing adultery (my Koine Greek is rusty, but I think this is rendered in the present continuous tense – i.e. ongoing throughout the re-marriage). Yet we see divorce in all churches and remarriage is common. Reason has been applied to this problem, reason has overcome the requirements of Scripture. Likewise, few Christians have any scruples about receiving interest on their bank deposits, despite the fact usury is prohibited in Scripture – but lo, reason has been applied and usury re-defined and we’re all richer (literally) for its application. Few women wear hats in church and refrain from wearing make-up and jewellery; despite Paul’s instructions. Woman even talk in church and not many would unconditionally ‘obey’ their male masters – or consider men to be superior. Reason has again overcome this requirement. Such a use of reason has not been applied to the homosexual; hence one has to ask why?

    The most likely answer, is that Genesis gives a clear template for human sexuality in the persons of Adam and Eve – good old heterosexual marriage. Of course this is human sexuality before The Fall. Here in the present day, sundered from a Mesopotamian creation myth, we’re stuck with the fact some people are just homosexual. As Desmond Tutu so wisely notes, it is doubtful any right minded person would choose this state, but they’re stuck with it nevertheless. They have needs, wants, desires – what are they to do? Take up a hobby – or graduate to the loving bosom of the Church? Where they will be a second class citizens, watched, scrutinised and patronised. Obviously much of this is not intentional, but will take place nevertheless. Or perhaps they can be afforded the same reason their heterosexual brethren liberally apply to themselves when it suits? But no, this does not happen because the majority of any congregation is heterosexual and it would impact upon the majority of the congregation if a conservative reading of Scripture were retained concerning women’s role or divorce etc. Whereas maintaining a conservative stance on homosexuality affects only a tiny percentage and there is considerable symbolic capital from the use of this scapegoat minority; it is a way of being morally upright without the inconvenience and burden of that morality falling on the majority of the congregation’s shoulders. Moreover it is a virtuous way of defending age old prejudices and bigotry.

    ‘The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this’ [homosexual?] Lk 18:11

    Things don’t change much, where religion is concerned do they?

  5. David Baker - perhaps you might like to revisit the Fulcrum site (and review your sweeping generalisations) by reading Andrew Goddard's excellent article there. A good robust critique like the one here and peter Ould's

  6. I live in the Liverpool diocese, and when I was involved in the Church, had quite considerable contact with Bishop James Jones.

    Undoubtedly, he has moved considerably on the question and he would acknowledge that himself.

    I think he could well reflect both the majority view in the CofE, and amongst the Bishops, but is leading the way. As an established church there is no other stance that the CofE can realistically take given the position of gay and lesbian people in UK law.

    Mike Homfray