Amazing Love? A review article by Peter Sanlon (Part 2)
Posted by The Rev'd Dr Peter Sanlon, 29 Jul 2016
'Amazing Love: Theology for Understanding Discipleship, Sexuality and Mission' is a new book, edited by Andrew Davison, which seeks to promote a change to the Church of England's doctrine of marriage. In an extended two-part review, Peter Sanlon analyses the claims of the book. The first part was published yesterday. In this second part, Dr Sanlon looks at the wider implications and underlying strategy of the book.
Amazing Love: Theology for Understanding Discipleship, Sexuality and Mission.
Ed. by Andrew Davison. Darton, Longman & Todd: London, 2016. 144pp. £8.99
This short book that we have been considering has a significance disproportionate to its size. It is an instructive example of the rhetorical strategy being deployed by the homosexualist movement. The work has the superficial appearance of being an impartial academic digest ─ in reality it is by no reasonable measure anything of the sort. The project was targeted at changing the Church of England’s stance on homosexuality and has theological ambitions that transcend even the stated goal of moving the Church towards celebrating homosexual relationships. We conclude this review then with some reflections on the rhetorical strategy and theological significance of the book.
This volume has the appearance of being a digest of thoughtful and considered academic research. However that is just the surface reality ─ a carefully curated image. Academic publisher, long sub-title, titled academics listed as authors. It looks like academic work; but upon closer examination the mirage fades.
The first thing many remark upon is the astonishing number of authors ─ In addition to the Editor Andrew Davison (Cambridge Lecturer in Theology & Natural Sciences), eight are listed: Duncan Dormer (Dean of St. John’s College Chapel), Ruth Harley (Children & Families’ Minister at All Saints, High Wycombe, Oxford), Rosie Harper (Vicar of Great Missenden and chaplain to Bishop of Buckingham), Elizabeth Phillips (Ethics Tutor at Westcott House), Jeff Phillips (Philosophy & Theology Tutor at Westcott House), Simon Sarmiento (a founder of Thinking Anglicans website), Jane Shaw (Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, Canon Emirata of Salisbury) and Alan Wilson (Bishop of Buckingham).
No information is given as to how these nine people contributed to the book. With only six (unattributed) chapters it is impossible to guess the writing process. On the back cover we are told the book was ‘written by Andrew Davison in collaboration with the others.’ Inside the book all are listed as authors. The number of cooks in the kitchen is quite excessive ─ unless the sheer number of names associated with the project is part of the image-crafting. It fosters an impression of widespread academic unity and credibility. This explanation is given credence by the fact that the text employs the technique of footnoting a list of academics the authors say support their pro-homosexual views. Footnote 6 on p.99 reveals the attitude at work: ‘A significant number of distinguished contemporary theologians, deeply rooted in the heart of the Christian tradition, take an affirmative view of love between gay people…’ The list following gives the names of seven writers including John Millbank and Sarah Coakley. This listing and labeling of people is frankly rather crass. Good academic scholarship bases its authority upon open debate and evidence based arguments ─ not lists of titled people.
Of course that is just the problem. The text of this book employs a rhetorical strategy firmly opposed to the academic work that it apes. Good academic scholarship (even when it is popularised) aims to give both sides of an argument. This is actually a cardinal principle for good journalism, never mind academia. In scholarship one is not free to exaggerate the clarity of one’s case by omitting pertinent evidence. And yet time and time again this volume does exactly that. Obviously one does not expect a short book like this to say everything that can be said, nor even to give equal space to opposing views. But to present one’s own view as if it is more obvious, accepted, credible and clear than any moderately informed reader knows it is - that is deceptive. A small sample of the underhand omissions and reconfigurations of basic Christian views are given in the above review. Rather than rehearse them further we proceed to consider another aspect of the rhetoric employed in the Foreword.
The Foreword comes from Canon Mark Russell, in his capacity as Chief Executive of the Church Army. This is a special case of the earlier use of titles and names to secure credibility (in the absence of reasoned evidence based academic scholarship). He opens his piece by sharing the difficulty the Church’s opposition to homosexuality causes in mission. This is the theme with which the book concludes. He notes that the book is a ‘really helpful resource’ for the Church of England’s Shared Conversations. Then comes the carefully phrased comments, designed rhetorically to simultaneously commend the book (which explicitly calls on the Church to celebrate same sex relationships) and distance himself from the very act he engages in. So Mark says: ‘Of course we need to be faithful to Scripture and to discerning God’s truth. But we also need to recognise that love and relationships are the holy ground of other people’s lives.’ (xii) A carefully crafted phrase which can be taken as a nudge towards accepting homosexual practice, but at the same time can be claimed to not quite do what it gestures towards. The same see-saw rhetorical method is on display as he commends the book but at the same time reflects that readers may agree or disagree with it:
‘You may agree with the book or disagree with it, but it will help you consider how we can help LGBT people to know the Good News of Jesus Christ … I am grateful to Andrew and his colleagues for this new book and I commend it to you.’ (xii)
With this Foreword we step away from the world of academic writing, where the goal is clarity of communication that flows from developing conclusions on the basis of open sharing of evidence. We step into a different world ─ that of the spin doctor. The spin doctor is the connoisseur of the modern media culture, and speaks words designed to cloak their power. What is said and left unsaid is calculated not to reveal truth, but to hide intent. The Spin Doctor does not speak straightforwardly, but pauses to consider how his or her intended goals can be cloaked under a false appearance. So here the Foreword commends the book but attempts to maintain distance from the aims by affirming readers’ freedom to disagree and ‘of course’ we need to be faithful to Scripture. The pertinent question which we ought to ask is whether or not the book is faithful to scripture? Whether or not he personally believes the book is faithful to scripture is the question Canon Russell seeks to avoid being asked, even as he commends the book.
The text of the rest of the book continues and extends this rhetorical strategy. The image presented is one of conversation and exploration. We have seen above that the conversation is not really open and honest as the authors repeatedly withhold relevant information. The duplicity is extended by a technique of asking questions that presuppose the reader has already submitted to their views. The most blatant example of this can be reflected upon:
‘What would happen if the question posed was not, ‘same-sex relationships: right or wrong?’ ─ which is a limiting, brittle question ─ but rather something like ‘What is the significance and purpose of sexuality and marriage in Christianity? What does sexuality and marriage look like in the way of Jesus Christ?, with consideration of same-sex relationships as part of that?’ (56)
The use of questions fosters an image of open conversation. In reality they are calculated to force submission to the authors’ end goal. If you ask the questions they suggest - you will get the answers they want.
Another rhetorical strategy used in the book is the method of hiding complexity at some points, but increasing it at others. So the complexities of understanding verses in the Bible about homosexuality is vastly exaggerated by the authors. The impression is given that nobody can really interpret them correctly. On the other hand any possible complexities in the logical path taken by the authors towards celebrating homosexuality are reduced till they have vanished. The science that backs up their view is conclusive, clear and simple. The Bible verses that suggest the traditional view is Biblical -well they are complex, difficult and often misinterpreted. Similarly the authors posit an idiosyncratic definition of the Church’s Tradition. No hint is given that their definition may be contested or unusual. Complexity is hidden. The task of distinguishing between the core revolutionary message of scripture and the cultural accruements which are to be discarded - any complexities to this process are swept aside. It is obvious ─ the authors views are supported by the bit of the Bible they discern as valid. Again and again anything that militates against supporting homosexuality is presented as unclear and complex. While the celebration of same sex relationships is the obvious and easy step to make (as one is guided by Andrew Davison and his colleagues).
The intractable problem is that this book presents itself as an academic digest but at every significant point the reality differs from the image. If it presented itself as an uninformed blog then there would be no duplicity involved. The omissions and lack of consideration of well documented alternative views would be at home in the bandit country of internet blogs. But this book has less impartiality and evenhanded consideration of evidence than a newspaper article. There is no appropriate consideration of alternative readings of the evidence or countering views. Readers are encouraged to trust the authors (all nine of them!). In reality the rhetorical structure is such that trust invested in the authors is repaid with a duplicitous act of manipulation, aimed at forcing readers to agree with conclusions by sleight of hand, rather than a plain sharing of evidence. There is a conversation going on between the authors and reader ─ but the rhetorical structure of the book is such that it is assumed anybody joining in the conversation will eventually agree with the authors and celebrate homosexual relationships. Adequate warning is given in the book of the kind of invective and threats which will be leveled at those who do not submit to the views promoted by the authors.
The rhetoric utilised by Andrew Davison and his colleagues is in the end unbiblical. Before we consider the nature of the changes they propose to make to the message of Christianity, it is worth recalling that they have departed from the Biblical model of communication: ‘We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.’ (2 Cor. 4:2)
It is stated on numerous occasions in the book that the aim of the authors is the embrace and acceptance of homosexual relationships by the Church of England. In reality the book has a much larger goal. The goal is nothing less than a wholesale revision of the Christian Faith into a different religion. There are a number of clues in the book that the issue under discussion is not just one part of the Christian religion, but the need to create a new religion in order to affirm same sex relationships as blessed by God.
The authors claim that their goal can be reconciled with the entire Christian Faith: ‘It’s perfectly possible to see endorsing gay and lesbian relationships as being in complete concord with the rest of the faith.’ (76) But is it? The book explicitly presents visions of the following that are radically at odds with classical Anglican Christianity as understood in Canon A5, the 39 Articles, Homilies and Ordinal: scripture, tradition, authority, repentance, Church, Love and mission, to mention a few areas that are given considerable space. The authors claim to be correcting something the Church has been wrong about for centuries. Are their innovative interpretations of aspects of the Faith really not going to change the religion of Christianity into something else? This concern is raised by the authors themselves by claiming their views can be reconciled with the ‘entire Christian Faith.’
The authors also raise the question of what the different views should be labelled and understood as. They wish to reject the idea that their views are ‘liberal’. ‘We can differ from Christians who do not feel able to join us in celebrating same-sex relationships without being ‘extreme liberals’. Many leading advocates of blessing for same-sex relationships are really quite conservative theologians.’ (5-6) So their claim is that the innovation they wish to make will not alter the rest of the Faith, and those who embrace the change are not Liberal but Conservative.
What do the authors say of those who do not follow their lead to celebrate homosexuality? Well in some places they keep up the image of a conversation and dialogue. ‘We acknowledge that many Christians do not feel able to join us in celebrating same-sex relationships in this way. We want to treat these Christians, who disagree with us, as brothers and sisters.’ (5) In other places the mask slips and we are told of those who oppose same-sex relationships that they have a ‘one-dimensional’ view (55). They by implication of Chapter 1 do not understand the world as it really is. By implication of chapter 2 they are blind to the conclusive evidence of science. By the implication of Chapter 3 they are not listening to the voice of God and by the implication of Chapter 4 they have a static view of tradition that holds them back in discipleship. By implication of Chapter 5 they are opposing God’s gift of love and by implication of Chapter 6 they are resisting God’s Mission. Given all this is it any wonder that the book concludes with a letter which asks accusingly of somebody preaching on Romans 1 and upholds the Church’s teaching on homosexuality: ‘Should one just walk away and find a church, or vicar, who is, quite frankly, more Christian?’ (92) The strategy is clever. The authors do not actually say that disagreeing with them is unChristian ─ they quote a letter asking a question about it. The question is meant to hang over the conclusion of the book.
Put the pieces of the jigsaw together and you see the vastness of the theological agenda of this book. It is as the subtitle says a ‘Theology for Understanding Discipleship, Sexuality and Mission.’ Indeed it is this and more. It is a project which claims a vast change can and should be made to the Church’s teaching on the shape of the ethical Christian life. Those who argue for this change wish to not be viewed as liberals, but conservatives. They claim the change will not alter other major areas of the Faith. Those who oppose them are invited to conversation as brothers and sisters - but in the end if they do not support them they may, like the vicar described in the conclusion, find the genuineness of their Christianity questioned. It is almost as if the authors know they are engaged in a sleight of hand and are aware that the changes they are proposing are so radical and far reaching that every loci of the Faith must be redesigned, such that in the end what will be left will indeed be a new religion. The campaign then must be - as it is in this book - fought with a degree of subterfuge in the hope that the Church will permit the replacement of Christianity with a new religion and at the same time insist that it is the same Faith it always was. To implement the most sweeping of changes possible and at the same time to insist the change has not occurred. Audacious indeed.
Perhaps the homosexualist agenda as it is presented to the Church of England must be driven forward by deception and manipulation. Were it discussed openly with full access to the evidence it would be seen for what it really is ─ the attempt to replace the Faith once received with a different religion. So we are invited to welcome a conversation and dialogue, which within the pages of this book is neither a conversation nor academically credible presentation. Rather it is a power play and manipulation, seeking to beguile the uninformed into submission.
In the final analysis the Church of England must decide which of the two following statements is true. Upon the choice of which is affirmed depends the credibility of the Church’s claim to be a Church. The first is from Andrew Davidson’s book. The second is from the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg:
‘You can be glad when a lesbian friend finds someone to commit herself to ─ giving her whole self, including her body ─ and believe exactly what the Thirty-Nine Articles say about God.’ (6) Andrew Davison and colleagues.
‘Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.’ Wolfart Pannenberg (see: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/november11/6td035.html)
The Rev'd Dr Peter Sanlon is Vicar of St Mark's Church, Tunbridge Wells
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