Bishop James Jones: Liverpool’s Muddy Waters flow towards Africa

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, has today shown just what a liability the Church of England is becoming to

Bishop Jones at Greenpeace

Bishop Jones at Greenpeace

the rest of the Anglican Communion. Liverpool stands to the north of the estuary of the great Mersey River, now cleansed and restored to life after the pollution of the industrial age, but its spiritual waters are being sadly muddied.

In his Presidential Address to the Liverpool Diocesan Synod, Bishop Jones argues that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion should embrace diversity and accept that those who believe homosexual relationships are morally wrong and those who believe that, within a ‘stable and faithful relationship’, they are right can enjoy a peaceful co-existence.

He is of course by no means the first bishop of the Church of England to put this argument forward, but this is a significant moment because he is a prominent evangelical. In 2003 he was one of those who successfully protested the attempt to appoint Canon Jeffrey John, a high profile advocate of the gay lesbian movement in the Church of England, as Bishop of Reading. Yet in February 2008, he apologised, saying ‘I deeply regret this episode in our common life’ and expressed his sorrow ‘for adding to the pain and distress of Dr John and his partner.’ Today’s address confirms his ‘conversion’.

We are given a clue as to the cause when, referring to his diocese, he comments that ‘Like the rest of England, ours is a culture of diversity.  One of the positive aspects of a rich ecumenical landscape is that we have a variety of doors through which different people might enter into the Christian faith.’ No doubt, but the deification of diversity by the English political establishment has enfeebled moral discourse by the suppression of both logic and evidence, and the Bishop’s argument suffers from the same malaise.

In fairness, he is as much a symptom as a cause of the Church of England’s confusion. He offers a kind of ‘Rowan-lite’ proposal which proceeds along similar lines to Rowan Williams’ Plenary Address ‘On Making Moral Decisions’ to the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Essentially he tried to persuade the orthodox that gay sex should not be seen as a cause of separation since the Church had not disowned those from the past who had practiced slavery and it had not split in the present on nuclear weapons, despite the deeply held convictions against them of those like himself. Similarly, Bishop Jones argues that if we can maintain mutual respect and fellowship while disagreeing about the taking of human life in war, then

‘Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too 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’.

As with Rowan Williams’ original presentation, the problem lies in the assumption that all these issues relate to Scripture in the same way, whereas in fact the biblical material on homosexuality is direct and unequivocal, that on slavery less so and on nuclear weapons completely indirect. Likewise the biblical witness on war is less direct, as reflected in the development of the Church’s theology of ‘just war’ over the centuries, whereas questions about homosexuality have arisen only after some 2,000 years within churches influenced by strongly secularised cultures.

The extent of the influence of this popular thinking on James Jones’ is revealed by the way that he repeats, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that our sexuality like ethnicity is not a matter of choice’. This is also a serious misunderstanding of gay /lesbian thinkers for whom, following Foucault, the point is not so much to establish a gay ‘identity’ as sexual freedom. So the veteran gay activist Peter Tatchell looks forward to a ‘state of greater sexual freedom, where homosexuality becomes commonplace and ceases to be disparaged or victimised’ and in which ‘gayness would no longer have to be defended and affirmed. Gay identity (and its straight counterpart) would thus, at last, become redundant.’

James Jones reflects a way of thinking which is gaining ground amongst English evangelicals and fails to recognise that the deep logic of the gay/lesbian movement is the abolition of the Judaeo-Christian understanding of human identity ( gay ‘marriage’ is a key step). Faced with the very uncomfortable prospect of having to finally challenge the reality of quietly established ‘facts on the ground’ which gay activists by their own admission have been following for years, the temptation to reduce the whole problem to one of ‘go along to get along’ becomes almost overwhelming. It is recast not as an issue of false teaching, as the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement truthfully described it, but as an essentially pastoral problem.

So the ideal becomes ‘diversity without enmity’, and to be ‘a Diocese refusing to allow anything to undermine our oneness in Christ.’ But this only becomes possible by downgrading the clear biblical teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘incompatible with Scripture’, as reaffirmed by the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10, to being merely the ‘traditional’ view, an opinion which can coexist with its opposite. So whatever unity exists is not a oneness in Christ because it refuses to be faithful to the Scriptures which authoritatively reveal Christ.

This has pastoral consequences. Rhetorically, the Bishop asks ‘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? ‘ Unfortunately no – actually their sin would be that they had acted in a way which Scripture specifically says will exclude a person from the Kingdom of Heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9) and, tragically, they would have had the Church’s encouragement or at least toleration.

But what is particularly arresting about the Bishop of Liverpool’s address is its scope. It presents a vision which does not stop at the boundaries of his own diocese. His plea is ‘that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion must allow a variety of ethical views on the subject as in this Diocese we do’ and he adds ‘This is I believe the next chapter to be written in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.  It is the chapter that is already being written in our Partnership in Mission with the Diocese of Virginia and with the Diocese of Akure in Nigeria.’

A partnership with this aim constitutes a serious challenge to the Church of Nigeria in particular and the GAFCON Primates as a whole who have as a matter of principle withdrawn from sharing ‘the same cup of salvation’ at Primate’s Meetings with those Primates who are sponsoring sexual immorality. It illustrates the subtle reality of the way that false teaching spreads; an evangelical bishop who has learned to accommodate himself to the secular pressures of England nonetheless retains a certain credibility with fellow evangelicals in Africa and then seeks to present partnership as collusion with his compromise.

In this light we see the wisdom of clause 13 of the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration which affirmed the need to break communion with those who deny the orthodox faith in word or deed. The commentary on this clause (Being Faithful, p64) calls for action which is precisely the opposite of James Jones’ strategy for the Communion when it states ’there is a moral obligation to reject any teaching that denies or undermines the authority of God as revealed in the Scriptures, to expose its falsity and to break fellowship with those who promote it (Ephesians 5:11, Titus 3:10).’

James Jones’ address today not only marks a further stage of the Church of England’s long drift from orthodox faith, but also serves as yet another warning sign that the Lambeth led Covenant process is a false hope, not least because the internal stresses created by the moral and doctrinal incoherence of the Church of England mean that it has a vested interest in encouraging the rest of the Communion to adopt a similar pluralism. Much more promising is the potential of the GAFCON movement which has restored the Reformers’ high doctrine of Scripture to its central place in Anglican ecclesiology. Article XIX affirms the treatment for Liverpool’s muddy waters: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’

Charles Raven

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