Permanent, Faithful, Stable
Jeffrey John is the Dean of St. Alban’s and the Church of England’s most prominent gay cleric ever since the controversy surrounding his nomination to the bishopric of Reading back in 2003. His short but influential book Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same-sex Marriage (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993, 2000 & 2012) has become the unofficial manifesto of liberal attempts to revise the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
So what’s it like reading his book as an evangelical who is also homosexual? I passionately believe that the Bible makes it crystal clear – from its very beginning to its very end – that sex is for the life-long marriage of a man and a woman. And so I maintain (with the vast majority of the worldwide Church for thousands of years) that any talk of ‘same-sex marriage’ is a Christian impossibility. What do I make of John’s revisionist book?
Well it makes depressing reading. Not, as I feared, because of its powerful challenge to my existing views, but because his rejection of them is on such flimsy foundations. The first chapter is encouragingly entitled (for the evangelical reader) ‘Is it Scriptural?’ and I expected to be shaken in my understanding of what have become known as the classic ‘proof texts’. But when purported biblical scholarship ignores inconvenient truths (Jude 7 in his treatment of Sodom) and the context of individual verses (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), and then embraces theology by innuendo (the centurion and his servant ‘whom his master valued highly’ in Luke 7 are said to be in a homosexual relationship), my position felt considerably strengthened. Unable to prove linguistically that Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behaviour (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) was just focused on male prostitution, John has to take recourse in the unproved argument that the only homosexual practices known in Paul’s culture were pederasty and prostitution. When he comes to Romans 1 he simply has to conclude that Paul was wrong. This suggests that the underlying issue is that of the authority of scripture, and not merely that of its interpretation. Then there are the factual inaccuracies: ‘...in the Genesis account childbirth emerges only as an afterthought, and in the rather negative context of God’s punishment of Eve (3:6)’. What about God’s instruction for men and women to populate the world in 1:28? The important link between marriage and procreation couldn’t be clearer there.
With no powerful Scriptural case for same-sex marriage made why read on? Turning his attention to the question ‘Is it moral?’ John’s quick dismissal of complementarity in chapter 2 (men and women aren’t that different) is undermined by his own accurate articulation of the real differences in male and female sexualities in chapter 3. But what depressed me most in the concluding chapters were not John’s arguments, which had already been exposed as without biblical or historical foundation, but his right exposure of the hypocrisy, and resulting confusion, of the Anglican Church on this issue. He accurately points out the mixed signals official statements have given (with different rules for clergy and laity) and the unhelpfulness of bishops who say one thing in private and another in public. He is right to call for absolute clarity on a pressing pastoral issue on which the Church of England has spoken so unclearly (and so unkindly) for so long – even if the brand of clarity we both long for is very different. What perhaps finally unites me with John is the depressing thought that this is unlikely to change anytime soon.