The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality

The Witness of Scripture

Phil Groves, John Holder and Paula Gooder


This second section comprises three chapters which turn our attention to the authoritative sources for Anglican theology and ethics: Scripture, tradition and reason. Because of its primacy among these and its centrality in debates about sexuality, the first and longest of the three chapters is focused on Scripture. This falls into three distinct parts. Each of these has its own main author although Phil Groves, John Holder and Paula Gooder worked together on the chapter as a whole.

Part 1, by the Listening Process Facilitator, Phil Groves, opens the chapter with reflections on what it means to live under the authority of Scripture. The authority of Scripture is confessed by people across the spectrum of views on sexuality but it is clear that there are also quite different understandings of what this means in practice. This presents a challenge to us because, as the Archbishop of Canterbury explained in his Advent Letter of 2007, a full relationship of communion will mean:

The common acknowledgment that we stand under the authority of Scripture as ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’, in the words of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; as the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself and opens our hearts to the living and eternal Word that is Christ. Our obedience to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate is drawn out first and foremost by our listening to the Bible and conforming our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible. We recognize each other in one fellowship when we see one another ‘standing under’ the word of Scripture. Because of this recognition, we are able to consult and reflect together on the interpretation of Scripture and to learn in that process. Understanding the Bible is not a private process or something to be undertaken in isolation by one part of the family. Radical change in the way we read cannot be determined by one group or tradition alone.

This chapter therefore begins by seeking common ground as Anglicans across our differences on the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. This is found by looking at what the 39 Articles teach about Scripture and its authority in the Church. Although the Articles have a varied status across the provinces of our Communion they are an important part of our common Anglican heritage. The guide to their teaching on Scripture which is provided here is based On the 39 Articles by Professor Oliver O’Donovan, a study first published in 1986 and reprinted for the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

In our listening and learning about sexuality, many Anglicans are concerned about faithfulness to Scripture, the dangers of false teaching, and how doctrine and ethics develop over time. Having attempted to find common ground in the Articles, the chapter proceeds to look at these issues through a study of Jude. This short letter’s emphasis on standing firm for the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ has often been appealed to in the course of recent discussions about sexuality. Then we are asked to consider what the issues were in the early Church that led to Jude writing this letter and to explore what parallels might legitimately be drawn with our discussions of sexuality today.

The scene has now been set by examining how our thinking is shaped by our understanding of the authority of Scripture and what it means to guard the faith. We therefore turn next to explore how those in favour of same-sex relationships and those opposed to them both appeal to the Bible in making their case. A biblical overview of these two views is presented. In the light of these it is asked what we mean when we claim that a view is compatible or incompatible with Scripture.

Underlying different understandings of what is compatible with Scripture are often different ways of interpreting the Bible. The section therefore turns next to the discipline of hermeneutics - how we interpret the Bible. Some key issues are outlined by looking at some of the challenges we face as we seek to understand and apply the Bible today.

Finally, the section returns to the question of faithful development in Christian thinking and practice and concerns about inclusion of outsiders and the role of experience in biblical interpretation. These issues are examined by looking at a key biblical example. The early Church welcomed Gentiles and decided not to apply aspects of the Jewish law to them. This is often appealed to in debates about the sort of welcome to be given to those who identify as gay and lesbian and discussions about what the Church expects of them in terms of holy living. It is central to the account (To Set Our Hope on Christ) given by The Episcopal Church (USA) to ACC-13 in response to the Windsor Report. Different understandings of how the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 reached its conclusions are therefore explained in order to help us understand whether and how this might help us in our dialogues today about sexuality.

In Parts 2 and 3 we move on from a general introduction to consider the wider background and teaching of the Bible in relation to sexuality. Here we are guided by John Holder from Barbados (writing on the Old Testament) and Paul Gooder a biblical scholar based in England (who writes on the New Testament material). The original plan was for them simply to provide a guide to the main controversial texts. However, after study, prayer and consultation with Phil Groves, they decided to attempt to place the debate about homosexuality in the context of biblical understandings of sexuality more widely. Between them they take us on a journey through the Old and New Testaments.

John Holder combines his gifts as an Old Testament scholar and a bishop who lives the Bible in his context. He shows how sexuality has been the subject of human reflection and discussion, including religious reflection and discussion, for millennia.

He sets the Old Testament in the wider context of Ancient Near Eastern beliefs. Israel’s neighbours viewed the gods as sexual beings and related both fertility and sexual experience closely to religious devotion. The creation narratives set the scene for the development of themes, which emphasize both the blessing and ambivalence of sexuality.

God’s people are seen to celebrate sexuality as a good gift of God, particularly linked to procreation. However, the Old Testament also warns against and illustrates the dangers of misusing this gift in various ways. Although sexual imagery is sometimes used for Yahweh and his relationship with Israel, the emphasis is on God transcending sexuality. Against this backdrop, the few negative texts relating to homosexuality are examined and by setting them in their original context some of their complexities are highlighted.

Paula Gooder guides us through the material on sexuality found in the New Testament from the Gospels and Acts, through the Pauline tradition before concluding with a look at other texts. What she describes reveals a continuation but also a development of the Old Testament’s engagement with sexuality. One of the most important innovations is the prominence given to celibacy.

In the Gospels, God’s transcendence over sexuality is again emphasized in the accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth. Jesus’ strong teaching on adultery, divorce and remarriage is explored, as is his discussion of marriage in heaven. This teaching needs, however, to be put alongside his attitude to those, particularly women, who are seen as sexual sinners. Finally, both Jesus and the early Church in Acts (notably again in Acts 15) warned about sexual immorality (porneia), and the scope and significance of this prohibition are examined. Paul, too, warns against any acceptance of porneia in the Christian community, particularly in his most concentrated discussion of sexuality in 1 Corinthians 5—7. Here, there is not only further teaching on divorce (1 Corinthians 7) but also a vice list which includes words traditionally understood to refer to homosexuality. The debates over the meanings of these terms and the different interpretations of the fuller discussion of homosexuality in Romans 1 are carefully explained to help you understand these texts and some of the disagreements that exist between scholars on how to interpret them. The chapter concludes with brief discussion of some texts in the Pastoral Epistles (another vice list which includes a reference to homosexuality and advice for the conduct of church leaders), 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation.

Although a lot of ground is covered in what follows, neither John nor Paula expects what they have written to be the final word. Once again it must be stressed that their work is simply a resource, not an authoritative statement. It is offered in the hope it will send you back to read your Bible with a fuller and wider understanding, and send you out to dialogue about this and study the Bible with fellow Christians.


Chapter 3 – Part 1

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Chapter 3 – Part 3

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The Articles of Religion

Oliver O’Donovan On the Thirty-nine ArticlesChapter 4

To Set Our Hope on Christ (New York: TEC, 2005)

Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Good News for Gay Christians’

Tom Wright, ‘New Perspectives on Paul’, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, 2003

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent Letter 2007

International Anglican conversations on Human Sexuality

Archbishop Peter Akinola, Why I Object to Homosexuality and Same-sex Unions’

‘Church of Uganda Position Paper on Scripture, Authority, and Human Sexuality’ (May 2005)

True Union in the Body?

Steve Schuh Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Richard Burridge, ‘Being Biblical? Slavery, Sexuality, and the Inclusive Community’ (2007)

See Also

Brett Cane – The Bible and Homosexuality

Dale MartinThe Misuse and Abuse of Scripture and Tradition

Dale MartinThere Is No One “Christian” Way to Interpret Scripture

Deirdre Good ‘Jesus' Family Values

Edward Mills the Bible and Homosexuality

Modern Churchpeople’s Union – The Bible and Homosexuality