The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality

The Witness of Tradition

Jaci Maraschin, Samson Fan and Phil Groves


As the previous chapter explained, Anglicans have always combined their belief in the authority of Scripture with a respect for tradition. They have, however, also always understood themselves as both Catholic and Reformed and so accepted the need for even well-established traditions to be open to challenge and development. Our discussions on sexuality need therefore to be set in the context of both honouring the church’s tradition and recognizing the possibility that this tradition may be in error in some ways. What does this mean in relation to our thinking about sexuality? Professor Oliver O’Donovan, explaining the claim in the St Andrew’s Day Statement that the Church ‘assists all its members to a life of faithful witness in chastity and holiness, recognizing two forms or vocations in which that life can be lived: marriage and singleness (Genesis 2.24; Matthew 19.4-6; 1 Corinthians 7 passim)’, writes (italics added):

As it stands, the claim that there are two and only two such forms, though well supported, as the authors think, from Scripture, is not directly a biblical one but claims the authority of unbroken church tradition. If that tradition were shown to be essentially defective (i.e. without the supposed support of Scripture) or (less implausibly) to be more accommodating than has been thought (e.g. including homosexual unions as a valid variant of marriage), then, of course, there would be no general difficulty. But that supposes a radical development in the church’s understanding of the tradition. The Statement does not rule such a development out a priori; in principle, no Anglican who believed, as Anglicans are supposed to believe, in the corrigibility of tradition could rule it out a priori.

The chapter that follows aims to provide tools to help you think about the nature of tradition and how we should evaluate proposed changes to our traditions. Because this is its aim, little of what follows is directly on the issue of homosexuality or the generally negative understanding of homosexuality found in Christian tradition.

The work is a joint contribution from Jaci Maraschin (who brings a wealth of experience as a Brazilian liturgist who has contributed to the Anglican Communion over many years especially as part of the Anglican team on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) and Samson Fan (a young Chinese scholar who brought both enthusiasm and order to the thinking). Their work was facilitated by Phil Groves, as much by asking the questions and editing the responses. The fact that English was not the first language of either Samson or Jaci presented new ways of looking at things.

After a brief context-setting Jaci and Samson introduce the crucial distinction between tradition (the transmission through time of the apostolic faith) and traditions (usages or habits giving expression to tradition and open to change). Drawing on Hooker and other theologians, they then help us think through the relationship between tradition and both Scripture (picking up some of the themes in the first section of chapter three) and reason. Contemporary gay consciousness is then described as a new challenge facing the church which has led some Christians to call for the blessing of same-sex unions. This call to change our traditions needs to be tested not only to see whether it is compatible with Scripture but also how it relates to the tradition of the Church. To help in that testing more detailed analysis is then offered of four areas where there have been recent calls to change our traditions in the Communion - in relation to marriage, polygamy, divorce and remarriage and the ordination of women. The developments in these areas are sketched and it is seen that calls to change have been heeded but also resisted and rejected in the recent past. In each area, questions are suggested to help you consider what can be learned from these issues and how they might help us as we consider calls to change certain traditions in relation to homosexuality. The final section reminds us that as Anglicans we are simply part of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church and introduces thinking about tradition and authority that has arisen out of work between Anglicans and Roman Catholics on ARCIC.

In the rich diversity of human life, encounter with the living Tradition produces a variety of expressions of the Gospel. Where diverse expressions are faithful to the Word revealed in Jesus Christ and transmitted by the apostolic community, the churches in which they are found are truly in communion. Indeed, this diversity of traditions is the practical manifestation of catholicity and confirms rather than contradicts the vigour of Tradition. As God has created diversity among humans, so the Church’s fidelity and identity require not uniformity of expression and formulation at all levels in all situations, but rather catholic diversity within the unity of communion. (ARCIC, The Gift of Authority, Paragraph 27)


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