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Making a Bad Call Worse

Editorial note: As the Lambeth Conference approaches, The Living Church has and will be publishing in print and online a series of posts on the state of the Anglican Communion and on issues related to the Conference, including a series of “Lambeth Conversations” like this one. See our prior Lambeth 2020 posts here.

By Robert MacSwain

In “Cleaning Up the Playing Field: Six Resolutions for Lambeth,” Ephraim Radner’s first proposed resolution to be adopted in 2020 is: “This Conference reaffirms the 1998 Resolution I.10.” He explains:

There is no need at this conference to revisit the rationales and counter-arguments about this resolution. It has been reaffirmed several times in other Communion contexts, and in the past 20 years there have been no significant new pieces of information — scriptural, dogmatic, sociological, or medical — that have altered the shape of the theological and pastoral realities surrounding this debate. And the debate has raged unabated, so that it requires no renewed engagement. Let the conference decide.

While I disagree with many aspects of Radner’s essay, let me focus on this resolution in particular. Adopting it would be a bad call: far from “cleaning up the playing field,” this resolution would make the playing field worse than it already is.

Lambeth 1998’s Resolution I.10 was a mistake, one that did not resolve but rather preempted the Communion-wide discernment process on same-sex relationships that began in Lambeth 1978, continued in Lambeth 1988, but was then sadly short-circuited in 1998. If one reads the reports and resolutions in ’78 and ’88, one notes that the issue of such relationships was initially presented as a question requiring further study and dialogue (see 1978, Resolution 10, and 1988, Resolution 64 and Section Report 4). It did not present a crisis but rather called for “deep and dispassionate study … which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognizing the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them” (Lambeth 1978, Resolution 10.3).

Twenty years later, the Lambeth 1998 report “Called to Full Humanity,” Theme 3, “Human Sexuality,” summarizes the Communion-wide conversation leading up to the conference. It states:

We must confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality. Our variety of understanding encompasses:

  • those who believe that homosexuality is a disorder, but that through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle.

  • those who believe that relationships between people of the same gender should not include genital expression, that this is the clear teaching of the Bible and of the Church universal, and that such activity (if unrepented of) is a barrier to the Kingdom of God.

  • those who believe that committed homosexual relationships fall short of the biblical norm, but are to be preferred to relationships that are anonymous and transient.

  • those who believe that the Church should accept and support or bless monogamous covenant relationships between homosexual people and that they may be ordained.

Further on, it continues:

We have prayed, studied and discussed these issues, and we are unable to reach a common mind on the scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific questions which are raised. There is much that we do not yet understand. We request the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us.

Prior to the conference’s adopting Resolution I.10, this was (and so, ironically enough, remains) part of the official position of the Lambeth Conference 1998. However, as is well-known, fierce debates on the floor then led to the long, disputed, and convoluted final text of Resolution I.10 — and specifically to points (d) and (e).

Contrary to the two previous conferences and against the recommendation of the report, the revised resolution now sought effectively to end the discernment process by, for the first time, affirming one view rather than another, namely to (d) reject “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and to (e) delegitimize both the “blessing of same sex unions [and] ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” As is also well-known, although this resolution was adopted by a large majority, after the conference 185 bishops (including nine primates) issued a minority report as a pastoral statement to gay and lesbian Anglicans, stating: “We pledge that we will continue to reflect, pray, and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church.”

Resolution I.10 cannot be, as Radner asserts, the definitive word on this topic, and the very fact that it has not been fully received across the Communion indicates as much. More problematically, Radner recognizes that the debate in fact continues, but he seeks to put an end to it anyway. One might say that the very fact that the debate has not been decisive means that we must continue to engage with it and not seek premature closure through new resolutions reaffirming bad ones.

Contrast Radner’s attempt to call the question with Ellen Davis’s alternative approach:

[N]o individual or church community can in good faith reach a position on this issue without reckoning seriously with Scripture. Nevertheless, the Bible does not unambiguously endorse any position, either for or against committed same-sex unions, and both positions are open to serious challenge from the gospel. So whatever position we may take, we are constrained in all humility to listen to the views and just criticisms of our fellow Christians who disagree. Based on the church’s historical experience, it seems likely that Christians will disagree on this for a long time, perhaps centuries to come (“Reasoning with Scripture,” in “Homosexuality, Ethics, and the Church: An Essay by the Late Richard Norris with Responses,” Anglican Theological Review 90 (2008), pp. 513–19, at 514–15).

As with debates about the heliocentric solar system, evolution, abolitionism, remarriage, and the ordination of women (all of which have been, and in some circles still are, regarded as incompatible with Scripture), the issue of homosexuality is before the Church and must continue to be engaged with as fully and honestly as possible — including genuine, open, and respectful dialogue with LGBT Christians. And, as with earlier questions of whether the earth moves around the sun and so forth, resolving the question of whether some homosexual relationships are compatible or incompatible with Scripture is a matter of assessing the whole witness of Scripture interpreted in light of other sources of genuine knowledge, not just a matter of citing proof texts. On this point, see Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (London: SCM, 2014).

If Resolution I.10 was a bad call in 1998, it is an even worse call now, regardless of how many times it has been cited as a statement of our common mind, because that’s precisely what it is not and never has been. Rather than reaffirming it in 2020, a future Lambeth Conference will need to apologize for Resolution I.10 just as John Paul II apologized to Galileo in 1992. I hope it will not take 359 years for us to get there, but it very well might.

Radner says that “in the past 20 years there have been no significant new pieces of information … that have altered the shape of the theological and pastoral realities surrounding this debate.” That, of course, is a matter of opinion. Writing from my context as an Episcopal seminary professor, it seems to me that the recent work of Ellen Davis, Stanley Hauerwas, Sarah Coakley, Robert Song, Mark Jordan, Eugene Rogers, Dale Martin, and others has indeed marked a shift in the moral, theological, and biblical landscape. Alongside their contributions there has been a simultaneous collapse of conversion therapy methods, as at Exodus International, and the recantation of prominent evangelical Protestants such as David Gushee. Radner apparently evaluates this evidence differently, but what cannot be doubted is that the advocates for the Church blessing some form of same-sex relationships include those at the very highest levels of spiritual maturity, theological profundity, intellectual acuity, moral integrity, personal holiness, and doctrinal orthodoxy. To ignore these voices or to pretend that they do not present a serious challenge to the contrary view is thus irresponsible.

For example, Coakley and Hauerwas both see the witness of faithful same-sex relationships as providing essential support and inspiration for heterosexual Christians as well. Coakley says that conversations with her gay, lesbian, and transgender students “who long to give a richly theological account of their orientation and of their place in the churches they serve … have been, and continue to be, among the most profound and moving of my priestly life.”

She continues that for LGBT couples “to make public vows (and thus cutting not once, but twice, against cultural expectations) demands of all of us a deeper reconsideration of the meaning, and costliness, of such vows in a world of rampantly promiscuous desires, oppression of the poor, and profligate destruction of natural resources” (Sarah Coakley, “Afterword: Beyond Libertarianism and Repression: The Quest for an Anglican Theological Ascetics,” in Other Voices, Other Worlds: The Global Church Speaks Out on Homosexuality, ed. Terry Brown [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006], pp. 331–38, citing p. 331 and p. 337).

Hauerwas is not sure if we should call monogamous permanent same-sex relationships marriage. However, he likewise reports his surprising discovery that several of “the most faithful Christians I know” are gay, and his deepening friendships with them, caused him to rethink what he thought he knew about such relationships. He writes:

Just as the early church had to come to terms with the reality that gentiles, who probably should not have been followers of Jesus, were in the church, so we discover that gays are also in the church. Moreover they are there in a manner that would make us less if they were not there. I take that to be a stubborn theological reality that cries out for thought. (Stanley Hauerwas, “Gay Friendship: A Thought Experiment in Catholic Moral Theology,” in his Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998], pp. 105­–21, citing p. 108.)

Stubborn theological realities indeed cry out for thought, not dismissal. Such realities don’t just go away, and — like Jacob and the angel — must be wrestled with until a blessing is given, whatever it is, whatever the cost.

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology of the University of the South. The author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Peeters, 2013), he has edited or co-edited seven other volumes, including The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


  1. Will there even be much of a Lambeth Conference? One wonders whether this response was written prior to 1) the Gen Sec of the AC statement, 2) the called Primate’s Meeting in Jordan prior to Lambeth, 3) TEC Exec Council statement. Look as well at the UMC conference in St Louis, which is a rough equivalent of the AC. The Traditional Plan is the equivalent of Lambeth 1.10. It would pass by an even higher proportion in the case of anglicanism. For every six scholars one assembles for their position, six can articulate the contra position. That resolves nothing. The AC is not a western academic seminar room.

    • As comic thespians say, timing is everything, and the timing of this piece is certainly ironic, especially in light of the UMC special convention which concludes today. But I think Professor Seitz misunderstands my list of scholars, which was not meant to be representative, but which rather compiled those whose work has influenced my own thinking, on many matters, not just the disputed topic. It’s not the numbers but the names that are important here, and to the extent that one regards Ellen Davis as a trustworthy interpreter of Christian Scripture, Sarah Coakley as a trustworthy interpreter of Christian doctrine, and Stanley Hauerwas as a trustworthy interpreter of Christian Ethics, then to that extent one should take their thoughts on this current debate seriously.

      • Your point changes nothing. No one said anything about not taking these fine people seriously. Equally, one can bring in Oliver O’Donovan, Marcus Bockmuehl, John Webster (RIP), RR Reno, Susan Wood, Edith Humphrey, Richard Hays, George Sumner, Christopher Seitz, Gary Anderson, Ephraim Radner, Wm Abraham, and on the list goes. All at premier institutions: Notre Dame, Oxford, Duke, SMU, Edinburgh, Toronto, Aberdeen. The Traditional Plan and Lambeth 1.10 are points de repère. They bespeak the on-the-ground ecclesial mind of the UMC and the AC respectively.

        • Professor Seitz, again I think you misconstrue my intention. I am not seeking to make a direct “appeal to authority” nor an “appeal to popularity,” which is precisely why in my initial reply I specified those names as the ones who have influenced my own thinking on this particular topic: the figures you list, for all their other virtues, have not, again on this topic, regardless of where they teach. (I am particularly fond of Billy Abraham, who contributed a wonderful chapter on David Brown’s biblical hermeneutics and theory of divine revelation in a volume I co-edited titled *Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown* [OUP, 2012]). Nor do I deny the *de facto* landmark status of Resolution I.10. My argument against Professor Radner is rather (1) Resolution I.10 was misguided from the beginning because it was not fully representative according to the accompanying report itself, and so (2) reaffirming it in 2020 would be a further mistake. I don’t see how you could think those who disagree with its points (d) and (e) could think otherwise. My point is that the realties to which both Coakley and Hauerwas direct our attention should indeed be taken seriously, even if they are discordant with I.10, and then to ask what the implications of that might be.

          • Your point (1) is an opinion you hold as an individual and which is not durable in that form. Others in that circle of composition hold that an effort was made to manipulate the final text.

            Lambeth 1.10 *in the form that we have it* is the resolution that was voted on, and which gained 80% consent, again, *in that form.*

            Radner’s point is not that it is the undisputed teaching of the AC; even in 1998 some did not consent to it. Nor does he deny that people have continued to write and to hold differing views on the subject. How could one hold that view?

            His point is to gather as widely as makes sense and take counsel. Has the mind of the gathered bishops changed? Let Lambeth 1.10 be held up and consented to, or turned back. That is the point of conciliarity.

            You hold that in (2) above, further, not that Lambeth 1.10 is a mistake (which it isn’t), but that *reaffirming* it would be a mistake. But surely you cannot be the judge of that. That is for the gathered Bishops to say.

            I have no doubt that the gathered are competent to read and pray and make up their mind. As you note, much ink has been spilt. It is impossible now not to have seen all the terrain of debate.

          • My point (1) is based on my reading of the “Called to Full Humanity” report (especially in light of the 1978 and 1988 reports and resolutions), Archbishop Carey’s testimony in his memoir *Know the Truth* that he personally had the phrase “rejecting homosexuality as incompatible with Christian practice” added to the resolution prior to the vote, and the clear implication that in so doing the range of views in the 1998 report was narrowed to one. As for my point (2), perhaps we read Radner’s essay differently. His various proposals are not presented as resolutions to be discussed, but to be *adopted*–that is, to be accepted as such. Perhaps he can clarify his own intentions, which I found somewhat unclear, but after several readings it finally seemed to me that he was precisely *not* calling for “Lambeth 1.10 be held up and consented to, *or turned back*,” as you put it, but rather for a decisive affirmation that would end debate. The point of his essay, as I read it, is to say the time for debate is over. You say that it is not for me to tell the gathered bishops what to say, but how else can you read an essay that presents six resolutions for the conference not to discuss but to adopt? I’m not at all telling the Conference what to affirm or not affirm or even what to put on their agenda, I am disagreeing with Radner’s doing so.

          • 1. Whether you believe this or not–and the other side has its own version of manipulating efforts–is surely irrelevant. Lambeth 1.10 as we know it was voted on. By a wide percentage, it passed.
            2. Perhaps your essay predated the decision of the Gen Sec of the AC? He is using Lambeth 1.10 and appealing to it in respect to attendance and as a standard.
            3. TEC Exec council–also likely before your essay–has said he cannot do that. But who are they to say? is the obvious question.
            4. In order to adopt or affirm Lambeth 1.10 there would need to be a vote of some kind. How else would it be affirmed? That I took to be the point of the language “adopt.”
            5. You stated categorically that it would be a mistake to reaffirm Lambeth 1.10 — but who are you to say that? And what of appeal by +Idowu-Fearon to it, already in place? One might have thought it now necessary to bring the matter to discussion in 2020 in order to reject what he has stated is the truth of the communion’s position. He is the Gen Sec.
            The UMC timing is one thing. In addition there are now these other anglican factors.

          • Professor Seitz, we seemed to have reached an impasse. You keep seeking to tutor me in the realpolitik of the Anglican Communion, whereas my goal was to reframe the discussion in light of what I think to be the actual truth of the matter. That’s what theologians are supposed to do. Regardless of the circumstances of the passing of Lambeth 1998, Resolution I.10, and regardless of how many times it has been cited as a point of reference since then, and indeed precisely because it has become such a reference point, I think it was a mistake for the Anglican Communion to formally commit itself to (d) and (e) in particular. In my view, it is just as regrettable as if in 1978 a resolution had been passed which contained the clause, “Rejecting the ordination of women as incompatible with Scripture, this conference…,” because once such a statement is made it effectively ends the conversation, no matter if additional clauses call for more reports and further work to be done. The Communion would be officially on record as rejecting the ordination of women, leading inevitably to dissension and disunion with those provinces that accepted it, and thus requiring either a subsequent formal affirmation or a formal correction. Had such a resolution be passed, I would regard it as a tragic mistake that should be rectified, with a formal correction being necessary. That being so, I regard the actual 1998 resolution as a similar mistake and Professor Radner’s call for its re-affirmation in 2020 as a further one.

          • “we seemed to have reached an impasse” — it is correct that I do not agree with your premises. I’ll let my comments speak for themselves. I know as an individual you think certains developments were a mistake. But that does not change their reality. So, the Gen Sec’s reference to them a week ago.

          • A question of cosmology/astronomy is just not the same kind of question as one of sacramental theology. Yes, Christians may have wrestled with those questions, but I don’t think anyone was ever so confused as to imagine that they were different instances of the same type. Sorry, but the position of the sun just isn’t and never has been an aspect of dogmatic Catholic theology. To imply that it is makes a radically reductive description of the way that the tradition works. Making these kinds of comparisons just brings us into that ridiculous ahistorical tradition of enlightenment vs. “dark ages.” I expected better from you, and it is frankly offensive to imply that Christians who hold to the traditional (and even, still today, the mainstream) definition of marriage are no better than fanatics who believe the sun is the center of the universe. I also find the theologians you mention to be moving and challenging in various ways. But no one is going to be moved if you go around telling them that opposing gay marriage is like opposing Galileo.

          • Samuel, appreciating any argument from analogy is to understand how the analogy is being used. Nowhere do I say or even imply that those “who hold to the traditional (and even, still today, the mainstream) definition of marriage are no better than fanatics who believe the sun is the center of the universe” (but I think you meant “earth” rather than “sun”). What I say is that many beliefs of a scientific or moral nature once thought to be “incompatible with Scripture” are now no longer regarded as such, at least in some circles. Most people now believe in a heliocentric solar system, but of course beliefs about evolution and the ordination of women remain controversial, and I even know some very conservative Calvinists who believe abolitionism is wrong because Scripture condones slavery. My point was precisely that there is a sliding scale here from the no-longer controversial to the still-controversial, not to conflate them. As for your point about the clear categorial difference between science and sacramental theology, I don’t think Thomas Aquinas (whom I’m about to run off to teach a seminar on) would agree with you, as the distinction between form, matter, substance, and accidents are both physical and metaphysical concepts we must get clear on to understand the sacraments. Finally, the comparison with Galileo was again analogy: he was forced to recant and say that he did not see realities which he knew he had seen. Perceiving moons around Jupiter is different than perceiving holiness–but there is an analogy. Anyway, I’m late for my Aquinas class

          • Rob, you didn’t say or imply that we’re fanatics (and yes, I did get mixed up there on sun and earth in the Galileo problem), but the analogy, whether you intended it or not, functions as a standard progressive virtue-signaling device. Since (obviously) no sane person holds any of these old views, it is (obviously) not sane to hold this view any longer either. Maybe you’re trying to be more subtle, but that’s not how it comes across — or, I think, how this analogy is actually read and used when it’s made elsewhere, which it is with some frequency (most often with slavery). And, in any case, I continue to maintain that it is just not a fit analogy. Yes, of course, these are all things that were, at some point, by someone, thought to be “incompatible with scripture.” But I find it far-fetched to imagine that theologians in earlier ages thought that these were the same kinds of questions. Questions on the sacraments are always considered more significant than questions of how we describe celestial bodies. (So yes, I get the comparison with the ordination of women. That’s a reasonable analogy. Though, again, in a mainstream TEC context, more virtue-signaling, because it has been made very clear that we are not allowed to disagree on that question.) I’m still baffled by the comparison with Galileo.

            As to Thomas, well, the distinction I was making wasn’t between science and sacramental theology, but between astronomy and sacramental theology. Obviously, for Thomas, theology is a science. And anything that is real can be talked about in the terms of physics and metaphysics. The point is just that, despite historical Christian interest in and support of the other sciences, there has never been an ecumenical council to deal with questions of physics. Nor will there be, I think. The natural order (apart from its simple identity as creation) and its description is, precisely because it is natural, not part of the supernatural deposit of faith.

  2. In what world are heliocentrism, women’s ordination, and same-sex marriage similar questions? (And do you really think that Hauerwas or Coakley would go for that comparison? I rather doubt it.) While I can appreciate this critique of Lambeth 1.10, especially in its historical context, I would see it more as a continuing recognition of the status quo than any attempt of a “definitive word” on the subject. Anyway, this piece does suggest exactly the kind of progressivism of the inevitable that so frustrates much of the Communion. Ellen Davis is probably right. We will be debating this for a long time. Which is precisely why we need to recognize, honestly, the traditional starting point, before committing ourselves to an endless “conversation” that has one inescapable conclusion.

    • “In what world are heliocentrism, women’s ordination, and same-sex marriage similar questions?” Well, the world of the New Testament for starters; the whole world of Christendom prior to the 17th century; and in some sense the world of the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century when they finally dropped their opposition to one of those three positions. That being said, while I take your point about the creeping “progressivism of the inevitable,” my main concern was rather to push back against Professor Radner’s claim that nothing significant had changed since 1998, when I think that in fact quite a lot has changed. Back to heliocentrism, my interest was more with the comparison with Galileo and his telescope: he claimed to see things that called the geocentric status quo into question. Likewise, Coakley and Hauerwas have claimed to see holiness in their gay students and friends which has caused them to rethink their own views. What thus interests me is what precisely they have seen, and why others have not seen it.

  3. You note that Hauerwas is not prepared to speak of same-sex marriage, but say nothing about that specific in the case of Davis and Coakley. Rowan Williams’ rejection of same-sex ‘marriage’ also comes to mind.

    Since the 1998 resolution to which you are referring here, that kind of stance, that of Stan H or Rowan W, is no longer acceptable with the LGBTIQ community, or TEC.

  4. Important news just in. UMC in international assembly gathered around the Traditional Plan future.

    Lambeth 1.10 holds this same space in Anglican Communion discernment, as the “Traditional Plan” of widespread acceptance.

    Endless are the efforts of individuals–theologians, Bishops, clergy lay leaders, angry or hopeful in orientation–to say their individual insights ought to govern.

    “…whereas my goal was to reframe the discussion in light of what I think to be the actual truth of the matter.”

    But what is needed in a Communion is a Communion discernment.

    Grace and peace.


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