Guest forum: J. I. Packer's Response to the St. Michael Report
Dr. J. I. Packer, world-renowned Anglican theologian and teacher, wrote this commentary on the St. Michael Report soon after it was released last spring. His insights are even more helpful in these months before General Synod 2007.
1. When the St. Michael Report reached me, I said to a group of theologians that the critical question in my mind as I read it would be, whether the biblical gospel controls the Report's thinking as it should. I now offer the following assessment of it.
2. The document is titled: “Report of the Primate's Theological Commission of the ACC on the Blessing of Same-sex Unions.” With its makeup of 12 whom the Primate appoints, the Commission's role is to provide theological input on questions referred to it. This Report concludes that “the blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine” (para 1) and of “doctrinal importance” (3), yet is not “a matter of core doctrine in the sense of being creedal” (i.e., touched on and determined by the Creeds, BCP, Articles, Lambeth Quadrilateral, and Solemn Declaration) and so is not “a Communion-breaking issue” (10). The meaning of communion in the Bible is not discussed; the capitalized “Communion” in the above phrase clearly means the worldwide fellowship of Anglican churches. Implicit here is a verdict against the ACiNW, which has suspended communion with the Bishop of New Westminster and others for their line of action on blessing same-sex unions; also against the 22 Anglican primates who have led their provinces to suspend communion with New Westminster and in some cases with the ACC.
3. Within its own convictional frame the Report is temperate, thorough, reverent, respectful, calm and even-handed, marshalling many of the biblical and cultural considerations that bear on the question, whether the church may and should pronounce liturgical blessings over “committed, adult, monogamous, intended lifelong, same-sex relationships which include sexual intimacy” (p.3). The word “monogamous” points to the Commission's view that any such blessing “would be analogous to a marriage to such a degree as to require the church to understand it coherently in relation to the doctrine of marriage” (39), i.e., apparently, as a sort of marriage.
Three limitations make the Report's reasoning less than compelling.
4. The first limitation is an inadequate concept of what in the past has been called heresy (a word not used here), that is, a denial of core doctrine that breaks the church's prior unity in faith. The Report equates core doctrine with what is affirmed in Anglican foundation documents and argues that blessing same-sex unions, whatever else it is, is not a violation of core doctrine, but is an adiaphoron, a secondary matter, which does not warrant any breach of church communion. But the reasoning on which this conclusion is based is not the whole story, though it is indeed part of it. However, a sounder, profounder concept of what in the past has been called heresy is: any belief or practice that negates any part of the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ, understood as the divinely revealed truth that shows our sinful race the way of salvation from sin and sin's consequences. This concept covers not only doctrines of the Creeds and Anglican foundation documents, but also the practice of faith in Christ, repentance, obedience, life in the Spirit, and personal holiness, according to the Scriptures.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 lists behavioral habits that, if not repented of and forsaken, keep people out of God's kingdom, and male homosexuality is explicitly included in the list (vss. 9-11). Paul goes on to celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit sanctifying persons at Corinth who had previously lived in the ways he has mentioned. It seems undeniable that he would have viewed blessing same-sex unions as sanctifying sin, and thus as a denial of an essential ingredient in the gospel, namely repentance of all one's sins and forsaking of them. And the gospel as such is surely the church's core doctrine.
The gravity of the homosexual lifestyle as Paul views it warrants the description of it when found in the church as practical heresy; which raises the question, whether the suspending of full communion pro tem is not warranted and indeed needed as a disciplinary measure, aimed at bringing offenders to repentance. The Report fails to face this issue of conscience and wisdom, which arises from straightforward biblical exegesis and for some is very real and pressing.
5. The second limitation is that the Commission's discussion of theological anthropology overlooks the question, whether God has revealed in nature and Scripture an order of creation in sexual matters: whether, that is, the physical makeup of each sex and the divine purpose of procreation do not point to what a string of biblical passages seem to say explicitly, namely that sexual powers are for exclusive use within heterosexual marriage and that homosexual use of them is always off limits, since it violates God's order and can never please him. The theology here is that since the work of grace is the restoring of ruined nature, the creational parameters of right and wrong still apply, and for the church to bless liturgically what God says he cannot approve is near to blasphemy. Unhappily the Report quite fails to face this issue.
6. The third limitation is that in urging continued discussion the Report does not consider how theological closure can be achieved. If legislation on blessing same-sex unions is presented to General Synod in 2007, there is every reason to think that whether it passes or fails, division will be exacerbated and deepened by the result. “The Commission acknowledges” (without doing more) “that for some on all sides of the issue it has taken on an urgency that approaches the 'confessional' status, in that they believe that the Church is being called absolutely by the Spirit to take a stand” (10). “Some” in that sentence should be “many,” and it would seem that their numbers are increasing. One wishes the Commission had faced the question of closure.
J. I. Packer