The following is an interview with an author in a newly published book, The Line in the Sand. This book is a joint initiative of the Australian Church Record and the Anglican Church League.
The book is available for download here: https://www.australianchurchrecord.net/lits
The audio of the interview is available on the ACL website: https://acl.asn.au/lits-mark-thompson
Welcome to the Anglican Church League Podcast. I’m Lionel Windsor, the ACL’s Communications Secretary. I’m conducting a series of author interviews that will be of special interest to members of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia.
In this episode I’m joined by The Rev Canon Dr Mark Thompson, Principal at Moore Theological College and member of the General Synod Doctrine Commission and Board of Assessors for the Appellate Tribunal.
Mark is an author in a recently published book The Line in the Sand. The book is addressed to General Synod members, and speaks about a turning point in the history of the Anglican Church of Australia. In November 2020, the Appellate Tribunal released a Majority Opinion that gave legal validation to a liturgy which can be used to bless a same-sex marriage for the first time in the Church’s history. This is a deeply concerning move, because it effects a fundamental change in the nature of the Church’s doctrine relating to issues of salvation, and so it threatens the Church’s unity.
The book, The Line in the Sand, is designed to help General Synod members to see the issues clearly and address them decisively in their upcoming session in May 2022.
Mark’s chapter in the book is titled ‘Theology and the Majority Opinion’.
Mark, thanks for joining us.
Mark: Thanks Lionel.
L: What’s your particular interest in these issues?
M: At Moore College I teach doctrine, and though an Appellate Tribunal decision is technically not a piece of theology – it’s a legal opinion – it cannot help but delve into areas of theology, particularly when the questions referred to us refer to questions of theology, so the question about the liturgy and whether it in any way is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Church of England required them to think about what doctrine is. So I’ve been thinking about the nature of doctrine for some time, and I was asked whether I would read this report and reflect on the way it uses doctrine.
L: Okay. What are the key points in your article?
M: Well the end conclusion, sadly, is that the theology of the Majority Opinion is deeply deficient. And that’s because to start with they define ‘doctrine’ very, very narrowly. They define it in a way that’s really not consistent with the way the terminology and concept is used in the Bible, to start with, but it’s also not the way in which it’s used in general church understanding – doctrine just means teaching. So the teaching of Christ is what we’re talking about: Is this liturgy consistent with the teaching of Christ? And in some convoluted way they were able to say, ‘No well we can’t actually be sure.’ One of the things that’s characteristic of this Majority Opinion is the way they throw a lot of dust in the air and continually say that passages of the Bible that are appealed to by people who speak on one side or the other in this argument are ‘contested’. That’s a phrase they keep using: ‘this passage is contested.’
L: What kind of passages are they saying are contested?
M: So Genesis – how men and women were created in Genesis 2; Matthew 19 with Jesus talking about marriage in the context of the debate about divorce – those passages in particular, but others as well. And really, in one particular case, the contest they’re talking about is that the passage has been understood as saying this particular thing for the last 2000 years and somebody has come up with an article in the last five, who said, ‘Oh wait, we really we should think about it this way,’ and has written an article which – in my view the article’s spurious. But because an article’s been written that there’s another way, suddenly the passage is ‘contested.’ Forget the fact that 90% of the church over 2000 years has all thought it’s meant one thing.
L: Okay so it’s ‘contested’ but not necessarily just by one person, yeah.
M: Well you need to weigh if there are alternate positions being presented. You can’t say that just because there are alternate positions therefore there’s uncertainty; you need to weigh the use of evidence. So I might be actually spuriously biased in a particular way, write an article that’s actually undermining confidence in a particular part of the Bible and when you look at it you see actually I’ve got no evidence at all for the opinion that I’m presenting. However, just the fact that I’ve written the piece is enough for the Appellate Tribunal to say the passage is contested. So you need to weigh the evidence rather than just try to throw dust up in the air like that.
L: Can I ask about the definition of ‘doctrine,’ then. You said that there was a convoluted way in getting to a particular definition of doctrine. What is the definition of doctrine that the Appellate Tribunal’s working with?
M: The Appellate Tribunal wants to say that the definition of ‘doctrine’ is tied to that phrase ‘things that are essential for faith’. And so ‘essential towards salvation.’ So ‘salvation issues.’ That’s ‘doctrine.’ Jesus certainly spoke about salvation; he spoke about a whole lot else. He spoke about what we are as human beings, about our relationship to the Creator, about human sin; Jesus’ teaching extends far beyond that narrow definition. But even that narrow definition doesn’t work in this sense. Because in 1 Corinthians 6, another passage they will tell you is ‘contested,’ but in 1 Corinthians 6 we’re told that people who do these things, and homosexual behaviour is one of a list of things in there – but it’s there – people who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Now that seems to me to be a matter of salvation, and it’s the apostle Paul saying that. They try to suggest there’s a few ‘extremists’ who suggest this view, well that’s to take issue with the apostle Paul because he says it directly.
L: Now does that mean that basically – as you say it, it sounds like people might come back and say, ‘Are you saying that basically if you have a homosexual orientation then you’re not going to heaven and everybody else is going to heaven?’ You know, is that what you’re saying there?
M: No! No – not at all! The passage is talking about behaviour rather than orientation or temptation. They are bigger questions that need to be tackled and understood – the nature of temptation which is not dealt with at all. But the passage in 1 Corinthians 6 for instance is talking about concrete behaviour and it doesn’t just talk about sexual behaviour, it talks about other forms of immorality and idolatry and things – those things are listed together as things that if you indulge in that kind of behaviour you will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. But to be tempted – as we all are in different ways – is not necessarily to be somebody who does those things. There’s a distinction.
L: That’s helpful. So it’s not about orientation, it’s about behaviour and it’s broader than a particular behaviour; there’s a whole lot of behaviours that would preclude us from the kingdom of God.
L: Greed as well! Which we’re all subject to. How does that relate, then, to the teaching of the Church about justification by faith? Doesn’t that mean that we – aren’t we all just saved by trusting in Jesus and behaviour’s got nothing to do with it? Ahh, I don’t think that’s the case –
M: Hahaha! No, no, no, I understand – it’s our behaviour that means we all stand in need of Jesus’ forgiveness and grace and this is another point that’s made by the Appellate Tribunal who tries to suggest that the problem with those who oppose this blessing service and who appeal to the Bible as they do so is that they’ve misunderstood the nature of grace. And so ‘grace’ becomes something akin to licence. So it means because God is gracious he will overlook what you do. Whereas that’s not the Bible’s teaching at all. Jesus invites everyone to come. But he doesn’t leave you where you are. He actually transforms life and so living as a disciple of Jesus is markedly different from not living as a disciple of Jesus. There’s a shift that comes. Grace transforms as well as being unconditionally accepting.
L: So God accepts us – there’s a transformation of life. And if that transformation of life is not happening, then that is a salvation issue.
M: Yep, indeed. That’s what I think Paul’s saying in 1 Corinthians 6 and unfortunately the Appellate Tribunal dismisses that by saying, ‘Well this is a contested verse so we don’t really know what it means so we don’t have to take this as a challenge to the blessing service that is being proposed.’
L: Well thanks very much Mark. These are significant issues and your chapter goes into more detail on those particular questions. Please do pray for all the members of the upcoming General Synod. You can get a copy of the book The Line in the Sand by heading to the Australian Church Record website, that’s www.australianchurchrecord.net/lits or by the link on the Anglican Church League website, www.acl.asn.au. Thanks very much Mark.
M: Thanks Lionel.
You can get a copy of the book, The Line in the Sand, by heading to the Australian Church Record website, www.australianchurchrecord.net , or there’ll be a link on the Anglican Church League website, acl.asn.au .