On the day he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013, Justin Welby told the BBC Today programme, “You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship.” He told the BBC he had “particular friends where I recognise that and am deeply challenged by it”.
In Matthew 7.15ff Jesus tells his followers that you will be able to tell the good and the true from the evil and the false by the fruit their lives bear. Evil people cannot bear good fruit. Where good fruit is discerned then it is proper to infer goodness of character. And what goes for a person may, by extension, be said of human relationships. A healthy family that is a blessing to its relations and its neighbourhood is not going to be one that harbours dark and evil secrets.
There is a fundamental moral teaching in the heart of this dominical saying. It is that good is good and evil, evil. It assumes that the human capacity for discerning good and evil has been gifted to us by our Creator. It does not need sophisticated teaching for us to understand this. It invites a fairly clear empirical test that can work in both directions. Good people do good things. So, where goodness is seen to be being produced by the actions of particular people then we are obliged not to deny them the acknowledgement of goodness. The works they do can be tested and if found good, then they may be said to be good.
The moral teaching of the Church of England about LGBT relationships tells us that they are sinful for the clergy, and sinfulish for lay people. It is incoherent, and wilfully disregards the observations of the Archbishop. What he spotted was not something bizarre and unknown to others. A lot of people now know LGBT couples, some of them Christian, who live lives in which fidelity, monogamy, generosity, hospitality and fruitfulness are richly evident. They demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit.
I am making no extraordinary claim for LGBT couples’ relationships. They can be as fickle, dishonest, insubstantial, and faithless as any heterosexual couple’s. But that, in and of itself, is not a reason that we have used for dismissing the idea of fidelity and faithfulness for heterosexuals. On the contrary, we hold out marriage as a high calling for them, and encourage people to embrace it, because we know that when it is good it blesses both the couple and their families and the society around them. And the Archbishop says that LGBT couples can show the same good qualities.
Then should we not say that we bless them, because God already manifestly has? Should we not honour them, because God already manifestly has? Should we not say that they are good – because they evidently are?
The whole of the grudging polity of the Church of England, which thinks that lay people might be allowed a relationship but clergy cannot have them, would be transformed by an honest appraisal of what the perceived quality of the best of LGBT relationships means. We could then work together to encourage, support and build relationships of all kinds to be the best they can be. Which, in the words of Jesus, means that we will recognise good fruit wherever it is found.