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The Sexuality Debate

The Reverend Charles Royden discusses some of the issues
 

Gracious disagreement

As I wandered around The Albert Dock in Liverpool, I visited the maritme museum. There was a display on the issue of slavery and I read once again the story of how we treated people as sub human in this business enterprise. It brought about much wealth to Liverpool and other cities across the world. Of course church people believed that slavery was not only allowable, it had the backing of scripture. The church was divided between those for and those against and there was much anger and bitterness. Over a hundred years later and we have moved onto another subject about human beings which divides Christians and which involves interpretation of scripture. The issue of homosexuality is raising the same division and threatens the integrity of the church across the world.

The Installation of the new Dean of St Albans, Canon Jeffrey John, will take place on Friday 2nd July, at 5pm. I will be attending the service and hope that Jeffrey John feels welcomed into the Diocese. But, the issue of sexuality is brought dramatically to the fore with his appointment. Jeffrey John has stated that whilst he is homosexual he is celibate, he is therefore being condemned for being a non practising homosexual. The problem is that his appointment is perceived as representing a more tolerant attitude by the Church towards homosexuals.

The press release issued by the St Albans Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship is located on the St Albans Diocesan website. It stresses that the grace and glory of the gospel of Christ is being undermined by the issues underlying this appointment. Specifically it desires that steps be taken to reaffirm the traditional Christian teaching
on marriage.

The problem is that across the Anglican communion worldwide there is currently considerable disagreement concerning the position which it adopts towards people who are homosexual. Perhaps the greatest test for those of us in the church is whether we will be able to live graciously with those who hold positions different from our own.

I hope in the following page to outline some of the history to the present struggle. I will also present some of the theological issues and seek to make clear why it is that homosexuals feel aggrieved about their position.

When news of a homosexual appointment is made in the church, it is always as if a bomb had been detonated and it reverberates, not only around the Church of England, but also many other denominations who are facing the same issue. Jeffrey John is a gay man in a longstanding, celibate, relationship with another priest. This lifestyle is one which cannot be countenanced by many people in the church, especially those drawn from the part of the church calling itself ‘Evangelical.’ The anger has been so intense and the actions of many violent. On the advice of the Archbishop, Rowan Williams, Jeffrey John decided to resign from his post as Bishop of Reading . There was a great deal of pain caused, priests had excrement placed through their letterboxes, hurtful words were spoken on both sides of the debate and many people should hopefully feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. By him stepping down, Canon Jeffrey John averted a crisis. We all knew that some churches, perhaps small in number but rich in cash and influence, would have forced a split in the church if the post was not rescinded. Sadly we need to remember and be realistic that underlying much of the theological and pastoral debate about homosexuality, there are also the very human political power struggles which sadly surface in any organisation.

 

So what is the cause of the disagreement ?

At the heart of the issue is the belief by many Christians that homosexuality can never be a valid lifestyle. Homosexual behaviour is viewed as sin. Since Jesus spoke strongly about the importance of thoughts as well as actions, then one must conclude that homosexual orientation must necessarily also require treatment. To say that homosexual acts are a sin but the condition is not, seems to me to be a cruel position and a way of avoiding tough choices.

The evangelical wing of the church is at the forefront of opposition to homosexuality. It has always tried to base its beliefs upon the Bible and Evangelicals claim scripture as the source of their authority. I would not want to enter into a full theological exposition of the passages concerned but here is a glimpse of the passages from the Bible which lie at the heart of the case against homosexuality. The question which we must ask of each other is whether or not the scriptures speak in a way which means that loving relationships between people of the same sex, men and women, is wrong.

Old Testament

Genesis.

The creation story in Genesis shows God creating man and woman. For many this is the model which they see as the God given normal basis for human relationships. Phrases such as 'God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Ken' come to mind. 'Normal' sex is considered to be that between a man and a woman, and it results in procreation.

In response to this, other theologians would wish to stress the importance made in the second account of the creation in Genesis Chapter 2 which tells that a man should not be alone and required a suitable companion. God creates other human beings for company, not just to enable procreation to take place. Underlying the Genesis passage is the wider problem of that fact that many Christians now prefer to see Genesis as a powerful story which shows that God created the world, rather than a literal model. The old debate which certain theologians pressed strongly with Darwin is surely sterile.  As many Christians have grappled with evolution, there has been a wide understanding that Genesis is not a scientific passage. Genesis tells us WHO created the world, not HOW and the fact that light and dark were created before the sun and the moon, may show Genesis to be more poetic than a scientific article.

Genesis 19:1-29 - Sodom and Gomorrah: The crime which took place here is not one of homosexuality, it is rather gang rape by men of other men.

 

Much is made of 'traditional Christian values of marriage, but what are they 

Polygamy and concubinage were regularly practiced in the Old Testament. Neither is condemned in the New Testament, apart from the possible teaching for deacons or overseers (1 Tim 3:2,12 and Titus 1:6). Many times Jesus is quoted speaking about marriage - in Mark 10:6-8. However Jesus does so by quoting Genesis 2:24, this was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. What justification do we have for thinking that a man can only become one flesh with one woman through intercourse? Polygamy endured for centuries in Judaism.

Where in the Old Testament are we told that sexual relationships between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults is wrong?  A reading of the Song of Songs reveals some racy love scenes! Criticism is concerned not with sex or love, but rather with the rights of the man over a woman, who is regarded as property. Female slaves were available for the use of their male owners, either for sexual pleasure or for producing children. It is unsuprising therefore that many African slaves were treated in the same way by Christians who believed that they were being obedient to scripture. 

The New Testament is also clear that when a married man died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn, until she bore a male heir. Jesus speaks of this without criticism (Mark 12:18-27). How does this teaching concur with traditional Christian values?  

In Deuteronomy a married man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman is not an adulterer. He cannot commit adultery against his own wife, only the wife of another. A bride who is not a virgin is to be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). 

Leviticus: In Leviticus 18:22 it is quite clear that homosexuality is described as an abomination - there is no room for manoeuvre. The problem lies in the fact that Leviticus condemns us all. It tells us that contact with semen and menstrual blood make us unclean and forbids contact with menstrual women, Lev 15:19-24. It also forbids us from eating shellfish Lev 11:10, encourages slavery Lev. 25:44 etc... I have included a 'meaningful joke' at the bottom of the page which it is hoped you will read in the spirit in which it is intended!. (Leviticus joke). Today, would we regard semen and menstrual fluid as 'unclean?'
 

It is of course profoundly difficult to use passages from the Old Testament to define our moral codes today. It might have been right for them to allow selling of their daughters into slavery, (Exodus 21:7) but we would hardly suggest the same today. These laws were written by a Bedouin tribe who roamed the desert struggling for survival 3,000 years ago. A struggling tribe needed to increase the population to survive against enemies.  The primitive understanding was that the female was a receptacle for the male seed, since it was male semen which was the the source of life (Gen 38:1). Spilling seed by any means other than procreation was obviously wrong. Perhaps this explains why the Old Testament does not mention female homosexual acts at all.

There will be those who disagree with the analysis, but the inescapable conclusion of those who wish to be completely literal is terrifying. Leviticus 20:13 gives the command that whatever we judge homosexual sin to be it must be met with a punishment of death.

"'If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:13
 

The New Testament Passages are more difficult

These are more difficult to interpret.

Romans 1:26
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
 

In this passage Paul is critical of those who act contrary to nature, leaving or giving up their sexual orientation for something which is foreign to them. Was Paul here condemning a sexual orientation which is fixed early in life, some would emphasise genetically. Paul is critical of 'shameful lust,' we would all echo that. But, he is not therefore speaking of genuine love shared between consenting and committed same sex couples. 

1 Corinthians 6:9
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Timothy 1:10
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers--and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.


These verses speak with differing degrees of clarity about homosexuality, they are not convincing that it is homosexuality is wrong in itself, rather than promiscuity or 'sex-for-sale.' Some Christians took the passage from Romans and applied it to the presence of AIDS in the homosexual community, they consider that indecent acts were punished by God using AIDS. However Christians disagree about how important these verses are for different reasons.

Interpretation
Some theologians will draw attention to the words used and the sentiment meant behind them. There is disagreement about whether it is actually homosexuality at all which Paul is criticising but rather male prostitution or promiscuity. At the heart of the debate for many homosexuals is whether Paul (or the writer) is angry in these passages, or would have the same anger about same sex committed relationships. The answer to that question must be no, clearly not in the manner proposed by advocates today, since such partnerships were just not possible. It was not an option. Surely we would expect Paul to have harsh words to say about promiscuity, but this is directed against all forms of such behaviour - heterosexual and homosexual.

Context
The other problem is one of context. Even if the Bible is totally against homosexual expression, many people argue that this is not necessarily a problem. Many of us realised ten years ago that homosexuality was an issue which was going to engulf the church - what alerted us was the ordination of women as priests. Many of the same problems surfaced then - passages from the Bible which spoke angrily about women and said they must be silent in church and cover their heads as signs of submission to their husbands. I remember as a youth in church seeing women missionaries returning from Africa and being refused permission to speak in the pulpit.  They had to deliver their address to the congregation from the chancel steps, to make the point that a woman was not preaching, or having authority over men.

What happened in the church when the priesthood was opened to women women was a fundamental shift. Ordinary Christians were told that some parts of the Bible were culturally relevant, they meant one thing for people in Corinth 2,000 years ago, but the laws were not necessarily binding today.  There are many passages in the New Testament which Christians have agreed are culturally very relevant to then, but no longer relevant to now.

 

Lets look at some of those passages.

1 Corinthians 11

The apostle Paul said that the head of a woman is the man  1 Corinthians 11
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man and so women should have their heads covered to show this.

  

1 Timothy 2

The Apostle tells us that women cannot teach men, or have authority over them, that they must be silent.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
 
These passages could not be more clear, but in spite of these passages, the Church has agreed to move forward and women no longer have to keep silent in church or have their heads covered, as we read in Corinthians. The church came around to the position where it recognised that before we ask what the Bible means to us today, we have to ask what the Bible was saying 2,000 years ago. Having done this the church concluded that some things are no longer of significance.

Correspondingly, if we do not believe that women have to do as Paul says, why should homosexuals?  We should all be concerned that it might just be that homosexuals are more of a minority and so we can treat them shamefully. Just as men oppressed women for years, are we now guilty again of oppressing homosexuals? The plight of homosexuals in the church has run parallel to the plight of women, albeit homosexuality struggles behind. Homosexuals are now using the same hermeneutics (theological methods) as women used previously. I would suggest that the reason that they are not so far advanced is not to do with a less formidable theological case, rather that they are less powerful, because there are fewer of them. As an aside, the natural progression now is that women will be allowed to advance in the church to become Bishops. Having conceded so far there is in my opinion absolutely no theological reason why women should not be Bishops and this will surely happen before too long.
 


Christians disagree
 

The early Christians did begin to see that Jesus laid down a new order where there was no male and no female Galatians 3:28, where the old order of subjugation and dominance was done away with. It is for us now to try and interpret that teaching, to bring about an order of tolerance and understanding worthy of our founder. Every generation has to listen to God and try to discern what God is saying. That is what we are doing now as a church. We need to remember that at the heart of the church lies change. Jesus broke the Sabbath and declared all foods clean - contrary to Leviticus. The Apostles did away with circumcision, contrary to the Old Testament laws. This has never been without pain. It is interesting to remember that the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter had a blinding row about whether it was allowed by God to eat with Gentiles (Galatians Chapter 2). Peter was frightened of what The Apostle James, Jesus' brother would think if he found out that Peter was doing this. Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy and won the argument, and as a result we now have Christianity, not the form of Judaism which Jesus left us with. The church moved forwards, led by the Holy Spirit! Just as those early Christians had to work out their differences and find the way forward so must we. It is important for us to remember that the early Christians had to ignore the letter of the law and discover the leading of the Spirit. That's why Paul said the law brought death and the Spirit life. Clearly the actions of the church demonstrate that over 2000 years God has caused us to change and make fundamental alterations to our beliefs and practices. We are a Pentecostal church, that is a church open to the movement and prompting of the Holy Spirit, not a dead fossilised church stuck with our past mistakes. 

There are many thousands of different Christians denominations, because sincere Christians who take the Bible very seriously, disagree about what it means. On so many subjects we disagree, therefore it is unhelpful to say that we know the Bible says one thing or another. We can have strong convictions about what the Bible says, but shouting Bible verses at each other in loud voices will take us nowhere, we have to accept that sincere Christians who love the Bible deeply, nevertheless understand it differently. We must never be so arrogant to suggest that people on the opposite side of the debate have not read their Bibles, or do not treat them as seriously as we do. Romans Catholics and Anglicans disagree about a great many issues, one side may be more right or wrong, but at least we should have the good manners to recognise that they each take the Bible seriously - they just disagree

How wonderful it would be if Christians agreed to worship and pray together even when they disagreed. As sincere believers in God, over the course of time, we are prone to change our minds on a whole range of subjects, polygamy, divorce, slavery, women. The prayer of Christ was that his people should be one, is it necessary to separate from those with opinions different from our own?  

 

Conclusion

The Bible is library of 66 books in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In these 66 books, you will find a total of 1,189 chapters containing about 31,273 verses. Homosexuality is mentioned in half a dozen and Jesus never actually even mentioned homosexuality. Sexual ethics are important, but have we arrived at a time when we can allow Christians the freedom of conscience to disagree in love about something which the Bible spends so little time talking about?

Rowan Williams is now barred from conducting communion in 350 parishes in England, because of his support for women priests, under the provisions of Section C of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod (1993). Do we now want to create another set of flying bishops for people who do not accept homosexuals or the bishops who consecrate them? We are at a watershed, and I can only hope that we decided to opt for respectful tolerance and grant that there is room for diversity of opinion?

The church once had a completely disparaging view of people who went through divorce, people tell me about being denied access to the Holy Communion by their Vicar. Other Christians tell me that not so long ago they were smacked for using their left hand, it was thought to be a sign of the Devil. Many Christians have known they were gay since the first moment they knew they had a sexuality, for them their sexuality is no different from being left handed, are we at least as a church listening to their experiences? There is within us all a tendency to be 'holier than thou,' in my experience a great deal of good comes when we are prepared to listen and enter into a real dialogue with people who are different from ourselves. 

The church bases its doctrine on three main pillars of truth,

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Reason

Scripture - In this case sincere Christians read the Bible and arrive at different conclusions

Tradition - The tradition of the church is that homosexuality is wrong. However the tradition of the church has also been one of oppression and bigotry towards women. We changed that, perhaps we can move on this issue also?

Reason - Here we need to allow ourselves to be open to ideas which may be very different from our own. Studies will be discussed and argued over, but in our wider society in England, homosexuals are being accepted in a new way and recognised as being different, not deviant.

The Church of England and the Methodist Church are about to sign a covenant, so perhaps it is worth listening to something from Methodism. Methodists have four foundational principles, they call it a quadrilateral. They include the three pillars which I have mentioned, but they also include 'experience.' It is surely time to listen to the experience of homosexual people, clergy, priests canons and bishops. They have a story to tell and it has not been heard. People like Canon Jeffery John are not raving queens like something out of Priscilla of the Desert.' They are sincere godly people and without the ministry of the enormous number of gay clergy, the Church of England would be in serious trouble.

The Bible freely sanctioned slavery and it is pervaded by sexism and patriachalism. We have however moved beyond a simplistic and literal legalism when reading these passages. Indeed some would say that contained within the Bible is a form of teaching which enables and empowers us to use the scripture as a living word, not a dead fossil. If we read Paul's teaching as a new law, we have perhaps missed the point. As Christians with the law written on our hearts, we are to be freed from bibliolatry, worship of the Bible, and regard the Bible rather as the Word of God which speak afresh to our generation.  

If after listening as a church we can still not accept that this is a valid choice, perhaps we can all agree to graciously disagree and carry on serving God. Divisions happen so quickly, sadly we then have to spend many years trying to put the church back together again, let's not make that mistake - again. At the present time the church has not reached a consensus, until we do we need to listen and learn from each other. Let us pray for all of those engaged in this debate that we may listen and be encouraged to continue to share together as the Body of Christ.,
 
Amen.

The following is a prayer, used in Putnoe Heights Church on October 19 by Mr Edward Peck.

Let us pray for all those involved in our current controversy in the church in relation to sexuality. Let us pray for church leaders in this country and world wide, who are wrestling with the question of how to guide the church through difficult debates on this issue. Let us pray for all those directly caught up in the controversy, Christians lay or ordained who are gay or lesbian, in a relationship or not, who may feel very exposed in the present climate; for their partners their families and their congregations. 

 
A joke from Leviticus
 
Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a US radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a US resident, which was posted on the Internet.
 
Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
 
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them.
 
1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors.
They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
 
2.I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
 
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in
her period of menstrual cleanliness - Lev.15:19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
 
4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and Female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
 
5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus
35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
 
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an
abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality.I don't agree. Can you settle this?
 
7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I
have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses.Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
 
8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?
 
9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
 
10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread(cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really
necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town
together to stone them? -Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)
 
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

 

Material for quotation


The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing - their race - and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about - their gender, and hence my support inter alia, for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

And equally, I could not myself keep quiet whilst people were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their sexuality. For it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as Apartheid ever was.
(Desmond Tutu)


Those who work for change suffer resistance.
So make us strong.
Those who do new things sometimes feel afraid.
So make us brave.
Those who challenge the worlds as it is arouse anger.
So grant us inner peace.
Those who live joyfully are envied.
So make us generous.
Those who try to love encounter hate.
So make us steadfast in you.
(The St Hilda Community)


They drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win -
We drew a circle that took them in.
(Edwin Markham)


We are tempted to think that the chief Christian sufferings should be those inflicted by the world upon the Church, as we rather naively think, by the 'wicked' upon the 'good'. Those sufferings however are easy to bear compared with the peculiar sufferings we bear as Christians within the Church. The Church is where the tensions of human life have to be confronted at their deepest level.
(Eric Symes Abbott)


You are not like us
we are the normal ones
you are the deviant
we are the powerful ones
you have no real power;
if you try to behave like us
we may accept you
but that depends on us
and on how deviant you are.
Don't ever say your way is as valid as ours
we might get worried
we might attack.
In fact - we are who we are
because you are not who we are.
(Harvey Gillman)


How can I love my neighbour as myself
when I need him as my enemy -
when I see in him the self I fear to own
and cannot love?
How can there be peace on earth
while our hostilities are our most cherished possessions -
defining our identity,
confirming our innocence?
(Eric Symes Abbott)


The crusading mind is rooted in intolerance, and its ultimate end is the destruction of its opposition. The crucified mind is rooted in the love which grows deeper through pain, and which seeks its end through what may seem a harsh and dreadful love, but whose aim is the transformation of its opponents. It is this mind which is expressed so often in the writings and speeches of the late Martin Luther King, and nowhere more powerfully than in his letter of May 1963 after the children's march. He wrote:


We must say to our white brothers all over the south who are trying to keep us down: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with our soul force. We will not hate you. And yet we cannot in good conscience obey your evil laws. Do to us what you will. Threaten our children, and we will still love you. Say that we are too low, that we are too degraded, yet we will still love you. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and still to love. In winning the victory we will win not only our freedom. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you too in the process.
(Kenneth Leech)
 

Quotations taken from www.inclusivechurch.net