Church of England

The Church of England should not tear itself apart over homosexuality and same-sex marriage

The General Synod of the Church of England is due to ‘take note’ (or not) of the Bishops’ report ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.’ In the pink corner are the LGBT ‘progressives’, sundry retired bishops and the Rt Rev’d Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham. And in the pink corner are the orthodox ‘conservatives’, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and (for the moment) all serving bishops except the Rt Rev’d Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham. The fact that both corners are pink is simply because they are largely indistinguishable in their expressions of support for stable and faithful lesbian-gay-bi relationships; their repudiation of sickening homophobic attitudes and language; and their unified quest for mutual respect, equality, justice and dignity for all LGBT people. See how these Christians love one another.

And yet they are divided: some dwell in Neverland; others in Sodom. Funny how we never hear much from the vast tribes drifting in the wilderness. Accusations are hurled of betrayal, hypocrisy, inconsistency, lying and deception, not to mention bigotry and homophobia. And then there’s the ignorance of tradition, authority, science and nature. There is mutual suspicion, even contempt and loathing. Express a view which the other side doesn’t like, and you’re cast into outer darkness. ‘Hate’ is the favoured invective of the haters. And whatever you do, don’t use scare quotes (such as “gay marriage” or “Christian”), or a form of words the others consider offensive (such as “inclined to same-sex attraction” or “maximum freedom”), or you really will be damned (or at least never read or listened to again).

The battle in the political realm is really a consequence of that in the spiritual. Both sides sometimes lose sight of that, even as they accuse one another of dancing with demons, if not of outright possession. One person’s pink is another’s black or blue, and the sins of exclusion and oppression are as grave as the spectrum of sins of sexual immorality. “Change and repent,” says one ex-bishop. “You have really not allowed the theological voice of some (LGBT/supporters) to be heard properly,” counter a whole psalter of retired bishops.

One side goes on about tradition, catholicity and the authority of Scripture; the other about authentic voices, bold leadership and LGBT pain.

And in the world of flesh and war and suspicion and betrayal, never the twain shall meet.

“We’re two different sorts of religion,” says the Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali. “One has a view of God and the Church and Christianity that is completely different from the other.”

“We need each other,” writes the Rt Rev’d Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester. “I have much to learn in my own pastoral response to LGBTI people and I can only learn it by listening.”

And please don’t think that this is an exclusively Anglican schism: there are LGBT Catholics who are currently perched between two popes: Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI, for whom the practice of homosexuality is “an intrinsic moral evil”; the inclination “an objective disorder”. And Pope Francis, for whom the inclination is “not a problem”; and the practice is… well, who is he to judge?

When it comes to Christianity, there are deeper loyalties. Or a deeper loyalty. There is more that unites than divides. Or ought to be.

And homosexuality is not an issue worthy of schism: it is simply not of the order of the sort of debate that used to divide the Church: the divinity of Christ, for example, or the nature of his humanity – the great controversy at the Council of Nicæa in AD325 – or even over liturgy or the transforming nature of infant baptism. The issue of homosexuality affects only a tiny minority of Christians: it is of distinctly secondary, even peripheral, scriptural importance.

The role of the Bible in addressing the modern question of the place of LGBT people in the Church is complex, not least because where homosexuality is mentioned in Scripture (remembering the word was only coined in 1892), the authors give little sustained consideration of the issue as it manifests in contemporary society. The nature of a biblical perspective will invariably be affected by the questions posed of the Bible, by the particular hermeneutic employed, and by the unavoidable perspective which each scholar brings to his or her reading of the Bible. While some may have an instant negative reaction, others seek to understand the debate in the different and changing circumstances in which we now live. Still others, who may identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual Christians, struggle to express either their feelings or their thoughts on the issue. They are themselves divided into those who acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin and therefore a call to celibacy, and those who assert that they also are made in God’s image and therefore seek to express their sexual desires in an intimate, monogamous relationship.

That God established an objective, moral order in creation, and continues a work of re-creation through Jesus, is a source and standard of all that it beautiful, good and true. If such a moral order means anything, there may be no via media on the issue of homosexuality. Accepting theological diversity is not the same as tolerating all beliefs and practices, because ultimately the Church is called to be holy because God is holy (Lev 19:2; Mt 5:48). We cannot, as Christians, just give way to a ‘you believe this, I believe that’ approach to being together, or moving apart, in the Church. Nor even can we be content with the rather cheap model of ‘reconciled diversity’, meaning benign tolerance, which many Christians find an easier option to the costlier pursuit of real, visible unity. We need to continue to struggle together for the truth, to find the right and godly balance between the call to solidarity and the recognition of difference. Presently, nowhere is this more important – especially in the Anglican Communion – than in the area of homosexuality.

Hence yet another rancorous General Synod division on the issue.

But the whole issue really is a non-issue because the wrong question is being asked. The modern era is sex-obsessed: we live in a consumer society, and there is little that is marketed without a glance, a wink, a flirt, a breast, or allusions to sexual intercourse, because ‘sex sells’. If one were to judge by the media (which is more frequently a mirror to society than a catalyst for change), the fascination with people’s sex lives is now more important than politics, religion, philosophy or even Mammon.

Jesus may have had to address the latter as the dominating idol of his era, and his judgment was unequivocal and succinct: render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar (Mt 22:21); and one may not serve both God and Mammon (6:24). He did not enter into discussion on the economic and fiscal minutiae of cash, credit, bonds, shares, loans or interest: a macro-warning to acknowledge sovereignty and not to be obsessed with Mammon was sufficient. If one were to apply the same principle to the modern idol – ‘Eros’ – it is doubtful that Jesus would address its sub-divisions (lesbian, gay, bi, straight, oral, anal, tantric); he would most likely directly challenge society’s obsessive fixation with Eros, and by so doing confront both those who prioritise issues of sexuality and those in the Church who presume to judge them.

By devoting so much time and effort to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, instead of challenging society by deconstructing the question or focusing on issues of poverty and wealth (for example), the Church of England is simply showing itself to share the same obsessions as the world. St Paul allowed no compromise on the restriction of sexual activity to heterosexual, monogamous marriage. But such an ethic seems almost utopian to our sex-besotted age, in which it appears at times that one’s identity is made to reside in one’s sexual organs and their untrammeled exercise.

The issue for the Church of England (which it has yet to discover) is that this debate has been blown out of all proportion: it is neither a battle for the soul of the church, nor an issue worthy of schism. It is a question utterly peculiar to the age, and those on both sides of the divide might consider toning down the rhetoric and restraining apologetics or the writing of (un)helpful open letters, and instead preach a message that, contrary to society’s thinking, sexual expression is neither a necessary line of inquiry in every human interaction, nor an essential component in human fulfilment.