Anglicans and Homosexuality
Dr Caroline Miley
Among the handful of beliefs common to nearly every brand of Christianity from the most ancient Orthodox faiths of the Old World to the newest Pentecostal sects of suburban Melbourne are these two: that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and that homosexuals are bound for hell.
So says the noted author David Marr in his latest book The High Cost of Heaven (subtitled, with a fine impartiality, The Enemies of Pleasure and Freedom). Marr is respected as the writer of biographies of Patrick White and Sir Garfield Barwick, but here he takes up issues which concern him personally. Unfortunately, in doing so, he loses that important sense of distance from the subject which can prevent strongly-held views from becoming a partisan diatribe.
Marr is understandably and rightly outraged by the appalling treatment meted out in some parts of the Christian churches to homosexuals, as well as in respect of issues like censorship and euthanasia. The churches' sins in its treatment of social minorities have been, at one time or other, very great. It does not help, however, to make no distinction between one issue and another, and to take a very partial view of the current conflicts. Demonising the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, for example, for his views, when an enormous number of Melbourne Catholics disagree with Dr Pell, is in no way a representative or fair view of Catholic thought today.
The flavour of Marr's book is well conveyed in the quote above; strongly passionate, highly generalised, very partisan - and rather inaccurate. Christianity certainly did not invent homophobia and it can hardly be responsible for its existence in non-Christian cultures round the world. Today, the churches are responsible for many ministries specifically of use to the gay community, such work in connection with HIV/AIDS. There are also many homosexual people in the church, both lay and ordained, in every denomination. But it is certainly true that homosexual people have suffered, and suffered badly and gratuitously, at the hands of the churches, and they continue to do so today. How can this possibly be, considering that the God that Christians follow is the God of love?
One of the factors that David Marr needs to consider is that we live in a society which is obsessed with sex. It is almost impossible to turn on the television, open a magazine, or drive down the street without being confronted with sex. Everything is sold using sex, including items as apparently unrelated to sex as shoes and cars. In a sex-obsessed world, the church cannot ignore what is forced on its attention. But the church is under no obligation at all to follow society's values, and it seems that where it is homophobic the church may have lost the plot of its founder's message. In his recent book The Church of England: a Portrait, Michael De-la-Noy comments:
At present the Church of England is in thrall to secular values. That is why it is both racist and persecutes homosexuals. The remedy for both these aberrations is too obvious to bother spelling out.
While women and those of other cultures have been ignored or excluded by the church, homosexuals are actively persecuted. At one time it seems they were ignored: since they have chosen to give up hiding their sexuality this has changed to active oppression. As far as ever behind society in general, the church is slowly attempting to come to grips with a phenomenon whose existence it has known about since its beginnings.
Its approach is based on the politics of exclusion, and is characterised by naivety and ignorance. Many parts of the church are apparently under the impression that all homosexual behaviour approximates to that of the most promiscuous, and find it hard to believe that homosexual relationships can be just as founded on love and just as committed as heterosexual partnerships. The church seems to think that recommending that homosexual persons are acceptable, as long as they renounce active sex for life, represents some sort of acceptable, and acceptably Christian, view. It is hardly that. For a start, it is naive in the extreme. Who among us is capable of that sort of resolution?
It also smacks of a punitive wish. Those who blithely recommend this "acceptable" compromise seem to have little idea of what they are asking - unless they secretly do think that this sort of punishment is suitable for such sinners as homosexuals.They are in fact saying that in their whole life, these persons must never know fulfilled love. They must never love or be loved as humans understand love. They must never hold another person in their arms and rejoice in the warmth of their body - or be so held. They must always sleep alone. There must never be a person in their life who is more to them than any other - or be that person. And they must never fulfil that dimension of human physical experience which is so urgent in the make-up of every person. They must never even kiss another person in that way. Is this condemnation to permanent physical and emotional loneliness of the deepest kind, something that one Christian can legitimately demand of another?
Theologically, it seems to raises all sorts of problems. The first is that celibacy - a committment to lifetime abstinence from sex - has always been regarded by the church as a vocation, a special calling that some people are gifted with. The Roman Catholic church considers it, rightly or wrongly, a vocation which is tied up with the calling to be a priest. It is not a vocation which lay people are necessarily gifted with. The Anglican church has never regarded celibacy as an integral part of the priestly calling. It has normatively assumed that its clergy, like its laity, will have a sex life. The notion of priestly celibacy is therefore not part of the Anglican tradition.
An even greater theological difficulty is that the idea of the "non-practicing" homosexual seems to raise a strange sort of mind/body dualism that is profoundly unChristian. According to some commentators of the present day, it is all right to have a homosexual mind, but the body is separate - and bad. This needs thinking through very carefully. It is by no means part of Christian theology to regard the body and soul as separate entities. It was a subject that deeply concerned C.S. Lewis, who wrote much on this topic, and explained it clearly in a radio broadcast:
I know that some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. But they were wrong. Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body - which believes that matter is good, that God himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven, and is going to be an essential part of our happiness, our beauty and our energy.
The church's task with homosexuals is the same as with all others: to build them up, heal their wounds, empower them to become the fullest that they can be, and equip them for ministry. Instead, the church itself damages these particular children of God by treating them as intrinsically "wrong".
Discrimination against homosexuals sems to be part of the church's centuries-long obsession with sex. A minute portion of the Scriptures is connected with sexuality in any shape or form, compared to, say, the portions dealing with love, compassion, relations to other people and to God. The church, on the other hand, has made sexuality such an enormous issue that it has often replaced mission as the main focus of attention. Sexual sins are nowhere seen in Scripture as worse than, or indeed very different from, other sins. Excess of all types is cautioned against: drunkenness and gluttony, lust for power and status, covetousness. The worst sins are consistently identified with failure to obey the "great commandments": to love God and your neighbour. Meanness, lack of compassion, lack of hospitality, lying, stealing, cheating, slandering and giving false testimony are variously singled out, together with adultery, as examples of unacceptable behaviour. Worst of all of the offences against other people are acts like murder and arson.
None of this gives the impression that God regards sexuality and sexual life as particularly a subject of concern, but with the church it has often come to overwhelm all others. The Roman Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Melbourne in the last years of the twentieth century has mounted an unedifying campaign against declared homosexuals, which included refusing to give them the sacrament of Holy Communion. Even if one were to accept their argument that these people are unrepentent sinners, it seems odd in a church that believes in the efficacy of sacramental grace, to deny its healing powers to those who presumably they think of as most in need of it. And why these particular sinners, and not the wife-beaters, child-abusers and murderers? If they were to refuse all the liars, cheats and those who were inhospitable, the churches would be practically empty.
Many Anglicans, too, have considerable concerns and, one may say, confusion, about sexual issues. The traditional teaching of the church is that marriage is a sacrament which cannot be broken. Adultery is a breach of a covenant relationship with the spouse and with God. It is important to note that it is really the breach of faith and the lying which is the issue here, not the fact that a person has engaged in a sexual act. However, there is broad tolerance in much of the church today for pre-marital and extra-marital sex, especially among younger people. Divorced persons can now remarry in most Anglican churches. The children of de facto relationships are baptised. Some clergy are divorced and remarried. Abortion is still a difficult issue, but it will never be an easy issue for any thoughtful person of conscience, Christian or otherwise. The mainstream church, however, is largely content to allow Anglicans to form their own judgement on these issues. The question, then, remains: why pick on homosexuals?
It is only homosexuality that today still creates the huge stumbling-block, and then only in some parts of the church. Despite the assertions made by David Marr, antagonism to homosexuality is by no means unique to Christian cultures. The reason must be looked for in something deep and universal in the human psyche. The antagonism is so strong and so irrational that fear seems to be the obvious answer. Fear of the "other", fear of the unknown, fear of promiscuity, physical fears of unwanted sexual acts being forced upon one, revulsion from some physical acts, fear of the possibilities of the body, fear of sexuality itself?
Marr is probably right in suggesting that some of the "problem" with homosexual acts is that, since there is no possibility of procreation, sexual pleasure alone must motivate them. There appears to be no social "meaning" to such acts. Sexual pleasure is a powerful force. Fear of promiscuity is probably a component of these anxieties - that if it is allowed to become widespread, one might end up engaging in it oneself? Might be caught up in forces one cannot control, engage in acts that one finds humiliating or disgusting? Unleash the "dark side" of one's own personality or sexuality?
That there is a personal aspect to homophobia is only too obvious. Homophobia is most marked among men, and many of those same men are not concerned in the slightest about female homosexuality. Many would be quite happy to look at erotic material featuring female homosexual acts, or do not feel anything like the same revulsion about them. This shows quite clearly that it is not a matter of principle or theology. It is a fear and hatred of men, by men. And fear and hatred have no place in the life or thought of a Christian.
For some people, guilt, too, will be an issue. This, however, like the fear response of others, is their own problem. It should not be allowed to dictate the intimate behaviour of other people. Still less should it allow a Christian to treat any other person as even fractionally less a beloved child of God than oneself, or want less for them than one wants for oneself.
In a culture which is crying out for love, meaning and acceptance, discrimination against any person must constitute a powerful bar to mission. There is another outcome, too, which does not seem to have occurred to the excluding powers, or perhaps they are so confident of the rightness of their views that it just does not matter. This is that, once a gay person, or any other member of a group which has been marginalised and discriminated against by the church, has come to the conclusion, in good conscience and after much thought, that they in themselves, just as they are, are a worthwhile person who is loved and accepted by God, what can their attitude possibly be to the church that will not accept them?
Self-acceptance and belief in God's love must surely lead to the view that the church which rejects them is wrong. In this way the church sets up an unwinnable dilemma which it should not impose on people: "either believe that you are acceptable and loved by God, or believe that the church is right, that you are inferior and bad, and be part of it - you can't have both". Reader, which would you choose? The miracle is not that so many leave, but that some of the discriminated against, knowing this, still choose to remain within the church which rejects them. This is a tribute to their loyalty to God, which deserves to be much better recognised by the church.
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