Homosexuality and the church

Recently, our vicar preached a sermon on the 3rd chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In commenting on verse 5 (“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry”), he very deliberately reiterated that this means sexual activity outside marriage is wrong, and that marriage is between one man and one woman. This view of homosexual practice, he said, is the official line of the Church of England, and is also his own. (He then went on to invite people to talk to him about this issue, person to person, if they wanted. He was emphatically not encouraging homophobia, and no one who knows this lovely and kind man would think for a moment that he was.)

As a fairly new vicar, he probably thought the time had come for him to tell the congregation where he stood on what is already, and will probably continue to be, one of the most divisive issues in the C of E. I think this decision was probably wise and correct., even though I don’t agree with where he stands.

For large parts of the British public, the attitude of the C of E, and many other churches, to sexually active gay people seems to be baffling. I suspect a widespread feeling is Grow up already! Why do you hate gay people?

I’m not sure that this is fair. For over 1500 years, Christians have had a sacred book of God’s instructions as the basis of their worldview. It is not easy for them/us to jettison the Bible, especially when parts of the Bible teach that being hated and reviled for your faith is a badge of honour.

(Except of course we have jettisoned large parts: see https://www.penelopewallace.com/what-we-have-learned/.)

Since I have never in my life jumped off a fence without constantly looking back at the other side, I am of course still conflicted on this topic, more perhaps than may appear from the Tales of Ragaris. Living with Dorac certainly led me to a more liberal view.

In the current climate, I have a few thoughts:

Side One

  1. I refuse to allow the last word on sexual ethics to a book (Leviticus) that devotes a whole chapter to them without ever definitively stating what all civilised people would consider the most basic rule – that all sex should be consensual, no exceptions;
  2. If you are a traditionalist in the C of E on this theme, as many intelligent and lovely people are, have you considered the church’s track record on sexual morality: on masturbation, contraception, sex during pregnancy, and indeed sex for any reason at all except to beget children; and the way in which church teaching has repeatedly had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a sensible view? Not only teaching: also actual behaviour towards unmarried mothers. You may be wrong;
  3. What, honestly, do we expect to happen next? Are gay people going to disappear? It is of course possible for societies to move from liberal or anarchic rules towards more restrictive ones. I may hope that our society will do so, on issues like promiscuity and abortion. But on what basis can we expect society to change its view on gay sex, short of a universal conversion to Biblical theology and ethics?
  4. What are we actually saying to couples who have entered into civil partnerships or marriages, and have children? “You are a second-class Christian”? “We accept you, as long as you don’t want to be ordained”? “You ought to live celibate lives in the same house”?
  5. I have seen the argument that the acceptance of homosexuality is a, or even the, major heresy of our time. Is this not so preposterous as to undermine all the rest of the argument? What is the logic here? There is no basic Christian doctrine in the creeds that is affected in any way (in my opinion, but I could be wrong.) The only theological doctrine, I would suggest, is that the Bible is inerrant, and if that’s heresy, well, let’s go back to the 19th century;
  6. Although I do think that it’s not just about “getting round” a few verses in Leviticus and Romans, but that the whole tenor of the Bible tends towards heterosexuality, you could say the same thing about the rights of women. The whole tenor of the Bible, or at least the Old Testament, is for women to obey and be used without much if any comeback. Many although not all evangelicals no longer accept this, so why can’t they/we take the same approach to homosexuality? Because there are more women in their lives?

But on the other hand, Side Two:

  • It is distressing to see people called homophobic for believing that homosexual behaviour (not orientation) is wrong. Those who assume that jettisoning not just Leviticus but also the whole heterosexual atmosphere of the Bible is easy are the people who do not believe in the concept of the Word of God. Such people shouldn’t judge until they’ve made a serious mental effort to live in others’ shoes. It isn’t just Christians who have believed this – surely most religions and cultures have done so;
  • (See above) It’s not just Leviticus. The whole tenor of the Bible is heterosexual, and if we believe in God, is it unreasonable to think that He know best, and made two genders for a reason? (Opening floodgates here);
  • Although most people have moved on from the idea of “gay cures”, we shouldn’t undervalue the experience and opinions of those gay Christians who do believe they should live celibate;
  • Many people, myself included, dislike the fact that Uganda has laws making sex between men illegal. But is it an essential and universal human right for all consensual sex to be allowed? Incest is still illegal in Britain, and if we’re allowed to ban sex between siblings, why can’t Uganda ban sex between men, and other countries ban adultery? Views on sexual morality vary between cultures, and their laws reflect this;
  • How much of the debate depends on the overvaluing of sexual freedom, and indeed romance, in our society? It may seem to the modern Briton completely unreasonable to expect large numbers of people to live their entire lives chaste and without a nuclear family – but this might not have seemed odd to earlier cultures, where there was more emphasis on monasticism, or indeed warfare or subsistence farming as a way of life. Jesus expects people to give stuff up, and for some people this is, or can be, sex. No one has a right to sexual fulfilment, and no one has a right to have children.

These are just a few scattered thoughts.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS. I know you weren’t going to, but due to sensitivity of topic and people involved, please don’t share this post. Next week’s, on the other hand….

  • Judith Anne Renton

    20th October 2018 at 4:21 pm Reply

    Interesting topic!
    I also disagree with our vicar on that subject, but as someone once said to be, we we live within the C of E, we don’t have to agree with it. Thankfully there is a broad spectrum of views amongst lay and clergy in the C of E and no massively strict rules to have to abide by. In fact, if people over the years had not disagreed with the C of E’s views, we would still have no women vicars/bishops etc, and marriage of divorcees etc. Obviously a lot has changed since Henry started it all!! Who knows if eventually they will decide that marriage is OK between two men ( or women) .
    One thing that the Bible does seem to say is that the Christian life, and marriage, is about relationships. There are no direct comments about sex should be consensual etc as you mentioned…but if God is a God who is relational…then marriage should be within a loving relationship…be that between a man and a woman or two men. The OT references seem to be condemning sex that was linked to pagan practices and pagan religions, but nothing is said about a loving relationship between two men. So in my thoughts it is not wrong.
    Personally i am glad that my friends who are gay were not in church for that service as I think they would have felt that the church was not welcoming them and they would probably not step through the doors again – of my church or another one, which would be sad.
    Having said all that I did not actually hear Andy’s sermon and will need to track down the pod cast when it is online.!

  • Judith Leader

    20th October 2018 at 7:48 pm Reply

    Commenting first on Judith Renton’s comment, I agree about being glad not only gay friends were there but I hope no gay people were present. I would ask though if the marriage relationship isn’t loving does that mean you should end it. In biblical times (as well as today in some communities and countries) marriages are arranged, I don’t mean that they aren’t loving but it does put it different aspect on them.

    I would disagree that the vicar need give us his point of view in church, if I were gay I would have felt that I was not only tolerated and obviously disapproved of, but that I would not want to go to that church again. It is as well to remember how in Roman times (of course this is CE i.e new testament times when Rome ruled) that using men for sexual practice among the aristocracy was common. We can take things out of context and pick and choose what we like to make a stand on, there is plenty of laws in the old testament on food. However we are in the new testament so I wonder if we are going to have a sermon on women wearing hats, because of the angels.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    22nd October 2018 at 10:34 am Reply

    As usual Penelope you have given a very thoughtful piece. I was lucky enough to go to a gay male wedding of an old work colleague a couple of years ago and it was one of the happiest and most fun events I have ever been to, filled with love and joy. Taking up what Judith says, when you go back to the Romans and Ancient Greeks, there was no real concept of gay or straight. Same sex relationships were just regarded as part of life (as in Ragaris). The most serious love poetry (Vergil’s Eclogues or Sappho’s poems) was often homosexual in nature, albeit very heavily focussed on physical desire rather than a more general romantic love. The Emperor Hadrian’s love affair with Antinuous led him to deify his lover when he died. Ancient Greece had a virtually compulsory homosexual culture in male society, expressed as a more experienced man teaching a younger man (which sometimes bordered on the paedophilia end of the spectrum) either militarily (as in Sparta) or intellectually (as in Athens). For the Greeks and Romans, it wasn’t the gender of your partner, but the hierarchy of the relationship (including the sexual positioning) that was important and it was all about dominance – not surprisingly! A Greek friend told me modern Greeks don’t regard a man as gay, even if he has sex with another man, provided he takes the dominant role.

    So the hostility to gay relationships seems to have gradually built up during the Christian Era in the Dark Ages. It is worthy of study as to why this was (since the New Testament is not very focussed on it) or whether historically the issue was more recent, particularly the hostile Victorian laws. More research on attitudes in the Middle Ages is needed here. I would suspect that since much early Church doctrine was about one of the key purposes of marriage being to produce children, the hostility came from this being impossible then. Now with technology and surrogacy it is all open, although there needs to be more data needs to be gathered on the impact on children of having single sex parents to see how such families can best be supported.

    The Church needs to evolve its attitude, but the path of love is already laid out for it to follow.

  • Penelope Wallace

    23rd October 2018 at 4:32 pm Reply

    As usual Stephen (as also Judith and Judith) you have given a learned and sensitive response. Surely homosexuality (between men!) was also outlawed in traditional Judaism, and therefore pre-the Christian church?
    There is some anti-gay prejudice on Ragaris, incidentally – Dorac comments that he is surprised he hasn’t encountered more, but he had powerful friends! I think that, as you imply, Stephen, a culture that has high rates of infant mortality and is labour intensive but also believes in lifelong sexual commitment, would have practical reasons for preferring heterosexuality.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    23rd October 2018 at 11:48 pm Reply

    Yes I think you’re right Penelope. Perhaps anti-gay prejudice in historical times derived from a fear of not having enough surviving children to look after you when you were old and fear for the survival of the tribe. I read somewhere that the Romans regarded the decline of Ancient Greece deriving from growing too used to luxury and abandoning family life and child-rearing, so it became depopulated. However, I need to try and track this statement to source, because it does sound like something Gibbon or a modern anthropologist would say without actually having any evidence for it!

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