In 2004 Changing Attitude published a report on Sexual Ethics produced by the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation. Although only 17 pages long, it was the result of three year’s work by a small group representing a range of traditions which sought to be as open and truthful as possible and strove for a high level of integrity. The report is serving its purpose, gaining attention and coming under scrutiny from conservative evangelicals who are asking Changing Attitude to clarify our ethical stance.
According to Lisa Nolland’s third article on Anglican Mainstream, sexual fidelity to one partner until death (or divorce) has been the norm until now, though for all sorts of reasons people deviated from the norm in practice. Divorce has been the norm until now? For a conservative evangelical to take Changing Attitude to task for not upholding traditional Christian teaching and at the same time include divorce as a possibility is taking a breathtaking liberty with what I am repeatedly told is the teaching of Jesus and St Paul.
Lisa says that culturally the norm functioned to protect wives, husbands and children, families and home life; it had an existence independent of whether people kept it or not. Now, Lisa concedes, there has been a sexual sea change within evangelicalism itself.
Across the centuries, continents and cultures there has always been a state of ‘sea change’. To boldly state that marriage normatively functioned to protect wives and children is simply not true. In many cultures and periods of history that was not the norm of marriage and marriage certainly did not always protect women and children.
Lisa says observable behaviours related to the married state were objectively, not subjectively, defined. She writes that: “Marriage was not perceived or experienced in terms of ’relationships’ — mine, yours, or anyone else’s. Relationship appears unrelated to traditional concepts of morality and terminology used in the past to describe and judge sexual behaviour, terms like fornication or adultery.”
The Ethics report was written for a group of people for whom the qualities of friendship and relationship are of the highest order. I have been told many times that lesbian and gay people often create friendships which are the envy of married heterosexual acquaintances. My personal observation is that within marriages which are faithful to the Christian norm of one partner until death, there can sometimes be a sterility or profound unhappiness resulting from a failure to relate at a deep level or create true friendship. Marriages can be competitive, sterile, obsessed with the façade, with material wealth and gain, gratifying the need for children, overly co-dependent, destructive of freedom and love.
We live in an age when the expectations placed on the quality of married life have risen exponentially compared with a century ago. This has happened at the same time as life expectancy has risen and many more people live in (or endure) marriages lasting 50 or 60 years. Lisa writes about objectively defined observable behaviours related to the married state. This sounds like a clinical examination. The church scrutinises and observes and declares objectively whether this marriage is or is not conforming to the norms and rules. Meanwhile couples live in marriages and experience them subjectively.
Every marriage is and always has been subjective. It is the creation of two unique human beings who work out their own chemistry and life stories within the relationship. Traditional Christian teaching focuses on love, and love can be notoriously rash, risky and unpredictable. That’s one of the reasons we have marriage, but the marital ideal is there to nourish love, not to satisfy church rules. Changing Attitude wants to develop a Christian marital ethic which responds to the needs of heterosexuals and LGBT people alike in the 21st century who seek lifelong fidelity in love.