In August 2009 Andrew Goddard alerted me to two books. One was Andrew Marin’s ‘Love is an Orientation’ which he reviewed somewhat enthusiastically. As Laurie Roberts commented on Thinking Anglicans today, what was all that about? The second book was ‘Ex-gays?’ by Stanton L Jones and Mark A Yarhouse. I’m half-way through reading it at the moment. The purpose of this 400 page book is to prove the thesis that some in the group studied from Exodus Ministries changed their sexual orientation, thus proving wrong all those who believe sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable.
I don’t, as it happens, believe that sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable. I do believe that extreme conservative evangelicals have an addiction to proving that homosexuality as an identity doesn’t exist in reality. The study doesn’t do that (I’ve peeked at the conclusion). Those who wish to believe that homosexuals cannot exist as a category in God’s creation are nevertheless likely to add Jones and Yarhouses’s book to their Gagnon collection as another proof text for their thesis.
This week I have also read, in the latest edition of Theology and Sexuality, ‘The “Lyings” of a Woman: Male-Male incest in Leviticus 18.22?’ by K Renati Lings. Lings argues from analysis of the Hebrew text that it is proscribing incest between male family members and not prohibiting all erotic expression between men. The Hebrew is opaque, and modern translations abuse the text by interpreting it, often from contemporary (and prejudiced) understandings of sexuality and sexual behaviour.
One difference between the Colin Coward category of Christian and the conservative evangelical category is that to me, much of the Bible is opaque and cannot be read as proving ‘literal, inerrant truth’.
Andrew’s problem is that he genuinely wants to be and is a good friend to many LGBT people but wants us to adhere to his ‘biblical and traditional theological Christian sexual ethic’. He argues that James Jones is wrong to have appealed to just war and pacifism as analogies in his argument. But I think rather that it is the visceral reaction to homosexuality which arouses intense feelings among those of a conservative persuasion, much more so than divorce, abortion (though that arouses equally intense passion in the USA) and the role of women in church. The result is that homosexuality is the issue onto which all the arguments about biblical and traditional theology and sexual ethics get hitched, to the tragic disadvantage of LGBT people and the health and unity of the church.
I think the most important question is not whether we are conforming to traditional church teaching but whether homosexuality in itself and its expression in intimate sexual relationships is a sin. Conservatives say that of course it is, it’s obvious, the Bible is quite clear. Lings and others say the Bible is not clear. Romans 1 is not clear to me as a decisive argument. If I am definitively judged by Paul in 1.26,27, then so in the following verses are the envious, gossips, scandalmongers, the insolent, arrogant, boasters and those disrespectful of their parents. Is homosexuality really a sin in a category of its own, different from divorce, envy, abortion, insolence?
I don’t believe it is, of course. I believe that gay identity came into focus in the latter half of the C20th because the second world war disrupted set patterns of relationships sufficiently to open new possibilities for us in society much as it did for women – and the battle for territory for both groups continues. Conservative Christians were worried by the dramatic change in social structures that these developments presaged and have been fighting a rear-guard action against them ever since.
Andrew’s Fulcrum article and the article on Anglican Mainstream posted by Philip Giddings, Bishop Wallace Benn; David Banting; Paul Perkin and Chris Sugden (with comments from Stephen Trott, Charles Raven, Peter Ould, John Richardson and John Nolland), show just how insecure and upset conservatives are by James Jones’ address. Andrew says it ‘opens up a new phase in the Anglican, and particularly the evangelical Anglican, discussions about homosexuality’. Much is ‘vague and slippery’ in James Jones’ argument, he says.
Andrew worries, for example, about ‘the important work of True Freedom Trust’ with those who experience homosexual attraction and yet embrace traditional teaching, ‘faithful brothers and sisters who will feel abandoned, betrayed and undermined in their costly discipleship and forced to bear an even more “agonising cross”’ if the church follows James Jones. What about the rest, the other groups of faithful LGBT Christians, those whom God has called, the church has baptized confirmed (and ordained)? If the church gave “sufficient attention to their situation or to their theological, ethical and spiritual insights” (as Andrew quotes Jones), then it should steadfastly accept rather than reject the central proposal of his address and his vision of the Anglican future. But Andrew and the others are writing defensively from a conservative corner of the Church of England. Andrew thinks my teaching has to be challenged and corrected. I beg to differ. I think we have to respect difference and allow the space in the church argued for by James Jones.
I think conservatives are reacting so strongly to James Jones this week because they would like the Church of England to move in the direction of the Anglican Church of North America. The Bishop of Liverpool’s address and the defeat of Lorna Ashworth’s original motion in General Synod both show a church moving in the opposite direction. Andrew fears a future akin to the minority who have left TEC and gathered under the ACNA banner, claiming that they have been marginalised and excluded because they alone uphold the biblical and tradition sexual ethic. Andrew thinks the CofE has followed a much better pattern of “serious and rigorous study, upholding Scripture and tradition while engaging thoroughly with substantive issues biblically, theologically, sociologically and experientially.” ‘Issues’, and ‘Some Issues’, Lambeth 1.10 and the 1987 General Synod motion (does anyone really take that as Anglican policy?) may exemplify traditional CofE methodology but many would challenge the quality of research and thinking embodied in them and disagree with the conclusions they draw.
Andrew would like others in episcopal leadership to engage with, analyse and critique Bishop James’s address. Is he wishfully thinking that they would take him to task and insist that he conform with ‘the House of Bishops’ position’? His argument might have benefitted from the input of other bishops, says Andrew, and “its position certainly places many of them in a difficult position.”
The House of Bishops are in a mess. They are deeply split and totally unable to be honest with each other according to reports of House of Bishops’ meetings. Significant numbers of bishops actively go against the theoretically agreed teaching of the church. If James had taken his paper to the House and they were able to be honest, the majority may well have supported him. There would certainly be a range of views as wide as that manifest in TEC and the schismatic North American churches.