Tuesday 14 September 2010

Polyamoury right or wrong? – a response to Peter Ould

El-staplador posted a comment on yesterday’s blog: “…as someone who believes that Christians can be involved in polyamorous relationships with love and integrity, I was extremely disappointed to read your comment equating it with paedophilia and bestiality. Please don't dismiss other Christians' reality and truth because it doesn't match up with your own.”

Linking polyamory with paedophilia, bestiality and homosexuality is one of Anglican Mainstream's tactics and a particular obsession of Lisa Nolland with whom I was interviewed recently on Radio 5 Live. It is a strategy Mainstream uses repeatedly to denigrate all forms of relationship and intimacy which they categorise as deviant from their definition of God's norm. Anglican Mainstream’s strategy is to undermine the holiness and integrity of those who follow a Christian path different from theirs.

Because my reply to El-staplador was as carefully phrased as my original blog, Peter Ould asked whether I am in favour of (some) polyandrous relationships as within God's will for humans?

I am in favour of faithful, monogamous, life-long relationships between two consenting adults. (I was going to write ‘mature adults’ but that would beg a lot of questions. Are heterosexual married adults who obsess about bestiality, paedophilia and polyandry in order to denigrate gay relationships mature? Some people who marry are clearly not mature emotionally.) I am also in favour of same-sex life partnerships and I would like the church to make provision for Civil Partnerships to be contracted and blessed in church. I would further like there to be greater spiritual and symbolic equivalence between marriage and civil partnerships.

I condemn relationships which are abusive. Paedophilia and bestiality are both abusive of others and self. My attitude towards paedophiles is nuanced because I have in the past been friends with people who were themselves abused as children, some of whom went on to abuse children themselves. I have no experience of bestiality.

Changing Attitude exists to advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans Christians. We are not advocates of polyandry and I have no direct experience of polyandrous relationships or those who advocate for them and I do not personally advocate for equality for polyandrous relationships.

My moral opinion about and personal experience of relationships involving more than two people is that they can be unstable and painful for one or more of the people involved.

This week I have been hearing about the pain experienced by people in both heterosexual and gay polyandrous relationships. In one case, a second wife and child was brought into an existing African marriage with deeply distressing results, despite the determination of the first wife to be generous and try and make it work. In the gay case, three men who maintained a triangular relationship when one of the three was living in Africa have discovered that living permanently together in the UK is far more challenging and has destabilized the dynamics between them. But I know of many couple relationships that are unhappy and unstable. There are many reasons for this, not least that individuals mature in different ways and become different from the person their partner first met or married. All relationships are demanding and complex and need deep love and determination to make them work creatively.

Peter Ould’s morality is nuanced and so is mine. Peter says he can understand the situation where a polygamist becomes a Christian and where the moral thing to do is not automatically divorce the polygamous wives, since that would make them destitute.

Peter says he is happy to state that polyandry is not moral and Christians should not enter into polyandrous relationships, since the Biblical model for sexual activity is one male and one female for life, in marriage.

Those following the weekday lectionary will have been reading about King David’s concubines and are about to read of King Solomon’s love of many foreign women and his 700 wives and 300 concubines. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ tells us that Jesus was descended from a line including David and Solomon (through Bathsheba).

The model I take from the Bible is that God works creatively through varieties of relationships and human activity often without judging or condemning them. His Son is birthed through a family line which undermines the claim that the Biblical model for sexual activity is exclusively one male and one female for life, in marriage. Conservatives will disagree with me.

We live in a church which allows people who have been divorced to be remarried in church. This might be interpreted as faithful to Old Testament practice even if contrary to the teaching of Jesus. I believe there are models of fidelity which Christians should advocate and which are healthy models for all human beings, gay and straight. I also believe that human beings always have and always will have difficulty conforming to these models and pastoral sensitivity and human and divine compassion responds generously and appropriately to all of us.

I believe it is as important to learn compassion as it is to be clear about our moral stance, and that sometimes, a nuanced response is more appropriate and pastoral than making an unequivocal moral statement. If I fail sometimes to make clear judgments about the moral behaviour of particular individuals with the result that some see me subtly condoning polyandry, then so be it. I believe that anyone who takes the Bible absolutely literally, Genesis 2.23, Leviticus 20.13, 1 Kings 11.3 and Mark 10.11, must also allow for polygamous and polyandrous relationships as well as fidelity in marriage and the stoning of homosexuals.

I believe that the tactic of repeatedly linking LGBT people with bestiality and paedophilia in an attempt to insinuate that LGBT are abusive in the same way is morally wrong.

I live in world of dilemmas. I am a well aware that I don’t need to make ambivalent comments about polyandry to bring down on myself the vitriol of conservative elements in the church. A glance at the comments on Stand Firm or following the Daily Mail article about my Civil Partnership show how many Christians are ready to post poisonous judgmental comments. I’m not un-used to bad publicity but still take my time when writing for the blog in an attempt to be as honest and truthful as possible. It’s good to be challenged to come clean about my moral and ethical position.

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to maintain our principled stance in support of LGBT people in the Anglican Communion. To become a supporter, click here; to make a donation click here.


  1. Colin,

    I think this is a very good response to my question. Thank you. I'll just make a few points.

    You seem to be making an error in assuming that since the Bible records activities undertaken by its "heroes" that some how indicates those activities are condoned. I'm quite happy to accept that David and Solomon (and others) entered into polygamous relationships, but I can't see anywhere in Scripture that indicates that God approved of such practices. So for example, 1 Kgs 11:3 which you refer to seems to indicate that far from being a good thing, Solomon's polygamy turned his heart from God.

    You write:
    The model I take from the Bible is that God works creatively through varieties of relationships and human activity often without judging or condemning them. His Son is birthed through a family line which undermines the claim that the Biblical model for sexual activity is exclusively one male and one female for life, in marriage. Conservatives will disagree with me.

    You might be surprised that I agree with you up to a point, but where my disagreement comes is simply an extension of my first point. Your second sentence points to the clear truth that Jesus' family line contains polygamists, prostitutes and more. But as I taught this summer in our church during a series on Jesus' genealogy, this is to indicate Christ's redemption of our fallen sexuality. You seem to be indicating here to me that you presume again that since these relationships exist in Jesus' genealogy that this means they are endorsed by God. I don't see that presumption in Scripture, but I am happy to be convinced otherwise if you can demonstrate it to be so.

    So what we are left with are examples of fallen humanity in Scripture alongside a clear trajectory which leads to the Gen 1 / Eph 5 monogamous model of one man and one woman to indicate the union of Christ and the Church. We also have signals throughout the Bible that God uses sinful humans for his purposes at the same time as calling them to repentance.

    It appears to me in reading your posts and comments on this issue over the past few days that the key difference between us is not so much a different understanding of Scripture (though that is true) but rather a different understanding of moral purpose and direction for Christians. From my perspective the Scripture is very clear about moral absolutes and moral bests for humans. Within that framework I am happy to work with moral failures which produce consequences that render impossible the attainment of moral bests, but while doing that I never compromise on the existence of the clear moral best. It appears to me from reading your material you work much more towards the notion of principles of morality which can be applied to all kinds of relationships. So for example, I would say that polyandry is always wrong (though as I indicated on the previous thread I can see a situation where polyandry might be maintained to prevent a greater immorality). Your response however to the issue of polyandry was "My moral opinion about and personal experience of relationships involving more than two people is that they can be unstable and painful for one or more of the people involved." This leads me to ask you whether if you could find a polyandrous relationship which didn't exhibit instability or pain, you would concede that it was morally good? In other words, is there any situation you can conceive of where polyandry entered into by those already Christian could be seen as "good" and not immoral?

  2. Peter
    If I read you correctly, you are saying that some things are immoral because Scripture says so, regardless of whether this makes objective sense or not.
    Whereas for me it has to be the other way round: Scripture says something is immoral because, if we think about it carefully, it causes harm and it conflicts with the command to (genuinely) love our neighbour as ourselves.

    In that interpretation I use the example of Jesus defending the healing on a Sabbath as justification, because the Scripture was absolutely clearly against doing so, although the law made no objective sense.
    Jesus looked beyond the letter of the law and asked about its purpose, and suddenly it was obvious that it was not only acceptable but even desirable to heal people whenever they need to be healed, Sabbath or not.

    If I use the second interpretation I am free to adjust my thinking of what is and what isn’t moral in line with new scientific discoveries etc.
    It means that, whatever attitude the Old Testament may have had to polyandry, we know now that is results in unequal relationships (something the OT wasn’t particularly concerned about but something that matters a lot to us now) and that it causes psychological damage to one or more of its participants. On those grounds alone it is now wrong even if it might have been acceptable once.

    That interpretation also allows me to redefine what we think of homosexuality, because once it is taken out of the layer of abusive and unequal relationships and put on par with the stable, loving relationships we hope marriages to be, it is no longer harmful and therefore acceptable. In fact, opposing something that is not only harmful but beneficial to the psychological well being of 2 people then becomes the immoral act.

  3. Erika,

    About to head off on retreat so I won't be aroud to read any reply, but let me offer one or two comments.

    i) Yes, Scripture us ultimately authoritative, but part of good Biblical inquiry is to ask the question "why" certain things are prohibited. As to whether something makes objective sense, surely you mean subjective sense, for on matters of morality how can one be objective?

    ii) As to the example you give, you have created a false dilemma between the Law and Jesus' actions. Nowhere in Torah is healing forbidden on the Sabbath - if it is please show where. What Jesus disobeyed was the rules of humans, not the Law of God.

  4. Peter
    enjoy your retreat!

    I agree, it is difficult to say what is objective and what is subjective. That's probably the core difficulty we have in any moral debate.
    On the other hand, in this case it's not quite as complicated.

    Psychology tells us that polyandry rarely if ever creates equal relationships in which all participants are truly happy. It is therefore subjectively (for the unhappy participants) and objectively wrong.

    But if psychology and science tell you that something is normal and not damaging to the individuals concerned, to their relationships and to society as a whole, then we can conclude that the subjective evaluation of it as being acceptable is, in fact, also objectively true.

    If our only remaining objection is "but it says in Scripture", then we may well have to re-assess our reading of Scripture.

    You say that there is nothing in the Law that prohibits healing on a Sabbath, and yet it was such a religious taboo that the rabbis used it against Jesus, doubtlessly quoting Scripture at length.

    Well, that's just like there's nothing in Scripture to suggest that committed long term gay relationships between mature adults are prohibited, yet the whole religious establishment is against them for supposedly scriptural reasons.

    A faith that ignores the evidence before its eyes and clings to an out-dated past despite harmful consequences is not counter-cultural but life denying and wrong.