Gill Cooke

‘The Working Party attempted to discover and assess the medical evidence as objectively as it could and to set down what seemed to be the facts of the matter whether the facts were to the liking of all its members or not.’ These words express how the Chair of the 1979 C of E’s working party report on Homosexual Relationships treated the scientific material in its deliberations, a working party which included medical experts. The material, drawn from major scientific books and journals, covers 14 pages of a 94 page report. (The reports of the 1950s concerned with the decriminalisation of homosexuality had similar scientific sections and were produced by multidisciplinary working parties.) The importance of science was also recognised in the Lambeth Conference Reports of 1978 and 88 which acknowledged ‘the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research’. The 1988 subsection report on Sexual Orientation goes even further: ‘We believe that the Church should therefore give active encouragement to biological, genetic and psychological research, and consider these studies as they contribute to our understanding of the subject in the light of Scripture’. It also advocated further study ‘of the sociocultural factors which contribute to the differing attitudes toward homosexuality …. in the different provinces of our Church.’ The Church is here acknowledging the need for rigorous, objective scientific information in its discussion of homosexuality.

Until recently this would have been undisputed in the Church debates about homosexuality, but now there seem to be worrying signs that at a time when scientific research has been developing rapidly and affirming gay people’s views, the more reluctant the Church is to include this dimension in the debate.

Gone are the multidisciplinary Working Parties, which included scientists and medical practitioners. The issue is now solely in the hands of the Bishops. The 1991 report, Issues in Human Sexuality, which is still quoted, has three brief paragraphs of general comment.

It gets worse! The 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution on Sexuality has no mention of scientific and medical research. Only in the subsection report on Sexuality do we have a mention of ‘scientific questions’. It states that after prayer, study and discussion they (bishops of course, no scientific advisers) ‘were unable to agree on the scriptural,  theological, historical and scientific questions’. Let’s give our worldwide bishops the benefit of the doubt and assume they are competent on Scripture, theology and history – but have they also really now become scientific experts?

Then we have the lengthy 2003 report Some Issues in Human Sexuality produced by four Bishops with two theological consultants, one of whom wrote the report. The only material on science and medicine occurs in the Chapter Homosexuality and Biblical Teaching. For the current state of research we are referred to a book by two conservative Christian writers. They are both psychologists, but their book Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Ethical Debate claims that the Bible must decide what is acceptable as evidence in the debate. One of the lengthy quotes by one of the same authors says (to paraphrase) that homosexuality may have a biological or genetic cause but this may be true of other antisocial things like drunkenness and violence.

When we examine the context of the quote in the original book, things become even more disturbing. The chapter referred to begins with a lurid story from Penthouse involving a story of a sex ring involving predatory American clergy and abuse taking place on Church property. Same sex relationships are being clearly linked by the authors to sexual abuse, although this link is not made in the Bishops’ report. Did the Bishops actually examine the context of the original reference?

Gone is the objectivity of the earlier reports. Science is no longer a respected partner in the debate. The Bible has become the supreme authority for judging science. Surely Church history since the age of Galileo must have taught the Church the dangers of doing this. With the Archbishop of Canterbury only too aware of the ignorance of so many about sexuality, it might have been hoped that the necessity of informing the worldwide bishops about the increasing developments of scientific research in the field of sexuality would be considered essential. Indeed this would accord with the 1978 and 1988 Lambeth Resolutions, but this does not appear to be happening if, as the Church Times of 10th November 2006 reports, he has ruled out reopening of Resolution 1.10 on human sexuality from Lambeth 1998 where there is no mention of scientific and medical research. Listening ‘to diverse views and experiences’ is necessary if they are to be well informed, but sadly this is often not the case since many opinions reflect views which contemporary science has shown to be wrong.

Science cannot decide ethical norms, but we cannot have an informed ethical debate without an understanding of present scientific knowledge.

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