Sexual and gender issues in the Church of England: three notes

Anthony Woollard

Gay Marriage

Before getting into the topic of gay marriage we first have to ask whether gay relationships in any form can ever be right or good.  There is no getting away from the fact that the tiny handful of direct references to homosexuality in Scripture are pretty condemnatory.  On the other hand, Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, condemns many other things – from lending out money at interest, to eating pork, to wearing clothes with mixed fibres – and we don’t necessarily regard those condemnations as binding today.  So why is homosexuality different?

Many people, religious or not, would still see homosexuality as unnatural; surely men and women are meant, or have evolved, to mate with each other and not with their own sex, primarily in order to produce children.  Yet something like what we call homosexuality occurs fairly widely in nature[1].  It is no more unnatural in a literal sense than, say, left-handedness.  And it may be worth remembering that left-handed people – “sinister” people in Latin – have also at times been regarded as unnatural, and persecuted[2].

For most of history, in many cultures, gay people have been regarded as things of horror and pushed to the margins of society, not allowed to form public relationships.  The writers of Scripture could not have known what we now know – that gay people can enter into loving, stable, productive relationships and play a part in the mainstream of society.

We must avoid looking at a few texts in isolation.  A very wise Evangelical used to say “A text without its context is just a pretext”.  And the context in which we look at this question has to include, not only the huge cultural changes since Biblical times, but also and most importantly the teachings of Jesus.  I think of two sayings in particular.  “I am come that they might have life in all its fullness” – and for me, “they” must include all humanity, gay as well as straight.  And “by their fruits you shall know them”.  I know a number of gay Christians and cannot in my deepest conscience deny that the fruits of the Spirit are obvious in them – not in spite of their gayness but perhaps even because of it.

So what about gay marriage?  Gay people have been granted civil partnerships.  In some churches, though not alas the Church of England yet – at least not officially – those partnerships can be separately blessed.    So why insist on marriage?  Isn’t this just those pesky gays demanding absolute equality with “us” straight people?  (I use the us and them language deliberately, but of course it’s not Christian.)

It depends on what you mean by marriage.  Is it inherently about the creation of a new family through the mating of two people of opposite sexes?  I know some gay Christians who would agree with that.  I know others for whom the concept of marriage carries too much baggage to be seen as a partnership of equals.  But equally I know some who are hurting deeply because they feel excluded from an institution which they see as basic to society and affirms everything they want to affirm.  I think of Sharon, a pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church which ministers mostly to gays, and her partner Franka.  I know how much this means to them.

By their fruits you shall know them.  I am come that they might have life in all its fullness.  For me, the fundamental teachings of Jesus have to be determinative in deciding issues like this.  Certainly, if gay marriage were introduced, the nature of marriage as a concept would be changed.  But it has constantly been changing.  If you don’t believe me, read Jane Austen!  In many ways I am agnostic about gay marriage, but I simply have to hear the hurt of my friends Sharon and Franka and thousands like them.

St Peter in Acts chapter 10 was faced with a very irregular and unnatural[3] situation, when a group of Gentiles – outsiders who were banned from membership of God’s people – responded to the Gospel of Jesus and showed signs of being possessed by the Holy Spirit.  This wasn’t meant to happen in Peter’s world!  And he was forced to ask “Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have?”  I equally find myself forced to ask “Could anyone refuse the sacrament of marriage to Sharon and Franka?”

Marriage and cohabitation, and does it matter?

What do we mean by marriage?  We may think of it as a very defined legal and perhaps religious status based on a once-for-all ceremony without which you aren’t married. It didn’t mean that in this country until the Hardwicke Act of the mid-18th century.  Before that a lot of “marriages” were much more informal – they might start with betrothal or even with pregnancy, and were often tied up (literally) with dowries.  In other cultures, there has been even more variation (see Duncan Dormor, Just Cohabiting?)

There is a lot of teaching about marriage in the Bible – and also a great deal which has been read into that teaching and elaborated it.  Marriage, we are told, is meant to be exclusive – one on one, forsaking all others.  It is meant to be for life, entered into unconditionally.  It is the only safe framework for a sexual relationship[4], and certainly the only proper framework for the upbringing of children.  Interestingly, there is nothing in there about licenses or ceremonies, let alone bridesmaids or confetti.  So the question “what makes a marriage a marriage” is left rather open.

At its best, the Christian vision of marriage is very wonderful.  At its worst, it can be just too much for sinful human beings to bear.  In the form we know it, it is a huge package, a very big deal both for individuals and for society, and it is understandable why some people are nervous about it.

Various developments in society have led to a questioning of formal marriage as the only way for people to get together in a relationship.

One of them relates to the position of women.  A favourite feminist saying goes like this:  In marriage two people become one person – and that person is the husband.  If you read some of the great Biblical passages on marriage, from Genesis to Ephesians, it is very easy to come to that conclusion.  Marriage can be seen as potentially crushing individuality, particularly for women.  There are other passages in Scripture which suggest that this cannot possibly be a true understanding of God’s purposes.  But the direct teaching of Scripture on marriage can be, and has been, used in this way.  Now we have come to re-evaluate the place of women, and this, I believe, is of God.

Our attitude to love and sex has also changed.  The development of pretty reliable contraception is one factor here.  But there is also, for better or worse, a greater emphasis than ever before on individual self-fulfilment; that leads amongst other things to the idea that a relationship between two individuals is their business and no-one else’s.  I don’t think that can be fully true, as a matter of fact or of Christian teaching; but I do think it may be a necessary corrective to a sort of Fascism in which the individual and her needs is completely subjected to society.

And related to all that, our attitude to families has changed.  I mentioned Jane Austen last week.  It’s not so long ago, that amongst the upper classes at least marriage was heavily about things like property and handing it on through the generations, and links between families, and making sure that women were financially secure.  It may be good that we are less obsessed today about family, its preservation and its prosperity.  I would argue that some old-fashioned family values have been used for a sort of extended selfishness – my family right or wrong, and the rest of society can go hang.  Some of this is still part of the baggage that is experienced by those who have doubts about traditional marriage.

We know that a majority of cohabiting relationships today are not, in a legal sense, marriages.  In very many cases they are a stage on the way to formal marriage, and the church report Something to Celebrate  suggested that these should be at least accepted and preferably honoured.  In other cases they are an alternative to formal marriage, and there may be many reasons for this; I believe we should not judge, but, again, celebrate wherever faithful love is found.

So: does marriage matter?  In one sense, obviously, yes; it is as much part of the framework of mainstream society as it ever was, and above all so where children are involved.  In another sense, surely what matters is the integrity of relationships.  Love and faithfulness are important, and hard, but if some people in our flawed world find these outside marriage, they may actually be helping to challenge the misuse to which the ideas behind conventional marriage have often been put.

Can the Anglican Communion survive?

We’ve been looking in this series at some of the issues which divide Christians – including Anglicans – relating to sexual matters.  We have seen over the past decade huge tensions between the broadly liberal Anglican churches of North America and more conservative provinces elsewhere.  We’ve had the debate about a possible “Anglican Covenant” which was intended to put pressure on those parts of the Communion which are seen by others as going out on a limb doctrinally.  It’s all very difficult, and very painful.  Can the Anglican Communion survive – and does it matter?

Anglicanism has always been rather unusual amongst Christian denominations in its overt, built-in breadth.  Catholics, evangelicals and liberals, plus various combinations of all three, have been present and acknowledged for many centuries, sometimes very uneasy bedfellows and yet somehow “holding together” (to use the title of the Bishop of Coventry’s book on the subject).  This goes back to Elizabethan times , when writers like Richard Hooker struggled with the balance in church life between Scripture, tradition and reason – all of them being emphasised by different groups in that fertile society which also gave rise to Shakespeare.  Elizabeth I, who famously refused to open a window into men’s souls, needed a church which would hold together the diversity of her people.  And that is the genius of Anglicanism.  It is also its weakness – but St Paul tells us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Paul also writes very movingly, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, about diversity in the Body of Christ.  He didn’t deny that there might be limits to that – mainly where people were excluding others by their teachings or their behaviour.  But the overriding message throughout all his letters is that we should accept one another, in all our diversity, as God in Christ accepts us.  And Anglicanism at its best has always modelled that.

I think we have discovered over the past couple of weeks just how much – more than debates about evolution let alone about how many candles on an altar – issues about sex go to the heart of who we are as human beings and how we express that in society.  This is both about how we relate to Scripture (and tradition and reason) and how we relate to culture – and how we process all this in our personal experiences.  None of this is straightforward, and for most of the participants some very serious matters of truth and justice, as well as equally serious matters of personal identity, are at stake.  So maintaining unity is genuinely hard, and we feel that hardness in our guts, more deeply even than all the debates about the nature of resurrection and the place of the sacraments which have stressed out the church in ages past.

But this idea of unity in diversity is at the very heart of the Gospel; not only in Paul, but in so much of what Jesus himself is reported to have said, culminating in that great prayer for unity in John chapter 17.  We must go on struggling, under God.

We have said remarkably little in this series so far about divorce.  Divorces do happen, not just in marriages but also in other human institutions – including churches.  The Reformation was a great divorce, or rather a complex series of divorces.  Such events are, at best, necessary evils.  Some divisions are already happening.  We have seen a small number of clergy and parishes divorcing themselves from the Church of England and remarrying the Church of Rome over the matter of women’s ministry.  Some more conservative provinces from elsewhere in the world have established what is called the Anglican Mission in England.  As St Paul said, again in 1 Corinthians, such divisions are pretty inevitable and may even be necessary in God’s purposes.  We may continue to see some realignments at the margins; some may leave us, some may join us from elsewhere, as happens indeed in the life of Holy Trinity.  But I believe we can and must “hold together” at the centre.

Just one final reflection.  It comes from the experience of Street Pastors, which of course is not Anglican in origin at all.  Recently the national leader of Street Pastors, Les Isaac, himself a black evangelical, issued a statement making plain that Street Pastors was NOT going to oppose gay marriage, because any position on the issue would get in the way of showing the unconditional love of Christ to all on the streets.  One or two Street Pastors, elsewhere though not in Stratford, have left the movement as a result.  The great majority, whatever their personal views, continue to “hold the centre” in the name of the Gospel.  I believe the Church of England and the Anglican Communion can do no less.

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