Discussion Note given to Revd Sir John Alleyne’s Modern Church Group at Guildford Cathedral on 10th November 2014

My topic is homosexuality and the Church of England. It is whether it is sinful to be gay: whether gay marriage is sinful: whether the church can join gay people together in marriage: whether gay clergy ought to be bishops.

There are to be ‘facilitated discussions’ within the Church of England following the Pilling Report, to try to achieve some agreement between those who reject gay marriage and the ministry of homosexuals, and those who would accept either or both.

In this paper I haven’t tried to reach very definite conclusions, but rather to mention what I think are relevant things which ought to be considered in this context. You are invited to use my thoughts as prompts for further discussion.

I have just had staying with me a Nigerian Anglican priest. A delightful man, but his views on homosexuality are challenging.

He says – and I think his views are pretty standard in much of Africa – that to be homosexual is a sin. The Church can forgive the sinner, but must condemn the sin.

The reason for this, he says, is what is said in the Bible, which is the Word of God. One must not contradict God’s word in the Bible.

For the record, I’ll list below some anti-gay Bible references, and then we can talk more about each one later. Suffice to say at this point that they are all said to support the proposition that gay sex is sinful.

Genesis 19:4-5 – a bad end befalls the young men of Sodom, the eponymous Sodomites, who called to Lot to bring out his companions ‘so that we can have intercourse with them’.

Lev. 18:22 – ‘You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.’ The context suggests that it is addressed to a male: and that it is addressed not in the context of his permanent sexual orientation, but on the contrary, that he is basically heterosexual – he must be, in order for some of the other prohibitions in this passage to bite on him – e.g. ‘You shall not approach a woman to have intercourse with her during her period of menstruation’ – and that the homosexual acts prohibited are deviant acts rather than expressions of a basic sexual orientation.

Mark 10:7-9 – Jesus’ saying (quoting Genesis), ‘God made them male and female ‘.

Romans 1:26f – It is a sign of godless depravity that ‘… their men, … giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for each other.’

1 Cor. 6:9 People who won’t get into the kingdom of heaven include μαλακοι, malakoi, soft, effeminate people, and αρσενοκοιται, arsenokoitai (there is no transliteration, despite appearances) men who ‘go to bed with men’.

Against this are other readings:

2 Sam. 1:26 – David and Jonathan: homosexual love is rated more highly than hetero.

Genesis 2:18-25 – the creation of woman from Adam’s rib. She was to be a ‘partner’ for the man. No mention of procreation: no shame in nakedness – this came before the Fall.

Ephesians 5:23-33 – wives, be subject to your husbands. Man is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the church.

Cf. The Song of Songs, often said to symbolise Christ’s love for his church! [See, esp., 1:13 and passim in the KJV, which is less bowdlerised than more modern versions!]

See also Matt. 19:11-12. Whether it is better not to marry at all. ‘… there are others who have themselves renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let those accept it who can’.

Martin Bucer, the great Reformer of Strassburg, argued from Genesis 2 and Ephesians that God’s intended purpose in marriage was not procreation, but companionship; and that the simile between Christ’s love for his church and the husband’s relationship with his wife ‘gave a glimpse of the divine’ (MacCulloch p649).

In analysing, applying reason to, these Bible readings, I suggest that one can distinguish the questions

what we are, what is our nature, how we were created; and
what we do, how we behave.

Questions of nature, how we are created, are questions of fact. Science ought to be referred to. Our Nigerian friend, however, when I suggested this – for example suggesting that a number of people are born with sexual orientation which is not, or not exclusively, heterosexual, immediately raised the question ‘what is truth’? Science’s conclusions change, he said, but God’s word is immutable.

So one question is the relationship between God and truth. It’s relevant in that context to mention Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and the dilemma in it. If God says that something is good, is it good because God says so, or because there is some independent standard of goodness which God recognises?

Even if the former is right, that something is good because God says so, how can we be sure that God is saying so?

Further questions of nature, how we are made, include questions of sexual orientation: maleness and femaleness. Is this simply to be decided by reference to the possession of genital organs of a particular type?

If so, what about people who have sex change operations, or who otherwise adopt apparently contrary sexual identity?

Even within physically homosexual relationships, one partner is ‘male’ and the other is ‘female’. In making love, one is giving and the other receiving.

I would suggest for consideration that therefore texts such as Genesis 2 or Mark 10 – God made them male and female – could in fact cover gay relationships. If maleness and femaleness can be understood independently of physical, genital characteristics, then same-sex couples can nevertheless be ‘male’ and ‘female’ within the ambit of the Scriptures.

Next, as opposed to how we are made, is how we behave. In this area questions to consider include questions of equality. The golden rule in Leviticus 19:18 – ‘you shall love your neighbour as a man like yourself’ as the NEB puts it, which Jesus adopted as his second commandment, implies equality. Therefore sexual relations which rely on inequality, such as rape and pederasty (‘child sex abuse’), are wrong.

Note that this is where the Judaeo-Christian tradition differs from the customs of classical antiquity, of Ancient Greece and Rome, where the love between men and beautiful (handsome) boys was often praised as being the highest form of love.

There are also questions of reciprocity: in any sexual context, do both parties agree? A positive answer implies equality, and also equality of bargaining power – which is why pederasty is wrong. In this relationship, we both want to do it; neither of us is being forced into it.

Behaviour, in this context, involves both nature, being disposed to feel sexual attraction, and action, actually feeling such attraction; and further action – making love. Greek terms are useful here – Έρως, ‘Eros’, Φιλία, ‘Philia’ and Αγάπη, ‘Agape’.

One suspects that Victorian Christians, if none others, thought that only ‘agape’ could be Christian. Eros was permissible, but only within the confines of marriage, for the purpose of procreation. In this they were clearly heavily influenced by St Paul, and the Jesus of Matt. 19.

But that is clearly unrealistic. Young people (if not older ones!) will find the words of the Song of Solomon highly evocative. It is not about trying to start a family! It is about desire, lust, even. That is the currency, the language, the toolbox, of sexual behaviour. One must fancy someone, in order to have sex with them. As Martin Bucer pointed out, in Genesis 2 Adam and Eve had no shame in being naked together. The Fall came later. He argued that therefore there is nothing wrong with sex, with sexual desire, Eros.

Homosexuality of circumstance, where people, who are usually oriented heterosexually, get into situations where they also feel homosexual attraction and act homosexually – examples are boarding schools and prisons – may fall more squarely under the apparent prohibitions in the Bible. Perhaps it could be argued that they are going against ‘nature’: but again, I believe that scientific research has indicated that many people are not exclusively oriented either hetero- or homosexually. At one extreme are bisexuals, and at the other, there is the supposedly ‘normal’ person who is all one or the other.

My Nigerian friend did not accept that homosexuals could ever represent ‘normality’, though. He did not accept the commonly-stated figure of 10% of the population being homosexuals. Only freakish abnormalities would account for homosexuality. Apparently he felt that Christians could, indeed should, love and care for such freaks of nature – but that they were by their nature sinful. This seems to me that, notwithstanding the stricture, he acknowledges that God made them that way. But do we believe that sin depends on how you are, rather than how you behave?

Is there anything intrinsic in marriage which would make it impossible for homosexuals to be ‘married’? It would seem that this question really depends, in a Christian context, on whether one can understand maleness and femaleness in a wider way than simply by reference to the possession of genitalia. As a matter of language, there is at least one gender-unspecific use of the word ‘marriage’, on a car factory assembly line, where the body and power train or chassis come together.

I haven’t talked about failures of sex such as rape or divorce. Equally, I haven’t mentioned the ways in which homosexuals have been persecuted. I am simply taking it for granted here that we are looking for ‘good’ sex: sex without prohibition or hurt to anyone. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:9)

Can there be agreement about gay marriage and gay bishops? I suggest that the discussions should focus on whether a common understanding can be reached about what it means to be male and female (creation, our nature), and how Jesus’ teaching about how to behave, how to love our neighbours, should be applied to that understanding. As a preliminary, some agreement about the nature of truth would be useful.

I invite your thoughts and comments.


References – in preparing this note, I referred to the following.

The Holy Bible – KJV and NEB

Η Καινή Διαθήκη, the Greek New Testament, with the readings adopted by the revisers of the Authorised Version, 1882, Oxford, The Clarendon Press

MacCulloch, D., 2003, Reformation; London, Allen Lane – see chapters 15 and 16

Childress, J. F. and Macquarrie, J., eds, 1986, A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, London, SCM Press – see articles on Marriage (Helen Oppenheimer), Homosexuality (James B. Nelson)

Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., eds, 1996, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford, OUP – see article on ‘Homosexuality’ by David M. Halperin

Vardy, P., 2010, Good and Bad Religion, London, SCM Press. See chapter 3, The Euthyphro Dilemma