A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. William R. Coats
Lancelot Andrews asked in the 17th century: "Whie, the booke of God cannot speak, which way should that decide owr conversations?"
Because the Bible cannot speak of itself Anglicanism then and now has granted to the Church some power of interpretation. In Andrew's time the church was the early church, the ancient tradition of the Fathers. Richard Hooker expanded this dyadic authority of Scripture and tradition to include reason, by which he meant something like natural law. As a result Anglicanism has customarily adverted to Scripture, Tradition and Reason as it base of authority. This "three-legged stool" however, in our day remains somewhat problematic, since the conventional understanding of authority usually means the authority of the past. What weight can we give to the present day, to the church under the impress of science, sociology, psychology, etc. In what sense can 'reason' be understood as the application of modern thinking? While the three strands are often searched for precedents, edicts or rulings in order to legitimate or preclude contemporary thought or action, the wild card for Anglicanism has come to be modern reason, modern experience and modern knowledge (the way 'reason' is today understood).
Or to phrase it differently. Every culture engages implicitly or explicitly in a conversation with the ancient texts of the faith. Andrew's conversation with Scripture was very much influenced by the needs of the Jacobean church even as he assumed he was simply investigating ancient texts. Since cultural consciousness and political and social order change under the impress of time, there is an inevitable press upon the ancient texts. Changes in thought and practice are inevitably admitted (Augustine in the 5th century abandoned the food prohibitions which had been mandated in Acts) 15: 29a). But by what criteria are changes at variance with the ancient authorities to be accepted? What can be used in our conversations with the past? What is useful, what is harmful? How do we know?
Scripture, tradition and reason should first serve a dogmatic purpose that is often overlooked. The Scripture in an unsystematic but still obvious way witnesses to the activity of God in a threefold way - as Father, Son and Spirit. The early church collectively and individually experienced God in this manner. And the early Fathers enshrined this biblical and experiential reality in the creedal formula we know as the dogma of the Trinity. Consequently Christian thought and action should be guided not simply in a abstract way by reference to one or more of the "threefold strands," cherry-picking for this or that prohibition or permission, but by the Trinitarian reality of God to which they all point and from which they derive their force and existential authority. Just as the Hebrew Scripture grounded human activity as a correlate to the nature of God ("You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy," Leviticus 19: 2), so Christian belief and action must advert to the Trinitarian reality of God attested to by the three strands. Christian actions are to be correlate to the nature of God
The Scriptural sense of gender, of the male/female encounter, of love, sexuality and procreation is rarely fraught with the same questions we have in our time. There is an almost unconscious ease in Scripture about what men and women are and what they do. They are uniformly set within a world of divine ordinance. To be a male is to work, albeit with arduousness (Genesis 3: 17 - 19). To be a woman is to marry and have children, albeit with pain (Genesis 3: 14 - 19). There is little gender confusion in Scripture. The fields are worked by both. Men go to war (1 Samuel 11: 1); generally women do not. Woman have children (it is preferred they be virgin before marriage - Deuteronomy 22: 31) and raise them. Some women are raped with the Bible disapproving in almost violent forms. Marital faithfulness is the norm. There is much sexual tension in Scripture and a certain amount of unfaithfulness, but the male/female norm is never questioned
The traditional Christian affirmation of heterosexuality, as a result, assumed the absolute and distinct difference between the genders. Indeed, until recent times man and woman were perceived as quite distinct not only in physical endowment but in personality and social role (the male everywhere being the dominant
figure: "[Man] is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man," 1 Corinthians 11: 7) These differences were accepted as virtually unchangeable, an intrinsic part of a natural order. The sexes differed radically in specific comportment, social roles and identifiable personality and characterological traits as well. Being female involved a set of internally consistent particularities and behaviors distinct from and opposite to those of males. Men were stronger, dominant, rational, assertive, leading, battle-ready. Women were quiet, demure, deferential, passive, feeling. Men dominated the world; women took care of the home and children. The English Poet Laureate Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte in the early 19th century admonishing her: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be." Until recently, therefore, men and women have been defined both in terms of genital formation and specific roles and traits associated with their gender.
These differences were not perceived to be the result of historical, cultural or social influences - that is the influence of the unfolding of history - but rather due to ontological structures fixed by God. God had marked off men and women in such a way that affective life and character structure had an indelible quality rooted in and linked to one's biological structure. It is out of this conceptual framework that the Christian tradition of the subordination (if not inferiority) of women arose. Not only was one's sexual constitution of fixed elements underwritten by God, but one 's place in the cosmos and social order were fixed as well. To depart from this order was by definition sinful - which explains, as well, the long Christian history of deference to authority, to the immutability of hierarchical relations, all of which had rich Biblical warrant (Romans 13: 1 - 7). Is sin a falling away from a pre-ordained moral order? Is the core of sin disobedience to God's earthly, implanted social and historical forms?
The Scriptural strictures against homosexuality can be seen against this background as a violation of self-evident norms. Men and woman have a fixed constitution; it is part of the creation, of the order of the natural world. Homosexual activity, forbidden in Leviticus and Romans, can hardly have been proscribed because it was a form of rape or because it displayed unequal power relationships, as some in our day claim. Nor was it proscribed as simply a means of setting Israel off from the Egyptians or the Greeks To choose homosexual activity was to flout God's natural order (which is why contemporary notions of Natural Law take this same position), that is an order of fixed gender constitution. Nor could there be any sense that homosexuality was itself a fixed form - an order of creation - for this would violate the way men and women co-inhered in there distinct constitutions which included that of being the only appropriate partners for reproduction. The homosexual act had to be blasphemous in its depth of disobedience. As a consequence until 1835 the penalty for sodomy in England was death. For sin in this regard was disobedience of the divine order of things, a violation of the divine archetype.
The Christian notion of marriage as a sacrament and sign of unity could only be understood with the radical distinctiveness of male and female in mind. The mutuality in which the tension of opposites finds a higher harmony demanded different and distinct genders. Marriage was thus conceived as a sign and sacrament of God's redemptive intent for man and woman; for salvation in the Scripture involves not simply one's state after death, but the character and substance of one's life in time. This traditional and biblical conclusion, therefore, presumes that nature - a fixed constituted order of gender and society - is the most basic desiderata in Christian thinking. Can this be so?
The simplicity and clarity of this approach might be maintained accept that within Anglicanism there have been dramatic changes in custom, practice and outlook over time. The conversation that Anglicans of each era have had with Scripture and tradition have assumed that some cultural changes have legitimized changes in church thought and action: a heliocentric astronomy, political democracy, the end to slavery, the theory of evolution, women's equality, the authorization of birth control, women's ordination, divorce (in some areas). Each change involved a dramatic break with past understanding. Each involved the modern application of reason or experience, that is a re-reading of the ancient authorities. Each change was ferociously resisted by biblical quotes and allusions to the early Fathers. Each was opposed as a contravention of a fixed, divine order. How were these changes possible?
It became possible with the realization that text and context are potentially separable. When a text is accepted in any given epoch this means accepting the sociological and political assumptions underlying the text We know, however, that these underlying realities change over time. To obey a text at a time other than the original time necessarily means the acceptance of the milieu and assumption lying behind and supporting the text. This means giving to the original context a certain fixed, universal legitimacy and priority - which is exactly what has happened in the present dispute over homosexuality. While we link God to a text, is it fair to link God to context? Can God over time engender and endorse radical historical change and still be the Trinitarian God. To put it differently, can God be the Trinitarian God without change?
If Scripture and/or tradition is approached as a play book dictating fixed human forms then nature becomes the authority to which we are compelled to submit. Text and context must be accepted as such.
But is God the monotheistic Other who presides over the world setting strict boundaries of belief and behavior, investing a certain natural order with universal and unchanging character?
Or is God the agent who plunges into time and history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, at once disturbing and overthrowing the serene, distant God of mythology? With other faiths we might have known God as the undifferentiated source of controlling power, but because of the coming of Jesus Christ to live and die, the Godhead is displayed as differentiated - as acting not as the tranquil undisturbed supreme being of popular reckoning , but as the Creator who through and as the Son redeems and through and as the Spirit sanctifies. The coming of Jesus Christ is no mere visit. Doctrinally we say the Son of God became enfleshed, that is encloses in his flesh our human life. This enclosure necessarily means taking to himself, that is to the heart of the Godhead, persons and human history. If the contingencies of history, the freedom of human action are found in the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, they are at the same time part of the Trinitarian life of God. By definition change therefore cannot be denounced out of hand, but must be placed and understood within the larger purposes of God, that is as part of the drama of salvation.
Because of Jesus Christ we know the interior life of God as differentiated and fully reciprocal. The reciprocity and co-inherence of the Trinitarian God is mirrored analogically in creation. Creation therefore is not simply nature in the variety of human, animal and biological forms which have come to be and can be described. Creation is known by the person and work of the Son of God. In the Genesis account humans are created in the image of God (1: 26 -27). This does not describe their physical appearance, but refers to their capacity for partnership with God. It is precisely this partnership which has been refused by men and women and it is this partnership which Jesus comes to restore (Romans 5). That is the purpose of Creation. Can this restoration be narrowed only to the individual's relation to God? Or does it mirror the Trinity's mutuality by extending laterally to other human beings?
History lies at the heart of God, and it is history with its flux, change and possibility which provides the milieu for understanding sin and thereby gender and sexuality. Sin should be known Christologically and not simply as a disruption of some given order of nature. The Cross of the Son of God reveals the nature of sin: the abandonment of God ("impiously they thought thee to diminish and from thee withdrew"- Milton) ushers in the history of egoism. This egoism also takes collective form in structures of domination and harm. The Son of God was crucified by those who wish to replace God by their own will (the crowd) and in the process become enthralled to humanly created forms, habits and institutions rewarding some, punishing others, of domination and harm. This harm usually passes as the highest form of human achievement (the order of the Roman Empire). The double nature of sin, as willed egoism and the attachment and worship of forms of harm (what is known in the Hebrew Scripture as idolatry and in the Christian Scripture as Mammon) is that which is combatted and set aside in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. It is in his body and blood that men and woman are brought back into relationship with the Triune God and into a proper relationship with each other (sharing on the human plain the mutuality of the divine life which encloses them).
For the Christian their behavior participates in the reconciling work of God which also mirrors the interior Love known in the Father's relation to the Son through the Spirit. Hence human behavior should not primarily be understood as a matter of conformity to law but rather how it manifests on the human plane the salvation wrought in the work of Jesus Christ. That work involves the freeing of men and women from the curse of personal egoism as well as those occasions of idolatrous worship of the forms of death This work which is the work of the Spirit at every time and place points to the earth as the theater of salvation. For what the Spirit effects in daily life has already been won by the Son God and which is in turn the external life of Trinitarian love - itself with the dimension of mutuality and reciprocity. Human life, even that lived by those captured by the grace of God in Jesus, has the character of the working out of the drama of salvation accomplished on the cross and in the empty grave.
In the modern period we have witnessed the virtual collapse of any notion of fixed roles or eternally static gender order. This in turn has led to confusion about what constitutes male and female. Our society no longer demands a strict differentiation between the sexes. Our labor needs draw men and women into occupations no longer to be understood as "male" or "female." Our consumer culture has made freedom of choice paramount in economic as well as sexual, familial, cultural and political life. We now offer a dazzling variety of life styles invoking a maze of personality traits. As a result people now choose roles and
adopt traits and characteristics which no longer conform to or are in accord with previously understood biological determinants.
What happens, however, when over the course of time our understanding of what constitutes a man and a woman change? What if there is no fixed human nature, much less a fixed notion of sexuality? Can we today, for example, say that there are rigidly set and consistently discernible personality differences between men and women? What of social roles? Are they too set as they have been in the past? It is hardly possible any longer to speak of women as passive much less obedient. True, the physiological differences remain (it was the centrality of these differences that led many in the past to see as marriage's primary if not sole purpose the procreation of children) but is that all that can be said about the difference between men and women? If so then the rich meaning of the coming together of those truly and essentially different begins to collapse.
When Paul argues against homosexual behavior in Romans 2 it is apparent he has in mind the creation of male/female outlined in Genesis. He must also believe that marriage is part of God's earthly intention for the man and woman God created. That intention receives its clearest meaning when and as men and women are clearly understood as utterly different. The old tradition of marriage saw in the joining of man and woman not simply the fulfillment of human love, but the overcoming of opposition: the instatement of unity-in-distinctness. This was seen then as a new creation.
Since men and women, however, under the changing conditions of time and history now exhibit traits and characteristics heretofore associated only with one gender, what it means to be a man or a woman no longer corresponds to what was traditionally accepted. All we are certain of today when we say male and female is a specific genital configuration and no more. For so long as it was believed that one's biological endowment was linked to fixed personality and character traits and social roles, then the conditions of complementariness were present to warrant the claim that only heterosexuality could qualify for the unity-in-distinctness assumed in the sacrament of marriage. But this is clearly no longer the case.
The argument has long been put forward that homosexuality is a deviance of some kind, either physical or moral. There is solid biblical warrant for this view. For the Bible and for the early Fathers homosexuals were heterosexuals choosing heinous sexual acts. Indeed the Bible never assumes that there is a condition or orientation called homosexuality. Rather homosexuality was a deviant sexual act of heterosexuals. This heinous act probably presumed a distorted personality but not an unrecognizable one. And since homosexual acts were believed to be freely chosen they could be said to be a matter of Christian ethics.
Though in the Greek world and to a lesser degree the pre-Christian Roman culture homosexuality was understood in a less constricted way, in the Christian West despite periodic speculation about homosexuality, it was really the 19th century which began to see homosexuality as a specific order or condition (one prominent Victorian physician suggested homosexuality served the function of reducing the population). Still, at this time acts of sodomy as they were known were strictly and legally forbidden, as they were in some American states until the 1990's. This meant that there could be a distinction between a given homosexual orientation and homosexual acts. Such a distinction, it must be said, therefore represented an alteration of the biblical understanding. For this reason many Conservative Christians today believe that homosexuals can be changed, either through prayer or therapy. To believe so is consistent with the scriptural view that homosexual acts are those of disordered but basically heterosexual persons (according to Scripture God only created heterosexuals). Those, however, on whatever side of the cultural divide, who now separate person from act, have moved beyond the Bible. Cultural change has already been recognized
For almost two decades the distinction between the person and the act (something, it must be said, which is utterly foreign to Scripture; Jesus never speaks of or to people in their innate condition, but only in their active capacity.) has been a semi-official Anglican position. Persons who are homosexual are to be accepted but they are to be chaste or celibate. No such distinction is made with regard to heterosexuals leading to the suspicion that since homosexual acts are derived from affect (that which is constituent of all human beings as such) homosexuality as such is being held suspect. Further while heterosexual acts are measured by intent and circumstance (usually the married state) and under the right conditions allowed, homosexual acts are totally forbidden.
But why are these acts forbidden in all cases rather than as with heterosexual acts in only certain circumstances? Because homosexuality still carries with it the sense that it defies the fixed created order mandated by God. They are acts contrary to nature and hence to God's will.
It is for this reason that those who favor full inclusion in the church for homosexuals seek to base their argument on a counter reading of creation. They want nature on their side. They argue that homosexuality is an integral part of the created order (even among animals) . They rightly point out that homosexuality is a matter of inbuilt orientation and affect and not a human choice (a fact heretofore known only anecdotally but now beyond scientific dispute). Since God created the world and all that is in it and loves it ("and God said it was good") it follows that homosexuals are included in this love and thus empowered and legitimized. This advertence to the "goodness" of creation, however, is not in itself a guarantee of good "natural order." Creation as nature produces many biologically flawed humans, among them pedophiles and some humans with a genetic tendency to murder. One may wish to use as a criteria that some of the created order do harm while others do not, but then this begins to chip away at the simple notion of creation as the guarantor of the goodness and rightness of homosexuality. In fact while there is an aspect of goodness to all that which inhabits the earth, what really qualifies for good or evil are acts. That is to say, again, a Trinitarian understanding of God locates sin in history not nature.
We already do this in terms of heterosexual marriage. Not only do we celebrate the mutuality and reciprocity in the male/female bond, but we evaluate heterosexual acts in terms of the married relationship. That is why Anglican theology shifted away from the position that sex in marriage was solely for procreation (i.e. the ban at Lambeth in 1920 of the use of birth control) and placed it in a wider personal and relational context. Sex in marriage can upbuild a relationship or it can undermine it. First we have accepted the changes of history, i.e. the understanding that sex is more than the act of procreation; then we have instated the view that sex is a relational phenomenon in which persons are upbuilt or hurt and damaged.
It seems utterly inconsistent to frame the matter of homosexual acts in other terms than those for heterosexuality. To deny sexual activity to homosexuals is to deny them relationship; and it is relationship which lies at the heart of the Trinitarian God.. And it is precisely the possibility of rich human relationships which conquers egoism and gives life; it guarantees participation in the Trinitarian Love of God. To deny this possibility is itself sinful.
In the Genesis account we read that God says "It is not good for the man to be alone"( 2: 18). Such aloneness may usher in the desolation of solitariness which God seeks to remedy by companionship and relationally. It may also signal something deeper. To be alone, to be centered solely in the self, is to be a source of grief and harm ("let us..seek our own good for ourselves" - Milton). Gay partnerships now can be seen as the occasion for unity which overcomes egoism. While a chosen life as a single person is perfectly proper for many, for others life alone is marked by desolation, misbehavior and grief. For many gays and lesbians a single life is one of unmitigated loneliness and torment (as it is, in fact for many single heterosexuals). A union with a partner now promises for gays and lesbians the end of a particular kind not only of desolation but self-serving behavior. To deny this is to deny the possibility of salvation, for deliverance from desolation to human love and companionship mirrors the redemptive nature of the triune God - the overcoming of sin. It is participation in the life of the Trinity, the denial of which would be sinful. This is not to say that that same-gender relations now guarantee intimacy and true love. Indeed some are characterized by the same self-regard and human destructiveness found in traditional marriage. It means, rather, that same gender relationships are to measured in the same way as other gender relationships
In the Book of Ephesians the writer encloses marriage within the dynamic of Christ's love for the church (5: 21 - 32). While there is little doubt the writer assumed men and women to be utterly distinct, the text is not fixed on gender differences so much as on human love participating in the cleansing love of the self-giving Christ. The love the partners show for each other mirrors the sacrificial love of Christ for his church. To engage in this adventure of sacrificial love is to taste the divine life. In that sense in our culture with the multiplicity of roles and traits now associated with each gender the shift in thinking must be from the older notion of unity-in-distinctness to that of mutuality and self-giving love. This overcomes sin and involves participation in the Triune divine life. As this is now the context for understanding the male-female union in marriage, it would be sinful to deny this possibility to men and women who were created homosexual. No one should be denied earthly participation, however limited or provisional it may be, in the salvation of God.
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