I’m going to begin with a statement that should get things off to a lively start! I’m going to suggest that, at one time or another, I’ve heard almost every known objection to homosexuality – sometimes over and over. On the other hand, I think it may be fair to say that the other side of the picture may contain elements that are new to your consideration, and so at least one purpose of this talk is to ask you to enter for a while into some new ways of thinking.
So I want to limit the scope of debate, if possible, to exploring the dimensions of these new perspectives, not to refuting them – at least initially. I am going to ask you do something that I admit I find very difficult! I want to ask you to listen to learn, rather than listen to answer.
I’d like to do that by dividing this discussion up into three parts. In the first, I will present to you some notions of what it is like to be a gay person in 2001. In the second part, I want to offer some ways of engaging scripture around the issue of homosexuality. And in the third, I want to open the discussion up more to where we might go from here, as Christians who are members of the Episcopal Church. To keep things moving, I want to suggest that we limit debate after each section, to the topic of that section. Fr. Paul will moderate, and keep me from getting too carried away, and make sure that everyone gets a chance to share ideas.
Part One – What’s it like?
I’m going to pose a rhetorical question: What is it like to be gay?
My first answer has to be that I don’t know! I don’t know any more than I know what it’s like to breathe air, or any more than I suspect you know what it’s like to be heterosexual, or male, or female – or anything else that is simply "what one is". I’ve been gay ever since I can remember: I remember when I was about eight years old, when my mother gave beds for a night to two twins from a Danish Boys’ Choir that was singing in our home town. Alf and Dag. We later moved onto a ranch about 30 miles from La Grande, and the first winter of calving, one of our cows gave us twins. Dad named them Alf and Dag – so there’s a kind of immortality!
But I remember vividly how struck I was by the two boys, who must have been four or five years older than I was. I was stunned by the beauty I saw in them, and day-dreamed about them for a long time after. This was of course, way before puberty, and there are other similar memories. So from the youngest age that I remember, I have always been attracted to members of the same sex. To be gay in that sense then, is to feel an attraction, a sense of beauty that sometimes takes your breath away, and it is to find affection and consolation members of the same sex. Not that different, I suspect, from what it must be like to be heterosexual, and to find all these same, wonderful things in a member of the opposite sex.
I never "learned" to be homosexual. I was never "recruited". I grew up in a somewhat conservative, Christian family, and I never heard the word "homosexual" until I was in my teens, or ever really knew there was such a thing until high-school. To me it seemed natural and rather wonderful. And that’s all. It was just the way I was, or the way things were. It came as a real surprise later, when my friends began to develop those same feelings about girls.
So no, in a way, I don’t know what it’s like to be homosexual. It’s the window I see the world through, it’s the direction my compass points, it’s a challenge and a blessing and a joy. Being homosexual brings with it the chance to love unconditionally through good and bad, and it has brought me back into the church through gratitude for all I have learned, for having found someone I love deeply, for the joy I have glimpsed and for the life we share.
It is in this context that I want to reject absolutely the latest in a long, tired line of clichés which those who "oppose" homosexuality – it’s like "opposing" the weather! – like to hide behind in order to convince themselves that they are acting like Christians. I mean the phrase "Love the sinner but hate the sin." To hate what these people conceive as a sin is to hate what is an enormous, central part of the best in humans: the ability to love, to find companionship and mutual comfort, to accept another person wholly and without reservation. To hate the love that I have for my partner is to hate what is most precious to me, and this kind of empty and thoughtless formula is precisely the kind of shaky thinking that gives a mistaken legitimacy to those given to discrimination, exclusion and violence.
Let me quote Andrew Sullivan: "What could it possibly mean to love the sinner and hate the sin? In the first place, it had to mean that homosexuality was essentially about sex … But what if homosexuality was, in fact, more profoundly about love than about sex? What if it contained, like heterosexuality, all the nobility and failure of the search for intimacy and the need for affection? … How was it possible to separate homosexuality from the dignity of the person? How as it possible to love someone and yet deny him the capacity for love himself? And for Christians?"
There another destructive cliché that I want to object to, one that seems to give a lot of comfort to people who are uncomfortable when they have to think, and that is referring to homosexuality as a "lifestyle". Sexuality is not a "style" that you put on, like a hair style, and homosexuality is no more a lifestyle than heterosexuality is a lifestyle: I know homosexuals who are in the navy, who are engineers, Olympic coaches and athletes, high-ranking government officials, students, athletes… To reduce a group of people to a "lifestyle" is to bear false witness, and we must not put up with it if we are genuinely looking for truth.
I want to put to rest one more patronizing and pathetic trivialization - no, that’s not right: I want to put a stake through its heart! - and that is reference to sexual "preference". Do those of you who are heterosexual "prefer" the other sex? Or is it a matter of needing, of turning to for completion and companionship and comfort and joy? I do not "prefer" a man today, as I might prefer a cheeseburger today and a hotdog tomorrow!
And that brings us to the frontier where the danger starts, and that is the other side of being homosexual, one I want to tell you about as well:
What is it like being gay? Well, it is almost daily to hear lies and vicious stereotypes, and to hear yourself attacked over and over by political and religious pundits of the right – lies and stereotypes that keep gay kids from being able to deal with the fact that they are homosexual because the models they are apt to see and hear about are so distorted. I’m not even going to enumerate these things here – but they are the lies and stereotypes that make it easy to see gay people as "other", as disgusting, and therefore less than human, something that deserves fear and hatred. When I was young I simply could not recognize myself in these images, and it kept me for a long time from being able to identify what I was. It is still the source of deep-seated self-hatred that I have to work on almost daily, because these things have been dunned into me – into us all – for so long, and from every side. That is one aspect of being homosexual.
Being homosexual is to be afraid to hold your partner’s hand in public – something that heterosexuals take for granted, as surely they should – for fear of being mocked or subject to violence.
It is to hear preachers who should certainly take the trouble to learn the truth, claim that you are a danger to everything from the family to the American farm (I’m not kidding!) – without ever having to say why. I recently read that a preacher in England was saying that foot and mouth disease was God’s judgement on a country that was tolerant of gays. This sort of thing is said every day, and if you are homosexual, you hear them and they are just one more assault on your dignity and integrity – and people seem to get away with it unscathed.
Being homosexual is having people tell you that your sexuality is a choice, although every gay person I know attests that it is simply part of what they have always been, and although the American Psychological Association regards homosexuality as equally intrinsic as heterosexuality (a view shared by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association), starting that "The research on homosexuality is very clear. Homosexuality is neither a medical illness or a moral depravity. It is simply the way a minority of our population expresses human love and sexuality. Research findings suggest that efforts to repair homosexuals are nothing more than social prejudice garbed in psychological accouterments."
And herein lies what I regard as the greatest evil of the lies around homosexuality: that it is a choice. For one thing, who on earth would be stupid enough to choose to be the subject off all that hysteria and hatred and violence, verbal and physical. Who on earth would choose to be the punching bag of the religious/political right? Who on earth would choose to be discriminated against so thoroughly that many straight people I speak with are not even aware of the discrimination? For just like sexuality, I think most of us have soaked up our cultural prejudices so deeply, that we are not aware that we have them in us. Part of growing as a Christian, is learning to recognize these cultural prejudices and see them for what they are: not of God!
I don’t want to dwell long on discrimination, but I want you to imagine for a moment that you are homosexual. Put yourself in that position. You may not serve in the military if you are openly gay. You may not be in or serve the Boy Scouts. You may not legally inherit your partner’s estate should he/she die intestate, no matter how long you have been together in support and love, and you have no automatic visiting rights in the hospital. You can be thrown out of your job or home for no other reason than that you are gay. You can be denigrated and de-humanized by every preacher or politician who cares to spread fear and anger more than understanding and cooperation. After all, gay-baiting is great for raising funds or getting votes: Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, once remarked that after the fall of Communism, it would have been necessary to invent gays, if we had not already been there.
But I want to stop there. No more negatives. I want to close this section with a personal statement. I left my last church after thirty-three years because our rector made it clear that there was to be no more discussion, because then men’s group proposed a resolution that homosexuals were not welcome, and several women made a point of saying that they did not want to worship with "those people". It took a struggle to want to come to church again. I wanted to find a place where I did not need to hide or to lie, and where I did not need to check my mind at the door.
I wanted to come back because eight years ago I met Christopher and the enormous joy I felt as our relationship developed had given me a courage that I never knew I had. It made me want to give thanks to God for this enormous gift of finding another person with whom I felt for the first time in my life, that I was part of someone else, and not alone. It taught me what it is to love unconditionally, and what it is to need to work at loving. We have shared times that have been harder than I hope any of you here have had to face, and that has brought me back to God again, in gratitude for the experience and the learning and the love. I think that one way we can judge something is whether it leads to God or not, and I have to tell you that my sexuality has been a powerful means to bring me closer to God.
Well, that is what it is like to be homosexual. I suspect that in most aspects it is not so different than what it is like to be heterosexual, but then, I don’t know. I can’t even think straight!
Part Two – Some theological considerations
In this part I am going to follow very much in the footsteps of a number of theologians who know far more about these matters than I do. I’ve got a reading list to hand out, for anyone who would like to go more thoroughly into the details. For now, I just want to present a number of ideas.
To begin with, there is no doubt that there are some six verses in the Bible, Old and New Testament, that condemn homosexual practices. That’s not very many verses, and I think we need to examine for a moment why they get so much attention. I want to challenge you to consider whether one reason for this may not reflect an unhealthy fixation on sex – other people’s sex – perhaps brought about by insecurity or an American inability to deal with things of the body. Or what may be operating here may be, as Mark Twain put it, "the good old principle that nothing needs reforming so much as other people’s habits". Be that as it may, many people are unhappy with, and oppose, same-sex attraction for reasons that may be deeper and less easily articulated, than the reasons they actually give. I will not even discuss how much of the furor may also be simple fund-raising and political manipulation.
I think much of the fuss may also be a matter of personal repugnance, which can be a real factor, but never a real reason. Repugnance can be acquired in numerous ways. There are things we just don’t like, like liver! But that does not give us license to legislate against these things. I have to tell you in all openness that I find the thought of heterosexual practices repugnant, so I can imagine how some of you may feel – but I promise not to start a petition for the putting down of heterosexuality.
We need to acknowledge that repugnance can also be culturally inculcated. I remember a story that my Aunt Nancy told me that illustrates this: years ago, in the 50’s, she was in Kenya. She went out one day to play some tennis, wearing formal white tennis shorts. She was immediately asked to go back to her room and cover here legs. Women in that area thought nothing of being bare-breasted, but legs were considered the height of impropriety. Much of what we consider moral is cultural. Consider one more case: the average American school child must hear the word "gay" or "faggot" used as a derogative a dozen times a day. Putting aside how hateful this feels when you are homosexual, it’s no wonder that many people are homophobic: they are taught to feel that way by their peers, their coaches, their teachers, even their parents.
There is one more topic that needs to be glanced at before we look at the Bible, and that is the idea that homosexuality is "unnatural". This has been a lynchpin in defending Biblical injunctions, and it is based on the false assumption that homosexuality is not natural to some people, and not seen in nature. Yet homosexuality is utterly natural to some people. And it is seen in nature. The whole gamut of homosexual behavior, from courting to mating, from nurturing the young to life-long paring, has been observed in nature, and documented, so far, in some 450 species from the dolphin to the butterfly. If this was never reported before, that is because no one looked for it, or believed it when they saw it – or wanted to see it. This to a sometimes laughable extent, as in the case of the lepidopterist who as late as 1987 reported homosexual mating of Mazarine Blue butterflies in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in an article entitled "A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera." I’m not making this up!
Let’s get back to the Bible and take a general look at the "troublesome verses". Many theologians are starting to believe that anti-homosexual injunctions are part of what is sometimes called the "holiness code", a set of rules that were designed to guide daily life, and to set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors. One example of this is the injunction against eating pork. There was a school of thought that believed this rule was a matter of hygiene in a warm climate where there was no refrigeration, but recent archeological discoveries have pointed to a great deal of pig bones in the middens of the nations surrounding ancient Israel, so it is starting to look as if this was a way of setting the Jews apart. A similar law was the law of circumcision, and we now disregard this law as easily as we do injunctions against consuming pork. I think we need to look at anti-homosexual verses in this light, especially as homosexuality was an accepted part of many ancient civilizations: there were male as well as female temple prostitutes, the Greeks and Romans took a very relaxed view of homosexuality – it was all around, and the Jews were determined to be separate.
It is worth noting that the word homosexual was not coined until the late 19th century. The term, as we now understand it, simply did not exist in times . There is no use of such a word in any surviving text Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic. Equally, the idea of homosexuality as an orientation or homosexuals as a class, did not exist. Foreigners considered homosexual acts fairly commonplace, the Hebrews didn’t – but the concept of personal sexual orientation did not enter the picture – let alone forming lifelong, faithful and loving relationships. Old Testament laws were more in the realm of taboos than moral judgements. Is taboo still a valid concept? It is in this light that many of these verses must be considered. In fact, we do not even know what the word "arsenokoites" – Paul’s word – means at all, though it has been – very questionably – translated as "homosexual".
We don’t even fully know what the Bible is referring to in some of the passages so often sited. Part of the discussion turns on the Hebrew word "toevah", which is sometimes translated as "abomination", does not usually signify something evil, such as rape or murder or theft. Rather, it is used to designate sins which involve ethnic contamination, and injunctions against things that invoke ritual uncleanness: a woman’s body after giving birth or menstruation, touching a dead body, a "blemished" animal being used to make sacrifice, even a man with crushed testicles. In fact, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, there is a systematic differentiation in translating toevah between ritual purity (bdelygma) and injustice (anomia), putting same-sex relations in the purity class. We simply do not pay heed to these matters any more in anything like the same way, if at all.
John Harris has put a spotlight on this: "For a moral judgement to be respectable it must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgement at all." You cannot pick and choose depending on personal taste. You have to think. I want to suggest in addition, that virtue and right action consist of three things: justice, charity, and gratitude. I cannot, for the life of me, see how homosexuality stands in opposition to justice, charity, or gratitude, and I suggest that it might be helpful to explore the whole topic in this light. It is fairly easy, on the other hand, to see how homophobia – hatred and fear of homosexuality – leads to injustice, and Aquinas suggests that injustice leads to vice – but that is a topic for another discussion.
Maybe the question that really needs to be asked is not what rules we can invoke or create, but: "Does this lead to grace?" Andrew Sullivan asks a pertinent question: "As long as homosexuality is intrinsically unrelated to pathologies that led to unhappiness, why is such an emotional development so inferior to a heterosexual one?"
I want to ask you to consider the idea of selectivity: if we happily ignore injunctions against usury, working on the Sabbath (which is Saturday, after all, so one might say that we are doubly sinning!), against planting mixed crops and eating shellfish, and if we dismiss laws which require us to stone disobedient children, and witches, and women caught in adultery – it begins to look very much as if we are picking and choosing – the difference being that we are doing so not
for cultural or personal reasons, but because we have thought and grown into choosing what we believe to be a truer path of love and a deeper godliness – a more truly Christ-like path in which our compass is the two simple commands to love God and to love eachother. In other words, we have learned to test our moral judgements by whether they wrongful or not, by whether they lead to justice and charity. It is time we applied the same lesson to our judgment of homosexuality.
In Godless Morality, retired Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway says much the same thing and points out that divine sanction has been invoked on every side of every war since time began, and that Biblical verses have been used to shore up every evil that has been inconvenient to eradicate, from slavery to the disenfranchisement of women. We need to tread lightly when invoking the Bible, and we need to think, and to show that what we are judging leads away from virtue.
So now let’s try to move forward.
Walter Moberly, in a recent article in Theology, gives us a few tools to sort through the debate on homosexuality. To over-simplify a complex and detailed piece of writing shamelessly, he suggests that we need to draw a parallel with our modern view of economics as opposed to a Biblical and medieval idea of usury, or examine how we have re-thought our ideas on divorce and on re-marriage. The Bible prohibits usury. Medieval interpretation of the Bible mandated laws which utterly oppose our modern system of interest and stocks and bonds. Christians were long forbidden to loan money, and were we to insist on adherence to these views, it would be the end of capitalism and our market-driven economy. Similarly, we have learned, in humility, about the growth in grace and love that can clearly happen when people are allowed to re-marry after divorce.
I would add that we have also entirely re-thought the concept of birth control. The Church condemned it well into the 50’s, and in many states it was illegal to purchase contraceptives or to practice birth control, except within a marriage – and even that was roundly condemned in some states and in many churches. Inter-racial marriages were illegal in most of the United States until 1967 – again, on Biblical grounds.
Can we not think similarly about homosexuality, with equally positive results?
I believe we need to ask with Walter Moberly: is our use of scripture judgmental, in that it is more concerned to find fault, than to seek wisdom and guidance?
This talk does not give us the time to look in any detail, or in anything like the depth it deserves, at interpretation or context of the six or so verses that form the base of anti-homosexual thinking. Again, I offer a reading list, and there is a great deal out there, ranging from the detailed and deeply scholarly, to the more popular. I urge you to look over this list and read a few of the books. But there is one more book that I want to bring to your attention on the "pro" side, and that is the Bible itself.
The two great commandments are to love God with all our heart and strength and minds, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. We humans are unimaginably diverse with enormously differing cultures and experiences and needs – but these two commandments, on which hang all the law and the prophets, do give us, I would maintain, the method with which to pursue our inquiries as to how to live with differences within the body of Christ.
We can find further hints in Acts 8 - 15, which is the story of reaching out and including in the growing Christian community people who under the Law would have been utterly excluded. In Acts 8, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch: a thing that would have been utterly unimaginable and repugnant to the Jewish Christian community of the time, because the man was a foreigner (the earliest church believed that the Gospel was for Jews only) and an "abomination" under Levitical law because he was a eunuch. In Acts 10 and following Peter has the vision of the net and the unclean animals, and goes into the house of the Roman centurion, "You know that it is forbidden for Jews to mix with people of another race and visit them, but God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone unclean or profane." The rest of Acts is the huge story of Paul’s journeys and labors to bring in, to tear down barriers, to include all nations in the church of Jesus. I believe that this provides us with our best hint of how to proceed.
To proceed, we should remember something that Cardinal Newman said, that the nature of truth requires modesty towards oneself and respect toward all others. Or, as David Tracy put it, "Conflict is our actuality. Conversation is our hope." We must listen to hear, not to answer, and heterosexual Christians must learn to read anti-homosexual polemics as if they were themselves homosexual. Further, it is my firm belief that homosexual Christians can bring valuable witness of grace and the action of the Spirit with them into the Church. Stephen Fowl puts it most approachably: "… for heterosexual Christians, forming friendships (through hospitality) with homosexual Christians [is] the most important task in being able to offer testimony about the work of the Spirit in their lives."xi
In the vast context of God’s creation and in the unimaginable miracle of his grace, it is even conceivable that the whole debate doesn’t even really matter. What does matter, I believe, is that we each of us, in our individual and separate ways, bear witness to justice and grace under God, for in Christ there is neither male nor female, gentile or Jew – nor, I believe, hetero- or homosexual. Let us simply know eachother and love eachother as accepted and loved by God, who created us.
Part Three – So where to we go now?
One of the things that continually bothers me is the feeling among many of my gay friends that the church is against them, that the church is the last place on earth they want to set their feet. How can we call ourselves Christians when so many feel excluded? How can we put into practice what we always hear when we come to the Eucharist at Trinity: "Remember, this is Christ’s table and all are welcome."
I have a number of suggestions, some general, some more concrete. I want to start with the more general ideas, which are perhaps easier to agree on and to achieve than some more specific and concrete ideas I want to conclude with.
First, we need to create an atmosphere in the Church, and specifically in Trinity, where gay people feel welcome. No one wants to come into a body which hangs out an invisible sign that says "You are different, sinful, and not welcome." How do we do this? I think there are several ways:
So far, I would guess that we might all agree to some extent, because what I have been talking about is really not much more than civility; or perhaps I might say a seeking-out of places where we have not been civil, in order to bring Christian behavior into some dark corners that we may be unaware of, or prefer to ignore. But Now I’m going to be much more controversial, and throw out a few more things:
Homosexuals do not want "special rights" – that’s the sort of mendacious slogan or "soundbite" that sounds good, but means nothing, and is in fact deliberately used to cloud clear thinking and to excite passion. Such passion-stirring has no place in Christian dialogue. It is false witness, no more and no less.
What gay people want is not "special rights," but equal rights, the right simply to live our lives just as safely – and boringly! – as everyone else, the right to work toward salvation and grace in our daily lives, and the right to find our way to life in the greater abundance that Christ promises. But you cannot as easily do these things if you live in fear or as less than a full citizen or human. To achieve this, we need several things:
The first is protection from discrimination. A Washington State court ruled some time ago that a man who was fired from his job because he was gay had no recourse in law, because there was no law that said he couldn’t be fired for sexual orientation. This has happened in other states more recently. I do not propose quotas or affirmative action or special status – but as long as a person can be fired for being homosexual, then, yes, laws must be formulated that prevent this, that insist on completely equal status. To do less than this is to deny that God’s grace is given freely, abundantly, and equally to every one of us, and to that extent, denial of human rights is blasphemy.
I don’t know quite how to tackle the next thing, because it is very specific and because it really falls under the rubric of protection from discrimination, but we need to see public institutions – as opposed to private and/or religious bodies – become "orientation blind" just as we expect them to be color and race blind. People should be judged by their character, their competence, their honesty – and not by their orientation. I am speaking here specifically of the Boy Scouts of America, who will not allow boys who are homosexual to remain in the Scouts. These are the very boys who need the support of Scouting and a discrimination-free environment in which to grow – yet they are punished for being honest and open. This is intolerable and profoundly un-Christian..
We need to allow openly homosexual persons to serve in the military. This is a simple mater of citizenship: gays are the single group who are legally excluded from serving their country. True, we have our idiotic and dishonest "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, but it has not stopped the witch hunts or the abuse, and in the end this asinine and confused compromise does nothing but enforce lying and secrets: you can be gay and in the military as long as no one knows it! Germany and the United Kingdom have both recently released studies of the effect of gays in the military. They found that it made no difference whatever, in any way: recruiting, discipline, unit cohesion – nothing was affected. Homosexuals have always been in the military, and many have served their country with distinction. But they have not been allowed the simply human dignity of being honest or being who they are. They are victims of a fear and an ignorance. And that is monstrous and evil, because it legalizes fear and ignorance, and it contributes to the dehumanization of persons who are, in our Christian world-view, recipients of the grace and love of God equally with everyone else.
Finally, we need marriages. I mean, as a start, civil marriages, but I hope and pray that Christian marriages will also come. They are necessary.
There has been more hysteria poured into this topic than virtually any other I can think of. But it comes down to this: the right to choose your own partner in life is basic a human right. First, marriage recognizes a person as fully human, and as needing, and being capable of giving, love, faithfulness, comfort, and affection. Then there is the complex web of legal rights that come with marriage: the right to visit a spouse in hospital, often denied to homosexual partners; the right to make medical decisions, the right to inherit if a spouse dies intestate, the right to file joint tax returns… the list goes on to include over one thousand such legal rights – none of which homosexual partners in the United States have any access to, though there is a rapidly growing list of other countries which have instituted same-sex unions
Domestic Partnerships are not enough, and indeed I question if they are a good thing at all: they are too easy to get in and out of, they do not require two people to make a commitment and to undertake certain responsibilities, they do not look toward permanent, stable relationships, they do not encourage the support of friends and community. Marriage does all this: it invokes, indeed requires, commitment; it brings the support of the community through both legal rights and through recognition; it involves friends and family as witness and supporters of the bond being entered into, and in the Episcopal Church it often does so by invoking the similar marriage bonds of everyone present at a wedding; and it is a public celebration.
Those against same-sex marriage say it would undermine traditional marriage. Leaving aside the fact that marriage has undergone enormous changes over the last two thousand years, these people rarely say how, but lurking under the rhetoric is somehow the assumption that being gay is not real: it is learned, it is acquired, it is a choice, and I suppose as a result of this, there is the feeling that if Nat and Chris can get married, them Bob and Sue will become gay and lesbian and split up, or that the children will somehow be tempted to "become gay" – as if that were a bad thing!
All this is of course weak thinking. Bob and Sue are not going suddenly to become gay, and their children either are or aren’t homosexual already. The only difference is that their children, if they are gay, are going to have to grow up dreading a future with no recognized or supported relationships, and are going to have to suppress much that can actually nurture and bring out what is best and most wonderful in them.
Civil marriages for same-sex couples are a simple question human rights and of equality under the law. But we are here to look into how the Church ought to respond, and I maintain that change is not only possible, but even badly needed.
What is a marriage for?
There is enormously rich theology around marriage, and in order to defend or save marriage at a time when it is failing at a greater rate since any other time in modern history, we need to recapture some of that theology and give marriage a renewed meaning. In doing so, I believe we will find that if the institution of marriage is failing, it is failing for no reason that has anything to do with homosexuals but because we have lost sight of marriage as a vocation and a sacrament.
Let’s review for a moment what the old Book of Common Prayer said: "[Marriage] is an honorable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt God and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and the first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee, and is commended of Saint Paul to be honorable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God." Can you think of a better way to bring in the lives of homosexual people and sanctify them?
Let’s look at what marriage is not about. It is not about avoidance of risk. It is not about the mechanical production of offspring. It is not about legalizing sexual expression. It is not about property. If it were about these things marriage would reduce the partner to the role of an instrument, and it would not be worth having. Marriage is about much, much more:
The Church of England Book of Common Prayer used to give three reasons "for which Matrimony was ordained." The third was "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity."
Marriage, according to the Ramsey Colloquium, "is a place where, in a singular manner, our waywardness begins to be healed and our fear of commitment overcome." Rowan Williams has said, "Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another." Marriage is about God’s grace in allowing us to begin to perceive the unconditional love of God for creation, and in one of the oldest Christian perceptions, marriage is a way for two people to experience a glimpse of the love between Christ and the Church. It is about experiencing the body as a gift and making the other an occasion of joy. It is a vocation. It is about growth into sanctification. Homosexual Christians are as in need of all this as are heterosexual Christians, and homosexual lives and relationships are also witnesses of grace and gifts from God.
I want to leave you with two thoughts.
The first is to beware that we are not rejecting the grace of Christ that is a gift to every one of us. To quote David Yeago, "… when we see that other Christians … are in danger of going wrong in some important way, that is by no means a motive to draw back lest they defile us, but rather a motive to seek fellowship with them all the more intently." Our baptismal identity must give Christians the patience and the humility to disagree. Let me repeat that: we do not need to agree.
The second is that we are all gentiles, we are all recipients of the extraordinary grace of Jesus Christ. We were included into Israel without entitlement because "In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile." The point is that God is doing something astonishing: he is accepting us all. To quote Eugene Rogers once more, "If Christians have departed from God’s kindness to them and endangered their salvation by ignoring the other members of the formula – if they took some 1,900 years to overcome the pairs slave or free, male or female – that is no argument for why they should continue to do so… the action of the Holy Spirit among gay and lesbian couples may be analogous to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles." The Church cannot must not ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in gay and lesbian lives. To do so may put salvation and membership in the body of Christ at peril.
Let’s end then, with what we hear every Sunday as we approach the Eucharist: "Remember, this is Christ’s table, and all are welcome."
Leroy Aarons, Prayers for Bobby, Harper, 1995 – The deeply moving story of a fundamentalist Christian mother coming to terms with here son’s homosexuality after his suicide.
Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, St. Martin’s Press, 1999 – Homosexuality in nature observed and exhaustively documented.
Howard H. Bess, Pastor, I am Gay, Palmer Publishing, 1995 – A very readable look at issues surrounding homosexuality by an American Baptist Minister. Probably the easiest source for broader examination of the "troublesome verses". Highly recommended.
John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 1980 - Highly scholarly and deeply notated; the study of linguistics and Biblical texts, and a history of the relatively "new" phenomenon of anti-homosexuality withing the Church and society. Fundamentally important reading.
Robb Formann Dew, The Family Heat, Addison-Wesley, 1994 – Well-written account of the growth of a family through coming to terms with the homosexuality of one of their sons. Highly Recommended.
Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture, Blackwell. 1998. A distinctively theological interpretation of scripture, as opposed to a subjective or personal one. Heavy, but most valuable.
Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, Alamo Square Press, 1994 – Examination of Biblical texts.
Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge, Fount/Harper Collins (UK), 1997 – Tremendously exciting look at core Christian beliefs in the post-modern age.
Richard Holloway, Godless Morality, Canongate (UK) 1999 – Presents a superb & challenging way of examining inherited dogma. Highly recommended as a basis for further examination and discussion.
John J. McNeill, Freedom, Glorious Freedom, Beacon Press, 1995 – McNeil, a former Jesuit, offers some of the most inspiring directions for gay and lesbian lives to take, in deeply spiritual and very clear writing. This was a very important book in my own coming to terms with spirituality as a homosexual Christian.
John J. McNeil, The Church and the Homosexual, Beacon, 1976
Eugene F. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, Blackwell, 1999 – A scholarly and very challenging examination of Christian attitudes towards homosexuality. Cannot be too highly recommended.
Colin Spencer, Homosexuality in History, Harcourt Brace, 1995 – Useful reference for historical questions and research.
John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin?, Harper, 1990 – Highly readable, thoughtful and at times provocative meditation on Christian sexual ethics. Highly recommended whether one agrees or not, as a starting point for reexamination of a broad range of issues.
Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable, Vintage, 1999 – A conservative and often inspiring reflection on homosexuality from a Catholic point of view.
Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends, Hodder & Stoughton (UK), 1995 "A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible." Very scholarly be most readable; highly recommended.
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