In his open letter to the Diocese of Worcester published on 9 January, Bishop John Inge sets out nine arguments that he thinks mean that the Church of England should recognise and bless same-sex marriages.
In this article I shall look at each of these arguments in turn and explain why they fail to make a persuasive case for the Church of England changing its current position with regard to marriage. In each case I shall quote the Bishop’s words and then give my response.
Argument 1 – Sexual orientation is not a choice
‘Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice. There is even stronger consensus that ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE), sometimes called ‘conversion therapies’ for homosexual orientation are both ineffective and harmful.’
This part of the bishop’s argument ignores the fact that it is increasingly acknowledged even by gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell that people’s sexual attraction can often be fluid, changing over the course of their life for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is simply not always the case that those who currently identify themselves as gay or lesbian have a fixed same-sex sexual orientation. The reality is actually more complicated than that. Furthermore, those who do experience same-sex sexual attraction, either temporarily or throughout their lives, still have a choice of whether or not to act on it. As with heterosexual sexual attraction, desire is not destiny. People have the ability to choose what to do.
In addition, the available evidence does not support the consensus that SOCE are always ineffective and harmful. What the evidence actually tells us is that there is no convincing evidence that they are always harmful and that in fact such efforts are found beneficial by a good number of people.
Argument 2 – What the Bible condemns is exploitative same-sex relationships
‘I do not think that the oft quoted passages in Leviticus and Paul refer to anything comparable to the faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships which some of us are suggesting the Church should celebrate … It must be admitted that wherever instances of same-sex sexual activity are found in the Bible they are unequivocally condemned but what I believe the Bible condemns is something that every gay person in the Church today would also condemn – abusive, oppressive, exploitative relationships. The Bible never explains why same-sex sexual activity is condemned: it may well be the exploitative nature of the activity described.’
The problem with this argument is that there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that only exploitative same-sex relationships are unacceptable. There is no evidence to suggest that all same-sex relationships in the ancient world were abusive, oppressive, or exploitative in character, and equally there is nothing in the language used in the relevant biblical passages that indicates that it is only same-sex relationships of this character that are unacceptable to God.
Furthermore, the Bible does actually make clear why same-sexual relationships are unacceptable to God. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the context makes it clear that the reason why same-sex sexual activity between men (and by extension between women as well) is an ‘abomination’ is because such activity is contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female and his establishment of monogamous heterosexual, non-incestuous, marriage as the context for sexual activity and the procreation of children. Similarly in Romans 1:26-27 both gay and lesbian same-sex sexual activity is seen as sinful because it is activity that is ‘unnatural’ in the sense of being contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female creatures biologically designed for sexual activity and procreation with members of the opposite sex.
This being the case, even ‘faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships’ have to be seen as unacceptable before God – even if they are relatively less sinful than abusive, oppressive or exploitative same-sex relationships. A good comparison is adultery. Abusive, oppressive and exploitative adulterous relationships are comparatively more sinful than loving adulterous relationships, but the latter are nonetheless still sinful. So it is with same-sex relationships.
Argument 3 – What the biblical material is concerned with is active and passive sexual roles
‘Equally, Paul is not talking about what we would term sexual orientation, a very modern concept. Arsenokoites and malakos describe roles being adopted in same-sex sexual acts. To be a man in the ancient world was to be assertive and dominant; to be a woman was to be passive and receptive. Men who were malakos in the relationship were a scandal, ‘effeminate’ and mocked. When Leviticus 18 specifically condemns lying with a man ‘as with a woman’ there seems to be a similar concern with roles. God willing, we don’t nowadays understand love-making and sexual intimacy in terms of active and passive roles, with men as active and dominant and women as passive. Surely a Christian understanding of love and relating is about mutuality and partnership? I would suggest that gospel teaching about love redefines ancient assumptions about hierarchy and role, both socially and theologically.’
Paul would have been aware of the idea that that there were some people who were innately attracted to the members of their own sex since this idea was well known in the first century, but for him it would have been theologically irrelevant. This is because for him what mattered was not the sexual desires that some people experience as a consequence of humanity’s corporate alienation from God, but the way God created human beings to behave as witnessed to by their bodies.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that same-sex sexual activity is sinful because it involves men taking passive sexual roles and women taking active ones. The concept that there are proper roles within sexual activity is not something that is found in Scripture. In Leviticus 18:22 lying with ‘a man as with a woman’ is simply a Hebrew euphemism for same-sex sexual intercourse and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul makes clear that both the active (arsenokoites) and passive (malakos) roles in same-sex intercourse are equally sinful.
Argument 4 – Jesus was silent about homosexuality
‘Jesus made no mention of homosexuality, though the fact that he refers to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in the same passage as he prohibits divorce (Mark 10. 7-10), with a reference back to Genesis, leads some to suggest that the marriage of one man to one woman is a creation ordinance.’
It is not simply ‘some’ who suggest that the words of Jesus point to the marriage of one man and one woman being a creation ordinance. It is generally accepted that this is what Jesus was saying. His argument on divorce in Mark 10:7-10 and in the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3-9 depends on monogamous heterosexual marriage being a creation ordinance. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).
Furthermore, it is simply not true that Jesus made no mention of homosexuality. The Gospels tell us that Jesus taught that porneia rendered human beings unclean in the sight of God (Matthew 5:19 and Mark 7:21) and porneia was a catch all term for all the sexual offences condemned in Leviticus 18, homosexuality included. In addition, if Jesus had taught that same-sexual relationships were acceptable before God this would have been a radical breach with accepted Jewish thought that would have left a trace in the Gospel record. The fact there is no such trace indicates that Jesus did no such thing.
The Bishops of Worcester’s arguments do not provide a cogent reason for the Church of England to change its position on marriage. The Church of England is called to echo Paul’s message to the Corinthians ‘flee sexual immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18) and it cannot do this if at the same time it agrees to bless same-sex relationships as if they were marriages.
The Church of England cannot both call on people to choose to live in accordance with God’s will while also blessing in God’s name a pattern of life that is contrary to it.
Read it all in The Reflections of An Anglican Theologian