Rowan Williams on Homosexuality

A fascinating series of questions and answers from the Archbishop of Canterbury is available on the Global South Website. The Q&A session took place after a lecture on the 12th of May. Of particular interest for me is this exchange on homosexuality:

Q: In your opinion, what is the Bible’s view on homosexuality?

I’m surprised there’s only one question on this subject! The Bible tells us 3 significant things here, I think. First of all, the Bible begins by setting out a model of human relationship, human sexual relationship between man and woman in the Garden of Eden and that seems to be the model from which everything else is understood and seen as the Scripture unfolds. Second, in the law code of the Old Testament intercourse between man and man is described as something which is like ritually untouchable, it’s something that pagans do and Jews, the covenant people, don’t do it. Third, in the first chapter of Romans we have Paul taking for granted the argument that this is an example of human unfaithfulness to the order of nature. But I think those taken together explains why the Christian church has historically, thought as it has thought, reacted as it has reacted, to homosexuality. In the last 30 years or so, some Christians have raised the question of whether what we now see as the phenomenal of homosexuality in the world is exactly what the Bible has in view when it makes these prohibitions and these comments. And that is a debate that is by no means at an end yet. As you know, the position of the Anglican church is that corporately the Anglican church has not been persuaded let’s say to change the traditional view on this and that’s where our church stands. That I think is how the biblical view unfolds and I do want say in fairness to those who have raised questions in the last 30 years or so, not all of them want to overturn the authority of the Bible but are simply asking, “Have we got it right? Have we understood it right?” But it’s a long, painful discussion and you won’t need me to say to you at this juncture that some of us in position of leadership in the Anglican church feels the force of the debate very powerfully but also the importance of not rushing into a change that will divide us, that will increase our difficulties in ecumenical interfaith discussion.

That’s very interesting. To summarise, what Rowan’s saying is that the words of the Bible mean exactly what the conservatives think they mean. The real issue is whether the words of the Bible cover all aspects of modern day homosexual expression or just a portion of it. That matches the portion of his address to the ACC in 2005 which covered the same subject. In that speech he said:

So for some we have a problem of the Church accepting a set of false premises, a wrong and unbiblical picture of human nature; for others a problem of communicating with human beings where they actually are, in terms they can grasp. Many issues are involved here, not only the presenting question about homosexuality. Perhaps the most difficult is how we make a moral assessment of modern culture in the developed world. And for many of us this is complicated. Modernity has brought great goods; yet in vital respects it has promoted a picture of humanity that is deeply flawed – individualistic, obsessed with rights and claims and uninterested in bonds of obligation or the need for sacrifice for the good of others: the world that has produced our current nightmare of international injustice. So the question is how far the concern for reaching an understanding with the world about sexual ethics is based on uncritical acceptance of the values of a culture like this.

So there are two issues coming out of this that need patient study. What is the nature of a holy and Christ-like life for someone who has consistent homosexual desires? And what is the appropriate discipline to be applied to the personal life of the pastor in the Church? The last Lambeth Conference concluded that the reasons just outlined made it impossible to justify a change in existing practice and discipline; and the majority voice of the Communion holds firmly to this decision. It is possible to uphold this decision and still say that there are many unanswered questions in the theological picture just outlined, and that a full discussion of these needs a far more careful attention to how homosexual people see themselves and their relations. The Lambeth Resolution called for just this. It also condemned in clear terms, as did earlier Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report and the Primates’ Dromantine statement, violent and bigoted language about homosexual people – and this cannot be repeated too often. It is possible to uphold Lambeth ’98 and to oppose the shocking persecution of homosexuals in some countries, to defend measures that guarantee their civil liberties. The question is not about that level of acceptance, but about what the Church requires in its ordained leaders and what patterns of relationship it will explicitly recognise as unquestionably revealing of God. On these matters, the Church is not persuaded that change is right. And where there is a strong scriptural presumption against change, a long consensus of teaching in Christian history, and a widespread ecumenical agreement, it may well be thought that change would need an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it.

Hmmmm… I think Rowan’s position (and if you read this Rowan, by all means feel free to comment!!!) is transiting to one of moral optimum for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Essentially this perspective says that while we recognise that homosexuality is not God’s design for people, with same-sex attraction, we should try ato find the best way for them, to use a mathematical expression – a local moral optimum. There might be a better position for human beings to be in, marriage, but for those with same-sex attraction they are constrained – marriage is not a possibility. Therefore, christian ethics should try to find the best solution for those with same-sex attraction given these constraints.

I don’t think that’s a solution that works, as I’ve written before. Simply put, I think local moral optimums deny the full power of the resurrection. Allowing people to engage in same-sex unions while at the same time affirming the Biblical model of marriage between a man and a women as poiting towards Christ and the Church is to deny the victory over the fallen world that Christ won when he burst from the romb. Here’s what I wrote four years ago:

If the task of the church is to discover new ways to witness to the eternal truths of God and the Gospel, then the Liberal approach to same-sex relationships seems at first to be a more amenable method of seeking to impact the gay community and those beyond it.

Are there however implications in the acceptance of same-sex blessings, even if recognised as not being ideal, that result in the Gospel being undermined? Even if one accepts a level of sinfulness within gay relationships, but one is merely trying to produce an optimal resolution to a pastoral problem, does that compromise have wider repercussions on the general Christan witness? Can one actually endorse Grenz’s understanding of the teleological basis of heterosexual sexual activity within marriage and still find some room for blessing inferior forms of relationship?

The flaw we find with the Liberal moral optimality argument is that it posits itself within a fallen world. It takes as axiomatic for ethical conduct the nature of world post-Eden and thus avoids engaging with the eschatological context of Christian practice and witness. In comparison to this limitation and taking into account the missing eschatological dimension, O’Donovan in “Resurrection and Moral Order” presents us with an Evangelical Ethic that is centred in the real power and symbolism of Christ’s burst from the tomb. The resurrection, O’Donovan argues, vindicates Creation, not only in its raw status but also in the order and coherence that God designed for it . For O’Donovan it is not simply the fact that Christ is renewed that is important, it is the fact that this renewal points towards not just the destruction of the curse of death upon sin, but also a restoration of the relationships between God and humans (and between humans and other humans) that were destroyed by the original sin. The power of the resurrection is that it not only restores the correct ontology of human beings, it also reinstates their original designed teleology. Those who trust in Christ can not only expect resurrection bodies in the new Creation, of which Christ is the first fruits, they can also entertain the relationship with the Father that they were originally designed to be within.

The resurrection also directs concepts of virtue back to God, for it declares utterly that they are non-existent without the promise of transformation that is enacted throughout Creation on Easter morning. Christ’s bursting from the tomb witnesses to the world that the Creator is the agent of salvation and sanctification, for it is He and he alone who has performed the act of regeneration. The transformation of an individual sinner into an agent of love and grace is an act of sanctification reliant on the sender of the Counsellor and equipper. Human beings cannot demand any sense of being virtuous until that virtue is given to them through the power of the empty tomb, and furthermore, when that virtue is applied it invests in the one on whom it is applied a total and complete turnaround in their moral condition.

This dynamic volte-face of the world’s situation is at the heart of the Christian Witness to the Contemporary World and it presents a stumbling block to the Liberal perspective on same-sex blessings. The resurrection witnesses not to an impaired creation but to a perfected one. It speaks of humanity utterly redeemed, not left at some optimal but sub-prime ontological and moral back-water. It declares what is intrinsically and naturally good about creation, not a 90% version of perfection (which like all forms less than 100% imperfect and therefore unholy).

That was my position four years ago and is my position today. The only way you can say that same-sex unions speak clearly, completely and undeniably of the resurrection is to also assert that same-sex behaviour is godly. We’ve already seen at the top of this page that Williams doesn’t really think the Bible says that so I think that makes the moral optimum position contradictory and therefore untenable.

What do you all think?

Posted in Sexuality, Theology