The Miserable Theology of TEC

A fascinating piece by Jacqueline Jenkins Keenan of the Anglican Communion Institute:

Most people realize that change within the church is difficult. In fact, change within any organization is hard, and systems theory has long studied the reality that any change, whether good or bad, will be greeted with resistance. That is because all change causes loss, which creates accompanying reactions of confusion, anger, and grief. The best way to make a change is for the people involved to become convinced that, although they are still doing things the old way, they should be doing them the new way. In religious institutions it is important to undergird changes with a clear and articulated theological reasoning to justify the change. This stated reasoning should always precede the change and allow for a theological discussion about whether the change should be made. In this process either the change will be owned by those involved in the change, or the change in the form proposed may be revealed to be inappropriate before any injury is done to the church. The recent turmoil within the Episcopal Church demonstrates what can go wrong when the articulated theological reasoning follows rather than precedes and founds the change.

In the ongoing debate about sexuality The Episcopal Church (TEC) has consistently looked to the medical and scientific community in order to understand human sexuality. This tradition was continued when TEC presented a theological statement in 2005 to the worldwide Anglican Communion in order to explain its consecration of a homosexual bishop in 2003. This theological document, To Set Our Hope on Christ, stated that “Altogether, contemporary studies indicate that same-sex affection has a genetic- biological basis which is shaped in interaction with psycho-social and cultural-historical factors. Sexual orientation remains relatively fixed and generally not subject to change. Continuing studies have confirmed the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from their diagnostic manual of mental illness.”

Unfortunately, the bibliography that was cited in this document consisted of scientific articles that were written between 1970 and 1995. In fact none of the TEC documents on homosexuality include any studies after 1995. But research on homosexuality has continued, and later studies have produced new data in the areas of genetics, prevalence rates, and mutability of homosexual attraction. These studies also show that data regarding homosexuality in men does not apply to women.

This is Keenan’s contention, that the leadership of TEC pay lip-service to modern scientific inquiry on the causation of homosexuality, disregarding any evidence which might contradict their position.

One clear area in which recent research has challenged earlier assessments is the genetic causality of homosexual attraction. In 1991 Bailey and Pillard (“A Genetic Study of Male Sexual Orientation,” Archives of General Psychiatry 48) published results of a study in men that suggested a genetic cause of same-sex attraction. It was largely on the basis of that report that To Set Our Hope on Christ concluded that homosexual attractions were based on genetic causes. But a 1994 article called “Homosexuality: The Behavioral Sciences and the Church” by Jones and Workman had already pointed out severe sample bias in that study. Further, a later study co-authored by Bailey did not support the 1991 results.

The 1991 Bailey and Pillard twin study on men looked at identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings that were not twins, and adopted siblings. Seeing traits significantly more often in pairs of identical twins than in the general population suggests heritability of the trait. The authors found that 52% of homosexual identical twins had a homosexual co- twin. Since that was much higher than the 2% rate of homosexuality in the general population at that time, such a large increase would indicate that genetic factors were highly likely. However, the subjects for this study were individuals recruited through gay publications. Besides the obvious problem of who would be likely to respond to such a solicitation, the data itself showed that even the adopted children in the study had five times the normal rate of homosexuality. A high rate in unrelated children indicates that the families of respondents were not typical of the general population. It is clear that the Bailey and Pillard study was subject to sampling bias.

In 1992 King and McDonald (“Homosexuals who are twins: A study of 46 Probands,” British Journal of Psychiatry 160) did a twin study using an unbiased sample. It showed only about 25% of homosexual identical twins had a co-twin who was homosexual. This is still higher than the general population so it could indicate some heritability, but King and McDonald also did something else that any good researcher would do. They looked into the possibility that there might be environmental factors causing even this relatively low rate of concordance. They found that “genetic factors are insufficient explanation of the development of sexual orientation” because of social factors, including “a relatively high likelihood of sexual relations occurring with same sex co-twins at some time, particularly in monozygotic [identical] pairs.” The identical twins were having a strong influence on each other.

In 2000 Bailey published a new study, this time co-authored by Kirk (“Measurement Models of Sexual Orientation in a Community Twin Sample,” Behavioral Genetics 30.) This new study drew on a twin registry for the subject population instead of recruiting participants through gay publications. This new study also reported a much lower heritability rate for men than had the 1991 report, which Bailey had co-authored. This time heritability was only 30%. Yet a close look at the study shows that even this lower rate is subject to question. Once environmental factors have been described that interfere with results on heritability, they must be addressed in all later research. For some reason, however, the Kirk and Bailey study asked no questions about the social issues that King and McDonald found. As a result the study is fundamentally flawed in design.

Yet environmental effects became clear when the results of this same study were used in an article produced by Savin-Williams in 2006 (“Who’s Gay? Does it Matter?” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.) Savin-Williams produced a chart of prevalence rates of homosexuality in many countries and covering many age groups. The groups from Australia had markedly higher prevalence rates than any age groups in any other country. That seemed baffling until one noticed that the Australian population came from Kirk and Bailey’s twin study. Now heredity does not increase prevalence. It only determines whether twins are concordant or discordant for the trait, but it does not cause an overall increase in the trait in the population. For example, if the prevalence is 2% and the trait is fully inherited, then 2% of the time both twins will have the trait and 98% of the time both twins will not. If it is not inherited at all, then of those twins with the trait, 98% will have twins without the trait. The greatly increased prevalence in the twins in the Kirk and Bailey study indicates a strong environmental influence, since prevalence is increased by environmental factors, not heredity.

At this point twin studies have not conclusively demonstrated the existence of genetic factors that precondition a person to homosexual attraction. On the contrary, they have pointed to the existence of social factors in determining sexual behavior. In addition, a 2002 review article on homosexuality co-authored by Bailey (“A Critical Review of Recent Biological Research on Human Sexual Orientation,” Annual Review of Sexual Research 13) said that “molecular research has not yet produced compelling evidence for specific genes.”

Does that make sense? What Keenan’s saying is that most recent twin studies have shown that the argument for a direct genetic cause of homosexuality has actually weakened in the past decade and a half, but TEC’s “To Set our Hope on Christ” (available as a pdf download here) had a highly selective scientific bibliography that seemed to ignore this. That’s not surprising though because as Keenan points out, TEC’s pastoral practice has run way ahead of its theology:

Because the practical change in sexual norms within TEC has preceded the hard work of theological reasoning – one that must take into account scientific study — , it now seems that the House of Bishops has decided to keep Episcopalians in the dark about the problems with their statement. So rather than having a discussion, we are dealing with a political situation. If there had been a discussion, the House of Deputies would have been informed. But in May of 2007 I sent an email about this material to Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies. Before I checked my email for a response, she had asked me twice for copies of my articles and the material that I had sent to the bishops in Feb. 2006. Clearly, she had not been informed of the scientific problems with TEC’s theological statement. Whether knowing about these issues would have affected decisions by the House of Deputies at GC 2006 is doubtful. But there is no question but that in general we are now reaping the consequences of the bishops’ silence.

Also this spring I spoke to two members of the House of Bishops Theology Committee about the need to clear up the problems with the church’s original theological document. I sent them the most updated science that appears in this article. Therefore, they could see how serious the problems with their original document were. Instead of telling the people of the Episcopal Church about this issue, they left To Set Our Hope on Christ as the official statement of the church on this matter, when they published their theology statement for the communique on June 1, 2007. They did that even though one of the two bishops had written to me about To Set Our Hope on Christ in May 2006 to say, “I share your belief that the job could have been done in ways that paid better attention to both science and theology.” So here was the opportunity to be honest with Episcopalians, but instead they kept their secret.

The theology in “To Set our Hope on Christ” is pretty flaky. For example, when discussing the Bible passages relative to the subject of homosexual practice, this is the full depth of the treatment of the words arsenokoites and malakoi:

Several other biblical texts (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Acts 15:28-29) contain vice lists (strings of prohibited behaviors). Written in Greek, the meaning of these words is sometimes contested. Among these words are two that have been interpreted to describe same-sex relations. At least one of the words (malakoi) is so uncertain in its meaning that no solid argument can be based on it one way or the other. The other word (aresenokoitai) is probably a shorthand expression for the prohibition of a man lying with a man as with a woman in Leviticus 18:22. These vice lists do not contribute substantially to the debate, but they do point us to a text which does, Leviticus; and they serve at least to underline the importance of Leviticus for several New Testament writers.

That’s less than 100 words to handle some of the key passages in the New Testament. But, I hear you say, that’s OK because they’re going to look at Leviticus. Well, you’ll be disappointed. The TEC handling of Leviticus is to raise the same old arguments on the line of “We eat prawns now, so what’s wrong with sleeping with someone you love” and to argue that the moral ethical codes existed only to produce a moral and racial distinction for the Israelites in a multi-cultural middle-eastern society. There is absolutely no engagement with any exegesis of the passage, no attempt to look at the etymology of arsenokotai or malakoi, no attempt even to look at the Hebrew and argue about temple cult prostitution or the like.

But the facile nature of the document doesn’t stop there. There is no mention of post-gays like myself, despite the fact that clergy like Mario Bergner are ordained ministers in the church. There is no mention of chastity, that classical spiritual virtue. Compare “To Set” to the Church of England Document “Some Issues in Human Sexuality” and you’ll see instantly that the theology of TEC is pathetic compared to the work of the English House of Bishops.

Keenan’s final point is this – the cover-up and wilful head turning from the facts of the debate is a problem that is not just American. We all see it again and again in our own congregations and synods. For example, General Synod in England debated sexuality during its February session and time and time again progressives quoted 25 / 30 year old research and theology as though they were the final word on the subject. Keenan closes by saying:

A final reality, noted by practical experience and systems theory both, is that the person who reveals the secret will feel the reactivity and wrath of the system. But if learning to put reasoned theology first saves even one church, it will be worth it. In 2002 my Disciples of Christ congregation exploded over the matter of homosexuality. I went to an orthodox TEC congregation to hide. There is nowhere to hide. This article is not just about TEC. It is about all denominations, and the need to approach the challenge of change in a non-destructive manner.. Establishing “facts on the ground” without the reasoned agreement of the larger church has become the fuel today for the church’s dismantling. State the theology of the change first. The discussion that ensues might be surprising for everyone.

Sooner or later the Church of England Synod is going to have to face this issue again. The Lambeth Conference next summer, regardless of the attempts at fudge by some of those who organise the agenda, will also have to discuss the issue once more. When they do so, will they truly listen to all the evidence, or will they resort to the miserable theology of those who claim to want to listen, but do so with one ear closed?

Posted in Anglican Communion, Sexuality, Theology