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?

13 Comments on “Rowan Williams on Homosexuality

  1. I think you read too much into +Rowan’s ACC speech (you second quotation), or at least I couldn’t find what you thought he was saying – or what it lead to (same sex unions being condoned as the best option or something). I actually thought Rowan was more liberal than this – so I am pleasantly surprised, and pleased that he spends a lot of time and effort trying to seperate the belief in sex within marriage from the persecution of gay people. I alsowish to qualify something else you said – but I think you might be trying to get at what Rowan was saying; that marriage is the better option. I agree that marriage is the better option than same sex unions but not the best – I believe that the best option is always celibacy, and I believe that with all my heart. Of course marriage is a high calling, but celibacy is higher, and one of the problems with approaching the issue of homosexuality is that celibacy has ceased to be an option for the masses – it is seen as inferior (or even undesirable) amongst evangelicals and seen as a minority calling amongst the catholics. So if a Christian who is attracted sexually to members of the same sex chooses to be celibate they either have to join an evangelical church where they will be seen as inferior, and vicars wives will try and matchmake them while those who know of their persuasions won’t understand, or they will join the catholic wing, where their decision to remain celibate on moral grounds and not join a monastic order will fly in the face of all they stand for and they will also be seen as inferior. In order for the evangelical wing of the church to take homosexuality seriously it needs to take celibacy seriously (for people of all persuasions and genders) and be able to deal with the people who don’t cease finding men attractive after much prayer.

    I always end up commenting on other peoples blogs when really I should be taking up space on my own blog – but hey!

  2. Tiffer,

    Couldn’t agree with you more about how Evangelicals underplay celibacy / singleness. I’m not sure I think celibacy is superior to marriage (though I can see how some might) but it certainly isn’t inferior. I was annoyed wondering around the Christian Resources Exhibition last week that there were several companies plying Christian Dating opportunities, or even Speed Dating!!! A lot of the literature suggests very strongly that marriage is the divine destiny of all Christians. That’s simply rubbish.

  3. Perhaps superior is the wrong word – higher I think might be appropriate. Although I am happy for others to read Jesus and Paul differently (I wouldn’t be much of an Anglican if I didn’t!)

    I think for evangelicals it often boils down to how we teach about sex – it tends to happen mainly in youth groups and it still tends to be the NSBM or at least sex belongs inside of marriage. I do agree with this value – but where it misses out the possibility of life long (or at least significantly long) ceilbacy then it sets people up for a fall. If one thinks that the main incentive for saving yourself for marriage is because a Christmas present is always better opened at Christmas then what happens when either Christmas never comes or Christmas comes earlier than perhaps it should have (although I am all for short engagements generally) or if the present actually isn’t as good as you expected it to be? Sometimes it all happens perfectly and that is certainly the ideal but in a fallen world it doesn’t always, a lot of couples have sexual problems and that needs to be made known too.

    The point is if something is right then it is right, and if something is wrong it is wrong. We mustn’t tell people that the right option is the easiest just because that’s easier for us to preach.

    Once again, ranting on someone elses blog – I apologise! It’s nice to talk to someone who thinks about sex openly rather than just privately coming to conclusions. Although I would still defend Ridley as an evangelical college some of the ordinands (not the staff) have very unthought through ideas about sexual morality, which is fine if we were talking about everyday folk but some of these people are theologically brilliant and apply more logic to Origen’s christology than such trivial things as the windsor report!

    My number one most idiotic reason for being liberal about homosexual practice (not heard from a Ridley student thankfully) is “Well I used to be against it, but then I met some gay people, and they were really nice, so I changed my mind”. Grrrr.

  4. Feel free to rant on my blog as much as you want.

    Yes, we need to have a proper theology of sex. For me, not doing sex in the wrong context is as important as doing sex in the right context. What I mean by that (and this helped me in my long years of celibacy) was realising that I could speak about God in my refusal to let my body be used for sexual purposes that were ungodly. I came to the conclusion that celibacy and married sex were equal ways of being sexually active – one was not better then the other, just different. When one marries one loses all kinds of possibilities and potentialities that one had before.

  5. I am very concerned about Same Sex Blessing because of the many lesbian women I have known who eventually came to see that their sexuality had been distorted by sexual abuse. They experienced their lesbian community as attempting to inhibit and control their efforts to heal from abuse. They did not want to loose their community of support but found that community to have its own agenda: keeping them lesbian. Imagine how much more difficult for these women to heal from the sexual abuse if the are in a “blessed” relationship. Will they be trapped from healing from the abuse and growing into their full sexuality by “the blessing”?

  6. Nice blog post. I agree that celibacy is highly underrated. I have what can only be described as your average heterosexual male strong sex drive. Ain’t nothing better than sitting on a park bench and gawking at sun dresses in the spring. BUT, I don’t have sex before marriage, and honestly, if someone told me I could never have sex, it would not be that distressing.

    From my perspective, it is ridiculous to say that we are all inalterably hard-wired to achieve gratification with someone, male or female, and not doing that either day-to-day or year-to-year is some sort of distortion of who we are. If you’re not having sex, so what. Less headache. No drama, either.

    I fully agree that chastity is very underrated and should be honored and blessed. This preserves the wisdom of sexuality within the traditional marriage context.

    I agree with seen too much that SSB will have a very deletorious effect on women that have bisexual possibilities. Remember the study published a few years back that showed that ostensibly lesbian women retained physical attraction and response to attractive male pictures? Whether they recognize it or not, lesbianism is a culture. Turning it into the mythology that it is hard-wired and equal to traditional marriage will have terrible effects. I have seen it first-hand.

  7. One question that I’ve not seen addressed is whether same-sex blessings might be ok for lesbian/gay couples who refrain from genital activity, but would still like to be considered couples (who may have adopted children or undertaken similar eschatalogical projects). Does that count as celibacy?

    Also, to butt in on the Tiffer/P.O. debate, I’m intrigued by the description of celibacy as a “calling”. Rather than consider it a specific calling, should one simply understand it as the default position for Christians, so, if you’re called to be Christian (and you’re not married at the time), then celibacy is the state that you’re automatically called into, unless you’re called out of it (through marriage)? This, I think, may be more of an Eastern Orthodox line.

    Am also interested in views on female same sex practice in the Bible. How many passages condemn women for this? I think that one can read Romans this way, but is there anything else that refers specifically to women?

    Also, hope this isn’t too deviant… But, this celibacy thing, does masturbation count? That may be a “youth group” kind of question, but for people who are called/consigned/assumed to celibacy, it may be very important. I am considering living in a celibate relationship with my female partner (sex just isn’t that important to one of us), but there is only so much sport/running/hugging/eating/prayer that can be engaged in without the need for some kind of sexual outlet!

    @ Seen2much. I have taken the liberty of reversing your paragraph as it mirrors my experience :

    I am very concerned about Christian condemnation of same sex blessings because of the many lesbian women I have known who eventually came to see that their sexuality had been distorted by the Church. They experienced the church as attempting to inhibit and control their efforts to heal from abuse. They did not want to lose their Christian community of support but found that community to have its own agenda: keeping them celibate. Imagine how much more difficult for these women to heal from the sexual abuse if they are Christians. Will they be trapped from healing from the abuse and growing into their full sexuality by Christianity?

    I realise the potential holes in this kind of argument (one could simply argue that growth into Christianity is not about distortion of sexuality, but righting of it), but basic appeals to experience are not always helpful when it’s possible to find precise opposites elsewhere… Sometimes, when lesbians say, “I don’t need the church to be a spiritual person etc. etc”, I want to respond “You certainly appear not to need the church, but the church needs you and your gifts and your talents, and is the poorer without them…” but such a comment falls on deaf ears because whenever religion is raised, one simply detects fear and condemnation amongst lesbian women. “You will be fully received, only if you do not have sex” is simply not heard as a joyous call to the adventure of living in a community of character when one has been in a committed partnership for 10+ years!

    I don’t have an “answer” for the debate (that’s why it’s a debate) that rages throughout the communion right now, but I wonder whether it will ever be possible to say: “whatever your practice re. committed homosexual relationships, you are welcome to walk as the baptised amongst us”?

    I’m not ready to come out as a Christian lesbian in the blogosphere right now, especially since I know that such a title is disputed amongst many readers here… Outing oneself means that one’s view on other theological matters become open to doubt. I know a few ordinands who are similarly quiet about their sexuality because they fear that they will be ostracised or prevented from proceeding with their ministry. It is less costly to a bishop to “lose” a few gay/lesbian priests/deacons than it is to have on-going discussion on the matter that considers honesty to be more important than sex. I hope that my anonymity will be respected and my post accepted.

  8. Hi NSS,

    Just to pick up your point on masturbation. I’ve always argued that masturbation itself isn’t really a problem, it’s what you’re thinking of while you’re masturbating that is the issue. If you’re fueling your ejaculation with lustful thoughts of a woman, a man, or well, anything really, does that count as Jesus’ admonition against adultery being simply lusting after someone?

  9. So, does that mean that masturbation, unfuelled by any fantasies, is not sinful? If it’s simply used as a mechanism to relax and unwind (a little like going for a run), do you see it as morally neutral?

  10. Peter,

    Thanks for clarifying. Also, could you tell me what you think about my first point on blessing of celibate gay/lesbian couples?

  11. Sure NSS,

    I’m starting to see that since husband/wife signifies Christ and the Church, husband/husband (or wife/wife) deliberately places oneself in a position where you cannot signify Christ / Church. This is different to singleness which still has within the potentiality of signifying Christ/Church. So on that basis we shouldn’t bless any form of same-sex coupling which intrinsically within it removes the ability of either in the couple to enter a husband/wife relationship.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Yes, that makes sense. However, it makes sense only, I think, if one accepts that male can only represent Christ, and wife can only represent church.

    Also, not sure what you mean about singleness having the “potentiality” to signify. I’d like to see that fleshed out a bit.

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