Responding to “The Church and Homosexuality”

I thought it might be suitable to address the main point of Jeffrey John’s position as outlined in his paper, “The Church and Homosexuality” which was first published in 1998.  In some senses this is a better paper then the subsequent “Permanent, Faithful, Stable” as it explores clearly the notion of how the Ephesians 5 model of marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church. Dr John’s proposition is that it is not the sex of the participants in the covenanted union that is important to the signification of the work of Christ, but rather simply the presence of the monogamous covenant. I want to explore that proposition and see whether it sits happily with the Biblical text.

The relevant section of the paper is as follows.

The point I had hoped to make at Canterbury was, precisely, that contrary to the usual assumption, gay relationships do not overturn either scripture or tradition, but can be compatible with their deepest wisdom and discipline. I wanted to say that in terms of the kind of development which it implies within the tradition, accepting same sex partnerships is exactly analogous to ordaining women. It looks like a revolutionary step, but is nothing of the kind. Accepting same sex relationships does not change the Church’s doctrine or discipline of marriage, it simply applies it to a different group of people. The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

The Church took the decision to ordain women once it had realized that doing so does nothing to alter the sacrament of orders. It does not change the doctrine of the priesthood or the sacramental relations which ordination sets up, it simply admits a different category of person into those relations. Sacramentally nothing has changed, because the imaging of Christ in the priesthood does not relate to the physical gender of the priest but to her person. ln the same way the sacramental imaging of Christ in a same-sex relationship does not relate to the couple’s gender but to their personal covenant. What St Paul calls the musterion, the ‘mystery’ or sacrament, relates to the way that a sexual relationship based on a covenant of total commitment potentially reflects Christ’s covenanted, faithful love for his Church. It is not the male-female polarity that creates the ‘mystery’, nor anything to do with procreativity (otherwise we would not marry the infertile). It is the quality of the commitment between two persons, the combined direction of love and will, which is the heart of Christian sexual ethics. Such a relationship is sacramental precisely because, however imperfectly, it makes God’s own reliable, unswerving, self-sacrificing kind of love a visible reality in human life. And that is not just a matter of theological theory, but of experience. Countless Christian gay couples have found that ‘mystery’ to be just as true of their own relationship as it is of heterosexual marriage; and it is an experience that demands to be respected.

The scriptural arguments around gay relationships also run parallel to the scriptural arguments around the ordination of women. Both issues relate to creation ordinances, and especially to particular Pauline passages which seem to rule out both homosexual practice and female leadership on the basis of those ordinances. But of course everything depends on the hermeneutic you apply. A literal exegesis will no doubt rule out same-sex relationships, but it would equally rule out giving any authority to women (let alone ordaining them). Even more strongly, not just on the basis of Paul’s teaching, but on the basis of Jesus’ own teaching in four separate Gospel passages as well as in Paul, it would rule out the remarriage of divorcees as being equivalent to adultery. I suppose one might just about respect those who reject gay relationships on the basis of scripture, provided they also veil women, forbid them to speak in-church, and condemn the remarried as adulterers. But on these other things we are not, thank God a literalist Church; and there is no intellectual honesty at all in applying a literalist hermeneutic to the gay issue and quite a different one to these others.

Jeffrey John’s argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Human covenanted relationships are shown in Scripture to resemble the union of Christ and the Church
  2. This “mystery” is not due to the sex of those in the union, but rather the presence of a personal covenant
  3. On this basis gay relationships which are monogamous, covenanted and life-long are as holy as similar straight relationships.

Dr John links this argument with the case for ordaining women, but it should be noted that at this point the argument moves from the specific theology of the issues (gay relationships and ordaining women) to the process by which such theology is discerned. It should be pointed out that supporting one of these revisions in the life of the church should not necessarily lead to the support of the other. It may be that the exegetical process that is used to approach both issues is identical, but leads to different conclusions.

It is not my intention in this post to look at the issue of women’s ordination. Rather, I want to explore the argument that Dr John makes about covenanted relationships and see whether it is supported by the text of the Scriptures that are referred to.

Changing the Doctrine of Marriage

Dr John makes it very clear that he does not believe accepting the validity of covenanted gay relationships will undermine the Christian understanding of marriage.

Accepting same sex relationships does not change the Church’s doctrine or discipline of marriage, it simply applies it to a different group of people. The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

I want to suggest that contrary to Dr John’s assertion, what he is proposing is a revision to the Church’s doctrine of marriage in a manner that renders what we have done for the past 350 years “wrong”. I addressed this issue when examining the liturgy used by Martin Dudley two years ago. Let’s have a look again at the issues involved.

The Sexual Theology of the BCP Marriage Service

We now turn to examine the sexual theology of the BCP Marriage Service. In the opening charge to the couple and the congregation, the Priest says the following:

holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocence, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church;

This is a clear reference to Ephesians 5, where Paul writes the following:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Paul takes the institution of marriage in Genesis 2 and explains how the union of husband and wife signifies more than just the coming together of two humans. He teaches that within marriage the husband and the wife take on unique roles in the way that they together sexually signify Christ and his Church. Within marriage Paul argues, the husband signifies Christ. That is why he is first called to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He must give up all things for her in the same way that Christ gave up all things for his bride. The bride then serves her husband on the same grounds that the church serves Christ, not because of any patriarchal power structure but because the church understands that Christ has laid down everything for her.

The BCP marriage service echoes this understanding for it first calls on the husband in this manner:

Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health;

Here the primary call to the husband is to love, but when the wife is addressed the charge is different:

Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health;

The distinction in the charges points to the Ephesians 5 teaching that the wife submitting to her husband, on the basis that he loves her by laying down all things for her, is a mirror of the church’s relationship to Christ.

This understanding leads Paul to the realisation that the consummation of the marriage creates a mysterious holy union between husband and wife that mirrors the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual bonding of the two as “one flesh” is not just a physical act but a spiritual one, for it has a deep signification in its activity. To put it as unsubtly as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son.

Within this signification, the uniqueness of the partners is key. The sexual difference of the man and his wife are the driving force behind the symbolism. It is their biological difference and the union of those differences that is the indicator of the greater union of Christ and the Church.

To summarise, the BCP Marriage Service explicitly draws from Ephesians 5 and in doing so distinguishes between husband and wife in their unique roles in signifying the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual imagery is deliberate and points to a higher truth beyond the married couple. It is an understanding of sexual activity that has dictated the Church’s response to all other forms of copulation and was still part of the guiding theology in the 1990s revision of the Marriage Service.

Now Dr John clearly refers to Ephesians 5 in his use of the language of mystery. Dr John’s interpretation differs from the BCP in that he understands that the Pauline reference to the mystery of two becoming one flesh symbolising the union of Christ and the Church is not specifically to do with the sex of the participants in the one flesh union, but rather the presence of the covenant between the two.

The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

I want to suggest that if Dr John’s reading of Ephesians 5 is correct, that it is to do with the same quality of love and the same covenant framework for gay unions and for straight unions, then the conservative argument is redundant and we would rightly need to revise our liturgy.

What is Happening in Ephesians 5?

It is necessary to explore in greater detail the symbolism in Ephesians 5 and in particular to explore what Ephesians 5 is saying about the work of Christ.  The section from verse 25 onwards is as much Christological as it is a guidance for mutual submission within marriage.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.

The teaching here is clear – Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, sanctified her and cleansed her. I’m sure that Dr John disagrees with none of this, but where he differs from the interpretation of the BCP is that he suggests that the way that Ephesians 5 explicitly links the husband to Christ and the wife to the Church is not a clear instruction that the symbolising of the covenant relationship between Christ and the Church has to be heterosexual.

In the same way the sacramental imaging of Christ in a same-sex relationship does not relate to the couple’s gender but to their personal covenant.

But what is the nature of the covenant between Christ and the Church symbolises? Are Christ and the Church equal or is there differentiation in their participation in the covenant. A cursory glance at Ephesians 5 demonstrates that Christ and the Church undertake very differing roles in their covenant union.

Verse Christ Church
23 Head of the Church
Saviour of the Church
Christ’s body
24 Submits to Christ
25 Loves the Church
Gives himself up for the Church
26 Sanctifies the Church
Cleanses the Church
27 Presents the Church to himself

Once the passage is laid out in such a manner it becomes very clear that the theology of the work of Christ in this section of Paul is carefully developed and then mapped back onto the specifics of husband and wife. In verse 23 he writes that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church”. There is a clear mapping of roles based on sexual identity and the text is unambiguous as to which partner represents either Christ or the Church. If one is to accept this defined mapping of signification based on sex then the objection to a same-sex union becomes clear – how can male/male represent Christ and the Church? Either one is left with a “church/church” signification, or in order to defend the clear teaching that one of the partners represents Christ and the other the Church (for that is the covenant being signified by marriage), one needs to suggest which of the two men is taking the role of the “wife”.

I believe that if Dr John and those who commend his work wish to defend their support of same-sex relationships from Ephesians 5 they need to overcome this hurdle. Of course, one defence of this reading is already presented by Dr John, and it is to that that I now turn.

Literal or not?

Dr John’s argument proceeds upon the following line – that we no longer read the Bible literally in two specific cases (ordaining women and divorce) and that therefore we do not need to do so with Ephesians 5. This is a good argument and Dr John presents it coherently, if at times provocatively.

The scriptural arguments around gay relationships also run parallel to the scriptural arguments around the ordination of women. Both issues relate to creation ordinances, and especially to particular Pauline passages which seem to rule out both homosexual practice and female leadership on the basis of those ordinances. But of course everything depends on the hermeneutic you apply. A literal exegesis will no doubt rule out same-sex relationships, but it would equally rule out giving any authority to women (let alone ordaining them). Even more strongly, not just on the basis of Paul’s teaching, but on the basis of Jesus’ own teaching in four separate Gospel passages as well as in Paul, it would rule out the remarriage of divorcees as being equivalent to adultery … there is no intellectual honesty at all in applying a literalist hermeneutic to the gay issue and quite a different one to these others.

I want to suggest though that the answer to Dr John lies in the very words that are highlighted above. He suggests that the move to ordain women and allow the remarriage of divorcees stems from a non reading of the Scriptures in a literal form. However, unlike those that seek revisionism on the basis that the Scriptures are documents that reflect the misogynist or heterosexualist culture of their time (and it’s of note that Dr John certainly doesn’t descend to the simplistic “they didn’t know about committed gay relationships in those times” argument which has to demolish the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture in order to work), those evangelicals who support ordaining women and remarrying divorcees do so exactly because they apply a literalist hermeneutic to the text.

For example, when examining the injunction in 1 Timothy 2 on women teaching, the Evangelical response that this is not a universal command is based in a literal reading of the text and an understanding of the culture in Ephesus. It is a literalist hermeneutic that leads one to understand that the passage is dealing specifically with a cult of Eve and is handling issues around that particular Gnosticism. In this case a literal exegesis leads exactly to the position that women may teach in the church, but in this case they (and equally men) should not be permitted to simply spread heresy through the congregation. Moreover, evangelical arguments on the suitability of women to lead churches do so not on the basis of assuming that the Bible is a patriarchal document who’s views can be amended for the 21st Century. Rather, they are based around grappling with what words like “kephale” actually mean. These arguments are driven by a literal hermeneutic.

Equally when exploring what Jesus says about divorce it is a literalist hermeneutic understanding the 1st century culture that leads one to understand that Jesus is clearly referring to the practice of divorcing a wife because you had spotted a different woman who you preferred. Even today, I would find it hard to find a priest who, whilst happy to remarry divorcees in certain circumstances, would be prepared to remarry someone when one of the two potential spouses presented to him was adulterous with the other, causing the original marriage to break up.

In fact, if one wants to go back to the Old Testament, some of the marriage laws to which Jesus is referring are found in Exodus 21. We see in Torah several examples of what is expected in marriage and what can happen if these obligations are not fulfilled. For example, in Exodus 21:10-11 a wife can leave her husband if he marries someone else (adultery) or does not provide her with food, clothing or sex! In each of these cases the marriage covenant is broken and the obligations to stay are also broken. That is an understanding which comes from a literal reading of the text.

When we examine what Jesus says on the subject, he addresses primarily the practice of simply handing a wife a certificate of divorce to get rid of her, and he says that that is as good as making your wife an adulteress. The model we then get is not that divorce cannot happen (as Torah clearly says it can) but rather that one cannot simply divorce for the sake of it (a “no fault” divorce). Divorce in Scripture happens when the covenant between a husband a wife is broken. God hates it because he has designed marriage of a man to a woman to signify the union of Christ and the Church, and when such a signifying union breaks down it damages that sacramental signification. This is an argument based not in rejecting the Scripture as a product of its time, but rather taking it seriously as a text and seeing what it is actually saying (and equally is not saying).

Blessing Same-Sex Unions?

If those who support the same argument as Dr John outlines wish to convince the church that it should alter its doctrine of marriage to allow same-sex couples to be blessed, there needs to be further engagement with the Ephesians 5 model of marriage that clearly requires a sexual distinctiveness between the sexes. It is not good enough just to argue that Evangelicals ignore the plain reading of Scripture in other places. To the contrary, where Evangelicals have adopted polices that permit women to teach or for people to be remarried after divorce (or famously on the abolition of slavery), they have done so because of the clear teaching of the words of the Bible, not in spite of them.

In contrast, the argument that Dr John presents for permitting the blessing of same-sex unions is based on rejecting the plain meaning of the text and instead applying the theology of a specific relationship (that of a husband and wife) to another situation that the rest of Scripture clearly argues is not holy.  The rationale used to support such a move (that the Church has revised its view of the Bible over the past decades, ignoring the plain teaching of the text) is shown to be incorrect, for where a revision in doctrine has been made (i.e. divorce or women teaching), it has been done so through a clear engagement with the literal meaning of the text. Even where there is still great controversy (eg women’s leadership), the hermeneutic argument is focussed around a literal engagement with the text (the meaning of kephale) and not simply a rejection of the Bible on the basis of its age or cultural setting.

Unfortunately Dr John’s arguments do not do this. They are not in the clear path of valid development in tradition by re-engaging in each generation with the literal text. Rather, they are a noble but flawed attempt to impose upon a passage in Scripture a meaning that it clearly does not teach. This attempt by Dr John to support same-sex relationships advocates very clearly a change to the fundamental meaning of marriage as the Church of England has understood it for over 350 years, namely that the union of specifically a man and a woman signifies the covenant of Christ to his church. To have any validity, such a position as that which Dr John puts forward must be developed much further, and engage with the Biblical text much more faithfully, before it will be taken seriously by those who stand in the mainstream of the Anglican tradition.

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24 Comments on “Responding to “The Church and Homosexuality”

  1. Hi Peter,

    I’m not sure that ‘literal’/’plain’ is defined clearly in the debate. I’m sure there’s heaps of stuff written on this, but even so. ‘Literal’ is often juxtaposed to ‘allegorical’, but I don’t think this is what Dr John is doing.

    I think your argument, Peter, about taking the text seriously is pretty helpful, irrespective of terminology.

    All of Scripture is culturally and historically located apart from us. I don’t think we’re obligated to ‘read and obey’ in a directly immediate fashion that bypasses the mind and the question of interpretation. If ‘literal’ means that, then I don’t think anyone should read ‘literally’!

    Reading the text seriously involves involves understanding it in its context, trying to avoid the intentional fallacy (this gets interesting for parts of the OT!), but then for Christians it should involve a reasoning process, informed by the rest of Scripture and instructed too by the tradition.

    John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism may be helpful for some analysis, although I’m not myself too keen on his conclusions about theological exegesis :)

    I’m sure it’s not perfect, but for anyone interested, a browse of the foreword to the Brazos Theological Commentary Series may prove enlightening.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    Just as an extra comment. I think your argument is pretty good. But I think part of Dr John’s implicit reasoning involves his and other’s experience of the apparent goodness of their relationships. It’s a separate issue, and not directly linked in by Dr John to his exegesis, although it’s part of his article, but it is rhetorically very powerful, because of the emotional reality everyone knows lies behind it.

    It seems to me that a coherent conservative response to all of this requires some form of theological description of this reality and a realistic pastoral model for how the church can offer and live the gospel as good news in relation to a community which doesn’t think it is even remotely so. Even when the theological argument can be responded to, this remains a problem.

      • I agree about your last paragraph – in fact I'd widen that to your last 2 paragraphs, Matt. The bit I wanted to pick up on, was your phrase "part of Dr John’s implicit reasoning involves his and other’s experience of the apparent goodness of their relationships". I suspect you're right that that partly underpins his reasoning, but just wonder if you'd be willing to say why you wrote "apparent goodness"?

        It seems to me that this is very important – if same-sex sexual relationships really are good, i.e. they really do involve a mutual self-giving analogous to a good marriage, then the conservative case starts to crack to the foundations. For if same-sex attraction is disordered in whatever way, and same-sex sex is always sinful, such self-giving is impossible. But if it's found that it is possible…

        in friendship, Blair

        • Blair,

          In some senses I agree with you. If some gay relationships are found to be analogous to marriage, then a huge part of some conservative critiques fall apart. But note that my theological objection lies not in an assessment of the quality (or otherwise) of affection and mutual self-sacrifice in the relationships (I am perfectly happy to accept and support the fact that two men can be called by God to love each other in that manner). Rather, the critique is whether we are *sexually* meant to express ourselves in same-sex relationships, or is the Biblical position very clear that sex is only intended within the marriage of a man to a woman, because God has intended such a relationship and only such a relationship, to signify the union between Christ and the Church.

          • Hello again Peter,

            I'm aware of your theological objection but it seems to me that if a same-sex sexual relationship truly shows a mutual self-giving analogous to that in a good marriage, it cannot stand. If for instance "two men can be called by God to love each other in that manner", and that manner includes sex, what force can your objection have? It wouldn't 'cash out' in terms of experience – because a mutual self-giving would have been discerned where it was previously held to be impossible.

            in friendship, Blair

            • Quite simply, because Scripture says very clearly love is not meant to be expressed sexually in such a relationship. It's the same with consensual incest – the relationship can be loving and self-giving, but to express it sexually is to say (sexually) something wrong about God.

              • Not so sure about the incest example although it's not that relevant given I agree with you that it's prohibited. As you're aware I disagree with you that "Scripture says very clearly love is not meant to be expressed sexually in such a relationship". In your main article above you refer to Dr John talking about a literal reading, and say that conservative rereadings of some things (divorce etc) in fact depend on a close literal reading of Scriptural texts. As Matt said earlier 'literal' isn't being defined very clearly by any of us here but using the word as you have above, I would suggest that such a reading would also raise questions about the traditionally-held total prohibition on same-sex sex. (Am thinking of for example Rabbi Steven Greenberg's reading of Lev 18:22, some of which I stole from when commenting on one of the 'Slavery and Sexuality' threads; and Gareth Moore OP in Romans 1).

                in friendship, Blair

        • Hi Blair (and sorry to continue the hijack of your article Peter),

          "Apparent goodness", because if you begin from the standpoint that the revelation of God in Scripture says that these acts are sinful … then what is being experienced as good cannot infact be entirely so.

          I wouldn't dispute that all relationships are complex matters, involving good (such as providing opportunities for self-giving, for mutual healing, for providing a stable foundation for society) and bad (e.g. emotional manipulation, physical abuse) aspects. And yes, many of these good aspects, including lots I haven't mentioned and don't know about, could be found in gay relationships. But, fundamentally, if at the heart of these relationships is a sinful sexual act (basically what Peter said) then the mutuality of the relationship involves a mutual encouragement in sin and this would qualify the 'goodness' that is felt.

          There is often a tension between experience and theology. I think we have to let the experience question our theology, and force us to ask whether we're thinking faithfully to Christ. But, if we still find after (it never ends, but for arguments sake …) that process of questioning that Christ is commanding us, then – him being God, Lord, Saviour and all – I think he has to trump my experience … hence my adjective 'apparent'.

          Incidentally, I don't really know what to think about celibate gay exclusive relationships. You could argue they would provide the good without the bad. I've heard conservatives condemn them out of hand, as providing a context for temptation. I've also heard of evangelical ministers of yesteryear advocating them as a compassionate context for discipleship. I guess it's a bit of an inter-conservative discussion.

  2. Peter,

    Bearing in mind that the Marriage Service in Common Worship is also authorised for use in the Church of England (in fact it’s probably now used far more than the BCP) how would you recast your argument using the identical vows that it contains? I think you have said in the past that quite a lot of Anglican theological understanding is expressed in its liturgy – as far as I remember your particular example was the Ordinal – so what do you make of the CW Marriage Service in relation to JJ’s arguments?

    • In response I would say that (i) the BCP is still a legal prayer book and therefore a source for doctrine and (ii) the CW service makes a clear reference to the Ephesians 5 mystery, showing that it recognises that the union of male and female is the sign of the union of Christ and the Church.

      Marriage is a gift of God in creation
      through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
      It is given
      that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
      they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
      as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

      In some senses the CW service waters down the nature of the vows, but it is still possible for a wife to "obey" within CW.

  3. Peter, thank you for this reflection. I very much appreciate all that you say here, especially the way in which you point out that Evangelical support for the leadership of women in the Church can be found in a more literal and not less literal reading of scripture. Very well put.

    One question that came up for me, however, has to do with this thought that you quote from your earlier writing on Ephesians:

    "To put it as unsubtly as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son."

    I follow your argument in regards generally to the sexual union of husband and wife, but I'm not sure that I see the specific connection to orgasm. Is there something about that specific part of the sexual act that especially images the cross? If so, how? And, if you don't mind my frankness, do you see this as extending to a variety of marital sexual experiences or just to intercourse?

    • Hi J,

      Don't mind you asking. I make it my business to speak openly and frankly about sex, even if others find that amusing, disturbing or ridiculous.

      I think there's a great deal to be meditated on in the sexual act. Just think about the basics – the husband enters the wife (not the other way round) and the semen comes from the husband into the wife (at orgasm, at least in the wife). Within the wife is the potentiality for life, but it requires something from the husband to actually produce something new.

      Now, replace husband with Christ and wife with Church and you begin to see that the very act of sex is a metaphor for the work of Christ in his people. We are dead without Christ, but his work in us brings us to new life.

      And that's just for starters…

      • Peter

        Well said! I also found your article on the symbolic physical importance of sexual intercourse very useful.

        One of the problems with JJ's writing above is that to obtain scriptural support from Ephesians 5 for (committed, loving and faithful) CLF gay relationships he has to completely divorce the act of sex from the body. There are two problems with this in my view:

        1. Firstly, he has to rely heavily on CLF without rooting these words in scripture and in God's character. Without going through this necessary discipline, he is at great risk of relying on society's current definition of these words, and hence falling into a relativistic trap: 'How committed is committed? For life? For years? How many years?'

        2. Secondly, by stressing the spiritual characteristics of CLF gay relationships he has to deny the physicality of God-sanctioned sexual intercourse and the inevitable issues of what does it mean to be created male and female in the image of God. His argument here rests more on Platonic idealism than in the earthy physicality of the Hebrew scriptures.

        It is deeply ironic, in my view, that orthodox Christians are sometimes painted as anti-sex when the truth is that we worship a loving creative God that has created even our bodies to give glory and witness to Him in the act of godly sexual intercourse btween a man and wife.

        I can't find the reference, but I remember reading somewhere that Archbishop William Temple, in giving evidence in the early 1960's to the trial of the publishers of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' for obscene publication, referred to godly sex as 'holy communion'. In doing so he bore witness to this wonderful truth!

        • Hello again Philip,

          would like to respond to your 2 problems raised above:

          1) Introducing Permanent, faithful, stable , Dr John says he'll argue that "homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the Church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage" (p1). Where is the evidence that he is "relying on society's current definition" of those words?.

          2) Again this doesn't seem to me to reflect what Dr John is saying. I don't think he's opposing the 'spiritual' to the 'physical' in the way you imply (or at all). I'm not sure what you mean by "the inevitable issues of what does it mean to be created male and female in the image of God" though – do you mean that it's only in male-female relationship that the fullness of God's image is shown, or am I misunderstanding?

          in friendship, Blair

          • Blair

            1) My problem is with the words 'quality' and 'commitment' not with the way JJ uses them per se. I actually think that he personally has a well thought out defintion of these words that correspond well to the historic and scriptural defintions of words like 'committment', 'loving' and 'faithful'.

            As you've probably realised by now, my main objection is that the liberal theology needed to justify biblical support for same-sex relationships (SSA) does not define these key terms as it does not use both scripture and the character and unchanging qualities of God as its key resource. It therefore always runs the risk of having CLF defined relativistically by society.

            This is the central problem with all liberal theology. Because its core purpose is to reconcile theology with the supposed 'truths' of modern and post-modern philosophy, it loses connection with the absolute and unchanging truths of God, His Character and the way that he deals with us as set out in scripture.

            So I have no doubt that JJ has an idea of CLF that is noble and true and which most Christians would support. But the moment liberal theology is used to justify SSR the foundation is upon shifting sand. The Church will inevitably find its definition of CLF pulled in the direction of an increasingly hedonistic society because it can only respond by suggesting: 'This is how committed, 'committed' means' rather than by pointing to God's definition of committed.

            This is why it was such a mistake to allow 'no-fault' divorce in the church. There is no ground in scripture for 'no-fault' divorce, but now the precedent has been set.

            2) When I downloaded the CofE's position on homosexuality from its website I noticed that even the good old fuzzy Anglican church has a creation theology of sex. From Issues in Human Sexuality:

            'The teaching of the Bible is that heterosexual marriage is the proper context for sexual activity between two people. It went on to declare that what it called ‘homophile’ orientation and activity could not be endorsed by the Church as:

            ‘… a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, Tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, makes it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.’

            In other words, the fact that God has created us as male and female with complementary sexual bodies points to the physical act of sex, within God ordained boundaries, reveals the relationship of Christ to His church. JJ argues that it is the quality of love and committment that point to this Ephesians 5 quality of relationship. But scripture argues that the 'mystery' is both physical and spiritual, going back to the creation mystery of our physicality as male and female.

            • Hi again,

              I take your main objection to liberal theology (or liberals' theology?) but it seemed to me you were talking about Dr John directly in your previous comment.

              Re (2): am not sure that those words from Issues in human sexuality could be called a "creation theology of sexuality" but that's a minor point. Again I'm borrowing largely from Dr John's Permanent, faithful, stable but a problem with 'Issues' is that it isn't coherent. Despite the passage you quote it affirms that lay people who conscientiously disagree with the traditional prohibition, can enter same-sex sexual relationships (but clergy can't as you know). Also, and again despite the passage you quote above, an earlier part of 'Issues' says that there are gay couples "who grow steadily in fidelity and in mutual caring, understanding and support, whose partnerships are a blessing to the world around them, and who achieve great, even heroic sacrifice and devotion" (quoted by Dr John in PFS p26). How can that be, if homosexuality is not "as complete within the terms of the created order"? And if it can be in what sense is homosexuality not " as complete"?

              So given this I'd suggest that 'Issues' isn't that solid a place to stand. I'm also not sure that your last paragraph follows on from the part of 'Issues' you quote. And I still don't think Dr J is arguing that the 'mystery' is only spiritual, not physical. (Seems to me there's very little in Eph 5 that's directly about sex between husbands and wives – but were you thinking of another text?). You write of "going back to the creation mystery…" but that seems to me to risk giving a picture of creation as a kind of a priori blueprint into which everything subsequent must be fitted – is there any room in this for real discoveries to be made? Or am I being unfair (not to say incoherent…)?

              in friendship, Blair

              • an earlier part of ‘Issues’ says that there are gay couples “who grow steadily in fidelity and in mutual caring, understanding and support, whose partnerships are a blessing to the world around them, and who achieve great, even heroic sacrifice and devotion” (quoted by Dr John in PFS p26). How can that be, if homosexuality is not “as complete within the terms of the created order”? And if it can be in what sense is homosexuality not ” as complete”?

                Just to defend IiHS here, the position I would take is that some same-sex relationships *can* be all of the above (and some of my conservative friends need to recognise that), but the issue is whether such a relationship can be expressed sexually. I would argue the Scriptures clearly say no. Sexual union is a matter of physical complementarity that signifies a great spiritual complementarity of Christ and the Church.

                • Oh Peter (and Philip given you agree)…

                  …if I were you I wouldn't concede this point / take this position. If a same-sex relationship can be all of the things that that passage from 'Issues' says, why should it be wrong for sex to be a part of that? (I'm not ignoring the Scripture bit but can I come back to it?) It doesn't make coherent sense to say that a gay couple's relationship can be a "blessing to the world around them", etc, but that any sex between them would be wrong. The implication would be, I guess, that in order to grow towards being a "blessing to the world around them" and "heroic sacrifice and devotion" the couple would have to avoid any sex – for if they didn't avoid it, and if same-sex sex is wrong (and I take it that also means damaging to the person in some way), the couple would not, following your argument, have been able to become such a blessing. But is that true? Given we're talking about an identifiable group of people here, reference to experience is essential to this discussion… so what if a gay couple in a relationship such as 'Issues' describes, were to testify that sex had helped 'build' their relationship such that it was a "blessing to others"?

                  ('Scuse my inarticulacy this evening – don't seem to be able to write a half-decent sentence. Please don't all shout 'no change there' :)).

                  Your position seems to me to lack coherence because in effect it says that a passionate same-sex relationship is good (I phrase it like that as we're surely talking about more than friendship here…?) – but that any same-sex sex, can't be. But how can something bad arise from a context you admit is good? Would it be fair to boil down your argument to 'it's OK to be in a gay relationship but not to have gay sex'?

                  Returning to 'the Scripture bit': I note that nobody responded to my comment above –

                  "As Matt said earlier ‘literal’ isn’t being defined very clearly by any of us here but using the word as you have above, I would suggest that such a reading would also raise questions about the traditionally-held total prohibition on same-sex sex. (Am thinking of for example Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s reading of Lev 18:22, some of which I stole from when commenting on one of the ‘Slavery and Sexuality’ threads; and Gareth Moore OP on Romans 1)".

                  Stop me if this is unfair / I'm misunderstanding, but as I say, your position here doesn't seem to hang together.

                  in friendship, Blair

                  • Hi Blair,

                    No, I don't think so because I don't believe that sex is necessarily vital to express love. Further, this is one of those clear cases where we're going to have to trust that what God says is true. I'm perfectly happy to accept that two people coming to orgasm together (and helping each other to orgasm) would feel closer, but that observation can't outweigh whether the Scriptures say that such an activity is inappropriate.

                    Personally I wouldn't encourage people to enter same-sex relationships that tie them from fulfilling God's will in their lives, so Civil Partnerships become a problem in that they prevent people from getting married. But a celibate non-romantic friendship and commitment is not a thing to be de facto rejected because it "looks like" a gay affair.

                    • Hello Peter,

                      I also "don’t believe that sex is necessarily vital to express love" but I'm not sure that has any bearing on what I was arguing above, as I don't think that depended on saying that sex is vital to express love.

                      Obviously we disagree over how to interpret what Scriptural texts say on this – but would just add that what you say above looks akin to saying that 'what God says' is arbitrary, bears little relation to a person's nature or what leads to flourishing. Is it fair to say you're arguing that experience (eg that faithful sexually-expressed gay relationships are good, can lead to flourishing of the partners, to the couple becoming "a blessing to the world around them" etc) doesn't really count when faced with the Scriptural prohibition? If so, on what basis does this experience not count for much, whereas your experience of orientation change does?

                      in friendship, Blair

                  • Blair

                    To me the argument that you're making boils down to 'can sinners also do good'? At the risk of being banal, I hope that it is obvious that they can. That is why I understood the point about fraud that Colin Sugden was reported as making on Radio 4 in debate with Giles Fraser, although it was badly phrased.

                    Let me try and illustrate his same point from my personal experience. I live in the Eastern Cape which is widely seen as the most corrupt province in South Africa. And in the past I have worked in the Department of Education which is widely seen as one of the most corrupt government departments in the province.

                    In my work in that department I have worked closely with people that are reputed to be staggeringly corrupt, having operated and funded whole businesses to the tune of millions of Rands (1GBP currently equals Rands 11.50).

                    One of these reputed people became a close work colleague. He also greatly helped me when I hit some difficulty with the police over a driving offence (and over which we shall rapidly pass, ahem ahem). And is the most delightful company, a loving husband and a devoted father. I love to greet him and spend the time of day whenever I see him.

                    But it doesn't alter the fact that he is probably massively corrupt!

                    That is why the only relevant discussion is: 'Is homosexuality a sin, or is it not?' And we can only find that by scriptural discernment, supported of course by reason and tradition. If we try to find out whether it is a sin or not from human experience or from discerning sacrificial love, grace, charity or any other virtue then we can certainly find these in a gay relationship. Or amongst the hardest of hard-bitten criminals, or we look hard enough!

                    That is why I chuckled to myself when I read Giles Fraser's reported indignation and harrumphing against the comparison of CLF gay relationships with fraud. The moment that we start comparing different types of sin and 'grading' them as being of greater or lesser importance (or not being a sin at all, in spite of the plain view of scripture), then we have moved away from the Gospel of grace and justification by faith alone, and we have entered the relativistic realm of liberal theology.

                    There is no absolute definition of words like 'committed', 'loving' and 'faithful' (CLF) apart from God's revealed truth in scripture. The moment that we move away from scripture in these defintions we inevitably have to define CLF relative to something else as our standard. And as all other standards are human-made and therefore inevitably flawed our judegment will also be flawed.

                    This is why, IMH&HO, the discussion over 'The Gay Issue' (TGI) is one about whether your approach to scripture is orthodox or liberal. And I guess that's the point of Peter's blog!

      • Peter,

        I've said something like this before, and am hoping it bears repeating… but there are problems with the way you use the male/female, Christ/church analogy, it seems to me.

        The implication of your reading is that women don't / can't take any sexual initiative – whereas (laughable as it is for me to say so) that clearly does happen. Applying that to your reading of Paul's analogy would mean that the church is not dead without Christ, wouldn't it? Also the way you read the Ephesians 5 mystery leaves women as passive, the acted-upon, and men as active – and again none of us need look far to see that that isn't always borne out. In your sentence beginning, "Within the wife…" the words 'wife' and 'husband' could be switched round and the sentence would still be true. It seems to me also that your reading enjoins not only different roles for men and women but different status – with men being 'one-up' (as there's scarcely a suggestion that husbands are to be subject to wives in the text, despite the slight tension between Eph 5:21 and 5:22; this could be said to be reflected in the BCP marriage vows where only the wife is asked to obey).

        I realise this isn't very coherent, and also want to emphasise that I'm not trying to argue that the mystery of Eph 5 is vitiated – just that there are limits to how it can be applied and that the way you read it seems to push it too far. Connected to that I'd suggest that reading the text as a bulwark against same-sex relationships is asking it to bear more weight than it was designed to…

        in friendship, blair

        • I don't think I imply anything of the sort. There's nothing in the metaphor that implies that the church shouldn't be proactive in its engagement with God. Rather, the sexual act metaphor identifies that it is Christ who brings life to the Church.

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