I’m sure that you’ve seen the letter released yesterday by the LGBT Anglican Coalition in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks in his Times interview. The letter can be found at Thinking Anglicans and I’ll show some excerpts below.
To be honest, my initial response was “so what?” This letter provides nothing new and just repeats statements made before by different people at different times in different places. On closer inspection though I noticed a curious thing. Given that the letter is written in response to the Archbishop’s statements, there is actually very little engagement with what Rowan said. For example, when questioned on whether gay people could be made bishops, Rowan said the following:
Those issues donâ€™t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. Thatâ€™s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, thereâ€™s no problem about a gay person whoâ€™s a bishop. Itâ€™s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So thereâ€™s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.
Now let’s look very carefully at what Rowan actually said. Rowan makes a clear distinction between orientation and practice. He talks about standards of behaviour and practice and that they are the issue. By referring to the fact that there are “traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe”, he envelops the questions over homosexually active clergy into the wider question of clergy having sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman, regardless of whether that sex is gay or straight.
Now look at the Coalition’s response.
As Sister RosemaryÂ CHN,Â representing Religious Communities, explained in a debate in General Synod in 2004:
â€˜For those of us under religious vows, who treasure celibacy as call and gift, the idea of forced celibacy is as abhorrent as the idea of forced marriageâ€¦
â€˜Some gay clergy have reluctantly accepted celibacy as an imposed discipline. Some of these, I feel sure, have found that through their struggles they have been given graceâ€¦ For others, however, misery remains just misery, and they are exposed to the danger of a kind of withering of the heart, which makes them less able to love anybody.
â€˜Christians who are happily married can bear witness to the way in which a partnerâ€™s love can be both a means of grace and a school of the Lordâ€™s service: a channel of Godâ€™s love to them and through them. Gay Christians in committed relationships say that it is the same for them. When I observe the quality of their lives, and feel warmed and healed by their friendship, I know that it is true.â€™
Let’s dissect this argument. What is being claimed is that it is not acceptable to demand celibacy of those who are not married. Reference is made to “committed relationships”, but no evidence is provided as to what thatÂ commitmentÂ should be. Are we talking about a same-sex equivalence of marriage (which is the line argued coherently by Dr Jeffrey John), or is this a platform for the “Brief and Loving Sexual Relationships” that Changing Attitude can see support for. When I had my conversation with Colin Coward about that last year it became clear that he could envisage several scenarios where sex outside of marriage was acceptable (though clearly not promiscuous ones).
If we took this line of reasoning and applied them to heterosexual relationships we are left wondering what a “committed relationship” looks like in that environment. Does it always involve marriage? Should it encompass a heterosexual partnership of a number of years, but where the couple is not married? This would be the best analogy to some of the homosexual models that are suggested, but such an approach utterly undermines the Church of England doctrine of marriage.
There is also something deeply wrong in the statement that those who are celibate are “exposed to the danger of a kind of withering of the heart, which makes them less able to love anybody”. This makes no sense. Would we apply such an understanding to a heterosexual single person who has been unable to find a marriage partner? Is their continued celibate singleness likely to “make them less able to love anybody”? Does it provide any excuse for a sexual union outside of marriage? It seems to me that once you apply such a thinking to involuntary celibacy that the idea that chastity damages people is shown to be absurd.
The response of course is that the current rules prevent homosexual people from expressing love sexually – at least the single heterosexual person has the possibility of futureÂ happinessÂ – that is denied to the gay person. Â This argument though assumes that a gay person cannot love someone of the opposite sex and cannot express that love sexually. It rests on an assumption that marriage and sexual union is base upon romantic attraction that has a physical sexual base. As I noted two years ago, this approach stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what marriage is about, partially due to the emergence in Western thought of the idea that sexual attraction and “compatibility” is the driver for relationships. Jonathan Mills in his book “Love, Covenant and Meaning” points out that such a thought has taken Western society away from the Biblical understanding of marriage as theÂ wilful union of a man and a woman who choose to love each other.
Of course, in defending the validity of marriage for â€œhomosexualsâ€, I do not have in mind men who are having venery with men whilst also being married. That is as wrong as committing adultery with women. When I argue that â€œhomosexualsâ€ may marry, I have in mind men whose veneral desires remain entirely or mostly focussed on men yet who have never become involved in venery with other men, or who have succesfully settled (one day at a time) into refraining from such venery â€¦ I donâ€™t think a man lacks that capacity for marriage and family life merely because his sexualness, if liberated, would drive him towards venery with all attractive men, rather than with all attractive women.Â Such a man has no reason to fear that the love and meaning he and his wife have in their marriage is actually bogus. And no one else has any reason or right to deem his marriage bogus either.
The idea that gay men and women cannot marry someone of the other sex, love them and have a healthy sex life with them is simply incorrect. It is based in an idea that our sexual desires should dictate and validate our sexual practices. It is to make humans no better than animals, to posit creatures without the capacity to will to love and to express love. I know of a number of “gay men” who have fallen in love with women, not because they had the correct conversion therapy or were repressing their desires, but rather because they realised that as men God had created them to relate sexually to women and only women. In recognising that and surrendering to God the will for their lives, some of them discovered over time that they were attracted to women. Other men found that celibacy did not wither their heart, because in surrendering their heart to God they found it renewed and refreshed. One might even suggest that Sister Rosemary CHN is showing so little confidence in the ability of God to be the great lover of our souls that she will simply settle for a second best compromise.
Now none of this is to deny that two men can love each other. The Scriptures are full of examples of those of the same sex loving each other in a “brotherly” fashion. This writer has himself a number of male friends who he would be quite happy to declare that he loved. Indeed, such friendships could easily be described as, “relationships with members of the same sex, in which they can grow more responsive to Godâ€™s love and be more faithful in following Christ”. By presenting this option as being removed from those who cannot enter sexual relationships, the Coalition inadvertently suggests that friendships do not provide an environment for growing more responsive to God’s love and to be more faithful in following Christ. This is an absurdity, and in recognising this we see that the core of the argument for the Coalition has to come down to sexual union. The issue is whether Christians should express love sexually in this manner, and whether Scripture condones or condemns the idea of forming a life-long partnership on this basis.
The GLBT Anglican Coalition response to Rowan just doesn’t engage with the position the Archbishop has laid out. It cannot present a coherent and unified explanation of what is meant by a “committed relationship”. In that ambiguity it raises the possibility of suggesting that the Church of England doctrine of marriage should be torn up. It creates false dichotomies of happiness / celibacy that fly in the face of common Christian experience.