*That* Letter from the LGBT Anglican Coalition

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 don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop. It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’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 Rosemary CHN, representing Religious Communities, explained in a debate in General Synod in 2004:

‘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 marriage…

‘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 grace… 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.

‘Christians who are happily married can bear witness to the way in which a partner’s love can be both a means of grace and a school of the Lord’s service: a channel of God’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.’

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 that commitment 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 future happiness – that is denied to the gay person.  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 the wilful union of a man and a woman who choose to love each other.

Of course, in defending the validity of marriage for “homosexuals”, 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 “homosexuals” 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 … I don’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. 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 God’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.

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9 Comments on “*That* Letter from the LGBT Anglican Coalition

  1. Thank you for this essay—very well done! I had not thought about these issues in this way before, and it is exciting to read something that stretches the mind while also strengthens the soul.

    GC

  2. Evening Peter,

    perhaps predictably, I’d like to offer a comment or two on this.

    First I’d note that your comment seems to me to have the same flaw as the LGBT Anglican Coalition’s letter – both personalise what RW said as though he had been giving a personal view on the question. But in fact (I suggest) he says what he does simply because it’s still the current official teaching of the C of E, and as Archbishop (and given what he’s said in more than one interview about his modus operandi on the ‘gay debate’) he couldn’t with integrity say anything else. So I’m slightly bemused about why both you and the Coalition (seems odd to type that and not be meaning the government!) write as you do.

    OK, so that’s a pedant’s quibble to start ;)

    …more substantially I’d risk suggesting you’re misreading in a place or two. “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” – but I’m not sure he’s actually widening it out that far. Isn’t it at least as likely that he is simply paraphrasing part of the argument of Issues in human sexuality – the bit where it justifies the policy that clergy can’t have sexually-active same-sex relationships but lay people can? Also, as a slight aside at this point: I note that RW says “Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop”. That seems to me to imply that RW takes it that gender and sexuality are both “about who and what they are” – but from your angle isn’t it problematic to parallel gender and sexuality in such a way?

    Another place I’m risking the suggestion that you’re misreading is when you say, “What is being claimed is that it is not acceptable to demand celibacy of those who are not married”. But I’d put to you that nowhere do the text of the letter or Sister Rosemary’s words say this. Sr Rosemary contrasts celibacy “as call and gift” with “forced celibacy” – and it’s the latter that she says can be, for some, a “misery”. So if anything, what’s being claimed is that it is not acceptable to demand celibacy (of clergy) simply because they are gay. Also, Sr Rosemary’s words do not say “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””. She says this of a section of the “Some” gay clergy she speaks of, who “have reluctantly accepted celibacy as an imposed discipline” – “Some of these… For others…”. The Coalition’s letter is not quoting her words as a sideswipe against any / all celibacy, and does not seem to me to be saying “that chastity damages people”.

    You also write that “no evidence is provided as to what that commitment should be” – but in the Coalition’s second paragraph they ask RW for clarity vis-a-vis “those in loving life-long but celibate relationships”. That may not fully answer your objection (?) but it’s there. It’s hard to avoid the impression that you’re not being charitable enough to read attentively – an impression reinforced in the penultimate paragraph when you say, “By presenting this option [celibate close friendship] as being removed from those who cannot enter sexual relationships…” – it’s not clear how you infer this from the letter. Similarly in the last paragraph of your text: “In that ambiguity it raises the possibility of suggesting that the Church of England doctrine of marriage should be torn up”. Again, what basis is there in the Coalition’s letter for claiming this?

    Thank you for linking back to the thread on Jonathan Mills’s work – it’s helpful to see your clear exposition of his argument, and the cogent criticism it received from several folk. Given that I won’t drone on here as this post is quite long enough…

    Will just end by saying I agree fully that “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”.

    in friendship, Blair

    • Hi Blair,

      Yes, I think you might be right that Rowan's letter draws on the language of Issues. That said, Issues itself makes it very clear that the "correct" doctrine is no sex outside of marriage for laity or clergy, but that some laity might disagree with it and in conscience engage in such activity. Clergy on the other hand may not dissent from this orthopraxis.

      As to whether the GLBT Coalition present a unified model as to what relationships they are advocating, just because they mention celibate relationships doesn't mean they think that's all that should be permitted. As it happens I think a good case can be made for the likes of Dr Jeffrey John becoming a Bishop (though there are still one or two issues), but this is not really what the letter is about. There is, as yet, no coherent model of committed relationship being promoted. For the GLBT Alliance to adopt formally Dr John's "Permanent, Stable, Faithful" model they would have to explicitly reject the "Brief and Loving Sexual Encounter" of Changing Attitude et al.

      I think you're wrong in your interpretation of Sister Rosemary. While she is talking about specific people who abstain from sexual relationships, I cannot see how such analysis of the consequences should not apply to those others who are voluntarily / involuntarily celibate. Unless we are arguing that sexual activity is some kind of fundamental god-given right, we cannot argue that in certain cases celibacy leads to a diminution of the self and the ability to love. That is so condescending to the specific people referred to the wider group of those who are celibate.

      And where is this "celibacy only for those with the gift of celibacy" nonsense from anyway? As if God only calls people to certain choices when he has already fully equipped and prepared them for it. For example, would you say that God gave me the "gift of having child die" to prepare me for that experience? Or is God somehow unfair to take away from me my child without giving me the gift in the first place? No, of course not, and the same applies to celibacy.

  3. Hello Peter,

    just a few responses to yours above.

    As you say, "Issues itself makes it very clear that the “correct” doctrine is no sex outside of marriage for laity or clergy, but that some laity might disagree with it and in conscience engage in such activity". But the snag with this is that it's an inherently unstable position, surely? If lay people can conscientiously enter committed same-sex sexual relationships, why not clergy also? Is there a reason (other than church politics) why there's one rule for clergy and one for laity in this area, where there isn't in others, e.g. divorce (…correct me if that's wrong)? Or I guess it could be put the other way – if clergy can't be in SS sexual relationships, how is it permissible for lay folk? Not necessarily seeking answers for all of those… but I think it's key that Issues (and therefore the C of E's current teaching) doesn't stand on stable ground. If that's so then the current position will have to change – in whichever direction – inevitably.

    You may be right that the Coalition doesn't present a "unified model" of what kind of relationship it's advocating, though I'm not sure how serious a flaw that is – and I don't think that licenses an uncharitable reading of what they say. But I accept that it would good if this were clarified.

    On Sr Rosemary's words I note that your comment above doesn't quote anything that she says. At the risk of reading uncharitably myself, I wonder if this is because it's rather difficult to support your reading… You "cannot see how such analysis of the consequences should not apply to those others who are voluntarily / involuntarily celibate", but Sr Rosemary refers to people like herself, who "treasure celibacy as call and gift"; "some gay clergy" who have accepted imposed celibacy and nonetheless found "grace" through struggling with this; and "others" (ie other gay clergy) for whom compulsory celibacy is simply "misery". These distinctions mean, I suggest, that what Sr Rosemary said about part of one group of people cannot be applied to anyone at all who is celibate. I'd add that those distinctions also mean that 'celibacy only for those with the gift of celibacy' is not an accurate summary of what she said (so I don't accept the parallel in your last paragraph). I think a more accurate summary would be, 'there should not be compulsory celibacy for gay clergy simply because they're gay'.

    "Unless we are arguing that sexual activity is some kind of fundamental god-given right, we cannot argue that in certain cases celibacy leads to a diminution of the self and the ability to love". This seems a non-sequitur to me: from the observation that compulsory celibacy for one group leads to "misery" for some of those people, it doesn't follow that what's being argued for is a "god-given right" to sex. (It would only follow if it were being argued that celibacy is always and everywhere damaging and a blockage to flourishing, wouldn't it? – which isn't what Sr Rosemary or the Coalition say). Or turning it round: are you arguing that celibacy, whether imposed or freely vowed, can never be damaging to anyone?

    As you said in original piece, "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". I suggest that disagreement over this pivotal question is what's behind the Coalition and Sr Rosemary's words, not an assumption / argument that there's a "fundamental god-given right" to sex.

    in friendship, Blair

  4. Hi again,

    reading through the effusions above I need to correct something – when I said "These distinctions mean, I suggest, that what Sr Rosemary said about part of one group of people cannot be applied to anyone at all who is celibate", I meant "cannot be applied to everybody who's celibate".

    Blair

  5. I believe we have a small misunderstanding here which is creating a larger one.

    Blair, you say:
    “Issues itself makes it very clear that the “correct” doctrine is no sex outside of marriage for laity or clergy, but that some laity might disagree with it and in conscience engage in such activity”. But the snag with this is that it’s an inherently unstable position, surely? If lay people can conscientiously enter committed same-sex sexual relationships, why not clergy also?

    First of, “conscientiously” does not necessarily mean that what one decides to do is right, or accords with the church’s teachings; rather it’s simply what an individual’s conscience allows one to do (without considering other values outside of that person’s conscience). I.e., a person may conscientiously take another person’s life for any number of reasons that people have taken lives without feeling compunction – it is the life of an unborn person unwanted by the mother; it is the life of an old person who is in excruciating pain; it is an enemy combattant on the battlefield; etc. etc..

    Many persons do, in good conscience, enter into sexual relationships which are not endorsed by Christian teaching – this is, of course, not limited to LGBT people.

    Ministers of Christ do not all feel called upon to handle sexual issues amongst their parishoners in the same way. For example, an unchurched person seeking church fellowship who makes known that he/she is having an extra-marital affair, in some churches, will likely be immediately advised by the pastor that this not in accordance with God’s will. In other churches, the pastor may first dwell on other issues of faith, endeavoring to help the person’s general relationship with God in faith and prayer, before bringing up the issue of adultery. And in some churches, this might never become an issue, and considered “a private matter.” It is worth noting that different practices have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages, and it’s not helpful in an a priori manner to judge churches which are generally “stricter” in practice than “less strict” churches as “better” or “worse.” One really needs to examine the entire context, and recognize the different patterns of expectation, communication, etc. etc..

    We all have the sexual proclivities we have at the point of life where we find ourselves; we all have our relationships with God in the manner we have them, in whatever manners we may be close to, or distant from, God. Churches do not tend to impose unitary means of discussing and dealing with a person’s spiritual life.

    A person who is engaged in a sexual relationship contrary to the teaching of the church is in need of guidance and spiritual nourishment, which might not, at the very beginning of the encounter, bring to fore the issues of sexuality.

    Likewise, very few things are absolutely, unmitigatedly evil. Every sexual relationship contrary to church’s teachings will bring along with it certain pleasures, and other experiences which can be pleasing, or in some way be describable with the words Sr. Rosemary uses: “a means of grace and a school of the Lord’s service: a channel of God’s love to them and through them.” I have known men involved in adulterous affairs who described their affairs in this manner; and men who are involved in sexual relationships with young children are also effusive in how edifying and grace-filled such relationships are. There is some element of “natural grace” wherever one looks – including activities which God condemns. This is also true of taking life or engaging in racist or orientation-based bullying.

    It remains tremendously important that we are critical when using language which appeals to our highest values – love, God’s law, holiness, “the sacred,” etc. etc.. Such language can be abused for evil ends, as we see sometimes in various sects which, at times, lead to tragic consequences. Our society, at the moment, is particularly obsessed with “love” and that which is “charitable” or “compassionate” when it comes to ethical discourse – we use the term quite liberally for situations where previous generations would have appealed to “the good,” or to what virtue, “civilized sentiment,” or “humanity” compels us. This comes from our tendency to “internalize” ethics and our attempt to find some unimpeachable ground within the subject (i.e., the individual conscience and consciousness), given our general lack of consensus regarding ethical paradigms. But the same postmodern situation which has effectively brought us to lose confidence in most ethical paradigms has also shown us the deconstruction of the subject – that individual conscience and consciousness – and demonstrated how it alone also forms no stable basis for an understanding of being or of ethics. We must recognize that when we speak of “love,” we are speaking of many different things. And it is essential that our vision of “love” is informed by God and Holy Scripture.

    In order to see what can occur with uncritical use of the word “love” in discourse, one can look at the history of the sect known as The Children of God, known today as The Family International. This uncritical use led the sect to employ sexual means for evangelism, known as “flirty fishing,” and eventually even to advocate sexual experiences between parents and their children, as early as infancy. This love was experienced by members as being a God-given grace which prudish, restrictive, stigma-prone society refused to acknowledge, and forbade; with frequent acclamations of “Praise God!” etc. etc.. in describing the joys of this type of heightened intimacy and intensity of relationship. The intensity of these relationships between these adults and young children was in many ways much more profound than is the case between adults and young children in a non-sexual relationship, and as such, many “gifts” were discovered which, of course, were “denied” for those who “stigmatized” them.

    Nonetheless, we must point out that even though positive things may be experienced in sexual relationships which are forbidden by Scripture, and means of giving, communicating, and even edifying which would not be possible without such relationships, that this type of sexual relationship is, nonetheless, contrary to God’s will.

    In a postmodern society, it is utterly essential that we are critical when using the word “love,” and not using it too loosely. We are particularly susceptible, in our current cultural paradigm, to confusing love with sexual arousal. Those who are in need of loving contacts are much more likely, than in previous generations, to seek sexually charged experiences; and we are more likely to assume that our sexually charged experiences are signs of a deeper-lying relationship without actually taking the steps to ground such a relationship. This leads to greater loneliness, sexual addiction, and what some describe as “emotional anorexia.”

  6. Hello James,

    only saw your post above yesterday, so this may be too late, but I read it with increasing frustration. Am slightly calmer now so hope the following is not uncharitable, but also that you'll tell me if it is…

    Your quote from me includes Peter's words summarising 'Issues'. I don't have a copy of it to hand, I admit, and Google Books only lets you see up to pg 6. So I can't check this as I'd like to – but my point in previous comments was that 'Issues' is ambiguous, that it sets out an unstable teaching. (It presents itself as a discussion document, "which we do not pretend to be the last word on the subject", wrote George Carey in the Preface – but it now seems to be taken as part of the C of E's current official teaching). It does not, if I'm understanding rightly, say that it's against church teaching for lay people to enter faithful same-sex partnerships – but rather says positively that this is permissible. Jeffrey John, in Permanent, faithful, stable says that 'Issues' "at certain points hovers on the edge of acceptance, urging congregations to accept and support Christians who conscientiously believe themselves to be called to live in faithful partnership" ('PFS' p2). So I am risking the suggestion that the misunderstanding here is yours: the word 'conscientiously' is not being used as you suggest it is, by me or (I'll risk saying) in 'Issues'. It's not that "it’s simply what an individual’s conscience allows one to do (without considering other values outside of that person’s conscience)", but that as a result of discernment, study, weighing up, conversation, prayer, etc etc, one comes to a decision.

    Reading your post again I am wondering who you're addressing – you begin by quoting part of a comment of mine but given the rest of your comment I'm taking it that you're addressing a position that's much wider than simply what I said above. But if that's right who holds the view you're challenging – who do you consider yourself to be addressing – and why do you not quote any named person or organisation? Who is it for instance who is not being "critical when using language which appeals to our highest values"?

    Also why are taking a life in various different contexts, and parent-child sex, suitable analogies for adult same-sex sex? Similarly I cannot see why it's relevant that there have been "men involved in adulterous affairs who described their affairs in this manner; and men who are involved in sexual relationships with young children are also effusive in how edifying and grace-filled such relationships are". Assuming this is true, I don't imagine that the betrayed spouses or young children involved would be quite so "effusive" – and I'm sure you don't either. But in the case of adult Christian same-sex relationships it's both partners (and often enough others around them) who are testifying that the relationship is a means of grace. Jeffrey John in 'PFS' quotes 'Issues' saying that there are gay couples "who grow steadily in fidelity and mutual caring, understanding and support, whose partnerships are a blessing to the world around them, and who achieve great, even heroic sacrifice and devotion". I don't suppose there's a church document with any such words about adulterous affairs or sex with young children.

    I agree entirely with you that "it is utterly essential that we are critical when using the word “love”", and that "it is essential that our vision of “love” is informed by God and Holy Scripture". I'd guess that where we disagree is over whether faithful same-sex relationships are in accord with Scripture and God's will or not.

    in friendship, Blair

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