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"Don't Go There, Dad!": Diary of a Sex Talk

By Andrew Knowles.

The author of this article was asked to contribute to a series of study days on ‘Human Sexuality and Same Sex Relationships’. His diary takes up the story.

October 2001

It’s always nice to hear from Roger Matthews, our Bishop’s Adviser for Mission and Ministry. He’s a cheerful, youngish (to me), bearded man with a twinkle in his eye and a persuasive manner. When he asks me to contribute ‘the biblical material’ for a series of study days around the diocese, I readily accept. He seems particularly grateful. The ‘study days’ are a follow-up to A Statement by the House of Bishops: Issues in Human Sexuality. Although it was published in December 1991, it has taken us a while to get round to discussing it.

November 2001

I confide in my son Matt. At the age of 23, he’s on a year’s scholarship to Union Seminary New York, so we communicate by e-mail and phone. “I’ve been asked to contribute to some study days on homosexuality,” I say proudly. He responds tersely, “Dad, don’t go there!” I gather it’s a hot issue. At Union, 40% of the students in the year ahead of Matt are gay and the debate on the status of practising gays in ministry is fierce and frequently engaged. He’s concerned that I’ll ‘get labelled’. I assure him I won’t.

Memories and considerations:

I recall the experience of Cranmer Hall in Durham when the liturgy tutor, Michael Vasey, published Strangers and Friends, subtitled A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible. He argued out of the pain of his own life for the biblical texts to be understood in the context of the culture of their time. It was an extraordinarily divisive issue in the college. My friend Robert Song was the ethics tutor at Cranmer and Michael Vasey the best man at Robert’s wedding. When I blithely asked Robert to summarise the arguments, he said earnestly: “Andy, it has seared the soul of the college!”

When John Gladwin became Bishop of Guildford, his enthronement service was disrupted by ‘Outrage’ at the very moment he was being seated on his cathedra. Unphased, he departed from the text of his sermon to say to the demonstrators, “I hear you!” He later preached at the controversial service for Gay and Lesbian Christians in Southwark Cathedral where he was as challenging as he was compassionate.

December 2001

Matt is home and comes with me to speak at a deanery synod meeting. The topic is ‘Human Sexuality’ and we decide to give some of the material a dry run. Matt not only contributes to the discussion (lowering the average age of the participants by some decades), but gives me a seminar on the journey home. “You play it very safe, Dad. But at college I find I can’t say to gays, ‘The way you’re behaving doesn’t compute with me’, because I haven’t yet conveyed to them just how much I like and respect them as individuals.”

Christmas Day

Two of our dearest friends come to lunch: a gay couple who have been together for thirteen years. They feel it acutely when just one of them is invited somewhere alone - especially if it’s a well-meaning bishop trying to get a few singles together for a social. With my study days in mind, it occurs to me to ask them ‘what they do’, but my daughter (Hannah, youth worker, age 26) quickly puts me right. “Dad, you’ll do nothing of the sort. They don’t ask you what you do!”

February 2002

The Bishop of Chelmsford, John Perry, writes to all his clergy to invite them to the study days. He promises ‘substantial input’ from the Canon Theologian. I start to receive letters and e-mails with recommendations for my reading, campaigning literature from various camps (I can see double entendre is going to be impossible to avoid) and directions to an assortment of web-sites. Roy Clements’ name catches my eye.

I attend the Planning Group for the study days, which has both ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ representatives. Chaired by Roger Matthews, it has produced a mass of material to inform participants and facilitate subsequent discussion in the parishes. The result is a resource book worthy of a PhD submission, but it’s the members of the planning group who interest me. With their work virtually completed, they seem at last ready to engage with each other at a deeper level of respect and trust. I see the benefit of this shared journey and covet the process for the whole church.

Easter 2002

In New York for a few days, I attend a seminar at Union with Matt. It’s the twelfth of a series on Sexuality, tutored by Randal Myers who visits fortnightly from North Carolina. There is talk of ‘Queer Theology’, sexual roles and social conditioning. A video clip from Paris is burning shows a gay fashion show and discusses the longing of gay people to reconcile their outward appearance with their inner sense of identity. I think of the inclusiveness and boundary-breaking nature of the Gospel. This debate’s been on the road a long time.

April 2002

Time to set down some thoughts. The reading is potentially vast, but the proof-texts are few in number. Little has been said that’s new in the last twenty years. I decide to review the most frequently cited texts: the sin of Sodom, the prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus, the requirement of priests to be ritually clean, the friendship of David and Jonathan ... and in the New Testament, the denunciation of homosexuality by Paul in his letter to the Romans and his inclusion of gay practice in his ‘lists’ of ungodly behaviour in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.

Ahead of all these passages, it seems to me, comes the Creation story and the emphasis on humans as made in the image of God: made for a one-anotherness which reflects the Trinity. Paul harks back to God’s creative intention when he talks of people rebelling against the Creator and so behaving grossly. For him, ‘natural’ behaviour is not what any particular society finds acceptable, but what God originally intended. There’s the evidence of our own bodies - the way we fit together sexually. But what about the evident variety of nature and temperament and personality - and orientation? What about those many people who, as a simple fact of their life, find themselves to be gay?

I turn my attention to the Gospels. Suddenly so many episodes seem relevant and helpful. The ability of Jesus to accept and challenge, to offer forgiveness and freedom, to recognise penitence and uncover hypocrisy is breathtaking and exhilarating.

I decide to take an episode from each gospel. From Mark, the rich young man whom Jesus challenges about materialism - but he does so in love (Mark 10:21). From Luke, the prostitute who gate-crashes the Pharisee’s dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Jesus neither shrinks from her action nor disowns her. He movingly accepts her hair and perfume, tears and kisses, commends her faith and gives her peace (Luke 7:50). From John, the episode of the woman taken in adultery, where Jesus spares her life, but commands her to mend her ways (John 8:11). And from Matthew? One of Matt’s (‘straight’) friends has e-mailed me Jesus’ reference to eunuchs. Apparently ‘eunuchs’ were sometimes associated with homosexuals in the thinking of the Early Church. I haven’t heard this before and can’t find corroborating evidence. But the thought is suggestive: that our sexual attitudes, orientation and behaviour may be genetically received, socially conditioned, or consciously chosen - and that God knows all about it (Matthew 19:12).

In Acts, the Ethiopian travelling home from Jerusalem has found himself barred from parts of the temple. But he has come away with some literature - the passage in Isaiah which speaks of someone ‘cut off’ and ‘without descendants’. The evangelist Philip is able to show him how Jesus Christ welcomes all who turn to him, and the distinguished official is readily baptised (Acts 8:38). Indeed, the Acts shows a succession of individuals and groups who would be excluded from Judaism being welcomed into the fellowship of the Gospel.

May 2002

The study days are upon me and fortunately my sense of humour comes to the rescue. The short-hand entry in my diary, ‘Sex in Barking’, sounds like a discreet category at Cruft’s. At each venue people are prayerful and attentive, open to hear from God and each other. On each occasion, two gay Christians narrate something of their life journey and discipleship - one asking for homosexual partners to be recognised by the church, one telling how he eventually found companionship in a heterosexual marriage, one advocating an admittedly gay, but celibate lifestyle. No-one, at least at these meetings, claims to be ‘healed’.

In my own contribution I suggest that the debate polarises around two points: Abuse and Grace. The Old Testament is clearly against confusion and abuse of God’s created order: there are laws for hygiene, boundaries, decency and reverence. The priests are expected to be conspicuously good examples of the holy life. And yet Jesus comes with something much more subtle and liberating: challenge in love; freedom to choose to change. And in the Acts, the struggle continues to discern and challenge prejudice and to realise the perfect freedom of Christ.

The ‘big issue’ is to discover the truth together in love. Christians of whatever sexual orientation must be on the same side in seeking this truth. It is folly to fall out over this, as though some of us are failing Christians and others not. A cursory glance at the Old Testament laws is enough to convince us that truth has to travel across ages and cultures. To discover its meaning and relevance for us here and now is both our duty and our joy. “Don’t go there”? I’m glad that we have to! And for discussion: What will our church look like if we ‘get it right’?

The Revd Canon Andrew Knowles is Canon Theologian in the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford.

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You are reading "Don't Go There, Dad!": Diary of a Sex Talk by Andrew Knowles, part of Issue 26 of Ministry Today, published in October 2002.

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