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Equal Rights

By Alun Brookfield.

Last year, the House of Commons voted to legalise same-gender marriage. I could stand on the sidelines and say nothing because, as a Church in Wales minister, I am exempted from any requirement to carry out such marriages. However, it seems to me that all the discussions I’ve had with my fellow-clergy about this highly divisive issue have, in exactly the same way as the Commons debate and vote, been rather selective in content.

As a working minister, it appears that the only way one can come down on one side or the other of this debate is to be selective with the evidence. Therefore, in an admittedly somewhat amateurish way, I want to try to explain why I think this vote is premature and why I think that the hard-line views of some of my valued colleagues seems to me to be out of touch with the Bible, with our culture, with history and possibly even out of touch with what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.

The Bible

Arguing for or against same-gender relationships from the Bible is a bit tricky, not least because the issue only appears in a very few passages. Only one of these references could possibly be interpreted as referring to what we would describe as loving, same-gender relationships. If I were to judge by the ferocity of the opinions held on this matter, I find it surprising that either Jesus didn’t seem to think it was worth mentioning, or the four evangelists didn’t think it was worth recording.

The first biblical reference is in Genesis 19 where the blame for this destruction is often assumed to have something to do with the desire for same-gender relationships (Genesis 19.5). However, it seems clear to me that this is not about loving relationships, but about homosexual rape – a sexual act involving force and violence, which should surely be condemned alongside heterosexual rape and any other kind of violence. I conclude that this passage of Scripture cannot be used as an argument against loving, committed, same-gender relationships.

Leviticus 18.22, on the other hand, seems much more straightforward: “No man is to have sexual relations with another man; God hates that” (GNB). That seems very plain. Equally clear is Leviticus 20.13 – “If a man has sexual relations with another man, they have done a disgusting thing, and both shall be put to death”. This appears to be talking about, and condemning a consensual sexual relationship. No argument from me here – this is clearly a relevant scripture for our subject.

However, if we intend to take that injunction as being permanent law, to be imposed on those of what we now call homosexual orientation, we need to explain why we feel it appropriate to do so, but not to do so with most of the rest of the laws of Leviticus. Why do we select these verses and make them permanent, when the New Testament seems to teach very plainly that the Law of Moses was temporary and has been superseded by the ‘law’ of Christ? Why, for example, do we not make it a law that “after sexual intercourse both the man and the woman must have a bath, and they remain unclean until evening” (Leviticus 15.18)? And why do most of us use credit cards when the Law expressly forbids lending (and presumably borrowing) at interest and threatens the same penalties as for same-gender relationships?

On the day this is being written, the New Testament reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is from Galatians 5 and speaks about the fact that, because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we are no longer subject to the Old Testament Law. To make ourselves subject to that Law is to deny Christ’s death and resurrection – which I venture to suggest would not be the ambition of anyone who calls themselves Christian. Therefore, on the basis of the New Testament evidence, I do not think we can use the Old Testament Law as the basis of our rejection of loving, committed, same-gender relationships.

The third primary reference often quoted in this debate among Christians is Romans 1.24-27: “And so God has given those people over to do the filthy things their hearts desire, and they do shameful things with each other. They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever! Amen. Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions. Even the women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts. In the same way the men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passion for each other. Men do shameful things with each other, and as a result they bring upon themselves the punishment they deserve for their wrongdoing. That seems pretty conclusive!

But wait a moment. Beware eisegesis, reading back into this passage our own context, understanding, experience and prejudices. It is easy to read about men burning with passion for one another as referring to homosexual behaviour, because that’s what we expect it to mean. We expect the bit about women committing unnatural acts as being about lesbian sexual activity. I contend that that is eisegesis, not exegesis.

Remember this is a letter to Christians in Rome, a thoroughly debauched culture, in which it was not uncommon for men to have sex with their wives only for the purpose of pro-creation. We also now know that homosexual activity was very common among Roman men and that these men used boys (i.e. child sexual exploitation) in order to satisfy their lusts. But most of these men were not, by inclination, homosexual – they were heterosexual, but had deliberately adopted a gratuitous, exploitative and promiscuous lifestyle, not least because their religions required it (see Romans 1.18-24). So Paul’s condemnation is aimed at counter-sexual promiscuity, of going against one’s natural inclinations in the name of fashion and culture, leading to the horror of child sexual exploitation – a whole host of wickedness far greater than two men or two women with genuine affection sharing a sexual act together.

My conclusion, then, is that, although the Bible has something important to say to us about same-gender relationships, it is not that they should be regarded as evil. Rather, it is that they should be constrained by the same New Testament principles of love and mutual respect as any other relationships.

The Tradition

For some reason, those who held power at any level of the Christian tradition have fallen into the error of trying to control human sexuality – of thinking they had the right to control what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom. Personally, I would find it extremely offensive if anyone were to try to tell me and wife what we are and are not allowed to do when alone together. So it’s not surprising to me that the wider population regards Christians as judgemental.

A few years ago, I conducted the funeral of a churchgoer, who happened to be homosexual. When Jack (not his real name) was dying, he asked me if I would conduct his funeral. Of course, I agreed and, after his death, in order to arrange the details of the funeral, I visited the home that he and his partner Mark (also not his real name) had built together and shared for nearly 30 years. I left that home an hour or so later with tears in my eyes because I had seen with my own eyes how deep was the love between those two men and I had listened as Mark had told me the story of how appallingly they had been treated during the early years of their relationship by a minority of our local community.

A couple of years later, Mark also died, his heart broken from losing his life-long friend and lover, and we took the opportunity to affirm that this was a relationship of love, tenderness and mutual care. We also expressed a desire that, if only all relationships could be as good and loving as that of Jack and Mark, the world would be a much better place.

Should I have questioned them about or condemned them for the intimacies of their relationship? Certainly not, any more than anyone has the right to question me about mine. That is between two people who love one another and their God. I contend that the proper attitude for Christians is to encourage the development and establishment of committed, loving relationships – that’s what the Bible calls ‘righteousness’.

The opposite of this kind of righteousness is promiscuity, a lifestyle which damages everyone involved and therefore also damages the wider society of human culture. As Christians, we are quite correct not to condone promiscuity, whether homosexual, heterosexual or lesbian, because it is unrighteous – that is, it damages relationships.

The Science

Some years ago, there was a bit of a flutter of interest among the press that someone had identified a so-called “gay gene”. Tests had shown that a particular gene was shared by many, but not all, homosexual or lesbian people. The snag was, and is, that not everyone who has the gene becomes actively or even consciously homosexual or lesbian. Nor does every homosexual or lesbian have the gene. Our genetic code may predispose us to certain ways of being human, but by no means forces us to be that way. Nurture can play just as large a part as nature, so the scientists tell us.

As a result, it’s perhaps better to regard sexuality as a continuum, by which I mean that, although most human beings are decidedly heterosexual, there will be some who have the genetic capacity to go either way. Nurture will then come into play as to which they turn out to be. Some will find themselves able to be either heterosexual or homosexual (what we call bi-sexual). Yet others feel themselves to be in the wrong bodies and feel a need to live as the opposite gender to how they were born (transgendered).

Whatever our DNA, and whatever the weaknesses of our upbringing, it seems undeniable to me that God’s desire is for us to be embraced in loving relationships, but for some, that cannot be in a heterosexual relationship, because, whether it be for genetic or environmental reasons, they feel no attraction for the opposite gender. Are they therefore to be denied what the rest of us think of as a human right and entitlement? Worse still, are we going to be the ones who deny them that which the rest of us regard as fundamental to our humanity? I’m not sure that I want to be a minister of a God who would expect that.

Therefore, for this writer, homosexuality isn’t a disease to be cured, or a sin to be repented, but merely another way of being human which we are still only just beginning to understand.

The Language

What language do we use to address these issues?

For a start, we must find non-judgemental language, so all use of pejorative speech must be eschewed. Name-calling is something we’re supposed to grow out of, and it certainly behoves the Christian tradition to do so.

Perhaps we should ask those who live in same-gender relationships what they would like to be called. Their preferred label for many years has been the word ‘gay’. I would encourage them to come up with something different. I have two problems with the use of ‘gay’ in this context. First, it’s stolen a rather beautiful word from the rest of us. ‘Gay’ used to describe happy, carefree people of all sexualities. Now it almost exclusively refers to those who live in same-gender relationships. As a heterosexual man, I’m not allowed to be ‘gay’ nowadays, and frankly, I resent that!

Second, and much more seriously, the use of ‘gay’ in this context, in my view, lets the rest of us off the hook by allowing us to think that homosexual and lesbian people are happy and carefree and without problems – which then allows the rest of us to ignore them – and their problems. And that’s a shame, because they need us and we need them.

Following on from there, I suggest that we need to avoid language which carries heavy emotional baggage. I have heard the word ‘unnatural’ used to describe same-gender relationships – to which I remind the reader that it’s clearly not unnatural to those who benefit from them. Nor will it do in the 21st century to talk of homosexual sex as ‘buggery’ (a word which technically refers to and should be restricted to the act of anal rape), when consensual anal sex can be, so I am told, an extremely enjoyable form of intercourse.

Marriage

However, perhaps the most difficult word in our language in this context is ‘marriage’.

Marriage, in the Christian tradition, is a much more slippery word than most of us realise. For a start, marriage in church as part of a legally binding contract is, for the majority of the population, a fairly recent invention. Until only a couple of hundred years ago, only the wealthy and powerful, who had power and property to protect, bothered with such a complex and expensive legal process of commitment. The poor simply went to the local priest for a blessing, then set up home together.

Nevertheless, definitions of marriage revolve around such statements as: “God calls men and women to the married state so that their love may be made holy in life-long union; that they may bring up their children to grow in grace and learn to love God; and that they may honour, help and comfort one another both in prosperity and adversity” (Church in Wales Prayer Book, 1984). That’s fine, as far as it goes. It sets forth an ideal. Sadly, that ideal fails in at least one third of marriages, which end in divorce. Also, in the past, as indicated above, many marriages were more of dynastic or financial convenience than love and mutual comfort. Certainly most such marriages were not of equals – the women often had little say in the matter.

Nevertheless, it’s good to have an ideal, as long as we realise that it’s just that and no more. Marriage thus defined is a hope, something to strive after, work hard at, but there is no guarantee of its being achieved. Many so-called marriages fall below the ideal. There may be no children to bring up. The union may not succeed in being life-long. They may fall out of love, but stay together for the sake of the children.

And, of course, marriage is not the only way to make a long-term relationship. Perhaps 90% of couples who seek a church wedding live together, perhaps for many years, before seeking to seal it with a public ceremony and legally binding contract. Often, they have one or more children (and possibly some step-children) by the time they stand in church to be married by a minister. It’s not the ideal, but it’s still a valid striving towards an ideal.

And, at the risk of incurring the wrath of every other Christian believer on the planet, our traditional form of marriage is neither biblical nor Christian. I can find little in the Bible which defines marriage as does the Church in Wales prayer book. Instead, I find a lot of polygamy (and a fair few casual sexual encounters) in the Old Testament, and no mention of ‘marriage’ (in our modern, Western Christendom sense) between Joseph and Mary, let alone anyone else in the New Testament. Paul, while regularly encouraging his readers to celibacy, is blunt enough to suggest that it’s better to marry than to burn with lust – hardly a ringing affirmation of marriage! Yes, there are references to husbands and wives, but there is little to justify our traditional view of marriage as being one man with one woman for life. And don’t forget that ‘life’ in Bible times usually referred to a pretty short relationship – until the advent of modern medical practice, it was much more common for a man to outlive his wife than the other way about. So, when a marriage was contracted, it was often assumed that it would last only a few years.

It was not at all uncommon (especially in the Graeco-Roman culture of the 1st century) to marry for procreation only – husband and wife rarely ate or slept together – so is that a marriage?

Nowadays, it’s not at all uncommon for a couple to marry or re-marry in later life with no intention or possibility of procreation – the objective is purely companionship – so is that a marriage?

So can we use the word to describe a committed, permanent, loving relationship between two people of the same gender? My answer would be to sit firmly on the fence, with both ears to the ground (try it sometime!). If marriage is about loving companionship, then Yes. If it’s about procreation, then No. If it’s about sustaining a culture or ‘society’, then Perhaps, but then again, Perhaps Not.

I remain undecided about the use of the word ‘marriage’ in this context because I think we need a much longer debate. We seem to have gone from legalizing Civil Partnerships (a legitimate legal construct to enable same-gender couples to be regarded under the law as a single legal entity) to wanting to describe such a relationship as identical to a heterosexual marriage, which clearly it isn’t. The debate has not yet been had, but it urgently needs to be, simply because hasty law is almost always bad law.

The Pastoral Imperative

So what do I, as a pastor, do and say when a same-gender couple join my congregation? That’s easy – I treat them with exactly the same love and respect I show to9 everyone else in my congregations.

What if they ask me to bless their Civil Partnership in church? At the moment, I can do nothing – my Bishop will not permit me to do so. But I would, if permitted.

And what if a same-gender couple ask me if they may take the bread and wine of the Eucharist? My answer is a whole-hearted Yes, because I believe it’s not my place to judge, but to hold out Christ to them, for I believe in a God who welcomes all sinners, regardless of sexual orientation, and makes them into saints – and he did it for me, so what possible right do I have to withhold it from others?

Let the judge of all the earth do right. Amen.

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading Equal Rights by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 61 of Ministry Today, published in August 2014.

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