The same-sex question

By on January 1, 1999

In spite of being stretched out over years of intense debate, the controversy about ordaining active homosexuals is closer now to confusion than consensus.

At Lambeth 1998, the African bishops took a firm stand on an invincible rock that wasn’t there. Some American bishops are putting on a kind of Wild West show by unilaterally ordaining gay and lesbians, as well as blessing same-sex unions. Meanwhile, by admitting active homosexuals to communicant membership but not to Holy Orders, the English bishops remind one of the young woman who thought herself pristine because she was only a little bit pregnant.

The reason for all this is the impossibility of finding the right answers without asking the right questions, and the need is to rephrase the debate before it is renewed.

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Instead of being absorbed by sexuality, the priority issue should be marriage. Instead of focusing on depravity, the debate should be about common human characteristics. Instead of dealing with ordination, our primary concern should be the church. What difference will changes like those make? A decisive one.

What today’s culture calls homosexuality in not a prominent concern of the Bible. Although the Bible contains no affirmation of what we now call homosexual acts and does include up to seven passages that can be cited against them, we miss the point if we focus on it as a law book to be cited in judgment. Its focus is something else.

The Bible’s priority on sexual behaviour is fidelity to the marriage bond, this relationship designed to procreate and to meet the need of both man and woman for belonging. In Scripture, sex is part of God’s purpose for people within that bond, and is contrary to that purpose outside it.

Casual sex, however heterosexual, is therefore out, and a cleric moving a girlfriend into the rectory is as much a sinner as another cohabiting with a boyfriend. So the real issue should be whether homosexuals can be given the same covenanted union opportunity that heterosexuals enjoy.

A question for the church can be this kind of concern:

Is it adequately pastoral to condemn people for favouring gay bars and seeking one-night stands if the chance of an open union based on a mutual, lifelong commitment is denied them? That granting them this opportunity could send earthquake-sized shockwaves through many parishes should not exclude the church considering this. Heterosexual marriages by clergy were such a stunning innovation in 16th-century England that Queen Elizabeth I would not acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife even existed.

It is time to find out if same-sex unions in 21st-century Canada can at least be contemplated. Even if the church is not ready to translate contemplation into immediate action, much more can be achieved by a study of this prospect than a sterile debate.

[pullquote] Three times in the past generation, our church has plowed new ground – on abortion, remarriage of divorced persons, and the ordination of women. It can at least take a look at this fresh opportunity to meet pastoral need without diluting catholic commitment. It might conclude with a renewed acceptance of tradition, but it would be more aware of why it was doing that. It might also discover how once again “new occasions teach new duties,” even when they also inspire new controversies.

To those convinced that homosexual practice is sin, same-sex unions can only make a depravity worse by cloaking it in the garment of church approval. The need here is to appreciate how sexuality is not part of original sin but part of our being created. That includes being male or female, with the vast majority of us enjoying both the ability and desire to be joined together.

But a sizable minority are motivated by the opposite orientation to the rest of humanity. Must we say that difference itself is sin?

It can lead to sin, such as exploiting others (including the young), or depersonalized purely physical sex encounters, or commercialized bought-and-paid-for sex, or sado-masochistic abuse. But each of these depraved acts is found among heterosexuals too. Promiscuity is open to men with women as much as among men with men or women with women. When half the marriages of North America break down, gays and lesbians clearly have no monopoly on unstable relationships.

Sin is thus not part of sexuality but the choice of the depraved wills all of us have and for which all need the same saviour. Sexuality is part of our humanity, not part of our fallenness.

Tradition has condemned homosexual practice, however, because it is “contrary to nature.” It is as if procreation is the one purpose of sex, but people are still sexual long after the years of child-bearing, and their desires are not contrary to nature. If a man and woman are not to be blamed for giving each other fulfilment without intending to procreate, why must we blame two men or two women for doing what is natural to them? Why there is homosexuality we do not know. Those who claim God made them that way have no more reason to make the claim than those who say Satan did it. Those who trace its origin genetically may be right, but their findings are still being studied.

All we know is some people, like some animals, have a same-sex orientation. The challenge for church and society is to find ways it can be expressed with wholesomeness, free from harassment, discrimination or opprobrium.

Can those ways include quasi-marital unions and ordination? Not if we accept the current ecclesiastical statements issued as the rationale for policy. But those statements distort the meaning of the church too much for that kind of acceptance, and the question should not go quietly away, especially when we treat the next concern seriously.

It is theologically untenable and ethically inequitable for a church to reject John Paul II’s claim that a homosexual lifestyle involves something “intrinsically evil,” but on the basis of the English bishops calling that lifestyle “less than the ideal,” make the contradictory demand that clergy set an example laity are not required to follow.

A two-tier Christianity should not be adopted now any more than it was when Cyril of Alexandria first expounded that kind of theology. The church is one community, created by baptism, and the clergy as its leaders are called to exemplify a life the laity are expected to live. So these questions must be faced: If homosexual practice is sin, why are laity free to live homosexually without judgment? If it is not sin, why are orders denied people with that orientation?

Once we conclude gays or lesbians can be saved without becoming celibate, we have given away the best reason for denying them ordination. Those who believe active gays and lesbians are headed straight for hell are being more consistent than Anglican leaders who want to open the communion rail but deny the altar to them. Basic to the whole issue is our doctrine of salvation – and with it, our doctrine of the church.

There cannot be two levels of Christian life any more than there can be two kinds of baptism. Celibacy must be demanded of all homosexuals in the church or not demanded of clerical gays and lesbians. Otherwise we are equating the church with the clergy, and treating the laity as a lesser form of Christian.

We should not ask if active homosexuals should be ordained. We should ask instead what way of life the church as a whole is expected to live. Let’s renew the debate with new questions: this time, the right ones.

Dr. Reginald Stackhouse is principal emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

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