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INTRODUCTION The bulk of the Commission’s report sets out a rationale for the Anglican Church to conduct samesex marriages and, if that is not feasible, to conduct same-gender blessings. The objections to that rationale occupy much less space. This critique will help redress that imbalance. The unity of the Church and its acceptability overseas as a church that supports overseas mission are in peril. It is time to speak forthrightly in support of the clear scriptural witness about the sinfulness of homosexual acts and the position adopted without dissension by Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches alike for nearly two thousand years.
DISENFRANCHISEMENT? Since the Doctrine Commission’s Report was delivered the Ma Whea? Commission has elaborated several ways forward. It labels the historic belief and practice of the Christian church the “traditionalist” view”. That adjective itself tends to suggest that the attitude so labelled is suspect because old-fashioned and not in accordance with modern thinking. It is simply wrong to imply that a position held by the church and its theologians of different stripes for centuries is likely to be wrong just because it is old. Ma Whea states that adopting this view, here called the orthodox view, of the circumstances in which genital sexual activity is to be approved by the Church would lead to the ‘disenfranchisement”(with all the emotive freight which that word carries)of those in committed same-gender relationships. It would also, so it is said, lead to their “marginalisation”. This is misleading. In the language of the title of Stanley Grenz’s book, there is a wide consensus among orthodox(including but by no means limited to evangelical) Christians that the Church must be Welcoming But Not Affirming of those in sexual relationship but not married to each other. They are to be loved. They must be accepted as individual believers. They must be encouraged to participate in God’s mission. The same holds for those who are in an adulterous relationship. But their relationship is not to be approved by pronouncing God’s blessing over it. Gay people in active sexual relationship are be treated with loving care, pastorally assisted and welcomed in services of worship. There is no “marginalisation” here. The orthodox approach needs to be accurately stated. Unfortunately, it often is not. The Doctrine Commission, for its part, does not bother to summarise the practical and pastoral position adopted by Anglicans of orthodox persuasion correctly.
SCRIPTURE Our Church acknowledges the authority of the scriptures for its belief and practice. The fundamental clauses of the Constitution make the supreme place which the scriptures hold abundantly clear. The rationale advanced by the Doctrine Commission ultimately comes down to saying that the Commission is faced with a situation-the existence of long term committed gay relationships-with which the scriptures do not deal. This “silence of scripture” argument fails in its first premise –as will later be demonstrated. The Commission claims that arguments for same gender marriages and blessings are a “faithful response to scripture”. Notice its covert move from the claim that the scriptures don’t deal with the 1
supposedly modern phenomenon of same-gender relationships which the parties to them claim to be “permanent” to contending that a “change in practice is required by the revelation of God”. Such revelation must logically be either derived from the scriptures or be extra-scriptural. If it is extrascriptural, what is its source? The Commission does not directly say. The Commission comes very close to saying that if society now approves of something that something is “required by the revelation of God”. The absurdity of such a proposition is self-evident and its danger to clear and distinctive Cristian teaching and practice must be reckoned as huge. If on the other hand the revelation of God is asserted to be something contained in the Word of God, we must ask how can scripture simultaneously require X but not deal with X? This is self-contradictory. The place of reason is vaunted in Anglicanism. Good reasoning is not self-contradictory.
THE PEOPLE SPEAK The Commission often states what people in same-gender relationships “report.” It relies on these reports as backing for the statement, that would admittedly be very significant if it were true, that “God is blessing the same gender relationships” (see, notably, B1.1.1)Who are these people? How are they being blessed? In mission? In Christian service? In lives amply demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit? Or just in increased sense of personal wellbeing? We are entitled to demand further and better particulars before concluding that the blessing argument is persuasive, let alone virtually conclusive. No particulars are provided by the Commission. The typical way in which God blesses happily married heterosexual couples is by providing them with a family, and providing the children of the marriage with the love of both a mother and father, security, encouragement, and the guidance on life matters that a male and a female parent can each separately provide. Some of those advantages, for which Christian parents delight to give thanks, are not possible with gay parents, others no doubt are. For many gay parents, one suspects, the “blessings” are reaped by themselves-an enhanced sense of acceptance by church and community. But in centuries –old Christian understanding-it is far from an uniquely Anglican insight- God’s blessing falls also upon the children and indirectly the community and their school which help to nurture them, not just on the parents of the family. Contrast the Commission’s report, B.3.2.2.
INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE The Commission’s main argument is that the Bible does not directly address the situation with which we are presently confronted. See, for example, B 1.2.3. The fact is that it plainly does. For this purpose we must assume that a committed same-gender relationship is one which amongst other things is characterised by sexual acts. Any other assumption would be unrealistic and naïve. There is no getting round the fact that the scriptures, while nowhere condemning homosexuality as such, condemn homosexual acts as sinful and wrong. Therefore the scriptures do have a strong message for us-unless of course we arrogantly think that we know better. Several arguments have been used by would-be reformers over the years to get around, or blunt, the univocal message of the scriptures. They have all been blown out of the water. How does the Commission deal with the detailed scholarly refutation of those arguments(like, for example, that there is no express reference in Romans to committed same-gender-relations, or the assertion that “natural” is to be subjectively understood?)It does so by ignoring the refutations and proceeding as if the strong counter-arguments are not worthy of being mentioned, or if mentioned at all, very 2
dismissively. There is thus no reference to the Rev Dr Brett Cane’s readable summary, ”The Bible and Homosexuality”(reproduced in Wellington Diocese’s Reader Part 1).There is no reference to William Webb’s ground-breaking Slaves, Women and Homosexuals(IVP,2001).Nor is there any reference to the insightful discussion by Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, leading to the conclusion by that eminent ethicist that “…in view of the considerable uncertainty surrounding the scientific and experiential evidence, in view of our culture’s present swirling confusion about gender roles, in view of our propensity for self-deception, I think it prudent and necessary to let the univocal testimony of Scripture and the Christian tradition order the life of the church on this painfully controversial matter. We must affirm that the New Testament tells us the truth about ourselves as sinners and as God’s sexual creatures: marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfilment, and homosexuality among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose.” (pp.399-400).
WE MUST BE INCLUSIVE
If one shouts this slogan, without thought or elaboration, all the ranks of Tuscany will scarce forbear to cheer. We all know and accept the importance of not distinguishing between people in the church. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We must unreservedly welcome people of all races, adulterers, habitual drunkards, children of all ages and, by no means least, practising as well as celibate homosexuals. We include them in worship and fellowship. To the extent we have fallen down in this regard, we must immediately repent and reform. The separate question remains whether we should approve of sinful relationships. Jesus rescued the woman taken in adultery but certainly did not approve of her lifestyle: he told her that she was to go and sin no more. The majority view in the Commission never refers expressly to sin but always to the more positivesounding concepts-blessing, fulfilment, acceptance and the like. It seems to have embarked on a campaign to dismiss sin from our theological understanding. Sin comes back in the traditionalist challenge to the liberal reading of Romans in C 126.96.36.199 and of course there is some rather good authority that if say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. The New Testament is full of references to sin and repentance. There are also many passages which speak of failure to inherit the kingdom of God, exclusion in extreme cases from the church and church discipline generally, and of leaders demonstrating and so modelling their faith in their family lives and by their personal examples. When one asks the ordinary church member what the blessing of a same-gender relationship would signify, the answer regularly given is: it means that the church approves the relationship that is being blessed. This elementary understanding is surely correct. How else could a blessing ceremony (whatever the exact wording of the prayers used) be understood? It is here that the Commission perplexingly maintains a stolid silence. But if indeed homosexual acts (not of course homosexuality as such) are sinful, how can the church approve, and be seen to approve, a relationship which, we assume, regularly involves acts of which God disapproves? This is where the rubber meets the road. The Commission flies overhead in the equivalent of a helicopter which touches down only occasionally.
The Commission does not refer to adultery but it provides an instructive analogy. The analogy is not perfect as adulterous acts very often harm others and homosexual acts per se do not. People quite frequently turn up for worship who are, and often enough known to be, involved in a long –term and “permanent” committed relationship. No Anglican church turns them away, even though there is not the slightest desire on their part to cease their relationship. Nor would any of us urge or counsel them to part, unless perhaps there were other complicating factors. But does that mean that a parish priest can and should solemnly bless their relationship, and by blessing it, signify the Church’s approval as well as God’s blessing? Surely not. And why not? Because Old and New Testaments are as clear as a bell: “Thou shall not commit adultery.” It is unthinkable that we should approve what is so roundly condemned as sinful and wrong. But here is the pinch. In condemning adultery no text goes on to say: Please remember that this command applies to long-term relationships and really affectionate relationships as well as to temporary relationships and onenight stands lacking the reality, or expectation, of a relationship that will endure over time. We would not conclude from that omission that the texts were “silent” or, in the Commission’s language, “simply do not address”, the question of long-term committed relationship. Adultery is plainly wrong in both contexts. The Bible is at many points easy to interpret, requiring no erudite controversy. Adulterous acts and homosexual acts are alike prohibited. It follows that we should formally approve neither. When the Crimes Act criminalised, very unfortunately as most of us now think, what it called “indecency between males”, and sodomy even more severely, it did not distinguish between the circumstances in which the indecency was committed. Any lawyer in those days who advanced the defence that the participants were committed to each other, in fact in a long-term permanent relationship with each other and “therefore the law does not apply,” would have been laughed out of court. It is sound hermeneutics to be sophisticated about the inferences, if any, to be drawn from silence.
COUNTERCULTURALISM If we stand back from the present controversy and enquire what is basically driving the two sides of the debate, we shall probably conclude that it is the issue of the proper relationship between the Christian faith and the Church on the one hand, and the prevailing culture on the other. As society changes, must the Church inevitably change with it? The Commission side-steps this issue completely. It instead assumes that as moral views change so should the considered teaching of the church. “Advocates say…it is time to allow change.” Perhaps in another few years’ time, it will be time to allow polygamy? Does this mean-it certainly seems to concede-that the Anglican Church in this province should take pains to adjust to changes, adopting each societal change as a sufficient justification for change in the church’s teaching? And is that so no matter how wisely and perhaps unpopularly that teaching has been proclaimed against an increasingly hedonistic and selfish, consumerist society in the past? The church has often made the greatest impact, and increased in number when it has stood against the society around it. In the first century, for example, the early church stood against the pressure to worship the emperor: in the church’s earliest creed the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” contained the implicit and infuriating implication that Caesar was not lord, and would not be worshipped: the followers of Jesus would be loyal citizens of the state to the greatest extent possible but there was a line that would not be crossed. When Bishop Tom Wright was in this country a few years ago he drove home the message that Christians are not uniformly against the culture of their times by 4
which they are necessarily influenced but they must also, like the early Christians, know when to insist that the surrounding mores will not be permitted to overawe and silence them.
NEW ARGUMENTS The debate on same-sex blessings and marriage and on the acceptability of ordaining those in an active same gender relationship has gone on for years. Many have gone through the same territory repeatedly. Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that instead of rehearsing the several arguments advanced internationally on both sides of the issues the Commission has turned to plough some previously untouched territory. Some of the new arguments it advances are even harder to accept than the liberal arguments that have been heard, treated with respect but rebutted in the past. Three may be mentioned briefly. First, procreation, if not the purpose of marriage, is one of its ends, though all of course acknowledge that not all marriage partners can or will choose to procreate. Same-sex partners cannot procreate. This is not of any relevance, says the Commission, because they can, like Mother Theresa, lead a “spiritually procreative” life. Therefore, presumably, this shows that a homosexual relationship must be of equal value with a married relationship in the sight of God. This is a classic example of unhelpful spiritualisation of a biblical concept, “Procreate” is an ordinary English word and there is no need to stretch its meaning unbearably. If we are to assess Mother Theresa’s remarkable service, we have plenty of ways to describe what she did, and sober description will be more helpful to your average Christian than flights of mysterious talk that only other theologians have a hope of understanding. Secondly, B 4.6.3 in the Commission’s report refers to marriage as a “sanctifying discipline” There is, incidentally, no reference to the work of the Holy Spirit at this point. The Commission thinks that same-gender marriage has a theological rationale that supports it. It points to the existence of “religious households” and argues:”…given that may other religious households are single-sex, why not the married household?” This is desperate strained reasoning. Only a very abstract thinker indeed would call a monastic community a “household”. And even if we can swallow that, the members of religious same-sex “households” do not (so one hopes) expect to have sex with one another, and such a practice is strongly prohibited in every monastic order. The Holy Spirit does not sanctify us through sex. Sex in its proper context, marriage, is a wonderful gift from God. Thirdly, there is an obscure argument based on the novel concept of “re-membering” in B 4.6.4. This moves to “valid re-membering”. As it is almost impossible to understand it is impossible to evaluate.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM The contest between essentialism and social constructivism is a mainstay of later twentieth century philosophical argument. An essentialist believes that there are some essential features about marriage. They derive from the Genesis account and include the notion that marriage is always between a man and a woman. Christians of all persuasions have until very recently been essentialists: wedding customs change, as do the precise obligations of the married partners to each other, and much else. A social constructivist, on the other hand, proclaims that “marriage” is, like “royal power”, just the name given to a relationship which society finds useful and so constructs; this will change from one society to another and within the same society in different eras. Let us go on constructing to suit ourselves. If it looks as if secular society will be happier if we now vary our
construction, let us by all means do so. Let us do so in the name of equality and to reduce “discrimination”-witness the redefinition of “marriage” by the New Zealand parliament in 2013. The Commission is not a whole-hogging social constructivist. In B 5.1.4 it states that “Marriage is in large measure, a cultural invention.” Well, then, we are entitled to respond, in what respects exactly is it not a cultural invention? Are those respects able to be listed differently from time to time? By whom? By a subsequent learned Commission? We can only guess the answers because on this philosophical point the Commission is more interested in stating conclusions than in delving into the reasons that support them.
GIVE IT A GO The Commission advocates giving the blessing of same sex relationships a go. Bless them and later evaluate whether God is really blessing those who have been blessed in the name of God in a formal Church rite. It no doubt accords with a strand in our culture to give something “a whirl”: you will get a better idea whether something is a good idea if you try it out in practice. It is hard to believe that this advice is seriously advanced in the case of the same-gender blessings proposal. Once such blessings are introduced in our church they will be here to stay, and in a few years the pressure for same-sex marriages will inevitably follow: if we yield an inch we are gone. In any event, on what criteria will the success of the experiment be conducted, and who will conduct it? The chance that our Church would ever say that it made a mistake in 2014 is about nil. And why should the Church turn its back on centuries of unanimous church practice on a merely experimental basis, when it is known that to do so risks splitting the Church, and that it will in addition almost certainly mean the end of all overseas mission effort?
Dr Don Mathieson QC
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