Following on a debate on Same Sex Marriage at the Governing Body (Synod) of the Church in Wales in April 2014, it was announced by the Bench of Bishops that a provincial wide consultation at diocesan level was to be organised to see what the Church in Wales as a whole thinks about Same Sex Marriage.
The Diocesan Consultation for my Diocese (Monmouth) was last night, the 30th April 2015. I was in attendance, as were many more people. The cathedral was quite busy, which, to me, highlighted the importance of this subject in the Church. This blog post aims to give some sort of overview and personal response to that consultation.
I’m going to state right from the outset that I believe in the understanding of marriage that dictates that it is a union between one man and one woman, for life. I’ve made reference to my view on this issue on my blog before, but this post is probably the first where I outline my reasoning and argument.
With that in mind, I aim now to discuss the consultation itself…
The outcome of the meeting
It’s quite clear that views on Same Sex Marriage are mixed, and certainly polarised. The options for response available to the Church in Wales are as follows:
1. Maintain the current view that marriage is between one man and one woman.
2. Make provision to bless civil partnerships
3. Amend the teaching of the Church and allow same sex marriages to be performed in the Church.
At the point of a vote, the results were as follows:
For option 1: 57
For option 2: 4
For option 3: 51
The results were, in my opinion, very interesting.
But how did we arrive at those results?
Presentations for and against Same Sex Marriage.
The debate was preceded by two presentations on the issue. One was from a pro same sex marriage perspective, and I think I can be justified in saying that it was very anecdotal with many personal stories. I was personally touched by them. Some were heartwarming, some were heartbreaking. In my personal experience, those who support same sex marriage in the Church often tend to speak with the majority of the force of their argument reliant on personal story and experiences.
As humans, it’s hard to disconnect from experience as we try and navigate the difficult road of life based on how we’ve felt or reacted when faced with various trials and situations. What was lacking very much in the first presentation was a clear or decipherable hermeneutic or theology to support same sex marriage.
There has, of course, been much work done on this. There were some resources handed out before the meeting by the speaker, a couple of articles and some photocopied pages from a book, but these were not referenced in the presentation itself.
The second presentation was given in a very systematic way, framed by the Anglican way of doing theology, by looking to scripture, reason and tradition to enlighten us. Whilst I thought both presentations were very good in their own way, this presentation set out a clear theology for marriage.
Having said this, I wouldn’t conclude that people’s votes were swayed by either presentation, and mine certainly wasn’t.
This is where members of the public were invited to speak at the lectern to indicate their views on Same Sex Marriage and their reasons why they believed what they did. There was a good mix of contributions from clergy and laity which was great. Whilst I’m not going to run through what everyone said, I’m going to summarise some of the arguments put across by those who were supportive of Same Sex Marriage, and respond to them.
We’ve given women and slaves the rights they deserve, so why not homosexuals? It’s all the same issue, isn’t it?
No, actually, they’re not the same issue at all. The issues raised by this question are quite intricate, and it’s all to do with hermeneutics; how we read, interpret and understand the Bible.
When looking at ethical and moral issues from a Biblical perspective, we often see that as we read through Old and New Testaments, there is a trajectory from A to B. Tom Wright calls this the “story” of Scripture. Let’s take women for one example.
Women, as we go through the Old and New Testament, are gradually liberated, with the pivotal moment being the life and ministry of Christ. We can see quite clearly that as the “story” unfolds, we read of…
- Improved rights for female slaves and concubines with a view to freedom (in both OT and NT)
- Women are allowed to own possessions and property (though limited) through inheritance.
- Physical punishments of husband inflicted on his wife were abolished
- Women have better rights within divorce as we go through the OT, and in the NT, women are allowed to initiate a divorce process
- Jesus changes the treatment given to women suspected of adultery
- Jesus dealing with women is unique and scandalous as far as the Jewish / cultural public opinion of the day was concerned.
- Paul is actually very pro women himself (again, this requires a hermeneutic that takes into account the context behind some of his letters to the Church prohibiting women from speaking)
- In the Gospels and in the Epistles, female sexuality is important
- The NT moves to a more equal balance of “household codes” between husband and wife.
When thinking about slavery, we can see the same process of liberation unfold for them in the Old and New Testaments.
But what about homosexuality? Well, unfortunately we don’t see a relaxation of any of the laws made forbidding the practice of homosexuality in Old or New Testament…
- The same laws of Leviticus prohibiting same sex sexual activities are echoed through the New Testament
- Jesus defines marriage in Matthew 19 as between “male and female”
- Homosexual sex is seen as pagan practice and an imitation of pagan religions (such as Greek and Roman cultic religion and praxis)
- The Epistles of the NT show the Apostle Paul legislating against homosexual practices within the community life of the Church.
OK, so the Old Testament is speaks out against Homosexuality – but it also makes weird rules against eating shellfish, wearing clothes with mixed fibres and all sorts strange things!
Yes, it is true that the Old Testament does say all this stuff. But again, hermeneutics is important here. It was quite frustrating to see a clergy person stand up in their dog collar and give this argument. As someone who has studied theology, they would know that naive interpretation like this simply won’t cut the mustard. There are reasons as to why some laws of the OT are changed in the NT.
Jesus said himself that he came to fulfil the law, and not to abolish it. With that in mind, some of the restrictions given in the OT (such as food laws) were lifted. Others, such as sex with members of the same sex, were not. To use this argument is lazy, unwarranted, and to be frank, deceiving. I felt a clergy person using this argument was not only inaccurate, but an abuse of the position and responsibility that being a priest holds.
What the Apostle Paul is condemning in the New Testament regarding Homosexuality is different to what we now understand as monogamous, committed, same sex relationships.
It is true that the culture that Paul was familiar with was quite different. In the time of Jesus and late after, society was sexually liberal; even more so than today. There were different understandings of homosexuality, and this was most common in master/slave homosexual relationships. It was common for a master to take on a young man going through adolescence to “mentor” him. This involved them having sex together. The older man would be the dominant partner, whilst the younger one would be submissive. This practice is known as a “pederastic relationship”. It seems quite strange to us, but this was a normal custom in Paul’s society. But to understand what Paul is condemning, we need to look at some of his writings themselves:
- Has much to say about the nature and character of homosexual behaviour.
- The details in the passage seem to indicate that Paul is using the Greco-Roman culture (pederastic relationships) surrounding his readers as specific example of the larger issue of homosexuality.
- Paul, in this passage talks about the “natural order” of creation, and within his argument about how people have denied God’s natural ordering of the world and humans, he uses an example of humans exchanging “natural” relations for “unnatural” ones. By this, he means homosexual relationships both male and female.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
- This passage talks about men who practice homosexuality
- This is mentioned more than once, and there are two Greek words used in this discourse
- The first of the two terms relating to homosexuality is malakoi, which translated literally means “soft ones.” In classical literature it usually refers to three types of things:
- men who are effeminate in character
- for the younger, passive partner in a pederastic relationship
- male prostitutes.
- In 1 Corinthians 6 malakoi is used to describe a certain sexual sin, and the context of Paul’s letter seems to suggest that the word is most likely being used in a broad way to refer to the passive partners. But is that the end of the story?
- The second term Paul uses is arsenokoitai; “male” (arsen) and “intercourse” (koites).
- In the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (the verses prohibiting homosexual sex), this word is used.
- Paul, being a very good educated Jew, would have known this fact, and so it is probable that he is linking back to those two passages.
- In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul makes another supposed link back to Leviticus on a slightly different issue.
- So, arsenokoitai is general term for male same-sex sex. The fact that malakoi is used in the same passage makes a connection between the two, which leads to a conclusion that Paul is prohibiting both the dominant and passive partners in a pederastic relationship.
- This seems to ignore lesbianism, but as we’ve seen from the Romans passage, this is simply not true.
Aside from these key New Testament passages (and there are others to add to this small list), it is to be noted that Paul had every opportunity to “redeem” those relationships and fit them into a Christian mould of monogamous, committed relationships. Same sex marriages were known of at the time (Nero and other emperors as well as citizens married, publicly, same sex partners) and it’s quite probable that there were converts to Christianity attracted to the same sex and initially in same sex partnerships. Yet, Paul doesn’t allow them to be recognised as marriages. Titus 1:6 gives us a glimpse of this reality, where male church leaders are to be the “husband to one wife” – not “husband to one partner”. Whilst some may argue that the pederastic relationships seem to be out of place and possibly abusive, this is simply not the case. There is sufficient evidence to say that there were relationships of this kind that were monogamous, committed and involved genuine love. Furthermore, these relationships were consensual and, in a social way, benefitted both partners.
Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality.
- Not explicitly, but he talked a bit about marriage.
- Jesus refers back to Genesis where “He made them male and female” in Matthew 19.
- Jesus had an opportunity, clearly, to redefine what marriage meant even back then.
- Of course, he was a Jew, and wouldn’t have believed that same sex partnerships were to be permissible.
Some Concluding Thoughts
There were some comments that were made which don’t really fit into any of the above headings, so in this concluding part of my post, I will try to comment on them!
Some people were concerned that gay people were being discriminated against because they cannot get married when everyone can. The argument was made that the Church has two options for people in this area: be celibate or get married. But not everyone can be celibate. However, I think there is a third option, and that is singleness. Singleness doesn’t mean celibacy. Singleness means either a temporary thing, or indeed a permanent position that you may not want to be in. Of course, it’s easy for me to say all this, being heterosexual and married within the Church, but we need to rise above our own sexual orientations in order to speak on this issue. One helpful book I’ve found on this subject is The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw, which explores this issue in great depth and in a much better way than I ever could. What I would say is that there is a massive difference between being unwelcome to gay people and not allowing them to marry in Church. I believe we, as the Church, can be fully supportive of gay people and inclusive and still maintain a Biblical understanding of marriage. If inclusiveness and support equates to allowing people what they want to do and to be tolerant of all positions no matter what Scripture, Reason or Tradition say to any given subject, then we are on sinking sand.
It was also interesting to hear gay people speak with the authority that “all gay people believe…”. I say interesting, because not all gay people believe that same sex marriage is right. I challenged a few individuals after the debate as to whether they realised that there were many gay Christians who didn’t believe that same sex marriage was right. All of them said that they didn’t know that these people existed. Whilst they may be a minority, they are a sizeable minority and so they must have a voice in this discussion. They can bring valuable insight to the table for the Church in this area.
A quick note on loving. Many people argued that it’s the most loving thing to allow people of the same sex to get married. This is true if this is what the Bible and history/tradition teach us. Appropriate pastoral responses are not always comforting to those who are on the receiving end. To remain obedient to the call of God in this area is a massive sacrifice for a gay person, and will involve much pain and heartache. It is in this pain and heartache that we must support those brothers and sisters of ours who are struggling. Being appropriately pastoral does not mean taking pain and heartbreak away by allowing them to marry whoever they want.
A quick note on the good qualities that are undeniably found in same sex relationships. It is true that many same sex relationships have amazing qualities to them, sometimes and maybe often surpassing the quality of a heterosexual relationships. But just because there are good qualities to something, it doesn’t justify it as being right.
A quick note on people being born gay. There was an assumption by those who support same sex marriage that those who are against it believe that gay people choose to be that way. Actually, that is not the case. Many of us believe people are born gay. From personal experience, however, I have also known people who have chosen to be gay too.
Lastly, this debate also raised the idea of committed, platonic friendships. Historically, some theologians haven’t known how to respond to these friendships found in the Bible such as David and Jonathan, and Naomi and Ruth, and so have made up what has famously been known as Queer Theology. But actually, one can have an intimate, deep, friendship without there involving any romantic or erotic love. It is maybe time for the Church to rediscover the reality of deep, platonic friendships. But this is especially difficult considering the Church’s obsession with sexuality and the sexual dimension to relationships.
Paramount to all this discussion is that we recognise each other (whichever side of the debate we fall on) as committed Christians. There is a call for us to be unified. But the unity must come in Christ himself, and not any other issue. There is a responsibility of conservatives on this issue to extend love towards people they don’t agree with and to seek ways in which to include and support gay people in the best way they can without compromising their position on this issue. For gay people and those who support same sex marriage, it is vital that they at least recognise that most conservatives are this way inclined because of a genuine pursuit of obedience to Christ; NOT because they are homophobic.
For all of us, it is vital that we commit ourselves to deep, theological study from a scripture, tradition and reason point of view, without relying on our own stories and experiences too much. As I said to the congregation at the consultation, we should not have been there to discern the “mind of the Church” (which is often declared at meetings like this), but first and foremost we are to discern the mind of Christ. More than our feelings and what we want to be the case, we must choose a life of sacrifice and of suffering in obedience to how Christ has called us to live. I, for one, would love nothing better than for people of the same sex to get married. But sincerely, I cannot go along with it because, as far as I’m concerned, God has clearly revealed in scripture, as well as through the course of history and tradition, that this is not his plan for humanity.
With that in mind, I still have to work out how I can practically and spiritually support my brothers and sisters who are gay to the fullest extent. I also need to work out how the Church can move forward as one unified body where there is such fundamental difference of opinion. But what is clear to me is that the choice to be made is between feeling and obedience. In this instance, “feeling” could be translated as “easy” and obedience could be translated as “hard”.
What God is undoubtedly requiring of us is to deny ourselves and follow him (and his ways and teachings). I believe that, regarding this issue, we can only truly obey God by staying with a Biblical view of marriage.
I understand that for some this will have been a painful read. And it’s still an issue that I’m working out practically and pastorally. But my convictions are firm. And whilst my conviction is firm, it’s uncomfortable. Below are just a small selection of resources that I’ve used to help me formulate my opinions on a theological level. I encourage all of us to read up on this and not rely on our feelings and simple understandings, discriminations, and what others say about this issue. Please feel free to add your own comments and contributions or additional resources in the comments section.
A list of resources on this issue (by no means exhaustive!):
- Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals – a book outlining how we must hermeneutically understand these issues.
- Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality – a book outlining the two views on same sex marriage.
- France, A Slippery Slope? – Differences between women in leadership and homosexuality.
- Shaw, The Plausability Problem – Shaw identifies as “Same Sex Attracted” and his book looks at the issue of Sexuality in the Church
- Hill, Washed and Waiting – Another book on Same Sex Marriage (Traditionalist view) from a personal viewpoint as a gay Christian.
- Paul, Same Sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts. – A biblical study of the key texts referring to marriage and homosexuality.
- Song, Covenant and Calling – A book in favour of same sex marriage.
- Pannenberg, Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg says about this debate in the church.