Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Homosexuality and the Church

Traditionalist Christians argue that it it is up to those who want to set aside the traditional teaching of the Church regarding homosexuality to prove their case.  

There is an assumption here.  Peter Coleman, writing in his book ‘Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality’ in 1980, said: “From the time of Paul until the middle of the present century, the Christian attitude to homosexual behaviour remained unchanged and seldom questioned.”  But in the same year the American historian John Boswell wrote his book, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality”, which demonstrated the contrary.  

Boswell’s thesis, which covered the first thousand years of the Church’s History, was immediately challenged by medieval specialists, defending their ‘territories’, as it were.  Traditionalist historians and secular homosexuals defended their territories too.  Thirty years later many historians are still working on the details of the half a dozen or so new insights Boswell came up with, including the idea of gender history.

The idea I referred to above, that Christian teaching on the subject of homosexuality was inconsistent over time, still stands.  It has been given considerable reinforcement by the distinguished medieval historian R.I.Moore, who about 10 years after Boswell showed the rapid changes and about-turns which characterised Christendom’s treatment of homosexuality between 950 and 1250.  And this is where I believe those  who have influence over church doctrine and discipline (that is the bishops and their advisers in my own C of E denomination) have not apparently done their homework.

An example of the muddled thinking of the Church over 2000 years is its use of the wretched word ‘sodomite’.  The story of Sodom is told in Genesis 19, and seems primarily to be about betrayal by the city men of the custom of hospitality by a conspiracy to ‘gang-rape’ the mysterious men/angels who have entered Lot’s house, and probably about defying God in the process.  Lot’s offer, reflecting the ethics of the time, was to offer his daughters to the men, in order to protect his guests.  How far it can be taken as a story about the wickedness of homosexuality is not clear at all.  As a bit of a traditionalist myself I look first to see if Scripture comments on Scripture, and If we are to take the prophet Ezekiel’s take on the Sodom affair, it has nothing to do with homosexual behaviour.  

Some will find Ezekiel’s commentary on Sodom a surprise:
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  (Ezekiel 16 NIV.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Homosexuality and the Bible: the proof text

 Deuteronomy 25 v.11,12: If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. (New International Version)

No, that's not the proof text! But it is a reminder that Christians - and Jews for that matter - no longer follow Old Testament Law to the letter. If you would like more reminders of that look here for an interesting 'Top 10':

If you read my previous blog entry from four years ago you will know that I am writing from the point of view of a 'Conservative Evangelical' Christian who came to the conclusion that the Church of England has got it wrong about homosexuality. But I couldn't at the time explain in any detail why and how it got it wrong.

Now I have finally found the proof text (at least as far as I'm concerned.) It's not from the Bible. It's from a book called 'The formation of a persecuting society' by R.I.Moore. [Blackwell Publishing 1987]. I do like Blackwell. Their vast shop basement was immediately below my college library, and one Sunday fifty years ago, while showing my parents round, I discovered the door between Blackwell's and the Library was unlocked, and I was able to show my parents a vast display of hundreds of thousands of unattended books!

Not only are there too many books in the world to read, there are too many History books. This is my excuse for not knowing who R.I.Moore was. He is the Editor in Chief of Blackwell's (rather ambitious) multi-volumed History of the World. Among other things this suggests he has no particular axe to grind in the silly impasse that Conservative Evangelicals have got themselves into with regard to homosexuality. But, as it happens, I believe he has provided (and for some time now, I might add!) the key to removing it..

The deadlock in the argument is perhaps partly because we actually know very little about the particular sexual behaviour which was/is being condemned in the Bible. The reaction of both sides in the homosexuality argument to the lack of evidence has frequently been to write themselves a note saying 'Argument weak here – shout louder'. It is not clear from the Bible, as I pointed out in my previous blog, why it appears that homosexual behaviour was being condemned.

The Church, on the other hand, is nevertheless very precise and clear that sexual contact between men or between women is sinful. However, what R.I.Moore points out, partly on the basis of another book, 'Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality - Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century' by John Boswell - is that the Western Church did not regard homosexual behaviour in particular as a sin until the 12th Century. For a thousand years the Church was content to advocate chastity and condemn adultery, and homosexual behaviour was considered within this context and not as a sin in its own right.

The crucial point that Moore makes, which one might guess from the title of his book, is that it was a change in society in the 11th Century, not primarily in the Church or Christian thought, that was behind the definition of homosexual behaviour as a sin worthy of the severest punishment by Church authorities. The change was spearheaded by bishops, abbots and kings, not by theologians. The change in society can be seen, for example, in the Crusade movement, which identified Islam as the enemy. But enemies closer to home, Jews, heretics and lepers, were now identified too, and many began to die at the hands of the Church during the 13th century. This, Moore makes clear, is the context in which homosexuals were suddenly picked on. By 1300 the accusation of sodomy had become a reason for prosecution, and death the normal punishment.

Some years ago I shared a flat with four Christian (straight) men. Most of us were from a very well-known Evangelical parish in South West Greater London. We were all very young and earnest, and all very professional, except perhaps for me – I'd worked as an usher in a cinema, and spent a period of unemployment, before joining an advertising agency. One day one of our number received, out of the blue, a catalogue for men's underware. He was deeply shocked by the intrusion, and began planning a very strong letter of protest, amid outraged cries of 'batting for the other side', and a general air of witchhunt – all provoked by this uninvited mailing. I didn't join in their outrage, having recently worked alongside a team of ushers who would have been proud of such labels, though at the time chiefly favouring the term 'camp as a row of tents'. In fact I was now shocked at my companions, who in this instant had been transformed into Nazi stormtroopers. (Actually the one who received the letter was normally the gentlest guy in the world, and later became a vicar.)

Our attitudes were based on prejudice, ignorance, and the norms of society. If we knew anything about homosexuality it would have been either that it was illegal, or possibly that it had just been decriminalised, I can't remember which. Our attitudes were wrong. Actually they were wrong when they first surfaced in 11th Century Western Europe. The Church was stupid not to have seen that at the time, and even more stupid that it continues to do so today.

Oh, and to my companions in a London cinema many years ago – sorry society and church got it wrong for so long.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Homosexuality and the Church

Why Leviticus 18 & 20?

A few years ago there was considerable tension in the Anglican churches of the diocese where I live, over homosexuality, and in particular the issue of the possible ordination of openly gay clergy.  At the annual Visitation we (primarily, I think, conservative parishes) were urged by the Archdeacon 'to keep an open mind and to listen'.  So I did, and I have.

The result is that after some years of listening and reading I have recently come to reject the traditional teaching of the church on homosexuality.   I can now see no reason why covenant relationships between men and between women cannot be recognised and honoured, or homosexuals or lesbians become priests or bishops.  The main reason for my change of view is perhaps best summed up by someone writing on an Anglican forum:  “I don't care what 'the mind of the Communion' or 'the plain reading of Scripture' says, if it gets in the way of behaving like a decent human being.”

Although I would say that that was my main reason, there was a web of inter-related factors.  Listening to and reading about the point of view of  gay Christians was one factor.  But what drove my interest was, I must confess, not so much the suffering of the people concerned in the deadlock over this issue, but more the knowledge that the authority of scripture was being generally dragged in the mud because of it: if Scripture could not give clear guidance on this issue what good was it?

Another apparently unrelated 'problem' of Scripture, which appears to affect far fewer people, is Old Testament warfare.  The occupation of the Promised Land in the Second and First Millenium B.C. apparently required the extermination of its inhabitants.  Many Christians, probably many ministers, get over this problem, and perhaps the Old Testament in general, by ignoring it, or using it as a picture-book to illustrate the life of Christ.  The only Evangelical scholar I have heard on the subject of Holy Wars of Extermination concluded that the Jews at this time simply misheard what God was saying.    My own area of study is world history, which is one reason why this particular problem has repeatedly presented itself to me.

Both these issues have profound implications for how we read Scripture.  Many, including many Christians, might wonder why it has taken so long (46 years since I was confirmed) to come to my conclusion: it is the downside of identifying with a church tradition, in my case Evangelical.  Those from different Christian traditions will probably have already dismissed the idea of the two chunks of Scripture I have mentioned having any authority at all.

By now I may have also lost those who do believe in the authority of Scripture as traditionally understood, who might expect me to point to the Scripture verse that says that 'homosexual behaviour' is O.K.  That is, quite simply, because it's all of Scripture.
Just as happened in my conversion to believing in Jesus Christ in 1963, my entire mindset changed recently in one fell swoop.  The first time I read through some of the discussion threads in the Anglican forum that I follow I found myself generally agreeing with the advocates of the traditional church position.  I picked out lots of special pleading by those who wished to change the church's teaching.  More recently I read the same material and had the exact opposite experience: all those proof verses appeared quite naturally to support those who wished to challenge tradition.

Like many, I have not read these proof texts in the original language or even read an expert intrepretation of them.  So, to a considerable extent, my change of view is an act of faith.  However, I suspect that many supporters of either 'side' in this argument rather take for granted the 'perpescuity' of scripture (ie its clarity) and that they themselves are perpescuitous!  Perhaps we transfer our own appoach to personal guidance from Scripture too readily to advising others - or even to laying down the laws of the land for others.

Two Old Testament verses from Leviticus have been very influential in the argument on homosexuality:
Leviticus 18 v.22
'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.'
Leviticus 20 v.13
'If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.'

The authors of 'Some issues in human sexuality' [pub.Church House Publishing 2003] comment: these texts have traditionally been seen as a rejection of homosexuality as being incompatible with the holiness required of God's people, and there is general agreement among commentators that this is the meaning of these texts in their original context.'  However, it goes on to say 'Where there is disagreement is not about whether these texts condemn homosexuality but why they should do so.'  Rejecting other reasons, it goes on to suggest that the moral purpose of these laws was to protect the family.

Commenting on these and Deuteronomy 23 v.17-18 they continue, quoting from a theologian, Gordon Wenham: ' “Seen in their Old Testament context the originality of the Old Testament laws on homosexuality is very striking.  Whereas the rest of the ancient orient saw homosexual acts as quite acceptable provided they were not incestuous or forcible, the Old Testament bans them all even when both parties consented.”  What requires explanation is why it is that the Old Testament takes this distinctively severe approach .. and following on from that why, if at all, it should be binding on us.'

I have come to believe that they are not binding on us, and that the explanation for them is quite simple.  Israel was to be holy, but it was also to be organised for a total war, a war requiring the extermination of its existing inhabitants:
Deuteronomy 7 v1,2
'When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.'
Joshua 6 v.21
' 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.'

In the 21st Century we regard these instructions as abhorent even though we (the UK and USA) possess weapons of mass destruction. The Scriptural explanation for them is explicit: these harsh measures were required if God was to carve out a nation for Himself and remove idolatry.

Consider what this meant, in reality.  In battle men would be expected to kill their opponents in hand-to-hand combat, and not take prisoners.  Then the real slaughter would begin – defenceless boys, girls, women, old men, and every living animal down to the last donkey.  The discipline and commitment required of the soldiers would be quite out of the ordinary – even the Assyrians, renowned for the cruelty of their warfare, exterminated a population only when faced with a particularly stubborn city.  Israel was a nation in arms, and every man would have been expected to play his part in this slaughter - something not for the faint-hearted.

This could be why the peculiarly severe laws against homosexuality were thought necessary.   Homosexuals, especially those who played a passive sexual role, were seen as effeminate and, more importantly, weak.  Consider how homosexuals have often been regarded by fellow soldiers and military authorities in modern times!  Homosexual encounters threatened not, as is suggested, the moral task of protecting the family but the 'moral' task of protecting military discipline.  The war fought to occupy the Promised Land was unique.  According to the Bible God ordered it to be a war of extermination.  'Only real men' - as this stipulation might have been explained at platoon level - were required.  Holiness in this instance meant complete dedication to the military task of extermination. Israel was in a life-or-death situation, that would remain until the entire Holy Land was conquered and idolatry entirely removed.

The laws regarding homosexuality related to the spiritual, political and military situation that existed hundreds of years ago, and have nothing to do with the law of Christ today or in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gay marriage in church?

David Cameron believes that gay marriage should become the law of the land.  In a much repeated media-byte he said it is because he's a Conservative that he wants to do this.  I find myself telling other Christians this is no big deal - and telling people who are not Christians that it is.

How does that work you may ask!

For many, particularly those who are concerned about the rights of the individual in society, gay civil marriage is a straightforward and long overdue reform.  If the Church of England and the Catholic Church have problems with it, this would seem to many to be a typical example of the way the churches are a hundred years behind everybody else in their ways of thinking.  The churches would not be forced to carry out gay weddings, they argue, so their making difficulties would appear to be an outrageous interference in the rights of others.

However, there is a strong possibility that if gay marriage were enshrined in English law, priests who refused to carry them out would find themselves in court, if, as seems quite likely, those who support the idea of gay marriage in church take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights.  A further consequence could well be that conducting gay marriages would be included in priests' job descriptions.  Many priests would resign.  Secularists probably don't see this as a problem.  But it does, most certainly, make it a big deal, and something that needs more discussion and thought.

So why do I tell other Christians that this is not a big deal?  First, I have never regarded the conducting of marriage services as the core activity of the Church.  The core activity of the Church is loving God and one's neighbour and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, in every place and in every situation.  It doesn't mean enforcing Christian ideas on other people, but it does mean putting Christian ideas into practice, and talking about them, on every possible occasion.  (Clearly Christians find themselves being laughed at when they do this.) Unconsciously I believe, the Church of England has opted for an easier, safer, way of engaging with people - when they are at their weakest - in the context of christenings, marriages, and funerals.  

Christian marriage undoubtedly has a special meaning, which can be found from a number of passages in the New Testament.  How far this special meaning should be reflected in the law of the land should be a matter for national debate, during which politicians should perhaps listen carefully to what their constituents think.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The end of a tyrant

It's been an interesting year. A tyrant ruler, who originally came to power because he was a soldier, holds on to power for an entire generation, dies in misery and degradation. He leaves a legacy of state-of-the-art glistening buildings, places of worship, military installations, megastructures to boost trade, opulent palaces for his own personal use complete with underground bunkers. He also leaves a legacy of hatred among his subjects. In his final days he uses foreign mercenary soldiers, to carry out massacres of innocent people, in a vain attempt to cling to power. I could be talking about Colonel Gaddafi, but equally I could be talking about Herod the Great, the ruler of Palestine when Jesus was born.
The stories of Jesus' birth are full of characters, Mary and Joseph, innkeepers, shepherds, wise men, King Herod, a donkey, camels, assorted farm animals, and a supporting cast of angels, soldiers, villagers, and those, like Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who were simply and quietly waiting for God to act. But the colourfulness and drama of the stories should not distract or cushion us from the real events they tell us about.
'Long time ago in Bethlehem' is in some ways a very misleading lyric. Cavemen were a long time ago; dinosaurs were a long time ago; the beginning of planet earth was a long time ago. But Jesus' birth was, as it were, yesterday, in comparison with those events. And the very similar stories of Herod and of Gaddafi are a reminder that human nature does not change in a few hundred years. These events didn't happen that long ago at all.
Nor was it a long way away. Even in Roman times goods could pass through Palestine, to Britain in the West and China in the East, and today we have constant reminders we are all part of one world. Nor was the place of Jesus' birth a quiet backwater where nothing happened. For a start it was right in the middle of the trade routes I've just mentioned. It was also a place of political ferment and revolution. The year of Jesus' birth was probably the one when Roman security forces, fed up with constant Jewish rebellions, swept down from Syria, brutally suppressing rebellion - and emphasising their point by crucifying 2000 of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
A generation after Jesus' death the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recorded the most important life in History, and set about trying to explain it. Only two of them describe Jesus' actual birth. Matthew writes about Jesus' Jewish heritage, about King Herod but mainly about the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as telling us about the visit of the Wise Men. Luke begins his account by introducing us to the Jewish people like Zechariah who were faithful to God's promises and were waiting patiently and expectantly to see what God would do; and then he begins his account of Jesus' birth by referring to the Roman Emperor Augustus, who was was himself being hailed, or hailing himself, as the Saviour of the world. Mark, perhaps because he's well aware people know the nativity story already, doesn't write about Jesus' birth at all, but goes straight into what Jesus did as a man – healing people, teaching, performing miracles - and dying on the cross. And John, writing years later, begins his gospel by making absolutely clear that the man Jesus who came into the world was also the son of God who made the universe, died for the world, rose from the dead, and even now rules over us, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Let's enjoy the story of Christmas, and move on from the magic of the story to what it means; and always remember it's part of a much bigger story. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Daily Telegraph article about 'Exam Board Cheating'

For some reason my comment to the Daily Telegraph article and Leader didn't 'take'.  So I wrote a comment in 'The Guardian' instead:
The issue here is the fairness. Pupils shouldn't be given an unfair advantage. In the bad old days this was ensured by Exam boards not giving any detailed information about what their questions would be about and the way they needed to be answered. Examination syllabuses fitted on one page of A4. The 'best' teachers, from the point of view of getting pupils through exams, were the ones who could predict what questions would come up. It was unfair on thousands of pupils, and wasteful in terms of not producing educated young people.
'Specifications', as they are now called, are A4 booklets of a hundred pages or so. They are very complicated, and, to make matters worse, change far too often, i.e. when the government gets a new idea into its head. However, at least the details are now transparent, as a result of which you don't have to have special, privileged, knowledge of the Examination system in order to prepare your pupils for the examination.
Seminars are therefore a vital means, though not the only one, whereby teachers can get a more accurate view of what the examinations will be like. They used to be arranged by local authorities, and the commercialisation of schools and the examination system is largely to blame for the present system's examples of unfairness. However, moral outrage at 'The Daily Telegraph's' 'shock revelations' doesn't really help.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Human Rights in Africa

Nigeria has just passed legislation making homosexual marriage illegal.  However, Nigerians are aware this doesn't go down well in the West.  Hence this article by Willie-Nwobu in 'Leadership', a magazine published in Abuja, attacking David Cameron's threat to cut aid to countries which do not respect human rights: 

This was my reply to the article:
I understand your outrage at the British Prime Minister's insensitive attitude at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Britons often display a patronising attitude towards Africa, which will probably continue until Africa attains greater political and economic strength. However, this in turn depends upon African nations developing a more science-based society. This also applies to attitudes regarding sexuality, where prejudice unfortunately carries more weight than what your own scientists and medical researchers have to say on the subject: to the best of my knowledge none of them are telling you that on the basis of their research homosexuality is evil. Nor do ours - rather what they tell us is that human sexuality, like intelligence and many other human phenomena such as how we perform in examinations, can be seen as a bell curve. This means that while most people might agree with what you are saying, from their own experience, a minority will not. This is where human rights come in, and the ability of a society to tolerate minority views. You don't have to agree with homosexuality: but it is highly important in modern society to allow rights to those with whom you disagree. There is a good deal of evidence that social and economic progress go hand-in-hand with how tolerant a society is: with most European countries this is axiomatic, and this may explain David Cameron's apparent insensitivity (and, perhaps ironically, a lack of tolerance to a widely held African belief.)
Referring to the Bible to underpin anti-homosexuality legislation is highly questionable. Taking the Bible as a whole as our authority it now seems that our ideas about slavery and about the status of women were wrong in the light of freedom in Christ. Many bible experts are telling us that we may be wrong in judging homosexuality as evil.