The bishops finally see reason over homosexuality

A careful statement on homosexuality was designed to cloak angry divisions of opinion
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SINCE I wrote despairingly last week about the homophobic attitudes displayed by some of the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion, matters have improved a little. At their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, a careful statement on homosexuality was issued over the weekend. The report was designed to cloak angry divisions of opinion. On Friday, for instance, there was a further public shouting match following the rows of the previous week; this time the altercation was between homosexual clergy and a campaign group waving anti-gay banners.

On arriving at Canterbury some African bishops had described homosexuality as a white man's disease while others designated it as a sin. How, I wondered, would these homophobic views be described in an official document? It is, after all, difficult to sustain the notion that homosexuality is a disease seeing that it never occurs to mainstream medical practitioners to describe it as such, nor is any research into a "cure" being conducted. Nor since the early 1970s has homosexuality been considered a mental illness.

Of course anything can happen on the wild fringes of medicine and psychiatry and that is where I place the "healing ministry" for homosexuals that the Bishop of San Joaquin, John Davies, runs at St James's Cathedral in Fresno, California. Mr Davies also makes the unverifiable claim that the American Church has lost a million worshippers because of its pro-homosexual agenda.

It is a bit easier for bishops to assert that homosexuality is a sin because in one or two places the Bible can be interpreted as giving support for this opinion - as it has also been used in the past to justify hatred of Jews, to condone slavery and to encourage a sort of misogyny. However the Ten Commandments are silent on the subject; only the injunction "thou shalt not commit adultery" is concerned with sexual matters. And in describing the commandments upon which "hang all the law and the prophets", Christ gave only two: "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart" etc and "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". I don't myself see how you can derive the classification of homosexuality as a sin from these statements of Christian morality.

In their report on human sexuality the bishops admit: "we must confess we are not of one mind about homosexuality". The homophobe view is shown as being only one of four possible attitudes, held as it is by "those who believe homosexual orientation is a disorder, but that through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle". From the point of view of the drafters of the statement, "disorder" is a good word; as well as its standard definition as a disturbance of the normal state of the body or mind, it also carries overtones of reprehensible behaviour.

A second group of bishops believes that "relationships between people of the same gender should not include genital expression, that this is the clear teaching of the Bible and of the Church universal, and that such activity (if unrepented of) is a barrier to the Kingdom of God". As always, statements that represent compromises between a variety of opinions raise more questions than they answer.

On a strict reading, this is a recommendation for homosexual celibacy, albeit using the ancient concept in a negative way. The respectable argument for celibacy, whether of heterosexuals or homosexuals, is that a priest should consider his church or his flock as his family and that there can be no rival for its spiritual and emotional demands. But that is not how the notion is being used here. However, perhaps something less severe is intended, such as people of the same sex living together in loving but chaste relationships.

To paraphrase, then, the first group of bishops says of homosexuality, it's an abomination; while the second groups argues, a little less intolerantly, it cannot be helped, but you shouldn't, so to speak, "give in" to it. What is the position of the third group identified in the report? Hardly enlightening. It comprises those who believe that "committed homosexual relationships fall short of the biblical norm, but are to be preferred to relationships that are anonymous and transient". This is truly to damn with faint praise. Nobody can approve of relationships that are anonymous and transient, whatever the sexuality of the parties. Moreover the words "anonymous" and "transient" are hiding something. I guess that what the bishops supporting this proposition had in mind but did not want to spell out was prostitution and promiscuity.

Between these three sets of opinions and the fourth there lies a great gulf. For the final group makes no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. These bishops believe that "the Church should accept and support or bless monogamous covenant relationships between homosexual people and that they may be ordained". This time the word which jumps out is "covenant". Knowing that the bishops don't like to be explicit, what do they really mean?

In the Bible a covenant is an engagement entered into by God with a person or nation, for instance with Moses, and with the tribes of Israel, the chosen people. In the New Testament it is the engagement with God entered into at baptism. In civil law it is a promise having legal validity. In light of these definitions, there is no need to make any further guesses; what is meant is that the Church should be prepared to conduct ceremonies of marriage between homosexuals, that is to "bless" such unions.

The saving grace of the document, however, is not the analysis but a charitable statement that cleans away the stain of homophobia: "there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation... we wish to assure them that they are loved by God, and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ".

I draw two conclusions from this. First, the Anglican Communion acknowledges that it has unwittingly ordained many homosexual priests to the ministry during its long history - without God hurling thunderbolts at the offending cathedrals. And second, it follows that if homosexuals, baptised, believing and faithful, are "full members of the Body of Christ", that is of the Anglican Communion, then in due course, their sexual orientation will no longer serve to condemn them to second-class membership. I now expect to see this matter satisfactorily resolved by the time of the next Lambeth Conference - in 2008.