And the Word of God is: ambiguous

The Bible is not a moral manual. That is the lesson of Lord Runcie's admissions about gay priests, says Andrew Brown
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The Daily Mail, reporting Lord Runcie's admission that he had ordained practising homosexuals, appended to the end of its news story a single verse from the book of Leviticus: "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."

For some reason, it did not quote the immediately preceding verses: "For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him. If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death."

Nor did it quote the prohibitions against sleeping with a woman who is menstruating: "both of them shall be cut off from among their people"; nor even the handy hints for household slaves: "If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free', then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life."

The point of this is not just that most Old Testament morality is either incomprehensible or repulsive, and that selective quoting can easily give the entirely misleading impression that the Bible is a reasonable document. The real difficulty that the homosexuality issue raises for all the Christian churches is that the Bible cannot be read as if it were a user's manual for life, supplied by the maker.

Members of the pro-gay lobby who try to escape what seems to be the plain sense of the Bible have a point. The plain sense of the Bible is a concept which, on examination, turns out to be seldom either plain or sensible. Throughout history, Christian communities have had to sort parts of the Bible into three main categories: those that are literal and binding, such as the command to celebrate the Last Supper; those to treat as pious aspirations, from which backsliding may be forgiven, such as the command to love your neighbour as yourself; and those parts that are best quietly ignored, such as the command that women remain silent in church.

Of course, from a Christian point of view, these decisions have not been made unaided. The Holy Spirit has been there to guide the faithful into truth. But that can be a long, strange trip; and the Holy Spirit appears to say very different things in different times and places. In South Africa, the Dutch Reform Church was for many years convinced of the biblical necessity of apartheid, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu was convinced of the biblical necessity for its abolition. Now the Reform church has changed its mind, and Dr Tutu has concluded that homophobia is a form of blasphemy. Who is to tell which of them is doing the will of the Holy Spirit and interpreting the Bible correctly?

Certainly, the evidence appears to be against the Archbishop on this. St Paul says: "Even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one towards another." You get his drift, even if the precise meaning is not absolutely clear, and remains unclear even in more modern translations.

But Paul also says that women must keep silent in church; and that all Christians should pray fervently for the gifts of prophecy and of speaking in tongues. These are not commands that worry the average Christian much, though there are parts of the Church where they are taken very seriously. It is a safe bet that there is not a line anywhere in the Bible that has not been taken literally by some sect or other, right down to the snake- handling churches of the Appalachian mountains, who pass live venomous snakes around in services to prove that the Lord will protect them.

The problem is not that every Christian reads the Bible differently: but that every Christian society reads the Bible slightly differently from every other. This divergence is not just a matter of economic or sexual self-interest - though I think medieval Christians would have been genuinely horrified to know that Christians nowadays regard usury and democracy as acceptable and slavery as always sinful. It also arises because societies disagree about all the things the Bible doesn't argue, but takes for granted. The efforts of the gay lobby to argue their way around St Paul's anathema are not based around what he says, but what he assumes, or seems to assume, about the nature of homosexuality. He cannot have known or foreseen, they say, the way they love each other now; and his argument probably referred to ritual prostitution in pagan temples, which even the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement thinks is naughty.

Probably the most successful and longest-lived attempt to establish a theocracy based entirely and directly on the Bible was puritan New England in the 17th century, where people (and cows) were indeed put to death for bestiality, as Leviticus provides. But if that experiment is remembered for anything, it is the witch trials in Salem. The Old Testament is as unambiguous on this matter as it is on homosexuality: witches are to be put to death, even if they conceal themselves in the guise of hysterical teenage girls.

Few English Christians nowadays believe in the reality of witches and of demons, even though every diocese in the Church of England has its own official exorcist and a belief in evil spirits is one of the central doctrines of the New Testament. The important thing there is not that the idea of the Bible has changed, but that our idea of human nature and its possibilities has changed, and with this change, some of the presuppositions of the biblical world view have gone, so that simple common-sense gestures such as nailing your slave's ear to the doorpost no longer have the impact that they should. However, this process is as old as the Bible itself. The idea of God and of humanity develops through the successive books of the Bible. Divine law is no more static than human law.

Jesus himself was in the business of developing and interpreting the scriptures that he knew, even as he assured his listeners that "not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away", just as all the other rabbis of his day were. The process continues to this day. It is inevitably bumpy, piecemeal, and marked by savage disagreements, but when Christians try to love each other it is always important to distinguish between orientation and practice.

How other faiths approach homosexuality

Hinduism: the Upanishads have a range of views on male homosexuality. One law says "a twice-born man who commits an unnatural offence with a male shall bathe, dressed in his clothes". Elsewhere, a stricter law prescribes loss of caste, but other writers assume male homosexuality is not worthy of punishment.

Lesbianism could apparently have more shocking repercussions. There are laws which state that a woman who seduced a younger girl should be paraded through the streets on a donkey, and have two fingers cut off or her head shaved. The girl would be fined or beaten.

Islam: although some verses of the Koran are ambiguous on the subject, others provide ammunition for those who argue that (male) homosexuality is straightforwardly wrong but should be forgiven: "If two men among you commit indecency, punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, let them be. God is forgiving and merciful" (4:13). The figure of Lot is often to be found condemning the people, "you lust after men instead of women" (eg 7:77, 29:27).

The Hadith (tradition) formed after the death of Mohammed condemns all sexual activity except that between married heterosexuals (although a man could have more than one wife). However, there is much evidence that fairly overt homosexuality has been widespread throughout the Muslim world at various times, and early Islamic literature often speaks of men having relationships with youths. Some of the writers in question appear to regard homosexual attraction as honourable, but homosexual acts as despicable - a dichotomy not exclusive to Muslim thought.

Judaism: the book of Leviticus lays down the law for Orthodox Jews: "If a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination..." (20:13). Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no Pentateuchal tradition of Sodom and Gomorrah being places of homosexual licence. Only later was the term "Sodomites" applied to the Greeks, as it gradually became associated with the Greek acceptance of homosexuality.

There is a wide spectrum of attitudes to (and debate about) homosexuality across Judaism today; although the Orthodox are opposed, reform and progressive Jewish attitudes range from tolerant to welcoming.

Sikhism: there is nothing in the Sikh scriptures that overtly criticises homosexual life; teachings tend to be general and take the form of advice. For this reason, Sikh attitudes are usually tolerant. However, the strong emphasis on family structure in Sikhism leads many Sikhs to the conclusion that homosexual adoption is not right.

Yin and Yang: historically, Chinese Yin and Yang philosophy did not condemn same-sex relationships, and homosexual association was apparently neutrally regarded by Chinese philosophy and society. This was not the case with all aspects of sexuality; male masturbation was forbidden, for instance, and incest was punishable by a painful death.

Baha'i: Baha'i faith tends to see homosexuality as "a distortion of true human nature, as a problem to be overcome" (quotation from a letter of the Universal House of Justice). The "sufferer" is advised to seek help, but it is not ruled out that a non-practising homosexual may live a fulfilling life.

Ben Summers