LEADING ARTICLE : Love and sex in a hostile church

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Watching the Christian churches agonise over homosexuality is like observing aged parents struggle to come to terms with the world of their grown-up children. The parents seem out-of-date and irritatingly slow to change. They wrestle with issues that apparently no longer preoccupy their children. Yet the adult children do not give up in despair. They will their mothers and fathers to meet the intellectual challenge. For, deep down, they know that they have been cast in their parents' mould. The capacity of the older generation to think afresh is important to the vitality of their offspring.

On homosexuality, we have come a long way since Oscar Wilde was locked up in Reading gaol. But the Christian churches have lagged behind; meanwhile, their power and authority have waned. Yet the effect of longstanding Christian condemnation of homosexual acts is still widespread. It is a historical foundation of general homophobia that liberalism has only begun to quell. So when Cardinal Hume praises homosexual friendship and love, his words resonate beyond Roman Catholics. The prejudices of Christians and non- Christians alike are questioned by the brave admission of homosexuality made on Tuesday by Derek Rawcliffe, the retired Anglican Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway.

Unfortunately, it seems that it will take a very long time for the Christian churches to respect homosexuality in the way that gay men and women would like and a genuinely liberal society should encourage. Cardinal Hume seemed to do his best within the confines of his theological framework. "Love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected," wrote the Cardinal in a statement that gave a characteristically liberal English tone to a Vatican doctrine.

But even Cardinal Hume is stuck when it comes to the physical expression of homosexuality. Love and friendship are fine as long as homosexuals don't end up in bed, he says. The trouble is that Christianity is wedded to the notion that the only place for sex is within marriage and Roman Catholicism demands that sex should not artificially be separated from the possibility of procreation.

So when sexuality arises in a different context, the priestly caste has only one answer: don't. Predictably, Cardinal Hume, a monk by calling, could offer only his own monastic celibacy to homosexuals. The same inadequate option is all that is available to divorcees and unmarried lovers.

Bishop Rawcliffe's confession exposes the deficiencies of this Christian mental framework. When he took a lover, his life was transformed in an obviously religious way: "I began to love everybody in a new way, and to see that in spite of our failings and sins, and so on, God loves us, and I believe that that was the work of the Holy Spirit." To such a statement, Christianity has no satisfactory response.

It is at this point that the gulf between the secular and the religious worlds is obvious. Mainstream Christianity, The Song of Solomon apart, has failed to develop a language or a theology that celebrates sexuality. In contrast, secular society often seems obsessed with the subject. Most of us accept that sexual expression, as long as it does not exploit, has value in itself. We would all be better off if Christianity could expand its theology of sexuality and reinspire the society it has done so much to form.