Thank God for the gays

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement commemorates its 20th anniversar y in Southwark Cathedral on Saturday. The backwoodsmen are predictably enraged. But, argues Paul Vallely, traditionalists could learn much from those they seek to condemn
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So the gay orgy in the cathedral is back in the news. Next Saturday's service in Southwark's Anglican cathedral to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was condemned at the weekend by church backwoodsmen for "promoting promiscuity and blasphemy".

A survey of churchgoers linked to the theologically conservative Evangelical Alliance yesterday claimed that 96 per cent of British congregations believe gay sex to be wrong. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, blustered into the debate to insist that just because gays were being allowed into a cathedral didn't mean that the Church of England was about to alter its muddled stance on homosexuality.

"The survey is evidence that a vast number of churches stand by 2,000 years of biblical analysis which concludes that homosexual sex is outside the will and purpose of God," said the Reverend Clive Calver, director- general of the alliance.

It is not just the opinions but the vehemence with which they are expressed that has taken the rest of the country by surprise. Until the Thought for the Day contributor Anne Atkins launched a vituperative broadside against the event on Radio 4 last month, most of us had assumed that the Church was slowly coming to grips with the inconsistency of its attitude to homosexuality. But the prejudices clearly lie deeply embedded in the woodwork of the nation's pews.

It is hard to justify. It is true that the Old Testament denounces homosexual acts as "an abomination", along with bestiality and incest. But it says the same thing about nudity, eating pork and prawns, and wearing garments made out of more than one fabric. It is not clear what is Mr Calver's stance on cotton and polyester shirts or Bird's Eye Fisherman's Pie, but he has not been noticeable in his insistence on the Levitical punishment of death for both parties caught in adultery.

"Abomination" is, anyway, a mistranslation; the Hebrew refers to a violation of ritualistic purity. (Sodomy is another oft-uncorrected misconstruction; most biblical scholars now say that the sin of Sodom was not pederasty but inhospitality to strangers.) On what basis do the biblical fundamentalists select some bits of Leviticus to interpret literally and not others?

The New Testament does not help much. In the Gospels, Jesus never mentions the subject, though he is specific on other detailed issues of morality. Those who accept St Paul's condemnation of homosexual lust do not necessarily accept his other culturally specific injunctions. Believe Paul literally and you will accept slavery, denounce long hair, require wives to be subservient to their husbands, and never criticise the government (Paul, remember, expected the end of the world within his generation). You would also insist that "women should stay silent in church" - not an injunction to which the voluble Mrs Atkins seems ready to acquiesce.

The fact is that the mainstay of Christian opposition to same-sex relationships rests on tradition. Its core is the principle of the natural law which the early Church drew, using the philosophical tools of the pagan Aristotle and the Stoics, from observing the world around it and inferring that how the world was is how God intended it to be. The central purpose of sex, it therefore pronounced, is procreation.

Many early churchmen, such as St Augustine, followed St Paul in thinking sex a shameful activity at the best of times - virginity and continence are the highest callings. Certainly any deviation from the procreation end was therefore, well, deviant.

But the suppositions that underlay natural law were culturally specific, too. It viewed sexuality in terms of the welfare of societies rather than individuals. It also assumed, as did the Bible, that everyone was a heterosexual and that a few perverts chose to ignore their true nature out of wilful lust. There was no such thing as homosexuality, only homosexual acts.

Much has changed since then. Although the Protestant reformation kept procreation as the primary purpose of sex, it also emphasised that friendship and intensity of love should exist between spouses, and said that sex had a key role in cementing their relationship. The social and political thought of the Enlightenment began to construe the rights of the individual as being as important of those of society.

After Freud, sexuality came to be seen as a profound stratum of the personality, not merely a genital activity. More recently, empirical scientific research has suggested that either some people are born homosexual, or at the very least, their basic sexual orientation becomes relatively fixed in early childhood, usually before the age of seven, without any conscious choice on the individual's behalf.

Even the Catholic Church has caught up. Ordinary Catholics have set the pace by ignoring their church's teaching on contraception - their behaviour shows that they accept that the majority of their sexual acts are not about procreation but must be judged by criteria of love and the bonding of mutual pleasure.

Even the Vatican has moved substantially. In 1975, Rome made a distinction between two kinds of same-sex acts. Some were due to a lack of normal sexual development, or were freely chosen through bad example. But others, it said, were victims of a pathological constitution which was incurable.

It did not seem a statement of marked liberalness. But the formidable intellectual armoury of the Vatican was brought to bear on the issue with remorseless logic. In 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the ultra- conservative watchdog of the Church's doctrinal orthodoxy, pronounced that what is inborn is morally neutral: homosexual orientation, therefore, was blameless; only acting on it was blameworthy. His pronouncement was entitled "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons".

It was a dramatic development. In Catholic moral theology, "person" is a term that constitutes a profound moral statement about the humanity, dignity and worth of the individual. Homosexuals, like everyone else, he said, were "made in the image and likeness of God".

All the nature vs nurture arguments were superseded. From that basis, an emerging gay theology, along with feminist critiques of the patriarchal institutionalisation of sexuality, is now pressing towards an acceptance that homosexual relations and acts are intrinsically no less valuable than heterosexual ones.

"It would be a very cavalier and capricious God who created people a certain way and then instructed them that they were forbidden from fulfilling the potential they have been given," says the Rev Richard Kirker, secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. "So why do they then say: 'Yes, you can be members of the Church, but only so long as you shut up, go round with a long face, cringing or deeply depressed.' "

Most churches continue to maintain this distinction between acceptable orientation and unacceptable practice - except for the Church of England, which goes one step farther by saying that the laity can live in faithful homosexual relationships, but the clergy can't. "To be made gay," says Kirker, "is not automatically to have been given the gift of celibacy."

At this point the arguments of the conservatives turn from theology back to instinctive prejudice. It is only female sexuality that socialises the male, and without it we are left with the rampant irresponsibility of the unmarried fathers of the "underclass", or a gay subculture which is caricatured as seedy, promiscuous and hectoring, without any thought as to whether such characteristics are inevitably those of a group unable to live openly and therefore driven underground.

The old joke is pertinent here.

Q: What do homosexuals do in bed? A: Eat biscuits and listen to Radio 4 mainly, like everyone else.

There is still an obsession among many traditionalists with the mechanics of homosexual sex, as though genital acts rather than relationships were at the heart of the identity of a person whose sexuality is not hetero.

"I think what really upsets people about the Southwark service is the idea that we are gathering there to pray," says Liz Stuart, a leading feminist theologian, a Roman Catholic, who is a lesbian. "They would rather think it is going to be a day-long orgy in the cathedral. Many people can't get out of their heads the idea that homosexuals spend all their time having sex. The reality is not that, just as it is not the case that we're people from the outside trying to come in and take over. It's our church, too. The cathedral will be full of people who are deeply involved in its life - priests, theologians, organists, pastoral workers."

It may go further than that. It may be that instead of merely tolerating homosexuals as sinners, like everyone else, the Church has something to learn from them. The gift of homosexuals to the Church, reflects Kirker, is another insight of being on the margins: "Individuals who would otherwise be part of the white, middle-class establishment mainstream have an all too real experience of being at the margins. It makes you more compassionate for others on the margins, too." That can bring a critical detachment to the heart of an otherwise privileged ecclesiology.

It has its limitations. Gay men may be designated by society as mock women, individuals who have sold out on their masculinity, but they still define themselves in relation to maleness.

"It can make gay men as sexist as other men," says Liz Stuart. "Gay men are still closer to the table and, in the main, they are fighting to get a place at that table. Lesbians, because they are much farther away, are more likely to be interested in overturning the table or making a table of a different type."

Where gay men want gay clergy to be recognised and included, lesbians tend to ask more radical questions, such as: do we need clergy at all? "This is one of the lessons of women's ordination," says Liz Stuart. "A number of women priests have come to the realisation that they were only admitted to the priesthood on condition that they were grateful, and behaved like men. 'They only let us in to shut us up,' one said recently."

But the contribution goes beyond the politics of ecclesiology. Gay and lesbian members of the Church are offering dynamic new insights into theology. Marriage, says Liz Stuart, can be a beautiful relationship in which both partners grow, heal and flourish in the warmth of each other's enduring love. But it can be the opposite - something constraining, shrivelling and belittling. And in social terms, it is an institution in crisis.

Lesbians have begun redefining sexual relations in terms of friendship in a way which could re-enrich marital relationships. "Both the Gospels and church tradition present us with a paradigm of friendship - Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and his group of male disciples - in which dynamics of mutuality replace traditional ones of submission and dominance," she says. "When we get to heaven, gay people will be more at home; because in heaven, we are told, there is no marriage."

It is a field in which work is only beginning. Yet if it bears fruit, the Church may be forced gratefully to acknowledge that though homosexuality - like celibacy - is self-evidently not right for everyone, it is a good job that someone is blessed with it.