Sunday, August 17, 2008

The status of homosexual persons *Some Theological Perspectives

Although it is almost ten years since I wrote this paper, I feel that it is still relevant to our current situation. Indeed during that time, instead of the question being reasonably and calmly debated, new levels of polemic and rhetoric have dominated the discussion.

Because of the length of the piece, I am putting it out in three parts:

A) A consideration of the nature of religion and its relationship to Christian practice and theology. (See Blog, August 1, 2008)

B) The nature of doctrine and an examination of how (if so be the case) it develops and changes. (See Blog, August 7, 2008)

C) Theology and the Bible in changing world-views, with special reference to the Anglican Communion’s record in this matter.

In one or two places I have edited my original text; any substantial changes are marked by […]

Bible, Doctrine and Practice in the Anglican Tradition

The Church of England as it emerged at the Elizabethan Settlement had a distinctive polity, but one very different from continental (and Scottish) Protestantism on the on hand and from the Counter Reformation Roman Catholic church on the other. There was, and is, no powerful central authority, let alone an absolutist one like the Papacy since the First Vatican Council.

Church of England (Anglican?) Polity

Timothy F. Sedgwick writes (Our Selves, 38), “Anglican churches reflect the English tradition of common law. In this tradition the rule of law is not, as in Roman law, a matter of principles that are understood to be based on the nature of things, and are applied to individual cases. Instead, the law arises from individual cases themselves and as such represents the accumulation of a people’s practical wisdom ... Authority - the legitimate voice to speak and decide upon an issue - is in this sense borne by the community and dispersed through its life”.

In practice, this means that a great deal has been left to conscience.

Untidy System

This polity, that recognizes the Ecumenical Councils, that works with collegiality rather than papacy, that allows for the exercise of reason, individual conscience, and for flexibility in biblical interpretation, has always seemed incoherent to Confessional churches and particularly to Roman Catholics. It was, for example, a constant source of ridicule from Roman Catholic writers like Belloc, Chesterton, Graham Greene and their successors as the 20th century progressed. It seems messy, but it has enabled the Anglican Communion (as it emerged from the Mother Church of England from the middle to the 19th century) in some measure and in a very halting way to come to grips with the upheavals in world-view of the last 150 years.
This kind of polity has worked where there has been a measure of cultural uniformity, but, as Sedgwick points out, as the Anglican Communion has embraced more and more cultures it is losing its stability. Sedgwick’s conclusion is, I think, somewhat pessimistic. He notes an increasing tendency to put more weight on conscience than on Canon Law: the ordination of the Eleven in Philadelphia in 1974, the continuing refusal to some congregations to use the 1979 Prayer Book, the “ordination of homosexual persons living in sexually active relationships” (Selves 39), and the refusal of some dioceses to allow women to exercise their ministry.


[It is important to note that Sedgwick wrote this over twelve years ago; his examples focus on ECUSA, not the Anglican Communion. At this stage, he did not, apparently, consider the issues that have arisen when a diocese acts entirely within the Canons, and within the majority consent of a General Convention, and is yet seen as a spoiler and de-stabilizer. The focus has moved from an inerrant view of scripture as mandatory, the impossibility of ordaining women, and even the broader discussion of homosexuality to center on a demand for a central authority for the collection of regional churches (wrongly called “Provinces”) that make up the somewhat ramshackle confederation called the Anglican Communion.

What has emerged is a resurgent militant Puritanism, which seeks to dominate Anglicanism in a way rejected in the 17th century. Clearly, the actions of regional churches such as ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada are from this point of view seen as destabilizing.]

Yet, the C. of E. ( –> Anglican Communion) has come through some similar problems with a majority consensus. The number who have actually separated from the church is sad, but, so far, much smaller than both wings - Anglo Catholics and Evangelicals - have repeatedly prophesied, and the breadth of Anglican polity may even yet enable us to work through the current issues. Furthermore, this polity has enabled Anglicans to recognize that new knowledge has mandatory implications for the doing of theology and for the understanding of doctrinal formulations. It has enabled Anglicans to take account of new knowledge, but also to regard it as one of the ways in which God leads us.

Changing attitudes to Formularies - The Gorham Case

Two examples might illustrate these generalizations. The first is the way in which the emergence of new historical knowledge in the 19th century first caused the most immense uproar, but ultimately came to be accepted by a broad spectrum of Anglicans, though, it must be said, not by all. Extreme Evangelicals on one wing and ultramontane Anglo Catholics on the other, in general, stood aside from the central consensus. Much of contemporary minority dissent (and it is important to recall the size of the minority we are talking about in the face of continual propaganda) has its roots, I believe, in these 19th century "wings" of the Church of England.
A survey of the scene in the C. of E. in the mid 19th century is instructive. After the upheavals of the Tractarian movement in the thirties and forties, the church was convulsed by controversy just as bitter as anything we are experiencing today.

Baptismal Regeneration

I will return to the issues of science and historical criticism next, but turn now to the second example: the Gorham case, which hinged on the Evangelical reluctance to ascribe certain "regeneration" to Baptism administered to infants. Beginning around 1847 the case dragged on for years, and, as is often the case, the original dispute over doctrine was submerged in contentions about the authority of Parliament in church affairs, the authority of bishops and the status of canon law. In the varying court decisions that emerged, at one stage the threat of a great exodus of the Evangelicals seemed imminent; at a later date, it was the turn of the High Church party to organize petitions and talk about a mass secession to Rome.
One of the central issues that emerged was whether the XXXIX Articles 'over-rode' the Prayer Book concerning Baptismal regeneration since there was a clear (some said, “apparent”) discrepancy between the two. What is important for our purposes is to note that the doctrinal issue of baptismal regeneration has been resolved in typically Anglican comprehensiveness. That there are different shades of the doctrine is very clear, and that they can be held within a spectrum of belief is also clear.

XXXIX Articles

Even more telling is the status of Articles of Religion. In the mid 19th century they were a continual source of controversy, for both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals. In the ECUSA they are discreetly given an honorable retirement and reside in "Historical Documents". (For an excellent account of the details of the Gorham case, see Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, Part 1, pp 250-271)

Geology, Historical Criticism and Essays & Reviews

Perhaps a clearer example of the way in which Anglicanism has coped with new knowledge is in the areas of scientific discovery and historical criticism.

Species not Immutable

The scientific revolution of the 19th century left all the churches in disarray, but by the turn of the century, it seems that the Anglican church as a whole was coming to some kind of rapprochement and, indeed, using new insights for a reappraisal of theological dogmas.
In the 1830s "books by Sir Charles Lyell and Dean Buckland established the geological succession of rocks and fossils, and showed the world to be much older than the accepted date for the Garden of Eden." (Alec Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, p114; Penguin).
In spite of the troubling of the waters, at this stage, not only theologians but scientists managed to accommodate the new views (e.g. "days" in Genesis meant eons of time, and the geological evidence in no way suggested that God was not entirely behind creation). Biological science, however, was another matter; Vidler notes that "[a]round 1850 few scientists of any note had a good word to say for the idea of evolution" (p. 116). Moreover, we need to recall that the idea of evolution did not burst on the world for the very first time with the publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859. As early as 1801, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck had published Système des animaux sans vertèbres. The introductory essay seems to be the first statement of Lamarck's later widely discussed theory of evolution which suggested that the species are not (as had been believed from antiquity) immutable but had changed and, indeed, improved over geological time. These changes, Lamarck surmised, had been caused by the presence within organisms of 'an innate tendency to perfection'. As John Bowlby remarks, in the first half of the century, these views were "usually dismissed as either heretical or absurd". (Charles Darwin, NY & London, 1990, pg. 88).

Looking at fossil evidence, Lyell disturbingly pointed out that whole species had perished, and this was almost 30 years before Darwin's book. Yet Lyell and many other scientists were not all that shaken in their theistic faith. Basil Willey writes, "Lyell himself was quite willing to profess belief in the fact of divine activity, provided that science were left free to investigate and demonstrate the mode of it. This was the formula adopted (quite rightly) by the nineteenth century of reconcilers of science and religion in general". (More Nineteenth Century Studies, New York, 1956, p. 85).

Biblical Criticism

Intellectual developments in Europe in the 18th century had laid the ground work for the seismic shifts of the 19th. The period of the Enlightenment had produced philosophical systems that were not all that friendly to the rigid framework of traditional Christian metaphysics, and work had begun on the biblical text as early as Jean Astruc (1684-1766) who was the first to suggest that the book of Genesis was, in fact, the product of two traditions with different emphases; though, at this stage he merely suggested that Moses put the two together: nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle.

Quite early in the 19th century, some scholars, especially some German ones, began to subject the bible to the kind of criticism that had recently been applied to other ancient texts like Homer. A succession of scholars at the University of Tübingen became known as a "school". First among them was David Friedrich Strauss whose the Life of Jesus (published 1834), ended by implying that no biography of Jesus could ever be written because of the impossibility of separating the nucleus of reality from the accretions of myth. This was a book that changed the theological landscape for ever.

Not many English scholars and churchmen read German, but the few who did were either very excited by the German work or thrown into paroxysms of rage. In any case, it was not too long before a translation became available; it was published in 1834 by "Marian Evans, the ex-evangelical Warwickshire girl of 27 years who is better known to posterity as the novelist George Eliot". (Chadwick, Part 1, 532). This translation was soon followed by translations of other German works, and these, in Chadwick's graphic phase, began to "rock the boat of faith at its moorings". What were some of the conclusions that critical study was suggesting?

The Old Testament Criticism Absorbed

It was study of the Old Testament that had begun the process. It became clear that the work was not a unity, that Moses did not write the Law books nor David the Psalms. Moreover, there were clearly errors of fact as well as statements that conflicted entirely with the findings of geology (not biology at this stage). And it is, perhaps, here that the real source of the panic can be found. For almost two millennia the inerrancy of the bible had been taken for granted as part of the belief that it was divinely inspired. Quite apart from the issue of accuracy, for a long time sensitive souls had been less than happy with the overall moral level of the O.T. Chadwick writes, "Thackeray, who once was intimate with the best of the Cambridge evangelicals, privately raged at what God was supposed to have done in the Old Testament. He refused to believe that God commanded Israel to slaughter the Canaanites or Abraham to kill his son". (Part 1 p. 529).

The Threat of New Testament Studies

More liberal thinkers had come to terms somewhat with these with Old Testament problems, but criticism of the New Testament raised anxiety levels to new heights. That is why Strauss's book and George Eliot's translation were regarded as little short of diabolical by the conservative elements of the church (that is to say the vast majority).

The critics were saying that Mark, not Matthew was the first gospel, that the other two used Mark. That the 4th Gospel was a different kettle of fish altogether; that by no means all the letters attributed to Paul were in fact by Paul; that we cannot be certain that the authors of the gospel were actually the people to whom they were attributed; that the actual text of the Greek bible was not as fixed as the "authorized" version would suggest. All this raised difficulties about the person of Jesus. The orthodox view is that Jesus was completely human, but his divinity had been so emphasized in both the mediaeval and Protestant epochs, that any suggestion he could be wrong (e.g. in predicting an imminent end of the world) was met with horror.


Within the C. of E. the major impact of historical criticism was Christological; if, for example, David did not write (compose) Psalm 110, what does Jesus' remark in Mark 12 imply about the limitations of his knowledge? Perhaps this is still an issue for extreme conservatives, but it hardly seems something that sets the ECUSA in a turmoil.
Indeed, it could be argued that the criticism of the bible has enabled us to have a much more "orthodox" view of Christology than was the 19th century norm. A view that Jesus, even in his earthly ministry had divine knowledge had become widespread; it was a kind of back-door monophysitism. Chalcedon had tried to exclude such views, but their popular power remained as the rising cult of Mary suggests, for she became the true human intercessor. Though the Protestant tradition departed decisively from the Roman church, this crypto-Monophysite Christology persisted. That is why so much ink was spilt over verses like Mark 9.1 and its parallels in a determined effort to show that Jesus could not have meant what the text says he said. Taking the historicity of the biblical text seriously encountered these older and more "orthodox" dogmatic assumptions.

Retreating Tide of Faith

By the mid century we find poets, philosophers and novelists bemoaning the "sea of faith" retreating like the tide going out. Within a year of each other two publications set the almost boiling pot to run over. The kind of invective, the hurled insults and lengthy magazine articles of the next two decades make the religious controversies of the late 20th century look like a genteel tea party.

The two publications were Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species over which he had been laboring for many years, appearing in 1859, and a relatively brief book containing seven essays, six of them written by clergymen and one by a layman, Essays & Reviews.

In the Press, in everyday social circles and particularly within the churches (which we have to recall embraced almost all the middle and upper classes), uproar ensued that for a while muted the response to Origins. Basil Willey describes this so well that it is worth quoting at length.

The book (Essays & Reviews) "slipped unobtrusively from the press, yet within a year of its publication the orthodox English world was convulsed with indignation and panic. The Protestant religion, as by law established, had weathered the Gunpowder Plot and the Popish Plot; it had survived the Reform Bill, the Tracts for Times, the Hampden case ... (Regius professor, attacked by Newman and other ultra conservatives; censured, but later made Bishop of Hereford whereat the whole clamor began again) ... and the Gorham controversy; but here was something still more alarming - a conspiracy of clergymen to blow up the church from within. [This sounds so like the strident cries of +Rochester, and certain African Prelates].
Cries of horror, grief and pain rang from the press and the pulpit; the Bishops protested; the Court of Arches and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council came into action. The authors of the book were denounced as 'Septem Contra Christum', the seven extinguishers of the seven lamps of the Apocalypse'". (Studies , 137).

The amazing thing is, that everything the essayists said is more or less accepted today, and indeed sounds somewhat conservative (except, of course to the spiritual successors of the proponents of scripture without any error, and a slavish insistence on a literal reading of the text). The very laudable aim of the essayists was, in Basil Willey's words, "To reconcile Christianity with criticism, to show its compatibility with the intellectual tendencies of the age, and thus to reconcile 'intellectual' persons with Christianity". (Studies, 141).
John Barton (Biblical Interpretation ) points out that with in a few years, Frederick Temple, one of the contributors to Essays and Reviews, had been made Archbishop of Canterbury, and that within the C. of E. a cautious biblical criticism was coming to be accepted as compatible with a doctrine of the Incarnation. It was this, he says that "interested Anglicans. The doctrine of scripture, which seemed so important to Continental Protestants, was not even in the creed. The Bible was used in liturgy, and that was not the context in which to press awkward questions. When controversy broke out it was usually because the doctrine of the Incarnation seemed threatened, or because clergy were not expected to question doctrine". (p. 59)

Anglican positions on Divorce and Contraception


At the beginning of the 20th century, divorce in most western countries was not easy. The R.C. church practiced (and still does) the dubious method of nullity, on which even its own canon law was not as clear as it might be. A common nullity verdict has often been based on the "Pauline Privilege" applied to a "mixed marriage", but canonists are not unanimous that this is a valid procedure.

If divorce was not easy in secular circles, it was impossible for clerics, and for lay people carried with it excommunication. Until quite recently any member of the clergy getting a divorce was inhibited for a significant period, and if he (there were only males then) remarried, he would be suspended from the ministry sine die. It was, moreover, impossible for a divorced person to be remarried “in church”.
In most Protestant branches of the church, a more permissive attitude to divorce, even among clergy, developed in the second half of the 20th century. This relaxation has also happened in the Episcopal Church.

The change has not been merely a slipping of standards, and yet another example of a "sliding away from classic Anglican theology and morals" (John Rodgers in The Living Church, Feb. 27, 2000, p.8). On the contrary, it has been the application of classic Anglican principles. The change in policy (which departs radically from scriptural prescription, see above) is the result of prayerful consideration of the realities of marriage breakdown. Such psychological, social, and personal realities, (like the realities of scientific revelation) have been taken seriously.

This position is not that of the R.C. church. The classic catholic position since the 13th century is that since marriage is a sacrament, "the marital bond between husband and wife is an, objective, ontological reality that cannot be dissolved". (Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, 179b). That means that divorce is not only wrong, it is impossible. (Compare the analogous argument about the ordination of women - an ontological impossibility). Conservative Evangelicals who, in spite of deep distrust of Rome and a rejection of many of its theological positions, agree on some moral issues like abortion and homosexuality; they also share a generally fundamentalist approach to scripture, but interestingly, Evangelicals do not share the R.C. view of marriage and divorce, (nor its stringent and continuing rejection of contraception).

An alternative view of marriage, which is common in Eastern Orthodox thought, is to regard it not as an ontological bond, but as a moral one, which depends for its stability on a high level of mutual trust. Thus, though ideally a marriage should not break down, the realities of human sin mean that if trust is irretrievably broken, the marriage is "morally dead".
The Episcopal church has made the change in typically Anglican fashion, piecemeal, with local arrangements first and changes in the National Canons much later. This same process may be seen in the wider communion. The C. of E. Synod is now [i.e. in 1998] considering a measure to allow the remarriage of divorced clergy under certain circumstances. The process is not tidy and it can be read as "sliding away" from some imagined neatly formulated position. But is not a sliding away from classical Anglicanism.

Finally, the analogies between policies for divorced people and those for homosexual people need to be stressed. There is as much (if not more) explicit biblical warrant for forbidding divorce (and remarriage) as there is for excluding homosexuals. There is also quite as strong a tradition in the matter in the sense that the church has always ordained homosexual people; (I am fully aware of this as a one-time Theological College Principal). If the Church cannot bring itself fully to incorporate homosexual persons into its life and structure, those branches of the Church which have liberal divorce policies ought, perhaps, in all justice and consistency seriously to consider the status of divorced persons in their communion. If we in the ECUSA cannot include homosexual persons, would it not be just to inhibit all divorced clergy, discontinue the practice of marrying divorced persons in church, and seriously consider their status as communicants?
[As I have said, I believe the change in practice concerning divorce was a good, pastorally sound development and therefore a change of policy for homosexuals is a just and reasonable corollary].


The issue hinges mainly on how the "ends" of marriage are understood. The classic catholic position has been and still is, that procreation is the primary end of marriage, and that, therefore, coitus is to be engaged in for the sole purpose of procreation. In this view, a secondary end is the care and mutual support the partners give each other, but it is subordinated to the primary purpose of marriage and sexual intercourse within marriage. The shift from this position was clearly enunciated in a resolution of the ninth Lambeth Conference in 1958. The resolution notes that sex in marriage has a "relational" as well as procreative significance. "It is not by any means the only language of earthly love, but it is, in its full and right use, the most is a giving and receiving in the unity of two free spirits which is in itself good.....There for it is utterly wrong to say that...intercourse ought not to be engaged in except with the willing intention of children" (quoted in Selves, 170).
This was a significant departure from traditional teaching about practice required of by a believer, and it is a departure that the R.C. church has still failed to make. Pius XI in Casti Connubi (1930) said the use of contraceptive methods was "intrinsically immoral". After Vatican II, the Commission that Paul VI set up, with married lay people among its members, advised by a considerable majority that in some instances the practice be allowed. Nothing was heard for two years when, in 1968, Humanae Vitae was promulgated, totally affirming the traditional position. It emerged that a secret committee made up of Curia members and conservative clergy, chaired by Cardinal Ottaviani, had been meeting and strongly advised the Pope to ignore the findings of the Commission.

In Closing

(a) The bombshell of Humanae Vitae is as clear and startling a contrast to Anglican polity as one could hope to find. [Though, perhaps not such a contrast to the sort of procedures some are bent on establishing. In what follows, I was referring to how things, ideally, have been within Anglicanism].
In contrast to the "process" leading up to, and the promulgation of Huamnae Vitae , the Anglican approach is open, not subject to secret committees of a particular bias; it is not centralized but allows for local movement; it allows for God's continuing revealing and guiding; it depends not on a central absolute authority which gives final and binding definitions and rulings, but on shared authority (collegiality of Bishops, participation of clergy and lay people in decision making). This does not lead to a tidy picture and does require high levels of trust within the autonomous churches of the Anglican Communion and between those churches.

(b) What has been said in this paper, shows, I think, that teaching about the faith and teaching about the practice of Christians who embrace that faith can change, and clearly have changed in the last two millennia. It also suggests that when change happens it often begins at the local level and may be almost imperceptible to the participants. To show that teaching about faith and practice can change is not necessarily to say that, in any given instance they it ought to. Yet, we must read the signs and we must take account of new knowledge. It is not enough to retreat to a fortress, hurling biblical quotations as though they settled the issue, and allowing tradition to become a bastion for bias.


Bowlby, John Charles Darwin, NY & London, 1990
Brown, Peter The Rise of Western Christendom, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996
Chadwick, Owen The Victorian Church Part I 1829-1859, London 1966
Part II 1860-1901, London 1970
Hefling Charles, Ed. Our Selves, Our Souls & Bodies, Cambridge. Mass, 1996
Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia, 1984
McGrath, Alister, Ed. The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995
McGrath, Alister, Ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought,
Oxford: Blackwell l993
Morgan Robert with Barton, John Biblical Interpretation, Oxford, 1988s
Vidler, Alec The Church in an Age of Revolution, Pelican 1961
Willey, Basil Nineteenth Century Studies, New York 1961
More Nineteenth Century Studies, New York 1956


Katie Sherrod said...

Have you posted part C yet?

JCF said...

Indeed, it could be argued that the criticism of the bible has enabled us to have a much more "orthodox" view of Christology than was the 19th century norm. A view that Jesus, even in his earthly ministry had divine knowledge had become widespread; it was a kind of back-door monophysitism. Chalcedon had tried to exclude such views, but their popular power remained as the rising cult of Mary suggests, for she became the true human intercessor. Though the Protestant tradition departed decisively from the Roman church, this crypto-Monophysite Christology persisted.

Great stuff, Simon.

I admit, I had trouble getting into your essay at first (in Parts A and B).

But you really hit your stride here.

here was something still more alarming - a conspiracy of clergymen to blow up the church from within. [This sounds so like the strident cries of +Rochester, and African Prelates].

Make that "certain African Prelates", and you're spot on.

Thanks, Simon: I learned a lot!

Canon Simon Mein said...

Many thanks for the correction; of course, it is (as so often the case) a minority that is shouting the loudest. I will correct the text.

Canon Simon Mein said...

It was published on Sunday, Aug. 17th