Book review of An Acceptable Sacrifice?

Source: The Times/Times Literary Supplement
18 July 2007

The Church and homosexuality
by John Habgood

AN ACCEPTABLE SACRIFICE? Homosexuality and the Church.
By Duncan Dormor and Jeremy Morris, editors. 190pp.
SPCK. Paperback, Pounds 12.99 – 978 0 281 05851 8.

When the world’s Anglican bishops meet for the Lambeth Conference in July 2008, it is to be hoped that many of those engaged in the crucially important debate on homosexuality will have been persuaded to read this book. That the subject is contentious, not least among Christians, hardly needs further demonstration. Whether it needs to be contentious is another question altogether, and the nine essays in An Acceptable Sacrifice?, by a group of Cambridge lecturers, doctors and clergy, provide convincing reasons why more constructive attitudes are both possible and necessary. What the authors are offering the Churches is an intelligent and wide-ranging guide, which tackles the difficult questions, and is not content with simplistic answers.

The Bible is frequently claimed to be unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality. While there are texts which might at first sight give the claim some credibility, it is clear from reading them in context that they are not actually answering the kind of questions which today’s protagonists on both sides want to ask. There are many twenty-first-century questions which could not even be asked in biblical times, because the concepts which underlie them, that of homosexual orientation for instance, did not then exist. There is also an important sense in which the Bible is not a book of answers at all. It is a description of, and invitation to enter into, a historical process through which, it is claimed, the nature of God has been progressively revealed. Furthermore, the key ethical insight which forms the culmination of the entire story is the revelation of God as love. To extract a number of texts purporting to be about homosexuality, and to condemn a whole group of people for a personality trait which is not of their making, may look at first sight like faithfulness to the biblical text. In reality it is not to treat the Bible seriously, through failing to take account of its ultimate message about the sovereignty of love and the process by which this came to be.

The apparently decisive text, Leviticus 18:22, “You must not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination”, is a prime example of how such failure, together with the assumption that actions always carry the same meaning, can lead unwary readers in the wrong direction. What in our day might seem to be an unequivocal reference to homosexuality, did not originally refer to a kind of sexuality at all. When Leviticus was written, the real offence in the idea of “a man lying with a man” was that it entailed a violation of male superiority. It was seen as shameful for a man to be treated as a substitute woman. In short, it was more about gender relationships than sexual orientation.

Marriage, too, had connotations in Old Testament times and beyond, which sit uncomfortably with present Christian ideals, concerned as it then was, more with property and inheritance than with a relationship between equals. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 might seem to point in a different direction, with its focus on the idea of companionship and sexual desire, themes echoed in the Song of Songs. But these were always subordinate elements in what was perceived essentially as a form of ownership.

The New Testament brought different insights, and St Paul, unlike some contemporary Christians, had no hesitation in reinterpreting the Mosaic laws in the light of the teaching of Jesus. This brought a major shift of emphasis, away from property and male superiority, towards enduring relationships, marked by a new kind of mutuality and equality. So significant were these relational possibilities in the mind of Jesus, that he even saw them as extending to the life of heaven. Biblical attitudes towards sexual matters, in short, are not wholly consistent. They are part of a gradual development of understanding, and some of them belong within a culture which for good Christian reasons is now alien to us.

The companionate model of marriage, however, had to wait a long time before it began to prevail in the Christian world. The significance of property and inheritance continued to loom large and, in the latest government plans for cohabitation, still do. One decisive change can be credited to the Reformers, who were willing to acknowledge that “the procreation of children and the avoidance of fornication” were not the only reasons for getting married. When Cranmer, for instance, was persuaded to add to the Prayer Book marriage service the additional clause, “the mutual society, help and comfort that one might have of the other”, the centre of gravity began to shift.

A further step was necessary, though, before it became possible to carry the theme of love and mutuality into same-sex relationships, and to give them public recognition. It seems clear that such relationships existed in medieval times without being explicitly condemned; in fact male companionship and mutual affection were commonplace, though it is not possible to know precisely what of a sexual nature might have been involved. The fact that sodomy was made a criminal offence in England and Wales in 1562 suggests that hitherto some, at least, of the relationships had been sexually active. The link between companionship and homosexual practice could not be given fully defensible moral validity, however, without the notion of homosexual identity. This was not recognized as such until the eighteenth century, and some parts of the Anglican Communion, usually for historical reasons, still do not accept that it is a fairly common, sexual variant. I have vivid memories of addressing a hostile audience of African church leaders in the World Council of Churches, shortly after the identification of AIDS, and facing their refusal to believe that a disease then associated almost exclusively with homosexuals could have any relevance among their own people. In their eyes homosexuality was self-chosen and deeply sinful, and could have no place whatever in African culture.

Since then the debate among Christians has become even more polarized, not only between Western Christians and what has become known as the Global South, but between different traditions of biblical interpretation. The refusal by some to acknowledge that a homosexual identity may in some sense be God-given is a deep source of division. It leaves Christians who claim such an identity with no religiously legitimate means of sexual expression. Their dilemma is poignantly expressed in the question with which An Acceptable Sacrifice? ends: “How is the Gospel good news if you’re gay?”.

The question can, of course, be refused by those determined to do so. Accusations about the denial of biblical authority, the overthrowing of tradition, and the potential for abuse, have been plentiful, and it is clear that the passions felt on both sides are strong enough to be a cause for schism among Christians. The spectre of theological liberalism hangs over the debate, which has become increasingly acrimonious because a great deal more is felt to be at stake within different Christian Churches than relatively marginal disputes about homosexuals.

There are paradoxes, however, inherent in such over-reaction. These are explored in a closely argued chapter which examines the wider implications of living in a market society, and the relation between economic interests and personal morality. It is in this kind of context that the language of “conservative” and “liberal” becomes increasingly confused. Christians, it is argued, want on the whole to live counter-culturally. But which culture? Ethical conservatives, for instance, tend to favour economic liberalism, on which the market depends, and which in turn helps to shape the kind of free society in which homosexuals can flourish. Theological liberals, on the other hand, tend to be sceptical about the market, particularly in North American society, where profound individualism and a capitalist economy “have generated a powerful identity politics, in which people identify themselves as members of quite tightly defined interest groups” in fierce competition. The world-wide growth of so-called furious religion, with its propensity to intolerance, is all part of the same phenomenon. Not least among the merits of this excellent book is its exposure of the profound ambiguity of the labels “conservative” and “liberal”.

HIV/AIDS overshadows the whole complex debate. It is obvious that it is no longer the “gay plague”, and nowadays, outside prosperous developed countries, is more of a threat to women than to men. But the fact that it has been so closely associated with homosexuality, and stigmatized thereby, is a further reason for overcoming the religious hesitations and injustices which, in some parts of the world, still hamper a sufficiently vigorous response to it.

An Acceptable Sacrifice? is a rich and thought-provoking study, of value anyone wanting to play a part in current religious debates on homosexuality. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from it is centred on the need to get the balance right between the hedonistic pleasures of sex, and the deepening and maturing of human relationships. This is, of course, true of all sexual relationships, and it is somewhat ironic that well-meaning Christians have tried to lay down rules for homosexuals which would in fact separate those two aspects of our human nature. Homosexual clergy in particular have been asked to sacrifice one aspect of their humanity as the price for witnessing to what are supposedly biblical imperatives.

Is it an acceptable sacrifice? Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a characteristically trenchant foreword, writes: “The answer is simple: No. It is not acceptable for us to discriminate against our brothers and sisters on the basis of sexual orientation, just as it was not acceptable for discrimination to exist on the basis of skin colour under Apartheid. We cannot pick and choose where justice is concerned”. The hope is that that might be the final word. But I doubt it.

* * *

John Habgood was formerly Archbishop of York. His books include Church and Nation in a Secular Age, 1983, Being a Person: Where faith and science meet, 1998, Varieties of Unbelief, 2000, and The Concept of Nature, 2002.

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