Some time ago, a well-known bishop was interviewed on Australian television about issues confronting Christians in the twenty-first century. The interviewer said, ‘It is known that you are against homosexuals in the Church’s ministry’, to which the response came, ‘I certainly am not … some of the finest clergy I know would be generally classified as homosexuals.’ The interviewer was thrown for a moment and, looking at her notes, referred to a statement the bishop had made elsewhere. ‘Oh that!’ replied the bishop. ‘Of course homosexual clergy are called to be celibate. But we don’t discriminate against them. ALL clergy are called to be celibate unless they are married. So, “gay” and “heterosexual” clergy are in the same boat. We don’t discriminate!’
The gay debate is not one that we really wanted to have. It is hard enough arguing publicly with fellow Christians on points that are not as personal as sexuality. And, in order not to hurt our brothers and sisters, most of us prefer to address sexuality in the more subtle context of pastoral relationships than in bitter public debate. But the gay issue has been placed before us by others, and we find ourselves being called upon to present convincingly traditional and Scriptural teaching on this matter in Synods and other forums of the Church.
In response to the Lambeth Conference resolution on sexuality, the 2001 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia called for study and dialogue on homosexuality, especially in relation to the ordination of sexually active ‘gay’ people. The Doctrine Panel’s report, Faithfulness in Fellowship is to be discussed around the dioceses in preparation for further General Synod debate in 2004. This report is a collection of ten papers, eight of which in various degrees put the liberal view, and two of which express the conservative view. Study guides to the report are becoming available for use in parishes.
One of the problems the orthodox face is that the situation in New Westminster, the Jeffrey John crisis in the UK, and the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire have given the discussion in Australia an urgency it previously lacked. In fact, it seems to us that the liberals have used these offshore events (and the sympathy of the media for the gay lobby) to achieve the same rollercoaster effect that they achieved with the ordination of women leading up to the vote in 1992.
This is certainly felt in the Diocese of Brisbane where Archbishop Philip Aspinall (one of the prelates acting as an official advisor to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s conference in Manchester!) wrote in his diocesan monthly paper that just as the Church changed its mind about Galileo, about slavery, about remarriage of divorcees and about the ordination of women in spite of the scriptural texts that seemed to stand in the way, so on the homosexual question we may well be about to grasp the truth more fully. ‘On the face of it a small number of biblical texts seem to condemn homosexual sexual activity. However, we must also recognize that, though there is still much to learn, we do know now more than the biblical authors knew in their age about homosexuality. That must be taken into account as must the experience of homosexual people who are committed to Christ and the Church and who do not believe they are called to celibacy … In this interaction between scripture, tradition, reason and experience it may be that the Holy Spirit will lead us more deeply into the truth which was revealed in Jesus Christ.’ The article as a whole left readers in no doubt that the Archbishop was keen to promote the gay agenda, a process surely to gain momentum with Bishop John Spong’s forthcoming visit when he will address a number of meetings, including a widely advertised diocesan sponsored dinner on ‘Christianity and Sexuality’.
The Uniting Church of Australia put the gay issue on the front page of our newspapers a few months ago when their National Assembly voted to allow local presbyteries the authority to accept or refuse clergy who are practising homosexuals. The Anglican General Synod could make the headlines next year by means of a simple majority vote ‘encouraging’ bishops and others involved in the selection of ordination candidates not to discriminate against practising homosexuals in monogamous committed relationships. Unlike legislation for women bishops, such a motion would require a 50% vote to pass. It would influence church people and produce new crises of conscience for orthodox Anglicans.
As with the ordination of women, the real debate for both Catholics and Evangelicals is about authority. We are grateful that the editor of Faithfulness and Fellowship agrees: ‘the greatest point of divergence of opinion in addressing these questions is the use and interpretation of Scripture … All of us believe that the Scriptures have a crucial role to play in the way we make our moral and ethical decisions. It is plain to us that the fundamentally different ways in which we approach these texts, and the way we assign degrees of importance to particular passages are what generally control the different conclusions we reach’ (pp199–200).
Australian Anglo-Catholics increasingly point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2357, 2358 and 2359 for a concise, scriptural and pastoral summary of Christian teaching on homosexuality. In less than a page, and framed in compassionate language, the Catechism reminds us that homosexual people are to be ‘accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ and warns against ‘unjust discrimination’, while at the same time affirming the special difficulties they have in living chaste lives.
Given the tremendous power of seduction and sexual temptation, surely our gay brothers and sisters who struggle to embrace celibacy in obedience to God’s word are the true heroes of the faith! This was brought home to me by a letter published in the June 2003 Anglican Journal (Canada), asking for the liberals to recognize a special category of people who are marginalized by the present debate: ‘Can I have a category for those same-sex attracted men, and I know many, who believe that God has called them to live chastely and believe that God gives them the grace to do just that? Can this category include those who believe that God calls us all to obedience irrespective of our emotion? … Can this category include the gay Christian man who believes that the Bible is God’s word and that it is true as it ever was? … Can we believe that when each individual’s personal impression of love and experience define [terms such as promiscuity] then there is simply no longer any right or wrong except what any one person feels?’
Can we have the gay debate without wounding those for whom the innovators claim to speak?
David Chislett is Vicar of All Saints, Wickham Terrace