Why Homosexuality Won’t Lie Down
It is becoming something of a joke in our church family that the minister is always talking about sex. I am learning to respond to this gentle jesting with some justification as to why the issue of human sexuality is so important. Publications which have sparked media attention have included Issues in Human Sexuality, a statement by the House of Bishops and the more recent Church House publication Something to Celebrate. Of course the publication of Michael Vasey’s book Strangers and Friends has raised the temperature even further, bringing the debate within the ranks of conservative Evangelicals. As a consequence it is important that these publications have a careful response.
However, the justification I have given to my congregation for allowing this to occupy some of my time in recent months is because whatever the Church’s current attitude to sexual ethics and morality is, it reflects deeper theological trends. For the following reasons this issue is crucial:-
First, the subject of homosexuality is on the topical agenda. The challenge issued by Michael Vasey in Strangers and Friends is that the church has for too long narrowed biblical prohibitions against adultery and homosexuality (Romans 1:26f; I Corinthians 6:9f; Exodus 20 et al.) as being morally absolute, without appreciating the cultural context in which the prohibitions are made. Moreover many practices perceived to be, for example, against nature, have more to do with “culture-blind” prejudices (for example he cites Aquinas’ list of sins against nature (see pp.40ff) – not all of which late 20th century Christians would so roundly condemn). Gender identity and gender expression, sex and sexuality, raise issues which traverse the disciplines of hermeneutics and sociology. Generally speaking the difficulty has been that those who have been good in one discipline have been weak in the other.
Secondly, the issue is bigger than private personal conduct. The questions raised about human sexuality will not go away because moral and social behaviour is a reflection and expression of spiritual and theological orientation. Take the famous passage in Romans 1:18ff for example. The downward spiral which results in increasing degradation (see vv. 24, 26, 28) is the outcome of rejecting (not an unknown god) but the knowledge of God (v19, v21). Futile/vain thinking results in idolatry, which reaps futility of life in every sphere of human conduct.
Sexuality cannot be confined to issues of morality alone, but it does clearly belong there. Michael Vasey continues to use the term “gay people” (p.9ff). In contemporary usage the term “gay” covers everything from sexual preference to cultural identification to social behaviour – and clearly they cannot be all lumped together and be either accepted or rejected as they stand. Vasey is unwilling to use the traditional evangelical distinction between orientation and practice, and it must be conceded that there is a degree of continuum between the two. For example, my conduct is not honouring to God if I entertain lustful desires, whether or not I act upon those desires. However, the St Andrew’s Day Statement by the Church of England Evangelical Council is surely correct to locate Christian identity in terms of Christ, for outside of him there is no complete understanding of human reality.
“We must be on our guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities, than the redeemed humanity given us in him. Those who understand themselves as homosexuals, no more and no less than those who do not, are liable to false understandings based on personal or family histories, emotional dispositions, social settings, and solidarities formed by common experiences or ambitions. Our sexual affections can no more define who we are than can our class, race or nationality. At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there is no such thing as “a” homosexual or “a” heterosexual; there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities, and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.” (p.5)
Thirdly, post-modern confusion has brought about a loss of confidence in biblical authority and more importantly, its interpretation. I guess this is the biggest issue. The so-called “Two Horizons” of authorial intent and immanent resonance, and present understanding and application, shape the way in which the Bible is read and applied. Many issues are raised by this analysis. For example, until recently it was assumed that the application to and understanding of the original audience determined the parameters in which the Bible can be applied today. In other words, if there are “two horizons” they are not of equal significance. Secondly, it has been suggested that there is perhaps a third horizon: that is the received wisdom of centuries of careful theological application of the Bible. Is it significant that in the last fifty years Church attitudes have changed towards male/female roles and sexuality? How much of this has to do with us now being able to see the full application of the text? And how much of it has to do with a different kind of cultural blindness which has arrogantly rejected the wisdom of previous generations?
Finally, this present debate will not go away because it continues the trend of blurring Evangelical distinctiveness. The recent publication The Anglican Evangelical Crisis (edited by Melvin Tinker) addresses the question of Evangelical identity. Michael Vasey’s colleagues have responded to his new book by acknowledging that it “represents a powerful advocacy for the acceptance of homosexual lifestyle”. However, in their judgement, allowing a lecturer on their staff to produce this material is not incompatible with the “clear historic tradition of the church that heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate context for sexual relationships” (CEN 8th December). The questions raised by their public approval of Vasey’s writing include the whole identity of presuppositional stances in theological institutions. I went to Oak Hill for my theological training because I am a conservative evangelical. It was not because I refuse to be allowed to be challenged in my presuppositions. A theological college must do that.
The chapter “Homosexual Relationships and the Bible” by David Field in the Evangelical Crisis reminded me of how well David exemplifies this model of academic questioning. As you read the chapter David first strips away some of the security which prevents you from honestly addressing the issues. He brings a degree of discomfort which comes from wrestling seriously with the issues raised. Many students will remember questioning their lecturer’s theological soundness as issues were opened up. However it is only from a position where theological presuppositions have been laid out that questions and answers are enabled. Cranmer Hall reveals a degree of uncertainty over its evangelical position. To interact with Vasey’s teaching is one thing, to have him on the staff is quite another.
The issue of homosexuality will not go away until we have recognised the fact that the debate covers areas of topical and popular interest which need to be answered at that level, as well as in a more scholarly manner. The issue is about morality and personal ethics, consequently it also concerns the way in which we understand our relationship with God himself. Thirdly it raises important issues about biblical authority and interpretation. Finally, and most recently, it asks important questions about our Evangelical identity. The topic cannot be laid to rest without putting to bed these other issues.
Simon Vibert is minister at Trinity Church, Buxton and honorary secretary of the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, and author of their publication Conduct which Honours God?