THE BATTLE OVER the place of gays and lesbians in the church wages just as fast and furious in Australia as it does in England or N. America. The Uniting Church is attempting to be a pace-setter in the push for homosexual rights, but even in that liberal domination activists have had to pull back in the face of opposition not only from evangelists but also from Aboriginal and Pacific Island members.

In July the National Assembly of the Uniting Church resolved not to make a decision on a motion to approve homosexual marriages and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. The gathering received widespread media attention when the Rev Dorothy MacRae-McMahon, the Director of Mission and a 63 year old grandmother, came out as a lesbian. Dr MacRae-McMahon revealed that at the age of 51 she had left her husband with whom she had raised four children to live with a women partner. She described the day she first acknowledged her sexuality as the moment she became a “radical evangelical”.

Evangelicals less “radical” than Dr MacRae-McMahon see her approach as a challenge to the authority of scripture. Debate has centred around whether or not scriptural prohibitions apply to adult, faithful, loving homosexual relationships very different in kind from those St Paul would have known. It is claimed that the few condemnations of homosexuality we do find in the bible appear to be off-hand, instinctive and unreflective compared, say, to the extensive and detailed denunciations of economic injustice.

Those of us who do want to remain faithful to scripture while accepting that our understanding of biblical texts must grow in the light of experience feel that there is some special pleading here. As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has put it: “Early Christianity knew about homosexuality in the Greco-Roman culture, shared Judaism’s association of it with the abominations of idolatry, and regarded it as incompatible with the Kingdom of God”.

Unfortunately much Anglican and Protestant discussion of homosexuality has ignored what Roman Catholic theologians have said about the issue. Even liberal Catholics like Charles Curran or Richard McCormick agree that homosexuality cannot be seen as a norm or an ideal. Curran approves loving, permanent relationships for those who are irreversibly and genuinely homosexual on the basis of what he calls a theology of compromise. McCormick reaches a similar conclusion but other moral theologians have criticised the appeal to compromise and re-asserted the distinctiveness of Christian ethics.

The key point is that neither Curran nor McCormick considers homosexuality to be the moral equivalent of heterosexuality. Gay and lesbian activists will dispute such a view and this, surely, is the basic question that needs to be debated.

One of the clearest statements of why homosexual relations fall below the ideal has been provided by James P Hanigan, a married, lay moral theologian. He argues that because of a lack of complementarity, sexual relations between two persons of the same gender cannot become a genuine two-in-one union.

“The unity ritualised and enacted in sexual behaviour,” he writes, “is a two-in-one flesh unity, a unity that has its basis in the physical and biological complementarity of male and female. There are various ways human beings can imitate, or play at imagining this unity, but apart from the actual basis in the reality of male and sex union, these ways are only pretence or imaginative simulations of the real thing.” (Homosexuality: A test case for Christian Ethics, page 102).

If Hanigan is right, we have another reason, apart from lack of social approval, to explain why many gay and lesbian unions do not achieve long-term stability.

Another lay Roman Catholic moral theologian, the conservative Germaine Grisez, agrees with Hanigan, commenting that “the coupling of two bodies of the same sex cannot form one complete organism and so cannot contribute to a bodily communion of persons”.

This evaluation of homosexuality should not be interpreted as a charter for homophobia. The church must continue to uphold the moral norm while providing appropriate pastoral care for homosexuals even if such behaviour is labelled hypocritical or inconsistent. A recent series of articles in the Vatican newspaper stressed homosexuals have the same human dignity as others and argued gay sex is no more sinful than other transgressions against chastity.

The push for recognition of gay and lesbian unions is an aspect of the gnosticism widespread in contemporary Western society. We are embodied spirits and, like it or not, our bodies impose constraints on how we should lead our lives if we are to achieve true well-being. It is one thing to accept birth control but quite another to approve the massive severing of the link between the unitive and procreative aspects of sex implied in the approval of homosexual unions.

Another feature of Western culture prominent in the movement for gay and lesbian liberation is the belief that all desires must be gratified if it is at all possible. We see this in other areas of life as well. If a woman of 60 wants to bear a child, many people would agree with the Texas psychology professor who said she should “Go for it”.

Men and women, it is felt, have a right whatever form of sexual expression they choose. That is the secular creed but it cannot be the attitude of disciples of Jesus. To quote Dr Hanigan again: “There are times and reasons for Christian believers to take up the cross to follow Christ, to forego certain human pleasures and satisfactions because they rival or impede greater goods, to accept the limitations and restrictions that a specific way of life imposes upon them, and to find in these demands of discipleship positive human fulfilment and the very meaning of life itself”.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.