Keeping the Issues Open

IN HIS PREFACE to the 1991 edition of Issues in Human Sexuality the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, “we do not pretend [this] to be the last word on the subject”, adding, “We encourage clergy chapters and congregations to find time for prayerful study and reflection on the issues we have addressed.” This was also the substance of the motion presented by the Archdeacon of Wandsworth to the July 1997 General Synod. Thus the passing of that motion should properly be seen as a belated response to the original intention of the Statement rather than a victory for the LGCM.

Part of the problem since 1991 has been the use of the Statement to avoid personal expressions of controversial views. “My position is that put forward in Issues in Human Sexuality” has become shorthand for “Don’t press me too hard on this.” Frequent repetition has resulted in the Statement becoming the standard of Anglican orthodoxy, instead of itself being tested against orthodox standards. The time for that testing has now thankfully come. However, if the process of ‘study and reflection’ is to be meaningful it must be grounded in a proper understanding of the issues involved. Specifically, this means people must read the Statement (and it is to be hoped that Church House have large stocks standing by for the anticipated flood of orders).

But this is an exacting task. By the Statement’s own admission, the hermeneutical question is “fundamental to the whole issue” (1.6), but many will take issue with the Statement’s hermeneutics. For example, its analysis of the biblical view of human sexuality is contentious, being presented as a development from the primitive to the refined, yet always suspicious of sex, patriarchal and governed by the importance of (male) progeny. By contrast, little weight is given to the inherent criticism of conventional cultural attitudes in, for example, the Song of Songs, or the stories of Tamar or Ruth.

Again, the concept of revelation is almost wholly ignored or reduced to a mere ‘openness’ to God’s mind and message (2.2), whilst the notion of an authoritative text is distinctly underplayed. The Statement’s own hermeneutic thus appeals to “the mind of Christ” discovered through reflecting on “the teaching and example of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels … the guidance in the rest of the New Testament which came from reflection on the person and work of Christ by the leaders of the earliest Church” and the continuing guidance of the Spirit “in learning from the dialogue between Scripture and contemporary circumstance” (2.21). Note, the content of the New Testament is held to come from ‘reflection by’ the Apostles not, as they themselves claimed, ‘revelation to’. And here we surely see the hand of John Austin who now seems able to set the present Spirit against past Scripture.

A further weakness of the Statement is its silence about the specifics of homosexual activity, in spite of a coy admission that “the biological evidence is at least compatible with a theological view that heterosexual physical union is divinely intended to be the norm” (4.14). Indeed, the Statement is constantly ambivalent about ‘natural’ behaviour, simultaneously downplaying the significance of common sense (or Paul’s theology) whilst referring to heterosexual ‘normality’ in unguarded moments, (cf 3.19; 5.3). Yet a fundamental problem with the pro-gay argument is that the gay lifestyle is unsustainable without the remedies of modern medicine for the problems it causes its practitioners. (The same can, of course, be said of unregenerate heterosexuals. Ironically, nature is wholly unforgiving to humans who give rein to their ‘natural’ desires.) It is understandably difficult in most church contexts to remark that, biologically speaking, penises are for vaginas, not anuses, but until this is acknowledged a proper debate cannot be said to have taken place.

Finally, Issues in Human Sexuality is notorious for the double-standard it seems to allow for laity and clergy. What is less well known is that in certain circumstances it effectively requires the acceptance of the active homosexual layperson: “in every congregation such homophiles should find fellow-Christians who will sensitively and naturally provide [friendship and understanding] for them” (5.6).

Yet the Statement does not accept all expressions of sexuality. Both paedophilia and bisexuality are condemned outright. For people with those desires self-control is the only option, though for the bisexual “it can also be that counselling will help the person concerned to discover the truth of their personality and to achieve a degree of inner healing” (5.8) – a curious sentiment considering the Statement’s earlier hesitancy about homosexual ‘healing’ through similar methods (cf 4.4).

Readers will appreciate the difficulty in debating a Statement which is itself complex in presentation and occasionally contorted in its thinking. Certainly as it stands it is a task well beyond most Synods and local congregations. The hope of the pro-gay lobby may well be for a shallow debate and a gradual change based on sentiment. It is up to those who can come to grips with Issues in Human Sexuality to ensure that this is not the case.