Present Imperative – Past Indicative

IT IS THE HABIT of today’s revisionist Christians to re-invent the past. Two articles in this edition (my own piece on pages 7ff., and the lead article by Professor Davies on pages 34) devote themselves to the burgeoning historical fantasies of contemporary feminism. The rule is a simple one – if it didn’t happen, invent it. But the feminists are by no means alone. Take for example the Bishop of Oxford.

Richard Harries speaks on important matters, in the House of Lords and at international meetings. He speaks with a gravitas which commands attention; a gravitas wholly appropriate to one whose cathedra is located at the heart of the nation’s oldest University.

But, alas, this is for the most part, a triumph of manner over content, and form over substance.

A case in point is the slender paper on ‘Human Sexuality’ delivered to the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Panama in 1996 and published in ‘Being Anglican in the Third Millennium’ a compilation edited by James Rosenthal and Nicola Currie [Moorehouse Publishing, Harrisville Pennsylvania, 1997]. For Human Sexuality’, of course, read homosexuality throughout.

After a brief summary of attitudes in some provinces of the Communion, Harries moves on to consider the issue from atop the dear old ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

Scripture gets short shrift.

It is easy enough to bring forward a number of texts from both the Old Testament and the New Testament which condemn sexual relations with the same sex. I am not going to discuss those texts again. They are clearly there.’

He then goes on to assert that two factors render such texts largely irrelevant to the cultural situation of contemporary Christians. The first is that gay Christians in our own day are claiming recognition for faithful committed, monogamous relationships (as against the licentiousness and promiscuity which the texts envisage). The second is that (contrary to scriptural understandings) the modern consensus is that homosexuality is a given condition and not a personal choice.

Harries does not even consider the obvious possibility that neither factor (supposing both claims to be true or even demonstrable) need affect the meaning or relevance of the texts in our contemporary situation. A given condition, since the Fall, can nevertheless be ‘intrinsically disordered’; and the faithful repetition of a sinful act does not necessarily make it less so.

But Tradition suffers worse.

‘…until comparatively recently it was assumed that the history of the Church was one of long, unremitting condemnation of homosexuality. The work of scholars suggests that this is not so. The name here is that of the late James Boswell, a Professor of History at Yale and a Christian’.

Amazingly Boswell’s is the only voice of the Tradition in Harries’ whole paper (apart, that is, from an irrelevant nod in the direction of a putatively homosexual Shakespeare -‘…people argue that Shakespeare’s sonnets were primarily written to other men… ).

Boswell’s two books [‘Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, 1991 and The Marriage of Likeness: Same-sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe’, 1995] are, it is true, a fascinating by-way of contemporary scholarship. Future generations will read them, and wonder at the mingled naivety and decadence of an age which could read back into Balkan texts of the eleventh century the mores of 1980s California. But they will hardly take the weight being placed upon them. The scholarly consensus is not with Boswell; nor is he himself quite the advocate of that modern pattern of faithful, committed monogamous same sex relationships which Harries hopes to commend. Tragically Boswell, and two of the three dedicatees of his book, all died of Aids.

Harries, to be fair, cannot quite bring himself to agree to Boswell’s main thesis – that marriage rites for same sex couples were common before the twelfth century – but he leaves us believing that he wants to believe it. He wants an ‘alternative tradition’ which will support his own presuppositions. For Harries, as for so many revisionists, morality is about ‘hearing other people’s stories’. And he wants the past to tell him the stories he wants to hear.

Belief in the existence of an ‘alternative tradition’ (a ‘hidden tradition’ as Lavinia Byrne has rightly called it) was also the theme of Harries’ more recent contribution to the debate on human cloning in the House of Lords.

To the teaching of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2270 ft) that ‘human life must be protected and respected absolutely from the moment of conception’ (which he characterised as a nineteenth century development, just as he had located ‘homophobia’ as beginning in the thirteenth or the seventeenth century), Harries contrasted a supposed ‘gradualist tradition which accorded to the foetus a different moral status at different times in its development. The debate about when the ‘soul’ entered the foetus (culminating in the dogmatic Aristotelianism of the thirteenth century) was made to sound as if it were evidence of this ‘tradition; and the ‘tradition’ itself presented as a useful parallel with the distinctions made in modern abortion legislation.

But like Boswell’s medieval texts, the distinction does not bear examination. The consistent view of the vast majority of Christians (including those who taught that the foetus was ensouled at some time after conception) has from the beginning been what it is now. ‘Any hair-splitting distinctions as to whether the foetus was formed or unformed’, writes Basil the Great, in his first canonical letter, ‘is inadmissible.’

To re-read the earliest Christian texts on abortion is to be convinced that in the subapostolic and early patristic period the pattern was set for all time. Christians viewed abortion and infanticide (between which they did not distinguish) as the abhorrent practices of the pagan peoples out of whom, through baptism, they had come. It is with fierce tenacity that they proclaim the absolute sanctity of human life.

In a passage which dwells upon the bloodthirsty practices of ritual murder among pagans (and with bitter irony refers to pagan accusations that the Christian eucharist is ritual anthropophagy) Tertullian famously dispatches all aspects of the matter with his customary verve:

With us murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the foetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quick way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed.’ [Apologeticus, 9]

It is not easy, when all is said and done, to know what to do about Harries’ and other revisionist accounts of a past which was not. Certainly they are no more amenable to scholarly refutation than are hopes and dreams. Time spent on contradicting them is for the most part time wasted. But those of us who hold to the Tradition need to know that they are there; silent witnesses to a distortion of the truth which those who hold to them will probably never recognise as such.

Conan Doyle, the great creator of the supremely logical Sherlock Holmes, was, after all, taken in by some very fraudulent faeries, for no better reason than that they were what he wanted to see.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.