‘People looking into the Church can think it’s a really homophobic environment’ – the words are those of the Evangelical, Vicky Beeching, who ‘came out’ not long ago. Reading her comments. one can see that she has been shaken by the reaction from some of those on Twitter and on her blog and has decided that is not the place to engage with further thinking on the subject.
I wasn’t willing to have my LGBT readers, who bravely share their personal and vulnerable views in the comments section, ganged up on by aggressive, conservative readers – many from the American Bible Belt – in a way that feels insensitive and inappropriate.
I can understand that. A couple of years ago, when I posted on the subject of a wedding invitation I had received from one of my oldest female friends, who was marrying a woman, some of the comments made were pretty ghastly.The essential argument from tradition is based on certain Biblical passages and on a view of what is and is not ‘natural’. The essential argument against the traditional view is that the passages concerned have been misread and that misreading is largely culturally conditioned. In the case of my own dilemma, given that there is precisely one verse in Scripture criticising lesbianism and many more criticising people being judgmental, that was quite ironic.
This is something that, when speaking in Toronto in 2007, Rowan Williams pointed out:
Paul in the first chapter of Romans famously uses same-sex relationships as an illustration of human depravity — along with other ‘unnatural’ behaviours such as scandal, disobedience to parents and lack of pity. It is, for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, and has understandably been the focus of an enormous amount of exegetical attention.
What is Paul’s argument? And, once again, what is the movement that the text seeks to facilitate? The answer is in the opening of chapter 2: we have been listing examples of the barefaced perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order in front of their noses; well, it is precisely the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need. Once again, there is a paradox in reading Romans 1 as a foundation for identifying in others a level of sin that is not found in the chosen community.
Now this gives little comfort to either party in the current culture wars in the Church. It is not helpful for a ‘liberal’ or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be as obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents. It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading /hearing subject who has been up to this point happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of someone else. The complex and interesting argument of chapter 1 about certain forms of sin beginning by the ‘exchange’ of true for false perception and natural for unnatural desire stands, but now has to be applied not to the pagan world alone but to the ‘insiders’ of the chosen community. Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding.
This is worth quoting at length because it makes the important point that we have to read what Paul is saying, not read into Paul what we think he ought to have been saying – and that is something people on both sides of this issue do.
The Church of Scotland has what it calls a position of ‘constrained difference’ on this issue:
“It is a fundamental part of our faith in the Reformed Tradition that we permit each other in good conscience to interpret scripture differently but to keep any such interpretations in check by what we understand as the substance of the faith.”
Those for whom tradition is paramount will, naturally, come down where it has always come down, and they will continue to read the Bible passages in a way consonant with it. Those of us for who tradition is important, but not the decisive factor, will use our reason to read the Bible passages in a contextual way and will come down in another place, which does not necessarily mean abandoning tradition, but wondering how we deal, pastorally, with homosexuals or transexuals who are also Christians. Some of them will adopt the position that they are called to celibacy, but those who do not feel they have that grace, what of them, especially if they cannot see that the traditional reading of these Scripture passages is at all convincing? Perhaps the Church of Scotland’s position is not quite as unsatisfactory as it looks?
Of course, for those who believe that homosexuality is in the same league as murder and oppressing the poor (I do hope those last are not voting for neoliberal economic solutions to our economic problems), this line will seem intolerable. But then to those who don’t, their line seems intolerable too. We are all sinners, but we cannot all agree on what is sinful. So perhaps ‘constrained difference’ is the most sensible way for us to disagree – except for those who feel that arguing on this issue s getting us anywhere – something it is hard to see is the case.