Jan 07 2013

Gay Bishop Controversy #34

Published by under Opinion and tagged: , ,

The media are reporting a change in the Church of England’s position on gay bishops. Gay clergy in civil partnerships are evidently already allowed, provided they promise to be celibate (!). The House of Bishops has now extended the same permission to bishops. Although this is really a millimeter shift in position compared with the kilometer shift needed to accept practicing gay men as clergy and bishops, it has triggered a howl of protest from the conservative wing of the church and initiated yet another round of controversy (remember the Lambeth Conference 1998).

Of course, the media love controversy, particularly when it involves religion  and sex. But the church continues to waste its substance in unresolved conflict, degrading its public image. While the public image of the new churches is that they teach creationism, believe in a young earth and oppose abortion, the Church of England and Anglicans generally are increasingly seen as obsessively concerned about the details of sexual morality. A bishop who profits from shares in tobacco companies, is verbally or even physically violent within his family, has an alcohol problem, or  preaches a message for others that is alien to himself is unlikely to receive the attention that a gay bishop would.

A deep-seated conflict between conservative and liberal over gay sexuality shows no sign of resolution. While liberal Anglicans are able to be in one church with conservatives, the conservatives find accepting gay sexuality unacceptable. Talk of “the church’s teaching on sexual ethics” or “the biblical teaching on holy matrimony” aims to defend the traditional status quo but is woefully inadequate. Are we really supposed to believe in a God who creates humans with the gift of powerful sexuality, then arbitrarily selects a few to be attracted to their own sex, while absolutely forbidding them to act on that attraction? An arbitrarily sadistic God, indeed. Conservative thinking about gay sexuality takes a heterosexual’s natural “turn-off” reaction and absolutizes it as divine judgement. It obscures the fundamental difference between homosexuality in Graeco-Roman antiquity (married men’s sexual exploitation of young boys) with modern homosexuality (partnerships with love and commitment).  Take a moment to zoom out historically and remember the church’s opposition to contraception, masturbation and even pain relief in childbirth.

The “church’s teaching on sexual ethics” needs an update. The traditional view is more or less that everything within marriage is allowed, but anything outside of it is not. Sex is greatly to be feared so must be surrounded by rules and prohibitions. This is hopelessly anachronistic and simplistic. Most people today are sexually experienced before entering marriage. The ethical issues for them are about trust, commitment, being straight and honest with one’s partner, whether in a marriage or not.

“Holy matrimony” too, needs a rethink. I’m not aware of the church officially revising its teaching in this regard at all. Marriage services still say that marriage is ordained of God for various ends as if it fell from heaven and was not an all-to-human combination of biology and culture. No mention of sexuality bringing evolutionary benefits compared with asexual reproduction (since homosexuality has persisted, it must bring an evolutionary advantage of some sort). No mention of pair bonding and mating behavior that we share with the animal kingdom. No mention of the insights of sociology into the various ways that different societies regulate sexuality and family structure as a kind of cultural overlay on the biological given of our sexuality.

But perhaps the worst aspect of these ongoing controversies is that they distort religion. They present Christianity as law, not gospel, as basically about moral rules, imposed on people from outside. Bourgeois society has its rules, of course, but Christianity has a few extra ones, and is a bit stricter with the others. That reminds me of the religion of the Pharisees. But isn’t Christianity about love, about caring for the person, about liberation, about deliverance from what oppresses?

BBC news
The Independent 
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