Friday, April 09, 2010

Can Christianity--and the Abrahamic faiths in general--abandon their opposition to same-sex love?

Responding to this question, let us start with the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican Communion that is allied with it. At the outset it is well to recall the work of Derrick Sherwin Bailey (1910-1984), a British theologian and historian, who served as Canon Residentiary of Wells Cathedral from 1962 onwards. After World War II Bailey joined a small group of Anglican clergymen and physicians to study homosexuality. Their findings were published in a 1954 Report entitled The Problem of Homosexuality produced for the Church of England Moral Welfare Council by the Church Information Board.

As part of this task Bailey completed a separate historical study, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, 1955). Although this monograph has been criticized for tending to exculpate the Christian church from blame in the persecution and defamation of homosexuals, it ranks as a landmark in the history of the subject, combining scrutiny of the Biblical evidence with a survey account of subsequent history. Bailey's book drew attention to a number of neglected subjects, including the intertestamental literature, the legislation of the Christian emperors, the penitentials, and the link between heresy and sodomy.

While it is contestable, the author's interpretation of Genesis 19, where he treats the Sodom story as essentially nonsexual--an instance of violation of hospitality--has served as a benchmark for later efforts. Following Bailey’s example, gay-friendly exegetes have been proceeding with their own plans for detoxifying the notorious “clobber passages” that condemn, or appear to condemn, same-sex conduct in the Bible. The results of this enterprise are summed up in a large tome entitled The Queer Bible Commentary.

Opinion on the success of this effort has been divided, with many gay and lesbian Christians hailing the results--and even claiming, improbably, that the Bible is a gay-friendly book--while mainstream Christian opinion has not generally been accommodating. Even if we accept the maximum claims of the detoxifiers, one must recognize that the venom of the most egregious texts, such as the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 and the “unnatural” allegation in Romans 1:26-27, has not been drawn. That poison remain obstinately in place.

At the time, however, the work of Bailey and his colleagues had a salutary impact on social policy. Their work prepared the way for the progressive Wolfenden Report (1957), which was followed a decade later by Parliament's decriminalization of homosexual conduct between consenting adults in England and Wales.

These developments were for a time a source of hope, not only in Britain and in English-speaking countries in general, but also within the world-wide Anglican communion. Yet in recent years Anglicanism has witnessed a backlash that has cast earlier progress in doubt.

The thirteenth Lambeth Conference in England 1998 approved, by a vote of 526 to 70, a resolution stating that homosexual acts are "incompatible with Scripture," There was also some soothing language about the need to combat irrational fear of homosexuality, and an admonition to listen to the experience of homosexual persons. The Lambeth Conference is not an executive which imposes doctrine or discipline but a forum for the exchange of views. Still, the sting of the assertion that Scripture could not be reconciled with approval of homosexual behavior was patent.

In 2003 the Church of England announced the appointment of Jeffrey John, a priest living in a celibate domestic partnership with another man, as the Suffragan Bishop of Reading. Many Anglican traditionalists reacted strongly and John eventually succumbed to pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury (who had initially supported the appointment) and others to withdraw before he had been formally elected. John was later appointed as the Dean of St Albans instead. A number of Anglican provinces took a positive stand on the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In 2003, amid a climate of controversy, the Episcopal Church in the USA consecrated Gene Robinson, a gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire.

Responding to these developments, many provinces, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa but also some in Asia, America and Australia—representing about half of the 80 million practicing Anglicans worldwide—declared a state of impaired communion with their counterparts. Minority groups in Western provinces, dismayed by what they consider unscriptural actions by the Churches of England, Canada, Australia, and in the United States, have withdrawn their affiliation and realigned themselves with African provinces such as the Churches of Uganda and Rwanda.

In 2006 the Anglican Church of Nigeria issued a statement affirming "our commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality which is a perversion of human dignity" and encouraging the National Assembly to ratify a Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality.

While the controversy is continuing, it would seem that the lines are drawn. The leading circles of advanced industrial countries maintain their support for a more progressive policy regarding homosexuality--though with some notable holdouts. What is termed the “global South” of the Anglican churches (corresponding to what is generally called the Third World) has generally been lining up against any change of the traditional policies regarding same-sex behavior. In fact, some spokespeople wish to heighten the restrictions. Regrettably, this opposition is spilling over into secular legislation, as seen now in Uganda.

Modern Judaism shows similar conflicts, though debate has been less vehement. Summarizing the American context in broad terms, Reform Judaism is generally open to change with regard to same-sex love, and a number of ordained gay and lesbian rabbis now lead congregations. Orthodox Judaism is generally opposed, while Conservative Judaism seeks to chart a middle course. Unfortunately Reform Judaism does not have much influence outside North America.

While there are a number of Muslim gay and lesbian organizations and spokespeople, very little progress has been made in official Islamic circles, where the ulema (consensus of scholars) remains adamantly opposed.

The following negative conclusion seems inescapable. The prohibition of same-sex conduct found in all three Abrahamic faiths will be hard to change, very hard.  As I have noted in other contexts, though, these are not our only choices in the religion field.  One might recommend Buddhism where there is no deeply rooted homophobic tradition,

Of course, the "clobber passages" in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur'an are relatively few--as we keep hearing.  However, they are part and parcel with a fundamental concern in all three religions. That concern--which amounts to a group neurosis, in my view--is to establish clear boundaries of what is acceptable, indeed required in the realm of the family and sexual behavior vs. that which is taboo (to'ebah, abomination, haram).

All societies, even the most rudimentary ones, are concerned with the family in some way or other, for the reason that is essential to keep the male connected with the female after offspring are born. That in itself says nothing about the permissibility of same-sex behavior as such.  In India it is a common pattern for a gay man to get married, sire children, and then have male lovers.

The three Abrahamic religions are uniquely concerned with setting up lists of do's and don'ts.  Whatever is permissible is obligatory, and that which is not permissible is taboo, sometimes meriting the death penalty, as in Leviticus 20.

Because the prohibition of same-sex behavior is connected with this group neurosis, it will prove very difficult to excise it.

Twenty years ago I canvassed the parallel with the usury prohibition in an article in my Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. It is true that that the ban on lending money at interest was eventually relaxed.  But there is no similarity with sex regulation, because usury, except in a remote metaphorical sense (some people are in love with money), has nothing to do with sex and the family.

Similarly, we hear that the Catholic church has moderated its view about the Jews.  Hooray for that--as far as it goes.  But there is no parallel with "sodomites": renouncing anti-Semitism poses no challenge to the repressive Christian sexual ethic.

It is the Abrahamic religions themselves--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--that are the problem, not some incidental excrescence therein that they will come to eliminate by themselves.  Prohibition of homosexuality is not marginal to these faiths, but an integral part of their sexual ethic. This being the case, supporters of the cause of sexual freedom can only hope that the so-called monotheistic faiths will gradually lose ground. Alas, this does not seem to be happening.



Blogger rockingrector said...

Thank you for this brilliant summary, succinct but full of the relevant data.

Is it not possible that the prevailing culture will change the Church? I speak only of the Church of England; don't know enough about other churches to comment.

It does seem that the C of E eventually follows society, 30-50 years later - e.g. women priests. However, women still cannot be consecrated as bishops in the C of E.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

Uh- yes.

These religions have re-interpreted themselves multiple times, from the very beginning. Catholicism is now a polytheist as Hinduism, after all. Since they are fantasies from start to finish, they can do whatever their withered and cranky old anal leaders want to do.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Of course Christian churches, like other established religions, can change. The trick is to change while pretending not to do so--a paradox that is explored in John T. Noonan, Jr.'s book A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (Notre Dame Press).

The change must be accomplished with the leaders all the time insisting on maintaining their core principles, the "Gospel," Thirteen-nine Articles, or whatever.

The question is not whether churches can change--they have changed and will do so. The real issue is whether the matter of same-sex love can be detached from the overall sexual ethic. With all the mainstream denominations the jury is still out, and no one can be sure of a favorable outcome.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

I think they should. The times are changing, as Bob Dylan said long time ago... Free love is something almost too typical nowadays and they should not condemn it anymore!

9:45 AM  

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