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Human sexuality - a question of identity

06 August 2004

By Mark Woods (*)

One Sunday afternoon last year at the ice hockey stadium near the small US town of Durham, a small but noisy protest group confronted a larger group of university students. The demonstrations were controlled by mounted police. It was an unusual context for the consecration of a bishop, but this was an unusual consecration.

Inside the stadium, a band played, a group of children rang hand-bells and a massed choir sang. A congregation of 3,000, including more than 50 bishops, sang "The Church's One Foundation", and by the end of the three-hour service – and not before several more formal protests - Gene Robinson was made the next bishop of New Hampshire.

It's a move that has shocked, appalled and delighted Christians around the world - because Gene Robinson is a homosexual man in a long-term relationship with a male partner. Along with well-publicised blessings of same-sex partnerships in the Anglican Diocese of New Hampshire and the débâcle of the near-consecration of Canon Jeffrey John, another homosexual man though in a celibate relationship, as bishop of Reading in the UK, it has created the greatest crisis in the life of the Anglican communion for a hundred and fifty years. Some provinces have declared themselves out of communion with the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA). And in the wake of the controversy, the Anglican church itself is having to rethink the way its constituent parts relate to each other through a Lambeth Commission, designed, in the words of one member, to "look at how we can live together in the greatest communion possible. At present there is no way of resolving difficulties which we're all agreed upon. The old consensus has broken down."

But the recent high-profile battles in the Church of England are part of a wider debate in the Christian church and in society, particularly Western society, as a whole. Homosexuality, formerly taboo, is now socially and morally acceptable in many countries. And it's argued by some that in the light of our increasing biological, social and psychological understanding of sexuality, it's right that this should be so. The church, in this view, should accommodate itself to the changes. For other Christians, this is a surrender to the spirit of the age and a clear breach of biblical teaching and the historic tradition of the church. Passions run very high, on both sides.

The wider issues

It's partly to confront issues like this that the World Council of Churches (WCC) set up its reference group on human sexuality, with representatives from different churches, and a staff group on human sexuality. And the subject, it's clear, goes much more widely than the one issue of homosexuality. It includes polygamy, divorce, violence against women, pre-marital sex and HIV/AIDS.

One concrete achievement so far from these groups was the setting up of three Bossey seminars, one inviting participants from different cultures to share their perspectives on sexuality, one to analyse church statements on the subject, and the third focusing on Bible studies.

Professor Valburga Schmiedt Streck, a Brazilian Lutheran who is a theological teacher and family therapist, attended two of them. They were, she said, a very positive experience. "We were a group of people, most of whom didn't know each other, from different professional backgrounds, different ages, different churches and with different sexual experiences."

And one thing they learned was to take a broad view of human sexuality, as the participants' concerns varied across the continents. "In Africa it was AIDS, in Asia the abuse of girls and women, in the North Atlantic area homosexuality, in Latin America young people's problems with drugs, crime and prostitution," she says.

In her work as a family therapist, she has had wide experience of problems with sexuality. The biggest difficulty for homosexual people, she says, is that they are so often excluded. "They are outcasts from community life, major life events, church rituals. I see many situations where the family turns away, and it's very painful."And in contrast to some in her church, she does not believe that sexuality is a matter of choice, or should be treated with psychotherapy. "From what I've seen, if you are one, you are," she says. Neither is she prescriptive about the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour. Describing herself as "open" rather than "liberal", she refers back to her own church tradition and says: "From a Lutheran perspective, you are responsible for your acts, and you should be conscious of what you do."

The view from the churches

Some churches have moved further than others in terms of affirming changes in social and moral attitudes. Rev. Luna Dingayan of the United Church in the Philippines says: "We ordain people conceived to be homosexual or lesbian. It's not an issue for us, though some of our churches and pastors are influenced by fundamentalists and reject homosexuals."

Rev. Dr Lorraine MacKenzie Shepherd is a minister in the United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination. For that church, too, she says, it's no longer a contentious subject.

"It was in the '80s that the issues hit, with all sorts of sexuality studies. In 1988, the general council decided that sexual orientation was no barrier to ordained ministry. Some people were very angry about that.

"The greatest difficulties people faced were from other churches – for instance, children at school were harassed. But now, even the right-wing groups have pretty much decided that the decision's been made."

Isn't there in fact a clear biblical witness against homosexual practice? She refers to the idea of "hermeneutics", or the principles of scriptural interpretation.

"It's very clear that the scriptures support slavery too," she says. "You can proof-text anything. The question is, how do we read Scripture? What is the hermeneutical key to reading Scripture, period, regardless of the issue?

"And gender is linked to this as well. There's a connection with misogyny and homophobia. When people have not seriously looked at sexuality, they may not have looked at their own sexuality – that could be part of it. It is a very emotional issue. It touches us deep within, because everyone is sexual and everyone is affected."

But for many Christians, on the other hand, such liberal views are simply unacceptable.

Rev. Oluwemimo Adeyinka Owasanoye is a minister in the Church of the Lord (Aladura). Homosexuality, she said, is uncommon in Nigeria, her home country. But, she says, "As far as the church is concerned, it is not to be done. The Bible condemns it, and God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of it. God created men and women so that there should not be such things."

Nathan Hoppe, a member of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, is also deeply opposed to the liberal view. "Homosexual relationships are scandalous from an Orthodox perspective," he says.

"It's something that causes those in the Orthodox world who pursue ecumenical relationships considerable embarrassment. People say, how is it that you can pursue talk of church reunion with communions who do things so blatantly against what's been biblical Christian morality for the last 2000 years?"

Neither is he impressed by the argument that scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to permit or support such relationships.

"If the hermeneutic for biblical morality which has been so universally accepted for so long has now shifted, what value is there in offering the authority of scripture on things that are also in debate such as baptism?

"To me it brings into question the whole of the language we have in common. If we affirm the authority of scripture, but that means different things to different people, is that authority of any significance? The question is, how can we have a dialogue when mutual affirmations mean different things?"

In Hoppe's view, although he acknowledges that the Bible is always read in a particular context, there's a difference between that and reading into the text something that isn't there. "This reading of the text is very much driven by a need to justify present practice," he says. "The text is being judged by the practice."

Deeply felt and highly charged

For another Canadian, an Anglican in the thick of the argument about the future shape of that communion, what's striking is the strength with which different views are held. "There's a level of acrimony in this debate which I've not encountered before," says Rev. Canon Dr Alyson Barnett-Cowan, a member of the Lambeth Commission. "Even the ordination of women was not as contentious."

The problem she says is that "sexuality is such a charged question. It touches deep beliefs and feelings, which we may not always have access to. And for some, it's the last straw, because it looks as though the liberal tradition has gone too far in interpreting Scripture."

Like other participants, Barnett-Cowan makes the point that sexual orientation is only one part of a much wider set of problems. "There are lots of other issues around sexuality," she says. "Families are in disarray all over the world – there's the breakdown of tribes and clans, the increasing participation of women in economic and social life – and in the West there's a highly sexualised society. There's a bombardment of sexual images which is very hard for young people to deal with.

"For the churches, the question is, 'What is the purpose of sex?' It obviously isn't only about procreation. It's about enhanced relationships, the way we have intimate communion with other human beings, reflective of our communion with God.

"In a world which has divorced meaning from sex, how can the churches call people to be reflective, honest, whole and non-exploitative in their sexuality?"

This is a question both for those who affirm and those who deny the theological validity of same-sex relationships. But their answers may be very different.

In his consecration service, Bishop Gene Robinson said: "This occasion is not about me, but a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination. It's about so many other people who find themselves at the margins and, for whatever reason, have not known the year of the Lord's favour."

In his book "A Church at War", Stephen Bates describes the conclusion of the service. "As the procession of bishops moved off at the end, the small figure of the new bishop looked up. He had one of the broadest grins imaginable. It was not just a look of triumph but of simple happiness."

This happiness is far from being shared by all Christians, and the sexuality debate is far from over. But in forums such as the World Council of Churches, local study groups and the day-to-day dialogues of life, Christians continue to encounter one another and the world, and to seek the mind of God through the guidance of the Spirit.

(*) Mark Woods is news editor of the Baptist Times and an ordained Baptist minister from the UK.

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The issue of human sexuality at the WCC

The World Council of Churches has made statements on sexuality over a period of many years.

The period 1961-1991 was surveyed by Birgitta Larsson in an article for the Ecumenical Review, vol. 50/1, entitled "A Quest for Clarity". Areas covered included birth control, illegitimacy, polygamy, celibacy and divorce.

A study on sexuality, "Living in Covenant with God and One Another: a Guide to the Study of Sexuality and Human Relations" (WCC 1990) is still a relevant guide to the issues.

More recently, the question of homosexuality has risen higher on churches' agendas. Within the WCC, a report and proposal for the assembly in Porto Alegre is being considered in consultation with the churches.

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