Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Homosexuality in the clergy

I am a member of a Scottish Episcopal church, which is the Scottish version of the Anglican church. A few months ago the issue of homosexuality in the clergy came to the fore in our part of the church and the debate that has arisen looks set to tear the church in two over this issue. I can't go into all the details here, but the news section of the Scottish Anglican website covers all the important bits.

The issue came onto the international scene last year when the American Anglican church appointed an openly practicing homosexual bishop. The worldwide Anglican church responded to this with the Windsor Report, to which many subsets of the church responded in turn. The Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church included this text as part of their response:

"The Scottish Episcopal Church has never regarded the fact that someone was in a close relationship with a member of the same sex as in itself constituting a bar to the exercise of an ordained ministry."

Which pretty much implies that the Scottish Episcopal Church will ordain practicing homosexuals for the ministry. Furthermore it sounds like the Scottish Episcopal Church is siding with the American Anglicans and rejecting the Windsor Report.

Lots of clergy, churches and individuals within the church have reacted strongly against this. (See the Scottish Anglican website again for more details.) And the media have picked up on it too. They portray the debate as being divided into two opposing opinions which are:
  1. The 'liberal' view that homosexual practice is not incompatible with being a minister of the church, and
  2. The 'orthodox' view that homosexual practice is forbidden in the bible and therefore should not be tolerated amongst the clergy.
And once again I find myself stuck in the grey area between the two camps.

The thing that most annoys me about the 'liberal' view is that it is basically turning a blind eye to the wider issues. If unmarried practicing homosexual clergy are permitted in the church, why not unmarried practicing heterosexual clergy? There is an ineqaulity here; homosexual Christians seem to have greater sexual freedom that heterosexual ones. And if some forms of homosexual practice are acceptable for a Christian, surely the church should offer clear guidance on the issue, as it does for heterosexual Christians - presumably the 'chastity before marriage, fidelity within marriage' ideal applies to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals? But no guidance at all is on offer; if you are heterosexual you are expected to stick within the guidelines, but if you are homosexual you can do whatever you like. And if homosexual relationships are equal to heterosexual ones, why aren't the church leaders pushing for homosexual marriage (not merely 'blessings of union' but actual marriage)? I think the inequalities in this position are indefensible.

What it boils down to is this: if some forms of homosexual practice are not sin, then somebody needs to say so and be clear on this issue. But nobody on the liberal side is prepared to say what is or isn't sin, or what is or isn't acceptable.

However, the 'orthodox' position in this debate annoys me just as much. The opinion 'it is forbidden in the bible so it must remain forbidden today' doesn't work. There are heaps of things forbidden in the bible that we don't think twice before doing today.

Consider the story in Acts chapter 15. Here the issue of circumcision came to the fore in the early church - were gentile Christians required to be circumcised? After much debate the church leaders decided that no, gentile believers weren't required to be circumcised. Indeed, the church leaders went further than that and said that the gentile Christians should not have to 'carry the burden' of the old testament law - all that was required of gentile believers was:
  1. Avoidance of food sacrificed to idols
  2. Avoidance of blood consumption
  3. Avoidance of meat from strangled animals
  4. No sexual immorality
The rest of the old testament laws govening eating habits, clothes, interpersonal relationships, etc., etc. could be discarded.

There are (at least) three things in this passage which may give some guidance in the current situation.

The first (and possibly most important) thing that this passage tells me is that the 'church leaders' actually have the authority to over-rule what the bible says! The message of this passage is that Christians do not have to adhere to old testament law! By implication, it is clear that if the current leaders of the church were to decide that homosexuality is OK, then it would be OK! However, the 'church leaders' haven't made this decision yet, only some small subsets of the church are claiming this.

My second thought on this passage is that 'sexual immorality' is a particularly vague term which may or may not include homosexuality, depending on your interpretation of the words. Is morality an absolute or does it change? For example, having slaves was once considered OK, even for Christians, but today we would certainly class slavery as immoral. Is morality defined in terms of the contemprary culture? If so, perhaps homosexuality is not necessarily immoral.

My third thought on the passage is this: the early church leaders only placed four restrictions on believers. The thing that strikes me about this list is that item 1 no longer really applies to us today, and I do not know any Christians who adhere to rules 2 or 3 either. I know many Christians who eat black pudding (a blood product) and strangulation is a not unusual way of killing poultry - yet no-one I know stops to ask how the chicken they buy in the supermarket was killed? Given that we ignore three of the four rules, why do we stick so rigidly to the fourth?

Of course, all this does not solve the issue, but actually makes it more complex. The issue is not black and white but a kind of murky grey.

I cannot really ally myself to either side of the debate (or the third, silent, camp that acknowledges that there are homosexuals in the church, but think the issue should be swept under the carpet and ignored). One side appears to be saying 'come in, everything you do is fine by us' and the other side says 'stay out, we don't want you in our church' but neither of these approches sounds very like something that Jesus would say. He preached of a kingdom that was open to all, but that those who entered in to it would have to change their lives around. He would not turn any who came to him away, but he would give clear instructions on how people should behave.


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