WHY IS THERE DEBATE ON GAY AND LESBIAN ISSUES?
Archbishop of Perth
Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia
‘You will all perish in hell!’ thundered the fundamentalist preacher from his soapbox in the Sydney Domain. ‘There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ ‘But what about those of us who have no teeth?’ called an aged and dentally challenged chap from the back of the crowd. The preacher spat back his reply as quick as a flash: ‘Teeth will be provided!’
The fundamentalist has an answer for everything. Even so, the Bible has very little to say about some things. Steam trains, for instance. If you go to the Scriptures to find an answer to the question, once hotly debated amongst the Australian States, about the most desirable size of railway gauge, you are bound to be disappointed. There are just some essentially modern questions that the Bible does not address.
Of course, the Biblical fundamentalist might also be able to wring something about railway gauges from those Scriptural texts about keeping to the straight and narrow. But most of us accept that the Bible was written long before steam engines were even dreamed of. Its interests and concerns lie elsewhere.
The concept of ‘oxygen’ is also absent from the Biblical text. Though the Biblical authors certainly had the living experience of breathing oxygen, they had no actual knowledge of the existence of oxygen or any appreciation of its importance to life. Unlike steam trains which had no existence, oxygen was an actual part of the air they breathed, but the Biblical writers could not talk about oxygen or refer to it or make any knowledge claims concerning the existence of oxygen. It was only once somebody discovered it and named it that people, armed with the concept ‘oxygen’ and rules for its use, were able to talk about oxygen and make knowledge claims about it.
Noting the importance of the concepts of our language for interpreting and ordering the raw deliverances of our sensory experience, the philosopher Kant once observed that sensory experiences (which he called ‘intuitions’) without concepts are blind. We experience things but are blind to their existence and have no knowledge of the fact that we do experience them, until we have the concepts of a language with which to interpret and order our raw experience.
The Biblical writers were blind to steam trains because they were yet to be invented. They lacked both the experience of steam trains and the very concept of a steam train. But they were also equally blind to the existence of oxygen even though they did actually experience it, because they had no concept with which to identify and refer to it.
The same applies to the concept of an ‘exclusively homosexually orientated person.’ This was a discovery of only 150 years ago. Go to the Bible and it simply is not there. Often, people speak of the clear Biblical teaching about how to deal pastorally with homosexual people, but that is a real howler. The Bible knows nothing of the existence of homosexual people. No doubt there were such people in the ancient world and others would have had the experience of engaging with them, but they were blind to their existence as ‘homosexually orientated people’ because they did not yet have the concept of ‘exclusive homosexual orientation’ with which to order their raw experiences.
It is true that reference is made in a handful of biblical texts to some behaviours which we would today identify as ‘homosexual’ behaviours (for example in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-7), but originally the basic heterosexuality of the human race was simply assumed: male and female created he them. The prohibited behaviours of which the Bible speaks were directed in an undifferentiated way to an audience that was assumed to be simply and uncomplicatedly heterosexual. The concept of ‘a person of exclusive homosexual orientation’ had yet to surface in human history. It was certainly not known that between say 5 and 10% of the population was not heterosexual.
Without the concept of an ‘exclusively homosexually orientated person’ it is therefore an impossibility for biblical writers to refer explicitly to or claim to know actual people who filled that concept. Even if they experienced them, they were blind to the existence of exclusive homosexual identity. There can therefore be no biblical text consciously directed at ‘homosexually orientated people’ as a distinct sub-class of humans. The biblical authors cannot even have dreamed of such a thing for the Bible does not work with the mid-nineteenth century distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In ancient days it was simply a matter of working with the assumed concept of the undifferentiated heterosexuality of males and females.
Curiously, those same texts from Genesis, Leviticus and Romans are nevertheless often cited today as providing a pre-packaged answer to our contemporary questions. These texts are often assumed to be ‘what the Bible teaches about homosexuality’ and are imagined to contain a simple answer to the question of how the Church should deal pastorally with homosexually orientated people, including those in ‘long term committed relationships.’ It is as though these texts were explicitly directed at the 5 to 10% of the population that we know today to be people of exclusive homosexual orientation and not to the rest of humanity. But they are actually what the Bible teaches about unacceptable behaviour amongst an assumed audience of heterosexual men. This is already clear in the story in Genesis 19 in which the men of Sodom come banging on the door of Lot’s house and call for the visitors to whom Lot has offered hospitality and protection to be thrown out that they might ‘know’ them. In response Lot offers his daughters as substitutes for the visitors. It is clear that this is not a story about people who are exclusively homosexual, but about men who are assumed to be heterosexual. It is also about a planned gang rape, not about homosexual people living in long term committed relationships. An assumed heterosexuality, not homosexuality, is also implicit in the actual statement of Leviticus: ‘You shall not lie with a man as you do with a woman.’ Likewise in Romans Paul laments that men were giving up their natural relations with women, probably including their wives. In all these texts, what we would refer to today as homosexual activity is assumed to be an activity of people who, in an undifferentiated way, are assumed to be heterosexuals.
It is because the Bible assumes the heterosexuality of males and females that there is a clear biblical teaching about the desirability of steadfast love and faithfulness in marriage and about behaviours deemed to be inappropriate within the context of marriage. It is in this context that the Church receives and endorses its prohibitions against all promiscuous behaviour, which might fracture the relationship of trust between husband and wife. Instead, the clear Biblical teaching is that we must be faithful as God is faithful: Our human behaviours should reflect something of the steadfast love of God. Adultery is thus condemned, and so is ‘laying with a man as you do a woman.’ Indeed, the penalty of stoning to death is the same in both cases. When St Paul also laments the fact that husbands were abandoning wives, to set up liaisons with other men, he is also speaking against promiscuous behaviour. The Biblical prohibitions are clear and direct. What is also equally clear is that they are directed to a population that is assumed in an undifferentiated way to be heterosexual, simply male and female. The concept of a person of exclusive homosexual orientation was yet to be discovered.
However, if the relevant Biblical texts clearly affirm the faithful and steadfast commitment of marriage, and condemn promiscuity, these same texts do not so easily apply to those in the population of whom we speak today as ‘exclusively homosexually orientated people in long term committed relationships.’ This is why the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is right when he says that the Bible ‘is not crystal clear about homosexual people in long term committed relationships’. Indeed, if anything this is an understatement. There is in fact no explicit biblical teaching about committed homosexual people in long term and faithful relationships. Rather, we have to extend what the Bible has to say about right behaviour amongst human people generally, who are assumed to be heterosexual, to the essentially modern phenomenon of people who are exclusively orientated in a homosexual way, for this category of human being was not heard of prior to the mid-nineteenth century.
But this begs the question as to whether homosexual people in long term committed relationships may not also be likewise exhorted to avoid all promiscuous relationships and to uphold steadfastness and faithfulness. That is why we are having the contemporary debate about this matter. It certainly bears upon our attitude towards the much publicised appointment of a person who is openly in a long term committed relationship with a person of the same sex as a bishop in New Hampshire.
Perhaps this is why the Roman Catholic Church tends, not to quote the few biblical texts that are said to bear upon the issue to warrant its teaching about homosexuality, but rather to appeal to the concept of natural law. There are some behaviours that are intrinsically wrong, it is said, because they are ‘contrary to nature.’ This may be a more secure argument than one which seeks to make the ancient texts apply to an essentially modern set of circumstances that cannot have even been envisaged by the biblical authors themselves. However, natural law arguments have to run the gauntlet of some powerful historical critiques, not least such as that of John Stuart Mill, who pointed out that what is natural is what occurs in nature. Homosexual people in turn point out that it would be entirely unnatural for them to enter into intimate heterosexual relationships, because they are by nature people of exclusive homosexual orientation. Indeed, some homosexual people appeal to the view that they have been created the way they are within the good purposes of God. Given the obvious logical difficulties, this is once again why we are currently debating these issues.
It is arrant fundamentalist nonsense to imagine that there is a plain reading of Scripture in relation to this matter. The interpretation of Scripture demonstrably leads to different results. We dare not anachronistically read back an essentially modern category of thought into the minds of the authors of the ancient texts with which we are dealing.
This is why all Churches around the world are locked in debate about this issue at the moment. Given the complexities of the debate we should not anticipate a quick resolution to it. On the other hand, I do not myself believe that the Anglican Church of Australia or the international Anglican Communion is in danger of breaking up over this single issue. As we talk through the interpretative difficulties the truth will gradually dawn on people that what may have been imagined to be the clear Biblical teaching about exclusively homosexual people does not in fact exist. This is essentially a modern question and we have to bring all our resources of clear thinking as well as compassion to the quest of discerning an answer to it.