SEXUALITY AND MINISTRY
Churches today run into trouble on gender and sexuality. Public
discussion reveals passionately held differences within churches and
between churches, and culture. A Uniting Church Synod decision to
license the ordination of candidates living in homosexual relationships,
the Anglican debates about ordaining practising homosexual bishops in
England and the United States, and a Vatican statement in response to
legislative recognition of homosexual marriages are recent cases in
point. Each was followed by controversy.
The starting point for the discussion within churches is their claim
to form the body of Christ. The image suggests that Christ welcomes
people into the church, and that they commit themselves to honour and
aspire to his way of life. Christians therefore do not enter a church on
their own terms. They are chosen by Christ through the church.
The image of the body naturally raises questions of boundaries. At
what point do disparities between peopleís lives and Christís way of
life exclude them from church membership or from ministry? Even to ask
this question is culturally unfashionable. Most Australians, including
reporters, would assume that people have a right to church membership
and to ministry, and therefore that those who exclude others must be
narrow and intolerant. So for churches the question of boundaries is a
question of identity, fraught but unavoidable. It is the more fraught
because churches accept the authority of Jesus who criticised many forms
When it comes to excluding people on the grounds of sexual behaviour,
however, churches have a problem. Historically, they have often drawn on
a purity code to justify such exclusions. Purity codes reflect the
natural analogy between the physical and the social body. In forming
personal identity, it is common to be concerned about the boundaries
that distinguish our body from what lies outside it. What is ambiguous
becomes the object of fascination and revulsion. Bodily excretions, for
example, can be seen not merely as different but as disgusting.
Activities in which the boundaries of the individual body are blurred,
such as eating, excretion, sexuality or pregnancy, can be seen as impure
or dirty. In many religions, they mark a distance and rupture with the
pure God. So, sexual abstinence was once required of married priests
before celebrating the Eucharist. The influence of the purity code on
the debate about homosexuality is evident when some critics describe it
not simply as wrong, but as filthy or disgusting. It is then taken to
justify excluding homosexuals from the social body of church or society.
The confusion in church discussion about whether homosexual
Christians should be excluded from ministry arises from the fact that
the purity code is alive and well in church congregations, but has no
warrant in the Gospel. It is common to hear Christians describe
homosexuality as abhorrent, depraved, abominable, dirty and unclean, and
refer to homosexuals as disgusting. Jesus, however, criticised the
working of the purity code in his own society. He relativised dietary
laws, sought the company precisely of the people judged to be unclean in
his own societyóthe sick, prostitutes, the unwashed and tax collectors.
So to exclude homosexuals from the church or from ministry on the
grounds of presumed uncleanness is incompatible with Christís way of
life. Most churches recognise this by commending, at least in theory,
the acceptance of homosexuals within the church.
Is there anything else to which churches can appeal, when excluding
from the ministry those living in homosexual relationships? Because
ministers must encourage and teach how to live Christís way, all
churches agree that there needs to be at least a rough fit between the
desires and convictions of the minister and life according to the
Gospel. Ministers, and particularly bishops in episcopal churches, also
represent symbolically the church and Christís way of life. So, before
ministers are ordained, those responsible ask if they are worthy, if
there is a substantial match between their lives and the way of life
that they represent. Radical inconsistency, such as that shown in
paedophilia, promiscuity or a passion for power and money, would
disqualify a candidate.
These barriers to ministry relate to moral behaviour. The exclusion
of homosexuals from ministry, however, is not on the basis of behaviour,
but on the basis of public relationships that suggest homosexual
practice. Indeed, some candidates universally praised for their zeal,
spiritual depth and theological solidity have been excluded from
ministry because they were open about gay relationships.
This exclusion on the basis of public relationships has precedents.
The relationship to the state implied, for example, in the office of
public executioner has been a barrier to ministry. The exclusion
emphasised the radical lack of fit between Christís way of life and
chopping off heads, even for the best of reasons.
The grotesquerie involved in comparing the practices of homosexuality
and of execution, however, only makes more pressing the central
questions: whether a publicly acknowledged homosexual relationship is
inconsistent with Christís way of life, and whether any inconsistency
would be so serious that it would disqualify a candidate from ministry.
Churches have historically asserted that there is such a serious
inconsistency, either on the grounds of Biblical evidence or, in the
case of the Roman Catholic Church, on the grounds of the confluence of
Scripture and continuing reflection on human nature. But in Western
cultures, at least, this is an unpopular position. It is now assumed
that moral positions reflect culture and not nature, while homosexual
orientation is determined by nature and not by culture.
These questions are going to be long discussed within the churches.
The conversation will need to be patient and multilateral and reflect
fully Jesusí bias against exclusion. Within society the privilege to be
given to marriage in legislation and in the allocation of resources will
also be debated. The churches can contribute much to these discussions,
though we may ask how effective a contribution it is to put Catholic
politicians under the hammer. It would be a pity if the churches came to
focus too narrowly on the areas covered by the purity code. Ultimately
Christís way of life must commend itself by its attractiveness. In the
Gospels, the most powerful threats to it are not rooted in sex but in
greed, power and violence.
óAndrew Hamilton SJ