A Catechesis on Homosexuality
22 May 1998
The following is a "Catechesis": (a dialogue between believers) on the subject of homosexuality written at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury by the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, Bishop of the Diocese of Newark (USA) and the Rt. Rev. Peter John Lee, Bishop of the Diocese of Christ the King (Southern Africa).
One hundred years ago there was no debate about homosexuality in the life of the Christian Church. Today that debate is raging in every part of Christianity, sometimes above ground and sometimes underground. In some parts of our communion this debate threatens to separate Christians into warring camps. In our Communion we have already heard threats to excommunicate from one side and invitations to leave from the other and we have seen evidence that this debate can erupt in hurtful or contemptuous words and even into physically violent behavior.
Underneath the debate, which is posed in biblical, moral and theological terms, we believe is a disagreement in the definition of homosexuality. If homosexuality is an evil activity chosen by morally depraved or mentally ill people and condemned by God, scripture and tradition as sinful, then the Church can hardly make an accommodation with this style of life. To do so would be to violate everything that one who takes this point of view holds sacred. Given this definition, adherents would regard any attempt at accommodation of gay and lesbian people on the part of anyone in the Church as a violation of the will of God and as representative of the abandonment of Christian principles. Those who adopt this perspective then make the assumption that those who oppose them cannot be faithful to Christ, to the Bible or to Christian values. It seems natural, therefore, for them to suggest that their opponents have "abandoned the essence of the Christian faith to embrace the gay agenda."
On the other side of this debate are those Christians who have become convinced by insights from the field of modern science that a homosexual orientation is a natural and normal, albeit minority, aspect of the human sexual experience, that it is not something one chooses, or is conditioned into, but something one is. Homosexuality is, for those who hold this point of view, like being left-handed, which is statistically a deviation from the norm of human life, that was also once a cause for both discrimination and persecution. These members of our church hold that sexuality is morally neutral and that both homosexuality and heterosexuality can be lived out either destructively or in life-affirming ways. The position of the Church, they argue, should be to oppose all destructive uses of the gift of human sexuality and to support those sexual expressions that issue in life and wholeness for the people involved. That would be their attitude whether they were talking about heterosexual persons or homosexual persons.
Those who advocate this point of view believe that the knowledge available to people today arising from studies of the brain and the way it functions have effectively challenged the previous definitions. They note, for example, that science can today document the presence of homosexuality among animals who are not thought to possess freedom of thought or the ability to choose. They also note that heterosexual people do not choose their sexual orientation. They simply awaken to it. So, they argue, do homosexual people. To the argument that homosexuality violates scripture, those members of our Communion counter by reminding the Church of other ancient attitudes found in scripture that have been abandoned because of new scientific discoveries and changing cultural attitudes. The suggestion that the earth is the center of the universe around which the sun rotates is one of them. So is the legitimacy of slavery as a social institution, the second-class status of women, and the idea that epilepsy is caused by demon possession. Yet each of these issues was once supported by scriptural quotations and viewed as the will of God.
So we have this great divide. Our Church has esteemed and faithful bishops who stand on both sides of this debate. Neither side, operating out of their definition, can with integrity compromise its position. Both sides hold their position to be not only true, but the only way they can be faithful to the God they feel called to serve. Feelings run high. Solutions are not easy. There are still other members of this Communion who stand between these two definitions with uncertainty. They feel both tentative and fearful in this debate. They have not come to firm conclusions and are uncomfortable with all those who have. Members of this group are striving conscientiously to discern the mind of God in these matters and are not ready at this time to make decisions.
Trying to avoid division, but not at the price of stifling debate or limiting the search for truth, we, representing vastly different constituencies, offer to the Lambeth Conference the following proposal. We do not suggest a compromise because we do not believe compromise is either possible or a proper way to proceed in reaching moral conclusions. We offer rather a way that members of this Church might walk together into the future without requiring those who hold diametrically opposed convictions to feel that they are being asked or driven to sacrifice either their convictions or their understanding of the Gospel. This proposal involves two steps:
First, we as Lambeth bishops should make a conscientious effort to discover in our present conflict, those areas in which both sides can find substantial agreement.
Second, in those areas where agreement is not possible, our commitment to truth requires us, we believe, to lay out the two competing points of view side by side as positively as possible and without judgment, allowing them to stand in their own integrity in clear relief. Describing accurately the issues of our division may prove to be the most valuable service the Lambeth Conference can offer the church at this time.
In seeking to accomplish this second goal we suggest that the 1998 Lambeth Conference should take no vote that would imply that one side has won or the other side has lost this debate. The church is, in our opinion, too divided and the divisions are so deep that victory for either side would be narrow and those who felt defeated would not take the defeat passively. Neither would such a decision do justice to the need which the undecided have for further time and space to allow them to arrive at a clearer view. The result would be that the body of Christ would be wounded and our common ministry and witness weakened.
But the Lambeth Conference also cannot ignore this issue or its resulting division in both Church and society and still be relevant to the world in which we live. So our proposal is that we pass resolutions where a strong consensus exists, and where it does not, we commend the areas of disagreement to an international panel to be set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, consisting of articulate leaders of the two sides and the spectrum in between. This panel must include persons that the gay/lesbian community and the evangelical community would recognize as their authentic spokespersons. This panel could then continue to work on these issues in an environment that might be more suitable to seeking long range solutions. We recognize that neither the Lambeth Conference, nor such an international panel that the Lambeth Conference would create, has authority over the various provinces of our Church, but we do believe that such a panel might aid the provinces and Anglican interim bodies in their attempt to deal appropriately with this issue. It is our hope that this panel will succeed in creating a place where the divided voices of our church can be heard, as well a place where the Church can listen to those professional sources of expertise which might illumine our debate. This panel could also combine that gift of more time to examine these issues in depth with abundant prayer, while seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is also our recommendation that this panel be asked to report officially to the next Lambeth Conference, sharing not only its conclusions, if any have yet been reached, but also the process of their thinking so that the Bishops of our Communion might be informed and our consciences called to whatever action might be deemed to be appropriate.
In our conversations together we identified six major issues on which this debate hinges. We believe that it is possible to reach a consensus on three of them. We believe that all we can do with the other three is to describe the differences between us fairly. So we lay before the Lambeth Conference, first the areas where we think agreement is possible and express the hope that the Lambeth Bishops will speak with the voice of unity on these issues. Then we intend to describe the areas of our disagreement, seeking here only to discover clarity in those things which divide us deeply and to state these issues with the integrity that each side requires. We will then ask the Lambeth Conference to commend these divisions to the appointed panel for further study.
I. Areas where we think agreement is possible:
A. First, we believe that homosexual people are God's children who with the entire human family share in God's love and they must therefore be treated with fairness, justice and equality before the law. We abhor the hostility that gay and lesbian people have received from Christian and non-Christian people alike during our history. Homosexual people have been killed, beaten, fired from their jobs, expelled from their homes and families just for being what they are.
We also deplore those times when the rhetoric of Christians has suggested that destructive and degenerate behavior, which all of us would condemn, is the standard behavior of all homosexual people. We recognize that the molesting of children is an evil of which both heterosexual and homosexual people have been guilty. Child molesting is not the proclivity of all, or even most, gay and lesbian people any more than it is of all, or even most, heterosexual people. Whenever our rhetoric suggests otherwise, we are guilty of spreading both ignorance and prejudice. We call the Church to repentance where these misrepresentations have occurred and to sensitivity and accuracy in all future conversations. We believe that Christian people on both sides of our current debate can find significant agreement around these first principles.
B. Second, we stand together in upholding the sacredness of marriage and the importance of the family unit in every society. We recognize that sexuality is an aspect of our humanity that can give both life and death to individual persons. Traditionally, the position of the Church has been that sexuality is appropriate only in a relationship of total public commitment between a man and a woman. The service of holy matrimony was designed to be the moment in which that public commitment was recognized by the State and blessed by the Church. There is no desire on the part of anyone we know of to weaken or to undercut our respect for holy matrimony. Even those who argue that the benefits of marriage ought to be open to same sex couples do not question the beauty, sanctity and power found in this basic unit of human society. While not yet able to agree on any expansion of the institution of holy matrimony to include those not now included, we are in agreement with the necessity to call the Church everywhere to support, uphold, undergird and strengthen the bonds that hold marriage together. We deplore the high rates of divorce in our various societies. We take notice of the inequalities to which women are subjected around the world in education, job opportunities and other things that pertain to their social and cultural well being. We are aware that this conference has given its blessing to accepting into the Church polygamous family units under certain circumstances in parts of our communion. But we find agreement in the belief that the ideal relationship for heterosexual men and women is still in lifelong monogamous holy matrimony. We further believe that the quest for human wholeness for heterosexual men and women can best be served by a renewed commitment on the part of this Church to the pattern of monogamous, faithful, loving and life long married life between one man and one woman and that healthy marriages are an important factor in the task of raising healthy children. Despite this stated ideal, we also recognize that where the exigencies of life require it, single parents, step- parents and surrogate parents have exercised their God-given task of raising children with beauty and holiness and we find that a cause for thanksgiving.
C. Third, we believe that the vast majority of the bishops of this communion are ready to declare that any sexual activity that is predatory and unwelcome, any pattern of sexual behavior that seeks to impose upon a weaker person the will of a stronger person is wrong and should be condemned by this body. We share that conviction whether that sexual activity is the behavior of heterosexual or homosexual persons.
We further believe that a consensus exists in this Communion ready to declare that promiscuous sexual behavior engaged in by anyone is dehumanizing to both partners and is therefore wrong. We affirm that sex is a gift of God meant to be shared in a relationship of ultimate commitment. When that level of commitment in the relationship is missing, sex is cheapened, the holiness of our humanity is denied and people become objects to be used instead of persons to be loved. We believe that the order of creation established by God is that we are to love people appropriately and to use things appropriately. When that order is violated and things are loved and people are used inappropriately, we believe God's purpose in creation is violated. It is our hope that the Lambeth Conference can affirm this principle condemning any sexual behavior that is predatory or promiscuous.
II. Areas in which we believe agreement at this moment is not possible:
A. The blessing of same sex couples.
Is celibacy the only option for gay and lesbian persons if they wish to be Christians? Here the voices of our bishops proclaim both a loud yes and a loud no. Can we identify some patterns of sexual behavior for gay and lesbian people that could be called holy? Once again the voices are contradictory in their answers. On this issue there is no agreement in sight. We seek, therefore, only to describe the contending points of view.
There are clearly devoted members of our Church, including those who have been chosen to be our bishops, who regard homosexuality, when expressed in human behavior, not only as sinful and wrong, but also as unnatural. They point to the interdependency of male and female sex organs, to the necessary role of both sexes in reproduction and they conclude that a sexual orientation directed toward one's own gender violates the created order. They suggest that, since homosexuality is, in their view, a distortion of God's purpose, it should be amenable to cure and they recommend that such cures be sought. If it is determined, in any specific incidence, not to be a curable condition, they believe and argue that it should then be repressed and treated either as a cross that must be borne or as one more human weakness or deformity which must be regarded as tragic. Any "life style," they argue, that involves any expression of sexuality for homosexual people is therefore to be avoided for Christian people. Christians who hold this point of view are careful to state that they do not condemn the person, but only the behavior. Our purpose here is not to debate these onclusions, but simply to state this point of view openly, honestly and with integrity. All of the members of this Communion need to know that these conclusions represent the convictions of a significant part, perhaps even a numerical majority, of the people of our communion.
This point of view is countered by other members of this Church who argue that these are the same conclusions that in the past led to the persecution of left-handed people and to the justification by Christians of slavery. They regard them as both wrong and deeply prejudiced. These arguments, they contend, created those attitudes and convictions that led the world in the past to deny to women both the right to vote and the ability to seek university educations and professional careers. These Christians suggest that this attitude is not based on adequate knowledge. In support of this conviction they point to the consistency of the presence of homosexual people in the human population the world over, through all of recorded history. They regard this consistency of numbers as a fact, while recognizing that homosexuality has in some societies been repressed, making it appear to be much less frequent and in other societies it has been accepted and celebrated, making it appear much more prevalent. They point to studies which demonstrate to them conclusively that homosexuality is a given, not a chosen, way of life. Most of those who hold this perspective regard as competent those studies which onclude that homosexuality is not amenable to change and they regard those who seek to force homosexual persons into heterosexual behavior to be guilty of both fraudulent behavior and pastoral violence. They recognize and honor celibacy as an option for all people, but they regard celibacy as a vocation to which one is called, not a way of life to which one's homosexual orientation condemns one who is not so called. They argue that sexual energy is not to be repressed in either heterosexual people or homosexual people unless the person freely chooses to live in that manner. So, they contend, it is therefore imperative that society must come to recognize and the Church begin to bless those relationships formed among gay and lesbian same-sex Christian couples who desire to live in faithful committed relationships and who yearn to have God be a partner with them in their life together. Those who hold this point of view believe that the failure of the society to recognize or the Church to bless these same-sex unions will only serve to destabilize commitment and to encourage promiscuous behavior that all agree can never be called ideal. They propose that the Church design liturgies for the blessing of these same-sex unions and to train its clergy to help gay and lesbian people prepare for and sustain their life of commitment together just as we do in pre- marriage and marriage counseling for heterosexual people. They regard the attempt to deny this option of public commitment to homosexual men and women to be harmful, hostile and counterproductive to a stable society.
Since these two positions are so far apart, we believe that debate on these issue would not be productive, but would create more heat than light. Since the presuppositions underlying each position are not acceptable to the other, we recommend that the Lambeth Conference not seek to solve this issue in what would surely be a premature and destructive manner, but instead refer it without judgment to the proposed panel created out of this body for study during the next decade.
B. Ordaining to the priesthood gay/lesbian people who live in faithful, monogamous relationships.
Should non-celibate homosexual persons be ordained into the Church's priesthood? By non-celibate no one means "promiscuous." We mean rather can a person living in a faithful, monogamous, committed and presumably a life long relationship serve the Church as an ordained person?
For those who believe that homosexuality is a sinful deviation from the heterosexual norm, the answer is clearly no. One does not ordain a style of life that is deviant and not normal. It would be, they declare, an affront to the Church to do so. It would be to extend to a way of life that has historically been condemned by the Church as wrong the status and the role model present in the priesthood. It would be to call holy what they believe is inherently evil. Those who hold this position also state that since the priest is thought to represent God in the liturgy of the altar, the ordination of a homosexual person would suggest to the people of the Church that homosexuality can indeed be seen as part of who God is. Such an idea would be regarded as unthinkable by these Christians. They are not today able or willing to make such an affirmation and they do not believe that this conviction held so deeply will ever change. For the Lambeth Conference even to consider this possibility, to say nothing of recommending it, would be to them an affront to all that they regard as holy.
Other Christians, beginning with a different definition of homosexuality, reply that the Church already has homosexual persons in the ranks of the ordained in every order. They cite historians who acknowledge that homosexual males have been part of the priesthood since the dawn of the Christian era. They, therefore, assert that the issue is not whether the Church should ordain homosexual persons, but whether the Church should simply be honest about what it has always done.
They believe that homosexuality is a natural part of human life. Therefore, a gay or lesbian partnership that is faithful, monogamous and intended to be life long can, in fact, satisfy one of the stated requirements for ordination of being "a wholesome example to the flock of Christ." They further state that the Anglican Church expresses itself in widely varying cultural differences. They point to the fact that in parts of the Christian world. homosexuality is not only accepted but openly acknowledged as part of God's creation. In those parts of the world there are communities of faith which are prepared to accept, as their priests and spiritual directors, these gay and lesbian Christians, who have been called by God and affirmed by the decision-making processes of the Church. They point out that in some urban settings in the western world, the failure to provide open access to all qualified persons to every aspect of the Church's life results in serious setbacks to the ministry of Christ. Furthermore, they cite the experience of certain urban dioceses' bishops who proclaim that the ministry of openly homosexual priests, who in some instances live in committed monogamous relationships, has been marked with integrity and effectiveness and that it has served to enrich the Church.
Once again, we recognize that these two positions are mutually exclusive. One side thinks the other is "blessing that which God condemns and is calling evil good." The other side charges that prejudice and ignorance have blinded some Christians so that they do not recognize the rejecting and ill-informed offensiveness of their own rhetoric and behavior. This issue will not lend itself to compromise and the divisions are so deep that clearly more time and study are required. For these reasons we recommend that this issue and these two contending points of view might be discussed if that is the mind of this Conference, but then referred without vote to the continuing panel that we hope will be appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
C. The authority of the Bible.
Implicit in these disagreements is a third issue on which we cannot now find consensus. It has to do with conflicting views on the use and authority of Holy Scripture. The Bible can certainly be read as condemnatory of homosexual practice. Both sides admit that. For some members of this communion that is all that is required to form their judgment and opinion. They believe that the final truth of God is found in the Sacred Scripture which they believe is God's self-revelation. Other Christians argue that the Bible also calls us beyond human barriers and prejudices that once excluded from the fullness of the church's life Gentiles, Samaritans, lepers, ritually unclean persons, women, left-handed people, racial minorities and people who committed suicide. The church's rejection of homosexual people is just one more prejudice that the Bible's authority is quoted to justify, they say. These members of our communion would oppose a literal interpretation of the Bible. But both sides, it needs to be said, treasure the Bible and neither side would recommend either that we worship the Bible as an idol or that we set it aside as irrelevant. Yet both accusations have been made in this debate. The proper way to use the Bible is thus in dispute and that becomes the third issue on which this communion cannot bring itself to agreement. Yet, how we decide this issue clearly affects how the other two issues are decided. So we ask that this issue also be referred to the appointed panel.
If the Lambeth Conference debates these three conflicted issues and forces a vote one way or the other the result will be bitterness, and surely a minority report will be issued by the losing side. Our sense is that given time, patience and study this Church may be able to come to a consensus on these questions one way or the other though that is not on the horizon now. We ask only that the Lambeth Conference give this option a possibility by providing a means for this time to be created and made available to this communion.
While this debate on these three crucial issues goes on unsolved we believe we can still make progress by conducting this debate in a manner that reveals the love of God for all God's people. We urge the Bishops of the Anglican Communion to lower the decibels of the hostile rhetoric, to seek to respect those Christians whose honest opinions set them against other Christians, and to try to avoid giving offense to any part of the body of Christ. We urge those bishops who believe that homosexuality is evil to take the time to meet and to know those gay and lesbian Christians who are sometimes made to feel that they knock on the door of a rejecting Church that still calls itself the body of Christ. We urge those bishops who believe that gay and lesbian people should be accorded a full welcome into the Church's life without judgment to meet and get to know those Christians who believe that homosexuality is so wrong that any accommodation represents a violation of their commitment to Christ. Both sides need to seek to enter the other's world, to understand the other's fear and to share in their suffering as redemptive agents of the Incarnate One, who came to us long before we deserved that gracious gift.
It is our hope and our prayer that the Anglican Communion, through the example of its bishops, can model for the rest of the world a method of dealing with conflict, even rending conflict; namely, to treat those with whom we disagree with dignity, to recognize as legitimate the competing and seemingly irreconcilable points of view that divide us, to hold them in a dynamic tension, and to commit ourselves to live prayerfully into the solutions, confident that the God we serve will in time lead us all into God's truth.
If the Lambeth Conference can pass those three things upon which we believe there is a substantial consensus and refer for further study those three issues on which no consensus has been found, we believe this Church will be well served.
We also hope that the Lambeth Conference will vote simply to receive this paper without judgment and to commend it to all the people of our Communion for study, not as the final word and certainly not as an inerrant word, but simply as a statement of where we believe the church is today. We offer it in the hope that it might be useful as this communion seeks to grow in our vocation to be faithful to the God who has called us to service.
Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong
Rt. Rev. Peter John Lee