Love or hate it, it’s hard to ignore organised religion.
While your columnist is of the opinion that religion should strictly (and I do mean strictly) restricted to consenting adults in private, and while some leading intellectuals want religion completely wiped off the map of the earth, it is hard to reconcile these opinions with the fact that more than 90% of the world’s population subscribe to some form of organised religion.
Of particular interest are the three main monotheistic religions, which, throughout history, have been opposed to the idea of same-sex relationships (even discounting the sexual element) in more ways than one.
Arguably, the most vocal, and hence the most visible, opposition comes from Christianity.
Sure, Islam is probably more vehemently opposed to ‘homosexuality’ than Christianity – Iran’s spiteful execution of homosexuals is a case in question – but, until recently, it is doubtful if they articulated their opposition with an equal vehemence.
Returning to Christianity, it is prudent to ask where this opposition stems from.
The Bible, shouts the uninformed mind. No, no; it’s the people themselves and their ill-conceived notions of social and sexual mores, reasons the dogmatic.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between, and a collection of essays by a group of Cambridge lecturers, doctors and clergy, published recently, highlights this rather elegantly*.
The aim of the book, it seems, is to suggest that there is no discernible reason why homosexuality should apparently divide the Anglican community.
Read between the lines though, and you get several interesting ideas that have a universal application in the wider debate about homosexuality and Christianity.
The central claim of the collection, An Acceptable Sacrifice? Homosexuality and the Church, edited by Duncan Dormor and Jeremy Morris, is that there is no such thing as a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible, as some insist.
Those familiar with the terrains of literary criticism might even tell you that ‘literal’ interpretation is an oxymoron (if there ever was one).
So, when the so-called Global South (a sub-group within the Anglican church) insists that the Bible is unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality, it is seriously mistaken.
The luxury of interpretation, therefore, is that it is largely permissive.
However, it is unfortunate (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) that throughout history, and especially in modern times, this luxury has been subverted to serve individual needs, all other things being equal.
That is irresponsible.
Rather, despite taking the Bible as the word of God (as serious Christians would), it is to be conceded that the testaments are also a matter of historical record.
Interpretation, in effect, must be within the contemporary socio-political and scientific contexts, without subscribing to anachronistic ideologies.
For example, the most common reason cited for the hostile attitude towards homosexuality is that the Bible calls it an abomination.
Does it? Oh, yes, it’s time for Leviticus 18:22 again: “You must not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.”
Viewed literally, this has immediate homosexual connotations.
But, see it in the context of the period during which it was written, and the reference is not to sexual orientation (a concept established as recently as a century ago), but to gender relationships, at a time when men were held superior to women, and violation of male superiority was considered blasphemous.
Similarly, the purpose and meaning of marriage has undergone a significant change, if not a metamorphosis, from biblical times.
Then, it was all about property and inheritance, and nothing to do with companionship and gender equality.
There is convincing evidence to even suggest that the other important ‘reason’ often cited for marriage – procreation and avoidance of fornication – does not have direct roots in the Bible, and that such an interpretation from Genesis and Song of Songs is also due to gender inequality prevalent in the erstwhile patriarchal society.
Indeed, the world had to wait till the Reformation when marriage was thought to be for “mutual society, help and comfort that one might have of the other.”
Another interesting dimension comes from the Church’s tumultuous relationship with scientific truth, and the effect it has on biblical interpretation and Church’s view of sexual minorities.
(Your columnist thinks that religion and science are fundamentally, and unequivocally, incompatible; but appreciates that he is in a minority.)
The concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity were established only within the last two centuries, and science has yet to uncover their underlying mechanisms completely.
But, enough evidence has been gathered to suggest that neither of the ‘traits’ – faute de mieux – is completely environmental, and that genetics has an extremely strong, if not decisive (and there’s enough evidence in this direction as well) role in determining them.
That this could have never been understood by Christians for 800 years has a strong bearing on how we view homosexuality and Christianity.
The most illuminating of the essays in the collection, by John Hare, clearly shows that the teachings of the Church on sexuality assume a strong dividing line between notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders, when science produces evidence to the contrary – teachings which are seriously misguided in light of the Church’s recent stance on issues such as transsexualism and intersexuality.
As the book proceeds from ancient to modern socio-political contexts, we see that the authors very much understand their territories of discussion.
We learn about the tortuous, and unnecessary struggle, of the Church with popular culture, where sex, drugs and rock n’ roll coalesce with uninterrupted ease with materialism in a market economy.
Like it or not, Christians ought to learn to live with that, and it is certainly not impossible.
The book, despite the understandable and dubiously soft position on dogmatic preachers and followers, is worth the read, and should be seriously considered by every Anglican who will attend the Lambeth Conference in 2008.
That said, this columnist, like many fellow reviewers, feels that the authors could have been much bolder. For, if the ‘direction of travel’ is clear, why not go all the way and conclude that homosexuality is not incompatible with the Church?
Why sacrifice the truth in the name of an open-ended approach?
And why question whether the current requirement imposed by the Anglican Church on its gay and lesbian clergy is an acceptable sacrifice?
Thankfully, there is a welcome reprieve in the foreword, which would have actually served well as an afterword.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote:
“An acceptable sacrifice? The answer is simple: No. It is not acceptable for us to discriminate against our brothers and sisters on the basis of sexual orientation, just as it was not acceptable for discrimination to exist on the basis of skin colour under Apartheid.
We cannot pick and choose where justice is concerned.”
As John Habgood concedes in his review of the book for the Times Literary Supplement, this ought to be the final word.
* An Acceptable Sacrifice? Homosexuality and the Church, edited by Duncan Dormor and Jeremy Morris is published by SPCK Publishing in the UK.