Christmas. It’s the time of love, good will and John Lewis adverts. But lest we forget, for millions of Christians, it’s also the birthday of Jesus Christ.
Which segues us quite nicely into lifting the lid off of one of the biggest debates in modern times. Can you be gay and live within the teachings and values of Christianity?
Framing this a debate, they have published the responses of Rev Jeremy Pemberton, an openly gay, married Anglican priest, and of Matthew Parris, gay columnist, former MP, and self-proclaimed committed atheist.
Unfortunately, both these good men have it right in part – and completely miss the point Of course you can be both gay and Christian – as countless numbers of openly gay and lesbian Christians demonstrate. And of course, if one does believe in God, it’s more important to pay attention to what God wants of me, than to what I want of God.
What neither of these have pointed out, is that for one who is naturally gay – that is precisely what God wants. On the one hand, ideas of radical inclusion, justice and equality are at the core of the Christian gospels. So too, are ideas of honesty and personal integrity. The Catholic Church formal teaching accepts, for instance, that a same-sex orientation is entirey natural, and discourages attempts to change it. The Catholic Catechism also states clearly, that each of us should “accept” our sexual identity, and integrate it into our personality. Hence, if our natural orientation is towards the same sex, if we are in fact gay or lesbian, even the Catholic Church teaches that we should accept this – and furthermore, that others should, too. Catholics are officially told to treat gay and lesbian people with “respect, sensitivity, and compassion”, and should avoid any malice in speech or in words, or any form of unjust discrimination.
That is not of course, the end of it. The Church also teaches that while to BE gay is OK, to act on this in sexual expression is not – thereby contravening its own insistence on non-discrimination and the rest. It raises the alternative question, not “can one be gay and Christian”, but “can one be gay and celibate?”, Clearly, within the framework of Catholicisma and other mainstream Christian denominations, once can certainly be gay – as long as one refrains from sexual activity. I suspect that Matthew Parris (and many others) who believe that one cannot be both gay and Christian, really meant that one who is sexually abstinent, cannot be considered truly “gay”.
I’m not goning to go into that question, how do we define “gay”. Instead, I will pursue the much more controversial topic, can one be Christian, gay and also sexually active? I have no doubt at all that the answer is absolutely, yes.
There is nothing in either the Christian or Jewish scriptures that says anything at all against “homosexuality”, not even a single word – for the simple reason that neither the word nor the concept existed in Biblical times. At best, there are no more than half a dozen isolated verses which, taken out of context, appear to oppose sexual acts between men. Closer inspection shows that even these few texts may have been badly mistranslated, misinterpreted or incorrectly applied, and have no relevance at all to loving, committed sexual relationships.
Furthermore, although it is certainly true that formal Catholic teaching today, and that of most other denominations, is that any sexual acts between men are inherently sinful, this was not always so, and is probably the result of what Pope Benedict once described as the “distorted tradition” in Christian history, against which we must be always on our guard. It is more likely that the original proscription was not against relationships based on equality between the partners, but against exploitative sexual acts, in which a powerful man took advantage of his superior position to assuage his lusts on his social inferiors.
Finally and above all, even if we accept the dubious proposition that Church opposition to same-sex relationships may be justified by scripture and tradition, we must always bear in mind that the sexual rules are only one small part of Catholic teaching – and in the hierarchy of “levels” of Church teaching, occupy the bottom rung, which does not require assent. Catholic teaching has always insisted on the primacy of conscience, and accepts that a Catholic may in good conscience, simply disagree with the teaching on sexual rules, and ignore it. Other denominations demonstrate this respect for conscience even more explicitly, in the increasing acceptance of openly gay or lesbian, partnered pastors, bishops and moderators.
Parris is absolutely right in saying that Christians should be asking what does God want of us? It is in fact a commonplace in Christian theology, that what God wants of us, is precisely what is best for us. For gay and lesbian Christians, that must include accepting our sexual identity, exercising it responsibly, and living lives of integrity and honesty.
The really important question for Christians, gay or otherwise and for gay people, Christian or otherwise, is not can one have a sexual life with integrity – but what does that mean? Does responsible sexual ethics require that we restrict sexual activity to expression within loving and committed, mutually faithful monogamous partnerships? Is there a place for sex during courtship, before making a permanet commitment, or for simple recreational sex? If so, how do we guard against harmless but regular recreational sex crossing over to irresponsible sexual addiction?
These are the really important questions that should be occupying us – not the simplistic non-question of “can one be gay and Christian?”