All posts by Terence

Presbyterian Inclusion: Ratification Reflects the Bigger Transformation of Christian Response to Homoerotic Love

In the three weeks since I first noted that Presbyterian ratification for the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy looked promising, the prospects have continued to improve.  There are now 13 regional presbyteries that have switched from No to Yes –  compared with just a single one which has switched the other way, from Yes to No. This makes a net gain of 12 – against just the 9 which are needed. It is likely that there will be others too, making the switch in the weeks ahead. Already, the number approving ratification (67) is more than two thirds of the way to the 87 required – just 20 more to go, with 58 votes to still to be held. The opposition, conversely, would need to win 39 of those remaining votes to prevail.

This process is clearly of fundamental importance to LGBT Presbyterians in the USA, but I believe it has far greater importance for the entire Christian church, worldwide: it is just one, local manifestation of a much bigger process. The ECLA took a similar decision in 2009, and recently 33 retired Methodist bishops called for that denomination to do the same. Three openly gay and partnered bishops have been ordained in the Episcopal and Swedish Lutheran churches, and the German Lutherans have no problem with pastors living with same sex partners. The process extends beyond the ordination of gay clergy. There is increasing willingness in many local churches and (some national denominations) to bless same sex partnerships or even celebrate gay weddings in Church. These are not, as the conservatives claim, simply opportunistic accomodation to secular trends in defiance of Scripture, but are prompted in large part precisely by careful attention to scholarly Biblical study, prayer and attentive listening process. Even Catholic professional theologians are now recognizing what lay Catholics already know – that homoerotic relationships in themselves are not immoral. What is presently unfolding in the PCUSA, why I find it so riveting, is nothing less than a wholesale transformation of Christian responses to homosexuality.

 

I have reproduced below my original post on this, showing how the numbers have changed in the past thee weeks, showing the current status as at 17th March:

*****

Last year, the Presbyterian Church of the USA voted to approve changes in the criteria for ordination of clergy, in terms which do not discriminate against partnered gay or lesbian candidates. The resolution removes a paragraph which includes the requirement

to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.

and inserts instead:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

In effect, this is a vote for full inclusion of LGBT Presbyterians in the life of the Church. The vote at General Assembly must be ratified by a majority of local presbyteries before it takes effect. 2010 was not the first time that General Assembly voted in favour of inclusion: similar resolutions were passed in 2009, and   and – but failed to secure ratification. This year could be different.

An analysis of the votes held so far shows that presbyteries voting in favour of ratification presently lead those opposed by 46 67  (as at 17/03) to 34 48, with just 93 58 presbyteries still left to vote.  While we cannot predict with certainty what those votes will be until they have been concluded, there are useful clues in how they voted previously. My own investigation of the spreadsheet shows that with 46 67 presbyteries having voted in support, only 41 20 more are needed to secure ratification. Conversely, the 40 48 voting against still need to add 53 39 presbyteries to defeat the proposal – a much tougher prospect. While we cannot predict with certainty how the remaining presbyteries will vote, there are clues. For each one, the published spreadsheet shows how it voted on the previous similar measure from General Assembly 2009. If each of them were to vote in precisely the same way as it did last time around, the result would be :

Votes in favour – 86 90; Tie –  2; Votes against –  78 81. Presbyteries with tied votes count as “no”, so the effective result would be  Yes – 86 90, No  –  78 83 – and a win for inclusion.

However, there is no reason to suppose that they will vote the same way as before. Where votes have already been held, there has been a clear increase in support. Just the tiniest movement in favour would tilt at least the two tied votes to yes votes, which would be enough to tilt the balance. The record from the raw votes cast shows than in fact, across all presbyteries the percentage level of support increased by an average of 5%. If that applies uniformly across those presbyteries that have not yet voted, there will be a further 7 switching from “No” to “Yes”, adding to the 9 13  that have already done so. (So far, only one has switched the other way, from support to opposition).  That will lead to:

Votes in favour  – 97;  Votes against –  76, and ratification for inclusion by a clear margin.

The prospects look good.

But, as the folk at More Light Presbyterians constantly remind us, progress doesn’t just happen – it takes hard work and organisation. More Light Presbyterians have a permanent feature in their newsletters advising of local workshops, where participants can learn how to help in influencing their own congregations.

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Lest We Forget: The Ashes of Our Martyrs

For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored.  We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively.

So it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to .    and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome:  I do not wish to belittle it in any way.  However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.

For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period.  During the 11th century,  Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,

classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour

In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.

All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts.  Although this  penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.

Templars

Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying.  In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy.  (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).

To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused.  In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.

Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions;  and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted).  These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.

The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place.  Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) .  Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.

Protestant Europe

After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).

The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in  England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.

Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries.  It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.

It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith.  It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.

 

Sources:

 

"Come Out", Do Not Be Ashamed, Filipino Archbishops Tell Gay Catholics

The Filipino website GMA News has an intriguing report that two Archbishops, Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz have urged gay Catholics to “come out in the open”, because they have nothing to be ashamed of.

Their full message does not depart from the formal position of Vatican doctrine, as it repeats the standard distinction between “homosexual persons” and  “homosexual acts”, and repeats the warning that these “acts” because they are “contrary to natural law”, and do not flow from “natural complementarity”. In this respect, they are as offensive as many other utterances from our bishops and the Vatican. (The occasion for this remarks was the Philippines launch of the book ” Homosexuality and the Catholic Church ” by Fr John Harvey, the founder of Courage).   Nevertheless, I see some good news in this report, supporting my belief that there is a gradual and welcome shift of emphasis underway. There are two elements of this shift evident in the bishops’ message.

First, is the suggestion I have put into the headline, that they are encouraging us to come out and be open – including, presumably, open and out in church.  This is significant: the implicit message up to now has been to remain firmly closeted. The CDF argues that there is no need for legal provision to protect us from homophobic discrimination, because the safest way to avoid discrimination is simply to hide our sexuality. There is also an often repeated claim that by coming out we are “identifying” with the gay lifestyle, and so should be discouraged. The simple fact that these two archbishops are now recommending that we should be open is a major new development, which I would like to see more widely endorsed, and followed. If many more gay men and lesbians were to come out in church, it could have significant impact in contributing to understanding and more general acceptance. (There is no need, in being more open, to go so far as to start disclosing details of sexual practice – but that applies equally to all, of any orientation).

 

The second important feature is less remarkable, having been made with increasing frequency in recent years by others. This is the reminder of the neglected part of the Catechism on homosexuality – that we “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”. This is as much a part of official doctrine as the better known insistence that homosexual acts are sinful- but has not hitherto been heard often enough, and in practice has been widely ignored by many people who really should know better. To my mind, the insistence on “sensitivity” is particularly important. It is impossible to be truly sensitive to marginalized people unless we make a determined effort to understand them. That in turn requires something that has been almost totally absent in the response of the institutional church response to LGBT people up to now – genuine listening to us, as we talk about our lives, experiences, perceptions and expectations. If other Catholics really did attempt to live according to this part of the Catechism as assiduously as they insist we live according to the teachings on the dreaded “acts” themselves, the listening process that would ensue would inevitably also contribute to a softening of the traditional hostility – just as it has already done in the other denominations that have applied formal listening and study processes.

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The Transformation of Christian Response to Homoerotic Love

You’d never guess it if your only knowledge of the churches and homosexuality came from Focus on the Family, NOM or California Catholic Daily in the US, or from Christian Voice or the rule-book Catholic blogs in the UK, or from breakaway groups in the Anglican communion worldwide, but we are in the midst of a dramatic, wholesale transformation of the Christian churches’ response to homoerotic relationships. This is clearly leading in the direction of full inclusion in church for queer Christians, and for evaluating couple relationships and their recognition in church on a basis of full equality. This is bound to lead in time to profound improvements in the  political battles for full equality, and in the mental health of the LGBT Christian community.
These are bold statements. Am I mistaken? Am I deluding myself? It is of course possible that this is a case of wishful thinking, that I am misreading or exaggerating the evidence.  It’s possible – but I don’t think so. The evidence is compelling, if not yet widely noted. To substantiate my argument, I want to present the facts, and their implications, in some detail. As there is too much for a single post, I begin today with just a summary, as heads of argument. I will expand on the main sections in later posts, which I have in preparation.
(For now, I have made no attempt to supply detailed substantiation or links – these will follow, as I expand later on each specific theme).

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

I have been thinking about this transformation for some time, but what really convinced me that this is a major, irreversible development was a result of an invitation I received to lead a session of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s 35th Anniversary Conference. The theme for conference is “Looking back, looking forward”. I will be giving a Catholic perspective on the last 35 years – and the next.
It’s looking at those next 35 years that is challenging. I don’t want to base my thoughts on guesswork, or on simple extrapolation, “if present trends continue“. The one thing we know about present trends, in almost any context, is that they never do continue. Feedback effects can either offset or exaggerate them. In reflecting on what could lie ahead, I considered only the changes that have already happened, the effects of these – and the very limited changes that we know for certain will happen over the next 35 years or so.  I did this initially for the Catholic Church specifically, and then realised that the method applies equally to the broader Christian churches as a whole. I begin by considering this broader church first.
The Past 35/ 40 years
“Out and Proud” Gay Visibility, Queer Families
The years since Stonewall have seen the rapid emergence of openly gay or lesbian, visible public role models far removed from the stereotypes of earlier years. This has included the emergence of well known same sex couples and queer families, in the news, on our screens, and in our neighbourhoods.  This has become increasingly visible over the years, and is now being given legal recognition in the movements for approval of marriage and family equality. The important consequence is that young people today have been raised, and are being raised, in environments where homoerotic relationships are seen to be entirely natural, and every bit as stable (or otherwise) than any other. Many youngsters are seeing this at first hand, in their friends and relations with two moms or two dads (just as others have single parents) – and are unfazed by it. Research evidence shows that young people are far more accepting of LGBT equality than their elders – and this applies within the churches, including even the evangelical churches, as well as in the general population.
Reevaluation of Scripture
Until recently, it was widely accepted that the Bible clearly opposed homosexuality, an assumption that underpinned the automatic denunciation of same sex relationships by most Christian denominations. Over the last thirty years, that has changed dramatically, with a substantial proportion – perhaps the majority – of modern Scripture scholars now agreeing that the evidence from Scripture is at best unclear, and that the traditional interpretations may be flawed by mistranslations or misinterpretations. Conversely, there has been fresh attention paid by some scholars to the specifically gay-friendly and affirming passages that have previously been neglected.
This re-evaluation began as the preserve of academics and specialists (like the growing number of openly gay or lesbian theologians), but is now starting to reach a popular audience as well.
Ordination of Queer Clergy
The re-evaluation of Scripture has underpinned the most dramatic manifestation of the transformation – the accelerating moves to accept for ordination as pastors or even as bishops men and women in public, committed and loving same sex relationships.
Traditionally, the churches could not countenance openly gay clergy, but in the days before Stonewall, when people in any case hid their sexuality, all that this meant was that gay priests and pastors where deeply closeted (just like their lay counterparts). That changed after Stonewall, as some men recognized that in honesty, they could not serve and remain closeted. Initially, the response of the churches was to refuse ordination to candidates who were known to be gay, and in some high profile cases, to remove from ministry priests and pastors who had already been ordained.
This has changed remarkably quickly. Today, almost all Mainline Protestant churches in the US, and the leading European Protestant churches, either ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors, or are seriously considering the possibility. The most recent example is that of 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church, who have signed a public statement calling for the full acceptance of ordination for openly gay or lesbian pastors in loving, committed relationships. 33 retired bishops urge end to gay clergy ban. Take careful note – these are retired bishops, not young hotheads, but the elder statesmen (and women) of the UMC. In parallel with this, the Presbyterian Church of the USA is at present well on its way to ratification of last year’s General Assembly resolution to formulate rules for ordination that did not discriminate against gay or lesbian candidates. (In Europe, it’s a dead issue: pastors of all sexual orientations are generally accepted).
Inclusion also applies at the highest levels of the clergy. There are now three openly gay and partnered bishops in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, while others have been nominated, but not ultimately successful.
Gay weddings, in church.
Resolutions to approve ordination of queer clergy have often gone hand in hand with attempts to secure approval for church weddings, or blessing of same sex couples. These have been less successful so far, but I would think this is only temporary. The recognition of partnered gay or lesbian clergy is always qualified by the expectation that theses relationships be committed, faithful and publicly accountable, just as heterosexual pastors are by virtue of their church marriages. The simplest way to make gay partnerships accountable in the same way, is to provide the same structure – a wedding in church.
This is already being done in some churches and localities, but we should certainly expect the practice to spread, especially with more openly gay pastors ordained, and as civil marriage becomes more widely available for queer clergy.
Looking Ahead
These are the key developments affecting the LGBT community and the church over the past 35 -40 years. Looking ahead, I submit that there are only two things we can say with certainty: the past will have consequences that will affect the future; and there will be generational change. Let’s take these in reverse order.
Generational Change
Whatever else may happen over the next 35 or 40 years, the one thing we know with absolute certainty, is that everyone will get older. Benedict XVI will no longer be the Catholic pope, the Roman Curia will have a new set of faces. In the Protestant denominations, the present leaders will also have moved on, either to retirement, or to whatever awaits them in the afterlife. They too will have been replaced,
Who will these new faces be? Generally speaking, they will be the young men (and women) who are presently in training for ministry, who have been recently ordained, or who may even be still in high school. This the generation which is well known to reject the notion that homosexuality is a moral issue, and who are most enthusiastically supportive of gay clergy, gay marriage, and full LGBT inclusion in church.
Contrast them with the present generation of church leaders, who received their own formation for ministry at a time when it was regarded as axiomatic that homosexual acts were necessarily sinful, when the Biblical texts of terror were quoted without question, and when the notion of same sex marriage in church was simply unthinkable.
Can there really be any serious doubt that a future church led by today’s young adults will view homoerotic relationships very differently to that of the present?
The Speed of Change Thus Far
So, let us accept (provisionally) that profound change is on its way. How long will it tale? The generational analysis above suggests that it might not take too long at all – no more than the 35 years framework I adopted, somewhat arbitrarily. This becomes even more plausible when we consider the speed of change up to now, in respect of the spread of civil gay marriage, and of approval for LBGT pastors.
Personal homophobia and prejudice will linger – but institutional discrimination in all forms, whether by church or state, will disappear quite rapidly, exactly as institutional racism disappeared quite quickly in the civil rights era in the US, or following the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
Some Thoughts on the Catholic Church
Broadly speaking, much of the above also applies to the Catholic Church, especially the implications of generational change, and the fresh examinations of scripture, but there are also some unique considerations as well. Some of these will mitigate against the underlying trend to change, some will complement it.
  • Hierarchical control, and the expectation of obedience would superficially point to the resistance of change – but this expectation is itself becoming rejected.
  • Humanae Vitae and its fierce rejection of artificial contraception has never been widely accepted by the Church as a whole. The resulting recognition that it is permissible to disagree in good conscience with official doctrine on this single issue, has leant support to others who disagree in conscience on others – like choice/ abortion, and on homosexuality.
  • The impact of Vatican II. Although it might appear that the Curia has successfully rolled back the conciliar reforms, sometimes there are effects that take time to become apparent. One of these is what Sr Joan Chittister called the “Ticking Time Bomb” of lay involvement. Another is the dramatic decline in priest numbers since VII,
  • Another ticking time bomb is the remarkable rise of lay theologians. Not that long ago, the formal study of moral theology was something done by priests, for other priests, based on the writings of theologians from many centuries ago, with little input from social sciences, or from people with real life sexual experience. That is no longer the case. Even religious sisters were routinely excluded from theology studies, beyond what they might need to teach school level catechism. The rest of us were simply expected to accept the moral rules as handed down to us from on high.
  • That has changed dramatically. Theology is now widely studied, to the extent that the majority of theologians today are not priests. Some are religious sisters, others are married men and women – or even openly gay or lesbian. Add to the generational process described earlier, that Catholic priests now in training are in some cases being taught their theology by lay people, and we see that the generational shift for Catholic clergy could conceivably be even greater for Catholic clergy than for others.
  • Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has clearly shaken the church to its foundations. The ultimate effects can not yet be clearly seen, but already it is obvious that one result is a greatly increased resistance by lay people to automatic assumptions about authority and obedience, and a corresponding willingness in some quarters to engage in open defiance – as in the womenpriests movement. Inside the institutional church, there are at least some promising signs of an increased willingness to take seriously the concept of the listening church.
Conclusion
Change is clearly on the way – quite possibly, rapid change, across all or most major denominations. It will not be long before openly LGBT clergy, including bishops and other leaders, will be commonplace, in most denominations if not yet in all. There will be church weddings for same sex couples, including the weddings of clergy and their spouses.
With the increasing visibility of partnered gay clergy and bishops, it will become difficult. Even impossible for the arguments that our relationships are necessarily sinful to be taken seriously.
I now believe that under the impact of generational change, this transformation will be rapid – probably with in a generation or two. To those who find this unduly optimistic, I would point to the corresponding death of overt racism, which equally moved from something commonly expressed, and even justified in pseudo religious arguments, to a private weakness, which it is now unacceptable to express in public.
(Note: I am fully conscious that the above analysis applies primarily to the countries of Europe and the Americas, especially North America. I have omitted Africa and Asia where special circumstances apply. But do not believe that including them would seriously affect the main conclusions – except in the matter of timing).

“Practising Safer Texts”: The Bible and Sexuality, Homosexuality

As gay men, we all know about the importance of practicing safe sex. When it comes to the Bible and sexuality, especially homosexuality, Ken Stone says we must practice safe texts, too. I regret that I have not yet had a chance to read this book and cannot comment personally on its quality, but the advice in the title is sound. We must read and respond to isolated Bible verses with extreme care. Failure to do so can be dangerous to our mental, emotional and spiritual health. “Everybody” knows that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as an abomination, goes the popular wisdom, which in turns fuels the opposition to LGBT equality and gay marriage, and at worst encourages prejudice, discrimination, bullying – and even murder. The popular wisdom is wrong.

At Newsweek, Lisa Miller introduces her discussion of two new books by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan with an important reminder: the Bible devotes an entire book to a clear celebration of human sexuality, without any consideration of procreation or even permanent commitment and fidelity:

The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete. The man lingers over his lover’s eyes and hair, on her teeth, lips, temples, neck, and breasts, until he arrives at “the mount of myrrh.” He rhapsodizes. “All of you is beautiful, my love,” he says. “There is no flaw in you.”

The girl returns his lust with lust. “My lover thrust his hand through the hole,” she says, “and my insides groaned because of him.”

This frank Biblical erotica has too often been overshadowed in religious discussion of biblical sexuality by the modern puritanical perceptions of biblical sexual ethics.  These modern perceptions are a severe distortion. Miller writes:

What does the Bible really say about sex? Two new books written by university scholars for a popular audience try to answer this question. Infuriated by the dominance in the public sphere of conservative Christians who insist that the Bible incontrovertibly supports sex within the constraints of “traditional marriage,” these authors attempt to prove otherwise. Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan mine the Bible for its earthiest and most inexplicable tales about sex—Jephthah, who sacrifices his virgin daughter to God; Naomi and Ruth, who vow to love one another until death—to show that the Bible’s teachings on sex are not as coherent as the religious right would have people believe. In Knust’s reading, the Song of Solomon is a paean to unmarried sex, outside the conventions of family and community. “I’m tired,” writes Knust in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, “of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and teachings to slogans.” Her book comes out this month. Coogan’s book God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says was released last fall.

Some conservative commentators are outraged. “You cannot selectively twist the Bible to suit your purpose” is a common response – which completely overlooks the fact that this is precisely what the defenders of “traditional marriage, as found in the Bible” are doing all the time. The popular conception of “traditional marriage” is a relatively modern invention, very far removed from sexual ethics of the bible – as found in the actual text, and not in some befuddled pseudo-religious imaginations.

To really get to grips with biblical views on sexuality, “practicing safer texts”, requires proper study and reflection. Scholars who have done this have been reconsidering the traditional presentation for decades. Jennifer Knust (a professor of religion and an ordained Baptist pastor) and Michael Coogan (who trained as a Jesuit priest) have taken what is now common parlance among some academics, and made it more accessible to a wider audience.

For those who have followed the re-evaluation of  the bible’s supposed pronouncements on homosexuality in particular, it is easy to recount the counters to the half-dozen or so clobber texts, or “texts of terror”, on Robert Goss’s phrase. What I like about the accounts of these books, is that they move beyond the arguments around specific verses, and on to a more holistic view of Scripture as a whole, and approaches to its overriding message – strictly in accordance with the Pontifical Bible Commission guidance on biblical interpretation, with its emphasis on context – of the passage and the entire bible, as well as the historical conditions, the modern context, and with a careful eye to linguistic accuracy and literary conventions :

The Bible contains a “pervasive patriarchal bias,” Coogan writes. Better to elide the specifics and read the Bible for its teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. Taken as a whole, “the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.”

It is a discussion of the literary conventions that produces the greatest surprise for me: Coogan’s claim that Biblical language may use the term “foot” as a euphemism for genitals. This recognition leads to some completely novel and surprising perspectives on familiar passages:

When biblical authors wanted to talk about genitals, they sometimes talked about “hands,” as in the Song of Solomon, and sometimes about “feet.” Coogan cites one passage in which a baby is born “between a mother’s feet”; and another, in which the prophet Isaiah promises that a punitive God will shave the hair from the Israelites’ heads, chins, and “feet.” When, in the Old Testament, Ruth anoints herself and lies down after dark next to Boaz—the man she hopes to make her husband—she “uncovers his feet.” A startled Boaz awakes. “Who are you?” he asks. Ruth identifies herself and spends the night “at his feet.”

However, it can also lead to some dangerous traps for the unwary:

When he is teaching to college students, he writes, someone inevitably asks about the scene in Luke, in which a woman kisses and washes Jesus’ feet—and then dries them with her hair. Is that author speaking about “feet”? Or feet? “As both modern and ancient elaborations suggest,” Coogan writes, “sexual innuendo may be present.” Scholars agree that in this case, a foot was probably just a foot.

Newsweek, What the Bible Really Says About Sex

We all know that “The Bible” is widely used as a cover to oppose legal protections for LGBT equality, or for full inclusion in church. Too often, as Candace Chellew Hodge points out, these arguments are made by people who have not actually read the bible, or if they have, they have, they have made not attempt to understand it with due consideration of its meaning, in the full scriptural, literary and historical context.

Over at Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link, blogger Jenny Tyree isn’t surprised at Ms. Bush and Ms. McCain’s support for marriage equality. “It’s rather easy for 20-somethings—or millennials—to jump on the very tidy-looking ‘rights’ bandwagon that proponents of same-sex marriage have made marriage to be,’ she writes, rightly observing that the majority of people aged 18-29 support marriage equality.

What these darn kids are missing, Tyree says, is a real appreciation of biblical marriage. Instead, they’ve grown up “breathing air thick with a cultural disregard for marriage. Experiencing the personal benefit of having a married mom and dad doesn’t change what they witnessed—willful divorces and the suffering of the children of divorce. The result is a generational embrace of sex as a right and marriage as one of many lifestyles, rather than as the best family structure for children and a stabilizing force for society.”

-Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches

Chellew-Hodge goes on to point out (quite correctly )that what these people are proposing is emphatically not the supposed destruction of marriage and family, but its strengthening – by extending its protection and coverage to all families.

She also goes on to report on a Knust’s book, saying that it beautifully counters the tired argument that same-sex marriage undermines “biblical marriage”. Marriage in the Bible takes many forms. Which variety, exactly, are the defenders of “traditional” marriage thinking of?

When one actually reads the Bible (something a majority of “traditional marriage” supporters have obviously not done), one finds a myriad of models for marriage—most of them involving one man and many women—and all of those women are property of the man they are married to. Women were subservient to men in every way and had no voice or rights of their own. By the time we arrive at the Christian scriptures, we find Jesus openly discouraging marriage for his followers, requiring them to leave their families and follow him exclusively.

“From Jesus’ perspective, then,” Knust writes, “the family is made up of fellow believers, not kin with formal ties outsiders might recognize.”

Saying that one supports “biblical marriage” then is to say that one supports polygamy, or owning women, or leaving one’s family altogether and dedicating one’s life exclusively to following Christ. What millennials like Ms. Bush and Ms. McCain understand is that the tradition of marriage has evolved into a more inclusive institution encompassing mixed race marriages, and non-procreative marriages. Marriage today is not a matter of familial arrangements to enlarge land holdings or status. Marriage today is about the love and commitment between two people—as well as the government perks bestowed on the couple. Adding gays and lesbians to the mix does nothing to weaken marriage—it’s simply another evolution away from “biblical marriage” that was more about property rights than love.

Biblical marriage, according to Knust, looked like this: “women belong to men; male honor is tied, in part, to how well men supervise the women in their care; and men demonstrate their wealth and success by the number of legitimate wives and children they are able to acquire.”

Actually, given religious right preaching about how men are the head of the household and women are subject to the rule of the man, perhaps the religious right does believe in “Biblical marriage” after all.

At CNN, Jennifer Knust herself elaborates on the bible and homosexuality in particular, rebutting a key argument against gay marriage – that God created two distinct sexes. In fact, she points out, in the earliest versions of the creation story, it was accepted that the original human was androgynous:

We often hears that Christians have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin– that Scripture simply demands it.

As a Bible scholar and pastor myself, I say that Scripture does no such thing.

“I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them” is a poor excuse that attempts to avoid accountability by wrapping a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages in a cloak of divinely inspired respectability.

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

In Genesis, for example, it would seem that God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny, not sexual differentiation and heterosexuality.

Genesis includes two versions of the story of God’s creation of the human person. First, God creates humanity male and female and then God forms the human person again, this time in the Garden of Eden. The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib.

Ancient Christians and Jews explained this two-step creation by imagining that the first human person possessed the genitalia of both sexes. Then, when the androgynous, dually-sexed person was placed in the garden, s/he was divided in two.

According to this account, the man “clings to the woman” in an attempt to regain half his flesh, which God took from him once he was placed in Eden. As third century Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman explained, when God created the first man, God created him with two faces. “Then he split the androgyne and made two bodies, one on each side, and turned them about.”

When the apostle Paul envisioned the bodies that would be given to humanity at the end of time, he imagined that they would be androgynous, “not male and female.” The third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip, meanwhile, lamented that sexual difference had been created at all: “If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die. That being’s separation became the source of death.”

From these perspectives, God’s original plan was sexual unity in one body, not two. The Genesis creation stories can support the notion that sexual intercourse is designed to reunite male and female into one body, but they can also suggest that God’s blessing was first placed on an undifferentiated body that didn’t have sex at all.

Jennifer Knust, CNN Religion Blogs

I do not propose that my readers should simply adopt the views expressed above simply on the strength of some third-hand reports of books that I have not yet had the opportunity to read myself. Biblical exegesis is a tricky matter for those of us without proper training. As the critics of these books are quick to point out, we do need to be guided in our interpretations of the texts by reliable scholarship. What the critics overlook though, is that scholarship itself is no longer supporting the traditional interpretations.

Ever since the early pioneers like Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey, scholars who have re examined the evidence with an open mind have found that the traditional assumptions about the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality are unfounded. Bayley was followed by the historian John Boswell, with a chapter on scripture in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and the detailed analysis by the Episcopal theologian William Countryman. This early trickle of works demonstrating the flaws in the traditional misinterpretations has become a flood, so that those denominations which have set up formal study programs have agreed that there is at the very least substantial room for disagreement. This is why we are now seeing a strong movement towards accepting even the ordination of openly gay or lesbian clergy, and even same sex weddings, in the US Mainline Protestant and European Lutheran churches. This re-evaluation by scholars and religious professionals, however, has not yet reached the popular mainstream, not in any significant numbers.

These latest additions to the range of available titles are welcome, and deserve to be widely read and reflected on.

 

Books:

Bailey. Derrick Sherwin: Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Coogan, Michael: God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says

Countryman, William L: Dirt, Greed and Sex

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Knust, Jennifer WrightUnprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire

Rogers, Jack :Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Stone, KenPracticing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective

Thelos, Phil: Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition

 

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