Holed below the waterline?

Sinking Ship on the Ocean – Saudi Arabia. Photo by Irfan Rahat on Pexels

First let me begin with an apology.  Last month when I published my Blog, I found that only some of my Email Subscribers received the email version of the blog.  I’m not sure, but I think there were more who didn’t receive it, than who did.  On reporting the issue, WordPress confirmed that: “We now know that this is something currently affecting multiple websites that our team is working to fix.”  This was subsequently fixed, so if you are an Email Subscriber, apologies for January, and here’s hoping everything worked okay this time!

In January’s Blog I talked about three LGBTQ+ related stories.  Today I want to do a follow-up on one of them.  I will briefly look at what happened at the Anglican synod and at the way it was reported.  Then I want to  look at the wider, Biblical issues to which the evangelical press took a rather blinkered approach.  I have rehearsed the arguments before, in both my essay and in blogs, but hope any new readers might find it helpful. 

Just to clarify at the start, I am not, nor ever have been, committed to any Anglican church, so I am an outsider looking in, although I have a long­‑held interest in what they get up to!

Perhaps it is fair to say that unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last three or four weeks, you will know that in early February the synod voted that:

Clergy in the Church of England will be able to host services of blessing and thanksgiving for couples in same-sex relationships, but not marry them.

The church’s doctrine on marriage will not change and Holy Matrimony will still be understood to be between one man and one woman. [ ]

The House of Bishops voted 36 in favour, four against with two abstentions. The House of Clergy voted 111 in favour, 85 against and three abstentions. The House of Laity voted 103 in favour, 92 against, and five abstentions.”

Reported on https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/church-of-england-clergy-to-be-allowed-to-bless-same-sex-couples The Church Of England website reported it more formally here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/press-releases/prayers-gods-blessing-same-sex-couples-take-step-forward-after-synod.

A review will also be conducted of the currently applied ban on clergy entering into same-sex civil marriages, along with the requirement that clergy in same-sex relationships remain celibate.

Following the vote, all the major media companies reported the story.  The secular media were reporting the minor steps forward – that of permitting clergy to bless gay couples after they have been married elsewhere first.  They also tended to report the anger and continued pain of the LGBTQ+ community because of the Church’s continued failure to truly acknowledge the pain they continued to inflict without being aware of it.  The Times reported on what they saw as Archbishop “Justin Welby’s moral failure on same-sex unions” and it is well worth reading.  I have always had a high regard for Archbishop Justin Welby because I see him as being willing to sit down and talk with anyone, and at the same time to care for them.  All the time he has worked hard to stop the ship sinking although it seems to have a large hole below the waterline.  Most other newspapers used the story as their lead and the Guardian talked about “the profound shift in the church’s stance on homosexuality after a historic vote by its governing body”.  The Metro also covered it, but if you use an ad-blocker don’t bother going to that link as they really don’t like them!  (As an aside, I try to use media that cover a detailed view of the story, not just a narrow sensationalist angle.)

Far too many times in the last couple of weeks, I have read and heard arguments that took the line that “(1)Sex can only be acceptable in Marriage.  (2)Marriage can only be between a man and a woman.  QED: Gay people cannot marry and must not have sex anywhere/anytime.  Thus, they must remain celibate, end of story”.  That is so anti‑Christ‑ian (hyphens deliberate.  The word Christian originally meant “Christ-like”.  Here I am saying it is the opposite to that.).  Theologically it is wholly wrong as it denies any hope to the gay Christian.  Jesus, and the Gospel, is all about hope – hope for the future and hope for now.  The Bible teaches that celibacy is a calling by God to an individual, and a gifting.  It is never intended for a group – never!  I said it was anti‑Christ‑ian because it is taking something that is a specific call from God and cheapening it to suit an ideology.  The Roman Catholic church has amply demonstrated for centuries that human-enforced celibacy does not work.  Why should it work now when too many heterosexual church leaders can’t even remain faithful within their own marriage?  And they demand others be celibate when they can’t?

The main Christian media in this country, including Premier Christianity, Premier Christian News and Christian Today were all, without exception, totally opposed to the decision.  Let me give you a flavour of their articles in order and you can pick and choose which, or whether(!), to read them.  Each article headline forms part of the URL/weblink.

Christian Today

Premier Christianity

Premier Christian News

As an example, Christian Today says: “The Bible is pretty unambiguous about human sexuality, and is clearly not in favour of homosexual activity: such behaviour is deemed sinful. The bishops nevertheless conclude that it is proper to ask God to bless something he has specifically condemned as sinful.”  It then goes on to talk about the need to jump through theological hoops to explain how “monogamous same-sex relationships [ ] would be consonant with the Scriptural witness”.

You won’t be surprised that I disagree with all of those articles published by the Christian press, because all of their foundations are built on sand.  Nevertheless, you’ll have to wait a minute for a deeper dive, because along with many others, I also think the decision taken by the Synod was also very flawed, both practically and biblically.

In politics we often hear of parties fudging an issue, but in this instance, this is not a fudge but more like a complete contradiction, because they voted that not only would they offer blessings for gay couples, but also that the traditional view of marriage remains reaffirmed (and that by implication, homosexuality is still a sin in line with Lambeth Resolution 1.10).  As many writers have already said, if you regard homosexuality as a sin, how can you offer a service of blessing, or to switch that around, if you are happy to offer to bless a gay couple, how can you regard homosexuality as “unscriptural”, or a sin?

In a sense, although much has been made of the fact that the Church will now offer a blessing, I don’t think we should regard it as that big a deal, given that clergy bless animals around the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.  They also bless boats vehicles, homes and buildings, as well as religious items.  By way of explanation, regarding a boat (say a fishing boat or pleasure craft) for example, these blessings may ask for God’s protection and guidance for those who will be using the vessel and may also seek God’s blessing on the work or mission that the boat will be used for. 

Anyway, let’s take a step back and take a big picture view.  This will help us get into the heart of the matter.  The issue is about the way God views those who are LGBTQ+, and in this specific situation, those who are gay, the LGB part of that acronym.  I have dealt with this in some detail in my essay of a couple of years ago, which you can read here

In the Bible there are about six texts frequently used to clobber those who identify as gay.  In summary, when Leviticus refers to homosexuality it is far more likely to be referring to be talking about homosexual behaviour as part of ritual Canaanite idol worship. 

Genesis is quoted usually because of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, given the threat of the rape to the visiting angels.  It is only people who don’t know their Bible well who still use this story, and if you read Genesis 14-19 you can easily dismantle the argument that the story has any relevance.  Once you have read the Genesis passage compare it to Judges 19-21.  Rape is always evil regardless of whether it is heterosexual or homosexual – the Sodom and Gomorrah story therefore has no relevance to what we understand as monogamous, faithful, and loving homosexuality today.

Another passage frequently quoted is Romans 1, but it is bad theology to pick out just verses 26-27 without seeing the context.  Paul starts verse 26 with “Because of this…”, so to understand the context we must look at what he has written before.   Verse 24 starts with “Therefore…”, so again we must look back further still.  In fact, Paul is talking about “the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” – ostensibly about people who are worshipping false gods/idolatry.  That is from verse 18 and forwards.  This passage is therefore irrelevant in any debate on sexuality.  To look at the context more fully you must read on into, and through, chapter 2.  And having got that far, you might as well read the next chapters as well!  😉

The other two New Testament passages where Paul is quoted as using the term “homosexual” is in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 and 1 Timothy 1: 8-11.  I’m going to treat these as one, because they are both lists that Paul compiles, of people whose “vices” will prevent them from inheriting the kingdom of God.  In a combined list based on the NIV text, Paul lists: sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, lawbreakers and rebels, ungodly, sinful, the unholy and irreligious, killers of fathers or mothers, murderers, sexually immoral, slave traders, liars, perjurers, … and homosexuals. 

I placed homosexuals at the end of that list deliberately.  It is because they are the odd one out.  All the rest can choose whether to follow that vice – every single one of them – except being gay.  Let that sink in.  Slowly read back through that list and check it for yourself.  If homosexuals have no choice, that has huge theological repercussions.  God is someone who doesn’t just love us but is Just and merciful.  God cannot be unfair because that would run counter to “his” character.  If gay people cannot change, and we now know that is absolutely the case, how can God condemn them if they have no hope of changing?  What are the theological implications of that? 

Both Psalm 139:13-18 and Jeremiah 1:5 talk about God knowing us in our mother’s wombs, so He would know whether we would identify as gay, gender queer or straight, so take it up with him.

A slave trader, an adulterer, a thief, and all the rest, can stop and change their lives, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11: And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

In fact, that was the verse that Christians who engage in conversion therapy used as a foundation for their thinking.  They believed Paul was saying that homosexuals could be changed.  They had hung their whole understanding on a translation mistake, and oh what damage they have done!  The real question they should have asked was: If everyone else can choose to change, but gay people can’t, have we got the right translation for that word?  Are there better words we ought to use?

And we now know that that word “homosexual” should not have been used in the RSV in 1946.  It was a mistake by the translation team led by Dr. Luther Weigle, Dean of Yale Divinity and the head of the RSV translation team.  To quote from my essay, which I keep banging on about(!):

[ ] after the Bible was published in 1946 a young Bible College student named David read the translation, went back to his Greek lectionary and was disturbed to find the lexicon differed from the RSV.  He wrote to Dr. Luther Weigle, Dean of Yale Divinity and the head of the RSV translation team to ask him to reconsider replacing the word homosexual with an alternative because if it wasn’t, many people would be harmed.  After several letters had been exchanged, Dr Weigle was persuaded by the arguments and agreed that the next reprint would correct this error.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t done until 1971, when the new RSV version replaced “homosexuals” with “sexual perverts”, no longer condemning a specific group of people, but condemning the actions of specific individuals – and that is an important distinction.  For one thing, for a sexual pervert, change is possible, and this makes it consistent with the rest of the vice list.

All this is thoroughly documented with a proper paper trail that includes all the original paper correspondence between Dr Weigle and David.  For a fuller explanation [visit https://canyonwalkerconnections.com/forging-a-sacred-weapon-how-the-church-became-anti-gay-hub/].  I understand Kathy Baldock’s book, “Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay” is scheduled for release later in early [2023], and this will include all the documentary evidence from the RSV translation team’s archive.

Most translations since 1946 have used the Revised Standard Version as a starting point, so, to quote (me) again, “major versions like the Amplified Bible (1965), the New English Bible (1970), New American Standard Bible (1971), The Living Bible (1971), The Good News Bible (1976), the New International Version (1978) and no doubt others, all took their lead from the RSV because they all struggled to understand the real meaning of the words arsenokoitai and malakoi, and decided the most appropriate word was homosexual, especially as society, by this time, saw homosexuality as the new evil.”

When we study the Bible, we need to ask what the writer was trying to convey to his reader at the time, and how they understood what he had written.  Because the Bible is now in a language we use today, we unconsciously think it was written very recently, and so we read back a 21st century culture into a very old document and fail to read it as the original readers would have done.  Although those that we identify as LGBTQ+ have always existed, people in the time of the Bible had no concept of what that was.  Gay men and women would marry in the same way as everyone else, because it was critical to have families.  However, it is likely they would have had other “friendships” behind closed doors, but no-one would bother about it because they wouldn’t have thought it a problem.

In a BBC History Extra Podcast a few days ago, Harry Sidebottom, the Author of “The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalas and the Decadence of Rome” (Oneworld Publications), when talking about the Romans, said: They are/were very different from ours.  For example, the concepts of homosexual/heterosexual had absolutely no meaning in the Roman world.  I mean no Latin and Greek word neatly translates these concepts.  It was traditional that in sex it matters far less about the gender of the people you have sex with.  It’s more about your role, [ ] whether you’re active or passive within sex.  (History Extra Podcast 20th February 2023)

You’ll find this type of comment made by pretty much all historians studying the Greco Roman period.  To be blunt, if your social station was higher than your partner you took the active/penetrating role and if it were lower, you’d take the passive/penetrated role.  Oh, and by the way, women could pretty much do what they liked with other women, because no one would fret, but if they committed adultery with another man … life was short!

From another perspective, that of statistics, we should expect people to have all sorts of orientations.  Consider that every one of our body parts comes in different shapes and sizes.  When I go and have dental work, why does the dentist need to take a mould of my mouth?  Why can’t they just have a rack of dentures or individual replacement teeth that’ll fit anyone.  Why aren’t people – feet / legs / bodies / arms / heads (yes, and genitals) all a common size?

Then we look in the brain and we have all kinds of differences.  As a straight cis-gendered male, I might be drawn to a particular type of female – I’m certainly not drawn to all – that’d get tiring quickly!  All of you will have your own type of person you’re attracted to.  You can use your imagination in your own situation but consider what would happen if every male were only attracted to a narrow specific female‑type, and every female to a narrow specific male-type.  God has made us with the potential that, overall, everyone can find a partner, though that sadly doesn’t always happen.

We have many other mind-related conditions like ADHD, Autism, bi-polar, OCD and others, and we never theologically worry about them, simply accepting them as part of human experience.  Then we have conditions like “aphantasia” where some people just don’t see mental images at all, whereas others (it seems like only 15% of the population according to present information – though it could change as more research is done) have a photo-realistic imagination.  If you have never heard of this, there is a fascinating BBC podcast from Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hanna Fry about “The Case of the Blind Mind’s Eye” which you can download and listen to here.

So, when I hear some Christians argue that sexuality is binary, I’m tempted to laugh, because it advertises how little reading and investigation they have done – they know what they think and nothing will change them, even irrefutable evidence.  I agree that there are two predominant genders, but even amongst those identifying as gay there will also be a spectrum, because whilst many will identify as wholly attracted to people of the same gender, others will identify as wholly Bisexual, and still others at all points in between.  There will also be a spectrum between, Bisexual and straight.

And this is absolutely, statistically, to be expected.  If we had no LGBTQ+ community, statisticians would wonder why no differences occurred in that area — given the complexity of the body and the numerous variations we see in everything else outside of gender and sexuality.

So, with that in mind, I come back to the issue the Synod was looking at.  If these are the bodies the LGBTQ+ community have been given by God and they have no choice, we need to recognise that in our theological thinking.  Regardless of my skin colour, I had no choice about what I got, and I can’t change it to anything else even if I wanted to.

It’s the same for my LGBTQ+ friends, who have no choice about the cards they have been dealt.  Some, perhaps many, as they began to realise they were gay, implored God, with tears draining into their pillows, pleading that they were made the same as those around them.  But God didn’t answer them, or more likely, said “You’re perfect! I love you just as you are”. 

Most will come to a time when they want to have a relationship with someone, to be able to embrace and love them, and feel that embrace reciprocated.   God once observed in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone”, and today that same cry will go up to God saying, “You said it is not good for me to be alone” and the answer will come, “I know, keep watching, they’re coming”.

Their love cannot be a sin, and their appeal to be able to marry in church isn’t to give them more rights than the rest of us.  Many of us were married in a church and never gave it a second thought, so why shouldn’t everyone made in the image of God have the same right/rite‽

Last time I grumbled that the bishops ought to have been able to “knock up a reading list”, to give a foundation to explain their decision.  This time I need to be marginally fairer and say that their decision was based out of their five-year study around the “Living In Love And Faith” document.  The full version is about 400 pages, plus appendices, and about 20 pages of resources.  My complaint with this is that the resources are in small print, none of which are grouped by any theme, and almost all of which were academic.  I doubt that many rank-and-file readers would have had the patience to scan through it for books and web articles that might be at their reading level.  I still think a suggested reading/resource list could have been put together to go with the press release/public statement.  That might have made it clearer for those who have been critical, and we’d be getting less of these articles seeing the light of day.

I believe the church needs to be clear, both in its decisions, and in its defence of its position, and to be able to do that from Scripture.  Much was made about tradition, but to my mind tradition must have its foundation in the Bible, otherwise it’s just a fabricated convention.  

Instead, society sees the Anglican Church as out of touch and ignorant of what real homosexuality is.  The anger expressed by many Evangelicals is quite shocking – and brings shame on God and the wider church since it demonstrates the lack of ability to engage with the issue, and work through a proper defensible theological position.

It sounded like the Synod was trying everything it could for the sake of the unity of the Anglican Communion, but my gut feeling is that they ought to have grabbed the nettle and agreed to offer marriage to gay people of faith.  Why?  Well less than a fortnight after the vote, the break-up has started after the “conservative Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), which claims to speak for 75% of Anglicans worldwide, said in a statement on Monday that the C of E had “departed from the historic faith” and disqualified itself as the “mother church” of the Anglican communion.

The statement, signed by 10 primates, said: “The GFSA is no longer able to recognise the present archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Hon & Most Revd Justin Welby, as the ‘first among equals’ leader of the global communion.”” The Guardian and there were very similar quotes on the Church Times website.

So, in the meantime gay couples (in the main we are talking about gay couples with faith) still can’t marry in church but can finally receive a blessing in much the same way as your pet, or a trawler has been able, for years.  So, it still looks like true equality within the church for people who have been treated so poorly, is a long way off.  Thank goodness that Jesus speaks much more clearly in John 3: “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. [ … ] 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, …”  No caveats, no riders, no footnote exclusions, simply “Whoever believes” shall have eternal life.  I hope that when the final words of the blessings are decided and made public, they will have a deeper significance than those other blessings I’ve mentioned.

The Anglican Communion faces some tough years ahead, but as younger people replace the conservative hierarchy worldwide, it will start to grow again, but they still need to work to undo the damage being done to so many gay Christians worldwide.