Sexual doctrine swings both ways
So it’s okay for priests to be gay, so long as they don't have sex? The Church of England once again gets its cassocks in a knot.
Once again the Church of England has managed to get its cassocks in a knot over the thorny issue of gay priests. Never mind that for years the church has contained at least as many practising and non-practising homosexuals as any other profession, it remains a huge problem doctrinally and ethically. Like a particularly itchy scab, they just can’t resist picking over and again. And now there is some new legislation to play with (1).
The new rules are confused and somewhat absurd. Basically, the church has now deemed it okay to be openly gay as long as you promise not to have sex. Which is ridiculous. Doctrinally speaking, if it is okay for heterosexual clergy to have sex with their partners, and if it is okay to be gay, then it follows that it should be permitted for gay clergy to have sex. Gay sex. With their partners. Any other response voids one of the first two suppositions. Thus the question might be rephrased as ‘is it okay by God to be gay?’.
The problem is not that Biblical teaching is unclear; quite the reverse in fact. It issues an unequivocal one-word answer: no. According to Leviticus and to Pauline teaching, it is abhorrent to God to be homosexual. Leviticus 20:13 states something approximating ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death’ (2). Can’t get clearer than that. If you have never read the rest of Leviticus, however, I strongly recommend it, because it’s a corker. You also can’t eat pork or shellfish, any emission of semen makes you unclean for a day, while a menstruating woman is definitely to be avoided for about a week, as is anything she’s touched. If anyone eats blood they are to be shunned by everyone, forever. So if you’ve ever had black pudding, that’s it, time to sell the house. If you kill an animal but fail to offer it to the Lord at the entrance of a tent, then you too need to find an alternative address. Likewise if you have more than one crop in your garden. Or your clothes are made of more than one type of material. And while you pretty much can’t have sex with anyone who isn’t your spouse, you can screw as many slavegirls as you want, providing you make an offering (3).
Of course, this is hardly an original point, which is why the Church of England long ago held up its collective hands and admitted that okay, Leviticus is a bit bonkers, but Paul also says a big no to gay sex (4). You know, Saint Paul, Damascene convert and father of the round robin. The one who said that women can’t be priests. Ah.
You see, the C of E has already junked Pauline doctrine. It wasn’t pretty, and enough people got very hot under the collar, but it does seem to negate using much that Paul said as definitive canon law. And that’s while still proposing a fundamentalist reading of the text. Once one considers the endless translations and retranslations of the Bible (with some fairly personal interpretations along the way) then the soup of dogma becomes very cloudy indeed. In the end, one can only suppose that the question of God’s attitude to gays must come down to a personal interpretation sought through prayer.
But personal interpretations are not much use doctrinally. Unlike evangelicals and Pentecostals and all the Christians who do that Nuremburg salute thing, the Anglican church has moved away from literal readings of the Bible and towards a more allegorical stance. But it still can’t drop the gay issue.
Why is sexuality so passionately discussed and so deserving of regulation? Cynics might suggest that now the C of E is forced to be nice to all the people it used to hate – other religions, inconvenient poor people, Catholics et al – sexuality is just about the only battleground it has left, and such an emotive one too. As a debate, this is the General Synod’s equivalent of EastEnders – it can run and run with as much human misery and endless repetition as anyone could desire. But why is this? Who can possibly gain from a rule that says you can be a cleric and gay, you can even have a gay marriage, but you must agree not to engage in the act of intercourse?
One answer might be that this is not a spiritual question, but a social one. God’s view is not quite as important to the Church as the need to have a nice big congregation. And unfortunately, a lot of them don’t agree. Some of them are homosexual, and some homophobic. The new rule does at least provide some sort of compromise, in that it allows gay Christians to have their partnerships and love recognised at the same time as allowing the intolerant to say to themselves, ‘well, they might be raving queens but at least they’re not shagging‘.
However, even in doing this, the Church of England has forgotten its remit. If anyone fervently believes in following slavishly either the book of Leviticus or Pauline dogma then there are perfectly good religions awaiting them in the form of Judaism or Catholicism. It could be argued that asking for a guarantee of chastity, though, is unfair, contradictory, and – frankly – none of your damn business. To misquote Elizabeth I, who pretty much set the tone for the whole Anglican shebang, there is no need to make windows into men’s arseholes. The whole point of the Church of England is to avoid all that and concentrate on what people do agree on.
It’s hard to see this happening just yet. The church will continue to fret over homosexuality because it is part of society, and society has these problems too, for all that we’d hate to admit it. In turn, there is little doubt that there will be as many gay Anglicans in the closet, quietly gay or out on the streets singing songs from the shows, as there are gay agnostics, Buddhists or Quakers. Moreover, confusing though this legislation is, it is perhaps a move – albeit a bit of a blind stagger – in the right direction. There may yet come a time when it is acceptable for friends in Christ publicly to declare themselves friends of Dorothy. For the moment, it might be advisable to keep what goes on in the bedroom out of the pulpit.
After all, as the bishop might say to the actor, there’s no need for anyone to have anything rammed down their throat.
Jamie Douglass worked as a spiked intern, and is now a freelance writer and journalist.
(1) Civil partnerships require sensitivity, say Bishops, by Rachel Harden, Church Times, August 5 2005
(2) Leviticus, 20:13, Holy Bible, English Standard Version
(3) see Leviticus Chapters 11 – 20
(4) Romans 1:26-27
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