In the song it was ‘Mrs Robinson’ so my title does not scan that well! I think its time to do something I want to rarely do on this blog, and that is engage with the topic of homosexuality (or, at least, 'homosexuality in its context of Anglican controversy'). The spur here is a series of interviews currently being posted on different media sites as Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, tours the UK promoting his latest book. This interview by Paul Handley in the Church Times caught my eye.
About the same time I read this interesting and provocative essay on ‘Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism rejected Homosexuality’ by Dennis Prager. Its worth reading both and doing some reflection on them and the tension between the two directions they take.
Here are some things Gene Robinson says in the Church Times’ interview, followed by my comments. Ihe interviewer's comments/questions are in bold type.
But conservatives say it’s not about sexuality: it’s a scripture issue.
"Well, I would believe that if the person saying it were keeping kosher, if they weren’t wearing two kinds of cloth on their bodies at the same time, or not planting two kinds of seed in the same field . . . because those kinds of proscriptions are in Leviticus, and yet somehow they don’t have eternal binding authority the way these two verses have been pulled out.
A piece of scripture which I have only noticed in the past year, which I know I must have read a thousand times, is in John’s Gospel where Jesus says to his disciples: “There is much more I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now; and so I will send the Holy Spirit to lead you into all truth.”
If you look back over the last 2000 years, the Church has changed its mind about what scripture means, the most notable example being that, out of Jesus’s own mouth come the words that remarriage after divorce is adultery, and yet the Church has changed its mind."
Comment: This is a bit sad in respect of understanding Scripture. It’s a cheap shot handling Leviticus in this way. There are sound reasons for setting aside some parts of Leviticus and adhering to others. It’s reasonable to expect a bishop to know and engage with these reasons. Quite what John’s Jesus meant by ‘lead you into all truth’ is a matter of much discussion, suffice to say that its unlikely to be anything which flatly contradicts Scripture. (It’s likely, actually, to mean a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ, such as John’s Gospel seeks to express in its inimitable way). Finally, it’s misleading to talk about the church changing its mind about what Scripture means in respect of Jesus and divorce. The church understands that Jesus meant to say that remarriage after divorce is adultery. If it now plays down or never mentions that it is not because the meaning has changed! The church has changed its mind about what it will say about divorce and remarriage, and some churches, but not all have changed their minds about presiding over the remarriage of divorcees. Surely the safer path for Gene Robinson to traverse would be the role of the church in applying Scripture to the changing circumstances of life?
Further, note the weakness of Gene Robinson’s understanding of the strength of the opposition against his episcopal appointment and how it might be overcome. The strength derives from a reading of Scripture which requires engagement if it is to be transformed into support for Gene. Airily wafting the matter away achieves nothing.
But how does the Church change its mind? How does it square inspiration with democracy?
"I think it happens over time. And the first person, or the first few people, who articulate a new understanding never meet with particularly positive reactions. It takes time for any kind of consensus to build.
You go back to Acts, and you have Gamaliel talking about the disciples’ teaching in the marketplace, saying: “You know, we ought to give this some time. If it’s not of God, it will go away. And if it is of God, do we want to be opposing it?” I think we’re in the middle of that now. All of us want it to be over, but the fact of the matter is that it’s going to take us some time to settle this."
Comment: Funnily enough, I too think Gamaliel is relevant to what is going on in the Anglican Communion these days. But Gamaliel’s advice cuts both ways. A challenge for those who believe it is of God to welcome and bless same sex relationships etc is whether the church which does that will grow or wither. There is some evidence of withering! From my conservative perspective I wonder whether conservatives are trusting enough of God through these days of controversy. If God is against Gene and co, why not leave that to God to sort out? We are an anxious presence in the church about these things, busily trying to change what we do not agree with. But is not God able to do something about that which is not according to God’s will? (Incidentally by speaking of God sorting these things out I do not mean God to smite anyone. I am thinking of God working out his purposes over time – and certainly beyond the present excitement which distorts the sense of what the long-term steady state of open, transparent involvement in the church of gay and lesbian people will turn out to be).
Incidentally, note the certitude of Gene Robinson that things will turn out the way he wants them to. Part of resentment against conservative Anglicans is resentment against their certitude (about what Scripture means etc). But certitude abounds on all sides in Anglicanism even though it allegedly loves ambiguity, doubt, and indefiniteness!!
If Rowan Williams came up to you at Lambeth and said: “We’ve changed our minds. Will you come and speak to us?” what would you say to the bishops?
"I would want them to know how amazingly orthodox I am. I think both the conservatives and the liberals would be shocked by that.
Because one of the things I’ve learned — and I’ve learned this from the most conservative people in our House of Bishops — is that they perceive that the fuller inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church is the precursor, the sort of camel’s nose under the tent, to the deconstruction of other essentials, whether that be the divinity of Christ, or the Trinity, or the resurrection. That could not be further from the truth about me."
Comment: Here I think Gene Robinson misunderstands the bigger picture. (Is ‘misunderstanding’ an emerging theme?). Gene may not himself be the thin end of a heretical wedge. But the support for him which agrees that Scripture is wrong on human sexuality seems questioning of other important Christian beliefs. Opponents within TEC ceaselessly highlight theological deficiency among the ‘liberal’ bishops of its hierarchy.
And then there is this ‘wedge’ aspect to support for Gene Robinson: we can notice that the support for gay and lesbian Christians is much spoken of these days in terms of an extension of a 'gay and lesbian' agenda to a ‘GLBT’ agenda. That is, the church is being asked to support and affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-sexual Christians. Some are asking, where does this stop? Will polyamory Christians be added to the list? Others draw attention to the ambiguity involved in the notion of support for bi-sexual Christians: is this support for the inner struggles of a bi-sexual as they work through diverse feelings of attraction, or is it support for exploration of bi-sexuality with one partner of one gender then a partner of another gender? The latter, of course, being a little difficult to square with a commitment to monogamy! My point here is not to dismiss the possibility that the questions and issues at the thicker end of the wedge can be resolved, but to note the over-simplification of Gene Robinson’s account of conservative thinking.
But it’s not just a personal consideration. It’s a political question.
"I could tell you stories that would make you weep about what life is like for them, and the fear with which they live: the difficulty in having their bishop come to dinner at their home, with their partner, have a lovely time, and the bishop be fully affirming of them — and to have the bishop say: “You know, if this ever becomes public, I’m your worst nightmare. I will see to it that you are punished.” Now that does something not just to the bishop and to the couple; that does something to the Church."
Comment: if this has happened in the life of the church then surely this is rank injustice against gay and lesbian clergy.
But the thought of having two or three openly gay bishops must be attractive.
"It would be a wonderful thing. It’s a pretty lonely place to be, and I probably never feel lonelier than at meetings of my own House of Bishops. Not because I don’t have support, because the support there is extraordinary; but, perhaps more than at any other time, I feel that I’m the only one carrying this particular load in this particular way. I just long for the day when the next two or three come along.
It’s not unlike being the first person of colour, or the first woman — it’s why Barbara Harris is such a mentor and a hero to me. It would be nice to have a brother or sister to share this with."
Comment: Here Gene Robinson indirectly goes to the heart of the chasm which divides the Communion at the moment. In his mind, and I am sure in the minds of virtually all other gay and lesbian Christians, being gay or lesbian is a matter of identity and not iniquity. 'I am the only one of my people group in the House of Bishops,' is the effect of what Gene is saying, 'so when can we get more of the group in to share the load?' By contrast Gene’s critics are saying, 'You are an unrepentant sinner; you should not be a bishop; there is one too many of you in the House of Bishops.' This is a gulf in categorisation I do not know how to bridge. Do conservatives need to suspend judgement about the iniquity and think more imaginatively about identity? Do gay and lesbian Christians need to think more deeply about our identity in Christ?
How often does the issue of your sexuality come up in your normal ministry?
"Oh, almost never. I keep saying to people: if you want to see what the Church is like after we’ve finished obsessing about sex, come to New Hampshire. We’re so over it. Really, we are getting on with the gospel, and this occupies almost none of it. It’s what keeps me sane."
Comment: Perhaps Gene is right about the land Beyond Obsession. But his critics say there are less and less churches there!
Now, back to the essay cited above, ‘Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism rejected Homosexuality’. This essay makes the singular point that a great contribution of Judaism to the world was the change it wrought in human sexuality from a free for all practice without distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality, often deeply enslaving and depraving of those who became what today we would call victims of abuse, and/or who were caught up in pervasive temple prostitution, to a practice in which sexual expression was constrained towards and expressed within marriage. Its subsidiary point is that Judaism’s refusal to embrace the indiscriminate sexual practices of the cultures around them, that is, to distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and to prohibit the former, was a leap forward in human social development. Our question today, in the light of that argument, could be this: is the homosexuality of Gene Robinson’s lifestyle (faithful, sober, stable lifelong partnership) a reversion backwards before the time of Leviticus, or a necessary adjustment to Leviticus? That is, is it possible for the Judeo-Christian tradition to accept a form of homosexuality which is different to the pre-Leviticus form because it parallels the constraint of sexuality towards marriage?
Without presuming to answer a significant question like that in a sentence or two, I will finish with this observation. Exemplary though Gene Robinson’s lifestyle appears to be, after its own fashion, it is a lifestyle being lived out in a larger context in which human sexuality according to the path laid down by Judaism (and continued by Christianity and Islam) is under severe strain and stress (to give one trivial example, this is the week in which topless news readers make their debut on NZ television, albeit on a reasonably obscure channel; another example might be that this is also the week in which Sex in the City: the Movie makes its debut). My sense is that the ‘liberal’ support for Gene Robinson downplays the significance of the larger backdrop of socio-sexual change against which the drama of his episcopacy is being played out, while ‘conservative’ opposition to Gene Robinson at the very least is right to ask whether socio-sexual change when embraced by the church ultimately leads to a better society and church.
Nevertheless Jesus loves us all, Gene, me, anyone reading this blog, more than we can know. Our greatest challenge as Christians is not to resolve intricate moral questions, but to make that love known through deed and word. Gene Robinson is committed to doing just that. Maybe that is common ground for our future together in the Anglican Communion?