Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sexuality contextuality?

POSTSCRIPT - on where the Roman church may or may not be heading re adapting to context, on the reasons why it likely finds itself unable to adapt, and on the coherency between its doctrine and its practice, untroubled by the times in which we live, read William Oddie.


Christians have shown an ability to adapt our traditional general rule of sexuality (no sex outside of monogamous marriage) because context merits adaptation. Polygamous converts, for example, in some contexts at least, have not been asked to jettison wives 2, 3, 4 etc. Remarriage of divorcees (beyond the 'pastoral exceptions' of Jesus and Paul) is accepted in some churches (and, frankly, my observations of some annulments in the Roman Catholic church have looked like a subtle form of finding a way to remarry divorcees while trying to strictly adhere to Jesus' teaching).

We do not talk about it much hereabouts Down Under, but there would appear to be more youth leaders living with their boy/girl friends than there used to be 'in my day' (when I knew not one such domestic coupling among my peers as we worked with youth groups), with numerous church leaders either implicitly or even explicitly colluding in this state of affairs.

Yet from such observations it would be a bit too fast and loose to move to a 'context has changed so Christian morality must change' conclusion. I do not sense any appetite, even on the part of young people, for the church to come up with some kind of synodical approval of sex outside of marriage. In remarrying divorcees the church is acting as much in sorrow as in celebration. Marriage is meant to be for life. Christian ministers do not agree to marry couples who want to trial marriage or stipulate in a contract that it is for a fixed period of time. While we understand the logic of mercy which leads us to accept polygamous converts, it is difficult to imagine the church universal finding any context in which it felt justified in conducting weddings for wives 2, 3, 4, etc so that Mr Husband has more than one wife at a time.

Sexuality blesses us with children and curses us with all kinds of questions about approved relationships. In respect of the questions, the church generally has not lost (as far as I can tell) its commitment to the ideal of monogamous, permanent marriage for a man and a woman yet it has in various ways across its manifold forms (i.e. denominations) found ways to 'cope with reality.' That is, the church has been alive to context even as it has sought to be faithful to its text, to Scripture.

Sometimes the church has been barely alert to its context (see, for instance, as a misjudgment of a church, the promulgation of Humanae Vitae and its subsequent tremendous disregard re artificial contraception by a multitude of Roman Catholics) and other times it has seemed so alive to it that the church has blessed the lead taken by secular leaders (see, for instance, those churches supporting gay marriage as it is legalised across many countries in the 21st century). It would be a brave church leader or theologian who stood up in the assembly and said, "I perfectly understand today's context and so I offer my precisely measured recipe for appropriately adapting the teaching of the church to the reality of our day."

Yet confronted by context we must offer some kind of understanding, however imperfectly or too hastily formed and where adaptation is called for there is normally a pressing pastoral set of issues generating the call. A few years after the availability of reliable artificial contraception the Roman hierarchy may have misunderstood the impact this technological development would have, but it rightly proposed that in this age we needed more than ever to respect human life, especially the life of the unborn. Some churches may yet be judged by history to have married the spirit of the age in declaring support for gay marriage, but society is changing before our eyes and those churches are attempting some kind of Christian response to the change. Same sex couples are asking for the protection of their relationship which marriage law offers: is the church to declare itself to be utterly free of concern for the well being of relationships which assist the good order of society? Surely every church in the West, if offered the bare choice of blessing faithful stable same sex relationships or blessing promiscuity would opt for the former over the latter? Even if we are against gay marriage for sound theological reasons, can we say what we are for in respect of couples seeking to live a sober, faithful, committed life together?

Further, as the Church of England is now experiencing, our rapidly changing societies around marriage laws are catalysing challenges around employment/appointment of clergy (e.g. here).

Perhaps the answer is a vigorous purging of church members in non-approved relationships. Perhaps we need to be black and white rather than (to coin a phrase) fifty shades of gray. Perhaps the future growth and vigor of the church is precisely located in crystal clarity on homosexuality: chastity or nowt. Yet put like that, is there the slightest tremor of doubt that would cause the church to consider that some kind of adaptation to context in the 21st century is required, to this context in which we are finding ourselves living? Do Western churches wish to be like the Anglican Church in Uganda whose Archbishop has just announced that the draconian law punishing homosexuals should NOT have been overturned by its supreme court? Is this the way we wish to go?

Neither Jesus nor Paul knew of licensing bishops, the consequences for employment when a license is withdrawn, the possibility of the affected person litigating against the church, the wider ramifications of being church in a society which wonders what the fuss is all about when we look like we are against love and for law.

Yet, to repeat myself from above, we are the church and we have ideals. We are called to be salt and light. We are not without divine help as to how to be salt and light in this generation: Pope Francis offers some models for leading a church which changes its ideals not one whit but adjusts the tone with which it speaks.

Here Down Under, Anglicans are invited to consider and work with Motion 30. It is an amazing motion when we consider context: both the context of a divided church and the context of a changing society, for to both those contexts the Motion speaks, and for Anglicans engaging with both contexts the Motion offers a way forward for engaging with each other and with our societies in these islands. It is premature to leave now - for where does leaving take the leavers? To a 'purer' church, yes, but that church has still to work out its witness in the same social context as before.

Some of us have friends and family across the divide in our church, and embedded in the social context in relationships which do not fit the ideals of the church. The least duty we owe them is to work through the process ahead of us.


Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, I agree with most of your article here. I, and I think most of my fellow clergy, would dearly like to think that the human condition would be able to contain sexuality to the co-habitation of opposite gender partners - but not for the purpose of procreation only - which some conservative Christians might like. Sexuality is a gift of God for mutual joy and faithfulness to one's partner.

I have to believe that some young couples are intent on what we once used to call 'living in sin' - simply because they do not want to promise an eternal relationship that might not last, for all sorts of circumstances beyond their control.

Our darling daughter was brought up in the Church. Her partner was brought up a Roman Catholic. They have deliberately chosen not to marry - because of the implication that marital promises for lifelong partnership, they feel, are more than they feel able to commit to.

That they love one another cannot be disputed. They already have a beautiful daughter, whom we love.
They intend at this point in their lives to remain faithful to one another, and to bring up their daughter to be honest and loving. They have seen so many of their contemporaries fail in their avowed marriages, they do not want this to happen to them. They are not prepared to make promises they may not be able to keep.

If they choose to be honest in their personal commitment to one another, what more could we ask? They each have said that they feel the expectations of the Church are too onerous for them to guarantee live up to - especially when they see failure of marriage for others of their friends.

Although I would love to marry them, my wife and I respect their decision. We love them and they know our commitment to Faith and respect us. And we pray for them!

Our son, brought up an Anglican, is married to a Roman Catholic. I married them at Tekapo Anglican Church in the presence of both families. The children have been baptised as Catholics - I have no quarrel with that. We love our children and grand-children equally. They are children of God.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
Thank you for your sharing here.
We live in a complicated world!

liturgy said...

Thanks Peter for your contextualising point.

I am not seeking to debate, as what follows is not really my own point, but that of gay friends.

We all know that it’s not that long ago that homosexual activity was illegal and homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Certainly I know people sent to institutions to cure them – with methods too gross to describe.

Now people, for the most part, have come to realize that GLBT can be just as normal, or just as screwed up, as the rest of society. Their experience of gays and lesbians, often a family member, is bringing about the change. For many gays and lesbians, the desire to fit into society and not have to stand out, is part and parcel of the whole equality issue. This desire to have their commitments recognized (and in some cases, blessed) is just wanting to have what everyone else takes for granted.

It is a new experience, one that the Bible doesn't address, one that is out in the open now because gays and lesbians no longer have to hide in the closet, or fear being arrested for simply being who they are. It's because parents and families are realizing that they love their family member and want them to be happy and have what others have.



Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bosco for an important observation.

I will publish comments which engage with the observation in respectful terms which recognise the humanity of fellow Christians living out what is not of their own choosing.

I will not publish comments which seek to engage in some kind of argument with Bosco himself (noting his initial point).

The question the observation raises is whether or not we are in some new situation or not ...

James Stewart said...

As someone who has LIVED both sides of this contentious issue (Same sex relationships) I highly recommend a new book from the conservative position: "Can You be Gay and Christian: Responding with love and truth to questions about homosexuality" by Michael L. Brown (2014, which in my opinion repays a thorough reading. Additionally, videos and books on the subject by Professor Robert Gagnon may be of interest.

A question for some of you: Should Motion 30 proceed to its expected outcome, What is the ACANZP saying to SSA Anglicans who seek to be faithful to Scripture and Tradition, as historically taught, on this matter?

Father Ron Smith said...

A very delicate matter, James, that needs to be addressed.

There are those Gay people who are Christian and who, for their own reasons, want to live by what they have determined to be their only possible response to the passages of Scripture that deny same-sexual relationships.

Such people usually become nuns, monks, priests or missionaries if their Church - in order to thereby sublimate their sexual feelings, which they are convinced are un-Christian, unnatural, or at least, not be be indulged, as being 'sinful'.

The vast majority of Christian Gay people - are to be encouraged, in the modern atmosphere of a much more open understanding of human sexuality; to seek to healthily accommodate their sexuality in ways comparable with that of the main heterosexual community -

Except that Christian Gays, who seek to express their sexuality monogamously, and who would like the Church to recognise their faithfulness to one person, are being discouraged by conservatives in the Church from exercising their sexuality in the way that society would now recognise it - by dint of being married.

While non-marriage - or non cohabitation - is encouraged by the Church for homosexuals; there is no such proscription for the majority heterosexual community.

This seems to restrict God's gift of sexuality to heterosexual people only - which seems an unwarranted hardship for those homosexuals not called to be nuns, monks, priests or missionaries.

If homosexuals are 'forced' into celibacy - either in society or in a religious order; this would seem to devalue the sacrifice of a heterosexual person who offers themselves (against their given sexual nature?) "for the sake of the kingdom", that Jesus spoke of, in his list of 'eunuchs' in Matthew 19:verse 12 - in which he included another type of 'eunuch', "one born from his mother's womb".

This later 'eunuch' might well include a Gay person not prone to the act of propagation. Does Jesus forbid sexual activity for him? I don't find any evidence of that.

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, on our current visit to our daughter in Wellington, she advises me that her and her partner's reason for not having either a civil or a religious wedding, it that they do not believe that a piece of paper is required for their life-long commitment to one another. Thought I would let you and your readers know this.