Bravo, sir

The charity and consideration that this letter exudes is marvelous. He is careful, and full of care, in this open letter to someone who is merely careful to follow her novel interpretations and full of care about driving the faithful away from Anglicanism in the United States.

From Anglican Mainstream

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori,
Episcopal Church Center
815 Second Avenue New York, NY 10017 USA

19th January 2008

Dear Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori

An Open Letter

I write in the spirit of openness expressed in your BBC interview on 1st January 2008 when you said, “The Episcopal Church lives in a society that values transparency …. [and has felt led] to bring these issues [of human sexuality] out into the public sphere where we can do public theologising about them”. I am a member of General Synod in the Church of Ireland, a layman with a scientific rather than a theological education, and this public theologising is helpful to people like me as we try to think through the theological and scientific evaluation of the phenomenon of same-sex attraction.

The correspondence between Dr Jacqueline Keenan and yourself recently publicised on the internet caught my attention, not least because I had just been re-reading The Episcopal Church’s report To Set Our Hope on Christ, to which both of you refer.

I hope that, in view of the discussion already circulating on the internet, and your sense of TEC’s calling to bring these matters into the public sphere, you will find acceptable my submission of these thoughts and questions in the form of an open letter.

1. The Gentile Analogy

To Set Our Hope sees the same-sex issue as comparable to that of Gentile admission to the early Church, and discusses that analogy at considerable length. When I look at the Gentile question, I find that of course it is dramatically new and fiercely controversial. In that sense there is a valid comparison. But, crucially, it represents the fulfilment of prophecies long foretold in the Old Testament. It also involves direct revelation to the apostles, confirmed by a specific mandate in the teaching of Christ. Many examples could be given:

  • – God’s promise to Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed
  • – other OT prophecies about the future place of the Gentiles in God’s unfolding plan
  • – Simeon’s prophecy that the infant Jesus would be a light to lighten the Gentiles
  • – the teaching of Christ himself to go and baptise in all nations, which made Gentile admission nothing less than obligatory
  • – Christ’s implied declaration that all foods were now to be considered clean, thus removing the Jew/ Gentile boundary imposed in the OT
  • – direct revelation to Peter, in his vision that what God had previously called unclean was no longer to be so
  • – Paul’s divine commission to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
  • In the case of homosexual practice, by contrast, there seems to be no OT or NT prophecy that would lead us to anticipate a change in God’s laws. Neither is there any teaching of Christ to support such a change, other than his love for ‘sinners’ – from which indeed we all should learn (though his ‘go and sin no more’ to the woman caught in adultery is a reminder of the enduring character of God’s laws concerning sexual morality) . Nor was there any revelation to any of the apostles to the effect that God was planning such a change.

Do I understand that TEC believes that it can use of the category of “experience” to offset the deficit faced by homosexuality vis a vis the solid foundation of OT prophecy, the teaching of Christ and God’s revelation to the apostles that so clearly mandated the divine inclusion of the Gentiles in the early Church? (Of course, those of homosexual inclination are included on equal terms already – it is only homosexual practices that are at issue).

To Set Our Hope treats three categories of OT law – what I call respectively the sacrificial, the cultural and the moral – in such a way that if we today abandon one, we are inconsistent if we retain another. Thus the document seems not to realise that the instruction not to mix two kinds of fibres was (surely?) a cultural reminder not to mix with the Gentiles, whereas the command for a man not to have sexual relations with another man (or with his sister etc) was fundamentally moral, rooted in our identity as made in God’s image – and clearly stated to apply to both Jews and Gentiles (Lev 18:24ff) – even though the latter of course would not have recognised it as binding on them. The cultural laws about Jews not mixing with Gentiles necessarily became redundant under the new covenant (as did the sacrificial laws – Christians today do not seek to reinstate the Temple sacrifices because we believe they have been fulfilled in Christ); but the moral laws that applied to both Jew and Gentile were not revoked.

To Set Our Hope says, “St. Paul, as a first century Jewish male steeped in the tradition that includes Leviticus, was strongly opposed to same-sex relations even though he had reversed his position with respect to the issue of Gentile holiness. If we had Paul here, we might legitimately press him about the logic that crosses one boundary but not another.” But why would we need to press him when the answer seems so obvious? Would he not simply say, “I was struck down on the Damascus road and told by God that the long-promised time had come – the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile had been torn down by the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But God has made it clear to me that homosexual practice is still forbidden to both Jew and Gentile.” It is disappointing that the distinguished authors of To Set Our Hope didn’t explore the possibility that Paul might have had a consistent set of theological principles which guided him to cross one boundary but not the other. Rather than them pressing Paul, might Paul not legitimately press them as to why they thought they had ‘done’ the theology when in fact they had simply concluded that he was being inconsistent but had not troubled to explore why this should be so? And might more careful listening to others in the Communion not have opened their minds to the possibility that they could be wrong?

I hope you can see how poor an analogy I think Gentile inclusion is.

2. The Divorce Analogy

You propose that the way that the Church has come to accept divorce and remarriage provides an analogy for the acceptance of homosexual practice. But divorce, though discouraged, was permitted in the OT – indeed God himself reluctantly divorced Israel for her continued unfaithfulness. By contrast, homosexual practice was never allowed – indeed was forbidden in the strongest possible terms.

But you will say that Jesus forbade divorce and remarriage. I wonder if you have read David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible – The Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans 2002)? Instone-Brewer is a fine rabbinic scholar at Cambridge University. His thesis is that the Church has crucially misunderstood Jesus’ (and Paul’s) teaching. It is a matter of fact that divorce was lawful in Jesus’ day: many divorce certificates from the time are extant. So it seems strange that Jesus should be asked such a silly question – is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? – and that he should give an answer that both he and his hearers knew was wrong.

The context is that in the first century BC the rabbi Hillel introduced a radically new interpretation of Deut 24:1, the verse that permitted a man to divorce his wife if he found “something indecent” in her. Hillel believed that God was leading him to a new understanding of an old text (perhaps itself an analogy of TEC today, despite the very different content). He taught that “something indecent” could be stretched to mean “anything at all a man dislikes” about his wife. An example debated by the rabbis was that if she burnt the dinner he could divorce her. Hillel’s view was hotly contested by his theological opponent Shammai. The two opposing war cries were: “Divorce can be granted for any reason”, versus “No, only for unfaithfulness”.

HIllel’s view quickly swept the board and by Jesus’ time had become the almost universal procedure for divorce. For a man the advantages are obvious; for a woman the advantages were that no court case was involved (in which her husband might make painful or even false allegations about her being unfaithful). The procedure also gave the woman a financial settlement, which might have its own attractions.

This is the context where, in Matt 19, the Pharisees came to “test” Jesus. Which side was he on? He was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any and every reason” (the Hillelite view). After making clear that divorce was not to be encouraged (it was a necessary provision in the law because of hardness of heart; “but from the beginning it was not so”), he came down clearly on Shammai’s side – divorce only for unfaithfulness. This is not the supposed ‘Matthean exception’, but Jesus’ authentic affirmation of Shammai’s teaching. (Importantly, Instone-Brewer points out that there were also other specific lawful grounds for divorce which were probably common ground between the two rabbinic schools and also held by Jesus himself, but that is beyond my scope here. The dispute was about the specifics of the peculiarly Hillelite teaching.)

The significance of this for the gay debate is that the Church in the past (and the Roman Catholic Church today) has brought great misery to people through misunderstanding Christ’s teaching. The Protestant churches have bowed to the inevitable, allowing divorce and remarriage, but thought that they were going against what you call the “very direct words” of Jesus. But the theological processes of both RC and Protestant churches were flawed, because they were based on the same mistaken hermeneutic. Your argument is that for Anglicans the divorce issue has pioneered the way for changing our position on homosexuality – if we have overturned biblical teaching once, we can do it twice. My view is that we should thank God that though our theological thinking on divorce was faulty we came to broadly the right conclusion. We should reprove ourselves for not reading our Bible properly, and set our faces against making similar mistakes again.

The divorce issue does not provide a precedent for change in our teaching on homosexuality.

3. The Science Argument

I have some questions which are particularly appropriate to your scientific background. To Set Our Hope said,Altogether, contemporary studies indicate that same-sex affection has a genetic-biological basis which is shaped in interaction with psycho-social and cultural-historical factors.” Dr Keenan sought from you information as to where scientific verification of this claimed “genetic-biological basis” might be found.

I have for some time had similar questions in my mind. For example, I have been astonished at the number of gay men who have told me that they were sexually abused in childhood. You will be familiar with the authoritative study by EO Laumann et al, The Social Organization of Sexuality – Sexual Practices in the United States. On p345 a table sets out many negative adult traits that correlate disproportionately with a person having been ‘sexually touched’ in childhood. For both men and women, such childhood touching correlates with a person being between three and four times as likely to identify as homosexual/ bisexual, compared with those who were not sexually touched. Simple arithmetic on Laumann’s data shows that some 33 of every hundred gay-identifying men and 44 of every hundred lesbian-identifying women remember being sexually molested in childhood. Perhaps yet others were molested at an age too young to remember.

Of course, a correlation does not prove a causation. But this correlation seems to have been underreported and underexplored. It raises the possibility that for many lesbian and gay people the truth is not that “God made me this way” but that “a family friend made me this way”.

You avoid the science question by saying, “Science is not the only basis by which many people in this church are coming to the conclusion that homosexual orientation is a given …”. This gives the impression that you are uncomfortable about bringing the scientific evidence into the open. It also leaves unanswered the primary question that Dr Keenan was asking – apart from the fact that you refer to a single book, Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. If I understand your implication correctly, you are saying that if it happens anywhere in the natural world it’s good; so, since homosexual practice is observable in nature, it must be good, or at least neutral (for humans).

Are you really arguing that this book adequately makes the case for the genetic-biological basis of same-sex attraction among humans which is affirmed by To Set Our Hopeo? Such an assertion would have immense implications for humankind. In the animal kingdom we find examples of almost every kind of behaviour imaginable, from promiscuity to infanticide. Please don’t take offence from this example, but if humans followed the biological exuberance exhibited by female black widow spiders, then both your husband and I might be dead by now. Christian holiness of living often requires us to work against our natural desires rather than just follow them uncritically.

The point I am making, of course, is that Dr Keenan’s concerns cannot be dismissed by a sweeping reference to a book about the variety of sexual practices observed in the natural world.

4. A Double Standard?

One final question I must ask. You refer to “the direct experience of seeing the fruits of the faithful, committed, monogamous, life-long and life-giving relationships of persons of the same sex.” Do I take it that the word ‘monogamous’ implies exclusion of bisexual behaviours? Yet the impression on my side of the Atlantic is the opposite – that you accept bisexuals equally with gays, as part of the biological exuberance of God’s world. If that is so, it would be disingenuous to offer the argument that we should accept same-sex relationships because they are potentially ‘monogamous’. (Of course, if your ‘inclusion’ does exclude bisexual practice, I apologise; but you would need to make this clear).

In reality, acceptance of bisexual behaviours will lead inevitably to acceptance of bigamous behaviours – why should a bisexual man be allowed two sexual partners while his heterosexual brother is allowed only one? The lawyers would quickly demolish such discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the Church would find itself affirming the legitimacy of having two sexual partners, although it had introduced the innovation under the banner of monogamy. A double standard, surely?
In conclusion I would make a heartfelt plea to you. The situation is now so urgent that you could do an immense service to science, to theology and to helping lesbian and gay people, by setting out a reasoned answer to Dr Keenan’s questions. True science has nothing to hide. And there can be few people in the Anglican Communion better qualified for the task than you.

Your elucidations would be of great benefit to us in the Church of Ireland as we discuss these weighty matters.

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Dermot O’Callaghan

Cc Dr Jacqueline Keenan
The Anglican Communion Institute Inc
Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of Ireland
Anglican Mainstream


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: