What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Nothing. That is, the short answer to my titular question is: the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. This is because ‘homosexuality’ as a concept was developed in the nineteenth century, and the word ‘homosexual’ does not occur in the Bible, and Jesus never discusses this issue. What the Bible does discuss, in a small number of texts, are the ethics (or holiness) of particular actions. What I want to do in this article is go through three of the main relevant texts in turn but I will return to this first point at the end – the Bible doesn’t say anything about homosexuality – because it is actually fundamental to the conversation which our church and society is having at the moment.

The first text to consider is Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom leading to their destruction in fire and brimstone. This is the story from which the word ‘sodomy’ derives, and it is a deeply unpleasant tale – and yet, it is also a tale that can be read in various different ways. In brief, two men – who are actually angels – come to stay with Lot. At night, the men of the ‘city’ (probably a village smaller than Mersea) surround Lot’s house and tell him to cast out the angels so that the resident men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, the angels blind the men, and in the morning Lot escapes and the Lord destroys the city. Now, in our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to emphasise the sexual elements of this story and say ‘this is all about how God hates homosexuals’. This is not the emphasis of the story itself. After all, if the emphasis was on bad sexual behaviour then Lot – who is the righteous man in the story – would not say to the men outside his house “Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Compare and contrast this story – where the daughters actually get away – with the similar story in Judges 19.22-29 which doesn’t have such a ‘happy’ ending.)

So if the sin of Sodom is not principally about sexuality, what is it about? In a word, hospitality. What Lot says immediately after the offer of his daughters is “Don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Ancient near-Eastern culture was not obsessed with sex, as we are, but they were obsessed with the importance of hospitality, and the rights and obligations associated with it. It is this social regulation that the Sodomites were transgressing, and it was for their overthrowing of the norms of hospitality that God destroyed them. How can I be so certain that this is the right interpretation of the story? Simply because it is how Jesus himself understood it – see Matthew 10.14-15, when Jesus invokes Sodom in the context of talking about hospitality.

The next significant texts to ponder are from the book of Leviticus, which are very similar so I’ll treat them together. Leviticus 18.22 says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (‘abomination’)”; Leviticus 20.13 says “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable (‘have committed abomination’). They must be put to death.” The book of Leviticus is essentially a book describing how the Levites – that is, the priests – are to carry out the worship of God in the Temple, and how the Jews more generally are to achieve holiness. In other words, Leviticus cannot be understood separately from the context of ritual worship. For Christians, all of the theology in this text is subsumed into the ‘New Temple’ worship of Holy Communion, and so the specific legalities associated with the ritual worship in the Temple have been superseded by what Jesus developed. This is why Christians have no problem with carrying out many things also considered abominations by the book of Leviticus, such as eating oysters, or cutting men’s hair. That is not to say that the book of Leviticus has no use for Christians today – on the contrary, I believe that a proper understanding of Leviticus would be the best safeguard for keeping contemporary Christian worship meaningful – but it is to say that these specific commands have no particular weight. A homosexual act is as intrinsically ‘wrong’ as eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of different fibres (like a polycotton shirt), no more, no less.

So what of the New Testament? It’s fairly straightforward for a Christian to argue that we don’t have to submit to Old Testament laws because we follow a God of grace and freedom, but what of particular relevant passages in the New Testament? The key passage to ponder is this one, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. To put the passage in context, Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience in Rome, and he is listing all the ways in which the surrounding culture is decadent – in order to then make the point that his listeners don’t have a leg to stand on, for whilst his audience has avoided some obvious and external immoralities, their hearts are full of judgement and condemnation of others, and that “There is no-one righteous, no not one” – which is why we have to rely upon a God of mercy and grace, and not on our own merits or achievements in avoiding obvious sins. However, that does not mean that what Paul describes as sinful aren’t actually sinful! Having talked about the origin of bad behaviour in bad worship (ie idolatry – bad worship leading to bad behaviour is an axiomatic truth in the Bible) this is what he says: “… God gave them over to sinful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

So what is it that Paul is denouncing? Remember the context – Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution. It is this bad worship which is Paul’s target. For example, in Cybele’s Temple there were male transvestite priests who had cut off their own genitals and offered themselves to men as part of the temple rituals. These rituals were essentially about fertility – using expressions of human fertility (ie what we might think of as ‘exuberant’ sexuality, orgies) to honour the gods of fertility in order to ensure a good crop and stave off hunger. The bad worship leading to bad behaviour – it is the entire package that Paul is objecting to. The question is: what does this have to do with homosexuality today? The short answer is – not a lot. I don’t know many gay men who want to chop off bits of themselves in order to generate a more bountiful crop of wheat.

Now, to broaden out the discussion a little, I think it would be fair to say that the Bible does take sexual misconduct seriously – that is, there is such a thing as sinful sexual behaviour, and indulging in it threatens our relationship with God; the most obvious example is adultery, which it would be fair to say that God absolutely detests. Yet there seems to me to be a logical leap between saying ‘certain acts are sinful’ to saying, more broadly, ‘homosexuality is wrong’. That is, there seems to be a confusion between what it means to do something wrong, and what it means to be someone. Which brings me back to where I began, which is that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality – which, I now confess, is ever so slightly misleading. For there are several instances when it talks about relationships between people of the same sex – not in the context of obsessing about sexual behaviour (remember, that is the hang up of our culture, not the Bible) – but simply in terms of celebrating what it might mean to honour a loving relationship.

The most prominent example of this is that of David and Jonathan. Some texts to ponder: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself… and Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18); “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, “The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever”” (1 Samuel 20); “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1). Clearly with David and Jonathan we have an important relationship between two people of the same sex which was dedicated before God in the form of a covenant. There is no hint of disapproval in this story for the relationship between the two (except from Saul, but he’s the ‘bad guy’).

The response to mentioning David and Jonathan in this context is often ‘but their relationship wasn’t sexual!’ which simply reveals our own obsessions. Clearly it is possible to have a loving and affectionate same-sex relationship that is honoured by God, and that is fully Biblical. Is that compatible with a prohibition on particular sexual acts? Of course. Are those relationships which seek a blessing in church more like Jonathan and David, or more like the cult prostitutes in Rome? Perhaps readers can use their own judgement on that; I trust my own view is clear.

One last point, which is strictly for Christians. To my mind the biggest problem that compromises conversations on the topic is that we don’t take baptism seriously. That is, for Christians, baptism is when we are set free from the law of sin and death (things like Leviticus) and enabled to live by grace alone. In other words we become members of a group of people who acknowledge a common lack of righteousness before God, a bunch of people who get things wrong and need forgiveness, mercy and grace from each other in order to progress. If we took our baptism seriously then, firstly, we wouldn’t obsess about the sins that our fellow Christians may or may not be carrying out, and, secondly, we might take seriously the intention of those same fellow Christians to live out a life of holiness before God, doing their best to know him and to walk more closely with Jesus day by day. It is because we don’t respect our fellow Christians’ integrity that the wider culture no longer respects us, and sees us as obsessed with rules about what we can or cannot do with our genitals (or whether you need certain genital equipment to exercise leadership in a church). Obviously we need to obsess about these things because our Lord spent so long teaching about them. Jesus wept – at the graveside of a man he loved.

For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

As this is again being discussed, I thought I’d bring it back to the top of the blog.

First posted July 2007, with a more personal follow-up here.

In the ‘I confess’ post, I said:

“I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It’s either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it’s simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

This has caused a bit of comment (off-line as well as on!) and it’s certainly something which is being discussed here in Mersea. So I thought I’d expand a little further. Click ‘full post’ for text.

This is still in the style of summary points:

– the role of the ordained minister is not ‘above’ the people, which would undermine the priesthood of all believers, but ‘alongside’ the people – separated out to perform a particular role on their behalf – if they were all one part where would the body be?;
– if a bunch of Christians were stuck on the proverbial desert island without an ordained minister, then clearly it would be good for them to celebrate together; it is the community gathered which does the celebrating (even when not on the desert island) – but I would lay odds that they would choose one person to do it, and not just take turns (unless they were already formed in that theology!) – NB there’s a thread in Lost that explores this, but I haven’t finished series 2 yet, so I don’t know where it’s going;
– a community celebrating because there cannot be an ordained minister present is very different from a community celebrating because they choose not to value what the ordained minister represents (ie unity with the wider church) – one is acquiescence to necessity, the other is an elevation of separation;
– it is precisely that elevation of separation which is the core problem with lay presidency, so far as I understand it, ie it is a mark of the local community gathering all authority to itself, saying to all outside their self-defined boundaries ‘we don’t need you’, whereas I see one of the essential tasks of the ordained minister as being to represent the wider church to the local community, and call it to account, not least through being the sign of fidelity to apostolic teaching;
– accepting ordained ministers is therefore accepting a wider church and all that that entails – it’s the definition of catholic, in its proper sense, and it’s the opposite of sectarian. It’s about being a part of something larger than the individual ego, or even a gathering of individual egoes;
– the task of the ordained minister is balanced – to represent the wider church to the local and vice versa – and the ordained minister is the one who has overall pastoral and teaching responsibility within a particular community – presiding at the eucharist is the function and sign of that authority, not the source of it;
– the ordained minister therefore also has important disciplinary functions – eg the excommunication of unrepentant sinners; the rooting out of bad theology – which cannot be delegated – or is this also included in ‘lay presidency’?!? I have visions of a church version of the grand Mexican Stand Off: ‘I excommunicate you!’ ‘No, I excommunicate YOU!’ ‘NO, I EXCOMMUNICATE YOU!’;
– of those whom I have met who advocate lay celebration, none actually want _anyone_ to do it, that is, they wouldn’t be happy if a stranger walked in from the street; nor even if some particular known members of the congregation performed the duty (for various reasons). Moreover, the idea that the person doing it should be trained up to do it is uncontentious – and this leaves open the real issue which is about the laying on of hands by the wider church, and the value of sacramental theology as such;
– in other words, what is being objected to isn’t the idea of some members of the community being allowed to preside rather than others, it’s the idea that being ordained by the wider church body represents something important – and so we are back to the idea of the local congregation being an authority unto itself, without any accountability to the wider church, either in space or time;
– at bottom, my strong reaction against this notion is a belief that it is yet another example of the idolatry of choice that has infected Western society, whereby each person is their own little God able to muster tributes according to their own taste (much the most insidious form of slavery) and where worship simply becomes an agglomeration of common preference, leading to the ten thousand things (denominations) rather than a unity with a Body much greater than oneself. I think this is one of the core things that identifies me as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ – though this is supposedly ‘whole-Anglican’ theology;
– I find great comfort in the idea that my ministry and authority does not rest upon meeting the particular standards of a local community but is bound up with the wider church as a whole (as signified by the laying on of hands). Without this form of acknowledged authority it seems that each congregation goes its own separate way, in smaller and smaller splinters, in more and more egotistical forms (even when the egotism isn’t exercised in a personal way, it is still a function of a theologically elevated egotism as such). One tyranny has replaced another (and the New Testament is hardly silent on the idea of ministerial authority). There seems to be no distinction between the idolatry developed in Western theology in the late Middle Ages, which separated priests from people, and the theology developed by the church – the same church that was inspired enough to put the Bible together – which progressively delineated who had authority to preside. Hence my comment that I see advocacy of lay presidency as “an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology… I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

None of this is to say that an ‘agape’ isn’t something wonderful, and to be encouraged, eg in small group ministry, only to differentiate it from ‘Holy Communion’ – that foretaste of heaven which is the celebration of the catholic church, local and universal. The ordained minister is the sign of that wider unity. ‘Just’ a sign? Only in the sense that the bread is ‘just’ a sign of the Body of Christ! It’s not an accident that the idea of lay presidency is most closely associated with the least sacramental understandings of the Eucharist. If what happens in communion isn’t ultimately that important, then it’s not that important who presides – but if what happens in communion is a means of grace and essential medicine for the soul – then it’s much more important that it is done rightly. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” – and ‘the body’ here isn’t simply the bread, it’s also the communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

How shall we clothe the naked CofE?

Is Christianity in Crisis? No, not at all, but particular expressions of the faith might be – and the CofE is one such.

The analysis is so well-worn now as to have become banal – and I’ve indulged in it myself – but the more that time goes on the more I wonder whether the root problem is the loss of real faith in God. That is, we have bought into a sense that the numbers are the key thing that matter, and we then panic or plan on the basis of responding to those numbers, in line with our general characters and dispositions. Now, I’m not at all wanting to say that the numbers don’t matter, what I am wanting to say is that numbers are not the one thing needful. Giving God all that we have to give, in heart and mind, soul and strength – this is the one thing needful.

In other words, if we start from a trust in a providential God, might not the utter disaster that has been the Church of England over the last forty years – utter disaster seen in terms of numbers, failure to evangelise and so on – actually be evidence of God accomplishing his purposes? That is, might it not be *God’s* will that the Church of England has been brought low?

What, after all, might be accomplished by such a process? To lose all the trappings of power and respect – to be the object of repeated scorn and ridicule – to be reduced to begging for the means to keep our buildings open – to watch as successive generations turn away from an inherited faith – might this not simply serve to clarify our sense of priorities and enable us to return to the living God? Might it not simply be that the Church of England had become, by the beginning of the twentieth century, so enmeshed with blessing the business of the British Empire that God decided to withdraw his blessing from it? That the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar was the inevitable consequence of placing our faith in that which was not God – and then being disappointed when we noticed that He wasn’t there?

In other words, might not the way forward be to remember that God is in charge all the time, not just when we are blessed by the obvious signs of His presence, and that the process that the Church of England has undergone – having her splendid garments stripped from her until she shivers naked in a cold wind – is precisely what we needed in order to be recalled to ourselves, and recalled to God? In other words, might it not be that we need to find more suitable attire for the Bride of Christ in this land – and might it not be that a simple linen shift is more suitable than royal robes?

So, enough with the metaphor already, what might this mean in practice? I think it means to return to trusting God – to rediscover what a living faith actually looks and feels like. To remember that worship is devotion and not entertainment, to remember that loving the neighbour means active service and not pious speech, to remember that the Church was built by Jesus for a reason and is not an optional extra that is acceptable so long as it can fit in comfortably with all the other priorities in our lives. To do this necessitates a theological renewal – for it is in our theology, and therefore in our preaching and teaching and (lack of) formation of our clergy that we have lost our way.

John Milbank’s criticisms bear on this; I would very much agree that we need to renew the life of the mind, but I believe that this should not be in a Platonic academy but in the cloister, in and of the Eucharistic community (I have expanded on this at much greater length in my book). The church must stop sub-contracting loving God with our minds to secular institutions, and it will not find peace until it does. Until we are reclothed in the divine light, we shall continue to stumble, naked and ashamed, crying out to the secular scornful for pity, for we no longer even know who it is that loves us. We are like the disciples on Holy Saturday, confused and lost, not knowing where to turn, when in truth we already know what is coming. I have no doubt that the future for Christianity in England is a bright one – for us to share in it, we need to fall in with God’s intentions not ours. So, come, let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, and will heal us.

What is your Church of England future?

Originally posted April 6 2007. I thought I’d repost it following the rejection of the Anglican Covenant – this still represents my thinking.
I’ve been musing about Hampson’s ‘Last Rites’ book, and in particular my development of his argument that the CofE will split into different factions (along the lines of the separate ‘flying bishops’ that we have already). A quiz below (hit ‘full post’).

Seems to me that three questions will reveal all:

1. Do you accept the notion of ‘penal substitution’ as an adequate account of salvation?

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

If your answer is yes, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Reform, and join up with the ‘Southern Anglican Communion’.

If your answer is yes, yes, no then you will be sympathetic to Fulcrum, and you will seek to keep the CofE on the road as far as possible.

If your answer is no, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Forward in Faith and you’ll probably end up with Rome.

If your answer is no, yes, yes then you will be sympathetic to Affirming Catholicism and when the realignment comes you’ll join in with TEC.

(There are, logically, other options, but not many people will buy into them!)

I think the issue is how long before TSHTF and the split becomes formalised. I wonder if there are plans already afoot?

Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious already, I’m ‘no, yes, yes’.

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but they don’t have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn’t enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of ‘The Fall’ – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it’s called ‘casuistry’), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it’s called ‘utlitarianism’ – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God’s point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God’s intention for that family. Therefore, even though a ‘lesser of two evils’ decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a ‘wrong’. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don’t have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the ‘wrong direction’ can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I’m in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I’m not in favour of ‘gay marriage’. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the ‘ideal’. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I’ve even been privileged enough to speak God’s blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying ‘you were right to choose the lesser evil’; it is simply God saying ‘I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation’.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus’ own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don’t fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don’t meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn’t indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God’s intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were ‘right’ – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the ‘ideal’ as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called ‘Anthem’ which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that’s why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

A few thoughts about gay parenting

This is really by way of a supplement to my previous post about civil partnerships, and prostitutes getting to heaven before the priests.

My argument there is that we need to draw a distinction between sanctioning and blessing relationships which are purely about the relationship between the parties involved, and sanctioning and blessing relationships which involve the raising of children. I believe that the wider society has a much stronger interest in the latter than in the former. Whilst there is all sorts of Christian thinking that can be considered in such cases, my overwhelming feeling is that it is for the Christians concerned to establish what is right, between them and God (and if they explicitly seek God’s blessing for their endeavours then the church should enable such blessings to take place). In other words, I think it is a matter of taking their baptism seriously, and trusting in the outworking of grace in the lives of brother and sister Christians.

The latter situation, involving the raising of children, involves more factors. Two things to say about this. First, I believe that – in so far as we can use such language – it is part of God’s original intentions for humankind that each child is to be loved into being and raised by their mother and father, and that there is something inevitably biological and organic at the root of this. That is, any situation which results in a child not being raised in love by their biological mother and father is the result of sin somewhere along the line (not necessarily sin by the parents – it could simply mean that one parent has lost their life for any of a multitude of reasons). I think that it is important to hold on to this as the normative model for parenting.

My second point, however, is a recognition that, in our fallen world, we have to cope with many situations that fall short of the ideal. What then? Well, we make the best we can from what we’ve got. We patch up our families, putting together whatever pieces work in so far as we can do so. We recognise that things aren’t ideal, and we rely on God’s grace to plug the gaps. As I argued before, I suspect that it may be easier for God to do his work when people recognise their own brokenness rather than otherwise (“every heart to love will come… but like a refugee”). Given this, I don’t have any problems with couples of all shapes and sizes and orientations adopting or fostering children. Seems to me that if there are loving homes available, and children in need of loving homes, then everybody wins.

However, I would add a caveat to this. If we accept God’s intentions as normative – that a child is to be raised by their biological mother and father – then this places a question mark against all the ways in which there is a conscious choice to bring a child into the world without their biological mother or father being the ones to raise the child, eg through artificial insemination. That would seem to be to be actively choosing against what is normative, rather than simply coping with what is not normative and redeeming a broken situation.

So to sum up my present thinking:
– blessing of civil partnerships – big yes;
– adoptions by gay couples – yes (subject to same restrictions as heterosexual couples);
– actively choosing to bring children into world without mother and father – no.

Current ambiguity still to be explored – if a gay couple with children seek church blessing – does that mean ‘gay marriage’?! I think not, but I still have further thinking to do on this…!

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but they don’t have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn’t enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of ‘The Fall’ – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it’s called ‘casuistry’), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it’s called ‘utlitarianism’ – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God’s point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God’s intention for that family. Therefore, even though a ‘lesser of two evils’ decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a ‘wrong’. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don’t have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the ‘wrong direction’ can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I’m in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I’m not in favour of ‘gay marriage’. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the ‘ideal’. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I’ve even been privileged enough to speak God’s blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying ‘you were right to choose the lesser evil’; it is simply God saying ‘I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation’.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus’ own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don’t fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don’t meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn’t indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God’s intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were ‘right’ – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the ‘ideal’ as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called ‘Anthem’ which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that’s why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

Models of the church (after Dulles)

One of the surprises and delights of having a blog is making contact with people around the world. In particular, one very kind person in the United States sent me – some two years ago!! – a copy of Avery Dulles’ “Models of the Church”. To my shame I haven’t finished reading it yet (about 1/4 left – which is how it has been for a while; now is clearly the time to finish it off) but I have grasped the main models. I thought it would be worth sharing them, as I want to pursue the discussion generated by yesterday’s post in some detail.

Dulles outlines five ways of understanding what church is:

1 – the institution, which in practice means the officers and legal apparatus. This form identifies the actions of the Holy Spirit with the actions of the visible institution.
2 – mystical communion, an invisible but recognisable presence of the Holy Spirit, which unites the true church across denominational boundaries (and beyond).
3 – a sacrament, the outward sign of the inward grace, a principal means by which God’s grace is made manifest in the world.
4 – a herald, the place where the gospel is proclaimed and the world is called to repentance, and a community is formed in response.
5 – a servant community, found wherever sacrificial love is acted out in places of need.

Each one of these ways of understanding the church contains important elements of what church needs to be; the issue is which one is given primacy in order to integrate the different elements. For me (and I think this is the way Dulles is going) the important element is the third – the sacramental model. I think this provides a proper balance between the first two, is dependent on the fourth in order to be valid (ie the gospel is rightly preached) and necessarily has the fifth as an outcome.

If the first is given priority you get sterile legalism, if the second is given priority you get lukewarm sentimentalism, if the fourth is given priority you get ‘the ten thousand things’ and if the fifth is given priority you get a renamed social services. If the generating impetus for the church is the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus then the nature of the church that he established has to reflect those realities. To my mind, this means that the sacramental understanding of the church – which is the only model which takes the incarnation seriously – has to have primacy.

This will underlie my other posts, forthcoming.

Evil suffers a (small) setback

This is going to be a bit of a rant, and I’ll probably wish I hadn’t written it tomorrow… BUT

I’m glad the News of the World is shutting down. I generally see the tabloid newspapers as being a physical embodiment of many of the worst aspects of human nature (and not just because I’ve been bitten by them, it long predates that). To put that in a less wordy fashion, I think the tabloids are evil. I think they serve the Enemy. And now, for one brief and no-doubt temporary moment, the bright white light of public scrutiny has been turned on to those who have caused or colluded in wickedness and we are revolted by what we see. Thank God we still have some moral substance in us.

No doubt there were good and conscientious Germans who worked hard for the Nazi regime and never personally murdered a Jew, but who were out of a job when the camps shut down. Yes, an extreme analogy, but the difference is only one of scale. Never forget that the Nazis were enabled to pursue their policies because they had first whipped up the scapegoating process, and it is precisely that evil scapegoating process that the tabloids specialise in.

So I am glad of heart. I don’t care that this will be cynically manipulated by Murdoch and that we will soon have the Sun seven days a week. For one brief moment evil has suffered a setback. Today is a good day.