On the sexuality debate (1996)

Peter Brain in Reform magazine in OCTOBER 1996 – prophetic or what?

Given that a ‘crisis’ is as much opportunity as disaster we can refer to the current discussions about human sexuality as critical. There has been much talk of the dangers. But if we take the measure of what is actually going on, it could be a real opportunity for growth. If we are (very) careful, it might come out as gain not merely pain.

I want to argue that this single issue has thrown into relief at least five larger and more serious issues which we have been ducking for too long. My fear is that the peg on which we have been forced (- for the choice was not ours) to hang so many weighty matters will prove inadequate to bear its burden, as though five heavy wet overcoats were hung on a single hook. There is much confusion and embarrassment, with little effort being made to separate out the different topics and not enough awareness of the depth of the water in which we find ourselves.

At least the discussion on the Bible is well under way. Everyone now seems to realise that what is at stake is not whether the Bible has authority but what form that authority takes. All Christians understand the phrase ‘Word of God’ to refer primarily to a living person rather than to a text as such – hence the overworked phrase ‘discerned under the guidance of the Spirit’ – used, a cynic might say, when you wish the text to mean something other from what it appears to say! And yet, as both Mark Argent and David Hilborn eloquently put it in their contrasting ways in July’s REFORM, some interpretation is absolutely necessary. It is faith in Christ that drives or colours the interpretation of scripture, not vice versa as one might expect. For all interpretations, from the most literalist to the most liberal, ‘who is Christ?’ matters far more than ‘what the Bible says’. Unless we recognise this depth to the discussion we shall remain unsatisfied by dissertations on various Hebrew and Greek words and concepts or supposed errors in translation, whatever these ‘prove’.

The second necessary discussion, on the nature of ministerial leadership, has hardly started. Is the minister to be a role-model, especially for the young? Can this be prevented even if it is not desired? Does this not result in a blind eye being turned to some failings, the ones with which the congregation can identify (such as being fined for speeding or being deserted by a partner) and not to others? How seriously are we wrestling with what is meant by the ‘holy life’ which ministers promise to live, since holiness (with its corollary priesthood) is a matter that touches the deepest springs of our religious consciousness? This is partly the inevitable focus on the minister as a public figure in the community but goes much further. Ministerial leadership must be through relationships, by trust and love and inspiration and encouragement, which makes the elusive connection between the role and person of the minister a critical element in the debate – whichever ‘side’ you are on (and whether or not you reckon that being homosexual is a ‘failing’).

Directly parallel to the matter of ministerial leadership is the question of how the church as a whole is meant to demonstrate a exemplary pattern of life? How are we to be a sign, some form of collective role-model for society? The question then arises, how exclusive can we be as church, given that we need some boundaries for membership? Paul’s tongue must have been in his cheek when he addressed the Christians at Corinth as “called to be saints”, given what he knew about them. But if this calling distinguishes us, too, what matters is not what we are but what we might be – and by God’s grace shall be.

The third chicken coming home to roost, to switch metaphors, is the place and status of General Assembly. No objective observer could deny that we have a problem. Resolutions are passed, overwhelmingly or even by acclaim (including some brought by Church and Society!) but everyone knows churches and Districts where they will be ignored if they do not find favour. Money will not be forthcoming for this or that agreed project, Nescafé will be drunk, lay presidency go on much as before and the place of children in the church downplayed, etc. etc. On the present issue, however, this will not do. We have in the main shunned any move to a more ‘parliamentary-style’ Assembly, with members more intentionally representative of the whole church – and therefore obliged to consult with their constituencies beforehand and give an account of themselves afterwards. Rather, we have looked to the spirit of the occasion as though Assembly were Church Meeting; I for one have defended this model fiercely. And yet on this particular issue it may not serve. And we have already acknowledged this: we have instinctively adopted a more ‘parliamentary’ procedure, inviting each meeting not only to discuss but also to report. The style and authority of Assembly is bound to be an element in any decisions that are taken. This episode may change General Assembly for ever. What do we say to the packing of Assembly membership for 1997 with persons supposedly sympathetic to one view or another – and this is certainly happening.

The fourth weighty matter – the hardest to handle in the long run – is that of science and religion, the issue of truth. In the terms of this discussion, are some people naturally homosexual (‘made that way’) and, if so, is this another discovery of science to which faith will eventually come to terms as we have accommodated other religion-defying discoveries? The term homosexuality itself is fairly recent and was coined by medical scientists in the last century to describe an innate orientation which was not recognised as such in ancient times. If it is indeed a scientific ‘fact’ – a working hypothesis – that a certain proportion of human beings are innately homosexual, it recharges the debate on the concept of creation. Is nature itself as a whole what we should be praising God for as creator? Or only some aspects of the natural order? If so, in the familiar question, why is this such an imperfect world? And is homosexuality an imperfection? Deep waters indeed, and yet this is where our current discussion will lead us if we are honest.

The fifth discussion, which might have been expected to be listed first, is human sexuality itself. In a society that abuses and exploits sexual attractiveness when it is not idolising it, Christians too easily take refuge in a negative view of sex deriving from the polarisation as between matter and spirit (or mind) with matter, including sex, perceived as inferior and even, among some Christians, as essentially ‘worldly’, a barrier to salvation which is essentially spiritual. The power of sex to destroy human lives and character has reinforced this attitude. This mixture of diffidence or embarrassment with suspicion or animosity is a barrier to any discussion, long before we reach the issue of homosexuality. Are we trying to jump ahead of ourselves by discussing homosexuality before we are able to discuss sexuality at all? But then, would we have embarked on any discussion of sexuality had we not been under some pressure to tackle homosexuality?

Five wet coats weigh more than enough to pull this hook off the wall!

To press the metaphor too far, we can hardly see the hook at all, which is that what we are trying to discover is not where we would like to be but where we actually are now. That is the point. Hence the stark specifics of the original case which precipitated this discussion: one strand of opinion believing that we cannot ordain openly homosexual candidates until we decide to, others believing that we should not refuse them until we decide to. Yet it is impossible to comment on the matter without entering into at least two, and usually more, of the deeper issues which this controversy has brought out into the open. We shall do remarkably well to address so many tangled issues in one day at Assembly, let alone two hours in Synod.

Yet, as so often happens, this may become a blessing in disguise if wrestling with serious issues strengthens our faith rather than weakens it. We could do Bible study with much more obedience and imagination and admit that the two are not in opposition. We could support all our ministers (and elders) much more than we do now. We could ponder afresh on how to express the good news of a creator paradoxically revealed in the death of Jesus. We could develop the councils of our church, especially Church Meeting, into occasions where disagreement is not dishonourable. We could even trust one another (albeit in smaller groups) to wrestle with the specifics of human relationships and sexuality.

This burden we are carrying could make or break us. For some there is a real fear that we are faced with a choice between the truth of the gospel and the unity of the church. For others there is a real fear that we shall lose that unity of the church which is the truth of the gospel. There is indeed much real fear, going beyond apprehension at a difficult time ahead. God’s love is such as casts out fear.