Saturday, 25 May 2013

Letter to a Saloon Bar Moralist

Thank you for your letter. The more people apply their first principles to this question, the closer we will come to a way forward so thank you for trying. I am sure many people, especially those of a certain age will share it instinctively, driven by a primal feeling of disgust about gay sex.

What I am finding also, however, is that your views appear anything but natural to vast numbers of people who simply see gay people as people, not defined by their sexual practices. The opposite answer is as clear to them, as yours is to you and the minority of my correspondents your letter represents.

So what are we to do?

1. Please note that I have said absolutely nothing about sexual practice. The honourable expression of the sexual dimension of our lives is a challenge to everyone, gay or straight, I would add, regardless of where we find ourselves on the various scales that define what we call orientation, with their various fluidities and rigidities. It is a fact that every population ever has contained, among others, a small minority whose orientation is irreducibly homosexual. We have tried criminalising them, especially since the 1880's, treating them as mad, or bad, or deformed, or inverted, or, stunted. We have chemically castrated them, locked them up, exiled them, even, in some Muslim countries stoned them. None of this makes ay difference to the basic biological fact of the matter which is a given, and a part of the way God made us. Full stop. The question is how would a holy relationship be between members of this tiny minority?

2. Please notice that "Love your neighbour as yourself" is not the same thing as "go and sin freely." It is, however, the cornerstone of both Jesus' and St Paul's teaching and neither you nor I are free to cast it aside because of our feelings of sexual disgust.

3. Jesus also taught us to beware the leaven of the Pharisees within and among ourselves. Indeed, whilst he said absolutely nothing about what we call homosexuality (hardly surprising, since the concept was not defined until 1892) he said an enormous amount about using the law to lay burdens on others harder than they could bear, not treating others as you would have them treat you, failing to see the human being in need for the child of God they are, erecting the small matters of the law into crucial shibboleths that confound the purpose of the law, thinking that searching the scriptures in itself will bring life, supposing that people were made for the sabbath not the sabbath for people, and so I could go on. St John tells us that it is futile to think that we are loving the God we have never seen, if we do not love towards the person we have seen.

4. Jesus also taught that by its fruits you know the good of anything. Our commission is to be good news to the whole creation, not Pharisees. Our conventional silence and implicit condemnation based on disgust has borne fruits of depression, hypocrisy, self-loathing and even suicide. It cannot be good enough, against the basic duty of love to which Jesus calls his disciples.

5. There is no single biblical concept of marriage. There are seven in the Hebrew Scriptures alone, including some that are far from ours (like 1 man and 700 women). Indeed there actually is no root in Hebrew that expresses the concept of "marriage" as we know it. People "take" or "procure" their women according to the custom and definition of the context. Similarly there is no link between marriage and procreation which, in the Hebrew Scriptures, as in the rest of life, can happen entirely separately. What is judged is not the definitions of their marriages but people's behaviour within them. We have to work with the Bible we've got, not the one we would have written, given our own prejudices.

What I do find is that many people who begin with a saloon bar approach find that when they try to apply it to real people they love in their own circle of friends and families, its inadequacies soon reveal themselves for Pharisaic cant. An ethic that cannot be applied to people you actually love is sub-Christian by the standards of the Good Samaritan. The sermon on the mount is not a discussion starter, but a way of life. We all have to try and engage with it, as Nelson said in another context, more closely!

With every good wish and blessing,


The Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson
Bishop of Buckingham

01494 862173

"People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed" — Samuel Johnson


Rosemary said...

I think I am lucky in that I simply do not feel instinctive disgust for sex between consenting adults. I never have. It is not a choice I made, it is just the way I am.

I do love 'the sermon on the mount is not a discussion starter but a way of life.'

Si Hollett said...

Some minor nitpicks on what is a very reasonable post (probably as you are dealing with people I disagree with too, plus you don't touch on where we strongly disagree):

Point 4 - Our commission is to 'make disciples' and be Jesus' 'witnesses ... to the ends of the earth'. You've tweaked it into 'be good news to all creation' - if you want to win over those who say they take the Bible seriously, making these kind of small tweaks on the well known bits is going to reduce your credibility elsewhere, is it not?

Point 5 - you've conflated 'biblical concept' and 'concept that appears in the bible' - the former needs endorsement, the latter doesn't. Using Solomon as a biblical concept of marriage is rather poor exegesis of Kings: the author is showing that he ignored the wisdom God had given him (there's definite echoes of Deuteronomy's rules for kings: not too large an army, not too many wives, etc) and that the fruit of his womanizing was his own heart was divided and therefore the Kingdom would be after he died. Sure Solomon has another concept of marriage, but it is certainly not one that the bible endorses - pick a less blatantly bad one if you want to make that point effectively.

Alan said...

Si, I was making a broader point not quoting Matthew 28, but the commission there is to baptise and to observe the things Jesus commanded. As to Solomon, what I Kings disapproves of is the foreign religion of his wives not the number. But Solomon is by n means the only polygamous King in this period. David had six named wives and others. Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines. David is condemned for adultery with Bathsheba, a property crime, but not polygamy.

Tobias Haller said...

Well reasoned, Bishop A. Top marks ;-)

Revsimmy said...

Thank you for this post, Alan. I do not regard myself as a saloon-bar moralist, having wrestled with this issue since well before my ordination training began, and I have read and discussed this a lot since then. There is much is what you write that I would whole-heartedly endorse, yet I still have difficulties with aspects of the argument that you (and others) make. With respect to this specific post I have the following observations to make:
1. Nothing I disagree with here – you have hit the nail on the head in identifying the key issue. And personal disgust at certain practices is not a reliable indicator of moral value.
2. Also agreed, though with a caveat. “Love your neighbour as yourself” as the cornerstone of moral teaching is neither unique nor original to Jesus. Many other Jewish teachers would have agreed with him (and still do) that this is one of the two key commandments of Torah through which other parts are to be interpreted.
3. (& 4.) Also mostly not in question (for me at least). But again a caveat about the rather cavalier use of “Pharisee” as a pejorative (especially in 4.). The issue is clearly what it means to love someone within a specific context. Not condemning is not the same as giving explicit approval to specific behaviours. As you point out, our modern concept of homosexuality (and the term itself) was not defined until the late C19. Yet both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament speak about behaviour, about actions and activity. That Jesus does not explicitly mention this simply suggests that the issue did not come up between him and his interlocutors (though marriage and divorce, the sabbath and dietary laws did).
4. That said, I agree that the Church has focussed too heavily on moralising in the past, and that the fruits of this have been all too negative (and not only on this issue). I believe we have often been used, abused and co-opted by wider society to impose morality which is more about keeping people under control than about finding freedom, love and grace in Jesus Christ.
5. Here, as Si Hollett implied, I think you are setting up something of an Aunt Sally. No conservative I know reads the Hebrew scriptures without reference to the New Testament. So when we talk about “biblical concepts” we aren’t just taking everything in both Testaments as examples to follow, and even if the Hebrew scriptures themselves do appear to endorse (or not criticise) certain aspects of behaviour this cannot imply Christian endorsement with reference to the NT. The Hebrew scriptures do, however, inform the teaching of both Jesus and Paul, and when Jesus does speak about marriage he takes a kind of “back to basics” approach with reference to the Genesis stories (as does Paul). I agfree with Si that you are not really making this point effectively in terms of the position you are trying to address.
Your final paragraph expresses the situation well, but still does not help me reconcile the tensions within the teaching (and lack of it) in scripture.

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