The Church is a living body rooted not only in tradition but also in society, and one of the characteristics of living things is that they grow; that does not mean that society should shape the church, but if the church is to do its work as the leaven in society, it needs to be able to interact in a constructive way with it. One obstacle to this in our own societies in the West is that when it comes to sexual practices. On the whole the Church and society have not interacted in constructive ways. Those in the Church who think that the secular world has gone to hell in a handcart on sexual matters may well have a point, but I dare anyone to say that this attitude has, a) had any effect at all on society, and b) that it has had any positive outcome for the churches. In short, it’s as perfect example as a car crash as you could wish for; no need for the enemies of Christianity to move a finger, we’re perfectly capable of wrecking our own show – thank you, and good-night Vienna! Was there, is there, a better way?
Christians are a family, and Jesus often uses examples from family life to illustrate how we ought to be conducting ourselves. It is no accident that he refers to God as father, any more than it is that he is the son. A father (or mother for that matter) will often regard the ways of their offspring, not least when they become teenagers, with some bemusement, and very few of us will not have heard a parent say “it wasn’t like that in my day.” They are right, but that does not mean that a wise parent tries to corral their daughter (or son for that matter) into the way they behaved when they were teenagers; a wise parent remembers their own parent saying just that to them when they were teenagers. That’s the point. The world now is not the same as it was then.
When my late father was a young man in Austria, the government, in 1938, insisted that all Jews wear a yellow star of David, and they had a precise definition of what a “Jew” was, and the local churches went along with this. When his father took him and his sister to the UK, he no longer had to wear a star. But as his sister, my aunt, grew older and people wondered why such a pretty girl was not married, she could not say that it was because she preferred to be with women. It was not illegal in the way that male homosexuality was, mainly, it seems because when the latter was criminalised in the reign of Queen Victoria, no one could muster up the courage to tell the Queen that lesbianism existed.
In part, the bar on male homosexuality came from Scripture via the rulings of the Church. No one could say that Scripture had much to say about the subject of same-sex physical relationships, but then no one could deny that what was said was hardly favourable. Tradition, resting on a reading of those parts of Scriptures and the old Jewish law, along with the law and the mores of society all went in a direction which meant women like my late aunt had to live secret lives if they wanted, as she did, the companionship in the fullest sense of the woman she loved. As my late father used to say in the late 1980s when this was a hot political issue, “it wasn’t like that in my day”. He was right, it wasn’t, it was horrid for women like his sister, and worse for men who could be, and were, imprisoned. Certain parts of Northern Ireland and Islam apart, is anyone now advocating a return to those times? Even if they were, and in the vast majority of countries they aren’t, it isn’t going to happen. Most countries have enshrined into their legal codes protection for people with a same-sex attraction. Like it or not, that’s the case.
The Churches have, for the most part, handled this poorly, some seeming to make concessions only when under great pressure, and belatedly, and quite obviously doing so as a sop to “the times”, and others parsing the issue with a skill that deserves the adjective “Jesuitical”, whilst still others have reiterated their teaching as though times had not changed; but few, if any, serious Christian Church has persevered with the full force of the attitudes in place in the 1950s.
What would the example of “family” suggest? My own father was not a Christian, what he saw in Austria of the cooperation of the churches with the Nazis left a permanent mark on him. He doubted, to put it mildly, whether an institution which cooperated at a local level with the Nazis had any moral authority to pronounce on anything that mattered. But his sister, my aunt, became a Christian, indeed she became an Anglican. My grandfather, her father, knew that she preferred women and lived with one, his view was simple, I am told: ‘she is the flesh of my flesh, she is my beloved daughter, how she lives is her business unless it hurts others.’ He continued to love his daughter and made no distinction between her and my father. Her church? No one asked questions, so no one got any answers, but I know that for her it prevented a closer relationship with a congregation she attended for twenty years or so; which is sad, as she had a lot to give.
Some churches take that same 1950s attitude, others, many Anglican churches among them, take the view that as “family” what matters is the person and they sound a lot like my later grandfather. They do not ignore scripture, but they take the view that the tradition which accepted Paul’s strictures is not applicable to times in which we know so much more about sexuality, and when being gay is not identified with paganism or temple practices from paganism. You can disapprove and you can get into arguments about what certain texts mean or don’t mean. Or you can, as my own local church does, take the view that we are all family and what matters is just that.
There is nothing unAnglican in that. All change is uncomfortable for many. Despite Paul being clear that a Bishop could have a wife, the Church decided otherwise, and one can be sure than many people at the time felt upset at the change – but they went with it. However, when the Church in England decided to go back to the older practice, there was no great hoo-hah when priests who had often been living with the woman they loved, made honest women out of them by finally marrying them. Will we reach the same place with people who are gay and lesbian? In some churches we already have, in others, we haven’t. But when even the Roman Pontiff acknowledges that same-sex civil unions are okay, you can be sure of only one thing – things aren’t what they used to be. Maybe you can be of one other thing – that some will celebrate it and some will hate it and complain. The future will roll out, and if the Spirit really is guiding the Church as we believe, we shall all just have to get along as a family, and sometimes, the best families can do at a particular juncture, is to get along by agreeing to disagree in love.
To some, who recieve the tradition from Paul and its reading by their church, this will seem at best “wet” and at worst, contrary to Scripture. To them I would say only that their reading of Scripture is not the only one available, and that even in the Roman Catholic Church no lesser figure than the Pope can see the need for civil unions. I understand their fear that this is no more than the thin-end of the wedge, because they are correct. A traditional reading on sexuality can survive modern scientific research, but it can’t do so for ever. Such a reading can survive a long time, but not without doing damage both to the institution holding it and to people who may be part of it. What it cannot do is survive if the Spirit is guiding us to a better understanding of these things than was available to Paul, or even to my grandfather’s time.
The Church of England holds with a comment often attributed to Augustine, but which cannot be found in his works, though it can in Pope St John XXIII’s Ad Petri Cathedram, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” That is how a real family proceeds. Those who have problems with it, well, we must also take account of their sensitivities even if they sometimes fail to reciprocate. That’s why it takes time. The day will come when our descendants will wonder why we made such a fuss about something which they take for granted – and if any of us live to see that day, our response might well be “it wasn’t like that in my day.”