FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

GAFCON: Schism and the Repudiation of Homosexuality 29 June 2008

How significant are differences in belief about openly gay clergy and church blessings of gay unions? Very significant if you consider that such things are said to form part of a “false gospel”, and have contributed to the formation of an alternative episcopal hierarchy in the Anglican Communion at the GAFCON conference, which ended in Jerusalem today.

The gay issue has naturally dominated much of the press coverage of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). However, this movement is about much more than mere disagreements about marriage and sexuality, important though they are. It’s also about evangelical Anglicans, and those from developing countries (particularly Africa), finally making a break from a church whose compromises between evangelicalism, liberalism and catholicism are rooted in a long history (including the history of British imperialism) and in the moral uncertainties of modern Western society. These compromises and ambiguities are no longer perceived to be necessary or relevant to a confident African Christianity and a militant evangelicalism who base their certainties in Scripture and the traditional cornerstones of Anglican doctrine: the four Ecumenical Councils, the three Creeds, the Church Fathers, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

The first thing to be noted is that GAFCON is a schismatic movement. It tries to make out that it will be able to co-exist with the ‘official’ Anglican hierarchy, and that it is just a movement and alternative discipline within the Anglican Communion. However, it is taking the classic form of a schism: seeing itself as the representative of true Anglican-Christian orthodoxy, tradition and liturgy; and setting itself up as able to command authority over all the Anglican faithful by virtue of its claim to uphold the ‘true’ Gospel over against the ‘false’ Gospel that the official hierarchy is unable to confound. It is hard to see how a single Church could survive with two organisations and groupings of bishops competing against each other to be accepted as the very basis for unity, and of coherence of belief and practice, within the Church. The truth of the matter is GAFCON really seeks to supplant the established Church hierarchy and, in a sense, re-launch the Anglican Church as a whole – and not just one movement within it – on its own foundations. It will doubtless take many millions with it, who will believe that it is the ‘true’ Anglican Communion. Many millions will not follow, however, and will retain their allegiance to the established church that has the Archbishop of Canterbury loosely as its head.

The question I would wish to ask is this: will such a schism strengthen or weaken the Church’s witness on homosexuality? Is it more powerful for people to have radically differing views on sexuality within the same community of believers, or to take a stand on the issue to the extent of breaking up over it and forming separate churches? I ask this because I think that gay clergy and blessings are a bit of a straw man. Or should I say they’re being made out to be the ‘last straw’, the final outrage, that’s forcing the hand of the dissidents. But this is really a pretext, and it isn’t necessary to risk splitting up the Communion for the so-called conservatives to express their concerns and their opposition to what is being done in certain parts of the Communion, particularly in North America. This is a matter of discipline not of fundamental Church doctrine: the common Anglican teaching remains that gay clergy should not be in actively sexual relationships, that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual thing and that there is no such thing as an ‘official’ blessing ceremony for gay unions, although these may be carried out by clergy as private occasions.

Admittedly, there are many in the liberal wing of the Communion – and not just in Canada and the USA – who have more affirming views on homosexuality, and consider that loving gay relationships are a positive thing, indeed a gift from God. And such people might even go so far as to sanction gay marriage. However, these views are not the mainstream; and in any case, the traditional Anglican way has been to accept that there is a diversity of beliefs within the Church, reflecting the plurality of beliefs within society at large. The fact that in some churches, they preach that it’s all right for two male or female clergy to share each other’s bed has never up to now been thought to prevent other Anglican churches from believing and preaching diametrically opposing views and still to consider each other as Christian brothers, united in their search for God and for truth. But now, the new organisation is saying that people who advocate and practice such a “false gospel” can no longer be in communion with them: effectively, they would exclude them from their version of the Anglican Communion – they would be excommunicated, meaning they had put themselves beyond the redemption won for us by Christ.

It’s the fact that it isn’t really necessary to set up a dissident church within a church in order to disagree fundamentally with the liberals on these points, and continue teaching the opposite, that makes me think that the gay issue is merely a pretext for a split that the evangelicals and African churches involved have wanted for some time. In reality, it’s the only issue of substance that divides the new proto-church from the old. The statement of belief issued by GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration (see above link), is essentially no more than standard traditional Anglicanism that most Anglican believers would have no difficulty in embracing – deliberately so, as the new movement seeks to impose itself as the true Church. The gay issue is being made out to be more extreme and threatening than it really is (because, as I say, the majority of believers do not follow the ultra-liberal line) to justify a split that is ultimately about re-centring the Communion on evangelical principles: Scripture and a specifically conservative-Anglican acception of Tradition; as opposed to the Trinity of (evangelical) Scripture, (Catholic) Tradition and (liberal) Reason that has provided the foundation for the co-existence of multiple interpretations of the faith within the Anglican Communion hitherto.

Ultimately, the new movement is not interested in the gay issue: they simply want out, and want it out of the church. No actively gay person will be welcomed within their Anglican Communion. And it’s in this refusal to exercise the Church’s pastoral mission to its gay followers, as much as in the schism GAFCON is bringing about, that the bishops behind the new movement are failing in their duty to act as a focus for unity in the Church and a witness of God’s love to the world.

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Gay Clergy Wedding: A Storm In a Vicarage Teacup? 17 June 2008

Is all the fuss that erupted yesterday over last month’s blessing of the gay civil partnership of two Church of England vicars just a storm in a teacup? Clearly not from the point of view of the many furious reactions from senior conservative figures in the Church. Some of these have called the ceremony blasphemous and have claimed it breaks church rules, which prohibit formal blessings of gay unions. The blessing service in question did apparently use many of the forms and words of a traditional, heterosexual marriage ceremony, while adapting it to the gay context. So, to all intents and purposes, it looked like a wedding even though it did not formally claim to be one, or even to be an official blessing.

I have quite a lot of sympathy with the conservatives, based on the fact that I believe in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and regard it as something sacred, mysterious and revealed. And heterosexual. Marriage has been handed down to us as such in Scripture and Tradition, and – in Catholic belief – through the teaching Authority of the Church. And we cannot change holy matrimony, and expand it to encompass gay unions, just because we wish it to do so. True marriage is a sacred thing that needs to be upheld; above all, modern, secular society needs the Church’s witness to the sacred character of marriage in a world where marriages and families are constantly being torn apart through personal failings and social pressures. The ceremony that is at the centre of the present controversy went too far in reproducing a traditional marriage service, which could indeed undermine some people’s faith in and understanding of the uniquely sacred character of the union in marriage of a man and a woman. And it is highly disingenuous of the vicar who conducted the ceremony to claim that it wasn’t a marriage or a formal blessing, and that he has technically not broken any rules; because it’s clear that the ceremony was making a strong implicit statement that the gay union at its heart was in many ways morally and spiritually equivalent to a traditional marriage.

Yet, at the same time, are not many of the objectors also going too far? To me, the whole thing appears trivial on one level, and it’s futile to waste so much time and energy over it. How does the Church think that the secular world it is trying to bear witness to will react to all this indignation over a ‘marriage’ that no one is technically claiming to be a marriage anyway while, at the same time, many – perhaps most – people would now accept that gay couples should have the right to get married, albeit in a civil ceremony? The whole thing does a huge discredit to the Church in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic towards its defence of marriage and other traditional moral values. As if the Church didn’t have other far more important and urgent things it should be concerning itself with, such as the social and spiritual deprivation of so many in our society, and the elimination of wars, famine and disease, and their causes and effects. Obsessing so much about the gay issue just makes many people dismiss the Church as a quaint, outmoded irrelevance – more interested in ceremony and petty rules than substance.

So the ‘gay clergy marriage’ story is important, in that the integrity and sanctity of marriage needs to be defended; but not that important that we should lose sight of the Church’s primary mission: to witness to and enact God’s compassionate love in the world. So how should the matter be dealt with? Well, if the policy of the Church is that there can be no formal services of blessing for gay unions, then church premises and property should not have been used in such a public ceremony: any blessing that was given should have been done properly in private, consistent with the claims of the vicar who led the service that it was just a personal response to a request from friends. The vicar should have been quietly reprimanded and informed that if he carried out another blessing for a gay marriage in church premises again, tougher action would be taken. Meanwhile, private blessings, held in non-ecclesiastical surroundings, should be tolerated, just as the fact of clergy entering into civil partnerships themselves is tolerated on the condition that the couple remain celibate. The gay vicar couple at the centre of the dispute are both still exercising their ministry in the church; and, to be honest, if they are truly expected to remain celibate while living together as civil partners, then they really need the blessing of the Church and any grace that that might bring!

After all, it’s not as if the church is sanctioning any gross immorality by giving its blessing to faithful, monogamous gay relationships. If anything, surely, they are to be encouraged in preference to a life of promiscuity. Indeed, does it really discredit – or does it not in fact honour – the tenets of Christian marriage if gay couples wish to place their relationship within the framework of the exclusive lifelong fidelity that marriage demands? At the end of the day – or at the end of life – I feel sure that gay persons will be judged more on the extent to which they lived up to their commitments to one another than by the fact of making those commitments in the first place. And so long as the commitment that remains in the first place for all Christians, gay or straight, is the commitment to Christ, then we need not have any fear. And that includes the misplaced fear of conservative, straight opinion that is worrying more about these issues than about bringing God’s love to a world that is starving for it.

A storm in a teacup, maybe; but one with a ripple effect that diminishes the Church’s stature and impact beyond the vicarage walls.

 

Male and female he created them 21 May 2008

Mexico was scandalised this week by the country’s first wedding between a male (female-to-male – FtM) and female (MtF) transsexual. Not surprisingly, the ceremony incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in the country. However, as the bride’s sister was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s a marriage between a woman and a man, so what’s the problem with blessing this union in the eyes of God?”

This is indeed an intriguing question: if an FtM transsexual counts as a woman in the eyes of the Church, and an MtF transsexual is considered a man, then a marriage between both of them – so long as neither of them have been married before – is in fact a female-male union, even if it is the spouse who plays the male role who is the ‘woman’ and the bride is a ‘man’. However, the problem is not in the bare facts but in the spirit with which the couple are committing their lives to each other, which precisely does require that the husband should be a ‘man’ and that he should make the type of commitment that husbands make to wives in Christian marriage (to give himself utterly to the wife out of love, to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice his own life if necessary to save his wife’s life, as Christ died for humankind); and that the bride is a woman making a bride’s pledge to her husband: to love and obey him as she would Christ.

Of course, saying that a marriage involving an FtM and MtF transsexual couple does not comply with these defining parameters of authentic marriage does mean that one is asserting that the couple in question are really a woman and a man, and not – as they see themselves and appear physically to others – a man and a woman; i.e. that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are terms that relate only to the ‘birth gender’ (the physical, anatomical sex the individuals were born with) and no other understandings of gender. Part of the reason for the insistence on this criterion is of course one of the integral purposes of Christian marriage, in the traditional understanding: that of having children and bringing them up as Christians. The ‘woman’ or ‘bride’ must, in this scheme of things, have been born with the bodily organs required for her to become a mother within marriage; and similarly for the husband / potential father.

I say ‘must have been born with the bodily organs etc.’ rather than simply ‘must have the bodily organs’ because an authentic marriage – one in which the spouses firmly believe that God has called them to commit themselves to one another – logically must have been intended by God for those individuals from all eternity, which therefore requires that one of them be born female and one male. This ‘authentic’ marriage would be contrasted, for instance, to ones in the future where it is theoretically possible that there might be genetic and / or stem cell-based treatments that would enable women to transition entirely into men, complete with functioning genitals; and for men to become women in every physical respect, including with functioning ovaries and wombs. In such a case, would the MtF ‘bride’ not in fact be ‘really’ a woman in every sense – physical and psychological, sex and gender – while the FtM ‘husband’ was ‘really’ a man?

On the other hand, would such an apparently total gender reassignment in reality be any less artificial and superficial than the treatments presently available? The fact that the transitioned woman and man would not just appear as such but would actually be fully female and male anatomically would not of itself invalidate the view that they were ‘really’ a man and a woman respectively, based on the bodies they had been born with – which was as God created them and therefore intended them to be.

But you’d now be paradoxically in the situation where a woman and a man were, in every normal sense of the terms, female and male (physically and psychologically) – and even, who knows, capable of conceiving children ‘naturally’ – but who would be denied marriage on the basis that they were really (‘spiritually’) male and female, and therefore not capable of fulfilling the roles of husband and father, and wife and mother, respectively. On this view, the fact of being female or male would depend not on what you as a person feel you are, nor on how society views you, nor on your present bodies, but on how God made you and what you therefore are in his (or her) eyes.

So one authentic Christian way of living out one’s vocation, as a transsexual, is to accept that, in some mysterious way, one is really – in God’s eyes – a woman even though one feels that one is really a man; and vice-versa for psychological women locked in men’s bodies. As a Christian, it might be better not to undertake a gender reassignment, if one were able in faith to accept the body one was born with as something that God wished one to take on – in the manner of a cross that had to be borne (in the other sense) as part of our sharing in Christ’s suffering for the sins of the world. But by the logic I have attempted to map out, whereby the appearance of gender (even, in theory, the actual possession of a fully female or male body) has nothing to do with the ‘real’ gender (psychologically or spiritually), a transsexual should in no way be condemned for seeking to transform her or his body to align it with her or his psychological gender. Nor – on the other hand – should transsexuals expect or demand that all Christians accept that their ‘new’ genders are their ‘real’ genders from the spiritual perspective, to the extent of authorising and carrying out Christian marriages of the sort discussed at the beginning of this post.

But equally, this does not justify the rejection or condemnation of transsexuals, whether transitioned or not, but calls for a new flexibility and openness of thought and compassionate understanding, whereby one accepts that the gender a person feels they are may be quite the opposite of how they were born or what they appear to be; and that the gender they appear to be may be quite the opposite of what as Christians we are entitled to believe they are. Perhaps this new expansion of the horizons of our thinking will help not just Christians but society as a whole to be more open to the plurality and shades of gender experience, including those which are found but so often suppressed in people who feel their gender identity is wholly ‘normal’ and aligned with their anatomical sex.

So in this life, it is legitimate to believe that we are called to accept the gender we were born with as something essential to what we are and are meant to be in God’s eyes and plan. But in the life to come, these gender differences – including those internal to the self – will no longer matter as we will be reunited with the God in whose image both male and female humanity was created; and, who knows, both the male and female sides of ourselves will be reunited and reconciled in him. After all, the biblical text says, ‘male and female he created them’; and not, as we so often interpret it, ‘male or female’.

 

Feminine Guys Are More Attractive 27 March 2008

An interesting addendum to my comments in my post yesterday on the Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality about women who are attracted to gay and / or feminine men : saw this article on Yahoo! news today. It appears that statistically more women prefer ‘feminine’ partners than macho ones, as they think they’ll be less dominant, more faithful and better fathers.

Still, it’s only one study, I suppose; and the finding is not universal for all women and cultures.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 8 August 2007.)

 

Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality

I’m sure there must be a respectable scientific theory about how homosexuality fits in with the evolutionary world view. My brief web search didn’t throw one up, however; there’s not even a learned article in Wikipedia. On the face of it, homosexuality appears to contradict the theory that we all have an innate interest in breeding in order to perpetuate our genes.

But there are two cultural assumptions in a statement such as this: firstly, that everyone does naturally wish to reproduce; and secondly, that you can draw a neat dividing line between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The theory that we are pre-programmed to try to disseminate our gene pool as widely as possible throughout subsequent generations could be said to exemplify and re-formulate in the modern scientific vernacular the age-old cultural beliefs and values that emphasise the critical importance of having a family – in some cultures (for certain men) several families.

Equally, the view that homosexuality might run counter to the normal functioning of natural selection is already in itself a manifestation of this sort of selection: the assumption is being made that heterosexuals will generally have a preference for heterosexual partners and, similarly, that there will always be a preference for same-sex partners on the part of homosexuals. In this way, inherent in the theory itself, there is a sort of ‘de-selecting’ of homosexuality from the description of normative ‘natural selection’, and a preferential selecting of heterosexuality as the type of sexuality that best fits the theory and the cultural preconceptions about reproduction. Hence, the theory of evolution itself mediates a culturally procreation-centric (’heterosexual’) view of sexuality.

But if the homosexual gene – if such a thing exists – has managed to perpetuate itself over the course of millennia (and recent evidence suggests it’s not about to die out), then either or both of the following propositions must be true: 1) not all sexual attraction, and sexual action, has the urge to reproduce as its core motivation, driver or underlying impulse; 2) homosexuality must have some positive purpose that could be explained in evolutionary terms as being connected with ensuring the survival of the species.

In relation to the first of these propositions, it’s ironic that evolutionary theory and traditional Christian doctrine (so often, but not always accurately, viewed as antagonistic belief systems) are in this respect the strangest of bedfellows. Certainly, the Catholic Church views reproduction as the fundamental natural purpose of the sexual instinct. It is seen as the duty of the Church to ensure that this instinct is expressed within a social, cultural and sacramental context (marriage) which most effectively suppresses that instinct’s innate tendency towards selfishness (the selfish gene) and helps to lead the individual into a more self-giving, loving existence of the kind to which all souls are called in Christ. It is because homosexuality does not – or at least, appears not to – fit this description of the procreative purpose of carnal desire that the Church refers to it as unnatural or disordered.

But you could look at this differently. It’s possible to view the sexual / reproductive instinct as expressed in conventional marriage as in fact being a rather selfish way of life: a life that places the satisfaction of the sex drive and the urge to reproduce at its very centre, albeit that the tendency of this instinct towards anarchic selfishness is restrained. Having a family is obviously a huge responsibility and a tremendously challenging task. But it’s also fundamentally what people choose to do for themselves; and it naturally involves putting themselves and their families first with respect to their needs, comfort and protection.

By contrast, gay sexuality could be seen as beginning to enact a movement away from selfish / reproductive desire towards love as the primary motivation for choosing to be with someone. Let’s say, rather, that gay sex – freed from the instinctual selfishness of the reproductive instinct but also from the social restraints upon free-flowing sexuality – tends to veer towards the extremes of either stable, loving, faithful relationships that are often more enduring than marriages; or else towards a self-centred, loveless, promiscuous way of life. Either way, homosexuality appears to be a form of sexuality that resists a description as being fundamentally concerned with reproduction and genetic self-replication. In Christian terms, one might say that homosexuality inherently implies a call to a higher love even than that which is expressed in Christian marriage: love for its own sake, distinct from the drive to reproduce, albeit only perfectly expressed in celibacy.

If homosexuality implies a natural tendency or spiritual calling towards altruistic love, perhaps this helps to explain why some heterosexuals are attracted to homosexuals; or – looking at it in evolutionary terms – why homosexuality might be a characteristic that it could be in the genetic self-interest of the individual or the species to perpetuate. It’s certainly an observable phenomenon that there are many women who are attracted to gay men: those that they know to be gay as well as those they don’t. I’m not sure whether the reverse phenomenon is equally as frequent: straight men being attracted to lesbians. The male sexual fantasy of lesbian sex is a well known cliché; but this is rather different from actual attraction or otherwise towards Lesbian women in the real world.

But as far as women being attracted to gay men is concerned, it’s not unknown for this to result in marriages and children – whether the gay man later comes out and the marriage breaks up, or not. Some of the men involved in such scenarios must deliberately suppress their homosexual leanings (in the sense both of not discussing them and of actually succeeding, if only temporarily, in denying them and displacing them onto attraction for their wives) in order to fulfil their own instinctual drive and desire to have children. Others may not be aware of their gay side and this surfaces only later – after the man has fulfilled his urge to reproduce.

This may sound somewhat fanciful. But there are many examples of this sort of situation, including in the Church: one thinks of the much-maligned Anglican Bishop of New Jersey, for instance. I know from my own experience that it’s possible to be largely unaware of one’s homosexuality for part of one’s adult life. When I was in that condition, I had a relationship with a woman (who, incidentally, definitely appears to have an inveterate tendency to be attracted to gay and / or feminine men) that might well have resulted in children. And I strongly suspect – again, partly based on personal experience – that the phenomenon of men who are less able to suppress their gay side after having raised a family is much more extensive than is commonly thought: still a largely hidden issue, as the men concerned very often continue to hide their homosexuality from their partners and families.

Looking at this from the perspective of natural selection, what interest do homophile women have in choosing gay men as the fathers of their children? Firstly, following my arguments above, gay men may well be perceived by such women as less selfish and aggressive in pursuing their own reproductive agenda: less alpha-male-like and, by that token, less likely to be unfaithful, misogynistic or exploitative – seeing women as mere brood mares. Secondly, if gay men are perceived as being more feminine than heterosexual / alpha males, women might choose this characteristic as it makes it more likely for their own feminine traits / genes to prosper and be reproduced in subsequent generations. This does not necessarily run counter to the interests of species survival, as femininity in men is not to be confused with homosexuality: gay men are often feminine but not all feminine men are gay. Therefore, when a woman chooses a gay partner, she might be choosing him for his feminine / female-friendly characteristics which, even if her partner subsequently turns out to be gay, could result in sons and grandsons who carry the feminine genes without the gayness.

In a more general sense, these scenarios suggest that unselfishness and a relative absence of procreative drive could in fact be genetic characteristics that it might be just as important to perpetuate through the generations as the self-replicating selfish gene. The perpetuation of homosexual characteristics may be one way in which humanity resists and mitigates the effects of instinctual selfishness, which has such potential to be a force for destruction in the world. Equally, it is far from clear that the alpha-male drive to spore as many offspring as possible from as many women as possible is a very desirable trait in an over-populated world where the human race appears not to have too many problems in multiplying.

It strikes me as ironic, for instance, that a country like China goes to enormous lengths to keep its population level down with policies such as one child per couple (to the extent of carrying out forcible abortions of subsequently conceived offspring), while at the same time it has a rather repressive attitude towards homosexuality. Perhaps it would be better to let men with homosexual leanings freely express their gayness, rather than applying cultural pressure on them to sire a male heir, resulting in the killing of unwanted female foetuses or, on occasions, of actual baby girls. This could be seen as an example of a culture that has traditionally sought to foster the alpha male, while at the same time, this has created a population crisis resulting in desperate and immoral measures of control.

Equally, this example suggests another way in which homosexuality could be said to serve a positive purpose with respect to species survival; and in this respect, one could say that gay men are complementary to alpha males. If a certain proportion of the population is gay, this increases the ratio of heterosexual men to women who are seeking prospective fathers for their children. This makes it easier for men to find prospective mothers and, in the case of the inveterate alpha male, multiple mothers for their children. Equally, a reduction in the number of men chasing the available ‘breeding stock’ of women could be said to reduce the probability of conflict between rival men, which might otherwise – in extreme cases – even result in the deaths of some of the alpha males. This is perhaps another example of where homosexuality can be seen as serving a ‘vocation’ to reduce the overall levels of aggression in society and to mitigate the destructiveness of the reproductive instinct.

To what extent do these evolutionary benefits of homosexuality really correspond to a vocation, and can they be said to have a providential purpose? From a Christian point of view, any real human and social benefit must be seen as an expression of divine Providence: a manifestation of God’s presence and action in the world. If you accept that the benefits from homosexuality I have discussed are indeed real, then it follows that Christians must see them as providential. This does not mean that homosexuality per se must be seen as morally good. Like many aspects of human life, it is morally neutral, and it will be judged, ultimately, in relation to how each gay or bisexual individual chose to live out their calling: as a person with homosexual tendencies and as a person made in the image of Christ.

But the fact that, to some extent, homosexuality places the individual outside the human thrall to the reproductive drive (at least, in its more obvious, selfish manifestations) is at least a reminder that we are all called to a love that transcends our own personal and, indeed, familial needs and ambitions. It also acts as a corrective to the narrower understanding of human evolution, in that it suggests that sometimes it is not always the selfish gene that prospers.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 7 August 2007.)