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The churches and gay marriage

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 24 August 2017


It is increasingly apparent that the general public do not understand the differences between the various Christian churches and para-church bodies. For example, I often encounter references to Christian denominations as though they are different religions. The description "Christian" is applied to funeral services, schools and political lobby groups and numberless worshipping congregations. It is often difficult to find out what these groups represent even after examining their web sites. For example, the Australian Christian Lobby gives no hint of where it lies on the theological spectrum. Naïve readers will likely assume that they represent mainstream Christianity, which they do not.

A public issue like gay marriage evokes a storm of protests from many groups all proclaiming themselves to represent the Christian view. Anyone who does not have a church connection and understand the difference between the various church groups and their attending theology will be thoroughly confused. The following is a description of some of these voices and their theological orientation.

Firstly, evangelical Protestantism will be mostly against gay marriage and will abhor homosexual acts on the basis of biblical texts, most notably in the Old Testament. Constructing a system of ethics directly from the bible is a hazardous undertaking. In order to glean moral laws from biblical texts they must pick and choose those verses that suit their agenda. For example, the Jewish food laws are ignored as are the distain for gentiles and the stoning to death of disobedient sons and female adulterers. The logical conclusion of this approach to morality would be to attempt to live a life whose morality included all of the law of the Hebrew Scriptures. Homosexuality would be punishable by death. The bible does of course make moral pronouncements but these are embedded in contexts very different from ours. Neither is it possible to glean ethics by asking "what would Jesus do?" because most of the teaching of Jesus pointed the way towards a new heaven and a new earth, a transformation of all that exists.

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Secondly, the Roman Catholic Church inherits ethical pronouncements many of which are based on natural law inherited from the Scholasticism of the Medieval period and modified by Church Councils, particularly in our time, Vatican II. While some members of that council attempted to change the scholastic approach it still lives on in the pronouncements of the Church. The most famous example is the forbidding of contraception. The argument is as follows. God intended the process of procreation to proceed during sexual intercourse between a man and a woman and nothing may alter that process. Thus, any alteration of this activity, e.g. contraception, is contrary to the will of God. Sexual acts are confined to the faculty of procreation i.e. sexual activity that is not directed to procreation like masturbation and same sex activity is likewise contrary. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1989) we find the following:

"Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered". They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."

This argument relies on reading morality from the biblical tradition and arguments from natural law. The catechism goes on to say that sexual orientation is unchosen and that chaste individuals should be welcomed into the Church. This is a more enlightened position than many in evangelicalism that do not recognise the unchosen aspect of sexual orientation and regard it as curable.

The Catholic Church has become rigidly hierarchical and actively censorious of theologians and the ordained if they speak out against the directions of the Church. For example, Charles E Curran has written widely on sexual issues in the Church and was removed from his position at the American Catholic University in 1986. There was also a push in the proceedings of Vatican II to introduce a more theological and personalist approach to sexual issues to replace the traditional physicalist and scholastic. It does seem that now, even with the efforts of the latest Pope, that the Catholic Church has painted itself into a corner where change is impossible. There is a sense that if they give way on one thing, the authority of the Church would be threatened and the whole structure will fall to the ground.

The third group arose in opposition to Rome in the Reformation (1500s). Protestant Churches, in their opposition to justification by works, their turn to Scripture and resistance to scholasticism, did not set up a system of canon law alongside the law of the state. In other words, they refused not only to be a part of the Holy Roman Empire that could excommunicate heads of state like England's Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but also refused to govern adherents using canon law. This is the great distinction between Rome and Protestantism. The latter was content to let the state govern in consultation with the Church so that it was free to let the gospel transform the hearts of men and women. Grace was emphasised over law. Protestant theology traces a path that included Scripture and the early theologians of the Church but by-passed scholastic thought that they saw was based on the philosophy of Aristotle.

This group does not have an adequate name but is represented in Australian society by the non-evangelical wings of the Anglican and Uniting Church. It is opposed to the idea that morality can be simply read out of the bible and that rationalist arguments from natural law are valid. The overall approach is theological. For example, Karl Barth recognised that ethics could not be studied in isolation from theology. This approach recognises the importance of biblical eschatology and the centrality of the Eucharistic meal as the sign of God's kingdom breaking into the world. Its approach to the status of persons in that kingdom is influence by the actions of Jesus who welcomed tax collectors and sinners in table fellowship. This is not just modern egalitarianism since evil doers were not accepted as they were, but were expected to change their lives.

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The question becomes as to whether persons who find themselves same sex attracted may be included in the fellowship of the Eucharistic meal. While Rome has no problem with same sex attraction it does have a problem with homosexual acts which it regards as grave sin. Hence chaste homosexuals are welcome in the church. However, many in the third group, without reference to natural law and the recognition that tradition is not always a reliable guide, have decided that homosexual acts are necessary expressions of love that, as is the case in heterosexual acts, nurture monogamous relationships.

Moves away from tradition can be justified on the basis of Trinitarian theology that tells us that any experience of God comes to us in the form of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This formula describes the continual action of God in the world. Our lives are constantly being transformed into the image of the Son who shows us the truth of the Father in the power of the Spirit. The history of the early Church shows us how the actions of the Spirit broke down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles and the laws that kept those barriers in place. This is what we mean when we describe the faith as eschatological, that it moves towards fulfilment. This means that we cannot set divine law in concrete as if it was given only once and cannot be changed. Such a concept comes close to "mere monotheism" because it does not recognise the active, triune nature of God.

When we use philosophical language to produce eternal ethical truths we suffocate the activity of the Trinity. The history of the early Church showed us that profound and unthought-of change occurred and continued to occur. I believe that acceptance of gay couples and their children represents a movement in God that will liberate many into full participation into the human family and in the Church. You will now find gay couples living in Anglican rectories one of whom is the priest of the parish under the full knowledge of their bishop.

If the Church is to recognise gay couples as living within the community of the Church it has to do so on its own grounds. Unfortunately, the argument for gay marriage has been based on simple egalitarianism, hence the centrality of the term "marriage equality" or, with even less foundation, on the concept of human rights. On the one hand, secularism affirms diversity and on the other hand refuses it. So, gay couples are deemed just like heterosexual couples. But this is not true. Gay couples are different in a very basic and structural way in that a third person is required to produce offspring. This means that one of the couple has no biological investment in the child. It also means that sexual activity between partners has nothing to do with procreation. This, of course, is a nightmare to natural law theorists and you can see how it is unthinkable for Catholicism.

But if we look at gay families we find that children are nurtured even more closely that in hetero families probably because forming a family is far more intentional and thus measured. It seems that conservative attitudes to the traditional family, that insist that a child needs a father and a mother, underestimate the creative flexibility of parent-child relationships.

Israel celebrated unusual acts that were necessary to bring forth life. If Lot's daughters could make their father drunk and get children from him and if Ruth could seduce Boaz on the threshing floor and if serving maids could take the place of sterile wives, then artificial insemination in gay relationships seems tame. The important focus here is the getting of life and the love that succours that life.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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