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As churches argue about homosexuality, the congregation moves on

By Stephen Crittenden - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2003

As churches argue, the congregation has moved on.

This year's Mardi Gras was a reminder of just how much has been achieved by way of justice for gay and lesbian people over the past 25 years, and how much there is still to fight for.

The wider community is coming to understand that gay rights are a logical extension of the rights that heterosexuals enjoy, and perhaps even an inevitable consequence of the French Revolution.

But the Christian churches have been deeply unsettled by the speed with which homosexual people have come to be accepted by the secular mainstream. In recent years homosexuality has emerged as a touchstone issue dividing liberals and conservatives within the churches, a symbol of battles fought and battles lost throughout the 20th century, and it is even threatening to tear them apart.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, has often argued that what he calls "the liberal agenda" is exhausted. But the reality is that the juggernaut just keeps rolling on and on. All around the developed world, laws which discriminate against gay and lesbian people continue to be wound back.


I n Australia, issues like the age of consent, gay adoption, shared superannuation rights and the removal of discrimination against gay teachers in church schools are all on the agenda.
In Scandinavia, Germany, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, the hot issue is same-sex marriage.

The Netherlands and Belgium have led the way, with the Belgian parliament endorsing in January, by an overwhelming majority, same-sex marriage. As the Belgian Justice Minister, Marc Verwilghen, puts it: "Mentalities have changed. There is no longer any reason not to open marriage to people of the same sex."

In the case of the Protestant churches, the homosexual 'agenda' is seen as a direct threat to biblical authority. Sydney's Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, is leading a group which is teetering towards schism with the worldwide Anglican communion on precisely this issue.

According to one of America's leading Bible scholars, Marcus Borg, biblical literalism is declining quite rapidly, and he says one of the reasons the fundamentalist voice is so loud and so strident is "because fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are aware that they are losing the battle for the Bible."

Borg, author of a fine bestseller, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (Harper, 2001), says the Bible has become the battleground between liberals and conservatives in the Protestant churches, with the same people lining up together over three main issues of interpretation: the creation myth in Genesis, the nature of Jesus, and homosexuality.

If the Bible is what's at stake for Protestants, for the Catholic Church what's at stake is the authority of the Pope, and the church's teachings on sexuality, marriage and the family.


In the words of E. Michael Jones, editor of the ultra-conservative American Catholic magazine Culture Wars: "Basically they [progressives] won every battle up until the homosexual battle, and the homosexual battle is in many ways the last frontier. If homosexuality is OK, then there is no such thing as nature anymore. That means the Catholic Church was completely wrong in saying there was a natural order of sexuality."

The Catholic Church has also been rocked by the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, nowhere more so than in the United States last year. As the Catholic conservatives have begun to recover their equilibrium, they have come to focus on homosexuals in the priesthood. Only two years ago they were denying statistics suggesting that perhaps a third of priests are gay, but now gay priests have become a scapegoat - a "fifth column" that can be blamed for the laity's implacable rejection of the Church's teaching on sexuality over the past 35 years.

In his famous essay of 1831, The Spirit of the Age, John Stuart Mill marvelled at how much tumultuous change his world had seen in the space of a single generation. He described an age of transition, in which old institutions and old doctrines had fallen into well-deserved discredit. "Society demands, and anticipates, not merely a new machine, but a machine constructed in another manner. Mankind will not be led by their old maxims, nor by their old guides; and they will not choose either their opinions, or their guides, as they have done heretofore."

Ours is also an age of transition, and we, too, have achieved a remarkable amount in the space of a single generation - so much so that the doctrine and the language of the churches now mean little if anything to many people.

Perhaps it is time for the churches to face the fact that this last frontier in the sexual revolution has also been lost. There is a vast amount of rethinking for the churches to do about the nature of sexuality and the nature of nature. The alternative is to risk increasing irrelevance.

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About the Author

Stephen Crittenden presents The Religion Report on ABC Radio National.

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