If you thought the recent fracas about the appointment of an openly gay Bishop in Britain was just an internal church matter for Anglicans, think again. Undaunted by the fallout from recent scandals involving sexual abuse of minors, Archbishop Peter Jensen has sought to re-position the church as the high-watermark of sexual morality by putting the biblical case against homosexuality to readers of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
It is important in a pluralistic society to give Jensen room to express his beliefs and to promote his faith. This is a liberty Jensen shares with his detractors. At the same time, it is also appropriate, as a pluralistic society, to protect ourselves from Jensen's morality, and to meet it with a morality of our own; a morality that respects human dignity, and can accommodate humanity in all its difference, including sexual difference.
Jensen argues that Christians are not free to make up their religion, and that the final authority is scripture. This justification raises important issues for Christians and non-Christians alike.
For those who accept biblical authority, there is, despite Jensen, plenty to argue about. Romans 1:26-27 seems pretty clear in its condemnation of men who "burn with passion for each other". But Genesis 1 is equally, and literally, clear that the world was created in just 7 days. The Ten Commandments are equally, and literally clear about the importance of keeping the seventh day Sabbath (as observant Jews and Seventh day Adventists do but Anglicans do not).
Clearly, Christians disagree about which commands should be treated as literally applicable to modern conditions, and those that are best explained away on some other basis. Were this not the case, the church would be a moral backwater, forced to defend the indefensible. After all, the New Testament enjoins slaves to obey their masters "because of your reverence for the Lord" (Colossians 3:22), and clearly anticipates that Christian masters would keep slaves (1 Timothy 6:2). Wives are admonished in Ephesians 5:21 to "submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband has authority over his wife just as Christ has authority over the church". Women are warned to keep quiet in church and to let the men do the teaching, since it "it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman …" (1 Timothy 2: 14).
If "All scripture is inspired by God" and useful for "teaching the truth [and] rebuking error" (2 Timothy 3:16), then why don't Christians rebuke the world at large with these scriptures as well? One answer is that while these texts remain "on the books", so to speak, our sense of decency has eclipsed them, so that they are best interpreted as part of the culture of New Testament times, rather than as timeless moral injunctions applicable to Australia in the 21st century. In other words, Christians struggle to stay true to the spirit of the founder of their religion, while acknowledging the cultural wrapping in which that message has been mediated. It is a matter of regret that that culture has at times been sexist, racist, and homophobic.
What does Jensen's hard-line view on homosexuality mean for non-Christians? It illustrates the continued importance of secular law in defending human rights and dignity, especially from those who, because they have God on their side, have the capacity to visit great misery upon others with a clear conscience. In New South Wales the Anti-Discrimination Act protects gay men and woman from discrimination: in the workplace, in education, accommodation, the provision of goods and services and club membership. It also creates offences for vilification. These achievements were not won easily. Among the detractors were some whose resistance was religiously motivated. While Christians should never be denied the liberty of conscience, Jensen's call to the faithful reminds us that it is important in a pluralistic society to place limits on the power of the churches to impose their consciences upon everyone else.
Faith plays an important role in society. It motivates people to lead better lives, and can provide a vision of humanity that enriches the lives of believers. The challenge for Christians is to move beyond the clarion call to be narrow, little people, and to embrace a bigger-hearted faith. The challenge for a secular society is to maintain our commitment to the virtues of tolerance and respect that on this occasion a secular Parliament, rather than Church tradition, has granted us.
It is both ironic and disappointing that we have secular law, rather than church teaching to thank for the fact that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, for we are all one in our common humanity, protected by the rule of law.