HOMOSEXUALITY – A SIN OR IN-BUILT DIFFERENCE?
For centuries it was assumed that homosexuality was a chosen behaviour outside mainstream approval. Currently we can see there has been a shift in attitude, partly in reaction to changes in society and partly because through scientific and psychological research the current understanding is that those with homosexual orientation are now widely believed to have no real choice in the matter. From reactions in the community and Church it is clear that the new understandings have not always been translated to visible changes of attitude. Even where the Churches are aware of the appropriate research and although many societies have relatively recently come to recognise and even safeguard the rights of homosexuals, in many places this has been a very grudging acceptance. For example here in New Zealand even the mainstream Churches who for the most part supported homosexual law reform have generally been less than encouraging in their acceptance of homosexual ministry.
The more conservative Churches, and conservative members within more liberal churches in general are frankly opposed to homosexual behaviour claiming that there are passages in the Bible, which in some cases are literally accepted as applying to all time, condemn homosexuality as sin. Aware of that situation, even the New Zealand Methodists for example, who have possibly been the most liberal of the mainstream churches in this regard, still leave it open to individual parishes to state whether or not they would accept homosexual appointment.
The Presbyterians have pulled back from their earlier acceptance and have now adopted a position that although those already in ministry can continue, they do not currently accept homosexual ministers into first appointments.
There is no officially stated policy with the Anglican Church although there is majority agreement with the most recent Lambeth Conference and the Windsor report that it is not acceptable for clergy to be practicing homosexuals. The Maori and Pasifica tikanga are particularly committed to this viewpoint, and appear quite clear they see homosexuality as a sin. Strangely although there is no official support for the ordination of actively gay or lesbian clergy, there can be local support. Some Pakeha parishes are more open to supporting gay and lesbian positions on a number of issues, including ordination and blessing of unions. Auckland and Dunedin dioceses are notable for a more liberal stance and as with other mainline churches there are a number of ordained clergy and blessing of same-sex relationships have been officially recognised. One or two prominent Anglican clergy are widely believed to be practising homosexuals.
Since Catholics have a policy of abstinence for all clergy, the question of a practicisng homosexual priest is not an issue. When it comes to homosexuals amongst Church members the Catholic Church position is little changed since the October 1986 Vatican letter to bishops entitled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” when it was stated those who find themselves to be homosexual should change their orientation through prayer and counselling or, failing that, live totally chaste and sexually inactive lives. (The letter did not say “loveless” but this seemed to be the implication for some thus affected). This letter was claimed as necessary to offset “deceitful propaganda” coming from gay Christian groups challenging the church’s tradition and its interpretation of Scripture. By implication, according to the Catholic position, sexual fulfilment is exclusively the right of the heterosexual.
The Catholic position is fairly reflected by a similar stance by some in mainline conservative churches where the emphasis is on the correction of the aberrant and sinful position. I have heard the term “love for the sinner but not for the sin” used quite frequently when such matters are discussed.
There is a curious sense of embarassment in even discussing the issue in New Zealand in that in general, the fastest growing portion of the Church is the conservative Pacific Island sector and it would be difficult to challenge such a grouping when the challenging opinion might be misconstrued as prejudice against a group on racial or cultural grounds. The other aspect of the embarassment is that restrictions on ministry on grounds of homosexual orientation places the Church in contravention of the Human Rights act which states that people may not be discriminated against for employment on grounds of sex or sexual orientation. Although the Church can produce the technical argument that strictly speaking ordained clergy are not employed by the Church, and that it is rather a response to a call to follow God (ie employed by God?) this may be a subtelty lost on both the general public and aspiring homosexual clergy.
Some of the other Churches have been particularly strong in their condemnation of homosexuality – particularly for ministry. The Destiny Church would be typical of some of the newer ultra-conservative churches in this regard.
The origins of prejudice against homosexuality appear partly biological and partly cultural and religious. Before any change to current positions and attitudes is expected it may be helpful to recognise some of the contributing factors.
One phenomenon found right through the animal kingdom is the way in which members with aberrant appearance or behaviour are rejected, often forcibly, by the rest of the group. Often explained in Darwinian terms, this has been argued to have deep seated biological advantage in terms of breeding mate selection as well as advantage in helping the group know which members are likely to agree with consensus behaviour.
In an age where groups only survived by virtue of the strength of support for the tribe and tribal values, it possibly made more sense to look to accept tribe members with common values, and conversely to have ways of detecting those who did not fit. Homosexuals appear to have been a case in point. Where the success of a tribe was partially dependent on viable offspring it was more than just heterosexuality which was valued. For example centuries of observations of breeding may well have given rise to the observation that unions between close relatives frequently acted against viability and may well have been a factor in helping subsequent tribal rule makers determine that close family members should not be allowed to mate. The biological reason behind unsuccessful outcomes of such unions ie. that recessive genes were being expressed with the union of near biological relatives, would not have had to be understood before the social rule developed. A series of children with discernable weaknesses from such unions would be part of the group knowledge. This would then be expected to influence recommended rules for behaviour. A modern variant of this attitude is that homosexual behaviour is widely believed to be a contributing factor in the spread of AIDS. This belief, which at best is only a half truth, can however be expected to carry through to influence group attitude and behaviour.
Similar social Darwinian principles were part of emerging religions and it is now relatively widely accepted that teachings about confirmed and agreed sets of behaviour helped build a sense of common identity and attitude of mutual support. Not all would agree that the Bible was composed with such issues in mind. For example a sizeable percentage of those identifying themselves as Christian are also believers that the Bible was divinely inspired and should be accepted as both inerrant and literal in its commands and instructions. When it comes to the frequently heard proposition that the Bible states homosexuality is to be condemned, the objective evidence is a bit more ambiguous. In a modern Western society, where the groups are much larger and more diverse than those in Bible times, many of the social reasons for rejecting same sex relationships are not longer relevant.
While it is true that there are passing references in the Bible to decree homosexuality as an abomination, there are many things in the Bible declared abominations, such as people with slanted eyes, eating shellfish and people eating with Egyptians. Just because the Bible declares that we should stone someone who has shaved his sideboards or picked up wood on the Sabbath, the cultural setting for the instructions and the changed understanding that a modern society has by virtue of developing understanding of science and other cultures should give us sufficient reason for caution in interpretation. We no longer see the Leper as a victim of evil spirits and we need to be free to use our growing knowledge in other areas of our faith as well.
What is probably more important is that we identify the main and growing themes in the Bible and consider how we might learn from them. For example a theme like compassion is a recurring theme, and generosity to the poor is directly mentioned well over one hundred times, as is the need for justice. If being true to the main teachings of the bible is important it may then follow that we give emphasis to the main themes of the Bible in our lives rather than those areas which appear incidental. The fact that homosexuality only gets 8 direct mentions, some ambiguous in intent, and that it is of so little consequence in the teachings of Jesus it is not mentioned at all, might suggest we step back and consider carefully before consigning homosexuals to rejection and perdition.
We may also reflect on the way in which our views are expressed. For example one of the brief mentions of homosexuality brackets it with a host of other abominations like having haughty eyes. At a minimum, the “holier than thou attitude” when it comes to saying what homosexuals should do (and for that matter what anyone who does not conform to majority expectations should do) is built on the hidden assumption that the one expressing the opinion has already assumed that they are superior to the one being discussed. In any case, to express an opinion in such a way that comes across to that person being discussed as less than considerate and caring certainly runs counter some other major injunctions, particularly those emphasised by Jesus, like loving one’s neighbour.
Since the free choice aspect of homosexuality is the one which gets a great deal of attention, there are some important understandings coming out of science research which should also inform our discussion. For example the brain structure and neural pathways are becoming much better understood. To give one example, (Ian Sample in The Guardian, Monday 8 June, 2008) the Scientists from the Stockholm Brain Research Institute announced that they had identified a symmetry in appearance of brain structure when comparing the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual women. This was not present with heterosexual men and lesbians where the brain was asymmetrical. The researchers also showed that the same regions of the brain preferentially fired for women and homosexual men whereas for men and lesbian women different areas were favoured. They even suggested that the popularly claimed difference between men and women for map reading ability was a consequence of this symmetry and function difference.
This is of course part of on-going research and structural differences can be affected by experiences after birth as well as at birth but such research opens up some new possibilities for discussing free will in the establishment of homosexual behaviour.
As with other essays on this site, the aim is to stimulate thinking. Over to others to respond.