One has to feel for the good old Church of England. If there’s not a public relations crisis, best to create one. Sex outside of marriage, gay or straight, ‘falls short of God’s purpose for human beings’, the Church declared. A few days later, after a colossally negative reaction inside and outside of the Church, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York felt obliged to offer an ersatz apology: ‘We are very sorry and recognise the division and hurt this has caused.’ And it’s not just the CofE that’s in such a mess over LGBTQ2 acceptance and equal marriage. The Roman Catholic and evangelical churches are even more conservative and less tolerant of dissent. But with great respect and in all seriousness — why?
The subject is hardly mentioned in the Bible, and when it is referred to, the context is complicated. The so-called ‘gotcha’ verses from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are invariably quoted, but with very little understanding of what they mean. The Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a particular favourite, with Sodom being destroyed allegedly because of its insatiably homosexual population. Yet the story is not really about sodomy at all, and it can hardly stand as a sexual morality tale when Lot, one of its heroes, offers the mob his two virgin daughters in place of his male guest.
Scripture itself explains it all rather well. Ezekiel says: ‘This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.’ It was not until the 11th century that the Papacy insisted that same-sex naughtiness was the problem.
When the Hebrew Scriptures do mention homosexuality — it’s only men, and lesbianism is always ignored — it generally concerns the need for procreation in order to preserve the tribe, and has no relevance to what we now know as committed and loving same-sex relationships. It’s also usually linked to obscure prohibitions, such as of various combinations of cloth, eating the wrong foods or having sex with a woman when she is menstruating. It’s also worth remembering that if we are to embrace without critique all of the Old Testament teachings, we have to justify genocide, slavery and selling one’s children into bondage. As a Christian and an ordained cleric I believe that we can take the Bible seriously or literally, but we can’t do both.
Jesus doesn’t mention homosexuality at all and is actually extraordinarily indifferent to the sex lives of those around him. The quintessence of the Gospels is grace and compassion, the triumph of love over law, and if one group does provoke Jesus to anger it’s those who insist on judging others. There may, however, be one anecdote in the New Testament where he does respond to the issue. It’s where Jesus is approached by a Roman centurion, who says that he has a slave whom he loves very much, but that the man is dying. He asks Jesus to heal him, and has complete and humble faith that it can be done. Jesus praises the man, and tells him that his slave is indeed healed.
First-century Jews were humiliated by Rome’s occupation, and would deride their oppressors in whatever way they could, including by mocking them as being homosexual. More than this, the Greek word used in this story for ‘love’ describes something far more intimate than friendship or platonic affection. We can’t know for sure, but many scholars believe those watching the scene, and then reading and listening to the story, would have assumed this was Jesus accepting not just a gentile and a pagan, but the love of a same-sex couple.
St Paul does mention homosexuality — although the word is anachronistic, not being coined for another 1,800 years. The peripatetic apostle wasn’t, however, writing of same-sex marriages, precisely because he didn’t know of them. His criticism was of heterosexual men using boys for sex, and the Greek word he uses to describe these usually married men having intercourse with teenaged boys is best translated as ‘exchange’. So this is a direct condemnation of the abuse of the vulnerable, sometimes for pleasure but also as part of an initiation rite common in Roman and Greek religious rituals.
That is about it. Vague, open to dispute, and never absolute. When references are made to male and female relationships in the Bible, it’s descriptive rather than directive, and merely the use of the contemporary norm. The notion that these ancient texts are divine dictation, given to us by God to rigidly order our lives and loves in the 21st century, is not only foolish but also contrary to the Messianic call to empathise and embrace.
Scripture is sublime and inspired, but it was designed to be understood through the prism of the informed believer, and its song is one of beauty and openness. Jesus the rebel would surely be interested not in whom we love, but that we love. As for biblical cherry-picking, it may be tempting but it can be extremely dangerous, especially when the old ladder is on very shaky ground.
The Revd Michael Coren is an author and an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church.