The old debates about slavery can inform thcurrent ones about homosexuality, says Alan Wilkinson
Some Christians seem to think that the moral teachings othe Church have remained unchanged since earliest times. But the Church hachanged its mind about a number of important moral issues, from usury ancontraception to slavery.
The many changes by Roman Catholics have been documented iChange in Official Catholic Moral Teachings, edited by Charles Curra(Paulist, 2003). But the story of how and why such changes took place iilluminating. When I researched the debates about slavery which took place couple of centuries ago, I was fascinated to discover that those between thabolitionists and their opponents bore striking similarities to those about thethics of homosexuality today.
Today, those Christians who propose a change of mind abouhomosexual relationships are accused of being dominated by secular liberavalues and of allying themselves with non-Christian pressure groups. Yet it wathe spread of liberal values which paved the way for the abolition of slaver
When we go back to the beginning of the 18th century, wlearn that Christians and society in general condoned slavery. After all, iwas permitted by the Bible. But Roger Anstey and other scholars have describehow, during the first three-quarters of that century, the concepts obenevolence, liberty, and happiness took hold. These were incompatible witslavery.
Latitudinarian theology taught that God, through hiprogressive revelation, could lead us in new directions. Nor was thabolitionist movement solely composed of Evan-gelicals. It included QuakersUnitar-ians, agnostic radicals, and Whigs.
Evangelicals are justly proud of the pivotal part theplayed in the abolition. Without their contacts, their religious zeal, antheir inspired leadership, abolition would not have happened when it did. Butequally, it would not have happened when it did without the lengthy process ochanging the national mind, which was achieved earlier through the efforts oagnostics and Christians of other traditions.
As David Bebbington, the Baptist historian, wrote in hiclassic work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (Routledge, 1988): "Thgreatest example of Evangelical humanitarianism, the anti-slavery campaign, waundoubtedly the fruit of the Enlightenment. Anti-slavery was not intrinsic tEvangelicalism: some of the stoutest defenders of slavery in the American Soutwere preachers of the gospel."
The present debate about homo-sexual relationships began ithe 1950s, and Christians played a large part in its initiation. The debatprompted the creation in 1954 of the committee under Sir John Wolfenden, committed Anglican, which led to a change in the law about male homosexuarelations. This change was supported by Archbishops Fisher and Ramsey, and by significant number of bishops.
Today, a coalition that includes a considerable number oChristians believes that it is right that Church and state should publiclrecognise bonds between people of the same sex. Faithful commitment (of everkind) is a building block of a stable society. A belief in the value of publicommitment between people of the same sex is based on the same principles ojustice, freedom, equality, and human rights which Evangelicals once spassionately upheld when they fought slavery.
Further, Evangelicals argue that the Bible is the sole omain source of moral authority; that it condemns homosexual practice; and thaChristians have always believed this though Evangelicals do not propose thexecution of homo-sexuals, as set out in Leviticus 20.13. But the biblicascholar the Revd Professor John Barton contends that the Old Testament knownothing about the condition of being homosexual. Humans are simply sexual, anthey express their sexuality in different ways many of them forbidden bJewish law.
Abolitionist Evangelicals would have liked to argue the casagainst slavery from biblical texts. But they found themselves unable to do s
Thomas Scott was the first secretary of the ChurcMissionary Society, founded by Anglican Evangelicals in 1799. In hiinflu-ential biblical commentary of 1792, he recognised that the regulationgoverning slavery in Exodus 21.2-11 posed a problem. He resolved this bappealing beyond the text: "We should not, however, judge of the practicitself by these judicial regulations, but by the law of love(his italics). A similar breakthrough in how to deal with texts supportive oslavery had been made earlier by Quakers.
This way of interpreting scripture is also similar to thaemployed today by Christians who believe that physical relationships betweepeople of the same sex can be a loving expression of faithful com-mitment.
So Evangelical abolitionists were no longer fettered bdifficult texts. This enabled them to argue on a broader basis. John Wesleytoo, did not ground his denunciation of slavery on particular texts, but on thprinciples of justice, liberty, mercy, and compassion.
There were those, however, particularly in the AmericaSouth, who used the ancient theological and racial beliefs derived from Genesi9.20-7 to defend slavery, as Stephen Haynes has explained Noahs Curse (OUP, 2002). It was believed that Ham was cursed becaushe had dishonoured his father. As a result, his descendants turned black, werfit only for slavery, and so he became the father of the African race.
Finally, it has often been the experience of the Christ-liknature of loving, faithful, same-sex rel-ationships that has persuaded somChristians to change their minds about them.
Similarly, what often persuaded individual Evangelicals tchange their minds about slavery were actual experiences of it. So GranvillSharp, a member of the Evangelical core group, was converted to anti-slaverwhen by chance he saw a negro awaiting medical treatment for savage woundinflicted by his master.
The story of how slavery was abolished shows that evidencfrom scripture can be ambiguous, and that complex issues cannot be resolved bciting individual texts. It also dem-onstrates that Evangelicals have nmonopoly of moral discernment. The story also teaches that convictions stronglheld since the earliest days of Christianity may be wrong. That may providcrucial guidance as to the nature of Gods will for us.