Sexual orientation and the Church: navigating between the competing claims of the extremes and the m

by
20 August 2008

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From Mr James Monger
Sir, — Though undoubtedly well-meant, Dr Michael King’s article “How much is known about the origins of homosexuality?” (Comment, 25 July) is the cause of much distress.

Why do scientists, bishops, journalists, and members of the public believe it is acceptable to discuss continuously their fellow human beings as if we are a legitimate matter for research, debate, or investigation, like rats in a research laboratory?

Whether it is the “causes” of homosexuality, the morality of gay relationships, or the so-called “gay lifestyle”, does it not occur to those who objectify gay people in this way that this is offensive, degrading, and belittling?

Try endlessly debating black culture as a white person, or what makes a Jewish person “Jewish”, and see where that lands you: I suggest it might be in court.

Isn’t it about time we started to look for the causes of hetero­sexuality? Let us endlessly pick over varieties of sexual behaviour in straight people, or why men are attracted to bosoms or bottoms, and we shall soon see whether straight people find this offensive.
JAMES MONGER
25 Stanmore Road
London E11 3BU

From Dr Christopher Shell
Sir, — Dr Michael King states that “homosexuality is . . . a human characteristic rather than a disorder”. But each of us knows that common human characteristics include many that are harmful as well as many that are beneficial. So this is a false either/or.

He also asserts that “like most human characteristics, sexual orientation appears to form a spectrum.” (This spectrum he also calls a “continuum” — without any reference to the fact that this continuum displays anything but normal distribution.) For “most”, we should read “all”. It could not be otherwise in a world of seven billion people. So this is a trivial point.

Third, he mentions that homo­sexuals first become aware of their sexual orientation at about puberty. Leaving aside the well-known phenomenon of same-sex crushes at the same age, and the fact that no other stage of life would coincide with sexual awaken­ing anyway, a fair proportion of new behavioural departures associated with puberty are harmful addictions. So what trust can we necessarily put in “decisions” made around the time of puberty, which is quintessentially the time when short-term pleasure can gain the upper hand over rational judgement? That such decisions can be character-forming for good or ill, we would all agree.

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Fourth, he could make more use of the available statistics. The identical-twin studies he mentions could usefully indicate the propor­tional importance of genetics and environment — somewhat in favour of environment, I gather. But genetics/environment is a false dichotomy in the first place, leaving no space for the factor of individual choice, which can potentially override both.

In a world as large as ours, many things can be attested as normal or natural. But the point is that among these some are beneficial and some harmful. This can be determined by statistical studies of life-expectancy, susceptibility to STDs, promiscuity rates, association with patterns of abuse, and so on.
CHRISTOPHER SHELL
186 Ellerdine Road
Hounslow
Middlesex TW3 2PX

From Dr Ian Jessiman
Sir, — In his interesting article on homosexuality, Dr Michael King tells us that homosexuality is not fully heritable, that gene-environmental factors may act during gestation or early life, and that environmental factors can be relevant to the formation of human characteristics.

I wonder, then, if he could explain his reasons for the definite claim that we know what environ­mental factors are not relevant, in that “people do not become homosexual or heterosexual because of a particular kind of parenting or because of any kind of early sexual experience.”

After all, these are important “environmental” factors, too, and clearly provide a background to development “during gestation or in the early years of life”.
IAN JESSIMAN (Retired GP)
17 Grange Drive, Chislehurst
Kent BR7 5ES

From Professor Glynn Harrison
Sir, — My fellow psychiatrist Michael King makes some useful points about the biological and social “origins” of same-sex desire (Comment, 25 July).

The problematic part of Dr King’s essay is his assertion that “sexual orientation is a human characteristic that is formed early in life, and is resistant to change”. This is the old idea that sexual “orientation” is an entity that exists in fixed and enduring categories. He articulates the same view when he asserts “however, attempts to change a person’s fundamental [emphasis mine] sexual orientation . . . have not met with success”.

It is true that a small percentage of people experience relatively stable same-sex attraction from their earliest memories of sexual arousal. But a much larger percentage experience mixed patterns of sexual desire, at different points of their life-span, and with varying degrees of flexibility. Dr King recognises this continuum, but then seems to push aside its implications.

The point is that these more flexible “bisexual” variations are also describable in terms of genetic and environmental “origins”. It is this complex continuum that is a “human characteristic”, not just the smaller group drawn from one extreme.

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We also need to think through what we mean by a “human characteristic”. I groan when I hear senior churchpeople asking whether science proves that same-sex attraction is “natural”. This is the old dualism that attempts simplistically to pit “natural” against “choice”. The thinking seems to be that if it is choice, then biblical texts apply, and if it isn’t, they don’t.

But we are all subject to a range of impulses and desires that come “naturally” — sexual, aggressive, sensation-seeking, and so on. The developmental origins of these lie in complex interplays of numerous genes, environmental influences, and personal human agency. The fact that they are experienced as occurring “naturally” does not negate the need for ethical standards to guide their translation into behaviour.

The question surely is not whether our desires are “natural”, but how should we then live? Psychi­atrists cannot adjudicate over mat­ters of moral theology. The divine intention for the ordering of human relationships is something that the Church must discern for itself.
GLYNN HARRISON
Norah Cooke Hurle Professor of Mental Health and Consultant Psychiatrist
University of Bristol
Bristol BS6 6JL

From Mr Michael Allen
Sir, — I write with great concern about the Revd Melvin Tinker’s dangerous thinking (Letters, 1 August). He wishes to replace natural law with the “norm” of only heterosexual children-producing marriages as the Designer’s plan.

As well as condemning other sexualities, he thereby condemns all married people without children — by chance or choice — and im­plies that single people and some dis­abled people do not fit his God’s norm.

Many before him have desired a pure humanity, giving rise to the superior-race evil of Nazism and apartheid. Many have found pas­sages in the Bible to support them. The vast majority of people celeb­rate our having many different char­acteristics that are part of God’s purposes rather than frustrating them. Mr Tinker seems very sure of himself; so I write mainly to help counter the damage he is doing to the Gospel.
MICHAEL ALLEN
8 Grenville Rise, Arnold
Nottingham NG5 8EW

From Dr Alan Sheard
Sir, — Mr Tinker justifies his anti- gay attitude by reference to Genesis, from which he infers his vague but apparently binding concepts of “unity in difference” and “com­plementarity”.

He suggests that it is irrelevant whether same-sex attraction is genetic or enviromental. On the contrary, it is highly relevant. There is clear evidence that sexual orienta­tion is fixed by the time of birth, partly by the genetic chromosomes that are selected at the time of conception, and partly by hormonal factors in the mother’s womb environment which help to form the developing foetal brain.

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Surely God is concerned, as we are, at the unsustainable increase in the world’s population. Lesbian and gay people with their reduced fertility rates are a real help in mitigating this, for which we should be grateful.
ALAN SHEARD
7 Northfield
Swanland
North Ferriby
E. Yorks HU14 3RG

From the Revd John Graham
Sir, — Evolution, Phase 1: Man to appear, multiply, and dominate, as Genesis says. We’ve done that. But we go on multiplying — and destroying. Just in time, God has given us the ability to transcend our environment and manage the problem.

So, Phase 2: we have to reduce population and stop its growth. Traditional sexual morality, which was aimed at multiplying, made perfect sense in Phase 1; for Phase 2, to put it mildly, it doesn’t. In today’s context, sex with no chance of procreation is a Good Thing. Thank God for homosexuals.
JOHN GRAHAM
31 Rectory Lane, Somersham
Huntingdon PE28 3EL

From Patrick Daunt
Sir, — Having radically inclusive views on the issue of human sexuality and the Church, I have to admit to being (in the contingent sense) an extremist.

But being also weighed down with years, I have had many opportunities for observing an error to which extremists of all kinds are especially susceptible, that of coming to treat as their chief opponents not those whose opinions are diametrically contrary to their own, but those who are trying to mediate between them.

The consequence, both absurd and calamitous, is that they end up in a kind of perverse alliance with their actual antagonists in deriding and trying to crush the efforts of whoever is engaged in a search for compromise and reconciliation.

Surely this is a trap worth avoiding. Do we not all, “extrem­ists” as much as “moderates”, need to respect what Rowan Williams is doing and saying, even though the position which, as Archbishop, he is defending, may be very different from our own?
PATRICK DAUNT
4 Bourn Bridge Road
Little Abington
Cambridge CB21 6BJ

From the Revd Stephen R. Griffiths
Sir, — I presume the Bishop of Lincoln’s report (Letters, 8 August) was designed to reassure us that the Lambeth Conference was useful. Unfortunately, his pronouncement was far from reassuring.

His closing remark — “If we split, it will not be because we disagree about human sexuality. It will be because we have forgotten what it means to be a Church” — is yet another valiant but vain attempt to shift the goalposts of the current debate.
STEPHEN R. GRIFFITHS
The Rectory, Low Moresby
Whitehaven CA28 6RR

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From the Revd Gary Powell
Sir, — Reading the pronounce­ments of GAFCON and some of the bishops at Lambeth, I find myself confused. If, as they claim, they are the true upholders of biblical doctrine in the Anglican Communion, where is the condemnation of those who break the seventh commandment?

Why have they not broken communion with those provinces who create “adulterers” by marrying divorcees who have former spouses still living, in contravention of the teaching of Jesus (Luke 16.18), and which then go on to ordain them? Why is it acceptable to ordain adulterers but not homosexuals?

I know that I am being mischievous, but surely debates on sexual morality need to be taken as a whole. In focusing on the one issue of homosexuality, GAFCON and its like undermine their claim to be upholders of the authority of scripture, open themselves to charges of hypocrisy, and reveal the truth that they are really motivated by simple homophobic bigotry.

More importantly, they seem so consumed with hate, and so lacking in the fruits of the Spirit, that they seem neither to realise nor to care that they cause many faithful gay and lesbian Christians to live lives of lonely isolation, robbed of their self-esteem, and often fighting depression and anxiety. The people of GAFCON belong to another age, with those who once sought to rid the Church of the evil disorder of left-handedness.

I do, however, have reason to be thankful to GAFCON. They have converted me, who was once called a conservative traditionalist, into a liberal modernist, and for that I am truly grateful.
GARY POWELL
Llansawel Vicarage
251 Neath Road
Briton Ferry SA11 2SL

From the Revd Norman Clarke
Sir, — Presumably those bishops, dioceses, priests, or parishes who, on biblical grounds, denounce the practice of homosexuality, also feel equally obliged, on biblical grounds, to upbraid and excommunicate their people or priests or bishops who have married after divorce. I have not heard that they are doing so.
NORMAN CLARKE
78 Malden Road, Sidmouth
Devon EX10 9NA

From the Revd Gillian Cooke
Sir, — Colin Craston is right when he points out (Letters, 15 August) that the much-quoted 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 did not end all debate on sexuality. This is even clearer when we also consider the resolutions from the Lambeth Conferences of 1978 and 1988.

There was a commitment at each Conference (including 1998) to “listen to the experience of homosexual persons”; yet the Church has silenced them. Indeed, gay people suffer if they attempt to gain a hearing. It is possible to listen to someone’s experience only if they can speak up without fearing reprisals for “being honest”.

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Furthermore, in 1988, Anglican provinces were called to assess human rights in their countries in relation to homosexual people. Gloucester Cathedral’s memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust includes a remembrance of homosexuals alongside others who were targeted; but the targeting of gay victims continues, and the Anglican Communion is not only silent, but some bishops even support repressive laws in their countries.

Only three weeks ago, a gay Christian from Nigeria was given political asylum in Britain because his life was at risk in his own country. Rather than “listen” to this gay man, the Church Times reported that the Bishop of Ife had been the one who had denounced him.

Resolutions in 1978 and 1988 called for deep and dispassionate study “which would take seriously both the teaching of scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”; yet the Anglican Communion Office in London contacted the Royal College of Psychiatrists for information last year only when I personally urged them to do so.

Despite the growth in scientific knowledge, recent C of E reports have also failed to utilise this knowledge. Is it any wonder then that some bishops in the Anglican Communion still deny the existence of gay people in their countries? And, as the Group Report stated, they had been unable to reach a common mind in 1998 because “There is much that we do not yet understand.” Church history also has many lessons to teach about the way scripture has been used to suppress knowledge and to oppress as well as liberate.

Many years ago, I heard a highly respected Evangelical leader stress that, although conscience always needs to be obeyed, our consciences need educating. With regard to the discussion of sexuality in the An­glican Communion, that education scarcely seems to have started.
GILLIAN COOKE
7 Northfield
Swanland, North Ferriby
East Yorkshire HU14 3RG

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