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Spurred into print by ‘Gay Wednesday’

21 April 2008

Robin Gill studies a polemic that is not for the faint-hearted

God, Gays and the Church: Human sexuality and experience in Christian thinking
Lisa Nolland, Chris Sugden, and Sarah Finch, editors

IN PREPARATION for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel co-edited an SPCK book, Anglican Life and Witness. It offered an important range of Evangelical scholarship, with both a traditionalist declara-tion on human sexuality (“The St Andrew’s Day Statement”) and some powerful dissenting positions, not least that of Professor Oliver O’Donovan. It was widely read by the bishops, and the editors themselves were influential, especially among traditionalists at the Conference.

In advance of the 2008 Lambeth Conference, Dr Sugden (now Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, and actively organising the July meeting of traditionalist bishops in Jerusalem), together with Dr Lisa Nolland (a consultant for Anglican Mainstream) and the publisher Sarah Finch, has edited a decidedly more polemical book.

Shocked by the February 2007 General Synod debate about human sexuality, the editors seek directly to challenge “the activist gay lobby” that they believe dominated that debate, and “to redress the balance . . . [of] one-sided testimony”.

God, Gays and the Church has five sections, followed by appendices, many drawn from the internet (and not all for the faint-hearted), on such issues as gay health, the need for fathers, civil partnerships, and culture wars.

The first section focuses on post-gay and post-lesbian testimonies, given at a fringe meeting organised by Anglican Mainstream before the General Synod debate. These tend to be anecdotal, and quite strongly worded. For example, a Texan, Michael Goeke, writes: “Let me just say ‘THANK YOU’ to my wife, and my parents and family, and my friends, who cared enough about me to offend me . . . when I left my wife to pursue homosexuality.”

Perhaps these testimonies were given by people who were simply mistaken about their same-sex attraction and had come to realise that they were not gay or lesbian, after all. To address this possibility the second section, which is on genetics, consists of an article by a New Zealand scientist, Neil Whitehead, arguing that same-sex attraction “is neither innate nor immutable, and the degree of hidden change in the population [away from it] is generally considerably underestimated.”

In the third section, a Californian psychologist, Joseph Nicolosi, sets out his theory of “reparative therapy of male homosexuality”.

Considered on their own, these three sections still raise a problem. Many people may be troubled about their sexual identity, and some will eventually want to question the validity of their same-sex attraction. Reparative therapy (or something like it) may well help them. Similarly, many young people live for several years as committed vegetarians, or even vegans, before rejoining the dominant meat-eating culture. People change, and can be helped when they decide that they want to change. Yet something more is needed to show why gays and lesbians ought to change.

The “something more” is provided in the fourth section on “biblical theology”. Robert Gagnon, Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, offers an extended rebuttal of a paper on gay liberation given to the Anglican Church of Canada, arguing that “a prohibition of ‘committed’ homosexual unions is both reasonable and scriptural.” Confusingly, the original paper is not given. None the less, a crucial point emerges from the rebuttal, namely: if scripture is understood in this particular way, then homosexual practice is an abomination, and this is why gay and lesbian people should want to change, however painful the process of change might be. This widely contended conviction is pivotal to the whole book.

Dr Nolland’s contribution is particularly evident in the final section on pastoral care and advice, and in the appendices. Her style is combative and often journalistic: “As Gay Wednesday’s debate revealed, the issue of ‘gay pain’ is vitally important. I fully agree. . . However, I also note the apparent monopoly on pain claimed by the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered community.”

The relentlessly polemical style of this book is probably self-limiting, convincing only those already committed to its claims. Among and beyond Evangelical theologians, there is disagreement about almost everything in this polemic. The Bishop of Winchester, who perhaps unwisely agreed to write the preface, concludes that “some of the essays that follow offer experience of the transforming power of the gospel.” Evidently, some of the essays do not.

I really hope that this is not Mainstream Anglicanism.

Canon Gill is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

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