A View from the Pew published in the February edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick and Killaoe.
The debate in the Church of Ireland about human sexuality
In his December/January column Bishop Trevor asked us to engage with the debate in the Church of Ireland about human sexuality. He also asked us to pray for the Bishops, for General Synod and for the Bishops’ Conference in March at which General Synod members will explore the issues.
The debate has been sparked by reports of the civil partnership entered into last July by Rev Tom Gordon, Dean of Leighlin in our neighbouring diocese of Cashel and Ossory and a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological College. His relationship with his same-sex partner of more than 20 years has never been a secret. Civil partnership is not the same as marriage in either jurisdiction in Ireland. Nor does it necessarily imply sexual activity. However it does confer important rights on same-sex partners, for instance to be recognised as next-of-kin, to be taxed by the same rules as married partners, and to receive gifts and inherit from each other free of tax.
Church of Ireland opinion – and perhaps the House of Bishops - is deeply divided on the issue. The Evangelical wing has responded with trenchant condemnation. In joint statements the Church of Ireland Evangelical Fellowship, the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, New Wine (Ireland) and Reform Ireland have expressed ‘hurt and concern’, saying that they ‘cannot in all conscience accept that same-sex sexual partnerships are within the will of God’, and that they find it ‘difficult to see how (they) can maintain with integrity a common life’ with those who do not agree with them. Others have called for the resignation not just of Dean Gordon but also of his Bishop, Michael Burrows. Changing Attitude Ireland on the other hand has extended congratulations to Dean Gordon and his partner, commended their courage, and criticised the joint statements by the four Evangelical groups.
I have been thinking and praying about all this, since I am one of the new representatives to General Synod elected at our last Diocesan Synod. I look forward to being better informed by the Bishops’ Conference. But my starting point is this: I am not persuaded that same-sex relationships are any more or less intrinsically sinful than heterosexual ones - what matters surely is the quality of the love displayed in them. Those attracted to the same sex are created in God’s image just as much as those attracted to the opposite. The Jesus I encounter in the Gospels says nothing about same-sex sin but plenty about love, and is always found alongside the mistreated and marginalised. My heart bleeds for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ who are so often treated as 2nd class Christians.
I try to be open to the Holy Spirit, who moves in mysterious ways, but I do not expect my views will be changed by the Conference or General Synod. Any more than I expect the views of those who disagree with me to be changed. I am certain all sides hold their views conscientiously - even if I believe I am right and they are wrong!
St Paul advises the Romans
So what is the Christian way to approach such disagreement? Does the Bible help us? I believe so. There is nothing new about disagreements within churches. They go right back to Apostolic times. And I think it is worth reading and reflecting on St Paul’s eloquent plea to the infant Roman church for tolerance of the differing opinions of fellow believers in Chapter 14 of his letter to the Romans. Paul picks out two areas of dispute in the Roman church of his day, which would have been made up of a mixture of Jews and gentiles.
The first dispute was between those who would eat anything, and others who would eat only vegetables. Why should this be an issue? Probably because in Rome animals were ritually sacrificed to pagan Gods, before being sold as meat in the markets. Some Christians felt it was wrong to eat such meat. Particularly no doubt the Jewish converts who did not like to eat meat that was not kosher. Others were more permissive, including no doubt many gentiles. After all Jesus taught that it was not what went into the mouth that made one unclean, but what came out of it.
The second dispute was between those who treated one day of the week as a holy day, and those who treated all days as the same. This may also be a split between Jewish and gentile factions, with the Jews wanting to maintain their Saturday Sabbath customs. But perhaps too some were beginning to celebrate Sunday as the Lord’s Day, commemorating Jesus’s resurrection.
It is clear that Paul himself was permissive in these matters. That’s worth noting. Some people today criticise Paul as a prejudiced old curmudgeon because of his views on the status of women, and on homosexuality. But Paul in his own day was a liberal churchman! Nevertheless, Paul calls on both parties to be tolerant. Do not judge one another, he tells them. God has welcomed you all. Each of you is accountable to God, so leave the judgement to God.
Paul is telling us that we should tolerate the odd views of others even if we believe them to be mistaken. But then, surely, we are entitled to expect others to tolerate us, when we act on our own odd views? Anything goes! Wrong, that is not what Paul advises at all! He goes on to say this (Romans 14:13-17):
Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
A hard teaching
Beyond tolerance, Paul tells the Romans – and us I think - that the right Christian response to fellow Christians with whom one disagrees is to avoid doing things which hurt them, which would be a stumbling-block or hindrance to their faith. To do anything else would be not to ‘walk in love’. And it is our Christian duty to walk in love with one another: Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’. We are to walk the extra mile with those we disagree with, even when we believe them to be wrong.
This is a hard teaching – but as Christians we shouldn’t expect things to be easy! Paul’s principle may be clear. But can we find a way to walk together in love in the same-sex debate? That remains to be seen, but the Bishops’ Conference is an opportunity to explore each others opinions to see whether we can.
Can those of us who do not see same-sex relationships as sinful find a way to accommodate those who do? That might be difficult if those who do were to insist that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must remain chaste and/or eschew the real benefits of civil partnerships. For surely it would be wrong for me to collude in imposing such a sacrifice on them against their will. And equally, can those who do see such relationships as sinful find a way to accommodate those of us who don’t? Can they accept even as a remote possibility that God welcomes lesbian and gay people too and leave the judgement to God? The tone of some of their spokesmen suggests they may not be able to do so.
The Roman Church eventually overcame its disagreements. Paul’s views on eating meat were eventually accepted by all. All eventually agreed to keep the Lord’s Day holy, but dispensed with the Sabbath prohibitions.
Let us trust God and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us to walk in love and to find a common understanding and greater unity in future, as he did the Roman Church.