Lent Course 2006: The People of God

Unit Five - Civil Partnerships

In this Unit we will be looking at Civil Partnerships between people of the same sex but only indirectly as we will be looking primarily at the fundamental issue of homosexuality per se. Much of the argument has been implicit or explicit in previous Units.

How much did St Paul know about hormones? Other than the external manifestations of procreation and growth, floral, faunal and human, what did he know of biology? He certainly did not know much geology. Together, how do these deficits narrow his understanding of how our earth came into being? In asking this, we should realise that we are implying opposition to 'Creationism' and 'Intelligent design'. Sadly, there is no room for a discussion of these in the Unit.

Let us start our discussion at the very beginning. It is a commonplace to say that the accounts of creation in Genesis 1-3 are contradictory but commonplaces are useful. Anybody who tries to write a script for and direct a play of Genesis 1-3 will immediately realise that it is an impossible narrative. Given, in our ranking, that this is a second order issue (see Unit Two) relating to our understanding of scripture, let us return to the first order statement that God created the world, reminding ourselves of a couple of phrases at the beginning of Unit One:

"God is the answer in creation to the Leibniz' question: Why is there something rather than nothing. "

"Christians believe that God is love; that we were created graciously in love that we might love God freely."

These two statements together say as clearly as we can in human language what God did for us and why. St Paul would have agreed with both of these statements. Where he might have disagreed is in what they mean for Christians today.

Here we have a complex, three stage, exegetical problem where we have to try to:

I have settled on this particular problem because all the other references about homosexuality in scripture are secondary to this, concerning rape, prostitution and other forms of exploitation or material which is primarily concerned with the natural Jewish scriptural and anthropological leitmotif of procreation as opposed to pagan sexual practices where race survival was not an issue. All the secondary quotations with summaries are in the appendix at the end of this Unit.

Let us look carefully at the key New Testament passage, from St Paul, which is the primary source material for discussing the issue of homosexuality; this is in the NIV Version:

"20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is for ever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

Taken on its own merits, without any countervailing passages from the Gospels, what does this passage mean? Taking the text at its literal, face value (which is what those who use it against homosexuality insist that we do) it says that after God had created the world, human beings turned against their Creator and worshipped idols, as a consequence of which they lost their relationship with God and as a result they did many wicked things including performing homosexual acts (acts which, for reasons we will come to in a moment, Paul found totally repulsive, against everything that he had ever read in the scriptures). Taken at face value, this says that people who turn against God perform immoral acts, one of which Paul defines as homosexuality.

So, let us be clear; there is a two stage argument here:

The two propositions cannot be alloyed: the first is a first order issue while the second is fourth order:

Paul would naturally regard homosexual activity as against the purposes of God but we are not bound to agree with him on what in our scheme from Unit Two would be a fourth order ethical issue just as we leave ourselves the option of disagreeing with him (and the Gospels for that matter) on a variety of matters from the role of women in church to slavery, from the role of the civil power to the subordination of marriage to celibacy.

This last example shows how difficult this area is. Paul's horror of homosexuality arises directly out of the Jewish culture of fertility. This is not an erotic, cultish obsession but an anthropological necessity. The Jewish people were a tiny 'cuckoo' race driven by the need for survival. Yet Paul, in the shadow of the end of time, feels he can abandon this enculturated precept and urge the virtues of celibacy. What had changed were the circumstances. There was no need to ensure the survival of the race if time was about to end. This was a quite natural, practical response to the situation; but it was not the statement of a sexual law for all time from Adam to the 1st century, it was an adjustment to circumstances.

Paul is saying that he does not regard homosexuality as ethical just as, in other passages, he puts it alongside murder, adultery and so on. Our problem is that ethics are not static and here we have to begin to put what Paul says into a wider scriptural context. It is possible to list all kinds of things in the Old Testament which God requires, including premeditated genocide which we would no longer accept; but, again, although this is commonplace it is salutary, it forces us more judiciously to choose our ground. It is now very difficult to imagine anyone in our Church who would cite biblical support for ripping unborn children out of their mothers or dashing babies against rocks in God's name!

Let us now choose the most difficult piece of ground of all as an example of how we might proceed over a fourth order ethical issue such as marriage where we have apparently flouted the Gospel. The Old Testament is equivocal about marriage and permits divorce by men of their wives but not vice versa; Jesus is definite that divorce is forbidden because "What God has joined let not man divide" (Mark 10:4-9; Matthew 19:3-9); the Church has concluded that divorce and re-marriage are permitted. How did we arrive here?

One answer is that each proposition contains a set of ethical judgments. Old Testament ethics, where survival was at a premium, where 60% of babies died before the age of two, where most women were automatically of lower status than men, saw marriage as a stable, procreative practice. Jesus, turning to a new age, seems to want to leave less latitude to men to drop their wives on a whim; his objection is to "hardness of heart"; in other words his primary problem is the motive. For him it is unethical. This fits with the rest of his teaching on marriage, about its solemnity and the need for fidelity; He raises it from a biological and property transaction to one of love.

One contemporary conclusion is that love is better served in some circumstances by granting a divorce and allowing people to express their love in new, married relationships. On balance, we say, the primacy of love is better served by divorce and re-marriage than by divorce and civil marriage, living together or living alone.

What has changed our ethic? First of all, we are not plagued by fears of the survival of the race (divorce will remain much less common in developing countries for this reason); secondly, we have grown to understand marriage as a love-based rather than a procreation- lust- or property-based institution; thirdly, we live longer and tend therefore to grow further apart, developing at different rates and in different ways from marriage partners; fourthly, and crucially, we have moved from an ethical model that judges people on the basis of act rather than motive.

The ethical discussion about marriage is helpful in considering the issue of homosexuality. Just as Paul would not have recognised modern marriage, so he would not have recognised modern homosexuality. Let us, for a start, discard a few Scriptural red herrings. In discussing the legitimacy of homosexual love in a Christian context we are not thinking about promiscuity, rape, exploitation, paedophilia, prostitution or cultic rituals. It is a pity that the debate has reached such a pitch of emotion that these provisos must be made at all; but they must.

Let us look at the reasons why the Church changed its mind about marriage and see if they can be reasonably applied to a homosexual relationship.

First, we are not so concerned as we once were with the survival of the race. Nonetheless as human beings we were made to love each other physically. One concession to this anthropological situation which the Church of England has made is to permit artificial contraception as long, of course, as this is used in a loving rather than a lustful or self indulgent way. In considering homosexuality as a different route to love without children, what do we know about the biology and, if we are not careful, might we not fall into the Galileo problem or the problem the Church had in fighting a failed rearguard action against Darwinian geology and biology? Just as the natural world maintains a balance between male and female births, might it not increase the biological conditions for homosexuality as prosperity rises in much the same way as infertility rises with prosperity? Or are the rises in homosexual activity and the occurrence of infertility in prosperous countries a coincidence? How far is homosexuality neural (hard wired) and how far is it hormonal? Is it true that homosexuality generally occurs when a foetus receives its major hormone input in opposition to its genitals? If homosexuality is the product of a natural, explicable process, should this have an effect on its ethical discussion?

This is not the place for a biological seminar but questions like these need to be asked. We must use our God given understanding in the form of philosophy and natural science to make God-witnessing ethical decisions. Surely nobody - not even Bishops - should make pronouncements on sexuality without understanding the biology and psychology?

Secondly, marriage is primarily defined as a love-based institution. This raises the question, which also has biological and psychological dimensions, as to whether a homosexual relationship would be justified if people could choose to be homosexual, heterosexual or neither. If we were created in love and literally born to love God and our neighbour, who sets the limits to love? If somebody cannot love a person of the opposite sex but finds the capability to love someone of the same sex, what ethical justification is there for saying that this should not be; and if there is an ethical justification in theoretical, philosophical terms, who is to legislate the limit? Parliament and the Church used to pass laws about marriage but both are increasingly reluctant to do so; must we make the same series of assertions and retreats over homosexual love?

Thirdly, our view of marriage recognises changes in human circumstances such as increased longevity. Should we apply the same standards to any relationship solemnly contracted and blessed by God?

Again, it is easy to make commonplace points but if we look at the Commandments we will see that we subject them to considerations of motive, not least the highly complex rules we observe and/or debate about killing people.

By now we should all recognise the pattern of the argument and will be ready with the response that many people do not accept that this issue is first order (about the Creator's purpose) with fourth order (ethical) latitude but is, rather, a matter entirely governed by scripture.

There is only space to set down two kinds of argument with which we have become familiar during the Course:

When we are considering the nature of the people of God, how important is it to put this discussion into the context of Jesus' injunction concerning the two great commandments; to love God and our neighbour as ourself? In Christian history we have understood the second, ethical, injunction in a wide variety of ways and this is bound to continue. The marriage example shows how far we have come and how we might proceed. A religion which ignores what humans have done with gifts from God is in danger of a fatal dualism, separating the supposed will of God encoded in scripture from what we know in our total lives in God's world. Is not the argument about homosexuality a prime case of elevating a proper ethical discussion to one of divine fiat? Is not this a highly risky proposition which usually ends in failure while, in the meantime, it brings down suffering on the judged?



gang homosexual lust assuaged by heterosexual rape


against homosexuality.
against homosexuality.


Against homosexual prostitution.


Gang homosexual lust assuaged by heterosexual rape; victim murdered by owner.

1 Kings

Against homosexual prostitution.
Against homosexual prostitution.

2 Kings

Against homosexual prostitution.


The natural order of creation; estrangement from God; Homosexuality as sign of estrangement.

1 Corinthians

Against homosexuality.

1 Timothy

Against homosexuality.