Liberal Anglicans: You Tolerate Divorce, Why Not Gay Sex?

After decades of increasingly bitter disputes over the morality of gay sex, 38 liberal and traditionalist Anglican primates are meeting this week in Canterbury, near London, in a last-ditch effort to stave off a formal schism.

At stake is an historic and global Christian community with 85 million members in 160 countries.

James Porter, right, and his partner Shon DeArmon carry a flag in support of the county issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, May 12, 2014. Dozens of gay couples, some of whom waited in line overnight, received licenses to marry from county clerks Monday, while lawyers for the state of Arkansas asked its highest court to suspend an order gutting a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
James Porter, right, and his partner Shon DeArmon carry a flag in support of the county issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, May 12, 2014. Dozens of gay couples, some of whom waited in line overnight, received licenses to marry from county clerks Monday, while lawyers for the state of Arkansas asked its highest court to suspend an order gutting a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) 

The leader of the Anglican community, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is proposing a looser “confederation” organization of the church so that disagreements over homosexuality do not lead to a breakup.

The Anglican Church has long advocated and tolerated a wide diversity of beliefs, including within its ranks both “high church” Anglo-Catholics and “low church” evangelicals.

Some prominent Anglicans, such as former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey, even reject traditional Christian doctrines such as the resurrection, divinity of Christ and, in Spong’s case, the existence of God as it is usually understood.

Disputes Over Homosexuality

But the disagreements over homosexuality may be one bridge too far for many Anglicans.

The push to legitmate gay sex within the Anglican community has been driven in recent years by members of the Episcopal Church in North America and resisted by more traditionalist churches in Africa and Asia.

In 1998, at the once-a-decade Lambeth conference, the bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion approved a statement affirming that gay sex is “incompatible with scripture.

“The Holy Scriptures and Christian tradition teach that human sexuality is intended by God to find its rightful and full expression between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, established by God in creation, and affirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ,” the assembled bishops declared.

Outraged by this very public rebuke, the liberal Episcopal Church in the U.S. responded in 2003 by consecrating the first publicly gay priest, Gene Robinson, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.

The controversial Robinson, who wore a bullet-proof vest at his consecration, had divorced his wife and “come out” as a homosexual. He later married a man and then subsequently divorced him as well.

As a result of the controversy over Robinson, tradition-minded Anglicans boycotted the 2008 Lambeth conference — with 250 bishops walking out in protest. They organized their own conference in Jerusalem known as “Gafcon” (the Global Anglican Future Conference) which they hoped would counterbalance Lambeth.

Liberals Not Backing Down

The conference in Britain this week seeks to repair this breach and bring some sort of unity to a rapidly disintegrating church. Normally the primates meet every two years, but the dispute over homosexuality has kept them from coming together for five years.

However, the liberal wing of the church shows no sign of backing down.

On January 10, 100 senior members of the Church of England wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury demanding that Anglicans “repent” for the church’s “vilification” of gay Christians.

“We understand that the Primates come from a variety of contexts with differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures,” the liberal clergy wrote, “but we urge you to be prophetic in your action and Christ-like in your love towards our [Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender and “intersex”] sisters and brothers who have been ignored and even vilified for too long.”

The liberals called on Anglicans to “apologize for our part in perpetuating rather than challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people, such as the slanderous view that homosexuals have a predisposition to prey on the young.”

The signatories included one active bishop, eight retired bishops and gay priests banned from active ministry. Contrary to popular belief in the U.S., the Church of England in the United Kingdom does not celebrate gay marriages and gay clergy are expected to remain celibate.

Is Gay Sex Incompatible with Christian Teaching?

At issue, of course, is whether homosexual conduct can be justified, or even celebrated, within the context of Christian teaching.

Advocates for a more permissive attitude towards homosexuality insist that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus even discuss homosexuality — and that therefore Christians should be tolerant of it.

However, Jesus also never openly discussed bestiality, genocide and rape, so far as we know, yet it is doubtful that he approved of any of them.

In addition, there are a handful of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that do contain statements strongly critical of homosexual acts — most famously, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (from which we get the term “sodomy”).

Leviticus 18: 22 calls homosexuality an “abomination” (toevah), insisting that Israelites “shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” The same word is used for human sacrifice (Jer. 32:35).

However, advocates for tolerance of homosexuality within the Christian community insist that the Old Testament law also calls eating shrimp an “abomination (Leviticus 11:10),” yet most Christians have no trouble ignoring this prohibition. This argument is routiinely used by secular gay activists as well.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock 

The Christian reponse is that the Old Testament law contains both moral injunctions and Jewish ceremonial precepts, such as the laws of keeping kosher, and that the former are universal and the latter are limited solely to Jews.

Would liberals advocate other “abominations” forbidden by the Torah, such as human sacrifice and bestiality, on the same grounds that people today eat shrimp?

On a more substantive level, the liberals point out that Jesus strongly condemned divorce — in Mark 10: 11, Jesus says that “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” — yet most major Christian denominations, with the exception of the Catholic Church, tolerate remarriage after divorce.

Indeed, it was the Catholic Church’s insistence that remarriage after divorce was contrary to Jesus’ teaching that led to the creation of the Anglican Church in the first place.

In order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn after his divorce to Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII declared England independent of the worldwide Catholic Church and appointed himself as head of the new Church of England.

Modern-day liberals demand the same kind of accomodation for homosexuality that the founders of the Church of England showed towards divorce and remarriage.

To make their case, Anglican liberals go to great lengths to explain away the negative portrayals of homosexuality in the New Testament especially.

The exegetical creativity is particularly pronounced when it comes to St. Paul who, like many Jews in antiquity, had an strong aversion to the homosexual practices of the Greeks.

In his first letter to the new Christian community in Corinth, Paul lumped homosexuals (arsenokoitai) and the effeminate (malakoi) together with thieves, adulterers and drunkards as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul wrote that human arrogance and idolatry lead to “degrading passions,” such as when “men gave up natural relations with women and [are] consumed with passion for one another (1:27).”

How do Anglican liberals and other liberal Christians handle such passages as these?

One argument they use is that Paul’s aversion to homosexuality was simply cultural and not part of the essence of Christian faith.

Paul also objected to women speaking in church meetings (1 Corinthians 14:34), the liberals say, and yet many Christian denominations, including the Anglican Church, now have female pastors.

Why do Anglicans ignore Paul on the issue of women speaking in church yet follow him word for word when it comes to homosexual acts?

A second argument is that the homosexuality that Paul condemns was exploitative pederastry, older men taking advantage of young boys, and that this has nothing in common with most adult gay relationships in the 21st century.

The traditionalists don’t buy it.

They point out that Paul talks in Romans about men who were “consumed with passion for one another,” implying a mutual sexual attraction and not simply the exploitative relationship found in temple prostitution or pederasty.

In the end, the disagreements are as much theological as they are scriptural.

“The fundamental cause of the [coming] split is much broader and deeper and involves not just the matter of sexual morality,” explained a leading Anglican traditionalist, Dr. Peter Mullen, last week. “In truth, it is an unbridgeable division between traditionalists and modernisers or, to put it bluntly, between believing Christians and secularising liberals.”

As Mullen sees it, the liberal wing within the Anglican communion, primarily in North America, “has adopted the secular mores of western societies” and has rejected “the historic Christian faith.”

The problem, others say, is that indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia do not experience the sexual permissiveness of western elites as liberating – and resist the imposition of secular values and obsessions on their people by outside forces.

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