Homosexuality and hypocrisy

Michael Malkin investigates the latest furore in the Church of England

The bitter controversy surrounding the appointment of canon Jeffrey John, a homosexual, as the next suffragan bishop of Reading, is something we should take note of. The furore has served to cast a damning spotlight on all the hypocrisy, the prejudice and the mass of contradictions and inconsistencies in the church hierarchy’s attitude not just to homosexuality, but to human sexuality in general.

Canon John has been in a loving relationship with his partner, father Grant Holmes, for the last 27 years. Ministering in separate parishes meant that they could never actually live together, but they were and are otherwise pretty inseparable. Trusted friends and colleagues no doubt knew about their relationship years ago, but they, like the men themselves, were discreet. Not just a matter of pastoral professionalism - it was the couple’s choice and their right, in these circumstances, not to ‘come out’, or indeed to be forced out.

But once it became known that canon John’s appointment to the episcopate had been approved by Downing Street and the palace (itself, of course, a reflection of the bizarre constitutional position occupied by the ‘established church’), a coterie of nine bishops plus assorted suffragans determined to prevent his consecration at all costs, and effectively outed him by publishing an open letter “concerning the appointment of the bishop of Reading”.

The aim of this pernicious little missive, drafted by his lordship Graham Dow, bishop of Carlisle, a third rate see if ever there was one, was to intimidate the canon into rejecting his preferment. “By his own admission [note the loaded language of the prosecuting counsel, as if being gay were still a criminal offence], he has been in a same-sex relationship for 20 years” - a relationship obviously far from the ideal of “the order of creation where men and women are seen as complementary. Sexual intercourse within the life-long relationship of marriage is the sign and beautiful expression of that union. Intercourse outside marriage undermines that sign.”

In other words, stripping away the civil service prose masquerading as theology, and getting down to what these ecclesiastical troglodytes actually think, valid sex needs three things: a man, a woman and a marriage licence. Anything else and you are damned; sorry, but that is what evidently constitutes “what is acceptable sexual behaviour in god’s sight”; though god, as a sort of celestial umpire, could conceivably give you the benefit of the doubt and let you have another go.

We have been here many times before. They pretend the world is one thing, and we know it and live it as something rather different. But with truly unspeakable hypocritical effrontery, their collective lordships go on to say: “We value, of course, the gift of same-sex friendship and if this relationship is one of companionship and sexual abstinence, then we rejoice. We warmly commend such relationships to the church as a whole.”

Value” and “of course”? No more than a ritual genuflection in the direction of political correctness, unavoidably forced upon these comfortable ecclesial parasites by the objective conditions of society. And “Rejoice”? That men and women who find themselves in same-sex relationships must confine themselves to living as brother and brother, sister and sister, in a life of “companionship”, foregoing any physical expression of their mutual love in this world, in the interests of their salvation in the next?

One of the more ironic aspects of the situation is that canon John’s evangelical and ‘traditional’ detractors question the sincerity of his commitment to a document called Issues in human sexuality, published by the synod of bishops of the church of England in 1991, which at the time, in however contradictory a way, actually represented a significant breakthrough by the liberal wing of the church: lay members of the C of E who were homosexuals could have sex, but, regrettably, gay clerics could not. In the latter case, it was a matter of self-sacrifice, ‘discipline’ and ‘setting a good example’. It was perhaps in the light of the decisions contained in Issues that John and his partner ceased to have a physical relationship.

The irony is that those who 12 years ago regarded this document as a despicable concession to modern pagan mores, who warned that it presaged the end of the world as we know it, now seize upon the same document as an exhibit for the prosecution, a proof of the canon’s apostasy, because he publicly acknowledges his support for and commitment to the notion that the church should give formal recognition to same-sex relationships among the clergy as well as the laity. Nonetheless, as a matter of discipline, he will refrain from propagating this view when he becomes a bishop, and will remain celibate. What more could their lordships want?

The canon’s real ‘sin’ is that, having been outed, he has decided to stand firm, thus raising the spectre of a schism within the anglican communion and the possibility of mass defections in the diocese of Oxford. Good. Just as in our world of socialist politics, when a split is threatened, the opposing sides should argue their platforms in front of the working class, so in this case opposing sides in the church should argue their respective positions in front of their flock. A frank debate about religion and sexuality is overdue.

The bishops who denounce canon John claim to represent “the church’s constant teaching in the light of scripture”. Just what does this “teaching” consist of, how “constant” has it been and what is its scriptural basis?

You could argue that the problem of human sexuality began in the mythical garden of Eden. When Eve ate an apple from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and tempted her husband to do likewise, then “the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7 - all biblical quotations from the King James bible). Their first reaction was shame. They covered themselves and tried to hide from god. Surely this is an archetype of all the shame, guilt and confusion that has surrounded sexuality throughout the judaeo-christian tradition?

By the 19th chapter of Genesis (vv 1-29) we get to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - a strange narrative that seems to be about a would-be homosexual gang-rape. Abraham’s nephew Lot is visited by two angels in the guise of men. A group of locals gather outside Lot’s house and demand to “know” - ie, to have sex with - the visitors. Let us take the story at face value. If Lot’s visitors had by chance been women and the locals had demanded to have their way with them, would this be used several thousand years later as divine proof that all heterosexual acts are intrinsically evil? Er, no.

Yet this puzzling, perhaps corrupted, text is still ludicrously and disingenuously used by the catholic church, and by many protestants, to justify their ‘divinely’ sanctioned condemnation of homosexuality: ‘It’s in the bible’. In the same chapter of Genesis, incidentally, we have the daughters of Lot getting their father drunk so that they could have intercourse with him and conceive children, but our zealot friends pass over this and many similar oddities that serve no purpose in sustaining their struggle for orthodoxy.

The main old testament basis, such as it is, for condemning homosexuality comes from the book of Leviticus - a tome obsessed with ‘uncleanness’ of every kind. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination ... If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (18:22; 20:13).

Had we the space, we could put such bloodthirsty stipulations into their material and historical context, as a manifestation of how specific emerging societies such as the Israelites dealt with specific problems. It is surely the case that in the period covered by the Torah, there was no concept of ‘sexual orientation’ (“man and woman he created them both” and their procreative function was self-evidently determined - sexual preference was never an issue); nor, more fundamentally, was there any notion, biologically speaking, that the female was anything other than a receptacle for the male’s life-creating seed. Hence the condemnation not just of homosexuality but of any act (coitus interruptus for example, in the case of Onan, who declined to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, and by association male masturbation) which thwarted the purpose of procreation, of bringing more Jews into the world.

The point, however, is that today, in the 21st century, for millions of christians and jews, such texts still represent nothing less than the divinely revealed, literal word of god and consequently must constitute the basis of not just the moral but the civil law.

Having exhausted the threadbare ‘arguments’ contained in the old covenant, they will point to St Paul as new testament confirmation of their belief that homosexuality is an abomination. He speaks of “men, leaving the natural use of the woman”, men who “burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Romans 1:27). Elsewhere, he makes reference to “the effeminate and the abusers of themselves with mankind” or those who “defile themselves with mankind”. Perhaps Paul had problems with his own sexuality, but his writings remain the principal scriptural bulwark of the orthodox case against homosexuality.

What did his master, Jesus Christ, have to say about homosexuality? Nothing. In the biblical account he seems to have deliberately sought out and associated with those whom the scribes and the pharisees, the great arbiters of the law, damned for their sinfulness - adulterers, prostitutes, tax-gatherers for the Roman occupiers and so forth. It is difficult to imagine that this motley company of the religiously and socially excluded, and of humble workers like fishermen, whom Jesus literally and metaphorically embraced, did not include homosexuals, perhaps even among those very close to him.

Forensically speaking, what the bishops call “the constant teaching of the church in the light of scripture” would never get past a jury. It was not so much scripture, but tradition - ie, the writings of the church fathers and theologians - that shaped the church’s attitude to homosexuality.

Foremost among them was St Augustine of Hippo. Having fornicated his way around Africa and the Middle East for half his life, he converted to christianity and decided that sex was bad, very bad. Even christian married couples, for example, engaged in conventional copulation were sinning if they derived pleasure from the experience.

It really is impossible to overestimate the influence of Augustine. It certainly informed the sublime, neo-Aristotelian, natural-law moral theology of St Thomas Aquinas, with its impeccable logic, which remains the theological basis of the present pope’s approach to all questions involving sex, and can be roughly summarised thus.

Divine providence provided us with the act of sexual intercourse as a means of reproducing the human species. That is its only purpose (though, in fairness, it has to be said that, departing somewhat from Thomas himself, a certain measure of acceptable mutual conjugal felicity in the act itself has recently been conceded as not inherently sinful). But it remains the case that anything which interferes with the natural law of human reproduction as described in Aristotelian terms - contraception, for example, let alone buggery - is intrinsically sinful and therefore grounds for damnation.

Any form of sexual activity outside marriage is a mortal sin. Even within marriage, any sexual act that does not facilitate reproduction is again “intrinsically evil”. Obviously, all homosexual and lesbian sex acts are “intrinsically evil” and lead to damnation, though the pope has been kind enough to tell us that a homosexual orientation is per se not sinful, though you must struggle manfully/womanfully against this ‘perversion’ and must not put it into practice - ever.

For obvious reasons, given its peculiar relationship to the crown and state, the special circumstances of its very English and pragmatic emergence as an answer to the marital difficulties of Henry VIII, and its theological and political rejection of ‘popery’ under Edward VI, Elizabeth I and beyond, the C of E has not been given to the codification of the minutiae of moral theology.

Nevertheless, the enormous changes in society over the last few decades have obliged the church to define its position in relation to such matters as marriage and sexuality. Issues in human sexuality might have been intended to be a good old anglican compromise, but in reality it was a ghastly fudge. If homosexuality stands biblically condemned as a sin and an abomination, then how can the church conceivably sanction gay sex, albeit only between lay persons - those in holy orders being obliged to practise celibacy as an example to the rest? It is a nonsense. At least the catholic position is consistent: if you have the ‘orientation’, then bad luck, but as long as you do nothing about it, you are alright with god.

The church’s approach to human sexuality, as with so much else, is ultimately life-denying. For us Marxists, sexuality in all its diversity and complexity, rooted in the materiality of the human condition as it exists, is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human being.

The CPGB includes a section on religion in its draft programme. In terms of immediate demands, it calls for the complete separation of church and state - this means not just the formal disestablishment of the Church of England - ie, the abolition of the link between the church, crown and parliament - but also the removal of all special privileged status accorded to this or any other religious body in the political and social life of the state, including the conduct of state-sponsored, legally-enforced religious propaganda activity in schools and colleges.

The freedom to propagate and practise religion, along with the freedom to conduct atheist propaganda, is, it need hardly be said, inseparable from that commitment to consistent democracy that characterises a genuine communist programme.