Homosexuality: A First Order Issue? (I)

14/11/2007 17:14

In one of the first comments on the blog, Blair asked me

do you think ’the gay issue’ is a first-order one, and if so, why? …To attempt an answer - it seems to me it’s a second-order matter, not ’church-breaking…’

My initial response said

I have a lot of sympathy with your reply but would put it slightly differently (and when I’ve worked out how I’d put it, I’ll blog!)

Well, without setting a precedent for every question asked in comments (!), I’m going to try and answer this over a number of posts and hope it may generate some discussion. I confess I began trying to write a paper on this back in Jan 06 but for various reasons it never got finished. Hopefully, by breaking it all down and using the more bite-size constraints of blogging (though I suspect some posts may get quite long) I will get further this time.

I have to confess that I’ve always avoided using the language of ‘first-order’ not least because it seems to entail ‘church-breaking’ and so a label we should be very cautious about using without a great deal of precision, thought and prayer. When asked directly I have tried to explain why I’m cautious and I hope to try and spell that out over these posts.

My caution goes back some time. Some will perhaps remember the All Souls Statement of 2002. I declined to sign that in part because I thought it would be seen as yet another unhelpful attack by evangelicals on the Archbishop-elect, Rowan Williams, but primarily because of concern about what was meant and implied by its statement “Therefore the biblical norms of sexuality and sexual relationships are first order issues in exploring the best to offer our children”.

Thankfully, the language of ‘first order’ was not initially prominent in Anglican Mainstream which, along with many of the All Souls signatories, I was involved in forming in summer 2003. Indeed, when I did a Google search of the AM site in early 2006 I found that until their important October 2005 statement, “Scripture, Faith and Order” (to which we will return in later posts), the phrase only rarely appeared on the AM site (I think it was only used by two Canadians in New Westminster referring more specifically to the blessing of same-sex unions as a ‘first order’ issue).

What I hope to do in future posts is to explore three key phrases used by Blair and others that tend to set the terms of the discussion:

  1. ‘Homosexuality’ or ‘the gay issue’
  2. ‘First order’ (contrasted with ‘second order’)
  3. ‘Communion-breaking’ or ‘Church-breaking’

While to a certain extent my thinking is still in process, the heart of my concerns about asserting that homosexuality is a first-order and communion-breaking issue can be summed up as follows:

  • The lack of clarity and focus in the label ‘homosexuality’
  • The failure to be clear about the nature of the distinction between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues
  • The confusion over what is meant by ’broken’ or ’impaired’ communion, both in theory and in practice
  • The failure to distinguish clearly between on the one hand discussion of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues (which is a conceptual matter of determining the hierarchy of Christian truths) and, on the other, discussion of ‘breaking (or impairing) communion’ (a complex, practical question to do with how we order our common life in the visible body of Christ).
  • The statement therefore comes across to many as simply saying ‘I disagree strongly with you on this subject and want to have little or nothing to do with you and I will explain and justify that simply by appealing to the language of “first order” issue’.

However, another reason I’ve been reticent about engaging this debate is that I am also concerned that many of the reasons given for rejecting this stance share many of these flaws and can appear to be simply saying ‘we are so concerned about maintaining unity that we could not possibly categorise this as a first order issue or say our disagreements are really serious as that would probably mean we had to change how we relate to one another’.

For all my caution, my strong sympathy with the ‘first order’ viewpoint is evident in the fact I have often favourably quoted the following words of the German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg (eg in True Union in the Body?)

Here lies the boundary of a Christian Church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church

Some time soon I’ll continue with thoughts on what exactly it is about ‘homosexuality’ that might make it worth viewing it as a possible ‘first-order’ issue and/or as ‘communion-breaking’.


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