Homosexuality - A First Order Issue? (II)

16/11/2007 22:01

In thinking through this question the first challenge is what is meant by the general reference to ’homosexuality’. After all, this is the issue which is being claimed as ’first order’ and ’communion-breaking’.

The problem can be seen if the relatively uncontentious claim is made that ’Christology’ falls into this category. What exactly is being claimed? One can think of a whole range of claims that could be made about Jesus - he was unmarried, he was Jewish, he was Israel’s Messiah, he was a prophet, he is God, he is the eternal Word of God made flesh, he had two wills (divine and human). Are all of these of the same order? Are all of them issues we would consider communion-breaking? Here there have been centuries of careful theological reflection and debate. Here presumably most Christians would agree we are close to the heart of Christian faith such that some claims about Jesus are not just wrong but strictly incompatible with genuine Christian faith and being part of the catholic church. Nevertheless, we need much greater care and precision than the general label of ’Christology’. How much more must that be the case when the category is ’homosexuality’?

What then is the focus in this claim about homosexuality? Again one could think of a whole range of claims. To take two extreme examples. Someone might claim that same-sex love was the highest form of human love or, alternatively, someone might claim that all homosexual attraction was demonic and thus never experienced by a true Christian believer. These are both claims a Christian might make about ’homosexuality’. Is the acceptance or denial of them a first-order matter of Christian faith? Should we break communion with those who hold these views?

Presumably the short-hand of ’homosexuality’ or ’the gay issue’ is used by most people to refer to some of the central claims of Lambeth I.10 e.g. that homosexual practice is contrary to Scripture, that same-sex unions should not be blessed by the church and that those in such unions should not be ordained. There does, though, need to be greater clarity about what exactly must be affirmed or cannot be denied about homosexuality (and what can and cannot be done in response to homosexual love) if one is going to define it as ’first order’ or ’communion breaking’. It is only by such sharper definition that one could weigh such claims about the significance of this subject and see how the issue at stake may be related to other important issues of Christian faith and practice.

The further complication with ’homosexuality’ in contrast to say ’Christology’ or ’Trinity’ or ’atonement’ is that it relates to a widespread human phenomenon and not to an element of divine revelation. That phenomenon encompasses human desires (what we often call orientation), human actions (practice), human relationships and, in the contemporary context, often human identity. Greater clarity is needed about in which of these four areas we are being told it is vital for Christians to treat interpretation and moral evaluation of this phenomenon as a ’first order’ issue with tight constraints on what classes as a Christian stance.

Finally, when it comes to saying that ’homosexuality’ is ’communion-breaking’ there are even more difficult questions relating to what one must say or do in relation to homosexuality for the issue to become a cause of impairment or breaking of Christian fellowship. Is it a matter of someone’s personal belief? Some of the reactions to Rowan Williams’ appointment suggest it is for some. Or is it a matter of their public formal teaching and ’campaigning’? Or is it only a matter of their own personal sexuality and sexual conduct? In that case Gene Robinson would be a problem for church unity but not his supporters who do not follow his way of life. Or is it that there are a variety of personal or corporate responses to Christian same-sex couples that require an end to life in communion with those who makes these responses?

I will try to return to some of these questions after some further posts trying to understand a little more what might be meant by the other key terms of the question - ’first order’ and ’communion-breaking’.


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