From People of Passion, what the churches teach about sex.

By Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher,  publ. Mowbrays 1997, ch.7, pp.167-200

reprinted here with the authors’ permissions


Perhaps there is an issue in every generation and part of Christianity at forces its adherents to ask hard and divisive questions about the the authority of scripture and tradition and the nature of revelation. For the first generation of Christians it was the ‘Gentile question’; for western Christians in the nineteenth century it was scientific discovery- particularly Darwinism; for the same group of Christians a century later it is homosexuality. Almost every mainstream Christian nomination in the West has had to reflect upon this issue. So complex are the questions it raises that it would be true to say that in most the debate is deadlocked. This is evident, for example, in the report produced by the commission on human sexuality set up by the UK Methodist Church, published in 1990, which after rehearsing all the arguments around the subject of homosexuality concluded that the division of opinion among members of the commission presented it from offering a recommendation. Three years later, faced with polarized motions at its conference, one of which suggested that lesbian and gay people be excluded from church membership, the Methodist delegates passed two different motions which are open to be interpreted as completely contradictory:

  1. This conference reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality; namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. The conference directs that this affirmation is made dear to all candidates for ministry, office and membership …
  2. Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the Church. Conference calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.

This stance was reaffirmed at its 1994 conference, which refused to endorse a proposal to carry out a study into discrimination against lesbian and gay people within the denomination. A similar impasse has been reached in the Episcopal Church of the USA which has followed the pattern of many church ruling bodies in recent years (such as the UK Methodist Church and as was recommended to the Church of Scotland by the authors of the 1994 report on the theology of marriage) in passing the decision-making (e.g. over whether lesbian and gay people should be ordained) to the local churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a social statement on human sexuality follows the Methodist report in rehearsing the various arguments and offering no recommendations, only a prayer that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church on this issue. (1)

In many Protestant denominations the focus has shifted off the acceptability of the homosexual laity and on to the clergy, not as some have argued because the issue of homosexuality among the laity has been resolved, but because church authorities implicitly recognize that their control over the laity is limited, whereas they have much more power over the lives of ordained ministers. So hostile and divisive has been the debate that some Christians have sought to make attitudes to homosexuality a test of orthodoxy. In 1996 unsuccessful attempts were made to try the retired American Episcopalian bishop Walter Righter for heresy for ordaining an openly gay and partnered man. To commit heresy is to commit an offence against Christian doctrine. For many people a negative attitude to homosexuality is as essential to the Church as belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. In the Roman Catholic Church theologians who have questioned the Vatican’s line on homosexuality have been disciplined or silenced.

The classification of people according to their sexual preferences is a modern phenomenon and is a consequence of the belief of modern psychology, represented most clearly by Freud, that sexuality (see 9.3) is a — perhaps the— central dimension of a person’s character and the force behind most of their behaviour. Previous to this there had certainly been men who had sex with men and women with women but their actions were interpreted in terms of social or moral nonconformity, not as the consequence of an innate drive. Ancient Greece and Rome interpreted sexual activity according to a far more sophisticated set of criteria than modern Western culture. Gender was certainly a part of it but so was age, preference for active or passive positions, nationality and a person’s social and economic status. Michel Foucault argued that the homosexual as a personality type was invented in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the medical community who were then taking over from the Church the role of classifying and controlling society. (2) The homosexual was socially constructed as suffering from some sort of pathological condition which led to a displaced ‘normal’, i.e., heterosexual desire. A number of theories have developed in the last one hundred years to explain the ‘causes’ of homosexuality, from the psychological to the biological and genetic. Ironically, the classification of ‘homosexual’ gave individuals who were described in this way a context in which to develop a personal and political sense of self, from which they were then able to argue for toleration. In the late 1940s and 1950s the famous Kinsey Report revealed that homosexual activity was far more common and widespread than had previously been thought, (3) and subsequent studies suggested that homosexual people were in fact no less psychologically or physically healthy than heterosexual people, leading both the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations and the World Health Organization to remove homosexuality from their list of mental disorders. In the 1950s and 1960s homosexual people themselves began to challenge explicitly the pathological construction of their sexual orientation, and to present themselves as a social and cultural minority to whom equal civil and social rights should not be denied. The term ‘homosexual’ was rejected as pathological and people referred to themselves as lesbian and gay. The churches have had to come to terms with the emergence of a distinct and increasingly self-confident and articulate group of people. This chapter is going to analyse critically three different Christian responses to the ‘problem’ of homosexuality.



This view is best represented by the Vatican’s stance on homosexual­ity, as summarized in the Catechism:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, Tradition has always declared that ‘homo­sexual acts are intrinsically disordered’. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity [see below, 7.5.1]. Under no circumstances can they be approved. (4)

Such a view was developed more fully in the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons issued in 1986 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In many respects this letter was a rebuke to Catholic bishops in England, Wales and the United States of America who, struggling to come to terms with the emergence of a gay and lesbian identity, had sought, following the example of a 1975 Vatican declaration on sexual ethics to draw a distinction between the homosexual condition, which was morally neutral, and homosexual ‘acts’, i.e., homosexual genital acts, which were not. They also condemned homophobia — the fear of homosexuality that leads to discrimination and violence — and argued that the Church had a particular duty to a group which had been oppressed and an obligation to help a homosexual person ‘come out’, i.e., live openly and honestly as a gay man or lesbian woman and integrate their sexuality in their whole personhood. (5) The Vatican letter described those bishops’ approach to homosexuality as ‘overly benign’ and declared that ‘Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’. (6)

The Vatican grounds its judgement on homosexuality in the story of creation in Genesis, in particular the statement in 1.27: ‘In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ It says

Human beings, therefore, are nothing less than the work of God himself; and in the complementarity of the sexes, they are called to reflect the inner unity of the Creator. They do this in a striking way in their co-operation with him in the transmission of life by a mutual donation of the self to the other … To choose someone of the same sex for one’s sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator’s sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. (7)

Therefore, the letter goes on rule out church support for civil legislation which would give homosexual people and their relation­ships legal equality with heterosexual people, on the grounds that such legislation puts the ‘nature and rights’ of the family in ‘jeopardy’. Although condemning violence towards homosexual people the Vatican suggests that such violence is often a natural reaction to homosexual people demanding civil rights. (8) Homosexual people are called to live ‘a chaste life’, by which the letter means celibate. The letter instructs bishops to refuse support or physical space to lesbian and gay groups which dissent from the Church’s teaching. In 1992 the same congregation issued a document to bishops in the USA alone {Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Pro­posals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons), which instructed bishops actively to oppose all civil legislation designed to give lesbian and gay people equality under the law. Lesbian and gay people, it stated, have no absolute human or civil rights because they are objectively disordered and a danger to society, like the mentally ill or people suffering from contagious diseases. In any case it is only those lesbian and gay people who ‘come out’ who attract discrimination.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth also addressed the issue of homosexuality in the context of a theology of male-female com­plementarity (see below, 7.5.1) which he developed in reflection upon the story of creation. However, Barth’s theology is even more radical in its application than that of the Vatican. Barth was convinced that the partnership between men and women established at creation is not only expressed in marriage but in family relationships, working relationships and friendships. Therefore every form of relationship which separates women from men is disobedient to the divine com­mand — including religious communities and single-sex clubs. When this happens men become ‘philistinish’ and women ‘precious’.

These first steps may well be the symptoms of the malady called homosexuality. This is the physical, psychological and social sick­ness, the phenomenon of perversion, decadence and decay, which can emerge when man refuses to admit the validity of the divine command in the sense in which we are now considering it. (9)

For Barth then, as for Paul, homosexuality is the by-product of minds turned away and against God. In the face of the reality of the homosexual condition pastors, legislators and judges must first of all do all they can to protect the young, but also call upon God’s forgiving and transforming grace with regard to the person who has entered upon this ‘whole way of life’. He seems to suggest, therefore, that homosexuality can be ‘healed’: the proper response of the Church is to call people away from the idolatry of which homosexual­ity is a part, into relationship with the true God who commands that men can only be truly human in relationship with women, and vice versa.

Those Christians who take this stance on homosexuality argue that biblical law is completely clear and consistent in condemning homo­sexuality. Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 describe male homosexual acts as an ‘abomination’ to be punished by death. The story of Sodom (Genesis 19) indicates that homosexuality was regarded as a worse sin than heterosexual rape. The Judaeo-Christian stance against homosexuality was one of its most distinguishing marks. Ancient Judaism and early Christianity were surrounded by pagan cultures which tolerated and even idealized the practice. Growing toleration of homosexuality in Western cultures is attributed to the decline of traditional religion. Homosexuality is attributed either to deliberate perversion or to psychological or biological abnormality which must be ‘treated’ and ‘healed’. Some may recognize a distinction between crime and sin, and whilst proclaiming the unacceptability of homo­sexuality from a Christian point of view, believe that the state has no right to penalize homosexual people.

A very interesting alternative methodological approach which came to the same conclusion was adopted by John Giles Milhaven in 1970. In the 1960s and 1970s advocates of new morality, like Joseph Fletcher, recognized no a priori laws except the divine command to love (see 2.7). John Giles Milhaven takes this principle and applies it to the question of homosexuality. Since situation ethics must be grounded upon experience and his own experience of homosexuality is limited, he goes to ‘experts’ in order to ascertain the information necessary to make a judgement on what the most loving reaction to homosexuality is. However, the experts Milhaven chooses to take most seriously are those who believe that homo­sexuals are suffering from a severe emotional disorder. He acknowl­edges that there are challenges to this view but ‘one who loves does not demand certainty before deciding how to help the one he loves. He uses the best evidence at hand.’ (10)  And since the best evidence at hand in Milhaven’s view is that homosexual feelings reflect imma­turity and disorder, and since a person with genuine love for him or herself and for others would not wish to encourage such a state, a Christian has no option but to condemn homosexuality as wrong. It is wrong not because it frustrates nature but because it frustrates the person concerned. It prevents that person reaching the full emo­tional and sexual maturity which God wishes for his creation. There is nothing sinful about homosexual impulses, as we all have sinful impulses, but it is sinful to choose to act upon them.


Leaving aside the issue of complementarity (see below, 7.5.3), there are several critical responses which can be made to the Vatican’s argument. Five of them are dealt with in this section.

7.3.1 Sex and pleasure

As the Roman Catholic theologian Gareth Moore has noted, the assumption that sexual activity’s primary purpose is procreation (see 1.10) begs the question of why it is a pleasurable activity at all. (11)  It cannot be, as some have argued, that God made sexual activity pleasurable in order that we would be enticed to engage in it, because the same does not apply to other measures essential to ensure the survival of the human race, such as work. Furthermore,

if God has made the act of procreation pleasurable so as to induce us to do it, that means the inducement to perform this activity must, in God’s design, be pleasure. There cannot be anything wrong with doing it in just the way that God intends. And the pleasure that we do it for must be that of the sexual activity itself, not the pleasure of procreating, of begetting or conceiving.   (12)

Procreation is itself not an activity but the result of an activity. We may rejoice in having conceived but this is not the same pleasure as enjoying the sexual activity that led to the conception. Sex is in the right circumstances a pleasurable activity, whether or not it leads to procreation; this is the way God has arranged it, therefore it must be fully in conformity with God’s purposes to enjoy sexual activity as a good in its own right.

We have already noted that Aquinas was unable to accord any value to the personal dimension of sexual desire and pleasure (see 2.4). Yet throughout the Bible the pleasurable image of a feast serves as a powerful metaphor of God’s coming reign. Feasting is not eating for survival — on the contrary, the pleasure of a feast lies in enjoying food (and other things) purely for its own sake. Indeed, delighting in things for their own sake is what enables human beings to flourish. When we cannot enjoy things for their own sake and have to do them simply to survive we are diminished as human beings, for they become burdens around our necks. This is not to deny that there are important ethical issues around doing things for their own sake (does my ability to enjoy food, clothes, country walks, etc., have negative consequences for others? If so then I need to alter my  habits) but it is simply to point out that doing things for their own sake is a natural human good. Moore points out that God’s words in Genesis 1.28, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, are not in fact an instruction, as many Christians have argued, but a blessing along with dominion and food: ‘The divine purpose is not that people should have children, be powerful and eat cereals and vegetables whether they want to or not, but to bring about human well-being by satisfying human wants.’  (13)

7.5.2 The purpose’ of sex

We have already had reason to criticize extensively the natural law tradition of Christian ethics ,(see2.3) together with its application to masturbation, abortion and contraception. (see 2.9-2.11) We now criticize the ability of natural law to arrive at an adequate account of the purposes of sexual activity. Following Moore, we note that for Aquinas natural law means in fact two things: acting rationally and following laws which are evident in the behaviour of animals. Human beings share with the animals inclinations to do certain things, including having sex. God has established a natural law amongst animals regulating their behaviour. They therefore become a guide to sinful human beings on how to regulate their own behaviour. The idea that we can read off from the natural world laws of behaviour which God has established in his creation is a highly dubious one. It ignores the fact that concepts of what is or is not ‘natural’ are in fact socially constructed. Human beings observe the world, classify it and then invest those classifications with meaning. We have taken small biological differences between men and women and invested them with enormous meaning. The fact that these notions are social constructions can be proved by observing cultures where men en­gage in activities which people in Britain and the USA might label as women’s activities, or by observing that most of us in Britain and the USA no longer consider the medical profession unsuitable for women or the nursing profession unsuitable for men, and yet three or four generations ago it would have been considered unnatural for women to want to be doctors or men to want to be nurses.

There are also hermaphrodites — people who do not fit into the biological categories of male or female. They are part of the ‘natural order’ yet we refuse to recognize them as such. We regard them as sick or an unfortunate anomaly,

but that only means that the classification that we make and that we insist on allows for only two possibilities, male and female. We do not make room for a third possibility, even though nature does … We insist on binary opposition … because it is fundamental to our social organisation.   (14)

And it is not just gender differences (see Chapter 6) that we have invested with meaning. Skin colour and ethnicity have also been subject to binary division on the basis of ‘natural law’. Most of us would now shudder at the idea that nature teaches us that black is inferior to white or Aryan superior to Jew, but again within living memory these were accepted by large numbers of people (including the Church) as natural facts.

The investing of nature with meaning which is then claimed to be ‘obvious’ is clearly evident in Aquinas’ use of natural law. He uses natural law to argue that there is only one kind of sexual intercourse permitted by nature: between men and women for the purpose of procreation. Yet he is very clear that it is totally improper for human beings to adopt the sexual positions of animals. This is because there is certain behaviour that is proper only to one species and it is improper for one species to imitate the behaviour of another. But how is one to judge whether a certain form of behaviour is naturally common and therefore obligatory for all animals and when it should be reserved to one particular species? Animals may or may not engage in ‘homosexual’ behaviour (and in fact there is plenty of evidence that they do), but if they do not the fact that some humans do could be used to argue that it is one of those forms of activity which is reserved for humans alone and is therefore quite proper.

Augustine contended that animals have sex only for procreation. He thought that the ‘procreative purpose’ of sexual activity was uniform throughout creation. Moore also questions these conten­tions. It is assumed that animals have a concept of purpose which they set out to achieve, but there is no evidence for this. Aquinas’ assertion that everything has its natural end, and that the end of sexual organs and semen is procreation, is similarly questionable. Sexual activity appears to have been ordered towards a number of ends: pleasure, expressing love or affection, relaxation, etc. Aquinas’ argument on semen falls on the fact that not all semen is needed for procreation — most of it is indeed what he denies it is, superfluous to requirements. To waste something of which there is an abundance can therefore not be seen as sinful, otherwise bathing and watering ornamental plants (in non-drought conditions) would be sinful. Similarly the often-rehearsed argument that sexual organs have specific purposes (e.g. the penis to ejaculate into the vagina and cause conception) is also hard to sustain. The penis has at least two functions: sexual, and the expulsion of waste. Why should parts of the body only have one divinely ordained function? Do human beings not have control over their bodies as they do over creation? If not, if we are forbidden to use our bodies creatively, then we have no business in trying to alter the shape and appearance of our bodies at all. Moore contends that it is impossible to speak of voluntary sexual activity having a divine purpose. In voluntary human activity the purpose is the purpose of the persons performing it. God may have a purpose in laying down laws to guide our sexual activity, and his purpose is revealed in the laying down of laws but not in the sexual activity of voluntary agents — their purpose is their purpose.  (15)

Sexuality is a gift from God. There is a proper and improper way of using a gift which demonstrates gratitude or ingratitude. A year ago a group of people presented one of us with a splendid red hat. Instead of being worn regularly, it was hung above a desk. So the hat which could be worn on the head has become an ornament, a piece of art. The givers of this gift would not, we think, be offended that the hat is rarely worn — we think they would be amused and delighted with the use of their gift. If, however, the hat had been cut up and used as a dish rag or if the cat had been allowed to use the hat as a litter tray they would have justifiably been offended and hurt. Con­tempt would have been demonstrated for their gift and lack of gratitude. When we apply this insight to the realm of sexual activity it is easy to see that rape and abuse of any sort is a gross and debasing misuse of the gifts God has given us, including the gift of people. We are given people to love, so to fail to love them or to treat them in ways incompatible with love is a clear misuse of a gift. But what about homosexual activity? This activity need not be any more inherently offensive to the giver than the hanging of the hat on the wall, provided it is done in love and leads to gratitude to God.

Assuming that human beings have a nature, it also seems to be part of their nature to act unnaturally, to intervene in and mould nature to their own purposes. Indeed, as Michael Vasey has pointed out, the creation accounts in Genesis suggest that humanity is created both as part of nature but also as ‘a little “god” within it. It is part of our nature to order, to understand and to create. Nature (creation) waits for humanity’s creativity to bring it to perfection …’ (16) Human culture and nature is not then a dualism. Culture, although prone to sin, is part of the creation and therefore of the nature that God has made. Does the concept of the natural have no place in theological discourse about sexuality? Moore thinks that it must because it is part of self-understanding. He suggests that human beings do share a nature, in that we know that certain things are bad for us (e.g. breathing in water) and certain things good for us (e.g. exercise).  (17)  Living according to our nature enables us to survive but also to flourish. We are social animals and in order to flourish we need to live together as friends. Of course for various reasons which Chris­tians would want to label sin we also sometimes want to do what is bad for us to obtain short-term pleasure, e.g., to take drugs. We know that taking certain drugs can lead to diminishment and death. This enables us to say that such behaviour is unnatural and people engaging in it should be encouraged out of it for their own good and for that of others who are diminished by their actions. The same will be true of sexual behaviour if it can be established that a particular form is bad for people. We will only learn whether this is so through observation. Contrary to what Victorians were led to believe by scientists, masturbation does not actually lead to madness.

7.3.3 The homosexual ‘condition ’

The Vatican adopts a pathological model of homosexuality. Homo­sexuals suffer from a ‘condition’. They cannot help being homo­sexual and therefore cannot be blamed for it and even if they engage in homosexual acts they must be treated with care and compassion because they are suffering from an illness which propels them to do such things. There are several problems with this approach. It uncritically assumes heterosexuality as natural and normative. To say or imply that homosexuals are sick is to imply that healthy people will not be homosexual. A homosexual person on this model is one whose ‘natural’ heterosexual desires have ‘gone wrong’ and been transmuted into sexual desire for the same sex. This in turn assumes that heterosexual and homosexual desire are mutually incompatible, or binary opposites. Kinsey, however, has shown this assumption to be without foundation. Hence homosexuality cannot be conceived as being perverted heterosexual desire, for it is possible to be predominantly homosexual and still experience heterosexual desire, and vice versa. To label something as sickness also implies that it is distressing to the person suffering from it. (18)     But this is not the case with homosexuality. It is possible to be gay or lesbian and be perfectly happy. Any unhappiness or suffering that a homosexual person experiences is not likely to be the consequence of homosexuality itself but of reactions to it, which may of course be internalized.

The other problem with the sickness approach to homosexuality is that it denies lesbian and gay people the moral agency (as does the view that homosexual desire is the result of demon possession) which the Christian tradition has always considered to be an essential part of being human, to be lesbian or gay is therefore to be less fully human than heterosexual people. The construction of homosexual­ity as a condition also opens the door to the possibility of ‘healing’ (even though many would argue that it is no more healable than a physical condition, such as the loss of a leg, there is within Christian tradition a strong and often unconscious belief that healing of even the most severe physical injuries and conditions is possible). A number of organizations have grown up in recent years claiming to be able to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality. The psychologist Eliza­beth Moberly (19) has been very influential in evangelical circles for suggesting that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, the result of an early inability to realize a proper relationship with the parent of the same sex. The solution to this is to form strong but non-erotic relationships with members of the same sex which, along with prayer and counselling, will result in the proper development of the arrested heterosexual desire. However, there is no consensus of opinion among psychologists and others about what causes homosexuality, or indeed that it is in any way a psychological condition. Gerd Brantenberg wittily parodies the numerous different psychological approaches to lesbianism:

If one grows up alone with one’s mother, the male will become a distant and peculiar figure, whom one will later have inhibitions approaching … Several lesbians have had no father. If one grows up in a family with only sisters, the intimacy with them will easily lead to joint masturbation in the shared bedrooms … It turns out that a lot of lesbians have only sisters. If one only has brothers, close contact with the male sex in the tender years will easily lead to the develop­ment of a nervous fear of all males, and one becomes a lesbian. A considerable number of lesbians have had only brothers … (20)

And so on. Moberly and others do not approach the issue of homo­sexuality objectively. They come to it with pre-existing ideas about its moral status. It must be healable because it is against God’s will: therefore the nature of the illness has to be uncovered. This still begs the question: is it against God’s will? Moore directly attacks Milhaven’s uncritical reliance on certain psychological theories which claim that homosexuality is a condition of stunted emotional growth which manifests itself in a flight from love (of women, that is, because Milhaven seems to focus on gay men). Milhaven chooses to reply to these psychological theories whilst dismissing others. The ability to love can only be judged from the basis of action, not from a supposed hidden state of mind. Many gay men have extremely good relations with women, and most gay and lesbian people are extremely loving and self-giving people.

If Milhaven’s test is love, it cannot be said that homosexuals, as such, are any less likely to pass it than heterosexuals as such; still less is it true that, as Milhaven wants to show, they are bound to fail it because of the very nature of homosexual desire and activity as purportedly shown by a disputable psychological theory.(21)

  7.3.4 Orientation and practice

The Vatican’s attempt to distinguish between a homosexual orienta­tion and homosexual practice is echoed in many Christian circles. The distinction is often adopted for compassionate motives, enabling Christians to accept homosexual persons whilst still maintaining a negative view of homosexual activity. The fact that the orientation-practice approach immediately creates another dualism should arouse our suspicions. Alison Webster draws a parallel between sexuality and the Christian faith, pointing out that most Christians would reject the view that you can be a Christian without demonstrat­ing any practical outworking of your belief: ‘Just as Christians would say that religious beliefs without practical application are worthless, so lesbians and gay men are justified in arguing that the term “sexual orientation” has no meaning outside of a relational context.’ (22)   So the implicit message from the churches is that, despite assurances to the contrary, to be homosexual is to be as worthless as a Christian faith which results in no recognizably Christian behaviour.

This brings us to another point. Most church documents on the subject of sexuality tend to reflect the patriarchal habit of reducing sexual intimacy to genital acts. When Christians talk of ‘homosexual acts’ they are usually thinking about anal or oral intercourse or mutual masturbation. Yet one of the most important insights that has come out of the feminist and gay movements is that sexuality is about much more than that — it is the seat, the root, of all our relationality, as active in our absorption in a work of art, piece of music, prayer or chat over tea and cake as in making love (see 9.3). To label homosexual ‘acts’ as evil or even ‘just’ inferior to heterosexual ones is to label all homosexual acts and relationships defective and there­fore to classify gay and lesbian people as less human than hetero­sexuals and less able to reach out of their relationality to God.

Moore argues that the only grounds upon which a Christian could condemn homosexual sexual activity would be proof that it was vicious. Many do claim that it is exactly that. There is an association in the British mind at least between homosexuality and child abuse, even though it has been shown over and over again that heterosexuals are statistically more likely to abuse children. The 1992 Vatican letter endorses and perpetuates this slur by instructing the USA bishops that it is legitimate to take sexual orientation into account when appointing teachers or sports coaches, or recruiting people for the military or in the fostering and adoption of children.

Another commonly believed fallacy is that lesbians and gay men are incapable of forming long-term relationships. It has been sug­gested that the perpetuation of such untruths contravenes the ninth commandment, ‘Do not give false evidence against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20.16) (23) There is no evidence that gay or lesbian people are any more vicious or virtuous than heterosexual people and therefore it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to justify condemnation from a Christian perspective.

7.3.5 Homosexuality and the Bible

But what about the scripture? Seven proof texts are usually cited by those, like the Vatican and Barth, who wish to argue that homosexu­ality is clearly and unambiguously condemned in the Bible: Genesis 18.26-29.29 (Sodom and Gomorrah); Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13; Deuteronomy 23.17-18; Romans 1.18-32; 1 Corinthians 6.9, 10; 1 Timothy 1.8-11; Jude 7. However, before turning our attention to these passages it is important to draw out at least two questionable assumptions that lie behind the statement that scripture condemns homosexuality. The first is that these are the only passages in scripture that deal with homosexuality. People who come to the scriptures assuming that they condemn homosexuality will see only those passages which appear to do so. Others, particularly lesbian and gay scholars, have found other texts which may be just as relevant. The story of David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18.1-5; Samuel 1.17-27) idealizes a passionate covenanted love between two men, which disturbed and scandalized King Saul. The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10 may well have a homosexual subtext. The person being healed is referred to in Greek as pais. This word can mean ‘child’ of either sex but it was also the word used in Hellenistic culture to refer to a man’s slave lover. John’s gospel portrays a close emotional relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple. Some have seen within the Hebrew scriptures a constant theme of sexual subversion whereby the history of salvation only proceeds because people break the laws around sexual behaviour.(24)

What are the implications of this? Possibly that within the biblical text we may detect an ongoing debate about sexual morality which foreshadows what is going on in the churches today. Law codes are a notoriously misleading guide to a society’s views, for they are often politically and/or personally motivated. The same is also true of the Christian tradition when it is claimed that it has always condemned homosexual behaviour. John Boswell has done much to show that the waters of Christian history are not that clear on the issue. In particular, he has uncovered the existence of liturgies for ‘same-sex unions’, in manuscripts dating from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries, a fact which raises enormous questions about the Church’s attitude to same-sex passion in previous eras. (25)

The second assumption to challenge is that the passages condemn­ing homosexuality have more authority than other commandments which Christians have happily jettisoned. Passages around the con­demnation of male homosexual behaviour in Leviticus condemn the trimming of beards and the mixing of fibres in clothes. Yet these are happily ignored by Christians along with the food laws. (‘As someone memorably put it, the next time you see a clean-shaven fundamen­talist in a poly-cotton shirt eating a prawn cocktail, be sure to shout, “Abomination”.’  (26) Direct obedience to all biblical laws has never been a Christian principle: the need to discern the authority of scripture has always been recognized (see2.2).

But the matter is even more complex, as an analysis of the seven texts will make clear. The use of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the debate about homosexuality is interesting because when it is referred to in other biblical books it is not once linked with homosex­uality. The sin of Sodom is inhospitality, which appears to be ex­pressed first in the desire of the men of Sodom to rape the (male) messengers from God and then in the rape of Lot’s daughters. The story condemns rape, not homosexuality. In order to understand fully the Sodom story, it is necessary to understand the thought that lies behind the Levitical texts. Sexual acts are never simply a private matter. Even in our own day, though we like to pretend that they are private, they have social meaning and in that context can take on a symbolic significance. The authors of the book of Leviticus, members of the priestly school writing after the Babylonian exile, construct a social and symbolic meaning for certain sexual acts as part of their concerted attempt to enable Israel to survive as a distinct nation. This they do by building a theology around the notion of Israel’s separate­ness from other peoples. Israel is a separated, holy and pure people. This involves avoiding all that is impure. The understanding of purity is built around concepts of normality and kinds. Deviations from the norm such as disability, women bleeding, and fish without scales and fins (such as prawns) are therefore impure. The mixing of kinds such as cross-dressing or sex between humans and beasts is also impure. The ‘spilling’ of semen is also perceived to be abnormal and therefore impure. What Leviticus condemns is not sex between men but lying with a man as with a woman. This alerts us to the symbolic meaning given to gender distinctions  in Leviticus. Men and women stand in binary opposition to one another, the male superior to the female. Indeed, male power is maintained by defining itself positively against the negativity of being a woman. Ancient Israelite society was built around this fundamental distinction. Sex was part of the symbolic enactment of these social relations: men on top, women underneath. Homosexual sex disrupted and threatened the social system. Nothing could be more demeaning to men than to ‘play the part of a woman’ in sex (which is why male rape was often used upon prisoners of war in the ancient world). Moore notes ‘we cannot have an attitude to this law and others like it without having an attitude to the social organization it presupposes’. (27) And Christians have very clear and distinct attitudes to purity and social organization partic­ularly as it relates to men and women.

We have already noted (see 1.8) that the New Testament abolishes the whole symbolic system of purity (Mark 7.18; Acts 11.15). Nothing is unclean in and of itself. (28) Similarly the teaching of Paul (Galatians 3.28) echoes the implicit teaching of the Gospels that divisions between male and female are abolished. No one group should dominate over the other. Thus the rationale upon which the con­demnation of homosexual acts in Leviticus is based is rejected. Deuteronomy 23.17-18 condemns male prostitutes in the service of the cult of the goddess Astarte. What is being condemned is not homosexuality but a particular cult and its practices.

Many Christian people have little difficulty accepting that the authority of the Old Testament law is not binding on Christians, but they would point out that homosexuality is also condemned in the New Testament, most unambiguously in Romans 1.18-32. Here Paul condemns those Gentiles, male and female, who have rejected the real God in favour of idols, the result of which is that ‘God gave them up to dishonourable passions’, including homosexuality. Paul’s argu­ment is based on cause and effect. The Gentiles have exchanged true worship for false worship and therefore they have exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. Homosexuality, though, is sing­led out as being a symbol of a more general godlessness and it is surely significant that when homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament it is never condemned alone but is included in lists of vices (1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.8-11). In these passages Paul is condemning a whole way of life which includes and is symbolized by homosexuality. What we find in Romans 1 is in fact a conventional polemic against Gentile culture, very similar, for example, to Wisdom 14.12-27. For Paul homosexuality takes on its repugnant meaning in the context of Gentile rejection of God and godless behaviour. Paul draws upon the notion of natural law. He assumes that Jew and Gentile will be aware that there is a ‘natural’ use for sexual organs. Male and female homosexual behaviour is a culpable rejection of this natural law. In the twentieth century we experience homosexuality in a different context. We will see (if we bother to look) men and women who have not rejected God, who are not thieves, murderers or deceivers but kind, generous and devoted to God. Therefore, we cannot simply lift Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality and apply it to twentieth-century lesbian and gay people.

The difficulty in interpreting 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 lies in the translation of the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai, which are rendered as ‘sexual perverts’ or ‘homosexuals’ or ‘effeminate and abusers of themselves’ in different translations of the Bible. The meaning of these words is obscure and certainly there is no justification for the modern trend to interpret the words as meaning active and passive homosexual. Malakoi is probably better translated ‘loose living’ and has no direct associations with homosexual behaviour. The meaning of arsenokoitai is much more difficult to establish. Some believe it refers to male prostitutes, others that it is a general term for homo­sexuality. However, what we have said about the use of Romans must also apply to this passage and 1 Timothy 1 (which uses only the word arsenokoitai). Jude v. 7’s mention of Sodom and Gomorrah has been interpreted by some as referring to homosexual sex. In fact in context the reference is obviously to sex with angels.

There is no single ‘mind’ of scripture (29) on sexuality and it is dishonest simply to read off apparent references to homosexuality within the scriptures without paying attention to their (often patri­archal) context and asking whether it is compatible with the Chris­tian vision. A hermeneutical framework is needed in order to deal with the scriptures with integrity (see Chapter 10). It has been suggested that, as Christians affirm that God’s revelation has most clearly and fully been revealed in Christ, all the texts of scripture must be tested against the teaching and behaviour of Christ. (30) Jesus abolished both the purity codes and undermined the patriarchal basis of his religion. He welcomed those whom society rejected, judging them only on their loving acts. Jesus, the argument goes, would not have rejected gay and lesbian people.

Gareth Moore believes that all Christian ethics must be built around the central command of Jesus to love your neighbour as yourself. Love becomes the criterion by which to judge sexual rela­tionships. The report prepared by the South African Anglican Theo­logical Commission and endorsed for study by the Synod of Bishops, after reviewing the biblical teaching on many different aspects of sexuality, argues that

 in view of the vast difference between the situation of the first century and that of today, care must be taken to interpret scripture in accordance with its main themes and principles rather than by a literal acceptance of specific texts.(31)

If we are to reinterpret scripture it must be because we can show that our reinterpretation reflects a deeper love for God and other people. This reflects two central biblical principles: love and righteousness (which includes holiness and justice), which must be kept in balance. Just as the Church has interpreted scripture to address racism, apartheid, sexism and economic injustice, so it must now address human sexuality. Regarding homosexuality, which is one of the topics considered by the Commission, it acknowledges the dispute between essentialists and social constructionists (it is one of the few church reports to show any awareness of this debate — see below, 7.6), but notes that ‘neither of these two lines of scientific research is condemnatory of homosexuality’.

 Good theology begins with real people in relationship with God, so that the church needs to listen to the experiences of homosexuals … The witness of the Bible and the Christian tradition needs to be explored afresh in the light of new understandings of homosexual­ity. The key to a fresh approach will be found in the themes of God’s love and compassion (hesed), and righteousness. The starting-point should be the loving and caring practice of Jesus himself with his concern to build community by reconciling to God and each other those whom the world has condemned.(32)                                                                                                                                                                        



The second approach taken by Christian theologians in the second half of the twentieth century towards homosexuality has been that homosexual relationships, whilst not necessarily being sinful, are imperfect when compared to heterosexual relationships. This posi­tion is taken by those who recognize the difficulty of applying scriptural texts which themselves are ambiguous to relationships and categories of personhood unknown in the ancient world. They also believe that neither scripture nor theology have the competence to interpret the world on their own. The social and medical sciences must be looked to for the data about the world in which we live, upon which Christian theology then reflects. Scientific evidence suggests that homosexuality is not a pathological or psychological disorder but a consistent sexual condition of a minority, and theologians have to take this fact on board when assessing the morality of homosexual­ity. However, this fact does not overturn the general gist of scripture or the theory of natural law. Charles Curran, the Catholic theologian, in developing a theory of compromise’, argues that taking on board scientific evidence means recognizing that, although homosexuality is an objective moral disorder and that ideally homosexuals should refrain from ‘practising’ homosexuality, in fact because of the pres­ence of sin in the world and because of the fact that ‘homosexuality exists as a result of sin’ (i.e., poor relationships in a person’s back­ground, etc.) homosexuals cannot be held culpable for engaging in homosexual acts and should be encouraged into stable unions. (33) Heterosexuality remains the ideal rooted in creation but homo­sexual people are allowed some freedom to seek loving sexual relationships, a freedom granted because of the sinful context in which they exist.

Still within the broad category of ‘falling short’, the Protestant theologian Helmut Thielicke takes a different approach. Beginning with scripture he notes the problems associated with the passages normally applied to homosexuality. However, like Curran he believes that ‘the fundamental order of creation and the created determina­tion of the two sexes make it appear justifiable to speak of homosexu­ality as a perversion’,(34) and it therefore belongs to the disorder of creation which follows the fall, along with disease and suffering. But Christians cannot denounce the homosexual condition because we all share in the disorder of a fallen  creation. The homosexual must not idealize or accept ‘his’ condition as normal but must be willing to be treated or healed. However, since healing does not appear to work, Christians must simply accept the condition as incurable and as ‘a divine dispensation and see it as a task to be wrestled with, indeed — paradoxical as it may sound — to think of it as a talent that is to be invested (Luke 19.13f)’. (35) Thielicke acknowledges that the New Testament gives us no guidance as to how to approach the issue of whether homosexuals should be permitted to engage in sexual acts because the notion of homosexuality as a condition is an extremely modern one. He does however use the analogy of the covenant between God and Noah (Genesis 9.1 ff). Sin has entered the world disordering it and yet God does not abandon creation but relates to it in and through its disorder. Homosexuals too must behave as ethically as possible within their disordered but irreversible condi­tion. (He recognizes that celibacy cannot be enforced because it is based upon a special calling.) This involves adopting the same norms as heterosexual couples, i.e., monogamous partnerships. But it would be better for the homosexual to sublimate his desires and channel them into caring professions.

As far as church reports are concerned, the ‘falling short’ argu­ment is central to the statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, Issues in Human Sexuality. Once again their stance is rooted in a theory of complementarity based upon Genesis 1 – 3. (36) Like Thielicke the bishops acknowledge the ambiguity of many scriptural texts traditionally used to condemn homosexuality and the problem of applying judgements based upon cultural assumptions so different from ours to the present day, and yet conclude from an overview of scriptural teaching on sexuality that

there is, therefore, in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings … it is quite clearly the foundation on which the Church’s traditional teaching is built.   (37)

Sexual desire and activity are considered by the bishops to be ‘obviously’ for the purposes of procreation and created so by God. Biology and theology therefore collude in a similar view that ‘hetero­sexual physical union is divinely intended to be the norm’. (38)  This is not the only purpose of sexual desire. It creates a bond between the couple and a pattern of self-giving which can become sacramental. However, the bishops are clear that ‘scripture, tradition and reasoned reflection upon experience’ reveal that it is impossible to regard the ‘homophile’ (the word the bishops use to describe lesbian and gay people and experience) orientation or relationship as on a par with the heterosexual. The bishops respect the right of conscientious gay and lesbian people to conclude that ‘they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership’ (39) as long as those relationships are monogamous and the intention is for them to be permanent. How­ever, this right of conscience is not extended to gay or lesbian clergy. Clergy are obliged to live a way of life in conformity with what the Church commends. Clergy should also be accessible to everyone and at present a ‘homophile’ orientation would, they claim, alienate a substantial number of people.


A range of responses is prompted by the characterization of homo­sexuality as a ‘falling short’. We start first with the weight placed on the notion of complementarity. We have already touched on some of the difficulties associated with this notion (see 6.5). It is now time to address the issue in more depth.

7.5. 1 Complementarity

All church documents which use it base their theory of comple­mentarity on Genesis 1. To read and use this passage with integrity we must endeavour to read it in its context. It is another piece of writing by the priestly school of authors and the theme of separation runs throughout this account of creation. Light is separated from dark, the day is separated into distinct parts, species are created as distinct kinds and the crown of creation is the formation of male and female. We have already seen (see above, 7.3.4) that the division between male and female was crucial for the social ordering of ancient Israel and so the priestly writer wishes to ground this distinc­tion in the ordering of creation (like the Jewish Sabbath which is the clearest sign of Jewish identity). As Moore points out he does not root other biological differences, like left- and right-handedness and fair and dark hair, in creation because these do not bear heavy social symbolic significance.(40) This is true even today where so-called com­plementary characteristics of men and women (usually based on Jungian psychology) have been shown to be largely socially con­structed and constructed by men: ‘Hence men and women turn out to be complementary; they fit each other socially because the women occupy the space defined and left for them by the men.’ (41)

These definitions therefore reflect a social situation of dominance and submission which Christianity is committed to abolishing (see Chapter 5). It is also to bear false witness (Exodus 20.16) to say that women exhibit so-called ‘feminine’ qualities and men ‘masculine’ ones (see 6.5). The notion that ‘true’ self-giving love demands that we reach out to someone ‘other’ than us, different in key respects, also lies at the heart of the theory of complementarity. In everyday life complementarity is often grounded in sameness. For example, we generally like items in our dinner service to have the same pattern. According to Genesis 2, it is the similarity between Adam and Woman, not their sameness, that makes them complementary. Whether complementarity is grounded in sameness or in similarity, it remains a Christian principle that people are valuable and lovable in themselves, irrespective of whether they are the same or different from us. As Moore notes,

true complementarity in a relationship is a matter of will, the willingness to give and take, to take each other’s character, likes, dislikes and interests into account … It is something that can be worked at [rather than God-given and grounded in gender differ­ences], and its end is that the partners go well together, in that they find their relationship a pleasure.  (42)

Barth (see above, 7.3.1) is more consistent in his approach towards complementarity than others for he argues that all relations must be complementary rather than just sexual ones. For the Vatican and the Church of England have yet to explain why complementarity is only applicable to sexual relations. Barth’s approach founders on the example of Jesus and his close male friendships and also reinforces the patriarchal foundations of Christianity, suggesting that women should not be allowed to exist outside of relations with men. The idea that our ability to image God through male-female complementarity is a very recent interpretation of Genesis. Both Aquinas and Augus­tine located that ability in our power to be rational. The modern interpretation seems to suggest that single people, celibate, homo­sexual persons and children do not bear the image of God and the logical extension of that is the ridiculous idea that Jesus did not.

Michael Vasey has pointed out the difficulties of asserting that Genesis 1 and 2 provide a biblical mandate for monogamous mar­riage as an ideal, since the rest of the Bible does not echo it. The ideal of the modern marriage based upon companionship is absent.

Jesus’s mission is not about the establishing of stable marriages or secure and happy homes. He himself did not marry. It is precisely the passage in which Jesus quotes Genesis 2.24 that commends the renunciation of marriage. His primary thrust is the creation of an affectionate community within which marriage is almost an irrelevance. (43)

It is certainly not an ideal. This leads to a further difficulty with the ‘falling short’ approach: the use of scripture seems to be incon­sistent. Neale Secor has noted: ‘To equate functional sex differences with essential being is to resort to a literalist biblical anthropology which not only is inappropriate and perhaps completely meaningless in modern discussion, but is also embarrassingly inapposite to [the] otherwise nonliteralistic ethical methodology.’(44) Alison Webster has described complementarity as ‘the foundation, the theological structure by which Christianity justifies its suppression of all expressions of same-sex love’  (45) and asserts heterosexual normativity. The structure is built on sand and becomes decidedly shaky when analysed.

7.5.2 Homosexuality and culture

Perhaps the chief problem with both of the approaches we have examined so far is their failure to recognize the cultural dimension of homosexuality. There is a long-standing debate among lesbian and gay scholars over whether homosexuality has always existed in all times and cultures (essentialism) or whether homosexuality is the creation of society which chooses to interpret certain behaviour as characteristic of a distinct personality type (social constructionism). The first theory leaves open the possibility that homosexuality may be a matter of genetics and the possibility for gay Christians to claim that ‘God made me this way’. However, it also involves a surrendering of moral agency, and ignores the vast differences among cultures in the way homosexual behaviour has been understood and expressed. In Britain and the United States we would regard two men engaging in mutual masturbation to be engaging in homosexual activity. In Turkey such behaviour would not be interpreted in these terms. In Turkey for an act to be homosexual it would have to involve penetration of man by another — one would have to be ‘playing the role of a woman’.    (46) So even today the same act has different meanings in different cultures. Similarly in some parts of Africa certain forms of activity which in Western culture would be perceived to be lesbian would be regarded as simply friendly contact. The contemporary churches seem to speak as if it were as clear as crystal that the world is divided into homosexual and heterosexual people, and that what constitutes a sexual act is universally agreed, but this is far from the case.

7.5.3 The fear of bisexuality

Alison Webster has pointed out the Church has nothing positive to say to people like her who are quite capable of forging satisfactory relations with members of the opposite sex but choose to enter into relations with people of the same sex because they find them ‘super­ior to heterosexual ones in terms of mutuality, equality, intimacy, communication and sexual pleasure’. (47) This seems to be a phenom­enon more common among women than men and the Church’s inarticulateness about it reflects its usual disregarding of the experi­ences of lesbians and indeed of women generally. Such people would not necessarily label themselves bisexual for that would be to hide the fact that they have made a deliberate relational choice.

Tom Driver wrote that ‘bisexuality … is the church’s deepest sexual fear’, (48) for bisexuals undermine the whole sexual system, the neat classification of people into homosexual and heterosexual, the pathologizing of homosexuality as a heterosexual disorder and so on. Bisexuality represents desire unfettered, and perhaps that is why those who experience it are so studiously unacknowledged in church documents, and on the odd occasion where they are acknowledged they are pathetically misrepresented as sexually indiscriminate and promiscuous.(49) Freud suggested that we are all born bisexual but socialized into heterosexuality and the Kinsey report certainly seemed to suggest that the majority of us cannot be neatly cat­egorized into the polarities of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Michael Vasey has argued that the concept of the ‘homosexual’ only emerged as part of the change in understanding of masculinity which took place in the modern era. Previous to this, he points out, most homosexual activity — male and female — took place alongside marriage. Same-sex friendship or passion was regarded as essential: it was idealized and prioritized as the basis of society..

Changing understandings of masculinity, sex and public life have left some men who cannot identify with masculinity as constructed by modern capitalist society. Equally, there are women unable to iden­tify with the passive femininity which was constructed to complement it. They are now classified as separate personality types. (50) Vasey suggests that the Church might be better employed critically examin­ing the construction of heterosexuality into which most of us are socialized and asking whether it is compatible with the gospel, rather than circling endlessly around the issue of homosexuality. If sexual orientation is a social construction then the churches need to con­struct a sexual ethic which can be applied to all persons no matter with whom they are in relationship. Such an enterprise would be wholly consistent with what was called ‘passionate ethics’ (see Chapter 2), and some of its components have already been described 9see 2.12).

7.5.4 Homophobia

Finally, a word needs to be said about the denunciation of homo­phobia that occurs in all church documents these days. We have to ask how convincing it is to deplore violence against homosexuals and yet, as the 1992 Vatican document does, bear the kind of false witness against gay and lesbian people that others use to justify ‘queer bashing’. The churches’ denunciation of homophobia will never ring true whilst they persist in condemning homosexual relations as morally evil or inferior. It is a bit like saying: the Church believes black people to be inferior to white people and their relations to be disordered and morally evil; we therefore think they should not be teachers or coaches and we will not be employing any ourselves; they are not to be given the same civil rights as white people and if they show any pride in their cultural heritage they are only asking for trouble — but of course we denounce racism! The fact that the churches have shown a remarkable reluctance to support any anti-discrimination legislation makes it difficult for lesbian and gay people to believe that their denunciations of homophobia are sin­cere.



The third position taken by Christians on homosexuality in recent years has been that homosexual acts are neutral and can only be evaluated in terms of their relational significance. This position has been taken by those who have bothered to listen to the experiences of lesbian and gay Christians and come to the conclusion that statements such as that made by H. Kimball Jones that ‘two homo­sexuals can never complement one another in the same sense that male and female can’ (51) are simply false. As the ground-breaking British Quaker report on sexuality of 1963 stated, ‘Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.’ (52) The Quakers came to the conclusion that the physical nature of a sexual act could not be the criterion upon which it was judged. Rather the quality of the relationship should be the criterion. Homosexual and heterosex­ual relations which involve force, coercion, or abuse of power are sinful. Homosexual and heterosexual relations in which the inten­tion of both parties is mutuality and commitment cannot be designated as sinful.

The Presbyterian (USA) report Keeping Body and Soul Together starts its reflections upon gay and lesbian people in the Church by arguing that it is time for the Presbyterian Church to move out of the stalemate that other churches have found themselves in over this issue. Paying particular attention to the biblical objections to homo­sexuality, the report argues that the common proof texts need to be placed within a broader biblical perspective. Jesus broke through the religious and social stratifications of Jewish law, and Christians, according to Paul, are freed from slavery to the law.

The freedom of the gospel makes possible a higher morality, not legislated by a code, but guided by the witness of love and justice exemplified in Jesus Christ. This gospel frames a theology of sexuality that affirms sexual expression which genuinely deepens human love and promotes justice. This theology of sexuality does not accord morality on the basis of sexual orientation, but rather on the moral quality of each and every relationship. (53)

Homosexuality should therefore be approached as a justice issue. Just as the Church has had to deal with racism and sexism, so now it must direct its attention to recognizing and ridding itself of hetero­sexism. Heterosexuals and gay and lesbian people are called to the same standards of morality. All human beings, the report maintains, are created with a yearning to experience love with God and others. To deprive gay and lesbian people of the context in which to live out their God-given sexuality is an affront to justice and to the God who created them.

The homosexual-heterosexual distinction is another dualism which has allowed one group to claim superiority over the other and is therefore a bar to mutuality; it is also a distinction shown to be false by research which reveals that few of us are either exclusively gay or straight. The bodily integrity of gay and lesbian people must be protected as it must be for all women. This means refraining from forcing gay and lesbian people into celibacy or heterosexuality. The report suggests that if Christians take the line that no sexual intimacy is permitted between members of the same sex they deprive those people of responsible moral choice and yet, as the Reformed tradi­tion has always acknowledged

Only when each assumes responsibility for our own choices can we genuinely offer or withhold our consent… God’s call to gays and lesbians is to live responsibly in sexual, as well as nonsexual, relationships. We believe that God’s justice requires respect for their right to do. (54)

Moral responsibility cannot be determined on the basis of sexual orientation. Therefore, the report concludes, it cannot condemn all homosexual behaviour, nor can it approve all heterosexual activity. The Church is called to support lesbians and gay men in their desire to enter and sustain bonds of faithful relationships and to acknow­ledge the part it has played in creating an environment in which homosexual people are the victims of injustice. The report was not accepted by the Presbyterian Church’s governing body.

A report from a working party of the central committee of the Church and Society Department of the United Reformed Church (UK) in the early 1990s, which has no official status, acknowledged that to a large extent the debate about homosexuality in the Church was built upon and symptomatic of a debate on the nature of biblical authority. However, the working party was ‘not prepared to describe homosexual activity as intrinsically sinful in principle’, (55) recognizing that homosexual relationships were capable of manifesting the same qualities as the best marriages. ‘Our instinct is to affirm grace against law as a general rule, to take the risks of acceptance rather than those of rejection, to seek for humility rather than a righteousness tending towards self-righteousness.’ (56)

This third approach has yet to be officially accepted by any but a handful of churches. One of these is the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches which was founded in 1968 by a gay Pentecostal minister, Troy Perry, in Los Angeles as a church for lesbians and gay men. One of the fastest growing churches in the world, its stance on homosexuality coupled with its willingness to re-­examine Christianity from a non-homophobic, non-patriarchal point of view has made it increasingly attractive to a large numbers of heterosexuals as well.


One of the most interesting developments around the issue of homosexuality and Christianity has been the emergence (beginning in the early 1980s) of lesbian and gay theology. Lesbian and gay people, tired of waiting for the churches to make up their minds on the moral status of their lives and inspired by the insights and methodologies of liberation and feminist theologies, have begun to break free of their dependence upon the churches. Recognizing that much of Christian theology has been built upon heteropatriarchy, they have sought to do theology instead on the basis of their own experience. Lesbian theologians have built up a sexual ethic around the concept of friendship (see 3.8), arguing that this not only reflects the way in which lesbians understand their relationships but also stands in complete conformity to the gospel where friendship and not marriage is held up as the primary relationship.  (57)

Robert Goss has argued that it was not Jesus’ maleness that made him the Christ but his practice of solidarity with the oppressed. In the resurrection God affirms the validity of Jesus’ life and message. At Easter Jesus becomes the ‘Queer Christ’, for if Christ does stand in solidarity with the oppressed then he must stand in solidarity with lesbian and gay people. At Easter Jesus comes out of the closet and becomes queer by virtue of being in solidarity with ‘queers’. Note that this is not to say that Jesus of Nazareth was gay, although the gospel stories indicate that it is impossible to fit him into the modern construction of heterosexuality. To say that Christ is queer is to say that God identifies with lesbian and gay people and their experiences of injustice.

If Jesus the Christ is not queer, then his basileia. (58) message of solidarity is irrelevant. If the Christ is not queer, the gospel is no longer good news but oppressive news for queers. If the Christ  is not queer, then the incarnation has no meaning for our sexuality. (59)

Other lesbian and gay scholars have questioned the Church’s knee-jerk idealization of monogamy (see 3.9), noting that, for many, so-called ‘casual sex’ can be grace-filled and community-building.(60) So far the church governing bodies have studiously avoided interacting with the growing body of lesbian and gay theology and spirituality but it is clear that if the debate is to move out of stalemate they are going to have to.


In truth these two topics do not belong in this chapter because, although they are associated in the popular mind with homosexual­ity, they are to be found among people of all sexual orientations. However, since in recent years the concept of ‘queer’ has been developed to group together all those who challenge hetero­patriarchy, it is appropriate that these topics should be considered here. It should be noted that both these groups are often the victims of prejudice from within the lesbian and gay communities.

Transvestites are (usually) men (gay, straight and bisexual) who find sexual and emotional satisfaction in dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex. They never figure in church documents. Nothing per­haps reveals better how similar our culture is to the ancient Israelite culture of the priestly writers’ vision. We continue to invest with tremendous meaning not only biological sexual differences, but also clothes. We still have notions of ‘women’s clothes’ and ‘men’s clothes’. When a man wears ‘women’s clothes’ we think there is something wrong, something dirty and unclean about him. He is likely to be the object of ridicule, marginalization and violence, and seen as a traitor to his sex. He cannot be a ‘true’ man. Yet if we are right that Christianity is essentially subversive of gender divisions and notions of purity the experience of transvestites should not be a problem to Christians. In any case there is a long and venerable tradition of saintly transvestism including St Joan, and a host of other female saints who assumed the dress of men in order to enter monasteries. Many outside the Church regard clerical dress as ‘feminine’ and therefore funny. In many cultures transvestites who enter homosexual relationships are ac­cepted and regarded as having particular spiritual gifts, for example the berdache in Native American cultures.

Transsexuals are men and women, of all sexual orientations, who believe that they are trapped in the body of the wrong sex. Their bodies do not match the gender they feel themselves to be. Many now seek operations to transform their bodies into ones approximating to those of the opposite sex. Once again they are virtually ignored by the churches, dismissed as sick, unfortunate anomalies. We have to ask to what extent a transsexual’s dilemma is caused by the rigid gender divisions that society (with the help of the Church) perpetu­ates. Yet whilst we do live in such a dualistic structure, people who do not conform to the role that their sex is supposed to play are always going to feel uncomfortable and often completely alienated from their sex, and the Church should support their right to alter their bodies in order that they might flourish. Some transsexuals find a family resemblance between themselves and eunuchs, who though reviled in ancient society are promised inclusion in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19.10-12; Isaiah 56.3-5; Acts 8.26-40).


In this chapter the complex and divisive issue of homosexuality has been examined from the perspective of the three most common church responses to it. The ‘moral evil’ and ‘falling short’ ap­proaches have been shown to be extremely weak theologically and logically and to be highly dependent upon a view of reality which the gospel itself may challenge. In particular, we have drawn attention to the patriarchal basis of the theory of complementarity upon which both responses are based. We have also drawn attention to the failure of both to acknowledge the cultural nature of homosexuality and the hermeneutical problems involved in ‘reading off’ a Christian atti­tude to homosexuality from a few scriptural texts. We have also drawn attention to a third approach to homosexuality which involves privileging the experience and theological reflection of those who live out the issue in their bodies and communities — lesbian and gay people themselves. Feminists are beginning to discern what a non- patriarchal Christianity will look like, lesbian and gay scholars are attempting to fashion a non-homophobic faith. Passionate ethics is both non-patriarchal and non-homophobic. Finally, we have attemp­ted to reflect theologically upon the situation of those whom most Churches choose studiously to ignore — bisexual, transvestite and transgendered persons. We have suggested that they may be so ignored because in their own persons they challenge so many of the ‘foundations’ and assumptions upon which the current debate around homosexuality is built. Passionate ethics will seek to privilege the insights and experiences of people so brutally marginalized.


  1. Division for Church in Society, Department of Studies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective (Minneapolis: ELCA Distribution Service, 1993), first draft.
  2.  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981).
  3.  Alfred Kinsey et al., Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1948).
  4.  Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), para. 2357, PP- 504-5.
  5.  See for example, Social Welfare Commission of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People (London, 1979), and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA), To Live in Christ Jesus (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1976). Both sets of bishops have in the 1990s reaffirmed the stance they took in their documents of the 1970s, which has been interpreted by some as a veiled gesture of dissent from the Vatican’s 1986 letter.
  6.  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1986), para. 3.
  7.  Ibid.,  paras 6-7.
  8. Ibid., para 10
  9. Karl  Barth  Church Dogmatics ( Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961) Part 3, vol.4 pp.164-6.
  10.  John Charles Milhaven, ‘Homosexuality and Love’  in Edward Batchelor, Jr,  Homosexuality and Ethics (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1980), p.67.
  11.  Gareth Moore, The Body in Context: Sex and Catholicism (London: SCM Press 1992), p. 66.
  12.  Ibid
  13. Ibid., p. 71.
  14.  Ibid., p. 33.
  15. Ibid.,  p.85-6.
  16.  Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends: A New Exploration of Homosexuality and the Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), p. 49.
  17. Moore, The Body in Context, pp. 78—81.
  18.  Ibid., p. 198.
  19. Elizabeth Moberly, Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1983).
  20. Gerd Bratenberg, What Comes Naturally (London: The Women’s Press, 1987), p.. 31-3.
  21. Moore, The Body in Context, p. 203.
  22. Alison Webster, Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality (London: Cassell, 1995), p. 20.
  23. Thatcher, Liberating Sex, p.132.
  24. Stuart, Just Good Friends, pp. 126—37.
  25. John Boswell, The Marriage of Likeness (London: HarperCollins, 1995), also published as Same-Sex Unions in Premodem Europe (New York: Villiard Books, 1994)
  26. Margaret Bradman, ‘The Bible and homosexuality’ in Cristina Sumner, Re­consider: A Response to ‘Issues in Human Sexuality ’ and a Plea to the Church to Deal Boldly with Sexual Ethics (London: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 1995), p. 3.
  27. Moore, The Body in Context, p. 40.
  28. William Countryman, (Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today (London: SCM Press, 1989).
  29. For the opposite assumption, see The Methodist Church, Report of Commission on Human Sexuality (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1990), paras 84, 88.
  30. A. Thatcher, Liberating Sex: A Christian Sexual Theology (London: SPCK, 1993), pp. 22-7.
  31. South African Anglican Theological Commission, The Church and Human Sexual­ity (Marshalltown, South Africa, 1995), p. 9.
  32. Ibid., p. 22.
  33. Charles E. Curran, ‘Homosexuality and moral theology: methodological and substantive considerations’, in Batchelor, Homosexuality and Ethics, pp. 89—95.
  34. Helmut Thielicke, ‘The theologicoethical aspect of homosexuality’, in Batch­elor, Homosexuality and Ethics, p. 100.
  35.  Ibid., p. 101.
  36. House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, Issues in Human Sexuality (London: Church House Publishing, 1991), para. 2:5, p. 7.
  37. Ibid., para. 2:29, p. 18.
  38. Ibid., para. 4:14, p. 36.
  39. Ibid., para. 5:6, p. 41.
  40.  Moore, The Body in Context, p. 29.
  41.  Ibid., p. 123.
  42.  Ibid., pp. 128-9.
  43. Vasey, Strangers and Friends, 117.
  44. Neale Secor, ‘A brief for a new homosexual ethic’, in Batchelor, Homosexuality and Ethics, 157.
  45. Webster, Found Wanting, 12.
  46. Huseyin Tapnic, ‘Masculinity, femininity, and Turkish male homosexuality’, in Ken Plummer, Modem Homosexualities: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay Experience (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 40.
  47. Ibid, p. 27.
  48. Tom Driver, ‘The contemporary and Christian contexts’, in Batchelor, Homo­sexuality and Ethics, 18.
  49. Issues in Human Sexuality, 5:8, p. 42.
  50. Vasey, Strangers and Friends, pp.80—112.
  51. Kimball Jones, ‘Toward a Christian understanding of the homosexual’, in Batchelor, Homosexuality and Ethics, p. 112.
  52. Alastair Heron, ‘Towards a Christian view of sex’, in Batchelor, Homosexuality and Ethics, 137.
  53. Keeping Body and Soul Together, 98.
  54. Ibid, p. 105.
  55. Homosexuality Working Party, Homosexuality: A Christian View (London: United Reformed Church, n.d.), p. 5.
  56. Ibid, p. 6.
  57. Stuart, Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships (London: Mowbray, 1995); Mary Hunt, Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (New York: Crossroad, 1991); and Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row,1989)
  58. Basileia is the Greek word usually translated as ‘kingdom’ or ‘reign of God’ in the Gospels.
  59. Robert Goss , Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), p. 85.
  60. See for example, Sean Gill, ‘Odd but not queer: English liberal Protestant theologies of human sexuality and the gay paradigm’, Theology and Sexuality, 3 (September 1995), pp. 48-57, and Kathy Rudy, ‘“Where two or more are gathered”: using gay communities as a model for Christian sexual ethics’, Theology and Sexuality, no. 4 (March 1996), pp. 81—99.

Suggestions for further reading

John Boswell, The Marriage of Likeness (London: HarperCollins, 1995), also pub­lished as Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Villiard Books, 1994).

Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).

Jeffrey S. Siker,  Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Elizabeth Stuart, Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships (London: Mowbray, 1995).

Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends: A New Exploration of Homosexuality and the Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).