Bishop Martin: Why is the Church agonising over homosexuality?

Bishop Martin Seeley. Photo: Phil Morley

Bishop Martin Seeley. Photo: Phil Morley - Credit: Archant

Bishop Martin Seeley asks what is the difficulty with homosexuality and the Church?

Across Suffolk our churches, after all, welcome people from a myriad of different backgrounds, including men and women of different sexual orientations.

Christians believe their relationship with Jesus Christ comes first and everything else, such as gender, nationality, age, sexuality, is secondary.

So what is the difficulty with homosexuality?

Bishops within the Church of England yesterday published proposals for a way forward in our debate on this. The proposals will be discussed at the meeting of the Church’s governing body, the General Synod, next month.

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The Synod debate will then guide the Bishops for further deliberations during July.

I am writing this before the publication of the Bishops’ proposals, but can anticipate that there will be strong reactions from both the reformers and the conservatives in the Church.

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In the wider community, I imagine some will dismiss the proposals as either the Church not being able to make up its mind, or that it is once again living in the past.

Our Christian faith is engaged with the flourishing of both society and individuals. The Ten Commandments, part of our heritage from Judaism, express that in the first four commandments in terms of our relationship with God, and in the rest in terms of our relationships with one another.

Jesus summarised these as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your might; and your neighbour as yourself.”

It is because of this concern both for society and the individual that the Church – and this includes most branches of the Church worldwide – has in recent decades been engaged with matters of sexuality as a fundamental element in both domains – the social and the individual.

If concern for the social and the individual is why the Church is engaged in debate about homosexuality, why is the debate seeming so difficult?

There are all sorts of factors here, and not least the deep-seated emotional responses we all have to any issue of sexuality.

The explicitly Christian factors revolve around the interpretation of the Bible.

For all Christians Scripture is the inspired word of God.

For some, the Bible gives direct guidance on matters of life and behaviour, and any reference or statement on a moral issue in the Bible is as applicable today as it was when it was written.

For others, the books of the Bible were written at particular times in particular contexts, and need to be read in relation to those times and contexts.

There are variations on these approaches to the Bible, but you can see that there is potentially a huge gulf between one and the other, and that is powerfully evident in matters of sexuality.

There are about half a dozen references to homosexual acts in the Bible, though the Bible contains no understanding of “homosexuality” as a dimension of human identity. Jesus himself does not mention homosexuality.

Why have the deep differences in interpretation come to the fore now?

Sexuality is complex and our understanding of that complexity is constantly developing.

There have been huge developments in our understanding of sex and sexuality in the past 50 years. That has brought immense challenges to long-held views and positions within society and in the Church.

We have seen changes happen, for example, in relation to contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and transgender identity.

In relation to homosexuality it is worth remembering how recent some of these changes are. There are some legal milestones that show this.

In this country, homosexual acts in private between two men aged 21 and older was only decriminalised in 1967. The age of consent was lowered to 18 in 1994 and to 16 in 2001.

Civil Partnerships became legal in 2004 and Same Sex Marriage in 2013.

With these social changes, homosexuality has been a subject of debate in the Church for the past two decades or more.

Two years ago the Church of England embarked on a process to try to help this debate reach some points of resolution.

Having said this, the Church of England has always been a broad church, hospitable to contested traditions and perspectives.

The Church embarked on this recognising that agreement may not be possible, but that staying in conversation was crucial.

The process the Church embarked on, called Shared Conversations, has involved more than 1,000 people around the country gathering to listen to one another over a period of a few days speak about their faith and their thoughts and experiences in relation to homosexuality.

The conversations have been conducted in a framework of confidentiality, allowing people to be honest with one another, and to grow in trust.

The participants have come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and, crucially, sexual orientation.

A diverse group of 20 clergy and lay people from Suffolk have participated in these and have found them very powerful experiences.

This process has intentionally laid the groundwork for an on-going process of conversation, debate and movement, and not to achieve a ‘definitive’ answer.

This will seem far to slow for some, and will have gone far too far already for others.

But what is encouraging to me, as frustrating as it may be, is that we are walking this path together, the whole variety of humanity that makes up our churches.

We are holding on to our differences, but holding on to one another.

When we think about the flourishing of individuals and of society, holding on to differences and one another is a gift that our society desperately needs.

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