Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Here I reproduce a reflection following the TEC HoB theological reports on same sex relationships. It's by George Clifford. What do you think?

"The report, “Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church,” commissioned by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops and published this Lent merits widespread study within both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion (unless otherwise noted, page numbers refer to this document). The report avoided an overly facile effort to reconcile the diametrically opposed positions about whether the Church should bless same-sex marriages. Instead, the Committee recruited a panel of four Christian ethicists to delineate the arguments against same-sex marriage and another panel of four Christian ethicists the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, and then each panel responded to the contrary position.

The view with which I profoundly disagree, that against recognizing same-sex marriage (“Same-Sex Marriage and Anglican Theology: A View from the Traditionalists,” pp. 1-39), prompted some fresh reflections about natural law. The traditionalists correctly contend that natural law (as heretofore understood) supports heterosexual but not same-sex marriage. The panel does not inquire whether the received interpretation of natural law might be wrong. Had the panel done so, its members might have altered their views.

Natural law claims to identify principles or “laws” that govern the natural world. Pre-Enlightenment “scientists” often defined those laws based upon a priori arguments or scriptural interpretation rather than the scientific method (determining the validity of a hypothesis by measuring its predictive power). The Enlightenment heralded a new and enduring reliance on the scientific method, triggering a succession of clashes between conflicting understandings of natural processes. The sixteenth century dispute between proponents of a geo-centric and helio-centric solar system was one such clash.

In the twenty-first century, “discerning the sexual pattern in creation” (p. 22) probably demarcates another pending clash. As the traditionalists note in their report, the natural law tradition has until now argued, in species with two genders, that heterosexual relationships and reproduction are normative (pp. 31-33).

Although scientific data remains inconclusive in the estimation of the traditionalists (p. 25), the weight of accumulating data points increasingly toward proving the assessment of heterosexual relationships and reproduction as normative wrong. Nature exhibits incredible diversity and contending that any one pattern of sexual behavior is normative has become very problematic. That natural diversity has become more apparent as researchers greatly improve the accuracy of their observations, vastly expand the quantity of observations, and compile an every growing, ever more fully nuanced body of evidence based theory.

The following seem relevant to any discussion of natural law and human relationships:
• All life forms appear to have evolved from a common source.
• Patterns of behavior in other life forms, especially in primates may therefore shed light on human behavior.
• Some animal species, including chimps with whom humans share 96% of their genome, exhibit diverse mating patterns, i.e., both opposite and same-sex.
• Some of these relationships, both opposite and same-sex, are monogamous and last for years.
• Reproductive patterns among species with two sexes also vary widely, e.g., species in which some females morph into males, a species in which male fish mate by biting a female’s back and then being permanently absorbed into the female to ensure a ready supply of sperm, etc.
• Some same-sex non-human animal couples rear offspring.
In other words, the implicit presumption of natural law as traditionally formulated that only heterosexual couples mate, procreate, and nurture children is wrong. (For a highly readable synopsis of current research on gay animals, cf. Jon Mooallem, “Can Animals Be Gay?” New York Times, April 3, 2010.)

The traditionalists candidly remark (p. 16) that attempting to learn what the Bible says about same-sex relationships “involves looking to it for answers to questions it does not pose, at least not in the form we want to ask them. The notion of same-sex marriage did not exist in Scripture or in its contemporary contexts.” The Anglican tradition only maintains that the Bible is the repository of all information necessary for salvation and not all important or even useful information (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 513, 526).

In the absence of biblical answers to our questions, we have no choice but to search for other approaches to find answers to our questions. One of those approaches may be natural law, which, as outlined above, offers a far more complex and nuanced picture of relationships and reproduction than the historic formulation of natural law presumes. (I have admittedly formulated that picture to support my views as strongly as possible but the actual picture does not cohere to the historic view of natural law and is complex.) Another approach relies not on specific passages but broad biblical themes to extract from them a tentative answer. The Liberals utilized this method in “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals” (pp. 40-69).

Within the Christian tradition, views about marriage have evolved as Christians faithfully sought to interpret Scripture in the light of both tradition and reason. For example, Christian thinking about marriage shifted from marry if you must to avoid sin (expecting an imminent parousia, celibacy is better), to sex is only for the purpose of procreation, to marriage is for the community’s benefit, the mutual well-being of both partners, and the procreation and nurture of children.

My reading of the traditionalist position in the report is that this last issue – procreation of children – constitutes the major obstacle to accepting gay unions as marriage. Obviously, the traditionalists interpose other objections to the idea of same-sex relationships, such as natural law and their understanding of what the Bible teaches. The traditionalists do not seem to question the mutual well-being that a same-sex relationship may provide the two partners. The value to the community of same-sex relationships is largely a function of the degree to which that community accepts or rejects such relationships.

People today can procreate a child through intercourse, in utero artificial insemination, or in vitro fertilization with subsequent embryo implant in either one of the partner’s wombs or a surrogate’s womb. Perhaps can also “procreate” by adopting a child(ren). Most of theological and ethical thinking is woefully inadequate with respect to procreation in the twenty-first century, cf. Ellen Painter Dollar’s three part essay, “Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics,” Daily Episcopalian, March 9, 2010. If nothing else, available procreation options offer all couples, regardless of their gender composition, the option of having children. Even as improved insights into how the world functions call for an updated natural theology, so do scientific advances that expand the options for procreation call for Christians to rethink associated theological and ethical concepts.

Neither the release of “Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church” nor the upcoming consecration of the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool as Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese Los Angeles has led to a cataclysmic outpouring of wailing, gnashing of teeth, and consternation among most Episcopalians. Easter is dawning! In the meantime, thanks be to God that dialogue continues, at least some of the discourse exhibits Christian respect for the dignity and worth of those who disagree, and the Episcopal Church in good Anglican fashion continues to incorporate diverse viewpoints.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings."

I think this is nuts. The normative pattern in creation for reproduction, as exemplified by vast numbers of people, is man+woman*sex=child. Possibilities otherwise are available. Does anyone know anyone who has resorted to them save in the sorrow of man+woman*sex=child not being possible? Statements like this, "Nature exhibits incredible diversity and contending that any one pattern of sexual behavior is normative has become very problematic." means what? That all sorts of variations take place within humanity all the time? Not in my world. That world is heteronormative. And it is resolutely so. There are exceptions. But they are rare, and certainly not normative. But I do understand one thing about these kinds of views: they have a hold on a lot of people and they drive a lot of Western society's movers and shakers. Well, let's see where this world-view takes us. But one place I guarantee it will not take us to is this: a healthy, growing Western population.


  1. Nuts is it then, Peter? Before you get too settled in that opinion about Clifford's article, tell us you have read the NYT piece he cites. I did, when it appeared a couple of weeks ago, and found it most enlightening!

    One of the key ideas it supports is the reproductive function of same-sex relationships from population perspective. One recurring pattern in nature, it would seem, is that child-rearing by a minority of same-sex couples provides a reproductive advantage to a population and is therefore genetically selected. Think of it as the available aunties and babysitters pattern if you will. It has sent me thinking about the communal aspect of human homosexuality and the importance of this aspect of our reading of scripture.

    I will be interested in your further response after reading the NYT article for yourself.

  2. Hi Howard,
    Its not nuts to observe that there are varied patterns out there in humanity and in the animal kingdom; nor is it nuts to note that in some human and in some animal communities, same sex couples or individual homosexual creatures contribute to the rearing of offspring.

    It is nuts for a Christian theologian to blithely take such observations, along with possibilities involving test tubes and promote the idea that one sexuality is as good as another in respect of benefit to the world. We have animal and human communities to observe because hetero-normativity has prevailed according to biblical mandate: be fruitful and multiply! But also nuts is the presumption on Clifford's part that the driving idea in determining sexual morality is 'nature' rather than 'revelation': through Scripture we learn to constrain our sexual appetites; that adultery is wrong; that polygamy, at best, is a temporary toleration; and so forth. By all means develop a sexual ethic from nature. But please do not call it a Christian ethic.

  3. Thanks for your response, Peter. I wonder if you can really sustain a complete disjunction between scripture and nature when developing a sexual ethic. One of the central texts bearing on homosexuality, in Romans 1, appeals to an established concept of what is "against nature" in sexual behaviour, so Paul doesn't seem to follow your disjunction altogether.

    The issue for me is not whether homosexuality should be seen as normative, but whether it can be accepted as normal. Sure, God designed the human race, and all other sexually reproducing species, so that most sexual bonding has to be heterosexual. The question is whether the existence of a minority group of homosexually bonded couples within a community can be seen as useful and allowable. You continue to argue that it cannot be useful - the NYT article might begin to persuade you otherwise. Whether or not that happens, if you are going to argue from the need to be fruitful and multiply, then you also have to be open to evidence about how that works in nature.
    But that would still leave the purely ethical dimension - even if a homosexual minority could be shown to be biologically useful within a human population, is it allowable in scriptural terms? One way of framing this is to ask whether the command to be fruitful and multiply is addressed to individuals or to the race as a whole. I would argue for the latter reading.
    At that point, what you term the "temporary tolerance" of deviant patterns within scripture comes more into view. As I have argued on your ADU blog today, we should differentiate between "normative" and "normal" when discussing marriage and hence sexuality. Does anyone really have to argue "that one sexuality is as good as another" in order to recognize that same-sex bonding can be good, and that a commitment to a life-long homosexual partnership can be a gift from God and hence worthy of the church's blessing? Maybe we could do with an extensive study of less than ideal situations in scripture that are nevertheless blessed by God. A study that might establish God's tolerance and grace as a basic hermeneutical principle, that is.

    Arohanui, Howard

  4. Hi Howard,

    Let me say first up that your response here is, to me, way more compelling, engaging and substantive than the Clifford opinion!

    (1) Yes, I thought of Romans 1 when I penned my response to you. There is a complex relationship between Scripture and nature in the developing of any ethic than I allowed in what I wrote. Nevertheless, you will be aware that 'nature' for Paul in Romans 1 is read as supportive of a Levitical ethic rather than not supportive. More thinking to be done!!

    (2) Is not the overall goal of this kind of hermeneutical exercise both the thorough examination of Scripture re matters of human dignity AND the search for arguments which are compelling not only to those open to such arguments, but to the whole church? To that end we need to frame things better than (at least) I often find these things framed. So, for me, I find it more helpful to think about 'an extensive study of less than ideal situations in scripture that are nevertheless blessed by God' than (say) pursuit of reasons not to think the six or seven texts against homosexuality still apply. The latter always has an air of proving that black is white and down is up. Your suggestion (I suggest) can be read as acknowledging that black is black and down is down ('ideal situations') and then seeking what pastoral pragmatics might apply to the reality of the world as we find it.

  5. Peter, I must admit that dealing with those crucial six or seven texts sometimes leaves me feeling that I have to prove black is white or up is down. But then I take heart by considering that what we have taken to be black might be better described as dark gray, and some of what has been represented as white proves to be less that squeeky clean on closer examination. As for up and down, you should check out Lindsay Wright's article in the latest North and South mag... :)

    As you say, we all have plenty of thinking do.

  6. "Less than ideal situations" for organizing human life would include slavery and polygamy. Slavery provides minimal food and shelter (sometimes more) for people who might otherwise starve, while polygamy can provide homes and progeny for poor women, while meeting the needs of over-sexed men.
    It can also be demonstrated, at least from the Old Testament, than many men of God practiced both slavery and polygamy without explicit censure. So you could argue these have been "blessed by God".
    Further, both the OT and the NT don't seem to have any problem with the death penalty.
    But you'll have a hard job convincing me that our Lord Jesus Christ would have endorsed slavery or polygamy.
    To some extent, "normal" is a statistical category. Ephebophilia (older man-teenage boy/adolescent man - the "eromenos" - sexual love) was apparently quite common in classical Athens and highly praised. What should be conclude from this fact?

  7. I am always intrigued, Outis, by the 'less than ideal situation' of the Samaritan woman of John 4. She has had many husbands and now lives with a man not her husband. Jesus then says nothing further about this situation. I would not build a new ethic about marriage from this chapter but wonder if it gives reason to think that some pastoral pragmatics can apply to some situations. One of those situations in the life of the present church is the remarriage of divorcees which is not encouraged in Scripture on the scale we are confronted with as a reality in our congregations. Another is stable faithful same sex partnerships. We have been pragmatic about the former, should we be about the latter?

  8. Yes, I've often wondered about that one and don't know what to make of our lack of knowledge of the outcome. What if he had said: 'Leave him and follow me'? Or alternately: 'Get married'? Do you think he wanted her to continue co-habiting? Reading it all together, I don't think Scripture 'tout simple' prohibits remarriage after divorce, but that is rather different from endorsing modern (or ancient) mores. Pragmatism and principle should not be opposed to each other; instead, practice should be based on principle. Would you baptize the child of an unmarried couple? or of a lesbian couple (a case in England I read about on the internet recently)? It's a lose-lose situation.
    I know people who would give totally different answers to these situations, depending on their theology of mission or baptism.
    Remarriage of divorcees doesn't change the doctrine of marriage. Same sex partnerships do. But noone should say any of this without thinking seriously and compassionately about the loneliness, isolation and other problems that Christians with same-sex attraction face. How is God best glorified in our lives?

  9. "Remarriage of divorcees doesn't change the doctrine of marriage. Same sex partnerships do." I have to disagree with you here, Outis. Most conservative definitions of marriage affirm that it must be a life-long union of one man and one woman, and that doctrine is well represented on Peter's blogs. So from that viewpoint, both of these situations change the doctrine of marriage. What you have to explain is why you think otherwise. What is it about your doctrine that makes gender difference essential but life-long commitment optional? Tread carefully here, or you might find yourself in the same camp (no pun intended) as me!

  10. Hello, Howard - I am sure you know that the Orthodox Churches (in distinction to Western Catholicism, the alma mater of Anglicanism) have always accepted the possibility of divorce as breaking a marriage and allowing the possiblity of remarriage. Western Catholicism (I think from the time of Ambrosiaster) developed the concept of 'impossibilism', holding that marriage constituted an ontological union (akin to siblings) that could be broken only by death. In such a case divorce - or rather, the precipitating cause - is serious sin, such as desertion, infidelity or cruelty. Divorce is then dealing with the sin ex post facto.
    Divorce is of course countenanced in the OT. David Instone-Brewer's writings are very helpful here.