“Hearing Diverse Voices, Seeking Common Ground”
The National Study Program on Homosexuality: A Critique by George R. Eves
[NB. This is included here from my book Two Religions/One Church with only a few minor editorial changes from the original edition of 1998. While the Study with which it is concerned now seems like ancient history it serves as a perfect illustration of the liberal method of moving its agenda forward in the Church. It is a cautionary tale well worth considering for the future.]
It is not as if the Church hasn’t done anything about the issue of homosexuality in the Church. It comes with a history. Part of that history is the Study Program it provided for use in parishes. There are a number of excellent reasons for giving it our careful consideration here. For one thing it is obviously the chosen vessel to guide the discussion of this issue in the Anglican Church of Canada. For another, it represents an almost perfect example of the decidedly liberal bias which has marked most of the official efforts of the Church for many years.
It is a classic case of a sincere attempt to be inclusive which actually ends up excluding and demoralizing those who do not share liberal assumptions.
Until very recently the shared teaching of the Anglican Church of Canada on the subject of homosexuality was that of the whole Christian church throughout its history: the practice is a sin. In 1979 the bishops issued “guidelines” which held that persons of homosexual orientation could be ordained but had to promise that they would not engage in sexual practice (just like any non-married person).
Some saw this as the beginning of a change in position because it did not require the homosexual person to acknowledge that such practice was, in fact, sinful. Be that as it may, the statement was based on the helpful distinction between “orientation” and “practice”. This statement was re-affirmed in 1991, while in that same year the Human Rights Unit of the National Church produced the resource, “Our Stories, Your Story” in an attempt to enable the whole church to hear the voices of gay and lesbian people. The General Synod of 1992 called for a study of homosexuality and for a report to be submitted to the 1995 General Synod. Eventually a Task Force on Homosexuality and Homosexual Relationships was formed, meeting for the first time in the fall of 1993.
The Task Force reviewed various resource materials but decided to design its own program in order to focus on the Canadian Anglican scene, not neglecting to incorporate anything found useful from other sources. Originally the plan called for parishes and other groups to go through the program and provide feedback to the Task Force by the end of 1994 so that an appropriate report might be made to General Synod the following June. However, as is often the case, delays were encountered, and it wasn’t until October 1994 that the Task Force issued its six-week Study Program entitled Hearing Diverse Voices, Seeking Common Ground, comprised mainly of a booklet and an accompanying video. Diocesan bishops were asked to make this available to parishes and other groups within the Church so that feedback could be sent to the Task Force by the end of April 1995.
The Study: Hearing Diverse Voices, Seeking Common Ground
Introduction: A Narrow-Minded Question
The following analysis is an attempt to answer the single question: “Why is this Study Program deficient from a traditional/orthodox point of view?”. The purpose is not merely to illustrate its failures but to zero in on how it impacts on that part of the Church which does not share the assumptions of those who put it together. What I have to say is not to be taken as implying there was no good at all in the Study. A fuller investigation would provide a more balanced picture, but it would not, I believe, necessitate any serious revision of my basic contention that the Study is critically flawed in both process and content.
The Process: Going Our Way?
Common Ground is Holy Ground
The basic problem here is revealed in the title of the study. In the past, when the Church was seeking guidance regarding any particular issue it went to the Scriptures and prayerfully examined them in the light of tradition and reason. This was because the Scriptures have been regarded as the Word of God and the way in which he has revealed himself and his will for humanity.
The assumption that seems to be guiding this Study, on the other hand, is that God’s direction will be discovered by listening to one another as members of the Church and coming to some kind of consensus. The Church is elevated to the role of bearing the ongoing revelation while the Bible is relegated to being one of the resources which are called upon in the process. The Chairwoman of the Task Force expressed the hope that the Study would be used by many who would then “…add their voices to help discern ‘the mind of the church.'” (p.5) For her, and for many, it is the latter which seems to be of final importance. Such a view seems to assume that once we have achieved consensus we have arrived at the will of God.
Church Over Scripture: A Great Leap Forward?
For those of traditional/orthodox persuasion this only means that we have a consensus. Although consensus is a worthy goal it is not to be confused with the will of God. The measure of truth lies first of all in the Bible. If it does not speak clearly then it is necessary, for the sake of institutional life, to seek consensus. In this case, again from the traditional/orthodox perspective, some of us have chosen to set aside the clear teaching of Scripture in favour of finding a consensus. This elevates the Church above Scripture and is a breathtaking departure from our tradition. The acceptance of such a process signals a significant moment in the development of our self-understanding as a Church and sets us on a course untried and undebated.
No Debate Please, We’re Inclusive
But debate is not on the agenda anymore. Today the word is “dialogue”. This brings us to another objection to the process set out in this Study: its radical commitment to inclusivity. This is so thorough that it makes virtually impossible any serious interaction between persons with varying points of view. It is only permissible, apparently, to state one’s position. These opinions are simply given to us as alternatives, but we are given no tools or means by which to assess them, to weigh them or to make any kind of judgment about them. This is especially evident in the chapters on Scripture, Ethics and Healing. The author of the first of these, the New Testament scholar Dr. Terry Donaldson, is quite explicit on this point. After an imaginative reading of Romans 1:26-7, in an attempt to listen to the voices of tradition and experience as a kind of dialogue, he says:
I do not try to play the role of adjudicator, prescribing which voices should be given precedence, or which arguments should be given more weight than others. This is a task for the church as a whole, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (p. 41)
This is a strange statement to make in a study which is prescribed in order to assist “the whole church” to sort out this complex issue. We are effectively denied Dr. Donaldson’s considered opinion regarding the only section of Scripture with which he does deal. Surely, as ordinary Anglicans we need his help and we also need to hear from other scholars in rebuttal so that we can weigh the relevant arguments. As it is we are left in thin air.
The same is true of the Study’s subsequent chapter which looks at the other major Bible passages which refer to (or some have taken to refer to) homosexuality. The Study is clearly not designed so much as to help us to sort out the truth as to expose us to a variety of viewpoints, all of which are to be accepted and respected simply because they are held by bona fide members of the Church.
While there are many excellent suggestions for small group discussion, they include an attempt to avoid conflict by discouraging forms of “dialogue” which suggest someone is right or wrong (p. 12). The implication is that one has to accept all the points of view that exist in the Church as valid in order to be respectful and open to one another. Is it still necessary to point out that this is precisely the method of theological liberalism? It has no real way of making judging between one experience and another, so all are acceptable. Except one. That will come out clearly as we continue our look at this Study.
It’s Not a Multiple-Choice Question
Those who prepared this study have already decided that it is improper even to suggest that the homosexual “lifestyle” is not Christian. We are told, for instance, that one of the purposes of the study is to “…elicit the wisdom of our church to enable it to make informed and responsible decisions which will further include lesbian and gay people in the life of our community.” (p. 6)
In Session Five, under the title “Exploring Our Call to be One in Christ”, we find the following purpose for that section:
Despite the many different thoughts and feelings about homosexuality and homosexual relationships, lesbian and gay Christians are our sisters and brothers in Christ. We need to recognize those ways in which we exclude them from our community and identify ways to become more inviting and inclusive. (p. 75, my emphasis)
Now it would seem to many that the whole reason for the Study is to help us determine whether or not we should be more inclusive. It seems odd, to say the least, that this issue has already been decided by the authors of this study. In a truly open-ended study we would expect that, after the Church has had a chance to examine this issue thoroughly, the proper decision might be to support the status quo or even to exclude homosexuals more than we do already (not that I would at all support such a view). But these authors seem not to regard these options as possibilities at all. In fact, they go out of their way to try to open the door further to homosexuals and homosexual relationships within the Church.
In their view, apparently, the fact that practicing homosexuals are in the Church means that their voice is authentically Christian. Of course, their voice, and every voice, must be heard. But is it wise to present them as if they were all on a par with one another? The impression given is that all are to be accepted and that it is improper to pass judgement on any. This surely raises the question of the point of the exercise. The issue seems to be decided even before we start.
One final point. Given the shape of the process already described, it is plain to see that it fits hand in glove with the liberal religion’s agenda. We have already seen how liberals come to many of their convictions based on their own experience. If they experience Muslims as decent human beings they then conclude, against Scripture and tradition, that Muslims have no need of coming to Christ.
It is therefore only natural for them to think that the way to advance the cause of homosexuals is to have as many Church members as possible experience them in a positive light. While the Study may not have been designed with this goal explicitly in view, the way it exposes participants to homosexuals and their views lends itself well to such a purpose. In this sense it is difficult to imagine a better tool for the advancement of liberal opinion.
Conclusion: More Help Wanted
It is very difficult to escape the impression that this Study is designed more to gain acceptance for the practicing homosexual, than to help us sort out the truth. It offers little to help the Church make the necessary judgements about the various opinions that are expressed. If all voices are to be heard and accepted as equally valid, on what possible basis could any be rejected? Thus, the point of the exercise is not to weigh the various options but to accept the inclusivist assumptions so boldly stated by the designers of the Study. For many of us such an approach is woefully inadequate. We need more help than this. We could accept adulterers or child molesters on the similar grounds. Or even evangelicals!
The Content: Disturbing Questions
The impression of bias gained through a look at the Study’s process is powerfully reinforced when we examine its substance. The material in the chapters dealing with ethics and science are especially questionable.
As to the first of these, those Christians who, when deciding what to do in a particular situation, first ask “Is this action right, is it in accordance with the rules?”, are characterized as having a “duty” ethic and following a God who is primarily an authoritative law-giver. When confronted with the question of homosexuality they “look for a Biblical command”, as Tom Mabey, the author of this part of the Study (pp. 53-5) puts it. This is clearly a reference to traditional/orthodox ethics.
In contrast we are introduced to “interactive ethics” which asks, “Is this course of action responsible? Is it a constructive response to the relationships and environment?” This approach is what others have called “situational ethics” and is characteristic of what I have called the liberal position. Mabey tells us that in this system, “Actions reflect authentic meaning in relationships and contribute to ongoing development of mature relationships.” God is viewed as an “interactor through ongoing covenants.” In responding to homosexuality this approach seeks for “responsible and mature relationship” as the primary goal.
Besides missing altogether the essence of biblical ethics (as the dynamic expression of the new life of Christ in the believer under the direction of Scripture and the indwelling Holy Spirit, cf. J. I. Packer, Keep In Step With the Spirit, 1984, esp. pp. 108 ff.), the language that Mabey employs is self-evidently prejudicial. It is clearly designed to cast “duty” ethics in a bad light compared with the “constructive responses” called for by “interactive” ethics.
This kind of presentation is only another way of excluding. Dr. Mabey’s distortion of New Testament ethics and his less than subtle use of preferential language leave no doubt as to which system we should adopt. There is no real argument given for this superiority. It would have been much wiser to have a proponent of each ethical system make a vigorous presentation and allow us to weigh one against the other. Naturally this would require more work and time. Do we deserve less?
The predisposition towards the liberal view is even less subtle in the chapter entitled “What Science is Saying” (pp. 30-2). Here, at least, one would expect a fair and balanced outline of the scientific information available about homosexuality so that Anglicans might be able to base their decision on the facts. Instead, one finds a piece of work which seems more designed to obscure than to enlighten.
When referring to the long-established evidence that homosexuality is related to certain patterns within their families, the author, Dr. Donald Meen, says, “…systematic study has shown no family characteristic which appears only in their families, and never in the families of heterosexuals.” (my italics). Of course, this is a true statement, but it is irrelevant and extremely misleading. No scientific study could possibly provide this kind of absolute conclusion. In this area science can only provide us with patterns and probabilities. Dr. Meen seems to want to avoid any suggestion that environment has something to do with the formation of the homosexual.
This same “avoidance syndrome” is evident in his oblique reference to gay promiscuity: “It does appear that more gay couples choose to have relationships which are not sexually exclusive (“monogamous”) than lesbian or heterosexual couples do.” The fuller truth is that gay males are notoriously promiscuous, with one study showing, for example, that 83 per cent of them have had sexual relations with 50 or more partners in their lifetimes and that 28 per cent have had a thousand or more homosexual partners! (quoted in A Wholesome Example: Sexual Morality and the Episcopal Church, Robert. W. Prichard, ed., 1992, p. 81-2) Surely the Church should be fully aware of these matters if it is going to open the door to any acceptance of homosexual practice.
The rest of Dr. Meen’s article gives scant attention to the wide variety of “scientific” debates that rage over this territory. Instead of letting us judge for ourselves he has plotted our route for us and its destination is clear. It comes as no surprise to learn that he himself is a homosexual gay rights activist. Although the Church certainly needs to hear from Dr. Meen (and the other authors in this study), what they say needs to be set against a more balanced presentation so that we can wrestle with reality as much as possible in this very controversial and complex matter. We need to know what is at stake.
Is This the Question?
Even the question we are being asked to answer has not been clearly articulated. Is the Church being asked simply to endorse homosexual practice itself or rather to endorse it only within the limits of a lifelong commitment to a monogamous relationship? If it is the latter then we would expect its advocates to be clearly and loudly asserting that homosexual relations outside such a “union” are just as unacceptable (i.e., sinful) as adultery. This would also mean, if the figures quoted above are close to the truth, that more than 83 per cent of male homosexuals would still be excluded by the Church. However, since there have been no such assertions and since the debate so far has focused on a blanket inclusivity (as in this Study), one is forced to assume that the Church is being asked to accept homosexual practice per se and this would include the acceptance of a level of promiscuity beyond the imagination of most members.
Will the homosexual lobby within the Church never be satisfied until there is full acceptance of all homosexual sexual activity? One gets the distinct impression that they are prepared to talk about faithful monogamous relationships only as an interim step toward that goal. Until we know precisely the implications of what we are being asked to approve, we had better proceed with extreme caution.
The Results: No End in Sight
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, the Study was issued in the fall of 1994 and the Task Force was able to report to the 1995 General Synod that more than 2500 people had participated in the program. Not all dioceses took part in the program or were represented in the feedback. Many people, though, did submit responses and the Task Force “…worked to give focus to their voices.” (General Synod 1995 Report, p. 9) A variety of viewpoints found expression just as they did the discussion which followed on the Synod floor. In response to all this the Synod:
AGREED to affirm the presence and contributions of gay men and lesbians in the life of the church and to condemn bigotry, violence and hatred directed toward any due to their sexual orientation.
AGREED to encourage parishes and dioceses to continue, deepen, extend and adapt the learning, reflection and dialogue identified by the Task Force on Homosexuality and Homosexual Relationships…to encourage parishes and dioceses to (ongoing dialogue on a number of issues identified by the Task Force) and to request the Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee (of General Synod] to make provision to ensure that this process continues at the parish and diocesan levels and that a report be made at the next General Synod.
AGREED to request that the Primate continue to encourage dialogue on “homosexuality and homosexual relationships” throughout the church.
AGREED to request the House of Bishops to indicate whether it is currently reviewing or intends to review its 1979 Statement and Guidelines on Human Sexuality. (General Synod 1995 Report, p. 9)
In passing these resolutions General Synod has expressed its continuing openness to changing the Church’s teaching in this area.
The issue of same-sex unions, along with that of the ordination of practicing homosexuals, are the two main ways in which this whole question presents itself in the life of the Church. They are, of course, two sides of the same coin. If same-sex unions are blessed then what is to bar a person in such a relationship from ordination? Similarly, if someone who is a practicing homosexual is permitted to be ordained, presumably the relationship they are in is blessed by the Church. While the House of Bishops have recently reaffirmed their current intention not to move on these items, they did so in a way that strongly indicates an openness to change much like that expressed in the above resolutions. It was certainly not the drawing of a line in the sand. In any event, great pressure will continue to bear on the next Synod and its successors to cross that line.
Conclusion: Give Every Voice a Voice
Given the lack of clarity surrounding this issue, the potential for serious division and the enormous implications for our whole system of sexual morality, it would seem to be of utmost importance that we proceed very carefully and thoroughly. While Hearing Diverse Voices, Seeking Common Ground can serve as a part of that process it fails to give adequate voice to the traditional/orthodox positions and arguments.
If the Church is truly serious about hearing all the voices, then each must be invited to speak for itself in its own way. Every position, if it is truly to be respected and not merely patronized, deserves the right to put its best case forward. We must also find a way to honestly and respectfully debate these matters, not just present them in a “some say this, some say that” format. How else can the membership of the Church possibly weigh the evidence, the arguments and the responses to those arguments? This is a very complex issue and it deserves our best effort. Much depends on it.
At the very least the Study Program should include, in the interest of fairness and balance, other mandatory reading which gives voice to other ways, other perspectives (I would strongly recommend A Wholesome Example: Sexual Morality and the Episcopal Church, Robert W. Prichard, ed., 1992). No doubt many will disagree with this assessment and insist that this Study is the only one we need. To you I simply say that is your voice and not mine. Nor that of many others in our Church. Please let us speak. If we feel excluded by this Study and by other actions of the National Church, take our word for it. That is what real listening is all about.