Many people are put off Christianity by its apparent obsession with policing other people's sex lives.

As often happens, moral attitudes in society change more quickly than the views of church leaders. The church then comes to seem old-fashioned. Many people can remember, before the debate about same-sex partnerships, equally intense debates about whether Christians should permit the remarriage of divorcees or the use of contraception.

Negative attitutes to sexuality have been known among Christians since the earliest days. The first indication is Paul's remark in 1 Corinthians 7:1 'Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: it is well for a man not to touch a woman.' As the original manuscripts do not contain punctuation marks, we cannot be sure that the second half of the sentence is Paul's quotation of what the Corinthian Christians believed, rather than his own belief; but in either case it provides evidence of a negative attitude to all sexual activity. The New Testament texts which mention same-sex activity only do so in lists of sins to be avoided;  it is not picked out as specially wicked.

By the fourth century the tradition had developed of believing all sexual activity immoral, so Jerome could declare that 'Marriage populates the world; virginity populates heaven'. Throughout the Middle Ages the dominant view was that monks and nuns, by being celibate, were better Christians than the married. Although gay sex was forbidden church leaders paid far more attention to married couples, forbidding all sex acts designed to avoid pregnancy or performed on Wednesdays, Fridays and other special days.

One of the distinctive events of the Reformation was Luther's encouraging monks and nuns to abandon their vows of celibacy and marry. The strongest argument in Luther's favour was that if everyone was celibate there would be no children. This argument set the scene for subsequent arguments that sexual activity was only justified for procreation.

During the twentieth century church leaders slowly accepted a more positive attitude to sexuality, whether or not children were wanted. However the Roman Catholic Church forbade the use of contraception in the 1967 Encyclical Humanae Vitae,  and that remains its official position today. Around the same time most Protestants came to accept it as morally permissible.

Throughout most of its history Christianity has put a lot of effort into debating sexual ethics. However, before the last 20 years same-sex activity has never been treated as an important issue, let alone serious enough to cause schism.


Many Anglicans, probably most, are suspicious of the campaigning, whether or not they approve of homosexuality.

Some find it disturbing that Christians seem so obsessed with sexual ethics. When we ask the campaigners why they are so determined to treat it as a matter for schism, we get two answers. The first is that it is contrary to scripture: that is, there are texts in the Bible which condemn it. The second is that the Church has formally declared homosexuality immoral and that therefore if you think it isn't, you can't be an Anglican.

One of the astonishing features of this controversy is that all the threats of schism, the consecrations of rival bishops, and the Anglican Covenant proposals, boil down to just these two arguments. If you come across any other arguments, please let us know.

Liberals are unconvinced on three counts:


It was the Windsor Report which first proposed an Anglican Covenant, in response to two controversial events in 2003: the provision of a blessing service for same-sex partnerships by the Diocese of New Westminster, Canada, and the election of a partnered gay priest, Gene Robinson, to the post of Bishop of New Hampshire.

The idea of such a Covenant was therefore the brainchild of those who not only disapproved of same-sex partnerships, but also considered threats of schism justifiable. Today Covenant supporters still frequently refer to the North American actions as the cause of these threats, thus revealing that the desire for the Covenant is still being driven by hostility to same-sex partnerships. So, for example, writes Alyson Barnett-Cowan. There is abundant evidence that many Covenant supporters are looking forward to lodging formal objections to the churches of the USA and Canada.

Nevertheless the Covenant itself does not mention sexuality issues. If it comes into force the procedure it offers to those objecting to same-sex partnerships would be equally available to others: perhaps opponents of evolution or interfaith dialogue will appeal to the Standing Committee to establish a 'resolution' in their favour. We can only guess at the future issues.

Savitri Hensman has written an 82-page document on the Covenant from the perspective of gay and lesbian Anglicans.

Other pages on this website:


Yes - and many hundreds of other things as well, some of which you probably do every day.

In some circles there is a lot of rhetoric about Christians being obliged to obey the commands in the Bible, but nobody obeys all of them. There are so many that precious few people know what they all are. In practice, what happens is that the people who claim to be loyal to the Bible's teaching just focus on a few commands and ignore the others. This is because some Protestant groups have inherited the contradictions in early Reformation theories of the Bible.

More on biblical interpretation

So: how do we decide which of the commands in the Bible we should obey today? The Bible doesn't give us guidelines for deciding. In practice Christians are guided both by tradition and by the insights of their own culture. We balance different authorities against each other.

Very few texts in the Bible even mention same-sex partnerships. They are as follows.

Genesis 19

Angels visit Lot at his home in Sodom. The locals call out to Lot 'Bring them out to us, that we may know them'. He thinks that would be dreadful, and invites them to rape his daughters instead.

The majority of Hebrew scholars think what is being condemned is gang rape of people with a particular social status as honoured guests. The text does not imply any more general condemnation of gay sex. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, where the word 'Sodomite' is used it just means someone who lives in Sodom.

This story has a parallel in Judges 19.

Leviticus

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination (18:22)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death (20:13).

These texts clearly condemn gay sex acts as 'abominations'. They are contained within the 'Holiness Code' which laid down laws specifically to distinguish Jews as a 'holy nation' from their neighbours. It forbids many other 'abominations' like eating certain kinds of animals, sowing a field with two kinds of seed and wearing clothes made up of more than one kind of material (19:19, 20:25).

Deuteronomy 23:17-18

This text condemns male-to-male cultic prostitution. A recent Church of England publication, Some Issues In Human Sexuality, argues that in the ancient near east cultic prostitution was the most culturally acceptable form of homosexuality (because it was the command of a god) and for the Old Testament to condemn it implies at least as much condemnation of other forms of homosexuality. Other ethicists argue the reverse: in the case of females, the Old Testament is more strongly opposed to cultic prostitution than to independent prostituion precisely because of the association with gods other than the god of Israel.

Romans 1:26-27

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27  and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

This is part of a long rhetorical passage by Paul, condemning other people in general terms for turning away from God's law - which he thinks pagans as well as Jews should have known. In this text he treats lesbian and gay sex as contrary to both the natural order and God's will. Many Jews of his time will have been equally disgusted by some of the practices of Romans and Greeks.

Today the evidence indicates that although same-sex activity is unnatural for most people, for some it is natural. Recent research indicates that this is true not only of humans, but also of animals, birds and even some fish.

1 Corinthians 6:9

In this text there is an issue about how to translate the relevant Greek words:

Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the relevant words 'male prostitutes' and 'sodomites'. Unfortunately it is impossible to establish exactly what Paul meant. The first is a common word with a wide range of meanings. The second is rare and vulgar, literally meaning 'man-bedder'. The Greek of his time had a much wider range of words for sexual acts than modern English has, and the acts being condemned may have been more specific than English terms like 'homosexuality' would imply. It is also possible that Paul did not intend to be precise in his condemnations.

Arsenokoitai are condemned again in 1 Timothy 1:10.

Summary

In the Bible gay and lesbian sex is rarely mentioned and is never a significant issue. Where it is mentioned it is condemned, but that is true of many hundreds of things we no longer condemn today.
If we want to know the reasons for the current emphasis on condemning it, we need to look at what is going on in society today, not at what the Bible says.