The distinction between orientation and behaviour seems to have become the mantra of the moment amongst conservatives. Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream repeated it endlessly in his attack on Changing Attitude when interviewed for the Radio 4 Sunday programme two days ago, and Peter Ould cites it again and again in his blogs, most recently on May 28th while writing about the shenanigans brought to light in Colin Slee’s posthumously revealed memo about how Jeffrey John’s nomination to the episcopate was blocked. They present it as if it were a simple and straightforward guarantee of purity and holiness (the orientation is neutral, only the behaviour is sinful). But it is no such thing. And it is far from simple and straightforward. As the current pope, Joseph Ratzinger, realised in his famous 1986 statement on ‘homosexual persons’ while he was the Chief Holy Inquisitor for the Vatican, the orientation is not neutral; it is in itself an intrinsic tendency to evil.
An orientation is a drive deep in an individual’s personality which leads them to find one sex or the other delightful, exciting, alluring, and carnally desirable. Merely to be aware of one’s orientation is to be already launched into the sphere of action, even if only mentally in fantasy and pleasurable anticipation. It is already to have ‘sinned’. Our Lord tells us merely to look is already to have done the deed in our heart. And in our heart of hearts, if we are honest, we all know this is true.
There are only two orientations: heterosexual and homosexual.
Incest is not an orientation. Heterosexual and homosexual people may fall in love with and/or have inappropriate sex with relatives of the gender to which they are oriented.
Paedophilia is not an orientation. Paedophilic crimes are committed by heterosexually and homosexually oriented people.
An orientation involves erotic excitement at the thought of intimacy with one sex and a disinterest in, recoiling from, or revulsion at the idea of intimacy with the other sex. Incest, paedophilia, bestiality, promiscuity, adultery, polyamoury are NOT orientations. They are acts committed for a diverse array of motives by people with either a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation.
The distinction between orientation and behaviour offers no get out of jail free card. If you think homosexuality is a sin this necessarily includes both behaviour and orientation.
And making this distinction is dangerous. It leads to two particularly damaging scenarios.
In the first scenario gay men are told that if they cannot be celibate they must marry a woman. Over the centuries millions of catastrophically unhappy marriages of this kind have been contracted. In practice this means the heterosexual woman, who will be interested in and excited by her husband’s body finds herself in bed with a man who has no sexual interest in her body whatsoever and who, if he is able, achieves the necessary physical act only by homosexual fantasising, i.e by pretending that she is somebody else. St Paul teaches us that both husbands and wives have every right to expect conjugal satisfaction in marriage, and this is certainly no recipe for that for either party. To label this situation ‘the purity of the marital bed’, as Peter Ould does in his May 28th blog, is really a monstrous travesty. It is anything but. Having in my lifetime witnessed several times the pain and devastation caused to wives and children by the eventual collapse of such marriages I think it arguable that this ‘exchanging of the truth for a lie’ is a far greater human sin than any sexual peccadillo.
The second scenario is where gay men, in this case priests and bishops, live in one to one partnership but are forbidden by church discipline from sexual ‘behaviour’. Yet the object of their sexual desire is constantly present. They will be continually frustrated and they will have lustful thoughts. They will have sinned, and their situation is absolutely not conducive to any kind of free human flourishing and fulfilment.
In the end the church will have to come to terms with the reality that a significant minority of God’s children will always be involuntarily gay, and that the proper Christian response is to support them in pursuing love and happiness in morally responsible ways. Conservatives who cannot accept this need to be honest and not hide behind a spurious, and in practice cruel, distinction. Peter Ould is quite right to say that ‘the Church of England needs to have an honest an open discussion about sexual practice and ethics and come to a clear resolution on the issue’. Bring it on!