I am nearing the end of Part 2 of the Pilling Report, which has the general title ‘Summarizing the Evidence’, and the penultimate section is headed
Arguments about Scripture
At eight pages it is relatively short. Frustratingly, like much that precedes it in Part 2, it is hard to see why the contents have been included under ‘evidence’. This particular section reads more like a summary of the authors’ methodology.
It begins at paragraph 220, with a bold statement, followed by the usual disclaimer that views on these topics are polarised:
‘On two things concerning Scripture and sexuality, almost everyone is agreed: the Bible contains no positive depictions of, or statements about, sexual activity between people of the same sex, and Jesus himself is not recorded as mentioning the subject at all. But the significance of these two facts, and of other questions of scriptural interpretation on the subject, is deeply contested.’
Jesus’ silence on this matter is striking, but I would question whether the small number of texts that are thought to condemn sexual activity between people of the same-sex is the right place to begin this discussion about Scripture. That the Report does so follows from its reluctance to engage with the contemporary context, where people of the same sex have chosen to live in civil partnerships, and with the prospect of marriage drawing ever closer.
By eschewing what, for practical theology, would be the appropriate starting point, namely the love and commitment of the couple, the Report has focused on the secondary issue of sexual activity. This is a fundamental category error, and to some extent renders rather pointless the lengthy discussions of the ‘sexual’ biblical texts by the Bishop of Birkenhead and the Revd David Runcorn, which appear as appendices (and which I might at a later date, and if time permits, review on this site).
Runcorn approaches Scripture broadly, drawing attention to the significance of biblical concepts of ‘Covenant and Friendship’ (page 193) for same sex relationships, while Bishop Sinclair cites David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi, but only to question their relevance to this subject by claiming that ‘There is no example in Jewish first-century thought of the stories … giving hermeneutical tools for affirming same sex relationships among their pagan contemporaries.’ Both these narratives have become popular in gay, lesbian and queer theology, though, not because they are sexually explicit, but because of the beauty of the love between the two protagonists. In the case of David and Jonathan this love is almost classically ‘Platonic’ – a love ‘surpassing the love of women’; in other words a love that is spiritual and not ‘degraded’ by such earthly matters as copulation and childbirth. It’s a perspective that belongs to the ‘ancient’ context of the text, but what makes it attractive to couples today, like the loyalty of Ruth to Naomi – ‘where you will go, I will go’ – is the depth of fidelity and meaning in these examples of covenanted love.
We see this category error at work, alarmingly, at paragraph 233 which says
‘We have been alert to the problem of begging the question – arguing perhaps that, because God is against homosexuality all the Bible texts must be read that way, or that, because God is love, texts which appear to question the sexual expression of love by homosexual people must be mis-readings – but we have sought to dig deeper than this.’
But there is no Scriptural equivalence between a statement like ‘God is against homosexuality’ (which sounds uncomfortably like ‘God hates fags’) and the statement ‘God is love’ which has unequivocal biblical warrant. The Report shows no appreciation of the possible link between the Scriptural texts that are said to condemn homosexuality and the homophobia which it has tried to elucidate in an earlier section. Not for nothing are these passages referred to as ‘terror texts’: they have been used to strike fear into the hearts of LGBT people.
Basic principles concerning the use and abuse of the Bible are being missed here. The biblical texts that are said to relate to homosexuality are not merely matters for gentlemanly debate: lesbian and gay people’s lives and souls are at stake here and it is vitally important that these matters are clarified. There is also considerable imbalance in privileging the Sinclair and Runcorn papers – both men are Evangelicals – as the Report acknowledges. This is the reason given:
‘We include these two contributions, not because they sum up the whole range of scriptural scholarship on this subject – they emphatically do not – but because they epitomize the way in which study of the same sources can lead to very different conclusions.’
It’s a rather limited aim, though consistent with the ethos of polarisation that the working group is keen to insist is prevalent in the Church at large as well as in its midst. What is needed, though, at this point is precisely a wide range of evidence, especially gay, lesbian and queer theology, so that this case can be heard. The brief literature review, paragraphs 227-232, is woefully inadequate in this respect, and I would commend The Gay Gospels by my fellow Changing Attitude, England Trustee, Dr Keith Sharpe, for a comprehensive and succinct account of non-heterosexist readings of these passages.
Furthermore, we use frameworks of this kind – such as ‘God is love’ – to interpret Scripture all the time; not to do so would leave us in a quandary of indecision about the meaning of the Christian faith, (and the next part of the Report will consider this interpretative task from an Anglican perspective). Asked by a pushy reporter to summarise the contents of his massive Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth was able to reply simply and briefly, ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ Perhaps the ‘tensions’ (paragraph 222) experienced by the working group over biblical interpretation would have been reduced, if loving relationships, rather than sexual activity, had been kept in focus.
The section ends with some reflections (rather than evidence) about the authority of the Bible, and a discussion of translation problems, cultural meanings in Scripture, and finally, somewhat randomly, male and female in the Genesis narrative.
It is apparent from paragraph 234 that the working group has chosen to ‘accommodate’ what comes across as a highly literalist account of Scripture on this subject, though one suspects that this literalism is unlikely to be consistently applied across the whole of life by those who advocate it in relation to homosexuality. The working group as a whole do not share that outlook.
‘But we do not all believe that the evidence of Scripture points to only one set of ethical conclusions. In short, Christians who share an equal commitment to Scripture do not agree on the implications of Scripture for same sex relationships.’
However, what they fail to see is that by maintaining the current teaching they effectively reinforce a single ethical position based on a literalist reading of Scripture.
The problem of translating arsenokoites, a rare Greek word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10, which is discussed next, is certainly ‘academic’ compared to the impact of modern translations in fostering hatred against LGBT people. The lazy way translators repeat unwarranted translations of key words in the ‘terror texts’, and how these terrible meanings, foreign to the original setting, were imposed by later generations, are explored exhaustively in K. Renato Lings brilliant, Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible (2013), which probably appeared to late for inclusion in the Report but ought to be required reading.
On cultural meanings in Scripture, it is noted that David Runcorn’s claim ‘this is not that’ – that references to homosexuality in the Bible refer to a very different phenomenon from the one we know today – is questioned by Keith Sinclair, who suggests that faithful, equal same sex relationships may well have been known to Paul. The Report recognises that this debate must remain inconclusive since we can’t even be sure what Paul meant, though one senses (at paragraph 245) a presumption that Paul believed them to ‘contradict God’s purposes for humanity.’
Cue ‘Male and female in the Genesis narrative.’ Yes, it’s gender! The Report has avoided any serious engagement with this issue, but it emerges here, in a form that recent Church of England documents seem comfortable with: Genesis 1.27 & 2.18-24. The former, we are informed, implies the equality of male and female before God; the latter the significance of companionship, along with ‘the priority of the male.’ (Yes, it really does say that).
Somewhat inelegantly, God’s purposes in creating men and women are defined as procreation and companionship (paragraph 250). Not only that, we are told that ‘One passage cannot be abandoned in favour of the other and so, in seeking to elicit the implications for marriage and partnerships, both sexual difference and human companionship are significant. Neither tells us the whole story without the other (paragraph 251).’ Now that is surprising. Up until now we have been told how complex the interpretation of Scripture is and that Christians are divided over it, but no:
‘We can say with confidence that the created nature of humanity as male and female is built into that natural order, and also that human beings are intended to live in relationship with others.’
Very comforting, I’m sure, for the heterosexual majority, but hardly good news if you happen to be lesbian and gay. To use a recurring phrase from this section, ‘begging the question’ indeed!