On Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement. The statement can be read through the link to the Thinking Anglicans website:
The statement, I fear, may well end up causing more heat than light.
One of the things I find interesting is the archbishops willingness to use the word sin. I am grateful for this because sin is the notion at the heart of the long running ‘debate’ around issues of human sexuality, which is a churchy term for homosexuality, for we spend little or no time ‘debating’ heterosexuality.
I was also encouraged by the archbishops willingness to locate sin in both the communal and individual spheres. The communique was right to suggest that legal sanctions against consenting adults are always wrong irrespective of sexuality. Some of the Primates in the Anglican Communion may well feel a little bruised by the reminder of their mutually agreed commitment to argue against criminal sanctions for homosexual acts, however very few in the Church of England, even those of an ultra conservative persuasion, will find the archbishops suggestion that the criminilization of homosexuality is always wrong, immoral or sinful in the least contentious.
But what about individual sin, for this is where the ‘debate’ for the Church of England becomes contentious?
Are the archbishops arguing that homosexual intimacy is always and necessarily sinful? My own reading is that they don’t quite get to this point although they are clearly seeking to appease those who hold this view. Maybe ++Justin and John’s intention is to bring the debate back to basics and simply get the Church of England focusing on a single issue: the nature and locale of sin? As the Church of England continues to wrestle with issues of human (or do I mean homo) sexuality it is possibly the case that two competing, and very possibly irreconcilable, theologies of sin inform those arguing both for change and no change in doctrine and, praxis.
Those arguing for a re-assertion of the historic position believe that same-sex relationships can never be liturgically affirmed because they are always sinful. Same sex relationships are held to be impure and, are a rejection of a divinely appointed notion of binary complementarity. Only heterosexual relationships can conform to biblical standards of purity. Heterosexual relationships entered into prior to marriage are capable of redemption, homosexual realtionships can never be redeemed. The church, under this scheme, is therefore correct to assert that the only relationships that can be affirmed and blessed are heterosexual relationships. If the church were to introduce liturgies to affirm and bless same-sex couples the institution itself would become corrupt and even sinful. Sin would be re-located away from the individual (although the individual would remain in a state of sin) to the institution.
The progressive view is the polar opposite and its (our) charge is a grave one because sin is already located at the institutional level. The argument is that by denying same-sex couples who wish to have affirmed and blessed their intention to unite in a life-long monogamous, faithful and, loving relationship the church is denying them that which should be rightfully (and ritefully) theirs according to the standards of distributive justice.
The ‘debate’ is extremely difficult and contentious because the competing sides are informed by different virtues and both regard an erosion of their cherished virtues as deeply sinful. For one side, the conservative side, the church is currently on the side of morality (just) whilst a group of individuals, LGBTIQ Christians and their allies are either ‘living in sin,’ or endorsing a sinful ‘life-style. For progressives the inverse is true; sin is primarily located at the institutional level.
Whilst I am truly grateful to the archbishops for raising the stakes by introducing the concept of sin my fear is that by having done so they have begun the process of bringing to the fore two possibly irreconcilable theologies.
But, maybe that was their intention?
If the Church of England is to continue as a unified church, albeit with different views regarding the morality of human sexuality, some serious theological work needs to be undertaken on the relationship between purity and justice. Perhaps the archbishops could appoint some Lambeth theologians to undertake such work for the future of the Church of England might just depend on it. A teaching document, such as the one sponsored by the archbishops, that fails to recognize and address the tension between these two theological virtues will ultimately fail to live up to its aspirations.