One of the things I’ve been reading recently is the Study Guide prepared for The Episcopal Church by the Chicago Consultation, titled Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality. It is important to be aware of this in the UK, not least because one of the contributors is our own Revd Marilyn McCord Adams, canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University.
It is also important because the document must presumably be regarded as the ‘best of’ arguments for changing the Church’s traditional teaching and practice on same-sex relationships. That is certainly the point and purpose of is contents.
However, I personally find the theological content tendentious to the point of being bizarre, particularly where it deals with the biblical material.
Thus we have an opening argument that Genesis 1:28 needs to be rescued from a caricatured version of dominion theology: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours!’” (According to the document, the text of Genesis “can certainly” be read that way.) This seems to show an almost complete unawareness of Ancient Near Eastern background and the way the text would have been read in that context. The putative modern abuse of the text is the starting, and the reference, point of the ‘exposition’ which follows.
From that shaky beginning, we go on to the suggestion that the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27, “raises questions about models of blessing: is there only the possibility of the one blessing to the exclusion of the other or can the church bless both kinds of marriage [heterosexual and same-sex]?”
The inappropriateness of this can surely be seen by turning the question round. If this reading turns out to be wrong, does it add evidence to suggest that equal blessing is not available to same-sex relationships? One doubts whether this would be accepted at all. Yet this is presented, once again, as a model of exegesis.
The author, Wil Gafney, also suggests on the basis of Genesis 1:1-2 that God is “both masculine (‘When beginning, He, God, created…’) and feminine (‘The Spirit of God, She was hovering…’)”, and that this explains the “our image” reference of 1:26, thus solving, at a stroke, a problem that has dogged Jewish scholars for years, whilst simultaneously ignoring issues she herself must know about Hebrew grammar. To quote from my Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, “B[iblical] H[hebrew] allocates a ‘grammatical gender’ to each noun that does not necessarily correspond to its sex in real life.” Gafney knows this. Why does she ignore it?
Meanwhile, there are apparently other issues with the Hebrew text. According to her, the Levitical prohibitions on same-sex (male) intercourse are also “not terribly clear[since]: men cannot have vaginal intercourse with other men.” That last point is true (and was, I suspect, known to the ancient Israelites), but it surely has nothing to do with our understanding of Leviticus 18:22, which actually seems entirely clear.
The same author also writes that, “Paul’s letter to the Romans did not function as scripture when it was produced and indeed, may have never been intended to do so.” Moreover, according to her, “Paul’s belief about what is natural is just that, a belief.” This distinction does not, apparently, apply to her own convictions, but it is taken somehow to address the problem. Romans, apparently, is not Scripture, Apostolic statements are just ‘beliefs’, let’s move on.
Meanwhile, on the subject of tradition, Ms McCord Adams writes that,
Where systemic evils are concerned, the way to respect tradition is to question and dispute it, to identify its theological distortions and to work to undo their institutional expressions wherever they are to be found. This is what three-leggedstool Anglicans think they are doing, when they support the ordination of women and noncelibate homosexuals and sponsor institutional blessings for same-sex partnerships.
Tradition, then, is authoritative only insofar as the modern mind considers it to be so. In other words, Tradition has less significance than modern opinion. Once again, our beliefs trump their ‘beliefs’. In fact, Tradition is nothing more than a quaint example of the way people used to think. It belongs, McCord Adams significantly notes, in the historical ‘rag-bag’ with the Thirty-Nine Articles,
... clergy in the Church of England were required to subscribe to the Thirty- Nine Articles: until 1975, to pledge not to teach anything that contradicts them; after 1975, to number them among the historic formularies that bear witness to Christian truth.
And that will soon be the way with orthodoxy generally. It will be ‘an historical witness’ to, but not a contemporary expression of, the Church’s teaching.
What is truly frightening about this document is not that it challenges the traditional teaching and understanding of the Church, but that it is so far from being something with which one can engage according to the traditional way in which the Church has done theology, or indeed the normal principles of exegesis.
By all means read it, but it is hard to know quite what to do about it.
Revd John P Richardson
9 July 2009