Oliver O’Donovan on homosexuality and the church

Of all that I have read on the question of homosexuality and the church, nothing compares in pastoral and theological perspicacity to the following excerpt from Oliver O’Donovan’s Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion. O’Donovan is a theological ethicist in the Anglican Church. He writes:

Homosexuality is not the determining factor in any human being’s existence; therefore it cannot be the determining factor in the way we treat a human being, and should not be the determining factor in the way a human being treats him- or herself. Gays are children of Adam and Eve, brothers and sisters of Christ. There is no other foundation laid than that. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd”; from which it follows, simpliciter and without adjustment, that he will feed gays like a shepherd, too.

Yet, it can be replied, there are other less fundamental senses of “identity.” Can we not speak of a “homosexual identity” in this less fundamental way, as we might speak, without denying anything in human solidarity, of a racial identity or a class identity? And may we not ask how the good news may be addressed specifically to it? Since Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule, bishops and other preachers have been preoccupied with how to address the gospel to sections of the flock with special needs—a gospel for the rich, a gospel for the poor, a gospel for the powerful, a gospel for the powerless, etc., etc.—which, as Gregory claims, “solicitously oppose suitable medicines to the various diseases of the several hearers.” I have to confess a reservation about this. I am not sure that it can be disentangled from Gregory’s idea of the preacher as rector, or “ruler,” who safeguards and services a certain kind of Christianized social order built on role differences. Gregory’s preacher strives to make role differences comfortable for everyone chiefly by preventing them being overstated—excellent managerial sense, no doubt, but not the primary business of a Christian evangelist. The gospel is addressed to human beings irrespective of their condition, and there is no prima facie place to dismember it into a series of gospels for discrete social sectors. Why would there by a gospel for the homosexual any more than a gospel for the teacher of literature, for the civil magistrate, for the successful merchant (to name just three categories that the early church viewed with the same narrowing of the eyes that a homosexual may encounter today)? It is for the church to address the good news, we may say; it is for the recipient—homosexual, pedagogue, politician or captain of industry—to hear it and say how he or she hears it in and from this or that social position.

Yet there is more to be said that that. The gospel does have implications for the way we conduct ourselves in the world, and the way we conduct ourselves in the world is differentiated as the forms and circumstances that constitute the world are differentiated. There are special needs because there are special contexts within which the Christian life has to be lived out. Traditionally these have been discussed in Christian theology under the heading of “vocation.” The preaching of the gospel can and must address distinct vocations, even though it must address them only in the second place, after it has spoken to us all as human beings, not in the first place. “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). Let us imagine a gay person who has “heard” the message of the gospel but is yet unaware of any bearing it may have for his homosexual sensibility. Must there not be some following up of the good news, something to relate what has been heard to this aspect of his self-understanding? It is helpful to keep the analogy with teachers, magistrates, and financiers in our mind. Suppose a Christian teacher who has found in the gospel no implications for how literature is to be read and taught; or a Christian politician who has found no special questions raised by the gospel about policies for military defense; or a financier to whom it has not yet occurred that large sums of money should not be handled in the way a butcher handles carcasses. A pastoral question arises. In the light of the gospel, neither literature nor government nor money are mere neutral technicalities. They are dangerous powers in human life, foci upon which idolatry, envy, and hatred easily concentrate. Those who deal with them need to know what it is they handle. The teacher, politician, and banker who have not yet woken up to the battle raging in heavenly places around the stuff of their daily lives, have still to face the challenge of the gospel. It is any different with the powers of sexual sensibility?

Of course, this pastoral train of thought does not entitle us to demand that the gay Christian (or the teacher, politician, and banker) should repent without further ado. Theirs is a position of moral peril but also a position of moral opportunity. In preaching the gospel to a specific vocation, we must aim to assist in discernment.Discernment means tracing the lines of the spiritual battle to be fought; it means awareness of the peculiar temptations of the situation; but it also means identifying the possibilities of service in a specific vocation. The Christian facing the perils and possibilities of a special position must be equipped, as a first step, with the moral wisdom of those who have taken that path before, the rules that have been distilled from their experience. A solider needs to learn about “just war,” a financier about “just price,” and so on. Again, can it be any different in the realm of sexual sensibility? Discernment is not acquired in a vacuum; it is learned by listening to the tradition of the Christian community reflecting upon Scripture. In this exercise, of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that we may reach a “revisionist” conclusion. No element formed by tradition can claim absolute allegiance. But the right to revise traditions is not everybody’s right; it has to be won by learning their moral truths as deeply as they can be learned. Those who have difficult vocations to explore need the tradition to help the exploration. The tradition may not have the final word, but it is certain they will never find the final word if they have failed to profit from the words the tradition offers. And if it should really be the case that they are summoned to witness on some terra incognita of “new” experience, it will be all the more important that their new discernments should have been reached on the basis of a deep appropriation of old ones, searching for and exploiting the analogies they offer. No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.

If this gay Christian, then, directed to traditional rules of sexual conduct as bearers of help, complains that the good news is difficult to hear because his position is treated as compromised from the outset, he has misunderstood something. There is only one position compromised from the outset, and that is the position that is “revisionist” from the outset, determined by the assumption that the church’s past reflections on the gospel have nothing helpful to offer. Certainly no one who sets out from that starting point will end up in catholic communion, for catholic communion presupposes a catholic mind. But the believer whom Rowan Williams introduces does not set out from there. He accepts, in other words, the St Andrew’s Day Statement’spoint that discipleship cannot be without a price in self-denial but asks whether that price may not be paid, pari passu with the married, in the “daily discipline of a shared life.” And then asks how that daily discipline can fit in with its two exclusive categories of “marriage” and “singleness” (pages 105-109).

ChristopherBenson50aChristopher Benson lives in Dallas, teaches literature, worships at an Episcopal church, and writes for various publications. His eponymous blog is Bensonian.

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