On 16 August 2022, the Tasmanian Anglican Bishop Richard Condie, chair of GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference), announced to its members the formation of a new church, the breakaway “Southern Cross” diocese, to be headed by the former Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. GAFCON is an international alliance of Anglicans opposed to liberalising tendencies in the Church, including same-sex relations. It took this action despite the counsel of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the 2022 Lambeth meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops only two weeks earlier, advising that all seek to maintain unity and tolerate differences of opinion on same-sex relations.
Pressure had been building in the preceding months when in May, the Australian General Synod declined to support a motion reaffirming the traditional doctrine of marriage as between only a man and a woman. The breakaway diocese, which had been some years in the making, targets disaffected Anglicans unhappy with this more open stance.
Behind the dispute lie different approaches to the Bible.
While the Bible says nothing about same-sex marriage, its writers clearly condemn same-sex relations. At the time, this stance could become a basis for unity rather than a cause of division among Christians.
We see this when the apostle Paul, a controversial figure, planned to visit Rome in the late 50s CE and wrote to them in advance. He began by stating what he knew would be common ground: condemnation of same-sex relations as sin.
His few sentences provide the primary basis for all subsequent opposition to same-sex relations. He argues that people’s perverted understandings of God led to their having perverted understandings of themselves, and that manifested in what he depicted as perverted behaviour. His condemnation was at three levels:
- Same-sex acts are sinful and are explicitly forbidden in biblical law;
- The passions are sinful because they are misdirected towards one’s own sex, not the opposite sex;
- Minds with such orientation reflect a sinful state of being.
While Paul was writing about consensual adult same-sex relations, he would also include exploitation of slaves and minors.
Paul probably knew that the Roman imperial household had harboured such behaviour, but it was much more widespread in society. Extant Jewish literature from the time helps us see that Paul was representing the common view of his fellow Jews, who could cite same-sex relations as belonging to the depraved world from which their faith protected them. Out there in the non-Jewish world were wild parties where all manner of sexual exploitation, homosexual and heterosexual, took place.
Not all such relations were wild flings. Mentoring boys in Sparta and among the Athenian aristocracy sometimes led to sexual relations. While generally tolerated, such behaviour was not without its critics. Plato deplored the waste of semen and failure to control passion. But he has one of his characters, Aristophanes, in Symposium, present the alternative view: that same-sex relations were natural and that there were once three kinds of human beings, male, female and androgynous (bi-sexual).
These humans offended Zeus, who cut them in half in a fit of rage. Ever since the halves have sought to re-join: men to men, women to women and men to women and vice versa.
Paul’s contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, knew the story of Zeus’s rage but treated it with contempt. Philo’s view and that of his fellow Jews, including Paul, rested on the assumption that when the Bible declares that God made humankind male and female, it means just that and only that. Ideas, such as those of Aristophanes, that some people are naturally gay, were, to their mind, false. Homosexual orientation, feelings and actions had to be perversion because all people, they assumed, were heterosexual.
Today, people are becoming increasingly aware that the assumption that all people are heterosexual is simply incorrect. Babies born with ambiguous genitalia already show that not everyone is either male or female. Broader human experience recognises that human sexuality is complex. Inner and outer reality may not match. A major factor influencing the recent change in public opinion has been that people have come to know gay men and women, either directly or indirectly through the media, who are outstanding citizens. To deem them perverts would be absurd.
After centuries of often cruel discrimination, governments have not only repealed laws which criminalised homosexual acts but have legislated to allow for gay marriage. Paul’s conclusions made sense given the knowledge of his day but fall short of what we now know in the twenty-first century. To impose on him the expectation that he must have known all there was to know about sexuality is to do him an injustice—not to speak of the injustice it has done to others. The challenge for conservatives is: stick with what is written in the Bible or update it?
Already in its early decades, the Church faced similar dilemmas about how to apply biblical statements to new situations. When there was an influx of uncircumcised male converts, conservatives argued: “They must be circumcised. The Bible demands it.” The majority, however, waived the demand. They approached Scripture differently, arguing from its core values of inclusion and compassion, exemplified in Jesus’ interpretation of law. Despite fierce opposition, their approach to Scripture won the day. It enabled people to differentiate within the Bible between its timeless core values, on the one hand, and its time-bound assumptions that required updating, on the other. Over time, such updating included abandoning notions that the earth is flat or circled by the sun and revising first-century attitudes towards slavery, women, divorce, gender, and sexuality–at best, with healthy, informed debate at every stage.
Conflict over interpreting Scripture ran deep in the first century and still does in the twenty-first.