Not big, and not clever
John Richardson looks at the arguments of Jeffrey John
In the run-up to its February session, members of the Church of England’s General Synod will have received complementary copies of Permanent, Faithful, Stable by Canon Jeffrey John. This little booklet is described on the back as ‘one of the most powerful arguments for the acceptance and blessing of homosexual relationships by the Church’. However, as any dictionary will tell you, ‘argument’ in this sense is not just the presentation of a viewpoint but the setting forth of reasons. And reasoning must stand up to scrutiny. Doubtless there will be many for whom John’s case seems ‘reasonable’ in the sense that what he asks for seems fair or right. But in the sense of being ‘in accordance with reason’, there are serious flaws in his work, particularly in the logic of his arguments but also in his handling of scripture.
Unless I am mistaken, therefore, it would be a serious error for those who would revise the Church’s current understanding to take their stand on this work or the arguments it sets forward. There may be a case for John’s position, but this booklet for the most part fails to make it.
John summarizes his aim on page 1:
… homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the Church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage.
Unfortunately, on page 3 he immediately saws off the branch on which he is sitting. John recognizes that he must first answer those who take their stand on the Bible. Hence he argues that, ‘a faithful homosexual relationship is not "incompatible with scripture", (certainly no more so than the remarriage of the divorced, or the leadership of women …).’
The logic is straightforward enough:
Some things which are incompatible with the plainest sense of scripture are already accepted by the Church.
A faithful homosexual relationship is no more incompatible with scripture than these other things.
Therefore scripture provides no necessary grounds on which the Church should reject such relationships.
But there are problems. First, a logically true argument may lead to a factually false conclusion. The proposition that ‘All cats have tails’ logically means my cat must have a tail. However (as any first year Philosophy student knows), what matters is not just the logic of an argument but the truth of its propositions. There are, in fact, tailless cats (of which my hypothetical cat may be one). And hence John cannot assume from the mere fact that the Church accepts things which are incompatible with scripture that it is necessarily right to do so. To build an argument on this basis could simply lead us into greater error. Indeed that is (arguably) why we had the Reformation!
Secondly, John’s appeal to the Church’s revised attitude to divorce actually undermines his definition of an acceptable gay relationship. If the qualities of such relationships should be ‘the same as those expected of a Christian marriage’ (see above), the word ‘permanent’ becomes superfluous. It may be more appealing to talk about ‘permanent, faithful, stable’ relationships, but John’s argument relies on a decision by the Synod that permanence is no longer a requirement of marriage. Thus the most that could be required is that such relationships be faithful and stable, and even that requirement cannot be regarded as fixed on this line of reasoning.
Similarly, John argues on page 4 that his proposals will uphold ‘the traditional, biblical theology of sex and marriage’. But since his argument rests precisely on a partial rejection of the ‘traditional, biblical theology’, a further step in the same direction would scarcely ‘uphold’ it! On the contrary, it is surely those who remain faithful in difficult marriages or who, feeling an erotic desire for members of the same sex, nevertheless resist it, who truly uphold ‘traditional’ theology and practice.
These weaknesses continue when John addresses the question ‘Is it scriptural?’ Thus after acknowledging that Jesus plainly condemns the remarriage of divorced people, John asks how it is that Anglican bishops ‘in the case of the great majority, are willing to bless remarried couples, and in some cases are divorced and remarried themselves?’ (p8).
We must be grateful for the candidness of John’s challenge. But to conclude, as he does, that we should therefore embrace same-sex relationships is like arguing that because I speed down the motorway I may speed up a residential side street. The argument is simply fallacious.
A similar problem affects John’s handling of the biblical material on women. It is true that even in some Conservative Evangelical contexts, women without hats may be found conducting meetings. But John falls into the well-known ‘tu quoque’ fallacy – ‘You do as I do, hence I can’t be wrong.’ Thus on page 9 he claims that ‘biblical conservatives will employ exactly the sort of arguments [on this issue] which on other matters … they condemn as "getting round the plain meaning of Scripture".’ But just as two wrongs don’t make a right, so one misuse of scripture (if that is what is involved) doesn’t make for two misuses. In point of fact, I believe John oversimplifies the biblical material. But if the Bible actually did teach that women should wear hats in church, then we should surely do likewise, not use our failure in this regard to justify abandoning other aspects of biblical teaching. Meanwhile, the fact that John takes this approach suggests he realizes the Bible actually opposes what he himself advocates.
Space precludes addressing John’s handling of the story of Sodom. I can only draw the diligent reader’s attention to the relevant cautions in Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice. John’s treatment of the Old Testament law, however, is woeful, in particular his infamous comment on page 12:
The next time you see a clean-shaven fundamentalist wearing a poly-cotton shirt and eating a shrimp, remember to shout ‘Abomination’…!
If John really believes this is an adequate response to those who quote the Old Testament on moral issues, he should give up his title as Canon Theologian. For my own part, I believe I have addressed this adequately in my own What God has Made Clean (Good Book Company, 2003), and would refer readers who are still unclear to that publication.
John is just as weak, however, in his handling of Paul, resting his case largely on unsustainable and unprovable assumptions. John asserts that ‘the model of Paul’s condemnation was … [male] prostitution or pederasty.’ Yet Paul begins his own condemnation of homosexual acts in Romans 1.26 with a reference to women, which demonstrates an entirely different starting point to the one John proposes. Again, John claims that ‘neither Paul nor his Jewish antecedents considered the case of a homosexually oriented person’, yet such persons were known in the Gentile culture with which Paul was familiar.1 Ultimately, therefore, although John rejects Paul’s ‘assumptions’ as ‘quite false’ (p16), it his own assumptions which are questionable.
John is similarly cavalier with Paul’s arguments from nature, preferring to focus on the difficulties he perceives in applying Paul’s teaching on women, rather than engaging with his comments on sexuality. John is quite happy to affirm Paul when it suits (pp18, 37 etc), but where it does not, he adopts his own line, justifying this by claiming he is only doing what others do. Yet there is a vast difference between those who ultimately sit under the authority of Paul’s writings as scripture, and those who really do ‘cherry pick’, treating as scripture only those teachings which accord with their own viewpoint. John’s position can thus only be called ‘scriptural’ in a sense that depends on demolishing what the Church traditionally understands by this.
John’s discomfort with Paul’s view of ‘nature’ is understandable, however, considering his approach to the question ‘Is it Moral?’ Over against the objection based on the ‘natural’ complementarity of male and female bodies and personalities, John simply asserts that same-sex relationships can be fulfilling in every comparable regard bar that of bearing children. Moreover, there cannot be anything morally reprehensible about homosexual acts per se:
Those who claim to be repelled and disgusted by homosexual forms of intercourse might ask why they are not disgusted by a painter who expresses his creativity by painting with his feet (p21).
But John plays down the fact that something is nevertheless clearly wrong if someone has to paint with their feet. And he similarly fails to acknowledge that the ‘make do’ of homosexual acts shows homosexuality to be technically a form of sexual dis-orientation.
John’s problems, however, do not stop there, for he also wants to refute calls within the gay community for a radicalizing of sexual relationships. But in the face of this, John can only fall back on a position he has already subverted:
Christian theology … is an attempt to understand … ‘what happens’ in relation to profound truths about human nature revealed in Scripture and Christian tradition (pp35–36, emphasis added).
However, that revelation, and even John’s own understanding of ‘acceptable’ relationships, would (for example) create great difficulties for bisexuals who want their relationships blessed by the Church. Yet it is surely only a real traditionalist who can resist such demands, whereas John (who oddly says nothing about bisexuality – see p59) will ultimately appear to be just as ‘selective’ as the conservatives he so often attacks.
John wishes to show both traditionalists and radicals that ‘human sexuality … is … intended to express a covenant commitment between two people which is holy because it reflects God’s covenanted love for us, and gives us a framework for learning to love in his image’ (p4). But there is already far too much reliance on scripture and revelation in these ideas for them to find an expression outside the scriptural context of marriage – namely between one man and one woman for life. Sacrifice the latter, as John does, and eventually you will inevitably lose the former.
This brings us, finally, to John’s third question, ‘Is it Achievable?’ by which he means ‘Could lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships become normalized within the Church?’ Here, John must face first the question of homosexual ‘promiscuity’ (his term) – an area of considerable controversy. Stephen Goldstone, himself a gay doctor, admits candidly in The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex, ‘Even under the shadow of AIDS, many of us still have sexual histories numbering in the hundreds or even thousands’ (p 212).
By contrast, John claims, ‘There is no reason to believe that homosexual men are naturally more inclined to promiscuity than heterosexual men’ (p40), though the fact that he devotes six of his own fifty-five pages to this issue may suggest ‘he doth protest too much’. John suggests that whatever promiscuity exists amongst gay men would diminish if only they were allowed to enter into recognized stable relationships. But this can only be conjecture, especially since promiscuity has measurably and dramatically increased amongst heterosexuals (who can, of course, marry) in the last ten years (see the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles).
Standing in the way of John’s programme, however, is the Church of England generally and her bishops in particular for their inconsistency and failure to fulfil their teaching office (pp47–48). Not surprisingly, John vents considerable spleen on them:
They continue to supply the ideology which undergirds prejudice, and continue to bear the heaviest responsibility for it (p55).
Yet once again we must ask whether the course John urges on the bishops indeed follows from their current failures. Would they best redeem themselves by standing up to ‘"difficult" conservative Evangelicals’, or by recovering the biblical and traditionalist theology John has attacked?
John cannot, however, avoid one final error before he finishes. Marriage is, he concludes, ‘a "mystery" or sacrament of God because it potentially reflects the mystery of self-giving love which is at the heart of the Trinity’ (p52). Thus ‘because homosexual people are no less made in God’s image than heterosexuals’ they too can (in words quoted from Eugene Rogers), ‘represent the Trinity’ (p53).
Yet of course marriage is not a reflection of the love within the Trinity, but a model of the love between Creator and creation, between Redeemer and redeemed. It is the love between Christ and the Church, not the love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is, that is to say, love within a framework of difference rather than of likeness, of heteros rather than homoios. Of course, love for that which is ‘the same’ exists and is legitimate. But sexuality, by its very nature, has no place in that love. Sexuality remains, literally, ‘wedded’ to the male-female paradigm. That has, until now, been the Church’s understanding, and John has yet to prove it should be otherwise.
John P Richardson
See BS Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997) especially 99–101
John cannot assume from the mere fact that the Church accepts things which are incompatible with scripture that it is necessarily right to do so.
Marriage is not a reflection of the love within the Trinity, but a model of the love between Creator and creation, between Redeemer and redeemed.
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