Sexuality and ministry

Churches today run into trouble on gender and sexuality. Public discussion reveals passionately held differences within churches and between churches, and culture. A Uniting Church Synod decision to license the ordination of candidates living in homosexual relationships, the Anglican debates about ordaining practising homosexual bishops in England and the United States, and a Vatican statement in response to legislative recognition of homosexual marriages are recent cases in point. Each was followed by controversy.

The starting point for the discussion within churches is their claim to form the body of Christ. The image suggests that Christ welcomes people into the church, and that they commit themselves to honour and aspire to his way of life. Christians therefore do not enter a church on their own terms. They are chosen by Christ through the church.

The image of the body naturally raises questions of boundaries. At what point do disparities between people’s lives and Christ’s way of life exclude them from church membership or from ministry? Even to ask this question is culturally unfashionable. Most Australians, including reporters, would assume that people have a right to church membership and to ministry, and therefore that those who exclude others must be narrow and intolerant. So for churches the question of boundaries is a question of identity, fraught but unavoidable. It is the more fraught because churches accept the authority of Jesus who criticised many forms of exclusion.

When it comes to excluding people on the grounds of sexual behaviour, however, churches have a problem. Historically, they have often drawn on a purity code to justify such exclusions. Purity codes reflect the natural analogy between the physical and the social body. In forming personal identity, it is common to be concerned about the boundaries that distinguish our body from what lies outside it. What is ambiguous becomes the object of fascination and revulsion. Bodily excretions, for example, can be seen not merely as different but as disgusting. Activities in which the boundaries of the individual body are blurred, such as eating, excretion, sexuality or pregnancy, can be seen as impure or dirty. In many religions, they mark a distance and rupture with the pure God. So, sexual abstinence was once required of married priests before celebrating the Eucharist. The influence of the purity code on the debate about homosexuality is evident when some critics describe it not simply as wrong, but as filthy or disgusting. It is then taken to justify excluding homosexuals from the social body of church or society.

The confusion in church discussion about whether homosexual Christians should be excluded from ministry arises from the fact that the purity code is alive and well in church congregations, but  has no warrant in the Gospel. It is common to hear Christians describe homosexuality as abhorrent, depraved, abominable, dirty and unclean, and refer to homosexuals as disgusting. Jesus, however, criticised the working of the purity code in his own society. He relativised dietary laws, sought the company precisely of the people judged to be unclean in his own society—the sick, prostitutes, the unwashed and tax collectors. So to exclude homosexuals from the church or from ministry on the grounds of presumed uncleanness is incompatible with Christ’s way of life. Most churches recognise this by commending, at least in theory, the acceptance of homosexuals within the church.

Is there anything else to which churches can appeal, when excluding from the ministry those living in homosexual relationships? Because ministers must encourage and teach how to live Christ’s way, all churches agree that there needs to be at least a rough fit between the desires and convictions of the minister and life according to the Gospel. Ministers, and particularly bishops in episcopal churches, also represent symbolically the church and Christ’s way of life. So, before ministers are ordained, those responsible ask if they are worthy, if there is a substantial match between their lives and the way of life that they represent. Radical inconsistency, such as that shown in paedophilia, promiscuity or a passion for power and money, would disqualify a candidate.

These barriers to ministry relate to moral behaviour. The exclusion of homosexuals from ministry, however, is not on the basis of behaviour, but on the basis of public relationships that suggest homosexual practice. Indeed, some candidates universally praised for their zeal, spiritual depth and theological solidity have been excluded from ministry because they were open about gay relationships.

This exclusion on the basis of public relationships has precedents. The relationship to the state implied, for example, in the office of public executioner has been a barrier to ministry. The exclusion emphasised the radical lack of fit between Christ’s way of life and chopping off heads, even for the best of reasons.

The grotesquerie involved in comparing the practices of homosexuality and of execution, however, only makes more pressing the central questions: whether a publicly acknowledged homosexual relationship is inconsistent with Christ’s way of life, and whether any inconsistency would be so serious that it would disqualify a candidate from ministry. Churches have historically asserted that there is such a serious inconsistency, either on the grounds of Biblical evidence or, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, on the grounds of the confluence of Scripture and continuing reflection on human nature. But in Western cultures, at least, this is an unpopular position. It is now assumed that moral positions reflect culture and not nature, while homosexual orientation is determined by nature and not by culture.

These questions are going to be long discussed within the churches. The conversation will need to be patient and multilateral and reflect fully Jesus’ bias against exclusion. Within society the privilege to be given to marriage in legislation and in the allocation of resources will also be debated. The churches can contribute much to these discussions, though we may ask how effective a contribution it is to put Catholic politicians under the hammer. It would be a pity if the churches came to focus too narrowly on the areas covered by the purity code. Ultimately Christ’s way of life must commend itself by its attractiveness. In the Gospels, the most powerful threats to it are not rooted in sex but in greed, power and violence.                                          

Andrew Hamilton sj



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