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Bishop Spong On: Homosexuality

The essay below was published December 15, 2004.

Homophobia – No Compromise Possible

I recently listened to a series of insightful lectures on the American Civil War given by Dr. Gary Gallagher, a professor of History at the University of Virginia. Early on, Dr. Gallagher analyzed the failure of America’s political leadership to find a compromise on slavery in the days and years leading up to secession and the catastrophic and bloody war. There was the careful attempt to admit to the Union, in tandem, one slave state and one free state to insure the balance of power in the Senate. Henry Clay ofKentucky, the “great compromiser” helped to work out the division of Western territory so that this balance was to be preserved “in perpetuity.” Slavery, however, was not a political battle that could ultimately be negotiated; it was rather a moral battle that did not lend itself to compromise. It pitted a new consciousness against a dying definition. Slavery could not be partially moral or moral under some circumstances. It was either moral or immoral. There was no middle ground.

In the slavery debate, those who shared the new consciousness were quite clear. Human beings cannot be held in bondage. This new consciousness challenged those definitions, which suggested that some people did not qualify as human beings; that some people were primitive, childlike, created to be subservient, and were, therefore, fit for nothing other than manual labor. Within that definition, slavery was deemed to be morally acceptable and those who held this position actually believed that slavery was virtuous, since the slaves were assumed to be receiving the benefits of better health, longer life and wonderful new opportunities in “a civilized and Christian land.” These arguments sound strange, even hostile, to us today but ideas of racial superiority were still a powerful force in the Western world as late as the 20th century, fueling World War II, that cost the lives of over one hundred million people.

I thought about this period of history as I read of my own church, the Anglican Communion, seeking a way, “for the sake of unity,” to accommodate divergent opinions on the issue of homosexuality. The Church’s leadership is acting as if negotiation is possible in this conflict, yet the obvious fact is that homosexuality, like slavery, is a moral issue and thus not amenable to compromise. Once again today’s debate pits an emerging consciousness against a dying definition. The old definition asserts that homosexuality is a choice that evil, perverted or subhuman people make. It cannot, therefore, be tolerated. People whose depravity causes them to choose “this lifestyle” must be converted or removed lest they destroy the social order; if they are homosexual because of a mental illness, they must be cured or isolated lest they infect the health of all our citizens. That is the definition, stated honestly but more baldly than its proponents will appreciate, that is held by those who call themselves conservative or traditional Christians. I suspect, based on the results of our recent election, that they are a majority in the body politic of America at this moment. They are, however, a frightened majority because every statistical study indicates that this point of view is declining. To defend this position by claiming that the refusal to accept this perspective will destroy “the unity of the Church,” is a breathtakingly bankrupt idea. Trapped inside dying definitions, these Christians assume that not to agree with them places their critics on the side of immorality and moral anarchy.

The emerging new consciousness, on the other hand, rejects every part of that definition. It asserts that homosexual people are neither morally depraved nor mentally sick, since one’s sexual orientation is not a choice; but something to which one awakens. It is like the dawning realization that one is male or female, part of a particular race or nation or even right or left-handed. A just and moral society cannot be erected on a premise that some human beings are subhuman or perverted, not on the basis of their doing but on the basis of their being. It matters not what any source of ancient wisdom has previously declared. The Bible, for example, was once quoted to support slavery, to oppose science and to prevent women from achieving equality. On every one of those issues the Bible was quite simply wrong. To quote it now to uphold the evil of homophobia is no less wrong. These efforts will fail as they always do. The ultimate tragedy is, however, that some church leaders, ever on the wrong side of great moral questions of history, never seem to learn history’s lesson that any prejudice once publicly challenged by a new consciousness is doomed.

As I survey the debate on this issue in all parts of the Christian tradition, a tragic failure of leadership is once again depressingly obvious. The Roman Catholic hierarchy simply takes the old definition and labors first to defang it and then to perfume it. They call homosexuality “unnatural,” or “a deviation,” urging that it be suppressed wherever possible and controlled where not possible. Homosexuality, however, has now been incontrovertibly identified as present in the world of higher mammals. It also appears to be a stable and unchanging percentage of the human race at all times and in all places. These data suggest that homosexuality is not unnatural at all but is a minority aspect of the created order that appears quite normally in all higher forms of life. Furthermore, this negativity in the Roman Catholic tradition is without character since it is both known and privately acknowledged that a major percentage of Roman Catholic clergy throughout history, including today, have been and are gay males. To watch the leaders of this church condemn that which is a fact in the lives of its cardinals, bishops and priests is either dishonest or an act of unconscious psychological denial.

The evangelical and fundamentalist churches proclaim that these definitions of antiquity embody the eternal truth of God and any attempt to change them is either the work of Satan or a godless secular spirit that is challenging the word of God in the name of immorality. Yet the new consciousness is dawning there too. As long ago as 1988, the Southern Baptist Convention voted by over a 90% majority to “reaffirm” its condemnation of homosexuality as “behavior repugnant to God” and “condemned by scripture.” They seemed not to recognize that any definition that has to be reaffirmed is no longer holding. The only questions are how protracted will the debate be and how many people will be hurt before that prejudice dies. When anyone seeks to protect a dying definition, failure is inevitable.

The leaders of the mainline churches, aware of the new consciousness, pretend that some compromise is possible. They seek to protect unity by attempting to civilize the debate until a new consensus arrives. They count “the unity of the church” as a worthy goal even as that forced unity violates that Institution’s integrity. Can you imagine that part of the Church that said no to slavery being asked to apologize for upsetting the consciences of the slaveholders? Can you imagine Church leaders saying to slaveholders, “we will not challenge the morality of your decisions about slaves because we would rather keep our faith community united?” Can you imagine coddling slaveholders so that they will not separate themselves in schism from the Church? Can anyone imagine any slave-holding church claiming to be the body of Christ?

Yet if you substitute the word homosexuality for the word slavery, that is what is present today in the main line churches. If homosexuality is a given not a chosen way of life, the continued violation of gay and lesbian people, in order to preserve unity with the Church’s homophobic constituency, is simply immoral. Not to bear corporate witness to those who still languish in the dying definitions of the past is to turn one’s back on the very meaning of the Christ. Do we imagine that Jesus’ invitation was, “Come unto me, some of ye.” instead of “Come unto me, all ye?” Can any Church discriminate against any child of God and still sing, “Just as I am, without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come”?

Slavery could not be compromised in the 19th century because slavery was finally understood as a moral issue. Homosexuality cannot be compromised in the 21st century because it too is a moral issue. To the threats of parts of the Christian Church to leave if homosexual people are welcomed fully without any distinction, the body of Christ must be prepared to say, “That is your choice but we do not compromise truth to comfort you in your prejudice. The Church’s doors will be open when your consciousness is finally formed and you decide to return, but we will not reject homosexuals now to avoid offending you. If the essence of our Christ is summed up in words that John’s Gospel attributes to him, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” then the choice is clear. Homophobia diminishes life; it does not make it more abundant. It must be ended; it cannot be tolerated even by making it kinder and gentler.

To the leaders of the Churches today I say: “Stop playing ecclesiastical games. Compromising truth never serves the cause of unity. The call of Christ is not to be all things to all people. The time for negotiating and compromising is over. It matters not if you are the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or one of the heads of the various national and international bodies of Christians around the world, both the moral integrity of the Christ you claim to serve and your ability to speak for Christ on any other issue are at stake. There is no room for waffling on this moral imperative. The idea that you will allow politicians to advocate placing discrimination against homosexual persons into the Constitution of this country, while your voices are either in agreement or remain deafeningly silent, is an embarrassment. If it takes a split in the body of Christ to make this generation understand that homosexuality, like slavery, is a non-debatable, moral issue, then for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, you must be willing to pay that price.”

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