Steve Chalke

Is the Christian obsession with same-sex partnerships declining? Outside the churches people are puzzled why it is such a thorny issue.

It is to be discussed (again!) at a conference on 10th-11th April, hosted by Oasis. Oasis is the organisation set up by Steve Chalke, a well-known Baptist minister who has pubicly spoken in favour of same-sex marriage.

There is an impressive line-up of speakers. Modern Church will be represented, but it looks as if the topic will be approached mainly from an Evangelical perspective. And, of course, the publicity makes clear what we expected anyway: that ‘sexuality’ means ‘gay and lesbian sexuality’. Everybody else’s sexuality has ceased to be controversial, a fact for which they have cause to be grateful.

For people outside the churches this obsession seems more and more absurd, so in this post I try to offer a genealogy of it. Why are Christians so obsessed with other people’s sex lives? Given the obsession with sex, why gay and lesbian people? Why is there a distinctive Evangelical discourse on it?

Although I am a Christian there are some elements of the Christian tradition I disagree with. Its traditional teaching on sexual ethics is one. Disapproval of sexual activity arose early in the history of Christianity. The earliest hint is 1 Corinthians 7:1, where Paul quotes the view that ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman’. Paul responds:

Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again… This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am (vv 5-7).

So it seems that disapproval of all sexual activity had already begun, that Paul himself was celibate, and that although he did not share the disapproval he considered the celibate life preferable. Scholars debate the causes, but Peter Brown’s The Body and Society describes the changing norms. For John Chrysostom, virginity proved that the new age had arrived. Sexual activity continued, but homosexuality was better than heterosexuality because it did not produce children. Jerome could claim that

Marriage populates the earth: virginity populates heaven.

Throughout the Middle Ages, to be a good Christian was to become a monk or nun, committed to lifelong celibacy. Opinions differed about the married: were they just second rate Christians, or sinners? If the penitentials were obeyed they placed severe restrictions on the married anyway: no sex in Lent or Advent or Wednesdays or Fridays, with different penitentials adding other exclusions.

By the time Luther encouraged monks and nuns to liberate themselves and marry each other, the Church had long ceased to think in terms of the new age dispensing with the need to have children. Of course God must approve of marriage – otherwise there would be no children!

Protestants reflected on what a godly Christian marriage should be like. Of course the production of godly children was a central part of it. The process was repeated in the nineteenth century, with Tractarian clergy needing to show that their marriages did not stop them being just as committed to the priesthood as their Roman Catholic counterparts. A century later I was a child of one such marriage.

The idea that marriage must be acceptable, because somebody needs to produce children, faced a new challenge in the nineteenth century, with the development of condoms. The population was increasing rapidly. The pill arrived in 1962, accompanied by moral controversy that lasted a decade.

My guess is that for the bulk of the twentieth century, at least until the 1970s, large numbers of heterosexual couples were using contraceptives and feeling guilty about it.

Where do same-sex partnerships fit into the picture? Hardly at all. As the early theories of the new age subsided, Chrysostom’s view declined with it. Subsequent references to same-sex partnerships are very much minority concerns until the late twentieth century. In the 1960s, when the Wilson government decriminalised homosexuality, the bishops in the House of Lords took a leading role.

From the 1970s the pendulum began to swing the other way. Given that homosexuality had never previously been such an important issue in Christianity, why did opposition to it become such a cause célèbre?

My guess is that two processes came together. The first is the liberation of heterosexuals. Of course we cannot read the contents of those people’s minds, but it seems to me too much of a coincidence that disapproval of homosexuality became a major issue just as disapproval of heterosexuality stopped being one.

For the first time for over a thousand years, church leaders were allowing married couples to engage in as much sexual activity as they wished. It is easy to forget how different things were in those days. The churches were taken far more seriously as moral authorities, and their teaching stressed moral disapproval of forbidden sexual acts. Sexual issues dominated so much that to question somebody’s ‘morals’ meant to question their sexual behaviour.

Adults who had internalised all that moral disapproval from puberty onwards would not have adjusted quickly or easily to a more liberated regime. We might reasonably guess that feelings of guilt for one’s own sexual peccadilloes was an additional factor. However, a verdict of innocence is more quickly applied to oneself than to others. There must have been plenty of residual feelings of disapproval splashing about in their minds, especially as the Vatican had reaffirmed its opposition to contraception. Maybe there was a lot of moral-disapproval energy needing a new home.

The second is the Evangelical revival. Evangelicals have usually been quite fissiparous. The emphasis on the authority of the Bible has tended to divide them into different groups focusing on different issues and interpreting texts in different ways. When they come together, it is usually because there is a major issue they can agree on.

I confess to being an outsider because I am not an Evangelical. However I think the general story is clear enough. During the 1970s and 1980s the British population was largely hostile to gay and lesbian sexuality. Evangelicals could reasonably expect to attract new members by focusing on it. Perhaps the most ambitious project of this Evangelical unity was the attempt to take over the leadership of the international Anglican Communion. From the announcement in 2002 that Rowan Williams was to go to Canterbury, to the defeat of the Anglican Covenant ten years later, the threat of schism kept returning to the headlines.

By 2012, though, most people could not see the point. Popular opinion was no longer hostile to same-sex partnerships. Heterosexuals could develop their own sex lives as they wished; why not homosexuals too? Since then it has become increasingly clear to Evangelical church leaders that their opposition to gay and lesbian people is causing their support to fall rather than rise.

For church leaders in general a difficult mopping-up needs doing. What to do with all those ill-advised official publications? How to eat one’s official words and save face? For Evangelical church leaders there is an additional problem. What will happen to the Evangelical movement once they abandon the one campaign that held it together for a generation? Will they lose their unity, or will they unite around a new rallying-call?