by Gillian Cooke and Alan Sheard

Since 1978 (and possibly earlier than this) Lambeth Conference reports and the Church of England Bishops' Statement of 1991 have acknowledged the need for informed debate on the subject of homosexuality.

Essential to this they have regarded not just the importance of the Scriptures and Tradition, but also the findings of scientific and medical research and the experience of gay and lesbian people themselves.

We can only have an informed debate about the insights of Scripture and Tradition if we know what we are considering. Furthermore, most of the negative ways of talking about the subject have no scientific basis and if we get rid of these we might have a climate in which gay and lesbian people are enabled to contribute without fear. Sadly so much Christian thinking seems to be done using prescientific views.

Distorted sexual desire? Not according to science

In 1973 homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Diseases, since the medical community recognised that it was not an illness or sign of arrested development. They had found that attempts to change a person's sexuality do not work, and that as a group homosexual people are normal in terms of their psychological health. Hence both heterosexuality and homosexuality (though less common) are both considered normal.1 2 Psychiatrists, behavioural psychologists and neuroscientists believe that sexual orientation is determined biologically either during foetal development or soon after. Evidence from research on occurence of sexuality within families points to a genetic factor;3 it is likely that several genes are involved in determining sexual orientation, as with many other inherited characteristics. Most of us (particularly men) become aware of sexual orientation early in life; certainly well before puberty.

Although some homophobic writers still claim that inadequate parenting, child abuse and similar forces cause sexuality to develop in what they describe as a 'perverted' direction, this is not borne out by research. When research has been carried out on groups in a systematic way, the backgrounds of gay and lesbian people are found to be very similar to those who are heterosexual. Both are equally likely to have good relationships with parents in early life.4 Later if parents find it difficult to accept their gay and lesbian offspring this will, of course, affect relationships as would any other factor which causes intergenerational discord. Inadequate parenting and child abuse do damage children in ways which affect them into adult life, but this has no bearing on sexual orientation.

Furthermore, lesbian or gay parents are no more likely to produce gay offspring than heterosexual parents.5 The only difference that has been observed is that the children of gay parents are more likely to see being lesbian and gay in a positive light, but any adolescent experimentation in that direction does not ultimately affect their adult sexual orientation. Similarly, adolescent experimentation in single sex boarding schools does not affect this. Rather than change a person's sexuality, such experimentation will confirm their true orientation. Sexual orientation of both types is remarkably robust.6

At the same time sexuality is a continuum. Most of us are predominantly at one end or the other of the spectrum. The majority, of course, are heterosexual, with fewer homosexual, and some bisexual who, to a greater or lesser degree, are attracted to the opposite sex and the same sex. No precise figures exist for those in each category.

Within the scientific community, not only is it now recognised that sexual orientation cannot be changed, it is also considered unethical to try to do so.7 Furthermore, Jeremy Marks, who founded the evangelical Christian charity 'Courage' which offered such counselling, confirms this. He states that it became 'manifestly obvious that for all the repentence, self-discipline, prayer, teaching and bible study, the deeper needs for intimate companionship were not met and nobody became truly heterosexual'.8 Psychiatrisis and psychologists had already several years previously reached the same conclusion. Nevertheless, despite all the evidence to the contrary, some Christian counsellors still continue with prescientific beliefs and on the basis of anecdotal evidence claim people can and do change and thus be freed from their homosexual orientation. Sadly, when gay and lesbian people realise this does not work, too often they leave the Church and sometimes abandon their faith altogether.

If we are to look at the Scriptures and Tradition with a view which accords with modern scientific knowledge, we must accept that sexuality is more complex than was originally thought. God created male and female human beings who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual. (And of course our maleness and femaleness is also more complex, as transsexuals know, but the discussion of this goes beyond this paper.) We cannot develop an appropriate ethic for sexuality unless we base that discussion on a modern scientific understanding of the subject. To do otherwise would be to go back to a prescientific age.

We cannot keep sexuality in the bedroom

Sexual relationships include but are wider than genital relationships. Nevertheless, as Jack Dominian states, "For over three thousand years the Judaeo-Christian tradition has based its sexual morality on the link between intercourse and procreation. But the advent of widespread and reliable contraception has now severed this link'.9 Throughout the world sexual relationships have shaped the world as we know it and all societies have developed rules to control them as it was recognised they could be a source of good or ill. In the past, many marriages were often contracted for political or economic reasons rather than romantic attachment of two individuals. This structuring of society also has bearing, then as now, on how individuals are valued in a society, how individuals relate to each other and the ways in which individuals are enabled to contribute to and partake in that society.

Like heterosexual people, those who are gay and lesbian are wanting to give and receive love. For those who are Christian, 'Human sexuality in all its richness is a gift of God gladly to be accepted, enjoyed and honoured as a way of expressing and growing in love, in accordance with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is our conviction that it is entirely compatible with the Christian faith not only to love another person of the same sex but also to express that love fully in a personal sexual relationship'.10

Just like their straight brothers and sisters, gay people want to be able to play a full part in society with their relationships recognised and supported. For this to happen changes in the law are necessary in some respects.

For myself (GC), someone single for many years and now married, I know how valuable the support of a partner can be for me as a person and as a priest. When I was Chaplain to Rampton Hospital my husband regularly attended the afternoon service and became a friend to many patients. No one accused me of 'flaunting my partner' because we were a heterosexual married couple.

The same can also be true for same sex partnerships. When I was a child we were very aware of three female partnerships. Four of these women were highly respected teachers and two were active in Christian youth work. All made a rich contribution to the development of young people. We never thought to question if they were lesbian or whether, as a result of the high death rate among men in the First World War, they had no choice. We simply respected them as individuals and took their close commitment to their partner as a given. Those close relationships nurtured the individuals involved and they made a very rich contribution to the community in which they lived. Homophobic literature so depicts the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships as weakening of marriage and the family, but those women's contribution added to the building of families. Unfortunately, the same would not have been possible for men at that time as homosexuality was still illegal. Furthermore, I wonder if our present climate both within and outside the churches which demands to know more about what anyone in the public eye does in private, would no doubt have caused much more strain to the individuals concerned and probably limited their ability to contribute to their communities.


Created by God: Christianity and Homosexuality in the 21st Century, 3rd edition (2010) is available to order online or free to download here.


Notes

  1. Age of consent for homosexual men,  British Medical Association Scientific Committee, 1994
  2. Homosexuality and Christian faith, D. Myers, Ed. Walter Wink, (Fortress Press)
  3. A genetic study of male sexual orientation, J.M. Bailey and R.C. Pillard,  Archives of General Psychology, 48, pp.1089-1096
  4. Robinson BE et al, Family Relations, 31, pp.79-83
  5. (How) does the sexual orientation of parents matter?,  Stacey & Biblarz,  American Sociological Review, 2001, 66, pp.159-183
  6. Sexual behaviour in Britain,  Wellings K et al, (Penguin, 1994)
  7. Good medical practice - duties and responsibilities of doctors,  General Medical Council, 2001, p.4
  8. A different kind of courage, LGCM Journal, 2001, 59, p.18
  9. Sexual Integrity, Dominian J, (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987) p.1
  10. Christianity and homosexuality, a short introduction,  Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement

Gillian Cooke is an Anglican priest who has worked as a chaplain in higher education,  industry, prisons and Rampton Hospital. Dr Alan Sheard was formerly Director of Public Health for East Yorkshire.