Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love

Savi Hensman


There are too many Christians today – both for and against full inclusion of partnered LGBT people – who have little awareness of the debates that have taken place in theological circles over the past sixty years, and the process by which so many theologians today have come to support greater inclusion. Some seem to believe that calls for acceptance in the church are based on embracing society’s values (at least in parts of the world where same-sex relationships are by and large accepted) and ignoring those aspects of the Bible and church tradition that do not fit. This is regarded as a mark of either faithlessness or progress, depending on people’s own views on the subject.

However this does not in any way do justice to the considered work of most theologians who have argued the case for greater inclusion, drawing deeply on the witness of the Bible and the church through the ages, to discern how God has been and is at work in a complex and constantly changing world. Moreover it makes it harder to find common ground to enable fellowship and dialogue among those with different views, and promote mutual understanding even if disagreement persists.

In this paper, Savi Hensman gives a detailed overview of some of the most significant affirmative theological work on same-sex love and the Christian tradition. She demonstrates the unhelpful and simplistic positing of a straightforward 'conservative versus liberal' divide on these issues, and draws on Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Quaker and Anabaptist/Mennonite thinkers.

The full document is attached here (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/files/journey_towards_acceptance_oct_2012_0.pdf) and at the foot of this page as a downloadable *.PDF (Adobe Acrobat) document - 25 pages, 488kb. A summary follows:


Over the past sixty years, numerous Christian theologians have put forward the view that, under certain circumstances, lesbian and gay partnerships are acceptable, though not all are convinced. Those making a case for greater acceptance have included Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Quaker and Anabaptist/Mennonite thinkers. Many churchgoers and active Christians now share this outlook.

While certain core beliefs about the nature of the Divine have remained more-or-less constant for many centuries, on particular matters of right and wrong (from slavery to the environment) there has often been debate and mainstream opinion has shifted. Biblical scholarship and advances in historical and scientific knowledge have often played a part. From the 1950s, as attitudes towards contraception and gender equality altered, many theologians studied and wrote on human sexuality.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people worldwide often faced harsh social and legal penalties. In the UK, for instance, gay sex was an imprisonable offence. Senior Church of England clergy came to recognise the injustice and joined in calls for law reform, though same-sex relationships were still widely believed to be sinful. The Rev Dr Derrick Sherwin Bailey, however, went further in his 1955 work Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.

Examining Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, he argued that the sin of Sodom described in Genesis 19 was inhospitality rather than homosexual practice, prohibitions in Old Testament law were not valid for Christians today and references in the Epistles did not apply to people who were, by nature, homosexual. In 1963 Towards a Quaker View of Sex put forward the view that a sexual act was immoral if it involved exploitation, whether of the same or opposite sex. The following year, in The Ethics of Sex, German Protestant theologian Helmut Thielicke argued that, while homosexuality was less than ideal, entering into a faithful same-sex partnership could be an ethical path. In Time for Consent in 1967, Norman Pittenger urged acceptance of loving and responsible gay and lesbian relationships.

By the 1970s, a number of eminent thinkers from various church backgrounds were making a case for an approach to ethics in sexual relationships which would apply to lesbian and gay as well as heterosexual people. They included Jesuit scholar John J. McNeill, whose 1976 book The Church and the Homosexual systematically addressed arguments from Scripture, tradition and philosophy; James B Nelson, who argued that “Jesus Christ is the central norm through which and by which all else must be judged”; evangelical writers Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, whose 1978 work Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? made a strong Biblical case for greater acceptance; feminist theologians Carter Heyward and Beverley Wildung Harrison; and Walter Wink, who emphasised God’s compassionate identification with those who suffer.

Meanwhile working parties set up by mainstream churches were beginning, after in-depth study, to conclude that same-sex relationships might in some instances be acceptable. This included a Task Force set up by the Presbyterian church in the USA and a Church of England Working Party chaired by the Bishop of Gloucester, though at the time their conclusions proved too challenging for their denominations.

In the 1980s, through into the 1990s and early twenty-first century, the work of social and natural scientists, and church historians such as John Boswell, Bernadette Brooten and Alan Bray, threw further light on the issues. In The Body’s Grace in 1989, eminent theologian Rowan Williams suggested that “When looking for a language that will be resourceful enough to speak of the complex and costly faithfulness between God and God’s people, what several of the biblical writers turn to is sexuality understood very much in terms of the process of ‘entering the body’s grace’”. Others who have explored the Bible in depth included New Testament scholar L William Countryman and Old Testament scholars Bruce C Birch and Walter Brueggeman.

Liberation theology, informed by struggles for justice and compassion for the poor and dispossessed, influenced Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians’ A cry for life and the work of Cornel West and Dwight N Hopkins. ‘Queer theology’ was produced by Elizabeth Stuart, Robert E Goss, Grace Jantzen and Marcella Althaus-Reid among others. But other openly gay and lesbian theologians were more socially and theologically conservative, including Peter J Gomes and prominent evangelicals Michael Vasey and Roy Clements.

As theologians such as John Austin Baker (former Bishop of Salisbury), Keith Ward, Marilyn McCord Adams and Adrian Thatcher wrote on the issue, heated debate continued in many churches. Distinguished Roman Catholic thinkers included Lisa Sowle Cahill, Mark D Jordan, James Alison, Margaret A Farley and Gareth Moore, whose closely-argued 2003 work A Question of Truth: Christianity & Homosexuality drew on Scripture, theology and reason.

Jack Rogers helped to move the debate forward among Presbyterians, and Ted Grimsrud among Mennonites. While much writing was aimed at an academic readership, there were also clear and readable works such as Tobias Haller’s Reasonable and Holy, published in 2009. Gradually, more churches moved towards the position that commitment, faithfulness and self-giving love should be nurtured in lesbian and gay as well as heterosexual partnerships.

Broader work on human sexuality has increasingly touched on same-sex as well as opposite-sex relationships. For instance Sarah Coakley examined how desire could be rightly directed; and Eugene F Rogers Jr. argued that, for those not called to monasticism, marriage – whether between members of the opposite sex or same sex – could be a place of growth in holiness, of putting on the “wedding garment” of Matthew 22. In 2009 Gary Jennings examined The Grace of Eros, and the following year Werner G Jeanrond produced A Theology of Love.

Opponents of change may be dismayed by the growing number of theologians, and congregations, who believe that some same-sex unions can be spiritually fruitful, or may dismiss this as a passing trend. Yet other people see the journey towards acceptance as an example of the way the Spirit of truth continues to guide followers of Christ (John 16.12-14).




See also:

* 'Thinking theologically: Bible, tradition, reason and experience': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13404

* 'Sex, orientation and theological debate: an evangelical response': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11195

* 'Using and misusing St Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17247

* 'Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians?': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17245


© Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious/theological issues – writing in the Guardian newspaper, among other places. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate. Her regular blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blog/13 Her column can be found at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hensman