Sean Doherty, who is on the staff of St Mellitus in London, offered two teaching sessions at New Wine on the subject of same-sex sexual relations and the current debate. He tells his story, along with others, in a recent edition of Christianity magazine.
In essence, he understood himself as same-sex attracted as long as he can remember. When he came to faith within an evangelical context, he understood and accepted that, because marriage was for a man and a woman, this meant his calling was to be celibate. (Interestingly, he comments that this was pastorally helpful, as it protected him from sexual experimentation which would have prevented him coming to a mature position in his understanding.) He appeared to be fairly content in this understanding, until he heard a ‘theologian in Oxford’ (whom I speculate was Oliver O’Donovan) comment that ‘God created two sexes, not four.’ In other words, sexual identity in creation centres around the two sexes of male and female, and not the four of male heterosexual, male homosexual, female heterosexual and female homosexual. For Sean, this was a revolution in his thinking. He realised that he needed to act not out of his ‘orientation’, however that had arisen, but from his sex as a man. He eventually met, fell in love with and married the person who is now his wife, with whom he has children.
Apart from Sean’s personal journey, this realisation sheds significant light on the current debate as it is expressed in our culture. It is because of our obsession with our feelings and our desires, and the apparently absolute need for their fulfilment, that we have come to understand ‘orientation’ as fixed, enduring, inbuilt, and defining of who we are. I suspect this is closely connected to our consumerist culture, where the fulfilment of wants is seen as an economic good—more than that, a necessity. But, as Peter Ould and others have pointed out, this has little basis in science, and recent longitudinal studies show that sexual ‘orientation’ is in fact unstable and changeable, even if it is not subject to deliberate change easily through ‘therapy’ or prayer. In UK discrimination law, orientation now has the same ‘essential’ status as race or sex, but without the supporting evidence.
Sean is reluctant to give himself a label, though is probably closest to Ould’s label of ‘post-gay’. He does not think his ‘orientation’ has changed, nor that it is appropriate to pray for this. As he pointed out rather entertainingly, what good would it be for him as a married man to now be attracted to all these other women? I think his story also supports the widespread observation that all people are on a spectrum—most people have experienced attraction to someone of the other gender than the gender they most often feel attracted to.
He also believes (I think rightly) that there is no clear scientific consensus on causality for sexual orientation—though I found Schmidt’s multi-causal model in Straight and Narrow? most plausible. But, crucially, he thinks that the churches’ buying into the gay/straight classification is a pastoral dead end. If you are in the ‘straight’ box, then an idealised promised land of happy marriage awaits; if you are in the ‘gay’ box then you are stuck with second-best celibacy. This paradigm is damaging for both groups. We need to move beyond this, he argues, and work with the biblical, creation categories of male and female as our defining identities.
But my reflection on this is that we have two major problems. The first is that our culture, whilst paradoxically obsessed with bodies, in fact does not value them. I am not here thinking of the rise of obesity or self-harm or even sexual abuse—but simply the fact that, in living by the internet, we have a whole generation who are defining themselves and relating to others apart from bodily contact and bodily presence. This makes it so much easier to define who we are according to our feelings and desires, rather than according to the gendered bodies God has given us. I think this is a hugely significant factor in young people rejecting ‘traditional’ morality on marriage, and one that has not been recognised or explored.
Secondly, in the church, we continue to neglect the God-given importance of our bodily existence. This is evidenced in our failure to appreciate some key aspects of Jesus’ resurrection, and as a result our misunderstanding of New Testament eschatology—that God’s future for us and the world is not a disembodied existence with God in ‘heaven’, but a resurrection-bodily existence in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21). This is the pre-occupation of Tom Wright’s excellent Grove booklet New Heavens, New Earth as well as much of his other popular and academic writing on hope and the future. I find it fascinating that, in 1 Cor 6.14, Paul draw on Jesus’ bodily resurrection as a key part of his argument about sexual morality. This rarely features in contemporary debate.
So perhaps the most important things we can do in relation to the ‘gay debate’ are to do more of our relating ‘in real life’ rather than on line, and spend more time thinking about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the implications for our bodies.