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Understanding homosexuality

By Ann Benedek on June, 11 2015

(This story was first published in the October 1976 issue of the Canadian Churchman.) 

“The homosexual is the modern equivalent of the leper,” said Pierre Berton in his book, The Comfortable Pew (1965). “His very job, economic and social status, community position and public acceptance depend upon the successful concealment of an awful secret…”

What is society’s attitude a decade later? Does the man on the street continue to view the homosexual as “deviant”? Is the church any more tolerant or understanding?

Traditionally Christianity and Judaism have taught that homosexuality is unnatural, its practice sinful. Its opposition stems from five biblical condemnations of homosexual acts. Among them are “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death…” (Leviticus 20: 13) and “Neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals…will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6: 9-10).

The unrighteous

Although in the New Testament Jesus makes no reference to homosexuality, St. Paul includes homosexuals among the “unrighteous” who will not “inherit the kingdom of God.”

Dr. Charles Feilding, secretary of the Anglican Church commission on marriage and related matters, and one-time dean of Trinity College here, says the climate of opinion has changed both in the church and in society.

“I would say in society as a whole there is a more relaxed attitude to the problem…people are prepared to discuss it more rationally. But whether you can imply there is any fundamental change in moral judgment is very uncertain.”

The church, he says, has always quoted such theological arguments.

“They are judgments that are made in a particular culture at a particular time. I would not support any fundamentalist view at any time about any moral issue.

Definition important

“The question you have to resolve is what you mean by homosexuality. Do you mean the homosexual encounter, or that people like someone of their own sex? If you take that line you can make a list of a lot of other things that are a sin in the Bible. It doesn’t get you anywhere,” Dr. Feilding points out.

“What I am concerned with as a theologian is that people try to understand what is technically called original sin, which is misunderstood.

I am concerned about people who make moral judgments about other people without understanding the history of the other person. What is needed is understanding, a vision of the world as it might be, and a faith in the possibility of getting things straightened out.”

Of the persons contacted by Canadian Churchman across the country, many said the church had done little to promote a better understanding of homosexuality.

However, the almost universal reaction was that it was not a high priority for the church at this time; that there were already in existence exclusive ministries to gay people where they were wanted. They said a theological study on homosexuality should be undertaken by the church, but not necessarily on the effects of discrimination. In fact, they were not aware of any discrimination against homosexual men and women.

A disorientation

Homosexuality was regarded by most as a “disorder” or a “disorientation”; something that could be cured. A few said it was a “sinful act,” and that since the Bible condemns homosexuality, it is unChristian.

One Anglican said: “Just because a man is a professed homosexual doesn’t make him immoral,” but disagreed that the church should make a position statement on the issue.

“It is too complicated and delicate an issue to legislate a policy,” he said.

The Anglican Church of Canada recently set up a task force to study homosexuality.

Rev. Jim Reed, professor of pastoral psychology at Trinity College, Toronto, is a member of that task force, and expressed hope that the church would increasingly be more understanding of and supporting of the homophile.

“But I think it is going to take a long time. The biases are very deep. The prejudices will take a long time to overcome,” he says.

“The church has contributed to the mythology surrounding homosexuals in a very negative way. As one of the educating influences of the masses in a very general sense, the church has to first of all repent of that. It has to work in every way possible to try to re-educate people. That will take a long time because the myths within society around sex are so strong.”

Private acceptance

Mr. Reed is also an evaluator with the Anglican Church’s Advisory Committee on Postulants for Ordination (ACPO), a body which assesses the suitability of candidates for the ministry. Although the church’s policy in his experience is to be “publicly intolerant, repressive and ignorant,” there have been instances privately where there has been “a pretty high level of acceptance,” he says.

According to Rev. Dick Johns, ministry resources officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, there is no sleuthing or attempt to determine sexuality as such by ACPO. Homosexuality would be taken seriously, but it would be a personality factor that would be considered among all factors.

“There’s no deliberate looking for sexual orientation at all,” he emphasizes. “Unless someone were to demonstrate external behavioural characteristics that caused problems it wouldn’t likely be something that would attract attention.”

Not practiced

Is the church saying that sexual orientation does not matter so long as the homosexual does not practice his lifestyle openly? What would the response be to a postulant who volunteered he was homosexual?

“The question of responsibility would emerge. It would be considered important data because the person introduced it,” Mr. Johns says.

If a man were to be extraordinarily effeminate, and have the stereotypic kind of thing associated with homosexuality, there possibly would be some effort to deal with that kind of overt behaviour.

“Probably the majority don’t behave that way anyway. But if there were some of those things considered stereotypic, there would be discussion as to where the person was, and how he planned to handle that sort of thing as a clergyman.”

Function well

Mr. Johns says that a significant number of homosexual clergy appear to be “functioning well,” although in most cases a parish is unaware of the clergyman’s sexual orientation. Sometimes there is a tacit recognition that does not become explicit, he points out.

Mr. Reed says that in any theological college the degree to which a student comes to grips with himself, or herself, depends a great deal on what the personal growth opportunities are.

“In my own case at Trinity I get to know the secrets of a lot of students, and in that sense there’s a very open discussion. When it’s homosexuality, there’s a high level of discussion.

“However, if a student is considering ordination, he has to be political about it,” he says.

Keep it quiet

“There are a lot of students in a lot of colleges who don’t share that part of themselves because they are frightened of getting the door.”

John Marshall (not his real name), is a homosexual student of divinity at Trinity, and says he has been able to be open about his own sexual orientation both with students and faculty.

“But you see, when I say I’m open, I am not seeking ordination,” John explains. “If I were seeking ordination there would be no way I would dare to be as open as I am. My whole vocation would be in jeopardy.”

Negative

He says the church is “negative, but not strongly negative” towards homosexuals. There are obviously gay priests, he says, but it’s something that nobody really talks about.

“I think that is foolish. Not talking about it is just a lie of silence. It’s allowing the whole misconception to go on — that homosexuals are bad, that they’re sinners, that they don’t have the same rights as heterosexuals.

“Homosexuals are seen as second class citizens, and second class Christians,” John adds.

Bishop Hugh Stiff, dean of St. James Cathedral in Toronto, says the church should certainly show compassion, care and (if the homosexual should ask), careful pastoral counseling.

Asked if he thought homosexual clergy should remain celibate, Bishop Stiff said: “I would hope a number of them would try to be. There are more things in the world than sex…important as sex is. There are other gifts that are just as good. There are lots of people who sublimate their desires into their vocations.”

Pastoral guidance

While he has given pastoral guidance to some homosexuals, and has visited the home of a homosexual couple, Bishop Stiff says if he were asked to bless a homosexual relationship he would have to say no.

“When you talk about blessing a union, I have problems with that,” he says. “I don’t see how the church can bless such a union. In the eyes of the law it is not a marriage. It has to be recognized by the state, apart from the church.

“It is a different relationship — sometimes it is a good relationship — but I think relationships with men are not that long lasting and meaningful.

“The blessing of a marriage implies a special relationship.

“A woman and a man, when they marry, complement each other. I am not sure that happens in a homosexual relationship,” Bishop Stiff points out.

“In a homosexual relationship, homosexuals themselves seem to say that the relationship is not long lasting.”

Archbishop Ted Scott, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told a meeting of the House of Bishops in May this year that “the agenda committee of the House has initiated and will make arrangements for a report regarding homosexuality.”

According to the church’s general secretary, Archdeacon Ted Light, the decision to set up a task force to study homosexuality resulted from a resolution passed by a parish church in Huron Diocese expressing concern about the possibility of homosexuality in the church in Canada.

It is hoped that a first draft of the task force report will be available for study by the bishops in November, and preliminary discussion might take place when the house meets next February.

Broad representation

The task force, co-ordinated by Rev. Tom Kingston, the church’s consultant in family life, presently consists of five members representing the clergy and various areas of education, psychology and psychiatry.

Asked if homosexuals would participate in the task force, Mr. Kingston said: “The membership is not complete. Any report on homosexuality would have to have input from homosexuals.”

The purpose of the study, which will consist of a series of two or three reports, is educational, Mr. Kingston said.

“It will help the bishops gain greater knowledge of homosexuality and enable them to deal responsibly and compassionately with requests for help from homosexual organizations. And it will increase their skill in dealing with questions of faith and order regarding homosexuals,” Mr. Kingston added.

Canadian Churchman spoke with a random selection of bishops across the country on homosexuality as an area of pastoral concern.

“It has always been a matter of concern, but it’s never been a great problem,” said Bishop John Bothwell of Niagara diocese.

“I’ve had clergy mention homosexual and heterosexual problems to me. My response would be that with homosexual or heterosexual problems it’s how you handle it. You can handle your feelings of sexuality maturely, you can come to terms with your own sexuality…that’s all I’m really concerned about.”

Asked if he would be prepared to ordain a candidate who was known to be homosexual, Bishop Bothwell said: “It would depend on the person, like any other individual. If I thought the person was a mature, wholesome individual who had come to terms with himself or herself and had a true call of God, I think that I would be prepared to consider the situation, yes.

“I would not agree to ordain a person who wanted a homosexual marriage. I couldn’t at this point, nor is the church at the point where it would accept that.

“I think that homosexuality is something that I and society as a whole don’t know enough about yet. I’m not prepared always to condemn it out of hand, nor am I prepared to condone it. Rather I am prepared to say that if a person has coped with his homosexual feelings and tendencies and has them under control in such a way that they are not a menace to other people, or a cause of public scandal, that’s all that I feel that I could require.”

Metropolitan of the province of British Columbia, Archbishop David Somerville feels that a person’s sexual orientation should be a factor in considering his suitability for the priesthood.

“I think that in the present situation in society a gay person is vulnerable in a lot of ways and is likely to be under pressures and difficulties which will make it difficult for him to sustain a pastoral role in a parish.

“I’m not trying to be judgmental. I’m referring to the fact that he probably has to conceal the fact of his homosexuality, that he probably has to be very cautious about friendships, that if he is unmarried he will be regarded with some suspicion by part of the community around him.”

He said, however, that in his own diocese (New Westminster) a great deal of support was exhibited at both the parish and diocesan level in a case two years ago involving an alleged homosexual clergyman who was arrested and imprisoned.

“He received support and help from the parish and from me. I went to court with him and supported him in all sorts of ways.”

Other factors

Archbishop Robert Seaborn said that sexual orientation is not the only factor involved in considering suitability for the priesthood.

Asked if he would ordain a known homosexual, Archbishop Seaborn said: “I would want to know the man. I would want to know a great deal about him before I could answer that question.”

And in Rupert’s Land Diocese Bishop Barry Valentine said that the factors he would consider concerning a homosexual candidate for ordination would be “exactly the same as if he were heterosexual.” As far as the candidate’s suitability for the priesthood, his homosexuality would be of “no significance whatsoever,” he said.

However, Bishop Valentine clarified this by saying that a homosexual candidate would probably be directed towards certain types of priestly ministry.

“I have now one candidate for the priesthood whom I have been supporting who has cerebral palsy. He and I and the theological college know that creates certain inevitable limitations for the kind of functioning he will be able to exercise as a priest.

“What I’m really saying is that I would say exactly the same thing about a homosexual…that I would have to look at the particular gifts, abilities, disabilities of him or her in exactly the same way, and would end up as effectively as I could in consultation with him and those who had been responsible for his training in saying: ‘This I think you can take a crack at, that I don’t think you can,’” Bishop Valentine explained.

Bishop John Langstone, Diocese of Edmonton, says he does not think an admitted homosexual could be ordained “at the present time.” Such a man, he points out, would probably be difficult to appoint in most parishes.

“If it makes the man unappointable you are going to look several times at the question of ordaining him,” he says.

While he does not feel he would be justified in refusing ordination just because a man may be homosexual, Bishop Langstone adds:

“I would have great difficulty with it. I would try not to allow this to be a determining factor in the decision. But I am afraid it would be, partly because I don’t think we have the answer yet as to what this situation is — whether it is a physical problem or not,” he explains.

During the course of gathering information on the personality of clergy for his dissertation, Dr. Bruce Pellegrin, dean of divinity at St. John’s College in Winnipeg, Man., also looked into the question of homosexuality within the clergy, in particular Anglican clergy.

“People are concerned about the incidence of homosexuality in seminarians and clergy, and my study finds no personality difference between clergy who have been ordained 25 years and theology students in seminaries and younger clergy,” he told Canadian Churchman.

“We are dealing with people who are quite similar in personality, irrespective of age, so that those who talk about clergy being different than they were are talking through their hat,” he said.

Dr. Pellegrin, who has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Kansas, noted some of the conflicts experienced by homosexual seminarians and ordinands.

“There are some very real difficulties. If a person declares himself to be homosexual, at least in our part of the world, he has real difficulty in obtaining a position. It seems as if he is considered to be a much more dangerous person than the unmarried curate who is handsome and attractive to young ladies.

“Negative feeling about homosexuality has certainly been true of the church. The homosexual person having been raised in that tradition and preparing himself for ministry in that tradition has to have a backlog of negative feelings and values already imposed on him.

“He arrives at a college and is discovering he’s got something to face and own up to. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”

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June, 11 2015
Categories:  140 years

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