Why Synod Should Reject Prayers for Same Sex Unions

Jul 6, 2023 by

by Rollin Grams, CEN:

In a recent article in the Church of England Newspaper (23 June, 2023), Savitri Hensman provided her arguments as to ‘Why Synod should say yes to prayers of love and faith.’  The present article provides a brief response (a lengthier essay is on my blog-  The Church and Same Sex Unions: A Response to Savitri Hensman (bibleandmission.blogspot.com)  ).

Hensman claims that same sex unions are acceptable and good, and therefore the Church should provide prayers to bless them.  Rightly, she sees that an affirmation of such prayers is predicated upon justifying these relationships.  She even seems concerned for Scriptural support of her position.

However, the vast majority of the Anglican Communion, apparently over 80%, remains firmly committed to the orthodox view that such unions are unbiblical and sinful.  In these dioceses and provinces, prayers affirming same sex unions are considered blasphemous against God’s holiness and abusive, pastoral care of sinners.  One does not bless what Paul says will disqualify one from the kingdom of God; one instead offers the Good News of God’s transforming grace in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.9-11).  Offering such prayers is not only a matter of calling evil good (Isaiah 5.20) in the Church of England but is also an irreparable fracturing of the Anglican Communion.  Prayers imagined to be ‘welcoming’ become prayers that exclude and divide.  Claiming to be wise, those promoting them are encouraging people given over in the lusts of their heart to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves with dishonourable passions against nature (Romans 1.22-32).

Hensman, however, avers that, ‘over the past century, there has been a major shift in Christian thinking about same-sex love and partnerships.’  She claims this shift has academic support: ‘Numerous biblical scholars and other theologians have made a powerful case that the handful of Bible passages sometimes quoted in discussions on sexuality cannot be applied to lifelong, faithful, self-giving relationships’—and then she adds, ‘though others disagree.’  Indeed, revisionists have a different view of sin, salvation, sanctification, and sexuality.

Hensman imagines that the Church is on an evolutionary trajectory toward greater acceptance of same sex unions.  Such a view sits very loosely toward tradition and is noticeably awkward in an historic Church like Anglicanism.  Historically, the Church has had an unchanging witness until the past half-century on the issue of same sex unions.  This view was based on the New Testament (Romans 1.26-27; 1 Corinthians 6.9; 1 Timothy 1.10; 2 Peter 2; Jude 7-8) and the Old Testament (Genesis 1.27-28; 2.21-24; 19; Leviticus 18.22; 20.13). Hensman might have addressed how she supports blessings for same sex unions when these Biblical texts exclude such persons from God’s people and the kingdom of God.

Hensman raises the question of the state of Biblical scholarship on the matter of same sex unions, believing there is a building consensus in its favour.  First, we should not conceive of the Church’s theology as a matter of forming consensus among so narrow a group (some of whom are believers).  St. Vincent of Lérins proposed theology established from Scripture and attested by the Church everywhere, always, and by all.  This much broader consensus is a way to check innovative and factional interpretations.  If the Church of England applied this principle, it would make no revision without seeking consensus with the historical witness of the Church and the view of Global South provinces.  The consensus she thinks she finds is limited to Western scholarship in declining, mainline denominations that have rejected Biblical authority and to scholars who affirm revision but disagree over why.

Moreover, the argument for same sex unions among scholars has not developed but has changed and fragmented.  In the 1980s, many followed Robin Scroggs’ argument that homosexuality in the New Testament was actually pederasty.  Scroggs himself gave up this view a decade later.  (Hensman echoes the earlier error, claiming homosexual relationships in antiquity were abusive.)  A number of contradictory alternatives were then suggested by various scholars in regard to different Biblical texts, all inserting imaginary, narrowing contexts meant to limit the applicability of texts like Leviticus 18.22; 20.13; Romans 1.26-27; 1 Corinthians 6.9; and 1 Timothy 1.10.  However, the corroborating statements in Judaism and patristic literature, the contrary views to Scripture found in the cultural contexts, the consistency of what is said about same sex unions with the Bible’s overall view of sex and marriage, and Roman 1.26-27’s language (‘against nature’) and parallel view to certain Greek and Roman philosophers (e.g., Epictetus) provide ample support for an unqualified reading of these verses.

Some scholars admit that their view on same sex unions comes not from Biblical interpretation but from their close relationship with someone in a same sex union.  Some others acknowledge that the Bible forcefully opposes these unions but, rejecting Biblical authority, promote them (e.g., Walter Brueggemann and Luke Timothy Johnson).  Some believe the issue needs to be decided as a theological and hermeneutical issue rather than exegetically.  Pointing to the Lutheran Church’s opposition to Scripture on divorce, for example, Arland Hultgren argued to oppose Scripture on homosexuality too.  Some others produced influential but academically weak and flawed works (Jack Rogers).  Thus, claiming that ‘numerous biblical scholars and theologians’ provide scholarly support for the revisionist view is very misleading.  There is no revisionist ‘view’ if arguments are required.  Revisionists also often reject other orthodox doctrines about sin and the transforming power of the Gospel.  On the other hand, we might counter that ‘numerous Biblical scholars and theologians’ have affirmed the orthodox teaching, consistently presenting their case exegetically, historically, and theologically (e.g., Robert Gagnon; Donald Fortson and myself).

Hensman, however, asserts that Biblical texts on homosexuality are not about faithful, committed, and self-giving love.  She suggests, with no support, that homosexual unions and marriage-like arrangements in antiquity were hierarchical and abusive.  She is aware of evidence that has been suggested to the contrary but is quick to dismiss it.  One might, understandably, ask whether she has explored the matter adequately.  She does not, for example, mention that Ptolemy states that some lesbians in antiquity designated their lovers as their lawful wives (Tetrabiblos III.14.172).  Significant texts of a similar perspective might be cited (cf. the Anglican Mainstream article).

Of the various Biblical texts that require scrutiny in this argument, Hensman considers Sodom’s sins in Genesis 19.  They were various and excessive (cf. Genesis 13.13; 18.20), not limited to the single sin of sodomy.  She notes Jesus’ and Ezekiel’s (16.49) non-sexual references to Sodom, thereby drawing attention away from Sodom’s sexual sin.  Yet the narrative itself and other, Jewish interpretations do speak of homosexual sin (cf. Testament of Naphtali 4.5; Testament of Jacob 7.20) and without any comment about rape and violence.  A sexual interpretation is also canonical (Jude 7-8 and 2 Peter 2.2-10) and important for Christian interpretation.  What these texts say coheres with denunciation of homosexuality.

Do revisionists really care what Scripture says about same sex unions?  Hensman’s real aim is ‘greater acceptance.’  Revisionists see Scripture not as revelation but as a flawed document by merely human authors and in need of revision.  This view allows and celebrates prayers for sin.

Rev Dr Rollin Grams is a priest of the Church of Uganda and formerly Professor of Biblical Theology and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Published in the Church of England Newspaper. July 6 2023

A fuller discussion of the issues by Dr Grams, in particular to give ample proof that there is no growing consensus in regard to arguments among Biblical scholars in favour of homosexual unions, as Hensman claims (and as many, no doubt, believe) can be found here 


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