A review of Faithfulness in Fellowship: Reflections on Homosexuality and the Church. By the Doctrine Panel of the Anglican Church of Australia.

John Garratt Publishing, 2001.

Two out of ten. If you want a quick scorecard approach to how the authors in this book line up on the issue of homosexuality, that is about how things stack up. Two of the authors/chapters out of the ten make a strong and clear-cut case that homosexuality is wrong, and that ordination is out of the question. The remaining eight are roughly divided between those who are open to homosexuality and its place in the church, and those who seem to straddle the fence.

This book is a collection of papers on the issue of Christianity and homosexuality from the Doctrine Panel of the Anglican Church of Australia. The papers are the result of a call by the General Synod of the Anglican Church in 1998 to examine more closely the issue of homosexuality and the church. The result is this book. The Preface states that there is no wish to see a change to the “traditional disciplines” of the Church, simply to present these essays as study material for further reflection.

The two authors who take the traditional (and many would argue, biblical) approach are Rev Dr Peter Jensen and Rev Dr Glenn Davies, both associated with Moore Theological College in Sydney. The former makes the case against the ordination of homosexuals while the latter examines the New Testament evidence on homosexuality. Between the two of them a compelling and learned “no” case is argued.

The other authors make the “yes” and “maybe” cases, examining biblical, social, scientific and ecclesiastical evidence. These eight presentations at times reveal more about where the authors are coming from than the hard data itself. For example, Rev Dr Graham Garrett tells of how his views on the whole question have been radically altered after his niece came out and revealed her lesbianism. He says that he has been “deeply affected by personal relationships in this regard. They have changed my mind and heart, and heavily influenced the stand I take in the debate. The long and the short of it is that I have a gut-level sense of what is right in the matter. I guess I am looking for ways of reading the truth of God in this light.”

While we can all applaud his honesty here, one must be concerned to see the old truism that Scripture must judge experience being turned on its head. Here we have a candid admission that the truth of the matter will now be greatly influenced by this and related experiences and gut level feelings, instead of by a careful examination of the biblical text. Of course, when we pursue that path, any and all behaviours and beliefs can be condoned, no matter how at variance with biblical teaching.

Or consider the remarks of Rev Dr Scott Cowdell. He acknowledges at the outset that there “can be no doubt that gay and lesbian sexual activity receives no clear warrant in Scripture, and appears to attract blanket condemnation”. Yet in spite of this he concludes by saying that “the blessing of same-sex unions can be seen as a valid development in line with Anglican moral sensibility”. He tries to make his case in part by arguing that just as in Acts 15 we hear of former (Old Testament) revelation being displaced and/or reinterpreted by newer leadings of the Spirit, so too today similar kinds of changes can take place under the Spirit’s direction.

But this is a specious argument for at least two reasons. When the decisions about how gentile Christians should deal with Jewish practices were debated in Acts 15, there was no New Testament canon; it was in the process of development. Obviously there are major New Testament reinterpretations of Old Testament thinking. But to argue that there should be ongoing revision and reinterpretation after the New Testament canon has been closed is not warranted. The full revelation of God has now been revealed, and no new inspired word is to be expected.

Secondly, the line on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular runs consistently throughout the Old and New Testaments. There is no need to replace this teaching today – it is as authoritative today as it was in Paul’s day.

The same kind of thinking can be found in Dr Muriel Porter’s piece. Even though she acknowledges that traditionally “the Hebrew Scriptures have been interpreted as explicitly forbidding homosexual activities per se” and that there “can be no doubt that the early Church believed it was building on the testimony of the Bible when it developed its opposition to homosexuality”, nevertheless, she continues to press her case for the Church to change its ways and develop “a fresh reassessment of homosexuality”.

Rev Dr Peter Carnley, who has been getting some attention lately for controversial pronouncements, has also called for a rethink of the church’s attitude towards homosexuality. Recognising that a blessing on same-sex marriage may not be appropriate, he calls instead for the blessing of committed same-sex friendships. Citing the relationships of Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi as possible examples, he not only thinks same-sex friendships can be approved by the Church, but goes a step further: “The Church could also call down God’s blessing on a household that is shared by friends”. To which one obviously must ask, Why stop there? Why not have God’s blessing on football teams, groups of bank robbers, and stamp clubs. Many of these show committed friendships as well. He concludes by saying we have only a “handful of biblical injunctions” that deal with homosexuality (never mind the substantial biblical material on God’s aim for sexuality and relationships), and that relationships (be they heterosexual or homosexual) are “essential” and the “Church’s calling is to foster such friendships”.

Other authors could be mentioned. For example, Rev Dr John Dunnill, reflecting some of the recent developments in theological revisionism, argues that “’Sodom’ had nothing to do with the subject of homosexuality”. And Rev Sean Mullen dismisses reparative therapies (designed to help homosexuals leave their homosexuality) as lacking in scientific validity, despite the fact that thousands of ex-homosexuals have gone on to (heterosexual) marriage and family life.

One does not wish to question the integrity or veracity of these eight members of the panel. Undoubtedly they are all men and women of high standards and high standing. However, the fact that 80 per cent of the Anglican Church’s leading lights cannot come up with compelling reasons as to why the homosexual challenge to faith and family can not be resisted is a matter of great concern. The Church is meant to lead the way in social and moral thinking. But if it gives an uncertain sound, who can follow it? If it cannot take a stand on what to many is such a basic and vital matter as this, how can it expect the world to flock to it? If the Church merely becomes a mirror image of the surrounding culture’s moral decline, instead of a bulwark against it, then it may as well find something else to do.

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One Reply to “A review of Faithfulness in Fellowship: Reflections on Homosexuality and the Church. By the Doctrine Panel of the Anglican Church of Australia.”

  1. As an Anglican Priest, it is disturbing that this is what we in New Zealand are coming up against also, although politicians here are saying they will never force Priests to marry homosexuals or lesbians. To be realistic if the bill is passed this will be the next move pushed by the Homosexual lobbyists. We already have civil unions, so it is not about having the legal right of relationships but to bring down the state of marriage ie. one man, one woman.
    Rev’d Norma Ardern, NZ

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