A Letter to the Bishops and Deputies of the
73rd General Convention in Denver, Colorado
June 15, 2000
Dear Bishops Stanton and MacPherson, and Deputies to the 73rd General Convention,
It is not often that I turn my energies from ministry
within the local parish to address the increasingly wearisome controversies
of the larger Church. Yet my study of a report in the recently released
Blue Book has so offended my academic and professional sensibilities,
that I feel compelled to express my concerns to you as one of your
constituents within the Diocese of Dallas.
The report to which I refer is the Liturgy and Music
Aspects of Committed Relationships of Same-Sex Couples," which
culminates in the Commissioners proffering of Resolution A065 (Blue
Book, pp. 205-232). More specifically, I was troubled by the
essay on "Scripture" written by my colleague William
Countryman (pp. 209-212), with whom I have been a fellow member
in the Association of Anglican Biblical Scholars for several
Inside this essay, Countryman offers short analyses
of scriptural verses dealing with the issue of sexual relationships
between people of the same gender. In each case, he confidently
presents as valid conclusions claims which are not, in fact, currently
sustainable within the academic field of Biblical Studies. It is
these claims that I would here like to briefly review, along with
some concluding comments about the representativeness of the overall
Countryman issues the first of his many dismissals
of scripture in his characterization of the Sodom and Gomorrah story,
stating that this story has been discarded as evidence that the
"Bible condemns same-sex sexual activity . . . since other
Biblical references to the story never make such a connection"
(p. 210). While it is true that other Biblical allusions condemn
the cities for an array of sins, which are often not spelled-out
(e.g., Matt 10:15, 11:23-24; Luke 10:12, Rom 9:29), surely Ezekiel's
mention of the "abominations" of Sodom (Ezek 16:47) is
a reference to the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex sexual
relations, which are there condemned with the same infrequently
used Hebrew word, toe'bah, "abomination" (Lev 18:22,
Certainly this was the understanding of two Jewish
contemporaries of Jesus, Josephus and Philo, who both comment on
the Genesis passage. The latter, for instance, characterizes such
relations as "unnatural and forbidden intercourse" (On
Abraham, 27.137), while the former asserts that God destroyed
Sodom because the Sodomites "were bent only on violence and
outrage to the youthful beauty" of Lot's two guests (Antiquities
1.200-201). Clearly, these views are representative of the Jewish
interpretation of this passage in the First Century; it is no accident
that early Christian writers adopted this position and even coined
the term "sodomy" to speak of intercourse between males.
In his next paragraph, Countryman discusses the prohibitions
from Leviticus (Lev 18:22, 20:13), already mentioned above. Noting
that the passages fall within Israel's Purity Code, he argues that
they are no longer applicable to Christians since "New Testament
writers treat [the code] as no longer binding on gentile (and perhaps
even Jewish) Christians."
Here, one must at once question whether the contemporary
Church must completely remove the Purity Code from the realm of
theological reflection. For instance, recent discussion of the forgiveness
of international debt has frequently appealed to the biblical Year
of Jubilee-a commandment also found in the Levitical Purity Code
(Lev 25, 27; see, e.g., The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference,
The normative quality of heterosexual marriage in
the Bible is strongly challenged by Countryman in his ensuing treatment
of Gen 2:24, "a man leaves his father and his mother and clings
to his wife, and they become one flesh." While observing that
Christians have taken this as a positive commandment, Countryman
argues that the passage "can equally well be read simply as
an etiological story, telling how the institution of marriage came
into being." Absent entirely from his discussion, however,
is the point that Jesus himself did not interpret the passage etiologically,
but normatively (Mark 10:5-9, Matt 19:4-6), providing an ethical
basis for the institution of monogamous, heterosexual marriage in
the subsequent teachings of the Church, including those in our own
Book of Common Prayer (BCP pp. 423, 861).
Moving into the New Testament, Countryman comments
on the use of the term arsenokoites (NRSV, "Sodomites")
used in two vice lists (1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10), stating "there
is no evidence to show what it actually meant to speakers of Greek
in the first century." Actually, New Testament translators
and commentators are in general agreement that the term is a Greek
rendering of the Rabbinic Hebrew phrase mishkav zakur, "lying
with a male" (from Rabbinic commentary on Lev 18:22 and 20:13),
as can be seen from breaking the Greek word into its constituent
parts, arsen, "male," and koite, "sexual
intercourse." The sense is especially obvious when it stands
next to the word malakoi, as it does in 1 Cor 6:9, since
this Greek term routinely referred to the "effeminate"
partner in same-sex sexual liaisons (for a discussion, see, e.g.,
Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 242-244).
Countryman renders a similar dismissal of the last
New Testament text he considers, Romans 1:18-32, stating, "nowhere
is there evidence to show what [the text] actually meant to speakers
of Greek in the first century" (p. 211). Strictly speaking,
this is true-but only because we have no First Century commentaries
on Romans! To the earliest extant Greek commentators, however, Paul's
referents were clear. Thus John Chrysostom, remarking upon Paul's
allusion to lesbian behavior in v. 26b, writes that women who "seek
this sort of intercourse, ought to have more shame than men"
(Ep. ad Romanos Hom 4.1).
Similarly perplexing is Countryman's comment that
while "Paul describes same-sex sexual intercourse between men
(and possibly between women) as unclean and disgraceful . . . Paul
does not specifically identify it as sinful." But surely this
is splitting theological hairs, for while Paul may not have used
the label "sin," he clearly saw such activities as the
consequence of "Sin" (i.e., fallen humanity; vv. 18-21).
It should also be noted that Paul's reference in
these verses about lesbian behavior renders problematic the common
argument used by many scholars (though not here by Countryman) that
biblical writers only condemned the most prevalent homosexual practice
of the day: male pederasty.
Countryman concludes his essay with an appeal to
the Articles of Faith: "whatsoever is not read (in scripture)
nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man"
(Art. VI). From this he reasons that "the Bible, taken as a
whole, is not definitive enough to demand a negative judgment on
the present subject." Yet here it should be pointed out that
this argument should really be turned on its head: those who seek
to change radically the Teachings of the Church bear the burden
of proof in the face of the Tradition's interpretation of scripture.
For while treatments of scripture such as Countryman's may to some
blunt the force of scriptural prohibitions against same-sex sexual
behavior, they are much less successful in adducing from scripture
positive examples of such behavior.
This separates this enterprise from the earlier shift
of the Church's Teaching with respect to the ordination of women,
as in the latter case responsible interpreters could point to the
examples of Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, for instance
(though not all might agree on the force of these).
My point here is not to link the practice of homosexuality
with that of bestiality; rather, it is to observe that Countryman's
radically minimalist reading of scripture essentially strips the
Bible of any role in defining ethical sexual behavior. Scripture
is thus consigned to the dustbin with respect to this entire realm
of human conduct.
A more exegetically honest approach would be to acknowledge
the prohibitions of Scripture and Tradition against homosexual practice-and
their lack of positive commandment in this respect-but to argue
that our current experience has moved us beyond these. This seems
to be the position of Richard Norris (Blue Book, pp. 212-215),
who, while not discussing the Tradition's judgments on this issue
at all, instead essentially defines Tradition as past experience
that can be superseded by current understanding. Bishop Bennison's
essay (pp. 215-220) also unabashedly takes this approach when he
argues that present experience should be given greater precedence
than Scripture, Tradition or Reason.
Yet even here the Commission fails, for if we were
to take present experience as the supreme arbiter on this matter,
then we must define experience as the guidance of the Holy Spirit
as manifested in the great diversity of the entire Church.
Yet that diversity is not at all evident in the collection of scholars
writing essays for this report, for uniformly they are all well-known
"liberals" (for want of a better word) with respect to
this issue. Similarly, their bibliographies clearly reflect this
bias, omitting the diversity of scholarly opinion which, in some
cases, places them in the minority within the academy.
More tellingly, while the Introduction of the Report
culls from the recent Lambeth Report statements seemingly
sympathetic to the liberal position (Blue Book, pp. 207-209),
it glaringly omits the paragraph which states: "It appears
that a majority of bishops is not prepared to bless same sex unions
or to ordain active homosexuals. Furthermore many believe there
should be a moratorium on such practices" (Lambeth Report,
p. 94). Likewise, the Report makes no reference at all to the now
Resolution 1.10, which was approved by the overwhelming majority
of Bishops present.
Thus it would appear that the Commission, with its
strong bias toward experience as the arbiter of Church Teaching,
only wishes to present to the General Convention the experience
of a select minority of voices within the Church.
It is for the preceding reasons that I ask you not
only to vote against Resolution A065 or any other resolution
which does not keep with the spirit of Lambeth Resolution 1.10,
but also to insist that in the future the Commission on Liturgy
and Music be much more representative of the diversity of opinion
within the Church on this matter.
Thank you for your attention to the concerns expressed above. Please know that my prayers are with you as General Convention convenes next month.