How ‘traditionalist’are traditionalists?
Are conservatives really really defending
an unchanged tradition?
Mark Vasey-Saunders teaches Doctrine, Advanced Christian Ethics and Mission Entrepreneurship at St Hild, Sheffield. His doctorate was on ‘Evangelical responses to homosexuality’. The themes in this article are developed in more depth in his recent and important book, 'Defusing the Sexuality Debate - the Anglican Evangelical Culture War' (SCM. 2023).
One conventional way of describing the current debate over sexuality is to describe it as a debate between progressives and traditionalists. Progressives are arguing for a change to established teaching and practice. Traditionalists are arguing the church should stay true to its unchanging tradition. Conservatives often use the term ‘orthodox’ to further underline this
understanding. They are defending the established orthodoxy of the church against those seeking to lead people into heresy. One difficulty with this way of describing the debate is that it means the very terminology being used already loads a discussion one way. It demands a far higher burden of evidence from those seeking to change what has already been accepted as established practice compared to those simply arguing for no change. However, another and perhaps less well-recognised difficulty is that it is simply not true! The position currently advocated by conservatives is not the same unchanging position the church has held to for centuries.
"The position currently advocated by conservatives is not the same unchanging position the church has held to for centuries ... but both sides have a vested interest in not pointing this out."
This point should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of what the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality has been, but both sides have a vested interest in not pointing this out. It suits conservatives to portray themselves as defenders of an unchanging faith, and it suits liberals to portray them as literalist fundamentalists whose faith is unreasoned and unreasonable. The reality is that conservatives are arguing for a position that is distinctively modern, and represents a break with the earlier tradition of the church in a number of key areas. The most obvious way in which this is true is in the fact that modern conservatives accept that sexual orientation is a given of our created and fallen natures which is not in itself culpable – ie you are not a sinner just because you are gay. On this basis they are clear that homophobia – a prejudice against someone purely on the basis of their sexual orientation – is wrong and that the church should condemn this and repent where it has been homophobic in the past. There is a general recognition amongst conservative evangelicals that a celibate gay person can be an exemplary Christian – a position that allows same-sex attracted Ed Shaw to be co-chair of CEEC.
The fact that this is not the historic position of the church is in some ways obvious – the very concept of sexual orientation is a product of the 19th century, so it clearly wasn’t a central aspect of earlier doctrinal thinking – but, again, both conservatives and liberals have strong vested interests in not pointing this out. Conservatives are highly motivated to downplay the fact that this sort of distinction between orientation and practice reflects a distinctly modern outlook because it would start to raise questions about biblical interpretation: if we think it’s true that some people are just born gay, then what are we to make of the fact that biblical authors didn’t believe this?
"if we think it’s true that some people are just born gay, then what are we to make of the fact that biblical authors didn’t believe this? "
In response to this, conservative commentators tend to downplay the culture gaps between antiquity and modernity, stressing the (rather slim) evidence that in the ancient world some people were understood to have a natural attraction to those of their own sex, and that relationships equivalent to same-sex marriage were widely known. Thus Ian Paul notes: “The biblical texts do not explicitly comment on either the notion of homosexual ‘orientation’ or the equivalent to ‘same-sex marriage.’ It seems unlikely that none of the writers of the different biblical texts were aware of something akin to lifelong, committed, same-sex sexual relationships, given that these were known in the ancient world.” Meanwhile on the liberal side, there is an understandable tendency to try to identify forgotten or disregarded gay figures in the past who can be appealed to as exemplars or remembered as martyrs, setting aside the question of whether it is plausible that these figures would have had a self-understanding of their sexual identity as ‘gay.’ All of this has the effect of downplaying the significance of the difference between modern and pre-modern understandings of sexual orientation (and, indeed tends to encourage an entirely anachronistic outlook that ancient people were just like us and understood themselves and their world in the same way we moderns do).
"the lack of understanding of sexual orientation in pre-modern times is a key conceptual difference between modern and pre-modern understandings of sexuality."
In fact, the lack of understanding of sexual orientation in pre-modern times is a key conceptual difference between modern and pre-modern understandings of sexuality. The absence of this concept makes it very hard to make a case for resisting homophobia. To put this in context, prior to the 1969 Sexual Offences Act, homosexual acts between consenting adults were criminalised in Britain. This reflected widely-shared cultural presuppositions about the inherently perverted and socially-destabilising nature of same-sex desire (particularly between men.) Historically the roots of this understanding lay in Christian teaching about sodomy as the sin against nature, the most heinous of all sexual sins. It was the Church of England’s championing of reform that helped lay the grounds for the 20th century legal reform. The Church’s submission to the Government commission begins by identifying a failure to distinguish between the homosexual condition and homosexual acts as the single most basic error in historic understanding – before the 19th century, the idea that someone might simply ‘be gay’ irrespective of any actions they have or haven’t undertaken was just not considered. The (now dated) language used by the mid 20th century theologian Derrick Sherwin Bailey for this was ‘inversion’, denoting a person whose sexual desire was naturally directed towards their own sex. This could be logically distinguished from ‘perversion’, a person whose sexual desire was naturally directed towards the opposite sex, yet who chose to allow their desires to promiscuously include their own sex. He argued that the pervert could be rightly condemned where the invert could not irrespective of whether either had actually engaged in any same-sex sexual activity. The point should be clear: prior to the mid 20th century the law of the land and the teaching of the church were united in their assumption that all gay people were perverts. The acceptance of the existence of naturally-occurring homosexual sexual orientation (that some people were just born gay) allowed recognition that experiencing same-sex desire as your only form of sexual desire was not in itself morally culpable. This laid the groundwork for christian championing of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
When Conservative Evangelicals affirm that those who are same-sex attracted (even if they prefer not to use the terminology ‘gay’) are to be treated no differently from their straight neighbours, and that if they do fall into sexual sin this should be viewed as exactly equivalent to heterosexual sexual sin, they are adopting a position that is radically different from pre-modern Christian tradition, which saw homosexual sexual sin as significantly more heinous. In taking this a step further and identifying homophobia as sin (which conservative evangelicals claim they do) they are actually identifying a category of sin to which earlier christian tradition was completely oblivious.
"Why does this matter? Because it enables greater honesty and transparency in the debates. It helps conservatives and liberals understand their own position better."
Why does this matter? There are two reasons why this all matters. First, it matters because it enables greater honesty and transparency in the debates with which we as a church are currently embroiled. It helps conservatives understand their own position better, and helps liberals appreciate that conservatives are not quite the unreconstructed fundamentalists they might imagine them to be. But secondly, it matters because in the pressures of the current debate conservatives are finding this point hard to emphasise. When liberals are actively trying to argue against their understandings, it is very easy for conservatives to fall back into a simplified soundbite. ‘The Bible is crystal clear’ or ‘we are simply defending an unchanging Christian orthodoxy’ are much stronger statements in debate than ‘we recognise and repent that the church has interpreted scripture in a homophobic way in the past, and we seek to stand against the historic tradition of the church where it has done this.’ After all, acknowledging this would mean having to explain that the differences between conservatives and liberals are far more about nuances of interpretation and degrees of emphasis than either are comfortable admitting.