The Friends' Quarterly October 1988
Towards a Quaker View of Sex: A View from the Wider Church
This is not the first time in twenty-five years that I have had to find a substitute for the copy of Towards a Quaker View of Sex unaccountably missing from my shelves. The result of this accident, however, is that I now possess the last ever copy to be sold, which my local divinity faculty had received, with an explanatory apology, in lieu of their more numerous order. Associated with this unique purchase was no prize or incentive but rather a request from the editor to reflect on the impact of this publication on the wider church, a privilege indeed for one who is not often to be found among Friends! I have to say, however, that bending to the task, I did wonder whether this was prize or penalty. That this essay has had considerable significance is widely accepted, but how to give this chapter and verse? Influential writing of this kind, one suspects, do much of their word by stealth.
It was during a debate in the House of Lords on May 1965 about the law as it affected homosexuals that the Lord Arran, speaking to a bill to protect the rights of consenting adults, made reference to the support of such groups as the Church Assembly, the Church of England Moral Welfare Committee, a Roman Catholic Advisory Committee, the Methodist Conference, and 'an influential group of Quakers'. 'These are great bodies', he said, 'and their voices cannot be taken lightly.'
The debate was taking place in the aftermath of the report of the 'Wolfenden Committee', the Royal Commission set up in 1954 to re-assess the laws relating to homosexual offences as well as to prostitution. This question had been raised partly because of pressure from church bodies over the preceding two-year period. In 1952, an ordinand at Ely Theological College, noting public reaction at increased police activity against known homosexual, wrote to the journal Theology questioning the employment of penal measures to punish homosexual practices and raising the matter of homosexuals who wished to make their contribution to the local Christian community. This set up a chain reaction in this denomination, issuing in a privately-circulated report by the Church of England Moral Welcome Committee in 1954, where it was pointed out inter alia that in no other department of life did the State interfere with private actions of consenting adults.
The chief recommendation of the Wolfenden Committee, when it reported in 1957, was that the law be not concerned with private homosexual acts between consenting adults; the place for the law should only be where something was contrary to the public good. It was received with wide approval, but the government of the time was not found eager to implement these recommendations with legislation. There was fear that alteration would seem to imply approval or tolerance of 'a great social evil': public opinion was not ready for such a move. This inaction prompted the establishment of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which helped keep the issue before Parliament and society at large. Thus the pressure towards legal change was established, but what was also badly needed was the influencing and educating of public opinion, as well as the care and support of those who had come under increased pressure, as homosexuals, at a time of flux and uncertainty. Towards a Quaker View of Sex was to contribute substantially towards meeting both of these needs.
Part of the background to the preparation of the essay was the theological ferment of the Sixties, sometimes referred to as the 'new theology'. The shift of focus from a God who was 'out there' to an immanent Being discovered in the midst of life was paralleled by a shift of emphasis from an external code of ethics to the situation where many ethical choices were possible and more than one could be 'right'. Thus the 'permissive society' of the Sixties had its echo in the 'new morality'. Instead of seeing Christian morality as divine revelation which was to be worked out afresh by each generation in the light of its own understanding of the Gospel and of the conditions of the times.
The impact of the essay resided in a number of factors. It was prepared to deal openly with information not freely discussed and about which there was therefore much ignorance--for example, the incidence of masturbation, or stages of sexual maturation. It was prepared to face the implications of changing practice in the patterns of relationship between the sexes, many of which were not commonly admitted because they seemed too threatening to traditional Christian morality--for example, the increase of familiarity allowed between the sexes, or the greater opportunities for close personal relationships (e.g. in the work place) alongside the marriage commitment, or the fact the temporary relationships were frequently approached with seriousness and commitment, or the predicament of young adults caught between the stimuli of advertising and economic realities which prevented immediate marriage. Again, it challenged certain assumptions which supported an unthinking acceptance of traditional views: did extra-marital sex necessarily undermine a marriage? does the love of virginity really mean more to a woman than to a man?
A central contribution, however, was the way the essay approached the making of ethical decisions. It questioned the view of morality by which right and wrong was known and 'given', and which must find its expression in an external pattern of behaviour to which all should adhere. Morality must come from the heart, something that traditional codes of morals could not be said any longer to do (the question is very properly raised as to the effect on people of following such codes so little based in feeling). The touchstone of moral behaviour was the quality of relationship achieved, not conformity to a pattern. Generosity, warmth and freedom were to replace what the authors saw as a humourless scrupulosity.
This approach, far from leaving things in the air, led the authors to come firm conclusions. The group affirmed that there must be a morality of some sort to govern sexual relationships, since such a profound experience could not be left to private judgement. It also affirmed the need to preserve family life and marriage, in which they saw the sexual impulses having the greatest opportunity for joyful and creative expression. Indeed, they commented that the conclusions such an approach may lead to might be as critical of 'free love' as the 'old morality'. The Christian standard of chastity stood, but should not be measured by the absence of a physical act; rather it should be standard of human relationship, applicable within marriage as well as outside it. Progress toward an appropriate Christian ethical response meant in the end spiritual growth and the continual seeking of the will of God.
The formation of the working party, of course, had been in response to particular questions raised by homosexuals and the essay is notable in its insistence that the same ethical approach should apply to questions of homosexuality as of heterosexuality. It refuses to treat homosexuality in isolation, but approaches it through the whole question of sexuality, seen not as a physical act but a quality of personhood,. The same criteria, therefore, are to be applied, namely, what is the quality of a particular relationship? is there exploitation or there freedom to grow in love? Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual. A society which enabled and supported mature homosexual partnerships may benefit from their existence. Certainly, neither the physical nature of an act, nor any feelings of disgust, should form the basis of moral decisions. A change of attitude is required, from that which says 'whatever you do it wrong' to one of acceptance.
The effect of this essay lay not only in the argument propounded, but in the way the arguments were couched. Peter Coleman, in his influential and thorough study Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality (SPCK, 1980) applauds the courage and the clarity of the writing; there was no doubt, he said, what was meant. He also finds its importance not only in the text itself, but in the reputation of Quakers for 'moral caring responsibility'. Here was an example of what Ian Fraser, writing in another context about the marks of the true church, characterised as 'convincing words interwoven into a convincing life'.
Another factor (acknowledged within the report itself by way of encouragement of readers to take the necessary steps) was the greater freedom to assess authority critically and come to a common mind that resided in a group like the Society of Friends which was not dominated by priests or a hierarchy. This, taking along with the Quaker tradition of the equality of the sexes and the refusal to make distinctions between the sacred and the secular, provided a strong foundation from which to explore these ethical matters.
Finally, the essay has about it a 'listening quality'. Quaker families are often notable for their openness to their younger members and for a readiness to take seriously their views and experience. This same quality is present here. The reader feels that those who are currently facing the dilemmas discussed are fully present in the report, and this contributes to its cutting edge.
It is probably correct to say that most subsequent discussion of the issues, particularly of homosexuality, has taken place with some cognisance of this document. Not all reports may refer to it directly, but among the exceptions is The Church and the Homosexual (1976) in which an American Roman Catholic professor of Moral Theology quotes it in support of view that 'there can be a morally good sexual relationship between two homosexuals'. Coleman himself offers a lengthy summary and comments on its 'abiding influence' as being in its articulation of the basis of a liberal case. (The same author also notes the usefuless of Homosexuality from the inside, David Blamires' up-dating of the original report.)
This combination of sound argument, well expressed and centred in the Quaker ethos, made for a document which was especially suitable for the teaching of Christian Ethics in colleges and universities. In my present university, as well as in the theological college in Australia in which I recently taught, the essay was found to be useful not just because of the arguments and information marshalled therein, but because of the way it penetrated and articulated the day-to-day experience of those who face for themselves these dilemmas. It engages the reader at the point of personal feeling, and not just intellectual understanding.
There is a contrast here with may subsequent documents which have adopted a more careful tone, conscious of the sensibilities of church members who might be offended by too direct an approach. 'Sex and Morality", the BBC report of 1966, may be open to this criticism in spite of its attempt to move from traditional positions. The fear of causing schism in a church often seems greater than a fear of not getting something right or not providing sufficient support. It was not until much later that church documents were able to argue and communicate as openly on these matters.
One of those was the British Council of Churches report God's yes to sexuality edited by Basil and Rachel Moss (Fount, 1980). Among other things, it invited readers to rethink the role of the family, usually seen as the centrepiece of traditional morality. The ties of kinship and the strength of the family in providing a setting for growth in love, including the sexual expression of it, was acknowledged, but so also was the family's potential for damage. It urged a more positive view of the single state and the recovery of friendship as a powerful factor in the health of human society. The single person was able to discover more diversity in friendship, which would enrich the common life as well as his/her own growth. Singles could also help the development towards a more open and flexible family structure if only society would cease to consider theirs as an 'incomplete' or transient stage. Sexuality was much more than the genital expression of it and was present in all relationships including those who were unmarried. The assumption that any such relationship must stop short of genital expression was challenged, although many questions were raised about the implications of this--for example, an absence of long-term commitment, the danger of exploitation.
As regards homosexuality, the BBC report acknowledged that same-sex sex can be exploitative and destructive just as can heterosexual sex. It questioned the view that homosexuality was a 'vice' or a 'disorder' and challenged the right of the church to refuse forgiveness without reorientation or a promise never to proceed to genital expression of love. There should be no public and private parts of life, and no pressure on homosexuals to hide their orientation. The demands of love and compassion were made in all relationships; there was an equal demand made on homosexuals, but less support given to achieve this.
Again, a report by the United Church in Australia on Homosexuality and the church, edited by G. Dicker and published in 1984 and intended for study by its members, began by acknowledging the homosexuality was not something chosen by the individual. In the majority of cases, to talk of treatment was irrelevant. It points out that homosexuals can be Christians of quite orthodox belief and practice. Further, homosexual seduction of minors is no more damaging in the long run than heterosexual seduction, which is in fact much more common. It offers as a Christian possibility that homosexuals may enter into deep and loving relationships with each other. On the matter of ordination (one of the triggers for this study), it resists automatic exclusion of a candidate on the grounds of homosexuality and insists that decisions must be made in a holistic way through the normal processes of selection.
One important advance in the last twenty-five years has been the canvassing of alternative interpretation of 'classic' Bible passages on homosexuality, following contemporary biblical scholarship. For instance, it is suggested that Genesis 19 is not about homosexuality at all; rather the main point of the story is the condemnation of violence, gang rape and inhospitality. No Old Testament or Apocrypha references to Sodom and Gomorrah interpret their sin as having to do specifically with homosexuality. The Judges 19-21 passage is capable of a similar interpretation. Deuteronomy 23: 17-18 and verses in I Kings 14, 15 and 22 may refer to homosexuality, but this is uncertain; the concern of these passages is with the cultic activities of Israel's neighbours (which include sexual activity of various kinds) but it is not clear whether the Hebrew word qadesh (male cultic prostitute) refers to homosexual or heterosexual activity. Leviticus 18, 20 and 25 are part of a law code which, as well as forbidding homosexual acts, forbids the lending of money on interest, a law clear3ly considered not applicable today! Why, it is argued, should the other apply?
Of the New Testament texts, in relation to I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10 there is uncertainty about the meaning of the word translated "homosexual" in t he RSV. Again, Romans 1:26-27, which condemns male and female homosexual acts, does so as part of a list which includes other sins and is intended to illustrate the broken state of God's creation. It corresponds to similar lists in Jewish writings and leaves us with the question as to whether what was seen as sinful in first century AD Jewish culture should be seen similarly today. In addition, Paul seems to understand homosexual activity as carried out by people who are naturally heterosexual, i.e. entered on my deliberate preference; he does not have the understanding of homosexuality as something which could be natural. Can we therefore, the argument runs, accept what he says as binding on our situation today?
A quarter of a century after publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex, what development has there been, if any? It is a question which is quite difficult to answer. Certainly there is a heightened awareness of the issues and a greater acceptance of homosexuality amongst a significant number of people. On the other hand, events like the introduction of 'Section 28' and discussions within the Church of England regarding the acceptability of homosexuals for ordination are symbolic of old attitudes dying hard, events which enhance feelings of discrimination on the part of homosexuals.
An interesting development has been the self-identification of homosexual women in particular with other minorities, such as those based on race. This has had the effect of broadening the issue from sexual orientation to the nature of oppression in society. Indeed it is not easy to separate this from a feminist critique as a whole, a perspective on society which is concerned with questions of power and the quality of relationships regardless of sexual preferences, racial characteristics, etc. Such initiatives are well matched and promoted by powerful and perceptive writing, for sample through 'women's pages' in newspaper and publishers which specialises in women authors. At a recent student forum in my present university, the view was put forward that the reason no comparable means of raising consciousness on the part of gay men has developed is because it is still possible for hem to remain 'invisible', to identify as it were with the 'oppressor'. To acknowledge being a member of an oppressed group, it was argued, was to give something up, namely, the power of being a male in our society. It was less easy to remain invisible if you are a woman, or black, or poor.
This continuing invisibility fuels the fear that many people have. Yet the impulse to retain one's invisibility derives also from a continuing fear of being unacceptable and unsupported by society in general. It is this feat which causes governments to ban the 'promotion' of homosexuality and which gives rise to ambivalence in the current discussions about ordination. Again in this university, gay men attest to continuing discrimination. This was not attributable, in the main, to the institution as such (although the question 'does the institution promote acceptance?' was deemed to be more relevant than 'does it institutionalise discrimination?'). Rather it manifested itself in a number of small ways amongst fellow members of the university community. What was particularly called for was a series of small, affirmative actions which would in time alter the climate of acceptance in the environment.
If the university community is like the society as a whole, it would be true to say that today we remain culturally in the immediate post-Wolfenden period in which people were considered to be 'not ready' for change. In such a situation, it is a strength for concerned people to have such reference points as was provided, and is still provided, by such committed writings as Towards a Quaker View of Sex.