by Christopher L. Webber
I know people who wear green because they are blonde and think it’s flattering. I know others who wear green because they are Irish. The result is the same, but the cause is very different. When it comes to wearing green, it doesn’t much matter. When it comes to the divisions in the Anglican Communion, causes matter a lot.
The 1998 Lambeth Conference called on the churches of the Anglican Communion to enter into a listening process on the subject of sexuality. Recently I came across the report of the Church in Nigeria on that “Listening Process.” The report is lengthy and seems to me to show little evidence of listening to people with different understandings, but we would do well to listen to what Anglicans in Nigeria are really saying.
Here’s a key passage:
In Nigerian traditional culture homosexuality is seen as taboo. Homosexuals are thought of as threatening the divinely ordained order of the community. The Western idea of human rights is subservient to the service of the common good. The so called ‘right’ to homosexual orientation threatens the order of society because the continuation of the race is threatened by gay practice. Children are treasured as fruits of marriage and any union, as a gay union, that prevents the propagation of the community's growth is a personal shame to be openly censured.Exactly! Traditionally, homosexual unions have always been condemned for that reason: because they threatened the ongoing life of the community. The Old Testament Hebrews were an endangered species, a small tribe in a hostile world. No wonder we find the condemnation of homosexual practice in Leviticus and elsewhere. Such actions threatened the community and could not be tolerated. Not surprisingly “Nigerian traditional culture” also saw homosexuality as “taboo.” It threatened “the continuation of the race” and “the propagation of the community’s growth” and so was shamed and censured.
Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the official book still of the Church of England and the book common to all Anglicans in Africa until recent years, proclaims in the opening words of the marriage service that it is vital to consider “the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.” What are these? The 1662 Prayer Book tells us:
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.There was some criticism of Archbishop Cranmer’s formula even when it was first published in 1549 on the grounds that the Book of Genesis tells us that God’s first purpose was the help and comfort the man and woman were to give each other, but human life was still insecure, death in childbirth and death in infancy were still common, and the priority was given to procreation. Infant life was still insecure in late 18th century America when the first American Prayer Book was published, but no statement of the purposes of marriage was included until 1979 when we were told that marriage is first for the “mutual joy” of husband and wife, second, for the help and comfort they provide for each other, and only third, and “when it is God's will,” for the procreation of children. What we have, then, is a clear case of changing priorities and cultural change would seem to be the likeliest cause.
The Church in Nigeria would undoubtedly argue that God’s word is one thing and cultural priorities are another. That is an important argument to consider. I would argue that what God’s word shows us is God’s concern for the welfare and survival of God’s people. That concern must be honored, but it might be differently expressed today. In contemporary America families of a dozen or more do not contribute to our welfare or survival. There is no urgent need to insist on "fruitful"sexual relationships. But it may be, nonetheless, that we will have a better chance of understanding each other if we pay attention to the role of culture in shaping our approach to such issues. And it does seem important to point out that when the Nigerian Church advances “Nigerian traditional culture” as having weight in this discussion, it is not basing its case entirely on the Bible.
About the Author: Christopher L. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See "A Certain Madness," "The Conscience of a Conservative," and "1984 in the Episcopal Church" (which includes background information about the author). He is the author of Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).