Churches and Homosexuality: An Overview of Recent Official Church Statements on Sexual Orientation

By Lienemann, Wolfgang | The Ecumenical Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview
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Churches and Homosexuality: An Overview of Recent Official Church Statements on Sexual Orientation


Lienemann, Wolfgang, The Ecumenical Review


During the last several years many churches around the oikoumene have had renewed, intense and controversial discussions of questions of sexual ethics, sexual orientation and especially homosexuality.(1) Since Alan A. Brash published his overview of the state of the discussion in 1995, the debates have continued.(2) A number of churches have elaborated studies, declarations, statements and pastoral guidelines since then. The process of forming a judgment in these texts is anything but uniform or convergent; many times the dividing line between opposing positions runs straight through a given church. The difficulties facing any ecumenical dialogue on questions of forming ethical judgments and the problem of nevertheless finding a common position are not new,(3) but in questions of sexual ethics they are especially pressing.

This essay will offer a brief overview of the controversial state of opinion-formation on these issues in the churches. This will consist primarily of (1) assessing the contemporary context of the debates in the churches, (2) working out the most important problems of forming judgments within a church, as well as (3) characterizing the points of inter-church controversy, and on that basis finally (4) outlining several practical suggestions. The documents coming from the churches, to which I shall refer in the notes, are extremely diverse. To be sure, many churches have officially said nothing at all on the question of homosexuality; and often the only material for examination consists of comments from individuals. Finally, and not surprisingly, the best known of these statements come from churches in North America and (Western) Europe.

The contemporary context

1. The human rights principle of non-discrimination

In all peoples, societies, strata of society and professional groups there have been and are people who prefer partnership and sexual relations with persons of the same sex. In the past these persons have always been discriminated against more or less strongly. While there have been exceptions to this, especially in ancient Greece,(4) it is only in the 20th century that legal prohibitions of discrimination have gradually come to be applied to the sexual orientation of persons. After the second world war, several states either lightened, set aside or limited to cases involving risk or injury to sexual self-determination (especially to minors or dependent persons) criminal injunctions regarding (homo)sexual behaviour.(5) However, in most countries in the world homosexual persons are still being discriminated against, even persecuted to the point of threats against life and limb. Genuine liberalization has so far taken place only in democratic states based on the rule of law.

2. Homosexual persons in the history of the churches

Within the Christian churches homosexually oriented people have been excluded, marginalized and persecuted in the great majority of cases. The relatively few exceptions which are known are seldom taken into account. John Boswell, from whom the most important studies in this area have come, has found examples of liturgical forms for the union of same-sex partners from the churches of Asia Minor.(6) Nevertheless, it must be said in general that in societies which have morally proscribed homosexual relations, treated them as taboo or legally forbidden them, the sexual ethic upheld by the churches has not represented a divergent position.

3. New orientations in the churches

New reflection by the churches in this area began only under the influence of a shift in social attitudes towards sexuality. The processes of modernization and secularization were accompanied by a removal of sexuality from the realm of taboo and a new respect for the private sphere. Furthermore, since the end of the 19th century modern sexual research has brought new insights into how the sexual identity of persons is formed.

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