During this week’s General Synod, the Church of England will hammer out the details of its decision to allow blessings of same-sex civil marriages. The decision, announced on January 15, stops short of permitting the church to perform actual same-sex marriage rites, and yet it represents a clear step toward fully overturning church doctrine. Ahead of the announcement, Bishop of Worcester John Inge released an open letter detailing his theological reasons for celebrating “monogamous, faithful same-sex relationships.” The letter is an emotive mishmash of dubious scholarship and illogic, but it also provides an instructive example of, as Inge puts it, “re-examining the scriptures in the light of science and what is happening in the ‘secular’ world.”
Inge offers the 1889 compendium Lux Mundi, edited by Bishop of Worcester Charles Gore, as a paradigmatic example of how science should inform biblical interpretation. According to Inge, prior to Darwin, the Church uniformly interpreted the book of Genesis “literally” (by which he means six days, young earth, etc.). “The above shift involved a reappraisal of the scriptures in the light of what was happening in the world of science,” he writes. “I suggest that something similar to Gore’s time is happening now.” He is referring, of course, to scientific knowledge concerning the origin of homosexual inclination.
But differing interpretations of Genesis have been ventured throughout church history, as contemporary scholarship makes clear. Even St. Augustine held what would now be considered a non-literal approach to the first chapter of Genesis. This is inconvenient for Inge, whose analogy is only compelling if the church has spoken as uniformly about Genesis as it has about marriage.
If Inge’s knowledge of the history of biblical interpretation is questionable, his understanding of the science of sexual orientation is even more so. “Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice.” One need not consult the scientific literature to spot the problem with Inge’s reasoning: If one cannot with any confidence identify the biological mechanisms underlying same-sex attraction, how can one rule out socialization and choice as playing causal roles?
Were the science actually settled in the way Inge wants to believe it is, his argument would still be deeply incoherent, for he commits the classic error of mistaking an is for an ought. One’s inclination (biological or otherwise) toward a certain practice does not justify it. One’s biology may incline a person to fits of anger and violence, but that does not mean that one is justified in beating one’s wife. One’s biology may incline a person to be an alcoholic, but that does not justify the practice of alcoholism. The question about the physical origin of same-sex attraction is largely irrelevant to the ethical question. The former concerns empirical reality (what is) and the latter concerns ethics (what ought to be). Only first principles can bridge the distance between an is and an ought.
A moment’s reflection shows the erroneousness of Inge’s assumption that the mere existence of an inborn inclination justifies one in acting on it. After all, the neurological mechanism underlying pedophilia has been more plausibly established than the one for same-sex attraction. Inge’s logic, consistently applied, would demand blessing pedophilic desire. In their media appearances, Church of England officials reassure us that their central aim is to honor “commitment” and “faithfulness.” But the logic deployed by Inge and others implies a far more radical redefinition of marriage and sexuality.
The Bishop of Worcester should also reconsider the wisdom of committing himself to the view that the ethicality of same-sex relationships is dependent upon science. What if the science changes and determines that same-sex attraction is caused entirely by environmental factors? What if the representatives of science espouse horrendous policies, as they did in the early twentieth century in the name of eugenics?
Why should we grant science such power over the Church’s deliberations? This is nothing less than the capitulation of theology to scientistic technocracy. The Church of England will not long survive in the desiccated hands of the materialist, which might at any moment clench into fists.
What the Church should be commenting on is the total failure of the technocrat's scientistic worldview: Western culture’s plunge into irrationality with its abject refusal to define words like “man” and “woman,” the catastrophic overreach of the world’s governments in their effort to contain a pathogen only slightly more deadly than a bad seasonal flu, and our youths’ general decline into aimless nihilism, despair, and paraphilia. Our duty is to proclaim the gospel to a dying civilization, not die with it because “the science” tells us to.
The Rev. Dr. J. A. Franklin is a priest in the Church of England and hosts the podcast Irreverend.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by Kevin Prichard Photography via Creative Commons. Image cropped.