The Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is in the news at the moment. He has let it be known that he is gay, and that he is in a celibate gay partnership. According to Archbishop Justin Welby this in no way influences his ability to do his job, stating that Chamberlain’s sexuality was ‘completely irrelevant to his office’ (quoted by Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian).
The danger of the single story
Chamberlain himself, speaking to the BBC states, ‘My sexuality is part of who I am.’ Not all of who I am, just part of who I am. But a part, all the same. His job, no, his calling as a bishop is another part of who he is. This reminds me of what I recently wrote to a friend who has come out as trans-gender: ‘I look forward to seeing how your trans-gender identity and your Christian faith commingle in the liminal stairwell which is you.’ Our sexuality can never be all of what we are, and we would do well not to make someone’s sexuality a determining factor as to whether we accept them or not. Down through the ages, and in the midst of a myriad cultures, the Christian faith has survived – more than that: thrived – because it has made itself at home in any culture and context (Andrew Walls’ indigenizing principle) As Walls himself puts it, ‘Christianity lives by crossing the boundaries of language and culture’ (1996, p.5).
Chamberlain is gay, and that is a fact. Even Preston Sprinkle in his book on gay Christians admits that ‘both nature and nurture play a role in cultivating same-sex desires’ (2015, p.128). ‘Nature’ means that some people are born with same-sex desires and some are not. Phrased in terms of faith in a Creator God: God created some people with same-sex desires and others with heterosexual desires. ‘Nurture’ means that the way in which I am brought up, particularly my early childhood, has influenced the person I have become. I’m sure all of us can affirm this statement, whatever our sexuality. By the same argument, God created the friend I referenced above trans-gender. It is the responsibility of each of us before God firstly to accept those who are different, but then also to grapple with how faith in God works, how Christianity lives, in the culture, time and context he has placed us in. This may mean celibacy, the path chosen by the Rt Revd Chamberlain – or, according to the subjective theology of St Paul, it might not.
The subjective theology of St Paul
St Paul formed his theology in the stairwell. He writes to the Romans, ‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus…’ – with that kind of preface what comes next is clearly going to be important. ‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.’ (Rom. 14.14). What is right for you may be wrong for me, and what is wrong for you may be right for me. What kind of theology is this? Clearly not systematic. Definitely subjective.
We are often keen to draw lines: activities (or beliefs) one side of the line are right, and activities (or beliefs) on the other side of the line are wrong. Such dualistic thinking makes life easier: this is right, that is wrong. But as Richard Rohr puts it, ‘Reality requires more a both/and approach than either/or differentiation.’
Paul’s particular situation was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. For you eating meat is sinful. For me eating meat is not sinful. The pastoral application of this, which Paul is keen to emphasise, not just in Romans 14 but also in 1 Corinthians 8, is that it is wrong for me to lead you into sin, therefore if eating meat is sinful for you, I will refrain from eating meat so as not to lead you into sin (even though it would not be sinful for me to eat meat). That is the law of love.
Perhaps an application in the discussion about homosexual life and practice is that if same-sex activity (albeit in a committed monogamous partnership) is sinful for you, a gay Christian will refrain from same-sex activity (even in a committed monogamous partnership) so as not to lead you into sin (even though it would not be sinful for the gay Christian). But I am not a gay Christian, so I have no right to comment. What I have observed is that some gay Christians choose the path of sexual abstinence and some do not, and I have no reason to believe that their conscience is not right before God.
Behaviour and meaning
Paul’s point in this whole discussion is that Christian practice is relative, it is culturally conditioned. ‘The meaning of a people’s behaviour is to be discovered in the people’s culture itself.’ (Rynkiewich, 2011, loc.695) Theology and Christian practice cannot be imported from outside, like some colonial governance system. They come to birth as we grapple with the implications of the gospel here and now. Thus Moses, Paul and other biblical writers can encourage or forbid certain behaviours, not because those behaviours are right or wrong in and of themselves but because of the meaning imputed to those behaviours in the culture in which Paul and Moses lived and wrote.
The verses that clinch Sprinkle’s argument that homosexual practice is sinful are Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10. Leviticus 18.22 states, ‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.’ and 20.13 repeats the command and rationale. After examining the text and context carefully Sprinkle concludes, ‘It would seem that these laws are still for today.’ (p.52) But he quite rightly does not come to a conclusion without also examining the New Testament. In the New Testament Sprinkle finds that Paul is consciously alluding to these verses in Leviticus when he writes that ‘men who have sex with men’ will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9) and that the law was made for various categories of unsavoury people including ‘those practicing homosexuality’ (1 Tim. 1.10). Since Paul in his Greek uses the very same words as the Septuagint (old Greek) translation of Leviticus 18 and 20 Sprinkle concludes that Paul is affirming these commands in Leviticus, and therefore they are binding today. Therefore, he concludes (p.126) ‘the Bible does not sanction same-sex relations’.
Different context = different form
Other forms of exegesis (for example, looking at the meaning of behaviour in a given cultural context) could lead to a different conclusion. We have already seen that Paul’s theology was subjective, he recognised the difference between behaviour and the meaning that can be attached to that behaviour. We have also noted that ‘Christianity lives by crossing the boundaries of language and culture’ (Walls, 1996, p.5) and that it is the responsibility of each of us before God to grapple with how Christian faith lives in the culture, time and context in which he has placed us. Christian faith (or, in the case of Moses, pre-Christian faith) has taken on particular forms at particular times and in particular cultures and contexts, sometimes so different as to be almost unrecognisable as the same faith, sometimes even antagonistic towards one another. Therefore I have no problem suggesting that what is appropriate for one time or culture is inappropriate for another time or culture, as long as that Christian core remains. Walls notes (1996, p.3-7) that in the many, diverse expressions of Christian faith down the ages these things remain: all affirm that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, Lord and Saviour; they read and use the same sacred writings; they accept the same creed; they all use bread, wine and water in a special way, and each group thinks of itself as having some continuity and connection with the others, and also with ancient Israel. Let’s add St Paul to this: ‘These three remain, faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.’ (1 Cor. 13.13)
So I would call for more love and less criticism, more understanding and less judgement, acceptance of differences rather than rejection of those who are different.
 Walls, A.F. (1996) The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
 Sprinkle, P. (2015) People to be loved. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.