Thu, Jul 03, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Forbidden fruit or Holy Grail?

Christianity has always had a bleaker view of love -- gay or straight -- than any other major faith; but Christians should realize that sexuality can bring them to closer to God

By Karen Armstrong,  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The consecration and recognition of its first gay bishop threatens to split the Anglican communion down the middle. There has not been such ferment in the Church of England since the decision to ordain women to the priesthood. There is similar uproar in the US, where an openly gay priest has been elected Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire, even though many American Christians regard a rejection of homosexuality as the benchmark orthodoxy.

Issues of sexuality and gender have long been the Achilles' heel of Western Christianity. Indeed, in the earliest days of the church, Christians had a jaundiced view of heterosexual marriage, and saw celibacy as the prime Christian vocation. Jesus had urged his followers to leave their wives and children (Luke 14:25-26). St Paul, the earliest Christian writer, believed that because Jesus was about to return and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, where there would be no marriage or giving in marriage, it was simply not worth saddling yourself with a wife or husband. This, Paul was careful to emphasize, was simply his own opinion, not a divine ruling. It was perfectly acceptable for Christians to marry if they wished, but in view of the imminent second coming, Paul personally recommended celibacy.

The fathers of the church often used these New Testament remarks to revile marriage, with the same intensity as those Christians who condemn homosexual partnerships today. The fathers accepted -- albeit grudgingly -- that marriage was part of God's plan. St Augustine taught that originally in the Garden of Eden, married sex had been rational and good. But after the fall, sexuality became a sign of humanity's chronic sinfulness, a raging and ungovernable force, a mindless, bestial enjoyment of the creature that held us back from the contemplation of God. Augustine's doctrine of original sin fused sexuality and sin indissolubly in the imagination of the Christian West.

For centuries this tainted the institution of matrimony. Augustine saw his conversion to Christianity as a vocation of celibacy.

"We ought not to condemn wedlock because of the evil of lust," he explained, "but nor must we praise lust because of the good of wedlock."

His teacher, St Ambrose of Milan, believed that "virginity is the one thing that keeps us from the beasts." The north African theologian Tertullian equated marriage with fornication.

"It is not disparaging wedlock to prefer virginity," wrote St Jerome. "No one can compare two things if one is good and the other evil."

When one of his women disciples contemplated a second marriage, Jerome turned on her in disgust: "The dog has turned to his own vomit again and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."

In England during the Middle Ages, couples were married in the church porch and not in the sanctuary -- a practice that eloquently revealed the liminal status of matrimony in the Christian worldview: Chaucer's Wife of Bath married five husbands "at the church door."

Even Luther, who left his monastery to marry, inherited Augustine's bleak view of sex.

"No matter what praise is given to marriage," he wrote, "I will not concede that it is no sin." Matrimony was a "hospital for sick people."

It merely covered the shameful act with a veneer of respectability, so that "God winks at it."

Calvin was the first Western theologian to praise marriage unreservedly, and thereafter Christians began to speak of "holy matrimony." The present enthusiasm for "family values" is, therefore, relatively recent.

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