In a private correspondence conducted eight years ago, Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that gay sexual relationships can “reflect the love of God” in a way that is comparable to marriage, according to Ruth Gledhill in The Times.
Gay partnerships pose the same ethical questions as those between a man and woman and the key issue for Christians is that they are faithful and lifelong, he believes.
Dr Williams is known to be personally liberal on the issue but the strength of his views, revealed in private correspondence shown to The Times, will astonish his critics.
In an exchange of letters with an evangelical Christian, written eight years ago when he was Archbishop of Wales, Dr Williams describes his belief that Biblical passages criticising homosexual sex are not aimed at people who are gay by nature.
Instead, he argues that scriptural prohibitions are addressed “to heterosexuals looking for sexual variety in their experience”.
He says: “I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.”
Although written before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, Dr Williams describes his view in the letters as his “definitive conclusion” reached after 20 years of study and prayer. He refers to it as his “conviction”.
Read it all here.
UPDATE: 6 p.m. EDT
The Times carries an editorial on the Archbishop's holding of public and private views:
There is nothing dishonourable or hypocritical in this. But there are dangers. The Church will miss the lead that an archbishop should offer on matters of practice and belief. Simply waiting for time to ease divisions and persuade his opponents is naive: they are ready to push their agenda hard. The great archbishops have been men of spiritual courage. Dr Williams has views that are important for the Church. They should be aired.
Read the rest here.
The letter from Dr. Pitt to the Dr. WIlliams is here and below:
UPDATE 6:30 p.m. EDT
A pdf of Archbishop Williams responses are here and below:
UPDATE 7 p.m. EDT
Mary Ann Sieghart writing in The Times says Williams was selected as a liberal and should govern as one:
It is not as if members of the Communion did not know Dr Williams was a liberal when they chose him. And, despite Africans' claims that the process was a colonial imposition, they did choose him: although the appointment was formally made by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the Archbishop's name was put forward by an electoral college made up of Church members. It consulted widely, in a process that took far longer than a papal convocation, and was endorsed by a meeting of all the Anglican primates in the Communion.
UPDATE: 8 p.m. EDT
The Guardian report is here
From Archbishop Rowan:
13 March 2001
Dear Dr. Pitt,
I’m sorry not to have written sooner to thank you for responding so fully to my letter and for sending the materials. I wish I had time to reply more fully myself, but must content myself with saying only a couple of things. Most Christian homosexuals I know have no interest in ‘converting’ anyone to their orientation, far from it; nor are they asking for a charter for promiscuity. I should deplore either of those, and I have said publicly that anything that looks like pressure to adopt homosexual behaviour, especially in an educations context, is wrong in my eyes. Again, I know hardly any Christian homosexuals who believe that Jesus was homosexual, or that they are superior to heterosexuals. I have some reservations about LGCM’s agenda; but even they do not claim these things. When they speak of ‘homophobia’, a word I dislike, I admit, they have some perfectly genuine evidence of prejudice I regard as shocking. Scripture can be used and has been used in many ways to license prejudice, and I don’t think they mean any more than this. I must also say that there is real evidence in schools of bullying around this issue and even of suicide among young men particularly, because of attitudes expressed. If Christians could at least unite in condemning this, even when they disagree with the behaviour of some homosexuals, that would be an advance. When I said that I wasn’t campaigning for a new morality, I meant, among other things, that if the Church ever said that homosexual behaviour wasn’t automatically sinful, the same rules of faithfulness and commitment would have to apply as to heterosexual union. Whether that would best be expressed in something like a ceremony of commitment, I don’t know; I am wary of anything that looks like heterosexual marriage being licensed, because marriage has other dimensions to do with children and society. I doubt whether there will be a change in practice in the near future, at the very least.
Sorry I can’t now reply at more length. Again, my thanks for your response and its tone. My prayers for you, and my request for prayers for an averagely muddled bishop!
From Archbishop Rowan
28 September 2000
Dear Dr. Pitt,
I must apologise for leaving your letter on August 9th so long unanswered. I’m afraid that rather a lot was waiting for me when I returned from holiday, and the less urgent letters, as always, sank in the pile!
This will have to be a relatively brief response to your very substantial question, but I hope it may suggest a few avenues. Until about 1980, I fully shared the traditional ethical understanding of homosexuality as a condition of (at best) some sort of ‘privation’, the practice of which was strictly forbidden to Christians by scripture and tradition. My mind was unsettled by contact, as a university teacher, with one of two genuinely serious Christians who had concluded after prayer and reflections that the scriptural prohibitions were addressed to heterosexuals looking for sexual variety in their experience; but that the Bible does not address the matter of appropriate behaviour for those who are, for whatever reason, homosexual by instinct of nature (I don’t deny that some varieties of homosexuality may be therapeutically altered, by the way, but I don’t believe this is true of all; discernment in this area is very difficult indeed).
So after 1980 I continued to study the issue sporadically, reading what I could on the psychology as well as the theology of it; and by the end of the 80’s I had definitely come to the conclusion that scripture was not dealing with the predicament of persons whom we should recognise as homosexual by nature. And many of the arguments assumed by theologians in the Middle Ages and later increasingly seemed to beg questions or to rest on contested grounds. I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness. Peter Coleman’s book, called, I think, Homosexual Christians, helped here, as later on did Jeffrey John’s pamphlet, Permanent, Stable, Faithful. I was not convinced by the argument that the ethics for homosexual relations should be different from those for heterosexuals (i.e. that they should not be exclusively faithful or lifelong).
The collection of essays called The Way Forward? edited by Tim Bradshaw a few years ago represents a helpful dialogue between Christians of generally doctrinally conservative convictions who have come to different conclusions on this, and I wish the discussion could be as constructive and sympathetic in the wider Church as it was in this group. But it is now a very much politicised question, with many treating it as the sole or primary marker of Christian orthodoxy. I find myself personally in a difficult situation, between the pressures of the clear majority view in my Church, my own theological convictions on this matter (as someone who has no desire at all to overthrow the authority of scripture here, but wants to ask if it has been rightly read on this matter) and the complex needs of individuals for pastoral counsel and support. I don’t see myself as a campaigner for a new morality; but if I’m asked for my views as a theologian rather than a church leader, I have to be honest and admit that they are as I’ve said.
One last point. The Church has shifted its stance on several matters ¬¬– notably the rightness of lending money at interest (condemned outright in the Old Testament and by all theologians before the seventeenth century) and the moral admissibility of contraception (generally denounced by the Anglican Church up to the middle of the twentieth century) so I am bound to ask if this is another such issue. If I am really seriously wrong on this, I can only pray to be shown the truth. I’d ask simply that Christians might be a little more ready than they seem to accept the good faith of those who have to a different conclusion (either way)!
I don’t know if this will be any help to you, but I’m very willing to explain further if you wish (so long as you can be patient with my slowness in answering letters!). Thank you for writing.
Dr Pitt wrote:
Your Grace, Thank you for your letter of 28.09.00., and for your frankness about your views on Homosexuality and how you reached them. The topic is a huge and diverse one with many ramifications, and has given me quite a bit of food for thought. ..Your letter was very gracious, and I hope the tone of my letter is not affected by the anxiety your views caused me.
I was interested to read that your interest in the subject was piqued by contact with homosexual professing Christians who were grappling with the morality of the matter. My own perspective has come about largely from personal contacts also, through my work as a medical doctor in both general practice and more recently Psychiatry, and having worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Yes, it is rubbing shoulders with the people personally affected by moral dilemmas that causes one to question and study one’s own presuppositions and the orthodox Christian teaching; with regard to the latter it appears that we both started from the same place...
You used the term ‘homosexual by instinct or nature’, and you make a distinction between homosexual acts done by heterosexuals and those done by those who are exclusively homosexual, the latter being authentic in some way and the former not. I do not know whether the Bible makes such a distinction, but I do not think scientific investigation has yielded precise distinctions about the behaviours or personality traits of these two groups. Scientific research on any behaviour, especially sexual behaviour, is extremely difficult to do accurately. ...
The Biblical yardstick for sexual behaviour is, I think, the Creation story, in which I trust you and I both believe, either literally or as Myth. It talks of God creating Man and Woman, of the difficulties between them and the introduction of Sin into their relationship and the consequences thereof... Dr. Edward Norman stated in one of his ‘meditations’ (The Times, I think) that homosexuality appears to be a gift from God, ‘an involuntary condition; it is how some are made’. But God does not seem to have told us how that gift should be exercised. What parameters, what constraints? There are certainly lots of constraints given us for control of our other sexual, or aggressive or acquisitive instincts. Why has God not endorsed such behaviour by giving instruction? Why was there no marriage law for such? But there is nothing, no positive endorsement for this trait or behaviour. I think it is dangerous to conclude other than from the Bible that God endorses homosexual behaviour, loving or not....
I agree, the Church has shifted her stance on several matters. The examples you gave, the admissibility of contraception and the rightness of lending money at interest, provoked some wry thoughts. The latter has led to the rise of capitalism and the widespread pursuit of wealth and gain and to the rampant exploitation of the world’s resources. I have heard that the Amazon rain forest is likely to be the next victim of this rampant greed. The Anglican Church is caught up in this same mechanism, as are we all to some extent. ... Personal debts have risen dramatically and there are more illegitimate births than ever. There is an accompanying tendency to throw money, or birth control pills or morning after pills, at the problems of society that arise, rather than address the deeper issues of personal responsibility and adequate education and warnings. The darkness can never overcome the light. But if we whom Christ called the light of the world cannot ensure that the light burns on, then it will go out. And the light, the prophetic voice of the Church calling people back to God’s standards no matter how unpopular that voice, seems to get dimmer.
Truly, God loves all sinners; perhaps the greatest sinners are the ones He has the most compassion for, for they have lost so much. But we live in a fallen world, so He gave us first the Ten Commandments for, amongst other things, our protection, I believe, and second of all Christ for our redemption.
So, has the Anglican Church been wrong, as you surmise, Archbishop Rowan, about Homosexuality all these years? No, I don’t think so. I accept that your conclusions have been reached in a spirit of honest and compassionate enquiry. The idea that the ethics of homosexual relations should be no different from those of heterosexuals, i.e. exclusively faithful or lifelong, is an attractive and plausible one. I am afraid I have not read any of the books (perhaps I should read them) which promote the idea that such relationships are equal qualitatively to heterosexual ones. I don’t see how they can be if there is no possibility of children; how can they be anything but inferior, at least in scope?
Archbishop Rowan, I have written far more than I originally intended....You have shared your thoughts frankly with me, and I appreciate the spirit of goodwill with which you have written...
(Note: Dr Pitt was an Anglican at the time of this correspondence but has since left the Church in Wales and is now a member of an evangelical free church.)