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Redefining Christianity

Homosexuality 'God-given and good,' says bishop

A NEW WAY OF THINKING: Michael Ingham says Christians need to challenge the church's condemnation of masturbation, birth control, abortion and homosexuality. Credit: Xtra West files

“The outcome that we seek is this-gay and lesbian people daring together to set love free.”

These may or may not be familiar words–they are the mission statement of Pink Triangle press which publishes Xtra West–but they are words with which Michael Ingham, Anglican bishop of New Westminster, might identify.

“Christianity as a religion stands in need of a better theology of sexuality, a better understanding of the complex role sexuality plays in our human nature and of the purposes of God in creating us as sexual beings,” he said in a Mar 7 speech at Ottawa’s Church of St John the Evangelist.

“If sex is not just for having children, then we must challenge the condemnation by the Church throughout the centuries of such things as masturbation, birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.”

The Anglican Church, which has about 80 million followers world-wide, has been, among mainstream Christian denominations, the most accepting of gay people. In 1979 the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a statement that read, “We believe as Christians, that homosexual persons, as children of God, have a full and equal claim with all other persons, upon the love, acceptance, concern and pastoral care of the Church.”

Almost 30 years later, Anglicans still wrestle with issues of human sexuality, but Ingham has been on the leading edge of reform.

In 2001, he famously apologised to the gay community for taking so long to openly include it in the Anglican Church. And in 2003 he gave priests in his diocese permission to conduct same-sex union ceremonies. He is a steadfast supporter of those queer people who find spiritual strength in Christianity and who choose to live by its tenets.

“Today, we have a better understanding of homosexuality as a basic and natural orientation experienced by some members of the human community, just as we find the same thing among some animal species,” said Ingham in his speech. “In Christian terms, we must come to think of this as not only natural but also God-given and good.”

And, for Rev Michael Forshaw of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End, Ingham’s push for a new theology of sexuality is nothing short of god-sent.

“It’s about time,” says Forshaw. “Other theologies have changed, so why can’t the theology of sex? It will be a theology of sex for every sexuality, whether you’re gay, bi, straight or asexual. It needed to be said.”

Forshaw is living with HIV disease and was among those who, last year, fought Health Canada for access to two experimental antiretroviral drugs, TMC114 and TMC125. He consulted with Ingham then, before he went public with his HIV status and his sexuality, and says the bishop supported his decision.

Earlier in his life, Forshaw answered a call to the Catholic priesthood, but left that church in 1991 after 11 years. He went on to become an Anglican priest in 1999.

Inghams’s new theology falls in with Forshaw’s thinking that sex is “the deepest way we can express our love for our partner.”

“[They] are virtues of which homosexual and transgendered people are capable, just as much as heterosexuals,” said Ingham in his speech. “In fact, I have heard the argument made that the reason the Bible says much more about heterosexuality than homosexuality is that straight people need more guidance.”

But, says Forshaw, “I don’t know what [Ingham’s theology of sexuality] will mean for promiscuous people.”

But despite our repeated attempts to ask, Ingham did not speak with Xtra West for this story.

Nevertheless, Ingham was thorough and realistic in his examination of the development of traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality in his speech.

“The word homosexuality does not appear in the Bible in any translation until the 20th century,” he noted. He said St Paul understood same-sex relationships purely in terms of the man-boy relationships of ancient Greece.

“It was, and still is, an intolerable practice [that] Christians from the very beginning have condemned,” said Ingham. “But no difference was perceived between child abuse and adult same-sex love.”

Ingham went on say that St Paul made a sharp distinction between the spirit and the flesh in the New Testament, and that St Augustine later interpreted that distinction to mean that spiritual purity is incompatible with sexual desire; the doctrine followed by many Christian denominations.

In his speech, Ingham described several epiphanic episodes in his life that have gradually led him to reject that view.

Thirty years ago, for example, he encountered erotic sculptures in the ancient caves of Ajanta and Elora near Bombay.

“I was embarrassed, and then shocked, to see such an open display of sexuality in a sacred place of worship,” he said. “I immediately pronounced judgment on it to myself as paganism.”

Last year he visited the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where he saw overt sexuality woven through the ancient Khmer culture.

“[Eastern religions] have been quite honest in their understanding of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality… Christianity, I believe, has not been very successful at this,” Ingham suggested. “In fact, I’m not convinced that any of the three great Western religions – Christianity, Judaism or Islam – has succeeded in properly integrating human sexuality into an understanding of divine creation or divine creativity.”

And that inability to see sexuality as definitive or constitutive of humanity has had destructive consequences for Western society, said Ingham.

“Instead of integrating sexuality into a holistic understanding of life, we have fallen into a profound dualism that separates spirit and flesh; a dualism that raises the spiritual above the physical,” he said.

That dualism, Ingham continued, has permeated our entire culture, leading to a rise in the prevalence of pornography and prostitution, not only in the West but wherever Westerners travel.

“When you suppress healthy sexual relationships, you get the commercialization of sex and the terrible slave trade in women and children, who are used as sexual objects throughout the world in the most degrading and dehumanizing ways,” Ingham said.

But he didn’t identify spiritual/physical dichotomy as the only culprit of sexual repression.

There is a link, he said, between male sexuality and the coercive power which defines Western patriarchies. He noted that James Nelson, in his book Intimate Connection, says patriarchy has produced two destructive children: sexism and homophobia.

“Homophobia has been oppressive to gay and transgendered men by lowering them to the status of women-indeed, lower than women because homosexual men were believed to have been used as women in the sexual act, yet without the potentiality for childbearing that alone justified women’s inferior sexuality according to tradition,” Ingham said.

He called patriarchy “morally corrupt,” something the church should no longer defend.