The Church of England is again debating sexual morality today with special attention to homo/ bi/ transsexual people who want to be married in church. A report recommends that they should not be permitted to do so, as Church doctrine defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.
The practical issue should be easily enough resolved. There is an issue of equality here which goes beyond the issue of historical or present doctrine. People who are not heterosexual are being discriminated against – yes, they are, whatever moth-eaten excuses are offered- as indeed they are in my own Church of Scotland, and that is sinful behaviour, from which all churches should turn in repentance. Complete equality should come before nonsense from the book of Leviticus, or semantic arguments about the meaning of marriage.
Of course, I can see the problems which have pushed churches into unseemly compromises. If the C of E grants complete sexual equality, it will probably lose a number of its own energetic evangelicals, as well as the greater part of the Anglican Communion in Africa. My own church would probably also be split between those who hold to inerrant Scripture and those who hold to social justice. I am for justice and equality and would happily wave goodbye to those who can reject it for the sake of maintaining the authority of Scripture. Serious faith cannot afford magic books.
But I retain a good deal of affection for what might be described as the “heterosexual narrative” and am not altogether convinced by arguments that gender is solely a social construct, which can be altered at will. I guess the heterosexual story that we find in claasic texts like the Hebrew BIble, the Mahabharata, Homer, the Chinese Odes, is now viewed as a one-sided choice made by these societies, and transmitted to subsequent generations.
We can think of these societies of the first millennium BCE as archaic and traditional compared with ours; but of course these very societies were not only rhe inheritors of the history of unrecorded human experience on this earth but also were themselves revolutionary in their arts, technologies and politics. The time between them and us is negligible compared with the vast reach of human time before them. As well as changing much of what they received from the past, they carried forward from the past what they believed to be of permanent value, including the heterosexual story. I do not mean the patriarchal story, which they may indeed have invented and imposed on past traditions. I want to separate the priority they gave to the heterosexual story, from the dominant role they gave fo males.
Why is this story so powerful? Answer: because it seems natural. Sexual reproduction is not the only natural strategy for reproduction: even so-called primitive societies knew how fungi and rice reproduced. But sexual reproduction was evident and appeared natural to most observers of humanity. The process of sexual reproduction in human beings was not scientifically understood; in some times and places, the role of the male was seen as very limited and subordinate to the fecundity of the female. But given the anatomy of the human body, heterosexual intercourse looked natural.
Even if you can’t follow rhe directions on the flatpack wardrobe, an experienced eye can tell that the holes on the door and the frontpiece are intended for screws that will fix the hinges. It seemed to observers in those early civilizations, that nature had designed human beings for heterosexual intercourse, and with the desire for it. This basic observation was of course expressed in very different customs and convictions, some of which made a place for same-sex activity while maintaining heterosexuality as a norm. I am not arguing that we must do so because they did; they may have been no wiser than we are. Rather I am pointing to the apparent naturalness of heterosexuality, in its appreciation of the male and female bodies.
This means that heterosexual story we have inherited from many varied cultures has in spite of their different constructions of masculinity and femininity a common element in the human body, male and female, as desired by the opposite sex. Images of male and female bodies and their sexual organs are diffused through all the arts of our society, and are so pervasive that often we have ceased to notice them. Why are all these erect church spires thrusting upwards?
The fundamental sexual story has of course given rise to a multitude of other stories, from Helen of Troy to Romeo and Juliet to Beyonce and her pregnancy; and to millions of poems and songs, as well as the tat of Valentine’s Day. Many of these are our greatest narratives and songs, just as heterosexual art includes many of our greatest paintings, sculptures and buildings. This culture formed my personal experience of boy meets girl from the outset, conferring on it graces and expectations which were not of my invention, although leaving room for personal creativity. It told me a little about who I was, and a little about who she was.
There is a delicacy and magic to this tradition as well as a robust earthiness, which I would be reluctant to see lost to future generations because liberal societies must not prioritise in advance the gender choices and sexual preferences of their children. I agree that in a society which rightly grants equality to all forms of loving, the heterosexual story cannot have the unique place it had in former cultures, but I am convinced it has value for all children, and provides an intimate education for the heterosexual majority of them.
This is not a major issue compared with the fight for equality for people of all sexual predispositions, but that does not mean it is unimportant. In fact a greater public appreciation of the heterosexual story might help people who are reluctant to give equality to other sexual stories. The biblical creation story in Genesis 2, 3, in which what was originally one flesh but are now two, are always wanting to become one flesh again, sets out well the humour, loneliness and blind desire of the human animal; of which it is written, “male and female he created them.”