Gay Partnership and Christian Discipleship

A generous engagement with Matthew Grayshon's recent article on gay partnerships.

When Fulcrum received Matthew Grayshon's article we wanted to publish it as part of our commitment to engaging with the ongoing discussion on the subject of the church's teaching and practice in relation to same-sex partnerships. To help continue that discussion with input from a writer who shares Fulcrum's perspective on sexual ethics, we invited Sean Doherty to write a response.

Gay Partnerships and Christian Discipleship

by Sean Doherty


I am privileged to have been asked by Fulcrum to respond to Matthew Grayshon’s article, as Matthew is my spiritual director and friend. What unites us in Christ is far greater than anything we might disagree about in this context, and I hope I offer this response in a spirit of friendship and mutual accountability.

Pastoral care and moral teaching

Most of my comments in this article are in a theological vein (in keeping with Matthew’s original article). But theology cannot be separated from pastoral practice and experience in this or any area. My own journey is as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction but who has chosen to move away from a gay identity, and I have written about this here.

This means that I know from absolutely first-hand experience that the church’s prohibition of same-sex sexual activity is not based on prejudice but is based precisely on love. I have never experienced homophobic treatment in the church. Rather, the church accepted and nurtured me, and encouraged me in my vocation as a clergy person and theologian, just as it also gave me guidance and direction about how to order my life and relationships. In my experience, unconditional acceptance of me as a person and clear moral teaching about how I should live were two sides of the same coin.

This is not to deny the existence of homophobia in the church, and that remains something which we must confront and condemn. But the view that same-sex sexual activity is wrong is not in itself homophobic.

So, having said that what unites Matthew and I is greater than what divides us, it appears that our disagreement is still significant. Whilst he is right to acknowledge the distinction between primary and secondary issues, but the sexuality debate does touch on some very primary issues – as Matthew himself acknowledges when he boldly claims that ‘it is not possible to both (sic) affirm the incarnation and assert gay marriage.’

Sex and marriage

And that gets us to the heart of Matthew’s reflections. Matthew is caught on the horns of a dilemma. His commitment to the Christian tradition means he wants to uphold and acknowledge the special significance of marriage. He is unwilling to jettison that, and is therefore unable to extend the category of marriage to same-sex couples even if their relationship is one of covenant love. But Matthew wants the church to bless civil partnerships on the basis that they are founded on covenant love even though they are not equivalent to marriage. He wants to have his cake and eat it too!

This is a major problem for Matthew, because the same tradition for which he has such respect rules out sex without marriage for precisely the same reasons that Matthew himself rules out same-sex marriage. In the tradition, sex and marriage are indissolubly linked because the ‘journey towards unity in difference’ to which Matthew rightly refers, is embodied and enacted precisely by the sexual union between husband and wife.

So, it is no accident that the tradition does not recognise gay marriage and that it does not have a category for sexual love except for marriage. They are both expressions of the same theological claim, namely that the purpose of sexual intimacy within God’s good creation is to unite that which is different in a lifelong covenantal relationship. That is what God created sex for.

Matthew remains committed to this claim, because it is on the basis of this claim that he rules out gay marriage. He says, ‘Many voices claiming the validity of gay marriage do undermine the incarnation because they assert only the committed relationship is relevant and that the physical side is irrelevant.’ In short, he agrees that the physical difference between men and women matters. His problem is that this claim also rules out extra-marital sex. Pre-marital sex and adultery, for example, can also take place in the context of commitment and love. But commitment and love are not sufficient to establish the legitimacy of a sexual relationship. For that, according to the tradition on which Matthew is basing his own argument, marriage is necessary. But because Matthew is (rightly) unwilling to extend the concept of marriage to same-sex relationships, he is unable to show why same-sex sex should be understood differently to other forms of extra-marital sex.

A positive account of same sex relationships

This does not at all suggest that there is nothing to celebrate or bless in same-sex relationships! Trust, affection, support through hard times, commitment, laughter, companionship, even an appropriate degree of physical expression and intimacy – these are all things to be celebrated and blessed.

But of course, none of these things are restricted to exclusive, lifelong unions. They exist within families and, most pertinently here, within friendships. It is important to remind ourselves that the prohibition on extra-marital sex is not a prohibition on love, companionship and intimacy between two people of the same sex. But it is a claim that such relationships are friendships and that a sexual dimension is therefore not appropriate to them.

Yet this is also very good news. It shows that the traditional prohibition on same-sex sexual activity does not at all rule out intimacy, companionship, depth – even opening up one’s life to others and sharing it wholly with them. This is the ideal embodied by monastic communities, in which members are committed to celibacy and to deep community.

God’s love in the world

This undermines Matthew’s claim (slur?!) that not recognising stable same-sex relationships is ‘not only cruel but a near-pharisaic denial of the overflowing of divine love into present reality.’ For starters, this accusation masks the assumption that sexual attraction is an absolute constituent of human identity. It also betrays an insufficiently positive view of celibacy as a Christian vocation. There are many Christians who are involuntarily celibate. Some are celibate because they are gay but many would simply like to be married and are not. It is also cruel to deny that their faithful celibacy is somehow a second-best state which fails to access ‘the overflowing of divine love into present reality.’ We must promote and uphold celibacy as a positive, authentic choice for single people instead of contributing to the damaging widespread assumption that everyone needs a partner if they are to be truly fulfilled, as I have argued here, in the article already cited.

But more importantly, there is no difficulty in recognising the love between two people of the same sex as an expression of God’s love. I experience and recognise God’s love in my marriage, but also in my relationship with my parents, my children, and in my friendships with both men and women. In fact, divine love crops up all over the place! That’s the kind of abundantly generous God we have.

But the presence of God’s love on its own does not constitute an authorisation for a sexual relationship. Indeed, with respect to many relationships, we recognise that faithfulness to divine love requires precisely that the relationship should not be sexual, and that importing sex into the relationship would be profoundly unnatural and destructive to the integrity of what that relationship was meant to be.

Concluding questions

I have two brief, final questions.

First, I am uncomfortable with Matthew’s notion of covenant love ‘trumping’ or ‘outweighing’ other theological considerations. I have tried to suggest a more integrated theological picture which takes account both of the integrity of same-sex love (as a form of non-sexual friendship) and the traditional Christian commitment to marriage. If Matthew’s case is to persuade, he needs to offer a more holistic picture in which Christian theological commitments are woven together rather than played off against one another!

Second, given that he is working from within a high view of Scripture and tradition, Matthew needs to consider the question of what authorisation the church might claim to introduce the wholly new category of non-marital sexual union. To be convincing, surely the grounds must be that it is consonant with Scripture and tradition. For the reasons that I have given, I think that this case is very far from being made.

Revd Dr Sean Doherty is Tutor in Ethics at St Mellitus College and St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, and Associate Minister at St Francis Community Church, Dalgarno Way, a church plant in an inner-city housing estate. He has recently completed a doctorate on economic ethics at Oxford and is a member of the Grove Ethics group. He is the author of Foundations for Medical Ethics. Sean is married to Gaby and they have three children. They both became Christians at Soul Survivor, and before ordination Sean worked for Barclays Bank and USPG.

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