Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesu, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.”
Charles Wesley (1707 - 88)
MAN'S SECOND NATURAL INSTINCT
As a sixteen-year-old I went living in digs in Liverpool while I studied as an apprentice marine engineer. Most of us were of the same age. One guy, Bill Fisher from Northern Ireland, was two-years older and therefore worldly wise.
During one of his great discourses about sex, he once told an enraptured audience around a canteen table that man's second natural instinct was the sex drive. Everyone wondered what was the first - "Self-preservation, of course", informed Bill. It's true. It may not be woman's second natural instinct but as an old merchant seaman, I think I can speak for mankind and say that Bill Fisher was right this time.
Where does that fit in here, you may ask? Well, so far I've tried to say what faith means to me and why I label myself as a Christian Socialist. Does this faith make me "holier than thou", does it make me priggish? Am I really different from the rest of my colleagues or the average person? What is my attitude to the big issues of the day that the Churches have problems with such as women priests, pornography, homosexuality and abortion, not to mention divorce, gambling and drinking. In other words, man's second natural instinct and other things. So from here on I’ll now try to indicate what that attitude is to these subjects.
Whichever way I answer on these I'm bound to offend some people but, in all honesty, I need to state where I stand. It's no use just writing a book about how good faith is unless you can face the questions that are bound to be put sometime or other.
Let me take the easy one first. Women priests. For any Methodist this isn't a problem; the 1992/93 President of Conference (i.e. head of the Church) was a woman and women have been ordained into the Church for two to three decades now. I have debated with Roman Catholics and Anglicans their reasons why women should not be ordained and I have never yet been remotely convinced of their arguments. As I've said in the Introduction, a lot of people will be in for a shock if they discover God is a woman.
The next issue is pornography. I have probably seen as much as any merchant seaman ever has from literature, magazines, films, etc. I sympathize with the arguments of my feminist colleagues who say it denigrates women. I read of rape cases and sexual assaults that have been tangently linked to pornography. I don't think that public displays of pornographic material adds to society but I would be a hypocrite if I didn't admit that I've been glad of pornography especially on long voyages.
That may seem to be two-faced but what I am trying to say is that those who understand the male libido (probably 99.9% of men) will hopefully also understand that I am trying to say there is a place for pornography - not the crude and degrading sort but the kind that helps many lonely people meet their sexual needs.
Two days after I wrote that, I received an interesting item of correspondence. It was from the Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship and included a briefing for MPs and MEPs on evidence of pornography-related harm, the problems with obscenity legislation and progressive new proposals for legislating against pornography without censorship. It was very welcome. The briefing was written by Dr. Catherine Itzim, of Bradford University, and spells out how to tackle the violent, subordinating and dehumanising pornography which has been shown to be harmful. Sexually explicit material, which is non-violent and non-subordinating, based on mutuality and equality (i.e. erotica), is deemed not to be harmful.
In the UK, at the time of writing, there is no legislation against pornography. There is only legislation against obscenity and indecency. The law is in something of a mess over the issue and often seems to be unenforceable. The recommendations of Dr. Itzim, for legislating against pornography in the UK, are based on an equality legislation approach and seem to me to be a step in the right direction. It would enable people, who could prove they were victims of pornography-related harm, to take action against the manufacturers and distributors of the material. It would use the Race Relations Act as a model for legislating against incitement to sexual hatred and violence through pornography. It would also include a narrow, precise, concrete and objective legal definition of pornography based on what is done to women (or children) in the material and what is done as a result of its use - in other words, a harm- based legal definition of pornography.
Now, for some people that approach will condemn me to accusations of pervert, unchristian and indeed pornographer. It would be easy to say ban all the material and let's pretend it doesn't exist. In the real world it does exist. In the real world many lonely men (not perverts) find consolation in the material. For the men who are reading this, before I am condemned, let me just say, let him who is without sin (on this subject) cast the first stone.
I do believe that we shouldn't be scared of discussing sex more openly; I would like to see society having a healthy and responsible attitude to sex. But, while our TV screens see sex as taboo and gratuitous violence as the norm, then we are a long way from that.
As for gambling, it's a mug's game; I know, I've lost too much money doing it. I don't gamble, not for any religious reason (i.e. you should only reap what you sow), but because I did lose money on horses and dogs at a time when we couldn't afford it. When Doris was at work and I was on leave, it was the done thing to spend the afternoons in the pubs and the bookie’s! I learned my lesson the hard way. Gambling for some people is an addiction and ruins lives and families. That is the reason why the Methodist Church is so set against gambling.
In 1992 the Methodist Church allowed raffles to take place for the first time on its premises; I welcomed that as a means of fund-raising for the Church but for some it was the first step on a slippery slope. It could even lead to bingo which I'm sure the same people think condemns participants to eternal damnation, especially Anglicans and Catholics.
The Grand National is an event when millions have "a harmless flutter"; I don't believe that does much harm even though I don't partake in it; all I do know is that the only real winners are the bookies. One thing is for sure. You’ll never buy a sweepstake ticket on Methodist premises.
If the Methodist Church now allows gambling, albeit in the form of a raffle, on its premises it will still be a long time before it allows alcohol there. People equate Methodists with being teetotal, mainly from a history when the temperance movement flourished (with the Rechabites in the lead) based on experience of the real evils of drink in times past. John Wesley, the founding father of the Methodist Church, wasn't a total abstainer and, keeping with that tradition, neither am I nor are many others.
The problem with booze is that our culture tells young people that it is butch to booze and if they don't, then they are out of touch. People should be able to enjoy a drink without drink ruining people's lives. That isn't said lightly. At sea I saw too many good men who had been ruined by booze. It's one of the reasons I left the sea; I didn't want to find myself as a forty-year-old Chief Engineer whose only hobby was drinking.
I've drunk my fill in my time and after working in a ship's engine-room in the tropics, or in the Red Sea, a few beers are necessary to put the liquids back into the system. I've also seen what alcoholism does to individuals and families and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
So, whilst I enjoy a drink, and I don't drink that much, I have a sneaking admiration for the position of the Methodist Church which is really saying we shouldn't be encouraging drinking and having a drink is not the prerequisite for having a good time. You don't have to rely on alcohol to get the best of times out of life - if you do, then you have a problem.
From alcohol to drugs. In Amsterdam, the drug capital of Europe, the police and anti-drug workers will make a good case why the use of cannabis (or pot) should be decriminalized. They say that they have much more drink- related crime, especially violence, than crime relating to the use of pot. The users of pot will say you can smoke it, feel great and then not have all the after-effects of drinking; they'll also tell you it isn't addictive (its thirty times more carcinogenic than tobacco but that's another matter).
What then is my position on drugs (narcotics is a far better word, it separates things out like aspirin, but of course it's seen as being too American)? Of all the sins I have committed during my life, taking drugs was never one of them, not even pot. I've heard the arguments for “soft” drug legislation as in Amsterdam and I'm impressed with it. Policemen in the UK have said to me they expect the use of cannabis to be legalized and would welcome it, so that they can concentrate on hard drugs.
I've heard the argument that smoking cigarettes is an addiction so, why is smoking pot different? My answer to that one is that I don't mind my bus driver smoking a cig while he's driving but I wouldn't trust my life to him whilst he was smoking a reefer.
This is a subject on which I always hesitate and my heart rules my head because I see the use of “soft” drugs as being the first step to hard drugs and I could never face the mother of a dead teenager, who had died from drugs, to tell her that legalizing cannabis is okay and won't do any harm. I don't know of any drug addict who started directly on hard drugs; they all began on things like pot or ecstasy.
What needs to be done is to convince young people that they don't need drugs to enjoy life. Just as alcohol is associated with having a good time, so too is drug taking in the initial stages. One of the great tragedies of our society is that we have failed to show too many young people how to get the most out of life. We only have this one life on earth to live; it's not a rerun where we can correct our mistakes, and we should have the ability to maximise every moment of it. You get that by putting God into your life, not booze or drugs.
As for tobacco, I am a reformed smoker; and there is no one more righteous than the reformed and the reformed smoker is the worst/best kind of anti-smoker. Need I say any more?
Next, divorce. People say divorce is far too easy but I don't know anyone who has had an easy divorce. I know plenty of people who have had a lot of heartache and pain that has lasted well beyond the actual divorce.
The Methodist Church allows divorced people to remarry in church. The minister of my own church remarried after a divorce - he had to struggle to get back into the ministry though. It allows remarriages because it accepts that relationships can go wrong with divorce being the outcome. It also believes that everyone should be given the chance of a new start, with the opportunity to love rather than spend forever in emotional turmoil and they should be forgiven for the problems of the past. It isn't done on a whim and a minister does not have to conduct a wedding ceremony if he thinks the lessons of the past have not been learned and that divorce could become a habit for the happy couple.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church does not recognise divorce and the Church of England will not remarry people in church. The Anglicans do offer a service of blessing for those who instead go to the register office. That's why Princess Anne had to go to the Church of Scotland to get remarried.
I think the Methodist approach is correct. The 1992 Methodist Conference adopted a report entitled "A Christian Understanding of Family Life, the Single Person and Marriage". What it in effect says about divorce is that the hard line taken in the New Testament (see Luke 16:18) was not seen as the definitive word on the subject. Also, our world today is vastly different from the world of Palestine two thousand years ago. The crux of the matter is emphasized in the argument that says “forgiveness and new start” is one of the "big themes" of the New Testament and should be given more weight, in this instance, than the teaching of one or two specific texts.
For those who say, "Ah, but the Bible says this, that or the other about divorce", I can only refer them to a smashing little book "Why Bible-believing Methodists Shouldn't Eat Black Puddings", by Stephen B. Dawes, which says amongst other things that if we accepted everything in the Bible then we wouldn't eat black puddings because they are made from blood.
I would rather divorced people be given the chance to be forgiven and have a new start, to be loved and to love in this life God gave us as opposed to feeling continually guilty and unloved.
Which leaves two further controversial subjects, homosexuality and abortion. The latter is dealt with on its own in the next chapter. The former is discussed now.
I like the Methodist Church because it is honest, democratic, caring and not scared of facing up to the issues. At the 1992 Annual Methodist Conference, it debated an interim report on human sexuality and from this has come so much comment both agreeing with and condemning some of the report. But full praise to the fact that Methodism is discussing sex. Bill Fisher would have been proud.
The report came about way back in l988 when Conference requested it to determine how to deal with homosexual candidates for the ministry although this is not a priority of the report.
David Stacey, in a well-argued paper, did a commentary on the report. He asks the question that if the likes of St. Paul had known then what we know now of the complexity of human sexuality, would he have written the things he did? He asks can Christians say that an adult homosexual is in some way sinful because of his or her sexuality? It's only in recent times that we can look at fact and realize that homosexual people are what they are in their own right and not just corrupted heterosexuals. He says the report bravely faces the fact that we do not know what causes homosexuality but it does not pursue the logic further.
It might well be argued that, if the condition cannot be demonstrated to be the result of sin, then the oppression that homosexuals have suffered from both Church and society is outrageous. Amen to that and thank God for the likes of David Stacey for saying so.
One of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen was a stage production of Jerry Herman's "La Cage Aux Folles". It's the story of a gay nightclub, a comedy, yet at the same time an indictment on the prejudice of homosexuals. If ever there was a show-stopper, it was the number, "I am what I am" sung by one of the cast as he is asked to conceal himself from visitors of a friend because of what he is. We are what God made us and we should be accepted as such.
In his paper David Stacey asks the question, “How can Christians accept the high scriptural view of sex in our modern circumstances where people nowadays are a lot healthier than the people who gave us the Bible, and not merely fitter, but more libidinous, longer lived, more secure and therefore absolutely bound to limit families? “
He states there must be different answers for different cases, for heterosexuals, for celibates, for the handicapped, for the involuntary single, for those with sadistic or criminal desires and for homosexuals. He then discusses the various groups and how the groups can overlap. It's when he comes to the homosexual category that I found his discussion to be on exactly my wavelength. I first read this in the quarterly magazine for local preachers "Worship and Preaching" - who says we only read dull material? The words of David Stacey on the subject are far from dull, they are in fact illuminating. I could never have written anything so brave, honest or powerful. The comments were first published in a Harborne Paper and rather than paraphrase, I would, with the author's permission, prefer to reproduce that part of the paper which I can say I agree with entirely.
"So to homosexuals, by which we mean scrupulous homosexuals. These people share with the involuntary single an abundant supply of sexual energy; like them they have no vocation to celibacy and, in their case too, there is no regular social programme to supply their needs and give them support. But, unlike the involuntary singles, and unlike those whose desires are criminal, some of them could find partners for a relationship of complete affection and commitment. Their problem is not lack of opportunity but the fact that Church and society refuse to sanction their solution.
"In fact, some same-sex relationships are not rejected altogether. Friends can live together, particularly if they are women, without comment (save perhaps from the excessively prurient). If they are refined, friendly, dignified and hardworking, as they usually are, we value them and never consider the precise nature of their intimacy. Women friends suffer our judgement only if they are proclaimed lesbians, overt in their behaviour, immodest, aggressive and insensitive. This is a very important point because if homosexual relationship is as wrong as some say it is, then we should reject it even when it wears a kindly face.
"But most people do not find the same-sex acts of tenderness repugnant per se. Women kiss each other in public (and men kiss women!) but men in Britain cannot kiss men. Why? Surely because behind inter-male tenderness lies the horror of intolerance. The peculiarly male action of anal penetration is reckoned to be so disgusting that it must never be hinted at in public. So, males showing tenderness to other males are under suspicion as a body and male homosexual activity is removed from the normal process of ethical discourse. It might be argued that there is an immense range of homosexual acts and that anal penetration is only one relatively rare example; but all our social training, our notions of gender roles, to say nothing of deeper factors and, of course, the spread of AIDS, contribute to the feeling of revulsion.
"We must acknowledge the problems created by this particular action and we must have sympathy for those who are simply incapable of seeing it as a subject for discussion. Nevertheless, we need to keep our heads and to remember that a sense of revulsion has sometimes proved to be a poor moral guide.
"In Christian ethical discussion, an action has to be seen in terms of its motives, its precise nature, its context and its consequences. Theft and lying are wrong but an escaping prisoner of war may steal and lie with the purest of consciences. Even horrific acts like the bombing of Hiroshima are justified in these terms. The sexual deviations which take place within marriage are often accepted in the same way. Anal penetration within marriage may be something we simply do not wish to think about but, insofar as we do consider such irregular actions, we tend to assess them in terms of their context. The action may be negative but the motives, the context and the consequences may be positive. So, we do not ask any questions. Marriage thus provides for the partners both a certain moral autonomy and a right to privacy. Never yet have I heard anyone suggest that married candidates for the ministry should be questioned about their intimate behaviour.
"In the field of Christian ethics it is hard to find examples of actions that are intrinsically wrong, that is to say, wrong in such a way that no motives, no context, no consequences can possibly justify them. Yet we find this principle of malum in se applied to male homosexual acts. The contention is that there are no contexts in which these actions could ever be right and no motives or consequences that could ever justify them. The population of a city may be incinerated, and the action justified by what was achieved thereby, but not even the most loving and tender relationship can ever justify a homosexual act.
"There are, no doubt, many reasons why this contention is so widely accepted. Undoubtedly the biblical argument is one, and I have tried to comment on that above, but there are three other factors that are relevant. In the first place, it is difficult to discuss homosexual activity in terms of pure moral theory. The phenomenon disturbs us too deeply and 'gut reactions' tend to blur our judgement.
"Secondly, in society at large, discussion tends to be concerned with the homosexual stereotype always linked with the corruptions - the violence, the exploitation, the threat to children - that dominate the homosexual scene, at least as it is commonly understood. Christians have a real struggle on their hands if they are to resist common social attitudes particularly when they contain elements of truth.
"Thirdly, our society, like most others, displays what one might call a 'genital taboo'. Children have to be taught from the cradle the difference between clean and unclean, seen and not seen, and this inevitably distinguishes the genitals from other parts of the body. That can lead to the notion that the genitals have a kind of metaphysical uniqueness which puts them outside the scope of normal discussion. From a Christian point of view, this is entirely wrong. We must not suppose that God regards our genitals as essentially different from any other part of his Creation. In Christian discourse, genitals must appear as the ultimate means of expressing love, or as a means of committing serious sin, but not as organs that are qualitatively different and so requiring a new set of rules. If the 'occasional liaisons' referred to above are wrong, it is because of the absence of commitment not because they involve genitalia.
"Corrupt homosexuality merits no more defence from the Church than does heterosexual prostitution. But there is a huge variety in the homosexual world - the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a lie - and not all homosexuals are corrupt. I am arguing simply that blanket condemnation is wrong, that homosexual activity between devout, loyal, committed partners deserves to be judged in Christian discourse as all other actions are judged in terms of motives, precise definition, context and consequences. The Creation is still something of a mystery. The question, “Why do homosexual passions exist?", cannot be answered but the ethical discussions can and should proceed under the same terms as all other ethical issues.
"The ready, but (in my judgement) false, application of a malum in se principle to homosexual acts brings us to the pastoral question. Sexual relations in marriage can be both good and bad, yet the married are able to hold their head high in society knowing that they will be allowed privacy in their sexual activity and that they will always be presumed to be normal, 'decent' people.
"This very fact creates the idea of an underclass who are not normal and 'decent' and who may, in circumstances such as offering for the ministry, be called to give an account of their sexual activity. No matter how kindly we try to express ourselves in individual cases, the idea of normality acts as a form of tyranny.
"This fact ought to be readily recognised because we are all, in some way or another, members of minorities or non-normal groups. There was a time when people could suffer for being Methodists, or conscientious objectors, and plenty still suffer for being black or Jewish, some even for being Irish. Nevertheless, we are all slow to grasp the oppressiveness of majorities. The majorities make the rules. It is not entirely cynical to agree with Thrasymachus, in Plato’s Republic’, who said that justice was simply the will of the stronger party.
"This provides us with a pastoral task. We must try to understand what it is like to be homosexual, to be looked down upon by the vast majority, to be baited by the press, to be mocked on the stage, and to be told within the body of the Church that any expression of sexual longing would rule us out of consideration for the ministry. For all the compassion shown in this report, it does not really get to the point. That is one reason why the issue is urgent.
"Three key questions still require an answer. (1) Are there people who, through no fault of their own, are irretrievably conditioned to be sexually attracted only by those of their own gender? (2) If there are such people, should we encourage them to make deep, responsible relationships or insist that they keep themselves to less committed, and perhaps promiscuous, friendships? (3) If the former, have we a right to ask them more intrusive questions than we ask of the married? Perhaps there is a fourth. How should vigorous homosexuals, with no vocation to celibacy, glorify their Creator?"
As I said before, "Thank God for David Stacey."
So, what does this chapter tell anyone about my faith? I hope it tells them that my belief in Jesus helps me to try to understand the real problems that many people have to live with. Some people will say it shows a woolly liberal, who compromises the Christian faith. I hope it shows that compassion and empathy are required to be able to put oneself alongside those who feel victimised or degraded. I hope it shows that above all, quick condemnation of others is way down the list of responsive actions to certain topics.
I hope it also shows that love of one's neighbour, in a world where love is a scarce commodity, should always be first. If a person can love God then loving his or her neighbour comes a lot easier no matter what their sexuality.
If man's only natural instincts were self-preservation, and the sex drive, the planet would only have animals on it. Mankind has the ability and the instinct to love and care and feel for other human beings - that's what Jesus taught throughout his ministry.
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