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2006 Pride Sermon

Geoffrey Vine

The service this year was organised by one of our members, Anna Chinn, and held in our Glenaven Church on
Sunday September 3. It was a positive occasion marked by a great range of music and singing and with an equally wide range of attenders from age 20's to the 80's. And preceded by a marvellous contributed meal!
Highlight of the service was undoubtedly the address given by Rev Geoffrey Vine, a Presbyterian minister of Dunedin.
This sermon speaks for itself, and is a significant contribution to the prophetic and scholarly work being done by preachers and teachers exploring gay and lesbian issues in the Christian tradition. This sermon is printed with permission. Thankyou Geoffrey.


I was honoured to be invited to preach at the 2006 Pride church service. My
sermon was ex tempore, my only notes a couple of quotations I had jotted
down. So when Glenaven asked me for a copy of my sermon to put on their
website, I was somewhat embarrassed. What follows below is an attempt to
recreate as much as possible as I can of the sermon, though I have little
doubt it varies considerably from what I actually said. - Rev Geoffrey Vine


There was a very important news item earlier this week which received
surprisingly little publicity. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper, the
Archbishop of Canterbury made an appalling U-turn, announcing that there was
no place in the Anglican tradition for gay and lesbian priests. Canterbury
had switched from his previously liberal stance to one that reflected
totally the view of the evangelicals. Yet again, the Church had slammed the
door on queers. Yet again, the evangelical right was dictating the agenda.
Just how important this is came home to me when I read a speech that the
United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, had made at the
International Conference on LGBT Human Rights, held in Montreal last month.
I was quite taken aback that she said freedom of religion applied equally to
LGBT people, but she went on to explain that the "freedom of religion
includes the freedom to not be required to live by someone else's view of
morality". And she is right: as many of us have experienced, the evangelical
right denies us the freedom of religion. The right sets the parameters: it
says quite plainly, "If you're queer you're out of here". Yet do these
people have any right to dictate to us? Do they know who we are and to what
we confess as Christians?
In his autobiography Long Loop Home, the gay New Zealand film-maker and
writer Peter Wells make an interesting and, for me, important point about
how we are defined as homosexuals. He writes: ". . . being homosexual is
something delivered to you by other people's reactions. Because being
homosexual means you live in an everlasting minority, it is always the
majority who find in you what is not in them. So begins this ambiguous
relationship to something central to your emotions, to your erotic
fulfilment, to your sense of identity. You learn how to be homosexual,
ironically, through the vast majority of heterosexuals ordaining that this
is what you are. This may explain why it is so frequently a difficult
passage: because who could know less about homosexuality than those people
who do not share the truths, passions and pleasures of that sexual
I had never really appreciated that before: "You learn how to be homosexual
. . through the vast majority of heterosexuals ordaining that this is what
you are". And I realised Wells is absolutely correct: we allow the religious
right to dictate who we are. We allow them to define our parameters, draw
lines and tell us we must never cross them. And the right does all of this
in the name of God, claiming that the Bible and their "tradition" give them
the authority to do so. What I want to demonstrate to you tonight is that
this claim to authority is absolutely bogus.
The principle dogma the religious right uses to separate us from them is
summed up in four words: "lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage". This,
they claim, is what God demands of his people and to back this up they point
to one single verse of scripture, Genesis 2:24 which says: "Therefore a man
leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become
one flesh". That, the right says, waving a copy of the King James Bible at
us, is the Word of God, absolutely guaranteed. Really? Well, that's
something we're going to be hearing a lot about in a few years time when the
Church celebrates the 400th anniversary of the publication of the authorised
version and we'll be reminded that the King James Bible was not simply the
work of translators but also of politicians, and we all know what happens
when politicians get there sticky fingers into anything. "Lifelong
heterosexual monogamous marriage" was a touchy subject in the royal
household and if the common masses were going to be allowed to hear and read
the scriptures in English, the wording had to be just right. When the
translators produced an English version that did not match royal
expectations, the availability of the Tower of London was pointed out and
the academics soon found another version that passed political scrutiny. So
lets take a closer look at what Genesis 2:24 really says,
Now the first point is that this verse is totally at variance with Israelite
society in Old Testament times. A man did not leave his family home and go
to the woman; the reality was the very reverse: the woman left her family to
move in with the man's family. So, immediately, there is a problem. The
rock-solid Word of God seemingly contradicts fact. Biblical scholars have a
struggle to explain what it means and the best they can manage is to say
that a man "psychologically" leaves his parents and switches his allegiance
to his wife. That's getting closer but it still doesn't do the whole job.
Essentially, it is referring to the massive change that occurs as every boy
grows up, that period when he becomes totally unrecognisable as the boy he
was. It's called puberty, the stage in life when a boy becomes a man and, in
the Old Testament culture, married. The Hebrew phrase merely recognises the
importance of psycho-sexual development and has nothing to do with marriage
as such.
But we'll set that one aside for now and look at other fundamentals. "A man
cleaves to his wife", it says in our English translation. But if you read
this in Hebrew, you hit a problem over the word ishshah. In the preceding
verse, verse 23, the word is translated simply as "woman". In verse 24, the
same Hebrew word mysteriously becomes "wife", with no explanation for the
change. In verse 25, it is again "wife" but in the following verse, ishshah
once again becomes "woman". So the same Hebrew word is given two meanings in
English where there is no differentiation in Hebrew. And if we go back to
Genesis 2:18, this person that the man is to have as his consort is actually
described as his helper, in Hebrew a masculine word, hezer. All the great
Bible scholars have turned somersaults over that one and the best they could
manage was to decide God must have been intended the word to be read as
gender neutral and should really be translated as "partner". God could not
possibly have intended man should have a male partner, boldly stepping in to
explain what God apparently left unclear. However, linking this passage to
marriage begins to seem very doubtful.
As an aside, there is a very ancient Jewish midrash of the Yahwist tradition
which holds that humans were thought to have originally been bisexual,
having both male and female characteristics and thus able to have sex
regardless of any gender. As a bisexual myself, I remember feeling very smug
the first time I read that. However, despite the fact that medical
discoveries about the development of the foetus in the womb now indicate
that the human embryo, mimicking evolution, initially does exhibit both male
and female characteristics, don't expect to see that midrash mentioned in
anything the religious right puts out.
Then lets look at the word "cleave", dabaq in Hebrew. We generally
understand the word to mean "cling", as in "the man clings to his wife for
ever". But in English, the word "cleave" has a second meaning, "to split",
and there is a similar second meaning in Hebrew, one that is used in this
way elsewhere in the Old Testament. It's actually a slightly vulgar
expression because in Hebrew it means "to cleave flesh", and I1m sure I
don1t have to draw a diagram of how one piece of human flesh can cleave
another part of the anatomy. It was the Hebrew equivalent of the "f" word.
Just to make sure readers got the full picture, the writer or writers of
this passage tell us the man and his wife become one flesh. In fact, the
Hebrew words mean to merge two sets of genitals - the "f" word again. Old
Testament scholars like Von Rad have interpreted this differently, and I
quote, "One flesh means that man and woman constitute an indissoluble unit
of humankind".
Now, fundamentalists, pointing to the cosy English translation, would have
us believe God demands that a man takes one wife and clings to her as one
merged identity in lifelong, monogamous marriage. It doesn't: the King James
translation may have suited the English royal policy but an equally valid
translation of the Hebrew reads: "On reaching puberty, a human being shall
bonk their partner". And before you tell me that cannot possibly be what it
says, let me add that translating Hebrew into English is an inexact science
at the best of times. Most verses of the Hebrew scriptures can be translated
in umpteen ways with quite variant meanings. All translations are equally
valid. It's the politicians who decide which one is the "authorised"
At this point, let me make it quite clear that in terms of religion I am a
conservative. I am old-fashioned enough to be a firm believer in Creation. I
truly believe that everything was created by God. Which means I believe God
created sex. And just to be sure we enjoyed sex, God created all the little
twiddly bits that make it such fun, not just penises and vaginas but hands,
tongues, anuses and all the erogenous zones. Now the religious right would
have us believe that for each penis there is one unique vagina in which it
is meant to fit and nothing else. I always like to challenge the
evangelicals on that. When they refuse to accept my contention that God
created the lot and made all the parts compatible for pleasure, I ask
whether they think God is stupid. Of course not, they reply. If God is
great, I tell them, would God really be so silly as to create sex and not
realise that there was more than one way of experiencing sexual pleasure? Is
God so limited that God overlooked that possibility? Of course not. God is
omniscient and God does not make mistakes.
So, if God doesn1t forbid sex in al its many ways, and if the Bible doesn't
back up the religious right's theology of lifelong heterosexual monogamous
marriage, then perhaps tradition does. The answer is that Middle Eastern
history tells us the very reverse. Lifelong, monogamous heterosexual
marriage may have existed in Israelite society but the Bible doesn't tell us
that. What the Bible does tell us is that the Israelites practised multiple
relationships, by condemning the practice of homosexuality its priests tell
us same-sex relationships existed, it says divorce was very easy and it
tells us there were a lot of cults that encouraged non-monogamous sex.
Marriage was not necessarily lifelong, sexual relationships were not
necessarily heterosexual, and an awful lot of people certainly were not
monogamous. Cult temples used both male and female prostitutes and, as we
know from the condemnations that howl from prophet and priest in the Bible's
pages, the Israelites were not slow to sign up to these promotional
gimmicks. In some cults, they even worked on a roster system and members had
to pitch in and do their bit. Just like the flower roster or the church
cleaning roster or the morning tea roster, members of the cult would be
rostered for sex duties at their cult's temple once a year. It was a
powerful marketing tool. The evidence from the New Testament is no
different: multiple sexual relationships were still practised, involving
both opposing and same gender, and in cities like Corinth, there were dozens
of cults offering every sexual variation you can think of. When a Christian
missionary like Paul preached in the marketplace in Corinth, on every hill
around him he could a cult temple and many of them offered sex. Multiple
relationships were still the norm for Christians and, as the writer to
Timothy says, only priests were required to have only one wife.
This is the story as the religious right never tells it, the "traditional
family values" emerging after 2000 years of blatant manipulation by the
church of human relationships for political and financial purposes, turning
sex into some nasty, sinister subject we must never talk about. This is the
religious right manipulating the Bible and the facts of history to define
what they claim is normal and to set us apart, to put us outside the
boundary of their claimed normalcy, to say 3You1re queer, get out of here2.
This is one giant fraud, a perversion of the Bible and the traditions out of
which the Bible grew. What God upholds in the pages of the Bible as sacred
are covenant relationships, in all their variety, and the sin that God
abhors in the Bible is the breach of those covenant relationships.
In the reading we heard earlier in the service, from the writings of the
Roman Catholic lesbian theologian Elizabeth Stuart, she wrote: 3To come out
is to say that the Church has got it wrong, that homosexuality is a
God-given gift to be rejoiced in.2 She is right. If we are to celebrate
pride in anything this evening, it should be our pride in our God-given
gifts. For too long, we as queer Christians have been cheated out of our
inheritance by the religious right. This Bible is our Bible. The stories it
tells are our stories. And it1s time that we stood up and reclaimed the
Bible as our own. We are what God made us; we practise what God created; we
are God1s people. And to our God be glory now and for ever more. Amen.



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