The Revd. Mark Bailey writes about.....

Self-righteousness and sexuality

Luke 18.9-14

The parable of the self-righteous Pharisee who denigrates the prayers of the Tax Collector is a painful reminder of what human beings sometimes do to one another when they feel threatened by difference. In putting down the profession of the Tax Collector, a necessary part of the administration of the Roman Empire, the Pharisee elevates himself, puts himself in a place where he believes himself to be closer to God, and in doing so then feels confident, even omnipotent, to not just look down upon the Tax Collector, but then to condemn the Tax Collector and to align him with “thieves, rogues and adulterers”. Difference has now become deviance. In short the argument goes like this. You are not like me. You are different to me. I am better than you. I am closer to God than you are. You are more distant from God. You are not equal to me. God favours me. God disapproves of you. I condemn you. God condemns you.

It brings back for me a painful reminder from my own past. As you know I was brought up under the Apartheid regime in South Africa and as a young man was caught up in protesting against the injustices of that state sponsored system. One of the very small things that I managed to do was to have certain pieces of literature that were displayed in a glass case in the middle of Johannesburg Central Railway Station removed. These were tracts that illustrated the biological differences between the skull of a white man and the skull of a black man and the skull of a baboon. The inference was that the black man’s skull was more a kin to the baboon’s skull than to the white man’s skull. The narrative was very clear. Black people are not the same as white people. Black people are more like apes. Black people cannot be as intelligent as white people. God has made white people more intelligent, more civilised. Of course, it was complete rubbish – nothing but fascist propaganda. But you can see what a dangerous place the self-righteous Pharisee has put himself into. Jesus points this out to the crowd and warns “All who exalt themselves will be humbled…”

I was disturbed to read this week in the Statement released by those bishops who had gathered in Cairo, including our own Bishop Tim and Bishop David, at the Global South Anglican Conference, condemning those whose sexual orientation is homosexual or bisexual as being ‘sexually broken.’ Whilst acknowledging that God has made all people wonderfully in His image, the Statement then contradicts itself by claiming that only those whose orientation is heterosexual are acceptable to God. Difference in this Statement has become deviance. I am closer to God than you are. I condemn you.

One of the problems with comparing the skull of a black man to the skull of a baboon is that fundamentally the science is wrong. You only have to look at the teeth of a baboon to know that it is not human. Theologically we can agree that both baboon and human being are part of God’s creation but to suggest that you can somehow correlate the intelligence of a man or woman because of the colour of their skin or the shape of their nose with that of a completely different species is simply a step too far. The starting point for the argument simply does not exist.

Similarly with sexuality. Our understanding of sexuality has been greatly enhanced by modern science – from biology to psychology. We now understand – and this is a common given in the world outside of the Church – that sexuality is more of a continuum, a spectrum on which each and every individual has to negotiate their own identity, given their own unique make-up. This isn’t easy and for some it becomes a life-long and sometimes quite traumatic experience of learning to live comfortably with what is inside your own skin. So, every woman and every man, as part of the development into maturity, has to come to terms with who they are. There are millions of different ways of being a woman. And there are millions of different ways of being a man. Everyone is different. Gender identity is part and parcel of the wonderful and mysterious way in which God has created us. And within this spectrum the quest for sexual preference ranges in difference from heterosexual through bisexual through to homosexual. A small percentage, we now know, are left to struggle with a physiological and mental confusion – my genes tell me one thing, my body another. We are still learning about this gift that God has given to us.  

But there are some things in the C21st that we definitely do know. Sexuality is expressed in the way we speak, smile, stand, sit, dress, dance, laugh, and cry - and it is expressed in the relationship with whom we find fulfilling intimacy. Sexuality is intrinsic to who we are – created by God. It is not something which is ‘broken’.

In February, the General Synod of the Church of England will be facing a significant debate on how to find a way forward on the issue of same sex relationships and the traditional view of marriage. Over these next month’s we will undoubtedly see different opinions being expressed – some with more heat than light. Those who gathered in Cairo drew a sharp distinction between those who they determined were ‘sexually well’ and those who they deemed were ‘sexually broken’. Such a split will not be helpful in that debate. One cannot give thanks to God on one hand for making all people wonderfully, including sexually, unique and then on the other, condemn those whose sexual identity does not fit a heterosexual pattern.

 “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Pray for the Pharisee – little does he know it, but he needs our prayers.


Revd. Mark Bailey