Yesterdays Weekend Australian Magazine includes this moving extract from the soon-to-be-published memoirs of former High Court Judge Michael Kirby. It tells the story of his lifelong partnership with Johan van Vloten - how they met, the early days of their relationship, his ongoing delight at finding love when he thought he was destined for a life of loneliness.
If Johan had been a woman there would be nothing remarkable in this tale, and it certainly wouldn't be the pre-publication extract. If I remember rightly, none of the extracts from John Howard's book talked about his lifelong love for Janette. Yet there is an undercurrent of pain in Kirby's telling. In the 1970s (the pair met in 1969) it was illegal to be gay, and Kirby was a high profile lawyer and later a judge and the public face of law reform. Their relationship stayed more or less secret until the late 1990s when social attitudes finally allowed them to come into the open. Of course colleagues knew or at least suspected but as Kirby says, "don't ask, don't tell".
Here's what Kirby says of the relationship.
He is a truly remarkable companion. Fortunate is a human being, straight or gay, who has such lifelong love. Evil are those who would deny such love to a fellow human being. God does not smile on such people.
No doubt, such a statement would make many Christians froth at the mouth. Of course with moves in many countries to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, this is a hot topic amongst Christians. While some insist that the Bible clearly condemns gay relationships, others from surprisingly conservative backgrounds suggest that it does no such thing. Personally I would say that as a general rule if some people think the Bible clearly condemns something and others think it doesn't, then that probably means it doesn't. After all, what else does "clearly" mean?
Leaving aside some items in the Mosaic law (given that Christians happily ignore most of that) there is only one Bible reference for us to argue about, which should in itself give us a hint about the priorities of the Biblical writers. It's this one, from the first chapter of Romans.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
The immediately relevant section here is, of course, verses 26 and 27. Paul certainly seems to be saying that same-sex relationships are a result of our estrangement from God. Many - in fact most - Christians take this to be sufficient grounds for excluding people in same sex relationships from active ministry, and for encouraging gay people to live a life a celibacy if they can't change their orientation.
Others believe it is not. There are a few reasons for this. One is that many Christians, like me, don't believe the Bible is inerrant. Therefore we are not obliged as Christians to follow everything it says to the letter and are able to make judgements ourselves under the grace of God which may differ from those of Paul or other biblical writers.
However, leaving this aside and accepting for the moment the authority of this passage, there is another way of reading it. To do this, you would need to keep reading, because the very next thing Paul says at the beginning of the second chapter is this.
1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
It is easy for straight people to be judgemental about gay people. Yet Paul has given us a long list. Do we exclude greedy people from active ministry? Do we exclude people who are subject to envy? Do we exclude people who experience lust? Do we exclude those who are arrogant, or who gossip? Do we exclude those who disobey their parents? Do we exclude people who are foolish? Churches would be very quiet places!
We so often forget what Christian morality is all about. Sure, we are trying to become better people, to overcome our faults, to live as God wants us to live. But the operative word here is "trying". If we think we are succeeding, Paul suggests, we should think again. The church is the community of those who are seeking God's grace, not the community of those who are living a reformed life.
One of the reasons I think we treat same-sex relationships as different from things like envy and greed is that they seem black and white. Envy sneaks up on us and just when we think we have beaten it, there it is worming its way back into our heart. On the other hand, it's possible to say that you are either in a relationship or not. Hence, the more or less standard position is that gays should be celibate. From time to time, they will experience desire for someone of the same sex, just as a straight person will feel desire for someone who is not their wife or husband - but they must not act on it.
For those who say this, listen with empathy to one of Kirby's later statements and see if, as a straight person, you feel any differently.
I suppose that a life of celibacy would have its own rewards. Returning to a dark home of silence and takeaway meals would probably be quite adequate in many circumstances. A solitary meal would certainly allow the events of the day, the month, the year or life generally to be explored quietly and alone, in the crevices of the mind. Perhaps a cat or a dog could look up before returning to sleep, indifferent to the clattering of the home-comer, deep at night.
But for most human beings, that is not enough. It was not enough for me. It is not enough for most gays and lesbians.... Beyond the dance parties and the Mardi Gras, homosexual people are human souls searching for love and companionship. Searching for the true friend. Hoping against hope for someone who will welcome their return home and offer words and actions that immediately translate love into reality.