Five uneasy pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality
(ATF, 2011 $27.95)
reviewed by Brendan Byrne

As Bishop Mark Burton remarks in the preface, the appearance of this book is timely granted the wider community discussion and controversy regarding the issue of same-sex marriage. If the Church is to be part of the conversation, it will want to proceed from an intelligent and enlightened awareness of the sources upon which ethical discernment is based. This volume, slim in size but not in the quality or depth of discussion regarding homosexuality and Scripture, will greatly assist to that end.

The five essays devoted to the relevant scriptural passages are preceded by a Foreword by American biblical scholar William Countryman and an Introduction by the most prominent Anglican layperson in Australia, Justice Michael Kirby. Readers more immediately interested in the biblical data should not neglect these introductory essays. Countryman sets the discussion in a broader historical and social context, while Kirby makes a powerful plea for understanding precisely as an Anglican and as one who has been concerned with interpretation of texts in a parallel area (the law) throughout his distinguished professional life.

Megan Warner gets the more strictly biblical essays off to an impressive start with a lucid and informed discussion of the ‘Sodom’ passage in Genesis 19, bringing out the ambiguity and subtleties of a text that resists simplistic conclusions. Richard Treloar, unenviably assigned the two Leviticus prescriptions (Lev 18:22 and 20:13), manages to turn the task into a fascinating discussion of hermeneutics within the Anglican tradition. In fact, as a non-Anglican, I found the hermeneutical discussion in this and other essays as illuminating as the more strictly exegetical analysis.

Peta Sherlock likewise writes very consciously out of the Anglican tradition of interpretation and approaches the only reference to same-sex behaviour in the authentic writings of Paul, Romans 1:26-27, from a variety of angles. She makes a powerful case for acceptance on many grounds. Granted, however, the significance that has been accorded to this text over the years, as a scripture scholar, I would have preferred to find closer attention to its context and rhetorical role within the letter.

This is indeed what Alan Cadwallader offers in his study of the isolated and passing references in the vice list of 1 Cor 6:9-10—perhaps the most demanding essay in the collection but a model of how the consideration of individual terms must be set within what he calls ‘a radiating succession of contexts’.

Finally, in a further hermeneutical direction, Gregory Jenks offers ‘a progressive reading’ of the similar lists in the post-Pauline letter 1 Timothy 1:8-11. This shift to a ‘reader response’ approach, with its focus upon ‘the world in front of the text’ (the reader or contemporary audience) richly complements the hermeneutical aspects of the earlier essays.

Needless to say, what emerges from all the studies is a liberal approach to the topic in question. Particularly impressive for a non-Anglican is the way in which the discussion is conducted so consciously within the distinctively Anglican tradition of interpretation. The collection holds out a courteous invitation to Anglicans of whatever views on the matter to join the conversation ‘within the family’, so to speak. For a wider range of readers Five Uneasy Pieces will be a resource of impeccable scholarship in the vexed ethical area under consideration.

Dr Brendan Byrne, SJ, is Professor of New Testament, Jesuit Theological College, Parkville.

 

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