Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England May 21, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr. Rome
Anglican Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright of Durham, England, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the New Testament, and especially on the letters of Paul. He is also a member of the Eames Commission currently pondering the crisis within Anglicanism caused by the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the United States.
NCR interviewed Wright May 21 on the Anglican crisis, as well as on the resources the New Testament might offer to the debate in the United States over denying communion to Catholic politicians who disagree with church teaching. Wright was in Rome for a series of lectures at the Lay Centre.
NCR: There are two inter-related questions concerning the current crisis within Anglicanism. The first is a moral analysis of homosexuality, the second how one understands ecclesial communion. Let’s start with the first point. One locus for the debate over homosexuality is Romans 1:26-28. How do you understand what Paul is saying? Wright: I’ve written quite extensively about Romans in various places, particularly my commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, and anything that I say should be filled in with what’s there. The main thing to realize about Romans 1:26 and following is that it isn’t just a side swipe out of the blue. Paul’s argument at that point is grounded in the narrative of Genesis 1, 2 and 3. As often, he’s referring to it obliquely, but it’s there under the text. He’s drawing on it at various stages. He sees the point about being human as being to reflect God’s image, which he says in a number of places in his writings. He clearly sees that in Genesis 1 it is male plus female who are made in the image of God. He chooses the practice of homosexuality, not as a random feature of “look, they do all sorts of wicked things.” His point is that when people in a society are part of an idolatrous system — not necessarily that they individually are specifically committing acts of idolatry, but when the society as a whole worships that which is not the true God — then its image-bearingness begins to deconstruct. An obvious sign of that for Paul, granted Genesis 1, is the breakup of male-female relations and the turning off in other directions. Then it’s important to see how that is stitched into the argument that he mounts later on in the letter about how humankind is restored. When in chapter four he talks about Abraham, he talks about Abraham specifically did the things which in chapter one that human beings did not. In chapter one, they refused to know God, to honor God as God, to acknowledge God’s power and deity, and all the rest of it. This is the end of Romans 4. The result of Abraham acknowledging God and God’s power, recognizing that God had the power to do what he promised and giving God glory, which is the exact opposite word-by-word of what he said in chapter one, is that Abraham and Sarah were able to conceive children even in their old age. It’s a specific reversal, the coming back together of male plus female, and then the being fruitful, which is the command of Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is why he can talk in Romans 5 of how in Christ, who has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, what God wanted to do through Adam has been put back on the rails.
Can you draw a straight line between what Paul understood by “homosexuality” and how we understand it? Not a straight line, because there is no one understanding today of what constitutes homosexuality. There are many different analyses. As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever