Whether to allow gay bishops is currently a hot issue in the Church of England. In line with British equality law, the Church cannot allow sexual orientation in itself to be grounds for preventing a priest being promoted to the role of bishop. However, consistent with provisions contained within the Act for a religious organisation to operate in accordance with its doctrine, the document, ‘Choosing Bishops – The Equality Act 2010’, makes clear that those considered for promotion must be celibate and to have been celibate during their time as a priest.
Many people feel puzzled by this reluctance to embrace homosexuality by strands of organised religion. And some feel angry and want to promote the idea that gay people should be proud of their sexual orientation feeling this is their natural inclination.
The same idea about natural inclination of course could be said of those attracted to the opposite sex who feel they have no conscious choice in the matter. However although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no firm findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.
From a spiritual perspective, we might ask whether a gay partnership has the same potential for human happiness as that of a heterosexual one. So what does Swedenborg have to say about it?
Conjugial principle and gay partnership
Swedenborg coined a new word ‘conjugial’ by adding an ‘i’ to the old legal term ‘conjugal’. He did this to distinguish a quality of love that unites a couple as one in heart, mind and life. When the understanding of what is true in one person makes one with the affection of what is good in the other, there is said to be a union of the two minds into one.
A deep union between two people is said to be characterized by spiritual states of peace, tranquility, intimate friendship, full trust, joy and sexual pleasure. According to Swedenborg this state of ‘conjugial love,’ has a spiritual source ie the divine union of what is good and what is true. Without this harmony there would be inner tension — thinking one thing but wanting another. Hence in so far as the partnership is a conjugial one, there is a profound joy because the divine harmony is present within the relationship.
Given that each of us has both of some of what is good and true within us, it might be asked whether the conjugial principle has the potential to apply equally to the relationship between two people of the same sex in the same way as between two of the opposite sex. In other words can there be conjugial love in a gay marriage between masculine and feminine natures in each person if we assume we all have both masculine and feminine within us?
The idea there is both masculine and feminine in each person came from Carl Jung. On the contrary, although Swedenborg says that both sexes have thinking heads and feeling hearts and should be equally valued, he nevertheless maintains they are not the same. In his book Conjugial Love (section 32) he says there is an essential difference between male and female and that after death a male lives on as a male and a female as a female. He goes on to describe the underlying psycho-spiritual difference between male and female minds.
According to Swedenborg, both sexes are capable of intelligent thought and empathy. At the same time, his contention is that men are more naturally inclined towards using their heads and taking an objective stance. On the other hand, women are said to be more likely to observe what is going on with their intuition and take a subjective perspective. Whilst the man is suited to thinking about what is right for longer in the light of understanding, the woman is suited to sustaining a warm feeling for what is good in the heat of love.
This supposed gender difference is Swedenborg’s rationale for heterosexual love. Just as opposites attract, the love between a man and a woman can be deeper because it can be between an understanding and its corresponding affection. And so each complements the other. This difference offers the potential to enter deeply and unite them. Also (in his book Conjugial Love section 181), he contends that conjugial love can only happen in the relationship between a man and a woman.
If Swedenborg is right about the difference between men and women, then love between two people of the same sex cannot be the same as the love between those of the opposite sex.
We might wonder if these ideas from the eighteenth century have anything to teach us in this day and age. The marriage statistics show that there are lots of people in less than satisfactory heterosexual relationships. Some gay partnerships last longer than heterosexual ones. And given the sexual prejudice still around, one might argue that to persist as a gay couple requires a better inner resilience in the partnership.
Swedenborg doesn’t address the issue of gay partnerships – there was no word for it in his day. However one thing he does state (in his book Conjugial Love section 55) is that the love of a man for a man or that of a woman for a woman cannot be a deep one. He may have got it wrong, but he says that the love of a man for a man and of a woman for a woman make relatively superficial contact not leading to any deep inner union of the two.
In other words according to this view the love between two men is more about the association between one way of thinking and another way of thinking – between one understanding and another understanding. The love between two women is more about the association of one state of feeling and another state of feeling.
In aspiring to reach the heavenly condition of what Swedenborg calls conjugial love, one could argue that people stand a better chance within a heterosexual rather than a gay partnership.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems