I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve heard over the last few years talking about being out of church at the moment after a bad experience; wanting to go back but not knowing where was safe to go to. I’ve also seen various groups compiling lists of “affirming” churches which inevitably will include the MCC, but not so many (if any) other churches. Yesterday this was bought home to me when I picked up the LGBT Associations guide at freshers fair. The faith section has contacts, including a MCC church in Newcastle but there were no details of local churches. Somebody in the position of wanting to know a “safe” church wouldn’t know where to start in Durham, unless they asked somebody who knew.
This got me thinking about why and the issues involved. To say you are an affirming church indicates you are taking a particular position in a complex debate. To be advertised as an affirming church sends out an even stronger message. The truth is in many churches there is a mix of opinion which is being delicately balanced, it would not be appropriate for them to be seen to support one side or the other within the debate. Equally many churches don’t want to get sucked into a messy debate that they think is being given undue prominence and getting in the way of far more important issues. So how do we communicate to people that our church is a “safe space”? If we are to be inclusive spaces where anybody is welcome how do we communicate that this is the reality of the welcome they will recieve if they happen to be in a same sex relationship? The truth is I don’t know. So much of the language used in the debate has been hijacked by one side or other and huge meanings attached. Should churches intentionally use the word inclusive in their promotional literature? If they do will they be able to do this without being seen as taking a political stance.
Additionally I am becoming aware of the way that, particularly in some situations, there is a minefield to be negotiated in terms of knowing when it is safe to be a couple, however discreetly. The other week I was in a very strange situation with my partner, but one I think will become the norm. We were at a denominational event in her church, the sort of event where I feel culture shock anyway. It was quite difficult not knowing with every introduction whether I was going to be introduced as “a friend” or “her partner”. She was having to make judgements with people she regarded as friends as to how it was “safe” to introduce me. This was not only influenced by her knowledge of the person but sometimes also by a value judgement on whether she was talking to them as a friend or in “their official capacity”. I know that for various reasons this is the way it has to be, but I find it frustrating. For me keeping integrity is important; I know that sometimes the only approach to be taken is “don’t ask, don’t say” and it is an approach I am generally ready to take. It is just difficult knowing when that is the approach one must take and when it isn’t necessary.
If we are serious about mission and about having integrity in our faith we need to find ways of communicating where it’s safe and where discretion is required, although hopefully one day it won’t be. We need to find ways, without entering the debate, to let those outside the church know where they will truly find a welcome without them being forced to undertake a fullscale research project.