Open Debate

Another blog which I need to say comes very much as personal response on a personal blog.

Recently I blogged about the safe spaces for LGBandT Christians mainly providing for people who were already connected with faith communities or who had been. The post illustrated that there are networks and communities which exist both in physical and online spaces. Part of what happens within these spaces is the discussion of where have been found good and bad churches to be part of and who is/ isn’t positive about LGBandT people. What this sharing of knowledge gives is an understanding that there is a much wider debate and spread of ideas within evangelicalism (and other strands of theology and churchmanship) than is often recognised.

Some high profile figures have publicly acknowledged that this diversity of views exists and a few have shared their known opinions publicly.Many of these were mentioned within this recent Independent article. Some other figures have not publicly commented on the issues involved but are known to be supportive, through their practice. Others are known to be privately supportive but unwilling or more often unable to say so publicly for a range of reasons.

The new issue of Christianity Magazine, which is the main evangelical magazine in the UK, has brought the diversity of opinion which exists within the evangelical movement into focus. One of the articles comes from Steve Chalke whose church has been long known to be an affirming church for evangelical LGBandT Christians but who has not thus far publicly spoken out. The term affirming used in relation to churches means a non-exclusive safe space where LGBandT Christians are actively welcomed, as themselves, and encouraged to fully participate at all levels.

This appears to a highly choreographed breaking of the silence, perhaps taking lessons from the last time in which Chalke decided to show the diversity of thought which exists in evangelicalism when he gave his views on the penal substitution theory of atonement. Greg Downes who is Christianity’s theologian in residence gives another response. The Evangelical Alliance’s Steve Clifford has also published an article in response on the EA website and has put up a statement of response. What is interesting about the EA response is the way in which Clifford has signposted people to the Evangelical Relationships Commitment. This is a statement which highlights how there are issues which divide people and in discussing these issues people need to recognise that they cannot question whether people are not Christians simply because they differ in their opinions.

One part of the statement makes the point: “We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.”

The statement then goes on to give a set of principles outlining how discussions where there is disagreement should be conducted. I think that these are useful principals.

I want to turn my attention now to to the content of the various articles and responses.

Ruth Dickinson’s editorial outlines how the culture of public silence which I referred to earlier has operated within evangelicalism. There is an acknowledgement of the fear of reaction which public figures have faced. There is also reference to the fear of driving people away from the church. Brian McLaren is quoted as saying, ‘I’m sensitive to [the silence of many Church leaders], because I struggled with that for many years myself,’ he told Christianity. ‘I was tacitly complicit in the conservative view, even though I didn’t hold it – ever, really. I never was [fully] conservative on the gay issue, but I tried to walk a pastoral road, where I would not drive either gay people away from the Church or conservatives away from the Church. So I think it’s a hard road to walk.’

What is interesting with this last quote is that McLaren’s son is gay, as the editorial says McLaren blessed his sons gay wedding in 2012. As this shows the whole debate hasn’t been just an academic issue for some evangelical leaders it’s been something very personal.

The editorial goes on to talk about the way in which conservatives also fear speaking out and giving their opinion.

What comes out is that we need an honest debate where people can be honest without fear and without it turning into a slagging match.

Steve Chalke’s article takes the approach of looking at inclusion and what this means from a Christian perspective. He also looks at it from a realistic perspective.

One point he makes within this relates to the way in which the church has at times promoted, through the culture it has encouraged, promiscuity rather than commitment. He says,’One tragic outworking of the Church’s historical rejection of faithful gay relationships is our failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy. In this way we have left people vulnerable and isolated. When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy, fear and even of deceit.  It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?’

This is something I think is really important to be recognised, but it has to be recognised that for some it does not lead to promiscuity. Self-harm, depression and turning in on yourself through abuse of work or food are other ways of dealing with  it.

He then makes the point that he has blessed a civil partnership because he judged it right to do so. The debates about whether it is marriage or not he says are secondary and whilst I know others would disagree I personally stand with him on that. What matters is that people are making a commitment to each other, (and in a Christian context before God), not what you call it.

Chalke then goes on to look at biblical passages and seeks to look at tradition as well as scripture.

He makes the final point that he is so passionate about the issue because of the way health and safety as well as lives are at stake. Some may think that this is alarmist but it is based on evidence.

As he says, “Numerous studies show that suicide rates among gay people, especially young people, are comparatively high.[23] Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy when tragically it’s anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which, all too often, drives these statistics.”

He then goes on to give some of the stories he is aware of, stories I recognise all to well.

The counter response is given by Greg Downes who is Christianity Magazines Theologian in residence. He goes through the range of alternative arguments using scripture, tradition and experience. It is this final section that I want to focus upon.

In looking at experience he makes the important point that the voices of gay Christians who have been called to be celibate or who have apparently gone through the ex-gay movement have often not been properly heard. I agree with him, too often their voices have not been heard and I think that due respect has not always been given to them.

I have sat in the safe spaces and heard the pain of those who feel that their position has not respected and that the struggles involved in their celibacy has not been respected. I have a strong belief that they need to be honoured as people doing what they feel is right and some of whom have been given a specific gift of celibacy. I also think those struggling with it should be helped to find positive strategies and support in living out this position if they feel it is right to do so.

He goes on to say, “One concern is that many of the vocal comments in today’s Church on the issue are from Christians who have embraced the gay lifestyle and are very much advocating a change of theology.”

This is something I guess Downes would include myself and this blog within. I therefore feel the need to explain myself.

Firstly, whilst I have entered a committed relationship which was same sex prior to Karl coming out as trans I did not choose to embrace a gay lifestyle. The idea of the ‘gay lifestyle’ is on one level a myth, there are a diversity of lifestyles amongst LGBandT people just as there are other groups.

What I did was go through a long process of prayer and soul searching where I believe God healed me by bringing me to a point of peace with myself as I am. I came to a place after long soul searching and prayer where I believed that a committed relationship was something I could enter into and I happened to fall in love with somebody I believe that God bought into my life.

I have become an activist of sorts, but for me it is not a “gay rights” type of activism. Rather it has been seeking to share my story honesty in order to try and build understanding of Christianity amongst the gay community as much as in order to build understanding of the gay community amongst Christians.

Regarding advocating a change in theology I have discovered that whilst there may be dominant interpretations there is not a single theological position on this issue. I wrestled with scripture and looked long and hard at this, as well as praying through on this issue. I am prepared to admit that I may have come to the wrong interpretation but looking at this in the same way as I do other biblical issues and passages I don’t think I have. I respect though others do see things differently. Just as I know others see issues related to communion and the nature of the sacrament differently from me due to differences in theology and interpretations of scripture so it is with this issue.

In terms of the EA response it is as expected and is giving the response which reflects where they are coming from and the views of many they represent. The language of disappointment again has echoes of the past and the whole penal substitution debate.

Looking overall at these articles on one level I am encouraged, public silences have been broken. However there are a few things which I find worrying about the way in which the debate is being framed and the language being used:

1) The way in which there is no acknowledgement of bisexuality. The debate is framed in a polarised way which does not acknowledge the spectrum of human sexuality.

2) The masculine nature of the language used. The debate has focused around ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay people’. This is all gendered language.

3) The discussion of the gay lifestyle. I have already talked about the diversity of experience amongst the LGBandT community. The idea one chooses a gay lifestyle is misleading.

4) The way in which the framing of the debate acts to further marginalise the experience of transgender people. Whilst gender issues are separate to those of sexual orientation they fit into a wider discussion. The debates around same sex marriage include a trans element.

5) The way in which the missional aspect of the discussion has not been looked at.