One of the delights of Lay Anglicana is the length and thoughtfulness of the comments people leave, and their willingness to enter into debate. A question that has been raised recently is why on earth the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is putting so much energy into debating same-sex relationships. Aren’t there more important issues to think about, like worshipping God, preaching the good news, and feeding the hungry?
Falling in love, sexual desire and living with a partner are such an important part of most people’s lives that it’s not surprising we make them pretty central, especially in a religion which proclaims that God became human. And it isn’t just a private matter for the couple, which is why we celebrate weddings in church.
The body of believers and believers’ bodies
But church is a response of the whole body of Christ to God, so it doesn’t focus on coupling – we go to church to be one with everyone (however fleetingly and imperfectly), not primarily with our partners. So why is the church busying itself so much with what goes on in the bedroom?
Church and society have always acknowledged the power of sex to bind people in life-giving relationships and to harm. The majority, perhaps the vast majority, once thought that having sexual relationships with your own sex was harmful – and so abhorrent that we shouldn’t even talk about it. And men like Benjamin Britten who were happily settled with a male partner certainly wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to their illegal acts.
Times have changed, and churches are wrestling internally to provide an appropriate response which takes account of all the treasures we’ve received from scripture and tradition. Meanwhile, many gay Christians feel they are ostracised, or second-class citizens, or feel such a conflict between what they are taught and what feels like a God-given love that they live miserable lives, cut off from family and friends. If we have a mission to the outcast, what can we offer here?
Shouting down homophobia
In my wandering around blogs and comments on them in the last few months to try to make sense of the churches’ stances on homosexuality, I’ve sometimes wondered about those who are shouting down ‘homophobia’ of various kinds. They often paint a picture of intolerant religions and a tolerant society. But when I was a young child, male homosexual acts were criminal. A friend in a previous generation married to avoid being outed. Even in the eighties, the Sun screamed “Gay Plague” at people infected with HIV/AIDS. In the early nineties, no Conservative politician could admit to being gay. All this had very little to do with religion. If there’s a 21st-century broad secular consensus that loving the same gender sexually is entirely normal, it’s new (and of course homophobic bullying is still rife in schools).
I suspect that the majority of people (including many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, to their great cost) in Great Britain over 40 or 50 will have grown up with
- the feeling that gay sex was distasteful if not abhorrent
- an assumption that it was second-best or even wrong .
I imagine that many people, religious or otherwise, who now bang on about gay rights have, like me, reached this position gradually, perhaps with some soul-searching or careful study. I notice in myself (as a heterosexual man who has never had a gay relationship) a desire to side with the underdog and to be seen as being on the right side and appreciated for it. It’s a short step from this to launching an attack on ‘the other side’ – those who believe what I once believed! Admitting how late and how slowly I came to what I believe now doesn’t quite fit.
Have you changed your mind? How did that happen?
We need to hear something of the stories of people (especially Christians) like me who have changed or are changing their minds. What happened? Did re-examining the Bible help? Did you take a fresh look at tradition? Did a particular book enlighten you? What role did those close to you play? Have you ever felt an attraction to your own sex? What are your emotional reactions to different kinds of touching? What, if anything, do you find repellent? It’s all your own business of course, but sharing some of it privately or publicly might help us all understand each other better.
It would be good to hear to from those who have looked into the issue deeply and kept broadly the same opinion. And from those whose approach is to show compassion to people they see as sinners – what form does that compassion take? Have they imaginatively entered into the other person’s experience of falling in love, or of rejection?
My gradual change of mind came first, my sporadic crusading zeal much later – the latter was inspired by the stories of two or three people who are close to me. I realised their pain, and recognised the difference between generously ‘allowing’ people to be gay and actively celebrating it. I think we all need to hear – really hear – stories from LGBT and queer people, Christians and others, particularly seekers who have felt turned away by the church. Stories of rejection and struggle, but above all stories of ordinary relationships, kitchen sink and Hollywood sunset.
We need to hear stories of relationships which have gone wrong too, even from people who feel they have been damaged by consenting same-sex relationships. We need to hear from people who find all sex distasteful, and from those who feel their relationships don’t fit into any easy category. We need to suspend judgment and listen, and notice our own reactions before we voice them. If we want to judge sin, first we must enter fully into the costly compassion of Christ.
I hope to hear a little of your story in the comments to this page, and am happy to share a little of mine there too. Links to other relevant stories (online, in film, or books) could also be helpful.
Illustration from Wikimedia, downloaded under CCL. Saints Sergius and Bacchus. 7th Century icon. Officers of the Roman Army in Syria who were tortured to death for their refusal to worship Roman gods.
Bacchus is thought to have died from severe torture while Sergius survived the initial torture to be beheaded. They are the protectors of the Byzantine Army with a feast day of October 7th.
Yale historian John Boswell considers the saints to be an example of an early Christian same-sex union reflective of tolerant early Christians attitudes toward homosexuality based on this icon depecting what some claim is a religious wedding with Jesus as best man and still surviving writings