Have you heard about the latest huge church rows over the greedy bishop, the envious vicar, the gossiping church member? No of course you haven’t, because no such rows exist. It’s the church’s views on homosexuality that have hit the headlines yet again. Of all the issues in all the world, why does the church return time and again to the gay question?
This whole issue of where the church stands on gay people (and quite a lot of people would LIKE to stand on them, it seems), has been brought back to the headlines this time by Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
Even by the frequently intemperate standards of the church gay debate, his comments on the issue of gay marriage were extreme. He used the word “grotesque”, and he drew a bizarre parallel between gay marriage and slavery. (Note the key difference, mate: Slaves didn’t have a choice.)
The cardinal defended his position, saying all he was doing was passing on 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Well let’s unpick that a bit.
Jesus is not on record as saying anything about homosexuals, which doesn’t mean he didn’t say anything, or that he approved. But it certainly means he didn’t bang on about it – as he did about love, poverty, religion and the Kingdom of God.
Even St Paul – who had what most of us would consider dodgy views on slavery, women and hats, is, I believe, constantly misquoted on the matter. Yes, he lists homosexuality among society’s misdeeds, along with envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, and many more. He says all this is what God has “given people over to”, as a consequence of society-wide rejection of God. And his conclusion: you can’t judge anyone on the above list because we’re all guilty of something on it. This is how he puts it: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
It couldn’t be clearer that St Paul is not building a platform from which anyone can condemn the gay. I think the anti-gay lobby are so excited by the apparent vindication of their position in Romans Chapter 1 that they never get as far as the point he’s actually trying to make in Romans Chapter 2: Basically: We’re all as bad as each other. Or to quote Philip Yancey’s glorious gospel in seven words: “We’re all bastards but God loves us.”
So Jesus: unquoted on the issue. St Paul: misquoted on the issue. That leaves the Old Testament laws. Well yes, they come down unequivocally against homosexuality, but also make many other provisions which today would be seen as outrageous, everything from punitive treatment of some rape victims to not eating shellfish and rabbit. They’re simply not rules by which Christians live their lives, including those who claim to follow every letter of the Bible.
The question as to whether God has an issue with homosexuality is, of course, still key. None of us can come to God with uncrossable red lines: if we sense for ourselves that any relationship, gay or straight, is unhelpful, wrong or not condoned by God, it’s up to us to deal with that. I know gay Christians who struggle to know and do the right thing, some of them essentially conformist people who agonise over the non-conformist position they find themselves in. Knowing the “rightness” of any relationship can be a challenge for Christians, and is the stuff of wrestling with conscience and listening to God.
So gay people in the Church may be in a different position from gay people not in the church: by surrendering their lives to God they have declared that nothing in their lives is off-limits to Him, that nothing is immune from potential change and challenge by Him – and that includes their relationships. This is true for all Christians, not just gay ones.
The cardinal behind this recent set of comments happens to be Roman Catholic – the most senior one in Britain at that – but his views seem to run through much of the established church. The African Anglican church appears particularly anti-gay, and the Anglican church seems to teeter constantly on the point of actually splitting on the issue.
I wonder if part of the problem is that the church attracts a lot of people who want moral certainties, simple answers to life’s complex questions. Some of them turn into what I call the Taliban Tendency in the church. They manifest themselves as people who broadly believe life was better in the 1950s – the Gospel of the Good Old Days, when men were men and women were chased (I know, sorry, couldn’t resist it). Some may also read the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph, and to quote someone else’s hilarious article, were last truly happy on D-Day.
The problem is that there aren’t always simple answers to life’s simple questions, much less to the complex ones. Life is not black and white. If you try to tell that to the hardliners, they accuse you of being grey and wishy-washy and (*throw hands up in horror*) liberal. But the opposite of black and white is not grey, it’s the colours of the rainbow.
The Christian faith answers some key theological questions very simply: Is there a God: Yes. Does he love me: Yes. What does he want from me: To believe in and follow Jesus Christ, his son; to receive his Holy Spirit. But away from the core, the questions and answers get far more complex. Even the question beloved of evangelicals – What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) throws up the basic problem that he always did something different. Sometimes he healed by touch, sometimes from afar. Sometimes he spat into the mud and rubbed people’s eyes, other times he just announced their healing to them. Sometimes he overturned furniture, other times he made it. What Jesus unfailingly did do was ask God the Father. The answer he got was never the same twice. That surely is the lesson for us. No formulae, no patterns, no predictability. Instead, a constant dialogue, a constant openness to the Spirit of God – and who knows what might happen.
I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons many clerics love to reject homosexuality is the safe knowledge that they’ve never been there, never done that, never got the T-shirt. To preach against the other people on St Paul’s list – the proud, the gossiping, the greedy, the arrogant, the insolent, and so on – might just be to reject themselves. Incidentally I know one or two clergymen whom I suspect reject homosexuality vocally at every opportunity because of their own secret struggle with exactly that issue. Some gay people, especially from older generations, lived lives in which they were unable to be true to themselves and have simply never dared to believe God would love them just as much if they were gay.
I also take the point that you can question gay marriage even if you have no issue with civil partnership or homosexuality in general. Whether marriage is a uniquely heterosexual experience is, I suppose, a moral as well as a semantic argument. But I suspect that many of those opposed to gay marriage are fundamentally the same people who are opposed to gayness in the first place. And if we are going to have the debate, let’s have it in a gracious and compassionate manner befitting people who say they follow Christ, not the jaw-droppingly horrid language used by the cardinal and other clerics.
The Christian Church should be simply this: a collection of people who have become convinced that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, crucified and resurrected. Its message should be love.
By its constant focus on gay marriage and gayness in general, it risks alienating not just the gay community, but many other “right-thinking members of society generally”. The other essence of Christianity is this: we’re all individually accountable before God for the decisions we take and the lives we lead. Let’s get our own lives right with God and end this obsession with what others are up to.