Monday, 28 April 2014

Pain in the offering - gay marriage and the Church

During my gap year in the late sixties I taught on the slopes of Mount Kenya. On arrival I was told not to be surprised. It was customary for students (in their late teens and early twenties) to go around holding hands with friends of the same sex. It was not long before I ceased to notice, it was so normal. However in England, for me holding hands was the first move of courtship; it was what you did when you were "going out" with a girl! There are different cultural norms to do with relations between the sexes. I start with this also to illustrate what a sexualised society ours is - so that we make all sorts of projections about partners, or home sharers, which may well be far from true, based on our own cultural conditioning or our imagination. 
I am returning to the issue of same sex marriage. I suspect that this will be my final post on the subject - at least for a while! But I need to write it having lain awake quite a bit last night with it on my mind. I apologise in advance as a lot of this will be derivative and will ask of you, dear reader, to follow links to secondary sources. My defence for that is partially a comment on my previous post, "I have no wish to spend money on books providing (what I see to be) wickedness. So if I'm to be persuaded, the new kids on the block have got to do the work and make their arguments available for free." Well, here are some free links, which no doubt will fail to convince my correspondent, but encourage me to consider that there may be more than one valid interpretation of the Biblical evidence. More disturbingly for me one scholar with whom I occasionally correspond recently wrote, "I have been provoked by your latest blogs to read your recommended reading, as well as the Pilling report. I have had a look at the NT discussion in Renato Lings, Love Lost in Translation. I haven't yet got into Justin Lee’s Unconditional. As yet I remain as traditionally convinced as ever, though hopefully willing to find that I might be wrong, if I am!"

First, let me ask you to take a leap of empathy which I euphemistically described as "grim" to Jane. It asks you to imagine what the world must be like to a youngster who discovers she is different from the "norm". You need 20 minutes to watch this: Love is all you need? All right, it's fiction, but as the film-makers point out it is based on real incidents and, as a writer, I would say that good stories tell the truth, sometimes more than history. 

Secondly, here is a link to the highly respected evangelical Christian pastor and teacher, John Piper, and his account of how he went from a self-described racist to an adoptive father of an African American: I was a racist. My friend, Anita Mathias, writer and blogger (, who drew my attention to it, commented, "society is often ahead of the church, and the church later catches up. Examples were colonialism, slavery and racism condoned by theologians. Society is ahead of the church in the environmental movement and in animal rights, though I have no doubt the church will catch up. Society was and is ahead of the church when it comes to feminism and equal rights for women. The church tends to be conservative and reactionary as an institution, though this is not true of every individual Christian, of course." Here are two quotes from the article, the first about the black woman who helped his mother with the cleaning, the second about the implications of the gospel.

"No, she was not a slave. But the point still stands. Of course, we were nice. Of course, we loved Lucy. Of course, she was invited to my sister's wedding. As long as she and her family 'knew their place'. Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too. It doesn't say much about honor and respect and equality before God. My affections for Lucy did not provide the slightest restraint on my racist mouth when I was with my friends."

"I believe that the gospel—the good news of Christ crucified in our place to remove the wrath of God and provide forgiveness of sins and power for sanctification—is our only hope for the kind of racial diversity and harmony that ultimately matters. If we abandon the fullness of the gospel to make racial and ethnic diversity quicker or easier, we create a mere shadow of the kingdom, an imitation. And we lose the one thing that can bring about Christ-exalting diversity and harmony. Any other kind is an alluring snare. For what does it profit a man if he gains complete diversity and loses his own soul?"

I can sense some of my readers by now becoming irritated and saying, "But what about the Bible? What about what it says about homosexuality? It's plain as a pikestaff there." So, here, thirdly, is my next link, which although written by a young gay man is a fair summary of the alternative informed view of the proof texts usually adduced to condemn homosexuality. It's the transcript of an hour's lecture and so I am assuming that you, dear readers, would rather I did not reproduce it in full here, but leave you the freedom to read it at your leisure: Matthew Vines, The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality

However, I will reproduce the critique from the blog ( I found the transcript. The reaction of the author, Rachel Held Evans, is near enough to my own for me to (mis)appropriate it!
"I confess I approached the lecture with some skepticism - not because I've never heard a strong case made for the affirming view, but because Matthew is so young and isn't exactly a biblical scholar. But I was impressed. I'm sure Matthew would be the first to acknowledge the scholarship is not his own, but the way he so carefully and skillfully puts together the argument is unique and effective. It's not perfect, but it's compelling and reasonable.
"And I confess that I always engage in these conversations 'wanting' the affirming view to make sense because of the many dear folks in my life who are gay and who I'm certain did not choose to be gay and who long to be faithful to Jesus but are understandably disheartened by the prospect of lifelong celibacy. So even though I grew up only hearing the traditional view, I have that bias based on new information about homosexuality and new relationships with people who are gay, and I'm not ashamed to admit that bias. Still, I don't want to believe something because I 'want' it to be true; I want to believe something because it 'is' true. So as a Christian committed to the authority of Scripture I've been working through these passages (and others) for a few years now, struggling to understand them better. And I confess to playing the devil's advocate in my head, no matter which perspective I'm reading. I really see both sides on this one....
"- What I like most about Matthew's presentation is that he deals with some of the lingering questions I always have after hearing the affirming view. His response to the challenge that 'all the Bible's references to homosexuality are negative', is, I think, a good one. That has always been a hang-up of mine, and while Matthew's response still leaves a question in my mind (why are there no positive examples of a homosexual relationships in Scripture?) it makes sense. I also think he responds well to the charge that gay Christians who don't want to be celibate are just trying to take the easy way out and are unwilling to commit to the sacrificial nature of following Jesus.
"- I really like Matthew's treatment of Romans 1, particularly regarding what is meant by 'natural' and 'unnatural' as they were typically used not only in Paul's writings but also in the broader culture. Having spent a good deal of time studying those head covering passages, I love that he shows the similarities between Paul's argumentation in 1 Corinthians 11 and in Romans 1. I also think his points about how homosexuality was generally perceived in the Ancient Near Eastern world (as a compulsion toward excess rather than an orientation) is worth considering. We don't fault the writers of the Old Testament texts for assuming that water was held above the earth by a sold firmament, so why would we fault them for assuming that gay sex was something heterosexual people did when they grew unsatisfied with their heterosexual partners? At what point do we allow the new information we have about sexual orientation affect how we understand the context and assumptions behind these texts?
"- Still, I'm wondering if the 'exchanging natural relationships for unnatural relationships' is a bit more general and less specific than Matthew indicates here - like that Paul is not referring to specific people denying their orientation but rather generally, to the acceptance of whatever sexual practices are referenced in that text.
"- I love what Matthew said about how we are actually being more faithful to the texts when we preserve some of the ambiguity of the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages. Why assume we know exactly what the authors were referencing there when we simply don't?
"- As for the conservative responses, I think the critique from Evan Lenow in the Christian Post article regarding the creation narratives is a reasonable one. He rightfully points out that the context of Adam and Eve as suitable partners is that of procreation, something I think Matthew overlooks.
"- However, I don't think Lenow's response to Matthew's treatment of Romans 1 is as strong. He sorta just defaults to the old 'this guy doesn't believe in the authority of Scripture' line rather than seriously engaging what I believe are strong arguments from Matthew regarding the context and language of Romans 1.
"- I would say the strongest point in Lenow's response is that the language used in the 1 Corinthians passages is very similar to that used in the Leviticus 18 passage, suggesting Paul may indeed have been referring to gay sex...a point Matthew fails to address in this lecture.
"- I think both sides could have spent a little more time on Jesus - addressing both his silence on homosexuality in particular and his comments on heterosexual well as the general inclusive thrust of Jesus' teachings.
"- I would also love to see more people bring the biblical references to eunuchs into this debate, not because eunuchs are the same as LGBTQ people, but because they were notable sexual minorities in the day who were specifically condemned by OT law, and Jesus & the early church leaders were profoundly welcoming and inclusive of them.
"And then finally, I have to admit that Christian history really looms over this discussion for me. After reading Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I've grown somewhat wary of the idea that whoever 'wins' with the most proof texts in this debate will be on the right side of history. You just can't read the quotations from southern preachers regarding the Bible and slavery and not see the similarities in the rhetorical style and approach. Honestly, if given the task of making a clear biblical case for the abolition of slavery, I'm not sure my arguments could hold up against those armed with Bible verses that appear to support slavery as an institution. (As we discussed a few weeks ago, many of the same passages once used to support slavery are still used to support the subjection of women.)"
On Rachel's point about Jesus, it is certainly true that he broke the conventions of his time by welcoming women among his close followers and learners, touching untouchables, having dealings with Samaritans and Gentiles and consorting with tax-collectors and notorious sinners. It was only recently that a friend suggested to me that it was quite likely that the centurion's "boy" (Greek pais) whose healing we read about in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 was the soldier's protegé lover. Such relationships were common in the Graeco/Roman world. (For a fuller account see "Jesus affirmed a gay couple".) Surprisingly the centurion escapes any censure but on the contrary is held up as a paradigm of faith.

It seems to me that there is a disjunction between the "traditionalists" and those wanting change. The traditionalists look at behaviours; the radicals look at relationship. The traditionalists concentrate on the sexual acts; the radicals emphasise lifelong commitment. They each see reality in a different way. As I read somewhere, "The heterosexual complementarity of the sexes’ functions is the conservatives’ ace in the pack over the progressives’ equally ontological argument that God created 'homosexual persons' in the 'image of God'."
Almost finally today I came across this article by a pastor of an American Vineyard church who found himself asking why we mostly have no problem welcoming and affirming divorced and remarried people in churches, when Jesus' teaching was on the face of it so clear about such relationships being adulterous. He reflected on C S Lewis's marriage to divorcée, Joy Davidman, which at the time the CofE would not allow: CS Lewis' marriage & the gay marriage controversy.
"Call me naïve, but I think there’s a third way for evangelicals in the gay marriage debate, and it’s a way that honors the Bible and the power of the gospel better than 'love the sinner, hate the sin' or 'open and affirming'. Whether or not it works is another matter. But I think it’s time to give it a try, especially if it could bear witness to a risen Lord better than the current rehashed moralism that we’re calling the gospel.
"If you are an evangelical pastor who has felt the same troubled conscience that I have over your exclusion of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, you might try what the pastor who married C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman did: ask Jesus what you should do and do that, come what may."
Penultimately, I heeded this acute observation on Rachel Evans' blog by a Kristen Rosser: "There's something distressingly clinical about 2 heterosexual people discussing the happiness and suffering of LGBT people as if they were case studies and not people. I don't think it's my place to determine whether, and to what extent, other people should be happy or should be allowed to suffer. Suffering is of no value in and of itself; if anyone suffers for the cause of Christ or in order to do good, it needs to be by their own choice and not because someone else determined that they should."

So what are my conclusions from all this?
• It is possible to hold different legitimate interpretations of the Biblical teaching on homosexuality.
• There is a difference between promiscuous sexual activity (whether straight or gay) and loving committed relationships (whether straight or gay).
• Singleness (or celibacy) is an individual calling from God, not something one Christian should demand of another. All Christians are called to be chaste, in the sense of sexually responsible and loving. This has implications for all of our sexual activity.
• We now live in a society where equal marriage is the law of the land and the Church needs to accept that fact and consider its treatment of legally married lesbian and gay couples.
• The Church needs to admit and repent that it has excluded and wounded LGBT people in the past and continues to do so.
• Personally, were I still in parish ministry, I would want and welcome LGBT people, couples and single, and, more, affirm and bless them as beloved children of God for whom Jesus died.
• And yes, I trust my church introduces a service to bless gay commitment as it blesses straight marriage - before long - equal in status but not identical in nature.

From St Mary's Church, Richmond
And finally - thank you and congratulations if you've stuck with me this far! - one of my waking thoughts last night was, am I doing what I see proponents of euthanasia doing, viz arguing for something merely because it's what people I love want, because it's what I want to believe? I honestly don't think so, as my present conviction did not come from laborious argument but rather from a vivid moment of insight. But I'm reassured it's something I'm not alone in wondering. And so I ask for myself and all of us a touch of Cromwellian humility, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."

" the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful" (Colossians 3.13-15).

PS I was interested to discover that today's Telegraph has an article headed "CofE top female cleric: I would have 'no problem' with blessings for gay marriages. The Dean of York, the Very Rev Vivienne Faull... says effect of the Church's stance on same-sex marriage is 'dreadful'".

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Love unknown

Well, it’s been quite an eventful ten days or so.  However I’ll concentrate on just one theme that occupied me which is the one about which I blogged before we went away for a few days.
On Friday (4th) we were due to be celebrating with our friends Esther and Julie their wedding. So it was somehow bitter-sweet to hear Justin Welby doing an hour’s phone-in on LBC Radio, answering among other things questions about gay marriage. He came across well, I thought, not least making real why it is such a hard issue for him.

The wedding celebration was an extremely happy event. The couple were in great form. One of them said to me, “It’s nice to feel normal,” and I could see what she meant.

Then we went away to Devon for a few days, staying in a cottage up a winding crumbling lane and with a blissful absence of internet. Late breakfasts, fresh fish and chips, picnics by estuaries, views from the cottage, spending time with Jane's parents.… And so after all too short a break it was back to the harsh rushing world of traffic, vehicular and cyber.

One of the first things I picked up was the news that my occasional correspondent, Vicky Beeching, who did her theological studies at the same place as me had been getting it in the neck because of her support for equal marriage. She now describes herself on Twitter as “Theologian. Religious Commentator (Sky, BBC, ITV, Radio 2, Radio 4, LBC). Pro #womenbishops  & pro #equalmarriage. Feminist. Christian. Songwriter (EMI). Geek”. It was a blog post she had written entitled My support of same-sex marriage which had incurred the wrath of many Christian readers, sadly, and ironically, since it was a personal plea for dialogue carried on in a loving spirit.
“So, while many conservative and evangelical Christians are very angry about my stand for same-sex marriage, please let’s dialogue in love. Journey with me here. I’ll be blogging about this topic, the relevant Bible passages, recommending books and resources, and writing about the various questions that arise from them all.
“Thanks to the many people who do support equal marriage and have reached out to me. I’m touched by the way you have gathered around me and rallied to encourage me at this difficult time. Thanks also to those who’ve written to say they disagree with me, but are wanting to do so with kindness and respect.
“If you want to come on this journey, whatever your beliefs may be, I’d be delighted to have you read, comment and share your responses on this site.”

Vicky derives much of her income from royalties on her songs. One consequence of her expressing her views has been churches telling her they’ll no longer use her songs, and thus she will lose a good chunk of her livelihood. I decided to write her a note:
“Hi Vicky.
“Thank you for your blog post. As others have commented, it's brave. Being retired I don't have as much to lose as you do. Being relatively obscure, I don't stand to receive the shower of vitriol that you do. However as you know I come from a similarly conservatively Christian background as yourself - and have to confess to having held what might have been regarded as a Biblically-based homophobic stance, which I now regret and of which I have repented, as I believe I should have much sooner.
“My change of mind and heart has not been an overnight conversion, but has been based on my reexamination of the 'proof-texts' (very situation-specific in all cases but one; that one a Biblical hapax legomenon [single instance] with a much debated meaning), the resounding silence of Jesus on the subject of same-sex attraction, and his resounding condemnation of judging others and his all-encompassing demand of love. It's also arisen from witnessing the harm inflicted on LGBT young people and their parents by the uncomprehending condemnation of Christians like me, and from an encounter with a couple where I had no doubt that I was to reach out, accept and love them. I had the privilege of celebrating with their friends after their marriage a week ago on Friday.
“Ironically I had listened to Archbishop Justin's phone-in on LBC Radio that same morning. And I did understand the awful dilemma that he has as a crucial leader within the Anglican worldwide church, being aware that any 'liberalisation' which might take place here would have fatal consequences to fellow Christians in other countries - as well as having the responsibility to uphold the Church's agreed teaching on marriage. I share your hope that 'as the Church of England enters a two year discussion period about “human sexuality” based around The Pilling Report,... those of us on all ‘sides’ can talk with respect and kindness, despite the deeply painful and inflammatory nature of the subject matter.' As mule-headed Oliver Cromwell said to the equally stubborn Scottish Kirk Synod, 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.' We're all of us mere humans.
“I suspect you don't need me to say that I don't believe you're a heretic, but on the contrary Valiant for Truth in the market place of Vanity Fair. And I for one will be listening to 'The Wonder of the Cross' this coming week and being grateful.”

Following my recommendation of Vicky’s article, I was contacted through Facebook by one person challenging me to justify myself: “I have just never found an even slightly convincing theological argument for its practice...” I recommended Justin Lee’s Unconditional and Renato Lings, Love Lost in Translation. I suspect Vicky’s subsequent posts on the subject will provide more theology than I’m likely to. Another friend asked me whether I had read the Rev Steve Chalke’s article on the subject – which I had, and did again. I replied, “Yes, I have read it. It's so sad that Christians divide so heatedly over the issue. As I mentioned in my blog, knowing parents of gay children and having friends who are gay has made me think that the received attitude to homosexuality is pastorally misconceived and harmful - unloving and unChristlike. I suspect I'm like Steve Chalke in that. There are more struggling young gay Christians than churches like to acknowledge and consequently they feel they either have to conceal their sexuality or leave the ordinary fellowship of church.”

In her reply she agreed and recounted how one of her friends at university left the church when she realised that she was gay. She had prayed so hard that her feelings would be taken away from her. “I also am concerned that Christians appear to the outside world to be unloving bigots. I am so conscious of how the church is viewed by many of my colleagues - and it is not good!”
The stance which has caused more than “one of these little ones to fall” seems to me highly perilous and to require re-examination. I have previously said that I do not like Government redefining language by dictat – that is acting ultra vires in my opinion – but I do also like the Church supporting faithful loving commitment. Perhaps we need to accept that we live in an imperfect and broken world, and do what we can to work for the reconciliation between person and person and between people and God, which is why we call this Friday Good.

Have a listen to this: "The wonder of the Cross". I think it’s up there with “When I survey” and “There is a green hill”.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A rainbow world

In May 2004 we travelled with our great friends Anthony and Ruth to Florence, staying in the Hotel Berchielli near the Ponte Vecchio. Jane's and my bedroom, I remember looked down on this quiet square, Piazza del Limbo, with the 11th century Santi Apostoli church opposite. That was the first time that I appreciated the relief and the hazards of wheelchair travel. It was an unforgettable four days. Among the sights in one of the large piazzas there was a peace vigil - it was a year after the invasion of Iraq with all the messy mopping up. The vigil was largely young people and students. They were selling peace ('PACE') flags, and so I bought one as my souvenir of Florence, not as beautiful as Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence sextet, but there we go. I still have it.

I remember my family asking me when I proudly showed it them, "Do you know what it means, Dad?" So I told them it was an Italian peace flag and I'd got it from a vigil in Florence. They told me it also was the symbol of the lesbian and gay movement. (In fact I have now discovered that they were wrong for reasons I'll explain.) However at that time I was - I was going to say ambivalent about homosexuality, but that's too kind to myself - I was anti-gay. ("Love the sinner; hate the sin" - that sort of thing.) I put my peace flag away in a drawer. Readers of my blog will know that comparatively recently I have repented of my ignorant arrogance, as a result of encounters, study and reflection - see here, and here, and here. I've concluded that normally sexual orientation is not a lifestyle choice but an innate gift.

I was reminded of my flag with the great celebration in the media of the introduction of equal marriage at midnight on Friday. I was very glad when Archbishop Justin Welby went on record saying, "I think the church has reacted by fully accepting that it's the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being." Strangely, for such a moderate statement, it will no doubt have exposed him to a good deal of hate mail and brickbats, probably from all sides. Nonetheless as The Guardian commented it did represent a shift in tone, rather as Pope Francis's "Who am I to judge?" answer did. I was surprised to read about the reaction to the American charity, World Vision's decision to open employment to people in a same-sex marriage. As one blog put it, the gates of the social media were stormed by people arguing for what they felt was the truth. "Additionally, and almost unbelievably, many chose to withdraw their child sponsorships in order to send a loud, clanging-symbol  of a message to World Vision." I suppose it was not surprising, albeit shameful, when World Vision quickly reversed its decision. A friend of mine was on the receiving end of very nasty trolling when she commented, "Someday the Church will look back on the fight over same-sex relationships with same incredulity & shame as with slavery & women’s suffrage." However, I hope she is proved right - in the not too far distant future.

Meanwhile I am looking forward to joining with lesbian friends of ours who are marrying on Friday. We feel very privileged to have been invited and are looking forward to congratulating them - and I shall be praying that God will bless them as they will have made their lifelong marriage vows to each other. Every such lifelong commitment needs every blessing, I reckon.

The LGBT flag has, you'll notice, the red stripe on top and the purple at the bottom and has the turquoise missing. The stripes represent (starting at the top): life, healing, sunlight, nature, serenity/harmony, spirit.

As I sit in my chair, I still value the rainbow as the reminder of God being utterly faithful and loving us too much ever to destroy the world, despite all our attempts. It reminds me of the eternal love that is at the heart of existence. It reminds me that even I am loved by the creator of everything. Hard to credit, but apparently true. "His steadfast love - for everyone - endures for ever."

PS The reason I have been quite vocal on the issue is the harshness of the criticism heaped on LGBT people, often sadly by followers of Jesus who had nothing to say on the subject but was very explicit on judging: "Judge not, that you be not judged." This is my way of saying I'm sorry.