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'".


  1. Thanks Micky-boy.

    A lot to chew on there. I really appreciate you taking the time to collate it all together.

    Much love- xx

    1. Thanks, Caleb.

      Posted with a great deal of hesitation - as I am aware that it's merely my opinion and I may be mistaken.

      Love to you and yours

  2. It just seems to me, that despite the endless words and differing views on this subject, the ones which matter most are 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)."
    But I still think Justin Welby is being called to walk the way of the Cross as is Pope Francis.

    1. I do agree with you, Ann, on both points. Thank you for that link to Pope Francis' homily, which moved me a lot. I know he was speaking about failed marriage, but the central point - that Jesus goes to the heart of the issue and dismisses the ad hominem arguments - applies to this issue too. "Do not condemn. Walk with them – and don’t practise casuistry on their situation.”

    2. Here's another lovely and encouraging one.

      Pope Francis is truly being used by God to proclaim a message we all long to hear.

    3. We have much to be grateful for in our church leaders, men filled with the Spirit.

  3. I regret that this Easter my blogging has been preoccupied with a matter of church policy rather than the very good news that the resurrection of Jesus is for a suffering world which has lost its way. So I intend to return to my Room with a View blog (, to restore some perspective.

  4. After much thought my most recent conclusion is this: that if 2 men were caught in 'the act', Jesus would have said to the accusers "let him who is without sin cast the first stone".


    some interesting comments here

    1. Dear Ann

      Thank you for that link. What an excellent post!

    2. That's my point - it's not our role to condemn; not our role to hold the stones.

    This one also has some noteworthy points.

    1. Very insightful. I think we are on the same page here, aren't we?

    2. Also a helpful post. The pastoral issue is so important and I'm aware of being very cack-handed in the past. Thanks again, Ann.

  7. Here's a wonderful comment from Michael Mayne. His books are truly inspirational, encouraging and challenging.

    Michael Mayne’s wishes for his grand- children and for each of us made in God’s image, . . .Quoted from his book “This Sunrise of Wonder”

    “ A way of being and a frame of mind that is trusting rather than anxious, grateful rather than grudging, compassionate rather than judgmental, and outgoing rather than selfish. and realizing that the ordinary is far more extraordinary than we think.”

  8. I had reason to find out that the ordinary is extraordinary today. I had to have some tests at hospital which resulted in nothing sinister just something which doesn't even need a return visit.
    Thank-you Lord for making my day extraordinary.

    1. Very pleased to hear, Ann. Thank you, Lord, indeed.