A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook their reasons for not signing the Westminster Declaration which is currently doing the rounds with the election looming and the perceived threat of Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill to Christianity in Britain. It’ll be pretty obvious to anyone who knows me that I won’t be signing and have profound issues with it, not just relating to sexuality but the whole idealisation of the nuclear family. It got me to thinking about various encounters I’ve had with people in the Church in the last few months:
Person A is heterosexual and, due to the teaching of the church they belong to, believes that sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriage.
The range of responses I’ve had when coming out to such people goes from ‘I don’t think it’s God’s plan for your life’ to ‘you’re going to hell’, with various in-between views. What I find difficult here is not disagreement itself, as healthy dialogue helps everyone to be better informed, but the lack of respect and willingness to listen inherent in some people’s responses (though liberals (including me, for which I’m sorry) have also done this to more conservative Christians).
Person B is side B and has been deeply hurt by their experiences of the gay scene, which they have found to be exploitative and dehumanising. They share A’s belief but hold it with much greater vehemence than most.
The person I’m specifically thinking of is a good friend of mine and maintaining the friendship in these circumstances has been deeply costly for both of us. While I want to be understanding and there to support them, (partly because I respect their integrity but mostly because I love them) it is painful because of their unwillingness to acknowledge that part of the reason I’m a happier bunny these days is because of being honest with myself about my sexual orientation and being in a loving, faithful, committed relationship. I think admitting this would be too threatening to the religious view that allows this person to move on from their past, and they have been (almost uncertainly unintentionally) very hurtful in how they express their views. Tied in with this is their opposition to the ordination of women.
Person C used to be side B because of the teaching of the church they were in but gradually has become side A. They consider it crucially important that the views of A and B are respected and will go out of their way to avoid offending them.
On the one hand, I agree with this. The command to love one’s neighbour as one’s self does not just apply to those who agree with my own views on issues of human sexuality. On the other hand, there is a fine line between respecting opposing views and compromising integrity. While being ‘in your face’ is not helpful, neither is hiding away. Further, this view can be naïve about how some people will appeal to the Bible or ‘nature’ to justify their existing prejudices. Hatred is hatred, whether or not there are Bible verses to back it up (re. the BNP’s claim to be authentically Christian).
Person D is side A and attends the Metropolitan Community Church. They cannot understand why anyone would want to belong to a mainstream denomination that can make life hard work for gay and lesbian Christians.
I have some sympathy with this as the ordination process in the Church of England makes sexual orientation a defining characteristic (where as I have finally(!) realised that actually it is a very small part of who I am) and reduces relationships to what happens in the bedroom. It can be very difficult to be in a mainstream church and I know people who attend MCC because of their experiences and how much it hurt them. My experience of it is of a loving group of people who made me very welcome. On the other hand, for me, mainstream denominations are not going to change if all LGBT people jump ship, and this does make sexual orientation pivotal, which I am uncomfortable with doing.
My reason for pondering these encounters is the upcoming election hustings in Durham, chaired by the former Bishop of Rochester, which as the links in TractorGirl’s post on this show, has a definite agenda in terms of the Equality Bill. According to some of these folks, because of my relationship, I am not a real Christian. It seems to me that homosexuality is being used as a set piece issue for people who are struggling with the lack of automatic deference in a post-Christendom age, and is something about which they feel they must ‘make a stand on’ over and against the wider culture.
All four of these encounters, especially that with B, have been difficult as they highlight the loneliness one can experience being Christian, female, gay, in a committed, loving relationship and in a mainstream denomination. I am happy to engage with and hope I manage to respect those whose views are different to my own within the C of E and the wider Church. However, I often feel that I am treated with very little respect and am expected to bend to the opinions of others. Having said that, the churches in Durham of which I am a part have been wonderfully supportive and my sexual orientation is much, much less important than the fact that I am happy.
I’ve drafted this e-mail which I attend to send to the Labour and Lib Dem candidates (as realistically our next MP will be one of them):
I am writing to you about the forthcoming election hustings at Elvet Methodist Church on Friday 30th April. As is clear from my research into the motives of the organisers, there is an agenda in terms of opposition to the recent Equality Bill and a sense that issues like homosexuality are forcing Christians to act against their consciences. Some of the language implies that gay Christians in relationships are not really Christian at all. As someone in this position, I hope that you will bear in mind that there are many Christians who are gay and in committed, faithful and loving relationships, which is a very lonely place to be, given the hostility one sometimes encounters from both the Church and the gay community. The message that the Equality Bill sends out is, in my opinion, very important as it affirms the value of LGBT people in society. While clashes of this with individual conscience are difficult to resolve, please do not forget that those of us stuck in the middle often have the hardest time of all. I pray that instead of getting bogged down in such discussions, these hustings give an opportunity to discuss the issues that really matter, like care for the poor and disadvantaged, climate change and care for creation, and human rights and dignity, which are so central to the Christian Gospel.