John Smith writes: The publication of Living in Love and Faith poses a challenge to the entire Church of England to think through the divisions over human sexuality which have so dogged the Church in recent years.
I have found myself wanting to set out some thoughts from the perspective of one who experiences same-sex attraction, and who is and has always been committed to the biblical view of sex and marriage. What I write here is personal, in the sense that I’m not claiming to represent anybody else or any group. It is perhaps not very theological, and is addressed primarily to those in the Church who share my conservative evangelical position, and to encourage further reflection and prayer.
My main reason for writing this is that I am anxious that the LLF discussion has the potential to go horribly wrong, to the disservice of God and his people, the Church. My hope is that this short piece might help reflection and help frame the way we discuss the subject with others.
Two threads run in parallel through this.
The first is that this debate is invariably bruising for people like me, and some of those bruises are occasionally inflicted by friends. Sometimes, listening to the wider debate between conservatives and liberals makes me feel like the child of parents who are heading to a bitter divorce, and where neither of them wants custody of the children.
The second reason is that I fear that we are dangerously unaware of how the secular world sees us. Most people in contemporary British society accept same-sex relationships and view them as expressions of love no less valid than those of opposite-sex relationships. If our instant response in conversation is to pronounce doctrine, then our conversations will be short, angry, and spiritually ineffective.
There are many themes which rightly need to be addressed in LLF discussions. In particular, it is right and proper that we equip the faithful to be confident in the faith, especially in the face of questioning from an increasingly hostile world. But it is the essence of the Gospel that it is outward-looking, and it should be a priority for us to think about the effect of what we say and how we act on those outside our faith, or rather who are not yet of it. That is what I would like to discuss here.
A few years ago I was having dinner with a work colleague and his wife. They asked me “what sort” of Christian I was. Sensing a rare opportunity for a meaningful spiritual discussion, I replied “evangelical.” They visibly jumped in their chairs and, with an expression of horror asked, “You mean the ones who hate women and gays?” It was a key learning point for me. We need to understand how others see us. And for many, evangelicals are people who hate. If we are concerned to proclaim the Gospel, we need to be aware of this, and to ask ourselves, perhaps brutally, why would somebody want to hear a message from people who hate?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the power of the Gospel to convict of sin and righteousness, and of the Holy Spirit to work in people in ways we could never have imagined. And I believe in the attempts of the Evil One to thwart the work of the Gospel, however temporary and futile that may be. But surely, if we do not recognise how we are perceived to be, then we erect barriers around ourselves that will make our efforts at witness so much, much more difficult.
This is partly a problem created for us by secular liberalism, jumping on the issues of sex and marriage as being where the Church is “out of step” with society, and by a sex-obsessed media. Those who have never had contact with Church could be forgiven for thinking that sex is all we ever talk about. But we don’t help ourselves in countering this when we make attitudes towards homosexuality a shibboleth. Hold one point of view and you are sound. Hold the other, and you are that ultimate pariah – a liberal. And so we write articles and preach sermons in which we warn darkly that the time is coming when we may have to decide to separate ourselves from the Church of England, as North American Anglican conservatives have already done from the Episcopal Church.
Conservative evangelical Church leaders present this as a point of doctrine, and the upholding of Scriptural authority. And it is. But for some of us it is also a deeply personal one. I long to hear leaders speak with clarity, conviction and love about the pastoral needs of same-sex attracted people who are committed to celibacy, with the same conviction and energy with which they speak about the doctrinal point. It sometimes sounds as though the Church sees my personal and spiritual problem is so uniquely terrible that it is worth dividing the Church over, when almost no other issue is.
If we were to leave the Church of England, what would that mean for how we see those we leave behind? We have been semi-detached for such a long time, that we have forgotten to ask ourselves some deep questions about this. What is “Church”? What is “communion”, and what does “breaking communion” mean? Are we saying that those other people we leave behind are not Christians, that they are not part of the Church of Christ? If we are not saying that, then why are we leaving them? I am hoping that greater minds than mine are thinking about these questions and how to answer them.
If we were to leave the Church of England, what would that mean for how we see people like me? Why is my sexuality the thing that must divide the Church? If, God forbid, I were to fall on one occasion, am I no longer part of the Church of Christ? Is my salvation dependent upon sexual abstinence, while others’ is not dependent upon avoidance of other non-sexual sin? Does grace come with this one caveat?
If we were to leave the Church of England, I also look at those in the wider global Church with whom we would seek to be in communion – and I am afraid.
In January this year, the bishops of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) put out a statement (“Sexuality and Identity: A Pastoral Statement from the College of Bishops”). It tried very hard to be supportive and understanding. But, among other things, it asked people like me not to call ourselves “gay” or “same-sex attracted”, and then lost itself in a linguistic soup of justification. The general message was that celibate gay Christians were an embarrassment, and it would be better if we stayed in the shadows.
The bishops’ statement prompted a large number of responses. In one, a group of ACNA clergy posted online an open letter to ACNA members who had been upset by the bishops’ statement, humbly offering them love and support. The bishops asked them to take down the letter from their website.
At the same time, the Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Revd Henry Ndukuba, responded to the ACNA bishops in horror that the bishops tolerated the presence of any homosexuals in their Church at all, even celibate ones. The archbishop thundered that ACNA had issued “a clarion call to recruit Gays into ACNA parishes. The deadly virus of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA. This is likened to a Yeast that should be urgently and radically expunged and excised lest it affects the whole dough.” For the Anglican Church of Nigeria, even life-long celibacy is not enough: I am not saved, nor can I be.
“Yes but that’s them, not us” you may say. But, these branches of the Church are supposedly “on our side” – the side of Bible-believing Christians. Yet each year we seem to edge closer to leaving the Church of England en masse because we find more in common with ACNA and the Archbishop of Nigeria than we do with that liberal parish down the road.
I am not overstating how it feels to me when I say that if we leave the Church of England, it would feel like it was my fault. This is not a doctrinal problem for me, to be overcome with logical argument, or even careful Biblical exposition.
I experience same-sex attraction, and am committed to celibacy as the proper response to what I see as the unequivocal position of Scriptural teaching. I am also often very, very unhappy, indescribably lonely, and in constant, deep fear of what those who sit next to me at church would think if they knew. That fear is sufficiently great that there have been times when I have walked in to church, and walked straight out again and gone home, weeping.
A major part of what causes me so much distress is that the discussion within the Church focuses so much on who one has sex with. This emphasis has a profound impact on people like me because it means that I am held to account for something I have never done. It means that the whole course of discussion is focussed around something that makes me feel unacceptable – not to put too fine a point on it – that I am an abomination.
It also means that I feel utterly misunderstood. More than any other human thing in this mortal world, what I crave is companionship and affection. That relationship where I am uniquely special to one other person, who in turn is uniquely special to me. Togetherness. A life-partner. There is a strange paradox in our saying that marriage is a wonderful and beautiful metaphor for the mystical relationship between Christ and the Church, and for his love for us, and is to be celebrated, and yet at the same time telling one group of people that they must not experience that wonderful, beautiful, celebrated thing.
Over the years, I have come to know several other people in the underground celibate gay Christian world. All of them – all of them – have given up the struggle through a sense of existential loneliness and a sense that, deep down, they are not really welcome in the evangelical Church, and that they might as well give up trying. I am the last one left.
This brings me again to my opening observation that the conservative evangelical Church simply does not realise how big a credibility problem it has with the secular world, and how major an obstacle that is to biblical Christian witness and to the Gospel. The secular world sees gay relationships as a being an expression of love; and they can point to specific gay relationships which seem admirable, and which meet every Biblical expectation bar one of what a loving and faithful marriage should be. As my friends pointed out to me at dinner, they see our response to what they see as love as being hate.
So my modest proposal is that we rethink how we talk about this subject. We must, of course, be Scripturally and doctrinally-governed in how we think, speak and act. But if we speak of doctrine first, then we will always be seen as the people who hate. So we also need to think, speak and act pastorally, and let that be seen long, long before we speak of doctrine. The central charge against us from the world is that we hate. So we should aim to think, speak, act, live, and model a better love than the world has to offer.
There has probably never been a more difficult age in which to do this. Notions of personal identity now dominate society’s thinking and frame people’s approach to any ethical question. One-time heroes and heroines can be “cancelled” after a single remark which goes against the identity zeitgeist.
But we worship the one who has overcome the world.
So here are four questions that I would like conservative evangelical churches to ask themselves. I have numbered them in order of importance.
1 If there are no “out” celibate gay Christians in your church, ask yourself “Why not?” Is it because they are afraid of you? Are they there but too scared to say so, or have they been scared away?
2 Why do so many gay people go to church? Is there a spiritual hunger there that you have not recognised or responded to?
3 What would the congregation do, what would your minister do, and what would you do if a gay couple came to one of your services? What would you do to make sure they came back a second time, and a third …?
4 Do you see this subject as primarily a doctrinal one or a pastoral one? How does this affect what you think you should do next?
Speaking through Isaiah, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ said,
… let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
[Editor note: the phrase ‘A memorial and a name’ in Hebrew is yad vashem; this is the title of the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.]
John Smith is not the author’s real name.