Last week I was invited, with a small group of other bloggers and online journalists, to a discussion with Steve Chalke about the Open Church event being planned by Oasis next April. I was impressed with the idea of discussion on this, and appreciated the invitation and the opportunity to talk with Steve in person.
The shape of the evening, which was informal and over a meal, included conversation with Steve, along with more formal information about the planned event. This follows from Steve’s decision to take a stand ‘as a matter of integrity‘ and campaign for the church to change its teaching on same-sex relations. Steve expresses this as a call for a ‘global conversation’ and talked of the Open Church event as being a ‘discussion.’ But a number of things in the evening made it clear to me that there is not much interest in discussing whether or not the current position (e.g. of the Church of England) should change. The discussion is all about how we welcome those in active same-sex sexual unions on an equal footing with other Christians in the Church. The fact that we should appears to be taken as read. Five things led me to think this.
First, Steve opened the evening with a series of stories about gay people he had met who felt they had been rejected by the churches they had been part of, and this experience was also shared by Oasis PR man Gareth Streeter, who organised the event, and had had some very negative experiences as a gay man. There was unanimous agreement that the stories recounted some appalling treatment that should have no place in any Christian church—and I was impressed (again) by Steve’s own response of compassion, something which has motivated the many remarkable movements he has been involved in.
But throughout the conversation, Steve identified ‘orthodox’ teaching on sexuality, that same-sex sexual unions do not have the same moral status as heterosexual marriage, as the cause of all the problems. To clarify, I asked him:
‘Would you say that this ‘orthodox’ position on sexuality is, of itself ‘hateful’ (to use a term you have introduced) to gay people?’
I think this position is also made clear in the Christian Today headline:
Steve Chalke: churches can’t criticise same-sex relationships and still welcome gays
And it was reinforced for us in the dinner conversation when we were shown a hate video on YouTube castigating Vick Beeching for her ‘filthy’ lifestyle. This, we were told, is the inevitable consequence of the ‘traditional’ view, so there is no option but for that view to change.
This sounds very similar to the belief that anyone who rejects the equivalence of same-sex and other-sex sexual unions is homophobic. Since Steve believes that it is inherently impossible to offer a welcome to gay people or be in pastoral relationship with them without affirming same-sex sexual unions, it is hard to see how we can have a meaningful dialogue on this basis.
Secondly, Steve Chalke seemed particularly offended by the criticism of his ‘Integrity’ piece by his fellow Baptist Steve Holmes. In response to Chalke’s assertion that the debate hasn’t happened, and needs to start, Holmes points out the extensive material about the Bible, its authority, and the pastoral and biblical issues around same-sex relations that is available, along with his experience of debate at a more popular level. In our discussion, I also listed the frequent discussions I have been involved with over 35 years, as a teenager, an ordinand, a church member, a church leader, a theological educator and a scholar. Steve Chalk’s response was to ask why was it, then, that there was a hunger to discuss this, citing meetings he had had in recent months.
I would agree with Steve C that there is more discussion to be had—but that is not the same as suggesting that no discussion has been taking place. And I am not sure whether the debate that has been taking place is not one that Steve thinks we need—since within it the ‘revisionist’ position he is advocating comes under serious scrutiny. As one commenter on Steve Holmes blog says:
Thanks Steve Holmes; I felt exactly the same puzzlement, and I’m grateful to you for articulating it so clearly. I fear it appears Steve C discovers something for himself and then thinks no-one else has ever thought about it before—what did those who trained him for Baptist ministry get up to, one wonders? Or was it that Steve C wasn’t paying attention?
Steve Chalke hinted in conversation that Steve Holmes might be rethinking the views expressed in the blog post—so watch this space.
Thirdly Steve’s lack of engagement with existing debate is really striking in his position paper. I don’t think I have any problem with people asking questions of or disagreeing with another’s position, but Steve’s paper does something quite different. It demonstrates no awareness of and no engagement with either scholarly or popular positions, on either pastoral or biblical matters. Some of the arguments (eg that supporting the idea of women’s ministry is a much clearer contradiction of the Bible than supporting the equivalence of same-sex unions) would be seen as laughable by most people with even a little understanding of the issue. Steve’s response to this was that he had shown the paper to some reputable Bible scholars. But I am quite confident that those Bible scholars would share my evaluation of the paper, and one of the people Steve mentioned has publicly stated that the position Steve advocates is a serious pastoral, hermeneutical and theological error.
When I raised the issue of the clarity of the biblical texts, Steve responded with examples from three churches he knew. One tried to exorcise a gay person; the other prayed for healing; the third taught celibacy. ‘So how can you say the Bible is clear?’ This respond confuses issues of text and interpretation, and again closes down serious discussion of what the biblical texts say.
This raises two concerns for me. The first is that, if Steve is not aware of how his paper has been received and read by those with whom he disagrees—in terms of the significant issues and well-founded arguments—that is going to make any kind of dialogue very difficult. The second is that there will be many in the church, especially young people to whom Oasis appeals, who will take Steve’s argument at face value. As is the case with Alan Wilson’s book, failing to acknowledge the good and reasonable position of your opponents says to your own side, loudly and clearly, ‘There is no reasonable case against my position’—and some will not think to question this.
Fourthly, Steve was happy to talk about people who are ‘naturally gay’. This phrase sidesteps any discussion about the nature of sexual ‘orientation’, questions of causality, and the relation between ‘orientation’ and action, so again closes down discussion and ignores some well-established pastoral, theological and scientific positions.
Fifthly and finally, I am not at all clear that the event which is planned will be a place for discussion of the issue in terms of engaging well with ‘traditional’ views. Steve and Gareth showed us the list of speakers; at the moment, of the 12 people who are coming, at most 2 are those committed to current Church teaching—though I am aware that the list is not yet finalised. When I asked what would be the place of those convinced of the traditional position, Steve responded that the conference was really only for those who wanted a ‘conversation’, by which I think he meant those who are unsure of current teaching, and interested in moving to Steve’s position.
I was grateful for Steve and Gareth’s hospitality, and the chance to engage on these issues directly. Steve has said he would be willing to meet again to discuss these issues. I hope that happens, since without significant change in these areas, I don’t see how the planned conference will be much more than a campaign event.
Declaration of interest: Oasis Trust paid for my train to London and a pub meal.
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