Steve Chalke has recently published his Open Church charter and committed to support and enable any Christians wanting to enter a same-sex marriage. He explains that the move and its timing are related to research undertaken by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine:
It found that gay and bisexual men under the age of 26 are six times more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm compared to gay and bisexual men aged over 45, and are also twice as likely to be depressed or anxious. Critically, however, the research team also found that gay and bisexual men who are cohabiting with a male partner are 50% less likely to suffer from depression, compared to those living alone.
I think Steve has put his finger one of the most important questions within the Church on this issue: does the ‘traditional’ ethic offer a credible pastoral strategy for people (particularly men) who are same-sex attracted? Ed Shaw and others believe they have an answer to this, but it is highly dependent on the nature of supportive relationships within the Christian community.
But if Chalke has identified the problem, his solution is far from persuasive. For a start, it is not clear from the research what assumptions have been made about sexual behaviour, and what effect these might have on the results. As the Ashley Madison affair highlighted, men are inherently more inclined to promiscuity than women, and this effect is heightened in the context of male same-sex couples.
Scholars have examined this, finding that only a third of committed homosexual male couples had agreements on strict monogamy and truly honored them. The other two-thirds had mutually established ground rules for extra-curriculars or regularly failed to adhere to their commitment to monogamy. In fact, in the openly non-monogamous relationships, the frequency of sex outside the relationship in the last year ranged from zero to an extreme of 350 occurrences, with a median of eight hook-ups over a twelve month period. Even the couples who pledged true monogamy, the range was from one to sixty-three “slip-ups” with a median of five. The corresponding numbers for men in heterosexual marriages are microscopic in comparison. Women settle men down. Other men do not.
For the research to be offer insight, it needs to locate its findings in this context, and also examine the mental health of those who (for religious or other ethical reasons) are committed to celibacy.
Secondly, Ed Shaw in his response to Chalke highlights a significant problem for the basis of Chalke’s charter.
If church leaders like Chalke want to show that they belong to the new social orthodoxy they should sign up soon. But as a member of the LGBT community that Chalke is kindly seeking to include, I want firmer and older foundations to my place in the church than his Charter offers me.
Most of all I want a transparently biblical vision of inclusion to be shaping how the church welcomes and accepts me – rather than the ever-changing views of society around me. I don’t want be included on the basis that cultural attitudes have changed but on the basis of the timeless Gospel that Jesus Christ self-sacrificially brought into this world.
The key issue here is the question of what the next change in generally accepted public morality will be. Our inclination as a culture is to operate as though we have now reached the point of enlightenment, and we shall from henceforth stay in this place—but those who had that same view 20, 10 or even 5 years ago were clearly deluded, and we can now see how wrong they were and how right we are. It is hard to imagine the next generation not thinking the same about us. Who would have thought a few years ago that it could be considered acceptable to propose that the way to eliminate Down’s Syndrome was to abort all people with Down’s Syndrome before they are born?
Shaw’s challenge is also important because of the terms that Chalke himself has used in defending the move. He comments:
This is not because we’re liberal, it’s not because we’re light on the Bible, it’s because we take the Bible very seriously. We want to move away from a over simplistic, over literalistic, immature understanding over Biblical texts that dumps many but keeps the ones we want.
His claim is that Ed Shaw, myself, and anyone who takes a ‘traditional’ line are ‘simplistic, literalistic and immature.’ Chalke told me himself (over a dinner) that my attitude was ‘hateful to gay people.’ It is an odd experience to feel so excluded by someone who claims his primary virtue is his radical commitment to inclusion—and it must feel even stranger for Ed Shaw. Perhaps the strangest part of Chalke’s claim is that he rejects the idea of ‘dumping many texts but keeping the ones we want’, when Chalke has explicitly said that he rejects much of the Old Testament, and some New Testament texts (such as the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.1–11) because they don’t accord with his understanding of God and so the biblical writers must have been in error. It is quite an odd way to ‘take the Bible very seriously’.
But the wording of the Open Church charter itself is problematic. On the one hand, it commits to:
Every individual is encouraged to be as open as they desire about the nature of their sexuality, gender identity and their relationships and know that they will find acceptance and welcome in our church.
which appears to put no boundaries around what lifestyles and commitments people can have and still be welcomed and affirmed at Oasis church. On the other hand only certain relationships will be celebrated—Chalke rightly puts a boundary around certain kinds of relationship.
…we will offer celebration, preparation and support for same-sex marriage partners in loving, healthy monogamous relationships
I think the word ‘only’ needs to be added in here, since it appears to be implied. This leaves open some large areas of uncertainty. How will Chalke respond to people in consensual abusive relationships? The success of Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrates that this is hardly a minority interest. You might disapprove of this behaviour, but how do you make people who are committed to this feel ‘welcomed, embraced, included and affirmed?’ Do you need to resort to ‘hating the sin, loving the sinner?’ Even more pertinent is the question of convicted sex offenders. Many are religious, or find faith in prison, and (amongst ex-prisoners generally) find acceptance in a church highly problematic.
I am not here seeking to equate either of these things with same-sex attraction. But I am asking whether Chalke is offering a new paradigm of ‘radical inclusion’, or whether he is taking a more traditional approach in drawing boundaries—but simply drawing the lines in a different place to include same-sex marriage where the traditional boundary excludes it. I have a strong hunch it is the latter—but in using the polemical language he does (if you don’t join him, you are not a ‘responsible’ church leader) then he is eliminating any debate, and eliminating any pastoral middle ground where we can affirm people whilst disagreeing with them on this ethical issue.
This loss of middle ground was pertinent for me in a discussion yesterday. I expressed interest in attending an event which protested against the violence against gay people here and in other countries. But the event took place under the ‘Pride’ banner, and it was fairly clear that, with my ethical views on same-sex relations, I would not be particularly welcome. I want to reject any violence or unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, but without thereby saying I affirm all expressions of sexuality. In a context where affirmation of the person has been collapsed into approval of actions, it is difficult to find any public space to do the first without communicating the second.
That is why groups like Living Out, of which Ed Shaw is a leading member, and True Freedom Trust are so important. Those who identify as same-sex attracted but are committed to the ‘traditional’ sexual ethic are often ignored or marginalised in this discussion—but they testify to a vital perspective in this debate. In holding questions of identity and action apart from one another, they create precisely the middle ground of engagement that we desperately need. This is the ‘gay lobby’ that we really need to listen to.
The two organisations are hosting a conference on 11th June in London, and it is engaging with precisely the pastoral question that Steve Chalke is raising. If you are at all concerned about provide good pastoral support for those who are same-sex attracted, it will be a high priority.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?