New Wine United (2): LGBT Issues – “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted …”

One of the great attractions for me in coming to work in the diocese of Liverpool was the determination in the diocese not to work in silos. Education is genuinely at the ‘heart of the church’s mission’, just as the cathedral and its life are fully integrated in the life of the diocese. I have not been disappointed. The education team are given every opportunity to participate fully in the goals of being a bigger church, making a bigger difference. More people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world.

That determination matches my own fundamental orientation to integration. Not the obscuring of difference but the celebration of difference in such a way that we go deeper into our experience of God as ourselves.

Liverpool Cathedral describes itself as a risk-taking place. I like that phrase, and even more the phrase ‘permission-giving’, that has always characterised my own leadership. I am grateful that the diocese has given me permission to develop the life of our schools in a way that is clearly oriented to discipling children and their families. Part of that discipling has been my own exploration of ways in which the church successfully does this already. I’ve been delighted, and have written about, my experiences at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage and at New Wine this summer, both with significant groups from the diocese.

We live in a fractured church and both New Wine and Walsingham represent those fractures in their own ways. For me, those fractures, far from being places to be avoided are places to be entered into, so that when we celebrate Eucharist and break the bread proclaiming “Though we are many, we are one body”, our “We break this bread to share in the body of Christ”, may be a call to the world to live with difference as a gift from God.

Of course, the experience, is different. At Walsingham my priesthood is fully accepted. I am, clearly, not a woman whose priesthood is denied. Many priests, women and men, make the decision to be as fully involved at Walsingham as they are able to be, others do not. We should never universalise our experience, both decisions are to be valued. That, in itself, is an important difference.

When I told people that I would be attending New Wine this year I had quite strong reactions, Would it be toxic? How could I bear to attend such an anti-women, anti-gay gathering? What would it be like for me as a gay man?

Even when I wrote about my experience at New Wine on this blog, in positive terms, several people asked me “What was it really like?”, “How did I cope?”

My report on this blog of the week was not partial, the experience of being at New Wine was wholly positive. I would recommend it as a place of renewal and engagement with Scripture to anyone.

In terms of LGBT issues I heard one comment at New Wine, about “same sex attraction”; as I mentioned in my blog, some Evangelicals use this phrase rather than “gay” or “lesbian” to avoid a sense of identity politics. My own view is that we should use the language people use to describe themselves, to me that is just good manners. When meeting bishops of Pentecostal churches I don’t call them anything other than “bishop”, although I don’t believe them to be bishops in catholic succession. Andrew Sullivan, in his brilliant book “After Gay” has well made the point that “gay” is a provisional, political necessity, rather than an existential reality. Identity politics are necessary for a season.

As far as I am aware, the only event at New Wine that addressed sexuality directly was the Sexuality and Culture seminar led by Sean Doherty. This in itself is important, as we stereotype the ‘other’ it is easy to assume that evangelicals discuss nothing other than how to exclude LGBT people and their allies, and no doubt evangelicals might assume that everyone else in the church talks about nothing else than how to include LGBT couples.

In fact, Sean Doherty’s seminar was a welcome relief from this ecclesiastical ping-pong. From the start he described himself as a gay man, he is now married to a woman, and he expressed respect for those lovers of Jesus who are LGBT or who welcome LGBT couples in the church.

Apart from his rejection of the acceptability of sexual relationships between same sex couples in the Christian community there wasn’t much I disagreed with Sean on. We do need a better story. We need to confront homophobia and repent of our prejudice. We need to accept that we are all sexually disordered. We need to celebrate the vocation of those called to celibacy and singleness. We need to present our Christian story of sexuality in a way that is compelling and persuasive.

Sean acknowledged the part that the church has played in creating a homophobic culture. He offered the gathered crowd a choice between a discussion of the issues around LGBT/same-sex relationships and a more general discussion on sexuality in our culture. We chose the latter by a very clear majority. Another time I would be interested to hear his views on the former. His acknowledgement of the origins of homophobia did not, for me, include an awareness that the church’s current discipline stifles open debate. Those who are attempting to live most faithfully are most discouraged from being able to contribute to the debate. Sean did point out that those at New Wine would represent the whole spectrum of opinions in the church. I would vouch for that in the conversations that I had. The people I spoke to represented a much broader range of opinion than I might have expected, although there were few LGBT people present to speak from personal experience. As the only public voice Sean clearly represents only one position and experience.

Much is made of ideas of “spiritual abuse”. I cannot know what everyone who prayed with individuals prayed for, however, Sean spoke of the evidence that sexual orientation cannot be changed without causing damage and I heard no encouragement for that. In fact I was impressed that teaching on prayer ministry was all about listening, not being too quick to ‘give a word’, keeping eyes open that listening could be real and a sense that this ministry is about valuing the individual.

Although Sean and I would disagree on many things, if we could have a church as he described it, in which same sex couples are treated as ‘just people’ we would have made progress.

I don’t know how we will move forward as a church on LGBT issues, but it must involve, as Sean called for, a respect that we all love Jesus and that we are all trying, however inadequately, to follow him.

We must all be aware of what situations are toxic for us. But we must also, when it is right and ready, move beyond our comfort zones, because we might discover that things are not what we are told they are. In our debates in the church there is a constant temptation to ‘unchurch’ those we disagree with. My opinions on the ordination of women and on LGBT issues are well known, but I would not for one moment wish to unchurch those who hold views different to my own. Sean, when asking those present to engage with Scripture encouraged an awareness, not of individual proof texts but of the whole sweep of Scripture. I could not agree more. Just as black people despite Christianity being the religion of the slave owners, discovered the liberating power of God in the biblical narrative, so LGBT people find in Scripture a God who leads people from slavery to the promised land. The arc of Scripture is the arc of justice. Jesus is the God who as Lord leads his LGBT disciples to faithful, loving relationships that reflect God’s own faithful love for his people. “Great is his love, love without end!” (Ps 135/6)

We have found a way forward in the ordination of women that is far from easy but models for the world a truly radical reality. I have never been happier than I am this summer at experiencing our Anglican diversity, for which, thanks be to God.

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