In recent years, the relationship between faith and sexuality has been much debated in church and society. Growing numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) Christians no longer hide their identity, and many heterosexual churchgoers too are openly accepting. However, some church leaders and congregations are strongly opposed to celebrating same-sex partnerships, and there have been threats of schism in several denominations over the issue.
In the UK, disagreement over several questions has been widely reported in the media. Are same-sex partnerships against God’s will? Should partnered LGBT people be chosen as elders or ordained as priests or bishops? Should civil partnerships be celebrated in religious buildings, if the faith communities in charge of these are happy for this to happen? Should the term ‘marriage’ be reserved for the relationship between husband and wife?
I believe such debates can take place without causing unnecessary divisions in local and faith communities. But this requires people to be willing to value and listen to one another and avoid dubious assumptions.
Scripture and tradition: views differ
To begin with, the disagreement among Christians is not a clear-cut division between those who value Scripture and tradition and others who put reason and experience first. This is a frequent error among both opponents and champions of greater inclusion, who sometimes write off those they disagree with as either ‘liberal’ followers of secular thinking or ‘conservatives’ stuck in an irrelevant past.
To begin with, even theologically ‘liberal’ supporters of equality of LGBT people are often guided by values grounded in the Bible and tradition, in particular the example of, and relationship with, Christ. Though some might be rightly criticised for not arguing their case rigorously enough and acknowledging the wisdom of the past, many are more ‘biblical’ and ‘traditional’ than even they might admit!
And some who call for full acceptance put forward arguments that are grounded in deep appreciation of the Bible and the beliefs and practices of Christians through the ages, which are varied and sometimes complex.
Perhaps in reaction to the tendency during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries increasingly to question received beliefs, and rapid technological and social change, some Christians have tended to treat views on LGBT partnership as a test of one’s general theological beliefs. While church positions on all kinds of other issues have shifted back and forth without the sky falling down, this topic is given a deep symbolic significance, the test of whether fellow-Christians are ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’.
But every Sunday, throughout the world, Christians are getting through services without any reference to the theology of sexuality! Whether they are singing the Gloria and Creed in a more ‘traditional’ liturgy or praise songs, or are part of emergent networks with experimental forms of worship, the focus is actually quite different.
Favouring opposite-sex partnership is not necessarily homophobic
There is also a widespread but, I believe, mistaken view that anyone who upholds human rights for LGBT people should automatically be in favour of equal marriage in society and the church. Those who believe that male-female partnerships should be privileged in some way are not all homophobic (though some undoubtedly are), and homophobia cannot be justified by appealing to religious beliefs about sexual morality.
Unsurprisingly, in a world full of prejudice of various kinds, as well as consumerism, indifference to the needy and many other flawed attitudes, Christians are not immune. From anti-gay comments in the classroom, factory and office to stereotyped presentations in the media, Christians can pick up, and pass on, unjust and hurtful views. Indeed churches can be as bad or worse, judging some people more harshly than others. If we admit our fallibility, we can learn and grow: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.8-9).
It is also less than impressive when certain Christians cannot be bothered to listen to, and seriously consider, theological and scientific arguments for greater acceptance of same-sex partnerships, while fiercely denouncing such relationships. This does not fit with Jesus’ call to treat others as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7.12).
Yet Christians who try to treat LGBT people justly and compassionately may nevertheless believe that lesbian and gay relationships do not create conditions that promote the emotional and spiritual growth of those involved. In my view, this may be based on a faulty reading of the Bible, or faulty data – for instance by assuming that the unhappiness of LGBT people not at ease with themselves is due to their sexuality and not society’s pressures. But it is nevertheless a sincere belief which deserves to be taken seriously and met with courteous argument, not denounced in harsh terms.
In addition there are people (including some LGBT theologians) who believe that there are fundamental differences between heterosexual and same-sex relationships and who feel that marriage is not a pattern which LGBT people should seek to follow, or that the term should be used for opposite-sex partnerships.
Indeed, the meaning of marriage for heterosexual people has also changed radically for many people in the course of their lives, especially in the light of women’s changing status, growing acceptance of use of contraception among Christians and longer average life-spans. A young man pushing a pram, or an elderly man caring for his frail wife, in some ways present as much of a challenge to certain notions of marriage prevalent just a few decades ago as same-sex partners.
A sense of proportion is also important. For instance, UK newspapers reported in October that a housing manager’s misgivings about same-sex partnerships in church, expressed privately to friends on social networking site Facebook, resulted in demotion at work and a pay cut. Apparently, in commenting on a BBC news story ‘Gay church marriages get go ahead’ (actually referring to civil partnerships), Adrian Smith had stated that he did not really approve: “I don’t understand why people who have no faith and don’t believe in Christ would want to get hitched in church the bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women if the state wants to offer civil marriage to same sex then that is up to state; but they shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience”.
Some of his colleagues who read this took issue with his views and, since he had mentioned on his home page that he worked for Trafford Housing Trust, he was disciplined by his employer, since the comment could be regarded as homophobic. His remarks displayed a lack of understanding – no faith communities will be forced to host such ceremonies, and he did not seem to recognise the situation of LGBT Christians who want to get “hitched in church”. But giving him a less responsible job and heavily cutting his pay might seem disproportionate and an infringement of freedom of speech.
Creating space for mutually respectful debate
Some churches have worked hard to create space where issues of sexuality can be discussed in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Others (at least at leadership level) are further behind.
It may be helpful for those trying to move the debate forward to recognise and challenge, however gently, the belief of some opponents of inclusion that anyone in favour cannot be a true believer, but also the more general tendency to resort to labelling others too easily.
Understanding more about human sexuality and relationships can be helpful to heterosexual as well as LGBT people. Prayerful reflection, study and discussion will not create instant consensus, but can at least help those with different perspectives to understand one another better, and the church to move forward in its mission and ministry.
© Savi Hensman is an established Christian commentator on religious and social affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.