Baptist evangelical leader the Rev Steve Chalke has set out his theological and pastoral argument for supporting same-sex relationships on the Oasis UK website.
The shift to affirmation by one of Britain's most prominent evangelicals is likely to cause shock waves in that constituency, not just in these islands but worldwide.
Chalke spoke to another prominent evangelical, respected US preacher and teacher the Rev Dr Tony Campolo, late last night to explain his views.
Campolo retains what he describes as a "conservative" position on homosexuality, despite being seen as on the strongly progressive wing of American evangelicalism - but he has long been willing to dialogue respectfully, and his wife, Peggy, is publicly known for taking a different, affirming view.
The article by Steve Chalke on the Oasis website is entitled, 'A matter of integrity: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation'. It is in two forms: an abridged and an extended version.
Much of it is an examination of scriptural arguments and principles of interpretation in which Chalke, while maintaining his own evangelical stance of taking the Bible as central to Christian faith, shows why he believe that the overall burden of the biblical message is being misconstrued by those who oppose faithful gay relationships.
At the same time, he appeals strongly for courtesy, respect and theological care in discussing the issues of same-sex relations and equal marriage, recognising the damage that the arguments within the churches have caused, and seeking to stress that those who differ from the 'conventional understanding' within evangelical and Christian circles are not to be interpreted as abandoning traditional commitments in so doing.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "In the longer run, Steve Chalke's decision to speak out positively about committed same-sex relationships, along with the shift of hearts and minds that is being seen in other sections of the evangelical constituency, could be a game-changer in protracted and often bitter recent church arguments about sexuality, scripture and authority.
"Chalke's position cuts across the standard stereotype within both the media and many sections of the church: namely that sexuality is a straightforward liberal-versus-conservative theological issue. Instead, his theological plea to the churches is solidly biblical in its assumptions and focused on the person of Christ, but the outcomes he reaches on this basis are relational and inclusive.
"This will appeal to a large number of Christians who find the supposed option of favouring a narrow, mean biblicism on the one hand, or else abandoning foundational scriptural resources in favour of fleeting fashion on the other, to be a false and misleading 'choice'. Steve Chalke's intervention looks to be aiming to bring fresh illumination to a debate among evangelicals often regrettably characterised by recrimination."
In drawing his Oasis article to a conclusion, having spent most time on the issues of biblical interpretation which are central to evangelicals, Chalke summarises the different strands of his position as follows: "Why am I so passionate about this issue? Because people's lives are at stake. Numerous studies show that suicide rates among gay people, especially young people, are comparatively high. Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy when tragically it's anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which, all too often, drives these statistics."
He goes on: "I believe that when we treat homosexual people as pariahs and push them outside our communities and churches; when we blame them for what they are; when we deny them our blessing on their commitment to lifelong, faithful relationships, we make them doubt whether they are children of God, made in his image.
"So, I face a hard choice; a choice between the current dominant view of what scripture tells us about this issue and the one I honestly think it points us to. This is why I seek to speak and write openly and, I hope, graciously, to encourage a compassionate, respectful and honest conversation that might lead to our churches becoming beacons of inclusion.
"None of this is to point the finger at others. I have remained silent, for fear of damaging important relationships. Even in this I realise my self-centredness, for no rejection I might suffer is anything compared to what so many homosexual people endure all their lives.
"I understand that there are those who will take other views to me. I respect their right to differ graciously with me just as I try to do the same with them. However, I believe that as the leader of a local church, a charity and many thousands of young people in schools and staff around the country and the world, I am called to offer support, protection, and blessing in the name of Christ, the king of justice, reconciliation, and inclusion, who beckons each one of us out of isolation into the joy of faithful relationship.
"Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?
"Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom, and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ's body.
"I end where I started; in the coming months there will be huge and often heated debate around gay marriage. I am committed to listening and trying to understand the intricacies of the arguments on both sides. But, whatever the outcome and whichever side of the debate we find ourselves on, my hope is that as Christians we face what I think is the central issue - what does real, Christ-like, inclusion look like?", concludes Chalke.
The Rev Tony Campolo from the US commented in response: "Steve called close to midnight, his time, to tell me of his decision to stand up publically in favor of faithful, same-sex relationships. He wanted me to know what he was doing prior to the news breaking in the popular media. Steve and I are old friends and he didn’t want me to be blindsided by the news. He was well aware that his announcement would be a bombshell, not only on the British scene, but would have ramifications for Evangelicals around the world. For somebody with Steve’s high profile to stand up in favour of lesbian and gay partnerships is indeed shocking news. While it will be welcomed by a significant proportion of the Evangelical community, there will be extensive negative repercussions from others who are adamantly opposed to Civil Partnerships or the idea of gay marriage."
Campolo added: "The significance of what Steve – a Baptist Minister – has done cannot be overstated."
In the autumn of 2012, Chalke conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two gay members of his own church - a first for him, and for the community.
"I did this” he explained, “to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.”
* Full article: Steve Chalke, 'A matter of integrity: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation' (Oasis, 15 January 2013) - http://www.oasisuk.org/inclusionresources/Articles/MOI and abridged http://www.oasisuk.org/inclusionresources/Articles/MOIabridged
* Chalke article in Christianity magazine: http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/sexuality/stevechalke.aspx
* Tony Campolo, 'Steve Chalke Drops the Bomb in Support of Committed, Faithful, Same-Sex Relationships' (Red Letter Christians, 14 January 2013) - http://www.redletterchristians.org/steve-chalke-drops-the-bomb-in-suppor...
* 'Steve Chalke commends evangelical rethink on same-sex relations', Ekklesia - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17790
* Ruth Gledhill, 'Evangelicals’ leader backs gay marriage': http://thetim.es/Ulrugt
* Accepting Evangelicals: http://www.acceptingevangelicals.org/
* Chalke biography: http://www.oasisuk.org/about/story/People/stevechalke More about him on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/2438
* 'Evangelicals who love their gay neighbours', by Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow, writing for the Guardian newspaper in 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/feb/25/religion-gay-...
* Jerome Taylor, 'Happy, clappy, and out of the closet: Evangelicals who say being gay is OK', The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/happy-clappy-and-out-of-t...
* Ekklesia’s approach to the sexuality row in the churches: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/faqs/25