Sexuality and difference explored at Open Church conference

By Savi Hensman
April 12, 2015

Views have changed throughout Christian history and differences can be found in the Bible, said Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister and founder of Oasis. He was opening Open Church, held from 10-11 April 2015.

About 250 people attended the conference, which focused on the church, sexuality, mission and the future. Oasis carries out a range of charitable activities and the event was at one of its buildings in Waterloo, London.

Probably most were evangelical, holding a range of views on sexual ethics. But the mood was one of openness and commitment to making sure that churches were welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The large auditorium was almost full as a range of speakers shared their own journeys and perspectives. There were also workshops and informal, but sometimes intense, conversations during coffee and lunch-breaks.

Many had been prompted to reconsider their attitudes after they, or someone close to them, turned out to be LGBT. Susie Flashman-Jarvis had been a 'page three' model and heroin addict but Christianity had transformed her life. As a therapist, she helped broken people to heal.

However she was thrown into confusion when she discovered that her son was gay. While she continued to hold a ‘traditional’ ethic, she was also completely committed to loving and accepting him unconditionally. “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters”, she urged.

In Vicky Beeching’s view, there is often a lack of love in the sexuality debate since – in the words of Vietnamese sage Thich Nhat Hanh – “love is impossible without understanding.” She spoke of her own journey, from committing her life to Jesus as a child, through years as a successful Christian musician and songwriter who tried to suppress, then hide, her sexual orientation until she became ill.

After re-reading the Bible and studying the work of commentators, she “asked God to speak to me afresh” and came out which she descrined as an “amazingly liberating experience”. She emphasised the importance of lived experience and “storytelling with open hearts”.

Another speaker, Andrew Marin, began his journey when his three closest friends came out to him as lesbian or gay. At first he struggled to know how to respond, praying for guidance. But later, though heterosexual himself, he moved into the mainly LGBT Chicago neighbourhood of Boystown, and worked to break down the barriers between this community and the church.

Tony Campolo, also American and a well-known evangelist, was interviewed by video-link. He outlined some of the issues in biblical interpretation and explained why he continues to hold a 'traditional' view, while his wife Peggy disagrees, as do a number of other prominent evangelicals.

He was impressively frank, admitting that he was looking again at his stance as he considered the importance of marriage in his own life, where his wife acted as a 'priest' in his spiritual journey. Though this was not everyone’s experience, he wondered whether it was right that gays and lesbians should be denied this.

Though talks and conversations touched on sensitive and sometimes painful matters, there were many moments of humour, and much attentive listening. Panel discussions further explored the themes of lived experience and how views change.

On the second day, Steve Chalke tackled the crucial question of how the Bible is understood, describing how the discovery that the sun did not go round the earth was at first resisted on the grounds that it was not biblical. The Bible is not a book, he emphasised, but a library. He said that “Jesus is the lens” through which issues such as sexuality should be addressed.

Alan Wilson, the Anglican Bishop of Buckingham, provided an entertaining and informative outline of the development of the Church of England’s position on marriage. “I’m ashamed” of the church’s treatment of LGBT people, he said, while underlining the need to “keep moving forward”.

A panel of young people highlighted the shift towards greater acceptance in a generation where being LGBT is widely regarded as quite ordinary. It was introduced by Anji Barker, an Oasis chaplain and community leader, who had earlier led a fascinating workshop on sexuality around the world, drawing on her experience of living and working for many years in a slum in Thailand.

It is time for Christians to move away from a culture of certainty and to embrace mystery like the mystics of the early church, Vicky Beeching urged, describing her own experience since coming out. She spoke of Jesus’ frequent habit in the New Testament of not giving clear answers and the apostle Peter’s bewilderment when he found that what he had considered ‘unclean’ no longer was.

Andrew Marin spoke more about the importance of building bridges, including the need to build relationships with the oppressor despite “unchanging differences”. The model of reconciliation he urged on participants was perhaps rather dogmatic (situations vary). However the point he made about the value of interpersonal interaction across difference, and lessons from his own work, were valuable.

Participants for the most part seemed to have found the conference enjoyable and thought-provoking, if intensive. Though some congregations and leaders still take a rigid position, Open Church reflected a shift – especially marked among evangelicals – towards a new openness to listening and learning across difference.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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