Four Evangelical groups who believe the churches need a positive change of heart and mind on homosexuality have said condemning hate groups is not enough. They want Christian acceptance of gay people.
They have called on churches and Christian organisations condemning an American anti-gay hate group to face up to their own discriminatory policies and behaviour - and to embrace conversion.
Accepting Evangelicals, Courage, the Network of Baptists Affirming Lesbian and Gay Christians and the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian & Gay Christians, backed by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, have issued a joint statement saying that opposition to the Westboro Baptist Church USA's hate-stance towards gay people does not go far enough.
"The real challenge to evangelicals is to face the need for change themselves," they say. "This means: engaging more fully and openly with lesbian and gay Christians and accepting them as equal under God; examining the way prejudice against gay people has distorted biblical understanding; prayerfully re-thinking church policies of exclusion and acknowledging the harm they cause; and recognising the growing number of evangelicals who have had a heart-change and now affirm faithful gay relationships."
The statement highlights the growing trend, nationally and internationally, for Evanegelicals to challenge what has been a hardline stance against gay people from within that global segment of Christianity.
Recently a high-profile vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the USA resigned after criticism because he was moving to an "affirming" position on faithful lesbian and gay relationships.
In Britain, the evangelical social service agency Faithworks, though not pronouncing on the moral issues, supported the government's Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) calling for equal treatment in public services - even though many other Evangelical and Christian groups opposed them.
One of the signatories to the latest call by pro-gay Evangelicals is Courage, an organisation that several years ago changed its position on the issue - moving from being an "ex-gay" ministry to one supporting gay people on biblical and traditional grounds.
The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which has a number of Evangelicals among its supporters, associates and staff, says that the sexuality debate within the churches is widely misrepresented in the media - and among those who want to block change - as an issue of "liberals versus conservatives".
In fact, says Ekklesia, a growing number of traditional, orthodox Christians are speaking out in favour of an affirming stance towards lesbian and gay people in the church and in society, arguing that the Gospel message as a whole points strongly in this direction.
They acknowledge that a small number of Scriptural texts can be pressed in an opposite direction, but say that these need to be understood in their cultural context - which does not speak of relational sexuality, but abuse.
They point out that the churches have long recognised that biblical passages once used to justify slavery have now been re-interpreted in the light of the centrality of Jesus and the Gospel message, and call for a similar change in relation to ending the oppression of gay people.
Evangelical and Methodist George S. E. Hopper has explained the change of heart and mind in a popular online book called 'Reluctant journey - a pilgrimage of faith from homophobia to Christian love' - http://tinyurl.com/cuz7cd
The full statement is as follows:
Joint statement from Gay Affirming Evangelical Groups
Following the Home Office ban on members of Westboro Baptist Church USA from entering Britain to picket an anti-homophobia play in Basingstoke, there has been a flurry of activity amongst UK Evangelicals. The play deals with the murder of a gay student, Matthew Shepherd, whose funeral was also picketed by the Westboro church, declaring that he was "burning in hell".
In particular, we are encouraged by the recent clear rejection by six major UK Christian groups, among them the Evangelical Alliance and the Baptist Union, of the proposed visit.
Their statement on 20t February 2009 claimed that:
"We do not share their hatred of lesbian and gay people. We believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation, and we unreservedly stand against their message of hate toward those communities."
This is indeed good news for all in the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, but beneath this rejection of open hatred towards homosexuals, there is a much deeper issue which groups like the Evangelical Alliance still have to face.
We would now call upon these groups to reflect on their own attitudes and prayerfully consider what their "hate the sin, love the sinner" teaching does to the minds and souls of faithful Christians who are gay.
This well rehearsed mantra clearly enables some evangelical groups to reject the "God hates fags" approach of Westboro Baptists, but when put under the spotlight, begins to look more like the recent case of Geert Wilders when he claims that he "Loves Muslims but hates Islam".
To hide behind such a mantra in regard to sexual orientation simply ignores the damaging messages which it sends, both to gay Christians struggling with their identity, and to the world beyond which simply hears it as a call to reject, or worse, an excuse to harm gay men and women.
In the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers not to avoid their own failings by pointing to the failings of others - even if they are much larger. Westboro Baptist Church operates as a hate group and is an easy target. The real challenge to evangelicals is to face the need for change themselves.
In particular, this means: engaging more fully and openly with lesbian and gay Christians and accepting them as equal under God; examining the way prejudice against gay people has distorted biblical understanding; prayerfully re-thinking church policies of exclusion and acknowledging the harm they cause; and recognising the growing number of evangelicals who have had a heart-change and now affirm faithful gay relationships.
Rev Benny Hazlehurst,
Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian & Gay Christians
Network of Baptists Affirming Lesbian and Gay Christians