8 awful things that well meaning Christians say about gay people (part 2)

The 4 points in the previous post are perhaps better described as misguided than simply awful, although the effect they have on the hearer may well be detrimental no matter how well meant the comment. But the top 4 on the list in this post are genuinely awful and have done a lot of damage, particularly to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the church who have trusted what those in positions of authority have to say.

So here we go: the top 4 most awful things that Christians say about gay people. For those who have expressed incredulity about whether people still say these things in the 21st century, let me assure you they do say them and they do believe them.

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#4 “But the Bible clearly says…”

Whenever I hear someone talking about any issue and coming out with the phrase “But the Bible clearly says…” I wonder whether they’ve actually read the same book that I have. There is hardly anything that the Bible says clearly. It’s a collection of writings emerging from various authors, editors and communities over hundreds of years. It contains myth, poetry, letters, aphorisms and history written from a particular community’s perspective. The writing is often ambiguous, at times contradictory and sometimes down right obscene. For one particularly bloodthirsty example see 1 Samuel 15v3 where God commands King Saul to kill every infant and nursing child of Amalek. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe the Bible is Holy Scripture, I do, but as Karl Barth is claimed to have said: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally”.

It would be nice to be able to claim that the only thing the Bible does say clearly is that “God is love” but try telling that to the children of Amalek, I suspect they’d disagree.

So when someone comes out with the well worn phrase “The Bible clearly condemns same sex relationships” they have plucked out the small handful of verses in Scripture that mention same sex activity and used them to conclude that every loving, mutually life-giving relationship between two men or two women is abhorrent to God.

There are plenty of writers who have dealt in depth with why the few verses in scripture that appear to condemn sexual activity between people of the same gender are not quite as clear cut as they may appear. I’d simply like to explain why I think this is such an awful phrase.

It is certainly awful to hear such an unambiguously anti-gay message preached that claims the authority of the Bible behind it, without at least giving alternative views from the many Christians who would have a more inclusive perspective on scripture. In fact, that was my experience coming into the Church as a teenager, knowing nothing about Christianity or the Bible and being told by people I loved and respected that this was clearly what the Bible said. It was only when I went to theological college that I began to discover there are other perspectives on scripture.

However, it seems to me that the most awful consequences of this phrase are for the people who utter it. Jesus reserved some of his harshest words and actions for those whose religion lacked grace. When his disciples are chastised by religious leaders for picking some grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry he effectively says to the leaders, “You don’t get it do you, God’s not bothered about nit-picking over rules. God wants us to live with an attitude of grace not condemnation.” (Matthew 12 v1-8).

So, when we read scripture, the way to do it if we’re seeking to follow Christ is to read it through a lens of grace and mercy. I have come across plenty of people who encounter couples in loving same sex relationships and would love to be able to believe that God is present with them and would bless that relationship but because of the way they have been taught to view the Bible they are trapped by restrictive views of scripture and unable to respond positively to love when they encounter it.

This seems to be the position taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who seems a decent guy and a wise appointment by the Anglican Church in my view. In conversation with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Welby said that he has come across same sex relationships “of stunning quality” and yet he still feels constrained and unable to offer blessings and wholehearted acceptance of those relationships from the Church.

So: “the Bible clearly says that same sex relationships are wrong” it’s not too awful to hear if you don’t read the Bible in that framework, but it is awful for the person who believes it because their vision of the expansiveness of the love of God is too small, boxed in by one narrow interpretation of a few verses of scripture.

 

#3 This isn’t homophobic…

One of the basic rules of thumb for life is that if we have to qualify one of our statements with “I’m not racist but…” or “This isn’t homophobic…” or any variations on this theme then we need to think very carefully about the wisdom of what we’re about to say.

Recently I was excluded from contributing to an event that I was due to be a part of and the opening remark from the organisers just before they uninvited me was “You’ll probably think this is homophobic but it isn’t…”. And whether it was or wasn’t is beside the point, it was for me to conclude whether this was homophobic or whether there was another more legitimate reason for excluding me.

This crops up a lot in the discussions around equal marriage with people insisting that just because they oppose the blessing of same sex relationships it doesn’t mean that they hate gay people. I have some sympathy for this. Some people genuinely want the best for gay people but, as we have seen above, feel constrained by scripture and hence feel unable to support same sex relationships.

Fair enough, they may not be homophobic but they do need to take responsibility for the detrimental effect that their stance has on gay people and own the fact that their point of view supports inequality and is far from an inclusive world view. In addition, these same arguments from scripture are used in some parts of the world where the consequences for gay people are far worse than being denied the right to get married. I’m not for a moment suggesting that most people who believe scripture is against same sex relationships also condone violence against gay people. Nevertheless, anti-gay rhetoric seeps out of churches into the wider community where it has been used to justify serious, at times violent, oppression and persecution of gay people.

Now, from the tragic to the ridiculous; sometimes a discussion about homophobia becomes farcical: “I’m not homophobic because I’m not scared of gay people and that’s what the word means” (sadly I’m not joking – I’ve heard this said by otherwise intelligent and responsible people).

Leaving aside any discussion about whether or not a deep seated hatred of gay people has its roots in fear, it’s obvious that the etymology of a word doesn’t limit its contemporary usage; no one complains about the word ‘starfish’ because the creature is technically an echinoderm rather than a fish. This blustering is invariably a smokescreen to distract from getting to the uncomfortable heart of the matter in a conversation.

When someone protests too much that they’re not being homophobic I do wonder whether sometimes a bit more self awareness is called for and that underlying their principled stance is simply a gut feeling that the thought of two men* having sex is a bit icky. And whilst I would hesitate even to call this homophobia it is, at the very least, disingenuous to construct an elaborate theology to back up your own prior prejudice.

* I do mean ‘men’ rather than ‘men and women’ here. As local radio presenter and self proclaimed ‘homo-sceptic’ Alan Partridge once said: “it’s different with lesbians isn’t it, it’s more light-hearted”

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#2 “Same sex relationships fall short of God’s best”

I don’t hear this a lot, but it crops up now and then, were it more prevalent then it would have made the top spot. Nevertheless the ideas behind the phrase often underlie contributions to the conversation in the church. It’s implicit in Justin Welby’s reluctance to bless same sex partnerships mentioned above. And a recent Church of England report advised that same sex relationships are “forms of human relationships which fall short of marriage in the form God has given us.”

In other words: “You gays think you’ve got such great relationships, and yes we can see that aspects of them are really good, but bless you, you don’t realise that it’s not as good as the relationships that we straight people have”.

Please don’t patronise us like that.

In my experience and self understanding, that I came to after a very long journey of prayer, meditation and deep pain (not just for me but for a number of people) my identity as a gay man is a gift from God. It may not always be an easy gift to receive, due mainly to attitudes from the church, but it’s certainly no mistake on God’s part. So for me to fully be the person God has made me to be that means celebrating the gay identity that goes to the core of my being. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be in a relationship with another man, but it does mean embracing the fact that when I am living fully as the gay man God made me to be I am not in some way deficient or falling short of the straight ideal.

And that’s the unpleasant idea underlying this phrase, if same sex relationships fall short of the best that God has in store then gay people are somehow less than human because they can never achieve the ideal life that God has ordained.

Now finally, the phrase at number one makes it there for its ubiquity and sheer awfulness…

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#1 “Love the sinner and hate the sin”

Closely allied with this phrase is the concept of the “practising homosexual”, which is an equally awful phrase that arises again and again and the same misguided idea underlies them both: That in terms of our sexual identity it is possible to separate out the being and the doing. In all kinds of areas the dualistic idea that being and doing can be pulled apart is unhelpful and, at times destructive but we’ll focus here on the area in hand.

When someone uses the phrase “practising homosexual” I want to ask them in a manner of faux naïveté what exactly it is that they mean. When is it that I start practising? Is it enjoying musical theatre? (I don’t by the way) Is it when I start to think about an attractive guy? Or when I give someone a lingering look across the room? When we hold hands, or kiss, or get naked together, or what? All of these actions have a sexual component to them; apart from, perhaps, the musical theatre.

I suspect what they actually mean by “practising” is “anal sex” but what an individual who uses this phrase classes as two women ‘practising homosexuality’ I’m not sure. Maybe by ‘practising homosexuality’ they mean anything to do with touching genitals but then that’s a terribly impoverished view of what sex actually is because a mere brushing of fingertips together can be deeply erotically charged.

Delving into this tangle serves to demonstrate what a ridiculous phrase “practising homosexual” really is. I don’t practise being gay I just am gay, right to the core of my being. Being gay affects how I relate to every person because it is a deep aspect of who I am and I relate to the people around me in the way that I do because of who I am. This isn’t to do with sex; it’s about identity and our most fundamental sense of self.

The rhetoric of “practising homosexual” presupposes that there is a deep sense of self and then, separate from that, is all the stuff that we do. Human beings just aren’t made like that.

It’s because of the inseparability of our being and doing that “love the sinner, hate the sin” is such an awful phrase; and we hear it all the time. As I’ve talked to other gay people in the church about this list it’s the phrase that comes up the most often. I wonder whether it eases the conscience of those who hold to an anti-gay theology. They can attack same sex marriage or preach on about how the Bible condemns gay relationships but it’s OK because it’s only the activity they hate; they really love the people who they’re beating over the head with their narrow view of scripture. It doesn’t work like that I’m afraid.

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Whatever your view on same sex relationships, if you have found yourself uttering any of the 8 phrases on this list, or variations on them, then my intention isn’t to make you feel guilty. If we wanted to live our lives in such a way that our words were never misinterpreted or ever hurt anyone then we would never say anything. And whilst maintaining silence may sometimes be the wisest contribution we can offer into a situation, if we are going to live in community then we need to communicate. So, rather than trying to argue people into silence all I’m doing here is reflecting back into the conversation what it can sometimes feel like as a  gay person to hear these phrases.

By all means come back to me and let me know if my words here seem hurtful to you, or you disagree with me. That’s the path to honest conversation; it’s how we grow together and move on rather than turning our backs on each other and not speaking. There is deeper mutual understanding if we can listen back to how our words have been heard.

If this list gives the impression that my experience of the church has been incredibly negative then I assure you that really isn’t the case. Whilst I know some gay Christians continue to have very painful experiences in the Church, and hearing those stories was one of the things that prompted me to write these posts, the Methodist Church for me has been an overwhelmingly supportive and affirming place to be. In my next post I will explore why I stick with the Church and offer some thoughts as to how we might be able to enter into fruitful dialogue, not only in this area but over any differing views that appear to divide us.

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8 awful things that well meaning Christians say about gay people (part 1)

I try not to write too much about being a gay Christian. Whilst it’s clearly a central part of my life it’s not at all the main aspect of my ministry. But since posting the talk I gave recently  I’ve been embroiled in more and more conversations about it. One of the things that has emerged for me is the type of phrases that well meaning Christians say when they’re talking about or to gay people. They seem to reveal the unhelpful framework in which these things are debated in the church.

I’m aware that plenty of people from outside the church read this blog and if that’s you then you may want to skip this post. As my friend Mick commented on my talk “the majority of ordinary people don’t give one jot over this as an issue”.  In my experience outside the church I think this is quite right. Unfortunately inside the church it’s still up for debate. I know that in a liberal Western democracy in the 21st century this can beggar belief but I’ve heard the phrases below used over and over again in a church context and wanted to point out that, however well meaning the person saying them may be, they’re still awful things to say.

If you’re part of a church you may well recognise them, if you’re not and are still reading then welcome to “churchworld” please try not to roll your eyes too much in disbelief, everything below I have either heard said or read online or in print at least once over the last year.

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I’ve  ranked them in order from least to most egregious. So starting with number 8 we have…

#8 “I’m on a journey with this”

This phrase only just scrapes into the ‘awful’ list because I know that a lot of people who use it are genuinely engaging in dialogue with a generous and open mind. It tends to be used by those who come from a more conservative background but are finding that over the years their views are changing to be more open and inclusive. Without doubt this is a good thing.

Nevertheless it I’m still taken aback when I hear it, particularly when it comes from lovely people who I know well and respect, and here’s why:

If you’re straight and married to the most wonderful person in the world who you love with all your heart and you feel that God has blessed your relationship then imagine someone saying to you, “That sounds nice, but I’m on a journey with this.”  In other words the person hasn’t decided whether your relationship really is a good thing and is still open to the possibility that it might be an abomination before God. If this was a person you respected then the phrase may well smart a little.

In fact this is the position of the Methodist Church in Britain; the official line is that we are on a ‘Pilgrimage of Faith’, journeying together through the issues. I’m sure this is a good thing. but by God it’s hard work sometimes as a gay person when we’re reminded that these good people still aren’t really sure whether our relationships are valid or not.

So if you are on this journey (and I hope we’re all on various journeys of understanding in all kinds of areas) then that’s great and I commend your honesty and the fact that you make yourself vulnerable by saying ‘I’m not sure’. But just be aware of the impact on those of us who are sure. And we’re not sure because someone persuaded us, we’re just sure because it’s simply who we are.

#7  ‘The gay issue’

Hearing this phrase yet again was what prompted me to write this list. A good, open minded church leader who I respect and whose integrity I no way wish to denigrate used it repeatedly as he led a discussion looking at what the Bible says about same sex relationships. It crops up a lot: “the gay issue” or “the issue of homosexuality” and so on.

I understand that it’s short hand for a whole host of conversations that are ongoing but I don’t think I’m being an oversensitive drama queen (perish the thought!) to caution those who use these type of phrases.

When I hear ‘the gay issue’ it makes me feel that my presence, even my very existence, is seen as a problem. And indeed, I suppose it is a problem to some people.

When the phrase is used it suggests to me that the discussion has been framed in an unhelpful manner. For a start it’s not gay people who have an issue (we’re just fine thanks) it’s a certain group of straight people  who are mainly, although not exclusively, men that has the problem. In fact being gay is only an issue for us when a culture dominated by straight people screws us up. So, I had a nervous breakdown when I began to discover my sexuality  not because I’m gay but because the church culture I’d been immersed in had punched my sense of self into submission (I’m fine now by the way – thanks for asking).

In the church it seems to me that all the problems that emerge in this area aren’t because it’s a gay issue, although the presence of gay people may well bring it to the surface. It’s a much deeper and wider issue of our understanding of human nature and what it means to be truly embodied, sexual and gendered beings in all our wonderful, messy and beautiful variety. But rather than opening up that uncomfortable conversation which affects us all it’s much easier to put it all in a little box we can call ‘the gay issue’.

The conversation can then be sidelined as a minority interest because…

#6 “It doesn’t affect that many people so why waste time on it.”

I understand this, I really do. In a world where our government is running the country into the ground, where the poor are demonised whilst the rich fill their pockets I know that there are plenty of serious, important areas that anyone who cares about justice in the world needs to engage with. It comes up a lot in the political arena in the debate about equal marriage when people say that surely there are more important things to devote parliamentary time to.

I can see why, if you’re a straight person in the church with no gay friends or relatives (or at least none that you know of) then discussing the inclusion of gay people may seem irrelevant to your life. It appears to be a peripheral issue. But those of us who it does affect it affects deeply and profoundly. And this effect isn’t just on those of us whose identity doesn’t conform to that of the heterosexual majority but also our families. My family are brilliant and, because they’re not involved with the church at all, thankfully haven’t had to deal with some of the heartache that some parents and grandparents with gay children have had inflicted on them by Christian communities. So once you start to count up, not just us gays but also our families and friends in the church this begins to affect more than just a small minority of people.

Nevertheless, even if it only affected a minority of one this is still an important conversation to engage in because how we deal with this says something about our identity as a community. If there were a village populated with white people except for one family from another ethnic group who were constantly abused by the white majority it would be obscene to say ‘this community shouldn’t waste time talking about racism because it only affects a small number of people’. In fact the racist attitudes affect everyone because they say something deeply unsettling about the nature of the community and it’s only by bringing these issues out into the open that healing for everyone can begin to happen.

So it is with the church. Even if our attitudes and policies with regards to gay people and same sex relationships only seem to affect a minority we need to look deeper than the surface, utilitarian arguments. In so doing we will begin to uncover the soul of our church community. This is inevitably a painful process both as an individual and as a group because chances are that when the curtain is pulled back and we gaze into our soul we won’t like what we see.

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 #5 “There’s pain on both sides of the argument”

The first three statements on this list I find easiest to forgive because most of the time they are said by people who are seeking to be inclusive but don’t fully understand the impact of their words, and in most cases would be mortified to think they might have said something that causes upset. Now in mid-table we’re starting to get to the statements that make my blood boil.

There seems to be two perspectives from which people make the point “There’s pain on both sides of the argument”, one of these perspectives is well meaning but still wrong-headed, the other is rather nasty and insidious.

One of the characteristics of the Methodist Church in this country is its ability to hold a variety of arguments and points of view together. We are a broad church which is one of the things I love about Methodism. I’m glad to be able to work alongside Christians with a wide range of views and experiences. Well meaning and generous spirited people in the church extend this to our views on human sexuality, and there is indeed a range of views on same sex relationships. In encouraging us to listen to the views of people whose opinion differs from ours (no bad thing at all and something to be actively encouraged) we are then asked to acknowledge that there is pain on both sides of the argument about the acceptability of same sex relationships.

This sounds like a nice, reasonable, liberal position to take and in some ways is true: there is indeed pain for gay people in the church who have been the brunt of anti-gay theologies and I can (if I try hard) imagine there is pain for those who feel that for the church to be more inclusive would somehow offend God. But this isn’t a level playing field.

Saying there is pain on both sides is like equating a scratch on the hand to a severed arm. For a gay person to enter into a dialogue on this there is far more at stake than for a straight person who takes a traditional view. If the church continues to hold to a traditional view on human relationships then the straight person can go home and sleep safely with their husband or wife, whilst the gay person has their very sense of self denied. If the church becomes more inclusive then the person who takes a traditional view merely has to come to terms with the fact that they have lost an argument, their sense of self has never been under attack. I don’t deny that this might be hard to take on board for them but to equate that pain with the pain of rejecting the core identity of a gay person surely isn’t equivocal.

So the ‘pain on both sides’ statement is used by people who are genuinely trying to listen to all the voices in the discussion and facilitate a fruitful conversation, which is in itself an admirable aim. However, it’s also used by those who take a more conservative view in an attempt to claim the cloak of victimhood. Archbishop George Carey is a particular offender in this area as he has equated criticism of those who hold to a traditional view of marriage to the persecution meted out by the Nazi’s to minority groups. There is so much that is obviously ill-informed, unwise and insensitive about this argument that it’s not even worth denouncing.

The Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond also wheeled out the victim mentality recently by saying that legalising equal marriage ‘vast numbers’ of people will be angered by the redefinition of marriage . Perhaps I’m very slow witted but really I’m at a loss to understand how allowing same sex couples to marry negatively affects straight couples in any way at all.

So, there may well be ‘pain on both sides of the argument’ but forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the petty posturing and faux victimhood displayed by the likes of Carey and Hammond.

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The first four points here are often made by people who already take a more inclusive view of same sex relationships or are moving towards that position and by highlighting them I don’t intend to close down open and honest debate. If you are courageous enough to make yourself vulnerable and say that you’re on a journey (for example) then I hope I can tell you why I might find that upsetting. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect your integrity or value the conversation, just that we can both be more honest about our experiences.

In my next post I’ll start to plumb the depths of some far more awful and at times destructive phrases that well meaning Christians still roll out when they’re talking about gay people. I wonder if you can guess what makes it to number 1.

And, because I really don’t want to drown in an ocean of negativity, in a third post I will then explain why I stick with the church, am hopeful for the future and also look at ways in which these conversations can be framed more helpfully for all concerned.