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.
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.
#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.
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.