It’s hard to believe a time when people of faith argued about who could eat with whom. Or that people argued fiercely that men needed to be circumcised to join churches. Or that slavery was a Christian blessing designed to educate and save souls.
Yet all of these arguments and ideological positions have been part of the Church’s history. When you have been around for over 2000 years you start to take the long view. And it also means that things are taken very slowly and this slowness becomes a habit of mind. Things don’t take months or years, they take generations. It takes a long time to turn an ocean liner.
Human sexuality and particularly homosexuality and bisexuality is the one of the controversies currently gripping the Church. It seems positively medieval for many people in a society with openly LGBT politicians; soldiers and celebrities. Just about everyone knows someone who is a happy well adjusted homosexual or bisexual. To be honest, most people think it’s odder that I’m a Christian in 2009.
The issue on the surface the argument against LGB people often just looks like pure bigotry. But you need to get under the surface of the argument to really look at its complexities. And the biggest hidden argument is how churches use the Bible.
Many conservative Christians believe that the Bible is infallible and inerrant (it can’t be wrong) and that it contains everything that you ever need to know written in black and white. For many of them stories such as Sodom and Gomorrah and the teachings of Paul are clear that homosexuality is bad.
Liberal Christians take a more nuanced and metaphorical view of biblical writings. For them it isn’t that simple- they look at the context and the various meanings the text may have. Or they may even consider large sections of the Bible irrelevant and unhelpful and ignore them. These two contrasting views have found a battle ground over the five passages that may deal with homosexuality and bisexuality in the Bible.
If we take the literal view some of the texts they are not in favor of being gay. But if you take the more nuanced liberal view you get a different picture. St Paul would never have met a LGB person from a western the 21st century culture so how could he condemn what he didn’t know? Or that he was probably telling people not to sleep with male prostitutes from Eastern fertility cults if we take his context into account.
One of the other arguments that this issue raises is about gender. Since the 1960’s women have been demanding (as they should!) the same rights as men. But this has lead to a blurring of gender roles. In churches where there have tradionally been rigid and proscribed roles for men and women an acceptance of homosexuality would further muddy already muddy and treacherous waters.
I think there are also arguments about the morality around sex. We live in a society where the old mores have been completely obliterated. Any trawl on the internet, late night cable TV or a walk down Broad Street on a Friday or Saturday night will show a society that is far from repressed or shy about sex.
For a Church whose traditional message is of virginity before heterosexual marriage and monogamy after it, it is bewildering to deal with what has happened to heterosexuality, let alone adding the whole unchartered waters of the LGBT Community. And at a time when the Church is trying to offer a moral guidance that is almost completely ignored by much of our society, I think it is simply out of its depth.
And finally, a lot of energy and effort has been expended on being right. A lot of people would have to admit they’ve been wrong on the both sides of the argument. LGBT people are not morally depraved people after your children and who are in league with all that is evil. They are not the bogey people of conservative religious literature on the subject. And conservative Christians are not the simple, idiotic bigots that they’re often painted by the other side of the argument. It’s much more complicated than that as is the whole argument on sexuality and spirituality.
What is really missing is a place where both sides can listen to each other and learn from each other. Thankfully that day is coming. Most workplaces have out LGBT people and the reality of our lives is now just part of the accepted social fabric. Conservatives and LGBT people are having to deal with each other and to their surprise they are learning that the other person doesn’t have horns and a tail. Openly LGBT people are joining churches as out gay people. A small but increasing amount of churches are starting to ordain openly gay people. The tanker is turning slowly but it is turning.
As I started with, the Church moves slowly. But it does generally move in the direction of humanity and kindness given enough time. Maybe someone reading this in the some dusty, future archive will see all the controversy as curious and as much as an historical quirk as the insistence on circumcision, the agony over whom you could eat with or even be as appalled as we are when we read the Church’s defence of slavery.
Rev Chris Dowd is a Pastor of Journey Metropolitan Community Church. Journey reaches out to people who are not normally catered for by traditional churches.