The Church of England has embarked on a two-year conversation about sexuality with a particular focus on christian attitudes towards homosexuality. Glen Poole of insideMAN attended one of the discussions at his local church to hear the debate.
I am fortunate enough to live close enough to a modern church that reaches out to its irreligious neighbours like me in extraordinary ways. Earlier this month I spent a couple of hours there listening to a debate about homosexuality and the church featuring the Reverend Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust and Sean Doherty of Living Out.
The event was inspired by the Church of England's Pilling Report on sexuality which recognised that there are a range of views about this issue in the church and proposed a two year period of facilitated conversations---and this was one such conversation.
Chalke is an irrepressible genius of a man with big enough ideas to fill a week-long conference and still only scratch the surface. He has an uncanny ability to never respond to a straight question with a straight answer and yet still leave you knowing more than you would have learnt if he’d simply responded to the question he was asked.
His backing of same-sex marriages in 2012 sent shockwaves through the evangelical church community and led to the Evangelical Alliance removing Oasis Trust from its membership. So it was surprising just how little he talked about homosexuality in two hour discussion about that very topic.
Raise your hands if you've got a healthy attitude towards sex
For Chalke, this issue isn’t sex, it’s the bible, but for some reason people like talking about sex more than they like talking about the bible! Chalke sought to remedy this by speaking mostly about the bible and left me with a better understanding of the the "good book" and the different ways that Christians continue to struggle with their response to homosexuality in the process.
Doherty is a very different character, a jolly, ginger-bearded man who is happy talking about sex. He asked the audience to raise their hands if they were brought up in a Christian family with a healthy attitude towards sex---most of us looked at the floor awkwardly and sat on our hands.
As a gay man living in a straight marriage, Doherty says that 99% of our sexual desires shouldn’t be acted upon and it just so happens that the thoughts that he doesn’t act upon are his sexual thoughts about other men. As a teenager, he noticed that as his mates started to get interested in sex, he was getting interested in his mates. His answer, as a Christian, was to choose a life of celibacy and the support he received from his Christian friends in an evangelical church was overwhelmingly positive.
According to Doherty, he received more negative comments from outside of the Church for being celibate, than he ever received in the church for being gay.
How Christians have persecuted gays
Chalke had very different tales to tell about the experience of gay men in the Church. He spoke of a friend who told his vicar that he was gay when he was 13 and spent the next 5 years at church being exorcised as the Minister attempted to turn the demons out of him. He told stories of Christian men who were banned from taking communion or working with children when they came out (because being gay, in the eyes of some Christians, is synonymous with being a paedophile).
There are, says Chalke, three distinct ways that religious communities respond to homosexuality. There are those who literally demonise gay people and try to chase those demons out of them. There are those who think this is cruel, but will pray for gay people to be healed. Then there are those who don’t think that gay people should be exorcised or healed, but should have the iron will to resist their ungodly urges, either through celibacy or surrendering to a straight marriage.
Who should gay Christians marry, men or women?
And this is where Chalke, with his support for gay marriage, and Doherty, the gay man who married a woman, part company.
According to Chalke, the biggest mistake we make in our reading of the bible is to believe that the bible means 'book', when it in fact means 'library'. To Chalke, the bible isn't single book presenting the truth but a series of books seeking the truth. We can, he says, trace a line of spiritual development from the pre-biblical Code of Hammurabi, to Moses in the Old Testament, to Jesus in the New Testament, that highlight the evolving nature of human morality as we search for spiritual truth.
For Chalke, the way that many Christians have treated gay people has been deeply unchristian and it's time to for the Church to evolve its thinking, not in line with what Jesus said about homosexuality (because the bible does not record this) but in line with what Jesus had to say about unconditional love and acceptance.
As Christians, both Chalke and Doherty, have similar beliefs about sex. They view sex as a gift from God best enjoyed within the context of a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship. For Doherty, one possible route to this is for gay people to embrace heterosexual relationships, for Chalke the preferred path is gay marriage.
Why should straight non-Christians be interested?
As a straight, non-Christian man, I find myself drawn to this particular debate for two key reasons. Firstly it raises an important question of free speech. I don't believe in unbridled free speech. I think it's essential for a civil society to police the most hateful and dangerous forms of speech, for example, holding to account people who incite others to kill.
I am also deeply wary of people who cite "hate speech" or sexism, racism, homophobia etc as a way of censoring opinions they don't like. Looking from the outside I have seen bigotry and hatred on both sides of the gay marriage debate, from traditional Christians and progressive liberals alike.
I don't agree with Chalke and Doherty, but bigoted, hate-filled polemicists on both sides of the debate could learn a lot from them in terms of how to present your beliefs in a loving, accepting and non-judgmental way. They reminded me of an American evangelist who was asked if homosexuals went to hell and his response went something like this: "being homosexual won't get you into heaven, but neither will being heterosexual".
The second reason I am drawn to this debate is that it is ultimately about gender. Straight men are impacted by a society's attitude towards gay men because it's not just about what type of sexuality is socially acceptable, but what type of masculinity we allow men to express. When a society, through its laws and institutions, says being gay is less acceptable than being straight, that society places all men in straightjacket.
For me, equal rights for gay people overlap with equal rights for men, as those rights are ultimately about men having a right to express our masculinity (and our humanity) in whatever way we choose---gay, straight, atheist or religious.
If you want to listen to the discussion between Chalke and Doherty you can find it on the St Lukes Church website.
---Picture Credit: Flickr/joseanavas
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
Also on insideMAN:
- Thoughts on being a gay Christian man
- How can I stop my Christian wife chopping off our son's foreskin?
- Christian leader says fatherless men lack sex, power and money