Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sexual Orientation: Moving Beyond ‘Regardless...’

On 29 January 2014, The Church of England issued a statement on behalf of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu. The statement reported that the two men had officially written to all primates of the Anglican Communion, as well as the Presidents of Nigeria and Uganda, reiterating their commitment- and the commitment of the Anglican Communion- to ‘the pastoral support and care of everyone worldwide, regardless of sexual orientation.’  The full statement can be read here:,-regardless-of-sexual-orientation.aspx

This statement was in response to recent legislation in Nigeria and Uganda. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan this month signed into law a bill which bans same-sex marriages, LGBT groups and public displays of same-sex affection. On top of this, Sharia courts in the predominantly Muslim north of the country have had gay men publicly lashed. Mainstream Anglicanism and fundamentalist Islam working in concert to deny gay people not only life and liberty but also freedom from physical abuse is a somewhat cruel irony.

In Uganda’s legislation, LGBT people face the threat of life imprisonment for living openly and honestly. The death penalty was removed from the final legislation, but that’s cold comfort to  people whose real lives are being really destroyed.

The statement of the archbishops highlights the plight of millions of people around the world who now face legal, state-sanctioned prejudice for their sexual orientation. This is, of course, in addition to the cultural stigma, family abandonment, loss of employment and education opportunities, verbal abuse, and physical violence that many daily face.

My thoughts on the statement are these: Firstly, I think it should be welcomed insofar as it at least proactively responds to the egregious abuse of human rights in two countries in which the Anglican Church is a major presence.

That said, I feel it displays a huge weakness in that it perpetuates a bad habit that many official church documents often do: it talks ‘about’ LGBT people rather than ‘to’ them. In doing so, it perpetuates LGBT people as objects of sympathy and care rather than subjects of justice and liberation. Gay people in the statement are still inherently ‘other’, naggingly ‘outside’. It’s an unconscious reinforcing of the notion that the Church needs to love gay people so they’ll want to ‘come in’ without the understanding that the Church needs to love gay people because they’re already ‘here’.

I once had a lay leader of an evangelical church ask me how his church might be more welcoming to gay people, passionately using imagery of ‘throwing open the doors’ of  the church. When I suggested that they first needed to be thinking about taking care of the gay people that were already inside his church, he seemed a bit shocked at the thought. But the fact is that, in the 300 or so people that regular attend his church at a Sunday service, statistical data tells us that there’s probably between 15 and 30 who don’t feel comfortable enough- ‘welcomed’ enough- to share who they are with their brothers and sisters sitting around them. ‘Welcoming’ them means responding to their real-life needs- exactly the same as those of straight singles and couples- and many of them probably have little or nothing to do with sex. 

Yes, believe or not, gay people have lives other than sex lives.  For instance, Marie is trying to stick to a budget in hopes of finally getting a new car, but her partner Brenda spends money like water. Paul lost his job and he and Richard are now getting by solely on Richard’s income.  John and Mark would love to feel comfortable enough to sign up for the couples retreat; Sarah has had a crush on Ciara for months and would love to chat with the youth pastor about the difference between ‘liking’ and  ‘loving’; Robert would love to be part of the singles group; Karen and Jen are thinking about adopting; David tenses up every time the pastor talks about ‘reaching out to those trapped in homosexuality’...

There’s a good chance that’s what your church looks like… and I firmly believe that’s not a bad thing. Which brings me to my second point:

When I first read the two archbishops’ statement, one phrase immediately stood out to me:

‘...the commitment made by the Primates of the Anglican Communion to the pastoral support and care of everyone worldwide, regardless of sexual orientation.’

Actually, it was the last bit, ‘... regardless of sexual orientation.’

Well, to be honest, I think it’s simply the word ‘regardless’. I realise that it was written in good faith and with the best of intentions. But I want to poke at it a bit…

The dictionary defines ‘regardless’ as ‘having or showing no regard; heedless; unmindful of’. A thesaurus equates it with words such as ‘disregarding’, ‘blind’, ‘careless’, ‘insensitive’, ‘uninterested’, ‘unobservant’.

The question is- what about us does God disregard? What about us does God choose to ignore? What does God love about us ‘regardless’?  

The answer is, obviously, sin. ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners (that’s the ‘regardless’ bit…) Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

Thus, In this case of the statement of the two archbishops, the word ‘regardless’ is only applicable if the sexual orientation of a minority is indeed considered a sin. Theologically, forgiven sin is the only thing that God disregards, the one thing he purposes to ignore. It is one thing to say that God (and his Church) embraces us ‘regardless’ of what we do; it is another to say that God (and his Church) embrace us ‘regardless’ of who we are.

And there’s the rub. The statement refers to gay people as ‘human beings whose  affections happen to be ordered to people of the same sex’ yet also refers to the  church’s ‘discussion and assessment of moral appropriateness of specific human behaviours’. The former is natural; it is part of God’s creation and should therefore, one assumes, be actively celebrated, as we do in the case of anything we believe God created good. The latter is open to moral debate, as anything God created good can be distorted, dangerous and difficult.

However, just because a behaviour
can be sinful should not preclude out of hand its being done ever. A sexual orientation naturally leads to desire and activity. All three are, in my opinion, natural. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows what I’m talking about: noticing leads to, well, really noticing; hesitancy turns to courage; casual chat turns into serious chat; brushing the skin turns to hand-holding and embrace; ‘like’ turns to ‘love’; desire turns to commitment, and I think you see where this is going… If something is natural, it grows, flowers, matures, becomes deeper.

Yet it is on that point that I find many of the statements of the Anglican Communion on this matter- and those of other churches, including my own- remarkably obtuse. The Anglican Church in their statement declares sexual orientation natural. In doing so, they believe they are being eminently progressive. But declaring something ‘natural’ is far short of declaring something celebratory. ‘Natural’ is merely a factual statement, not a positive affirmation. In my mind, it denotes uneasy acknowledgement and nothing more. The optimum phrase there is ‘nothing more’; ‘You’re homosexual? Well, that’s natural; anything beyond that is problematic. Sex is out altogether; all sexual relations outside of marriage are sin...
and we won’t marry you. Basically, you can have friends, even deep friendships, but nothing more...’

Lord Byron described friendship as ‘love without his wings’. And that is precisely the kind of love that the majority of the Christian Church permits gay people- flightless, wingless, grounded, never soaring. By declaring God’s love- and the Church’s acceptance- ‘regardless’, LGBT people fall through a massive theological crack and are condemned to ‘nothing more’. They may love only up to a point- and that point is a million miles shorter than the point that I as a heterosexual man may go. The Christian Church expects and encourages me, as a straight man, to… how do I say this modestly?... ‘fully embrace’ my orientation. They’d start asking serious questions of me if I didn’t, suggesting all kinds of books, courses, retreats and counselling to get things, well, ‘going in the right direction’.

My sexual orientation- and its full expression- are deemed natural and celebratory. If I broke my marriage vows and started giving myself emotionally or sexually to another woman, only then would they deem it necessary to remind me that God loves me ‘regardless’- and then, only for what was deemed a sinful action, not for who I fundamentally was.

I don’t believe God loves me regardless of my heterosexual orientation; I believe that God loves me because of my heterosexual orientation. I believe that the love and the sexual attraction I feel for my wife is a source of divine joy. That’s certainly what the Church has always led me to believe. The Church begins from a standpoint of celebration of my sexual orientation and all aspects of my sexual being.

That is certainly not what the vast majority of LGBT people have ever been led to believe. LGBT sexuality has, of course, been demonized for centuries, and even in today’s climate of more openness and understanding, it is still assumed by many Christians and their leadership structures to be inherently and deeply problematic- a problem to be solved, a crisis to be averted, a difficulty with which to be grappled, at best a mistake to be carefully managed.

From what I can see, LGBT people’s sexual orientation is not celebrated. It is not believed to have been created by God, much less created ‘good’.

But I don’t I don’t believe God loves LGBT people regardless of their sexual orientation; I believe God loves them because of their sexual orientation. I believe that LGBT people were created ‘good’- just like me. But As long as we and our churches hold onto and verbalise the idea that God loves gay people ‘regardless’, we- and they- will unconsciously believe that there is something inherently wrong with them. 

So, while I welcome the intentions of the statement of Welby and Sentamu, I’d humbly suggest that we need to move beyond ‘regardless’. If LGBT people are indeed, created in the image of God- as Welby and Sentamu have on many occasions insisted- then they are created ‘good’.

And that should be enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment