Sunday, August 07, 2005

No Longer Welcome?

I've just read an essay by a graduate that I found very poignant because it has almost exactly mirrored my own experience. While I suspect I may strongly disagree with the author's conclusions about "sexualities" and "orientations" the treatment at the hands of a church has been to me just as devastating. So I think it's an essay well worth including and well worth reading. The gauntlet is laid down - are church leaders really going to be bothered with those who aren't the bog standard married couple with 2.4 children?

No longer welcome?
A plea from a young gay evangelical Christian

The author is young graduate who, for a number of years, has been deeply involved in a leading evangelical Anglican church belonging to the Reform group. Having admitted to a church leader and some of his Christians friends that he is gay, he no longer feels welcome and has reluctantly decided to leave.

After the agony of Gethsemane, the pain and hurt of betrayal and denial, the injustice of his trial and the cruelty of a Roman flogging, Jesus was led up a hill to his death. His bloodied footprints pointed the way to a reality that even he had shrunk from - a place where the Son would come face-to-face with His Father's judgement on the world. His mind must have been reeling with the prospect of what was still to come - the loneliness and hopelessness of outer darkness. But in the midst of that semi-consciousness, the gospel writers record for us some of the most incredible words ever spoken, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." We cannot know, but perhaps that prayer was the last communion Jesus had with his Father before their link was severed and, for the first time in eternity, the Son's prayers became useless. It is a matchless prayer that reveals the depth of the Son's love for his Father and the Father's love for the world.

It is often wrong to draw emotive comparisons between the experience of Christians and the incomparable event of Jesus' death. That was a unique thing, unrepeatable and once for all. For the rest of the New Testament, the apostles urge Christians to believe in the Cross-Resurrection event and to stick with it as being the very heart of Christian hope. Yet it is right too for a suffering church to look to the suffering master as a model of church experience. In that context, I want to point out a very particular, a very peculiar, suffering of Christ's church. The true church is persecuting the true church. Christ's people are hurting others of Christ's people. Perhaps for that reason, I have every hope that the suffering might soon stop because it is enough that the church is already persecuted by the world. Tragically, this persecution leads to the world being a refuge from a hostile church.

I hope that those Christians who suffer like this will not have to pray Jesus' prayer any more in relation to their brothers and sisters. It is a painful thing to do. If you are reading this as a Christian, please realise that there are gay Christians in your church. Do not speculate on whether or not they may or may not exist, whether their struggles are real or perceived, psychological or childhood related. Come to terms today with the reality of gay Christians. Even in the conservative evangelical church there are gay people, whose identity is constantly undermined by a church culture that won't even trust them to exist! There is no scripture that says that.

Some thoughts on what this means:

Firstly, think about the cultural assumptions that underlie your church life. Gay people are there and while they are there, they are bombarded with seminars on marriage and relationships (in which this issue is rarely discussed), with friends who speak about relationships ad nauseam, with the wedding season and the family announcements. In the middle of all this noise, the gay person is possibly coming to terms with a very isolated and lonely life. Please try to make it easier. Surely that is the part we must all play in growing up to be the body of loving believers that Christ wants us to be. If you are going to say "celibacy for life", then you had better make absolutely certain that as a church you make that bearable - what sort of a family will you be to the gay Christian? Will you bear with his or her frustrations, emotional ups and downs, with the unpredictability of those deepest feelings? Do not talk about change. I say that primarily because the "change concept" is unscriptural. But it is also a cop-out. When you seek to impose the yoke of celibacy upon a gay Christian, you are saying something very severe and very profound. A proposal of change is so patently silly for some gay Christians that it merely adds to the hopelessness that goes with the church's injunction. Perhaps more perniciously, the emphasis on change shows the church shrinking away from the consequences of its own command. Gay Christians never took a vow of celibacy. They are not monks or nuns who chose that life. Imagine bearing such a burden yourself - imagine bearing it when you have fallen in love! - and then contemplate the heaviness, the weight of your words.

Secondly, please provide a context of explicit, absolute, total trust. Gay Christians are not used to trusting people because in our experience people rarely prove themselves trustworthy. If a gay person tells you something then you are privileged because you may well be the first person that he or she has ever spoken to. Do not be shocked by what you hear. Do not suggest 'quick-fit' solutions or be quick to speak. Instead, listen and start praying for that brother or sister whose pain and hurt has been bottled up for so long. You will do the greatest service by ministering the love of Jesus to someone who knows that love for themselves, but rarely experiences it through the church body of which they are a part. A critical part of this is to give your trusting friend the space to think through their situation. Do not make conservative evangelical assumptions. It may well be your view that the Bible is absolutely clear on this issue. But to the gay Christian it is not enough simply to turn to the obvious passages, point at them triumphantly and say, "There, you see! The meaning of the text is clear and the consequences of ignoring the text are just as plain". Maybe you are right, but will you dare to give your gay friend the space to consider and question? To reject your view, even? Will you give them the opportunity to come to terms, or not, with hard sayings that really are hard? It is too neat to say, "It would be unloving for me not to say this". Ultimately you are right, of course, if you hold to mainstream conservative evangelical convictions on this issue. But this is a friend you are speaking to, someone who cares for you and for whom you care. Give them the dignity they need and speak at the right moment, not the wrong moment. If you are wise, you will know the difference.
Thirdly, how will you deal with Christians who believe the gospel, but disagree with your view on practising homosexuality? Will you welcome them or reject them? Do you truly believe that it is impossible to believe the gospel and have a different view on this issue? I do not doubt that you will refuse the practising homosexual a position of leadership. But will you be a church that welcomes or rejects the practising homosexual Christian?

Lastly, this has become a very political issue in the wider church and I personally have little doubt that the Anglican Church will soon split. As an evangelical I would not see that as any great loss since no denomination defines the eternal church of Christ. Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But at the moment many evangelicals have the bit between their teeth. My plea to those limbering up for this fight is simple: look over your shoulder to some of the faces on your own side. Not to the front few rows of your troops, not even back a little further to the middle ranks - I know that you are rightly suspicious of their over-enthusiasm and militaristic bullishness - somehow they don't seem to appreciate the sheer reality of underlying eternal issues. Instead look further back to the shadowy wings of your mustered forces. There you will see faces staring sorrowfully back at you, faces belonging to brothers and sisters in your midst who are pained and torn by this battle to come. As you look more closely, you will see that these brothers and sisters already have bleeding wounds that are hurting. 'Yet the fight hasn't even begun', you think to yourself. This little group is more confused and upset than ready for war. A few of your young men are coming up to urge them to get stuck into the battle, patting them encouragingly on the shoulder and offering them each a weapon, shockingly blind to their helplessness. You pause a moment longer and as your eye roams some more, you notice one figure in the background who is working his way round that pitiful group, binding up the injuries and soothing the pain. His eye is not on the front line and he seems oblivious to the shouts and enthusiasm of the rest of your army. You can't see his face but you recognise him of course, as any faithful servant would.

As you turn back to the oncoming, relentless forces of secularism and liberalism, what will you do?


Mark said...

Interesting article Dan, I have had lots of thoughts on this subject over the years, and perhaps I will organise them into a form that I can post onto my blog at some point.

A couple of responses / comments on issues raised in the article.

1. It is true that evangelical churches do not address the homosexuality issue as much as they should. It is mainly due to fear that they will be misunderstood, and so they only want to say anything if they can do a whole talk on the subject.

2. I agree with the point about "cures" for homosexuality. I believe that it is a temptation to follow a desire of the flesh, just like any other "besetting sin" (i.e. those sins that we have a natural propensity for, which are different for each person). God often does not free us from the temptation, but he does give us the grace to resist it, and the wisdom to avoid situations of temptation or compromise. It may be that over the years, the intensity of the temptation will lessen. Hetrosexual men, single or married will often struggle with sexual temptation throughout their lives. I see no reason why it should be different for homosexuals.

3. Whilst we must acknowledge that there are evangelical Christians who are gay (and here I mean that they are still wanting to hold to traditional evangelical sexual ethics), I ask is it best to label them as "gay" or even for these Christians to think of themselves in this way. If we are Christians, our identity is found in Christ, not in our sexuality. Whilst it would be futile to deny the truth of their same sex attraction, that does not mean they should derive a sense of who we are from it. I believe that Paul makes this point very strongly in 1 Cor 6, and 2 Cor 5. 'Homosexual' is the old identity, 'new creation' is the new identity. Let us not regard one another (or ourselves) from a worldly point of view.

4. Finally the point about whether a 'practising homosexual' should be allowed into church membership but not just leadership unfortunately misses the point. First, it betrays a very clergy-laity divide mentality - that the general congregation don't serve and so can settle for a lower standard of holiness. And second it forgets that evangelical churches already have clear standards on this matter for heterosexual couples. If an unmarried couple start living together, they will face church discipline. We must show courtesy and love towards Christians who willingly sin sexually, but that does not mean we pretend it is OK.

Baxter's Boy said...

Thanks for the excellent points Mark! Absolutely - I couldn't agree more. I got hold of the essay from some who would be perhaps more liberal than we ... but I felt it was worthy of reading to stir up our thoughts. What would we do in this situation? Surely the greatest problem with the evangelical world at the moment is that of doing nothing!

D x

Steve said...

Thank you so much for this essay .... I have had exactly the same experience as you describe from your old church.

It was so incredibly hurtful and painful and WHAT an encouragement to see that you've been through it too!!

Can we talk more?!

Baxter's Boy said...

Thats great to hear! Yes its amazing isn't it how incredibly hurtful and cruel some church leaders can be.

I'd be more than happy to talk to you and share more!!

D x