Tuesday 15 September 2009

How can LGBT people begin the conversation with the church? – part 2

In the final chapter of the book, ‘Good News for gay Christians’, Oliver O’Donovan explains the failed hopes of the St Andrew’s Day Statement.
“Of course, no secret was made of the fact that the authors of the Statement approached the discussion with the assumption that the right category for the relationships of gay people was singleness, not marriage, and that this implied doing without an exclusive, intimate and permanent relationship. But it was never the intention of the Statement merely to declare what its authors supposed to be the case.”
I admit I read the St Andrew’s Day Statement with a prejudiced mind. I prejudged the intention of the evangelicals who issued it and assumed exactly what Oliver says was not its intention.
“Its intention was to pose open questions to gay Christians which might elicit what they supposed to be the case. It was an invitation to dialogue within the basic terms set by Christian faith. The authors knew full well that other answers might be given to these questions than the answers they themselves would give, and they wanted to discuss those other answers, too.”
As a committed Christian with a very strong pro-gay agenda in the church, I want to respond positively to Oliver’s challenge – I’m excited by it. If any of us are to move this so often polarised, sterile debate to a new, more creative level, we all need to allow ourselves to participate in a mutual process of open exploration.

I have already participated in a number of explorative encounters, at St George’s House, Windsor (when Oliver participated) and the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, Limehouse, the latter including Canadian representatives. There have also been three encounters between representatives of Inclusive Church and Anglican Mainstream and the Goddard2Goddard posts have explored the territory in cyberspace.

Oliver wants: “…to hear the question discussed by gays, rather than by liberals.” Are “stable relationships” key to our experience, he asks:
“Or is there something important in the roaming character of some gay relations? There is room here for a seriously interesting discussion among gay people which will be instructive to us all. What the gay experience really is, is a question of huge importance both to gays and non-gays.”
Let me out myself - I was a member of the member of the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation Working Group which produced the Sexual Ethics report published by Changing Attitude and available on our web site. I wanted to include the sentence about causal sex being often addictive and destructive, yet thinking it important to remain open to the possibility that brief and loving sexual engagement between mature adults in special circumstances can be occasions of grace (p11). This is the one part of the report which Lisa Nolland takes exception to and has referred to in several reports attacking CA’s sexual ethic, accusing us of dishonesty in claiming to that we are committed to permanent, faithful, stable relationships as the model for LGBT people. We are.

We also recognise that the church acknowledges that not all heterosexual Christians are capable of fidelity to the ideal and are allowed to divorce and remarry (in church), sometimes serially. The church knows that many heterosexuals fail to live up to the ideal.

I want the church to allow similar latitude to LGBT people, not a wider scope for infidelity but the same generous acknowledgment that some relationships fail, become sterile, unhealthy for the couple. Oliver asks the question: “…is there something important in the roaming character of some gay relations?” I would like to participate in what, as he says, could be a seriously interesting discussion.

Three final thoughts for this post. How and where do we conduct a more frank public debate in the church which will help “the rest of us” as Oliver puts it, “…feel our way towards an understanding of the dynamic of the experience and a sense of how the good news may bear most importantly on it.”

Secondly, who within the world of LGBT Christians is prepared to pursue this debate? So many are disheartened with the church and have lost the will to engage, exhausted by the constant conservative attacks. Who has the capacity:
“…to engage in analogical thinking, which is central to moral reasoning. They will need to ask themselves about likenesses of experience and about unlikenesses, about ways in which known patterns illuminate unknown, about the extending of paradigms to encompass new types.”
Thanks are due to Oliver for having written his “Seven Sermons on the Subject of the Day” and to Fulcrum for having first posted them on their web site.

My third and final thought. The debate proposed by Oliver will take place against a background of schismatic threats and attacks on the integrity of LGBT identity from Anglican Mainstream, VirtueOnline, Stand Firm and the GAFCON/FoCA axis. Are any of these organisations or the individuals involved in them prepared to review their hostile strategy to enable LGBT Anglicans to engage in public debate in a less hostile environment? The reaction to Bishop Gene’s presence at Greenbelt suggests not.

Is the Archbishop of Canterbury in conjunction with other Church of England Bishops and Communion Primates prepared to make a stand and commit publicly to the creation and maintenance of safe space in which LGBT Anglicans can confidently participate?


  1. in response to OD's question "... the roaming character of some gay relations". Clearly there is a genuine search to understand some more about LGBT relations. But we are all well aware that hostile groups will misrepresent any discussion at all about gay sexuality.
    I recall a country church inviting gay people to come some distance to visit them from Auckland as part of Presbyterian discussions about the inclusion of LGBT ... At the end of a long evening when many felt that there had been a lot of honest sharing, the statement came back "You're not the REAL gays we know about, you know, sex all the time, different partners every night ..."

  2. Firstly, about Prof Oliver O'Donovan. I attended his lectures at Oxford,and as an academic he is impressive. Therein lies a problem, because an interest in pursuing questions might easily become just an academic exercise. What influence does he really have in conservative circles? My experience is that he tended to be discursive and speak in a nuanced way which seems to be rather out of favour in today's debates.
    But that is really by the by in regard to the main point: roaming relationships. Colin, you need to be very careful here (and I speak as a supporter of CA), and you might want to re-consider what you have written because it does seem a clear case of wanting to have your cake and eat it. The whole point of the Gay Christian case over committed relationships is that they are just that: committed. In that sense no diferent from hetero married relationships; that is the argument. Once you start down the road of saying: ah, but actually gay relationships are different (however subtly that is put), the case falls to the ground, discredited.
    If you are, however, talking about uncommitted relationships in saying that there is a parallel with straight liaisons, again great care is needed as you seem to be heading towards the position that for gays sexual liaisons are intrinsic and OK. Christian teaching is that sexual relationships may be intrinsic to human nature, but they are not OK outside a longterm committed relationship (I leave aside the gender issue).
    In short, you need a much better and more careful explnation of what you mean in terms of relationships, not just roaming, or else you will be providing ammunition to your opponents.

  3. I have to say I agree with Roger above. I don't really want to see a position that looks as if LGBT Christians are arguing that promiscuity is intrinsic to gay and bisexual people in a way that it isn't to heterosexuals, as this supports the arguments of many conservative opponents. I think it is a different matter to say that there are cultural factors, maybe gender factors at play in "roaming relationships" and I do think it is vital to expose hypocrisy - a relatively small number of heterosexual people, even Christians, have only one sexual partner within marriage, for life ( or at least relatively few of the ones I know!)

  4. And I'm sick and tired of what is, according to Oliver O'Donovan, a "seriously interesting discussion". I am sick to death of having to explain my sex life and what theological, moral and ethical context it's in.

    People - it's easy. I'm just like you, only that my partner has the same set of genitals as I do, not different ones.

    If you really can't get your heads round this, and if you still insist that you are the ones who are setting the parameters of this debate and that we have to comply - sorry.
    There's enough good reading material out there, there are enough gay people who have publicly spoken about their lives. Just go out, make friends with a few of them and see how we live.
    You are responsible for your own education, not me.