A guest post by Idoya Munn
Change. The church has been doing it since she was born. We are a responsive creature. We move, adjust, transition, re-configure, re-imagine, re-group, adapt, alter, and transform. It’s a sign of life.
Here’s a potted history: Pentecost, Constantine, Polycarp, Clement, Iraneaus, the Council of Nicaea, Arianism, the Council of Ephesus, The Nestorian Schism, the Iconclasts, monastic reform, the Inquisition, the East-West Schism, the Crusades, John Wycliffe, the Protestant Reformation. Each name or event a marker for a moment of tumult.
Some versions of church history will have you believe that it was all plain sailing after the Reformation. But let’s not forget the Catholic Reformation, the conflicts between Lutherans and Calvinists, the Council of Trent, the Puritans of the New World, Wesley, the Great Awakening, Pentecostalism, Mormanism, William Wilberforce, the Missionary movement, Vatican II, and the development of Ecumenism. All moments or inceptions of change.
Now cast your minds back over the vast range of issues that have caused the church to divide and re-make itself in the last two centuries alone; slavery, segregation, mixed-race marriage, the sexual revolution and changing attitudes towards divorce and re-marriage, the role of women, the division (or not) of church and state, the growth of Pentecostalism and the mega-church, the young people leaving the church in droves, and now what seems to be the greatest controversy of all; the emergence of a brand new sexual ethic. That is, we have come to the conclusion that there is a thing, and this thing is called sexual orientation.
Let us not underestimate how new this thing is. We didn’t have the concept sexual orientation until very recently. Moses didn’t have it when he wrote Leviticus, the Romans didn’t have it while their military leaders enjoyed their male concubines. Paul didn’t have it when he wrote Romans. Even when the word homosexuality came into common useage in the English language in the early 1900’s, we barely had this thing. The words sexual orientation had not even been formed. The Greek poet Sappho, the tragic Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing – the subject of the film The Imitation Game, and even the vociferous Gertrude Stein, all lived before the concept of sexual orientation as we understand it now was put into words.
So how do we read theology then, in the light of this? How do we read the Bible? How do we make up our minds about LGBTI Christians? How do we decide what we think about same-sex marriage? How do churches and denominations make the daunting decisions that face them about the inclusion of gay couples in parish life, and about the legal changes that are transforming society’s understanding and practice of marriage? And most importantly, how will the church respond to the growing appetite from within its ranks for a new understanding of sexuality? One that is inclusive rather than divisive; one that loves rather than judges; one that sees similarities before it sees differences.
When we talk about same-sex marriage and the brand new civil right of marriage equality, a right so brand new that we are not all convinced it is a civil right, we are not speaking in a vacuum. This issue is not a neat and tidy package that can be responded to with simple logic, or brushed under the carpet with a heavily-wielded stack of bible verses. This is new territory. We haven’t been here before. History and tradition inform us, but they cannot guide us where they have not been. We bring them with us, tucked into our conversations, allowing them to ground us and challenge us and warn us of the dire consequences of getting this wrong. Let’s be clear: there are lives at stake. And not lives that would be measured by how well they affirm some universally agreed upon definition of what it means to be a Christian, but individual, uniquely created people. People who get up in the morning and go to bed at night, people who laugh and cry and breathe, who have children, jobs, homes, dreams, passions and loves. People who love.
In Africa, in this century, thirty six nations prescribe jail sentences for homosexuality. In three of those sodomy is punishable by death. Other nations convict with flogging, hard labour, or life-time jail sentences. Even in the few African nations where being gay is not illegal, homophobia and transphobia and related hate violence are rife. In Russia, despite the fact that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, Putin’s powerful anti-LGBTI propaganda bill means that anyone convicted of LGBTI “propaganda” to minors can be fined or imprisoned. Activists have been detained for acts as simple as carrying “Gay is Normal” banners. And even in seemingly open and tolerant countries such as New Zealand, suicide rates for LGBTI youth are tragically high.
This is not a theological problem, although theology is a vital part of the conversation. This is not an entirely political problem, although politics are changing and clearly need to change. This is not about the denigration of society, or the destruction of the family, or the manipulation of society’s mores by some vast lobby group with a “gay agenda.” This is a human problem. It is about people. And specifically, as it is becoming more and more apparent, it is about people within our churches, people we sit next to in pews and bake cakes for and pray for. People who from the outside may not look any different. Except for one small difference. We understand that difference better now than we did before. It’s those words; sexual orientation. It’s time to smarten up and allow those words to inform our conversation about sexuality and marriage. And it’s time to listen to the people to whom the conversation matters most.
Christian voices from within the LGBTI community:
Christian leaders, authors and academics who have come out in support of marriage equality and LGBTI rights… a few names out of many:
Organisations committed to the conversation: