Ok, I’m not. But what if I told you I was gay? Liberal, Conservative or ‘Don’t Know’, on your answer depends the future of the Anglican church.
If you’re Liberal, I think I pretty much know these days what your answer would be: “Welcome to the Church.” So far, you’re ahead on points.
But what if I said, “Look, I’m glad of your acceptance, but my gayness is something I can’t, in all honesty, accept. I may have these feeling, and I may not have chosen to have them, but I really don’t think I should express them.”
Now what are you thinking? Are you thinking, “How sad”? Are you thinking, “How oppressed”? Are you trying to work out how you could convert me?
And what if you are Conservative? That one’s easier for me to answer — been there, done that. The first question going through your mind is, “Is he celibate?” — right? Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re judging me. If you have any sensitivity at all, you’re probably worried about what you can do or say if I tell you next I’m not celibate.
But what I want to know from the Conservative is, will you accept me? More importantly, will you accept me publicly? And most importantly of all, will you accept me publicly and unconditionally? I know I can get this from the Liberal. Can I get it from you?
Some people may feel at this point that since, by my own admission, I’m not gay, I’m playing with things I have no right to touch. But hey, I’m 56 years old and single, so whilst I might be straight, life has never exactly been straightforward. I really don’t think there’s much about loneliness, frustration or temptation that anyone could teach me.
And I know what it’s like to get turned down for a job in the Church of England (twice) because of my ‘condition’.
The one thing I’ll admit I don’t know is what it’s like to have to hide what I’ve gone through from other people.
And that’s the thing that troubles me about the Conservative community. Too often, we seem to believe only in what Luther called ‘imaginary sin’ — which I take to mean sin that doesn’t really trouble our conscience or anyone else’s. Yet the sin which we can easily imagine God forgiving does not confront us with the need for a Saviour.
But as Luther wrote to Philip Melanchthon, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners.” (LW 48:281-2).
If, then, I believe in a true (not fictitious) grace, then I must welcome true (not fictitious) sinners, which is to say I must welcome the person before I have established the ways in which they may or may not be sinning, and I must bear with them as they are, not as they ought to be.
Of course, this presents a pastoral dilemma. The sinner who goes on sinning must be corrected and, if necessary, rebuked. But I’ve read enough blogging in the past few weeks, and indeed listened to enough establishment speakers, to know that demonisation of sinners is alive and well in the Liberal wing of the Church. How to deal with sin is a problem shared by Liberals and Conservatives alike.
None of us, Liberal or Conservative, is or ought to be prepared to ignore sin.
Yet despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I believe we Conservatives have a real advantage, because we believe in a real Saviour. We also, if we are long-standing members of the Church of England, have a liturgy that reminds us constantly that we are “miserable offenders” — ie “in need of pity”. We know what it is like to recognize our own condemnation, and we know (or we ought to know) what it is like to hear the words of assurance that our sins are forgiven “for his sake”.
Our weakness is the failure to realize that a real Saviour died for real sin. And so we betray the Gospel in practice, even while we understand it in theory.
What does this mean? It means that the person who says they are gay should know that the last people they have anything to fear from are Christian Conservatives — that here they will find honesty and acceptance. Above all, they need to hear from Christian Conservatives what we surely believe: “That’s why we’re all here. Welcome to the Church.”
We have a long way to go.
Revd John P Richardson