Thursday 22 February 2007

But supposing I told you I was gay ...

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


  1. Of course this whole business hinges on whether or not in fact being gay and living it positively is really something bad, which ought not to be in a wholesome nature or world, and against which we need to be alertly on guard, and of which we need containment and that core turn away from being gay which most traditionalistic believers consider to be real repentance.

    The legacy answer to all of those questions is clear: Yes, how could anybody think otherwise. Not only celibacy, but also graceful progress towards lovely silence and even lovelier invisibility is the ideal that we receive from the many believers who have passed before us. Who has to keep talking about being gay when one has been baptised and can talk, instead, about following Jesus?

    There unexpectedly is yet another path, alternative to this legacy one. It has arisen among us, against all legacy odds, and despite the considerable efforts to call its emergence every bad name in the world's religious books. Oddly, if the legacy views are as absolutely true as they often have claimed, this alternative should actually never much happen, since being gay is so definitively unnatural, twisted, and corrupting. Our legacy tells us that people have to go far out of their way to discover that they are not straight.

    Yet this alternate path corrects, or offers to correct, the empirical error that tells us with solemn authority how being gay is either something bad or something wrong in nature and/or in world.

    If we let ourselves be respositioned, even as a passing thought experiment for a very brief moment, then sin has not been therefore erased or dilettantishly fopped by fashion out of our lives.

    Maybe one mistake in discerning sin has been fruitfully corrected.

    All the other sins common to humanity remain.

    No gay or lesbian believer whom I know or of whom I have ever heard asserts that just because we correct the mistaken identification of sexual orientation with essential sin, all notions of sin and evil are thereby erased or relativized away into nothing.

    Even if we conclude that queer folks are not the cause of crop failures, after all, lying is still lying, assault is still assault, thievery and knavery are yet themselves; as are love and hope and faith and spirit.

    Indeed, slow scrunity suggests that this idea that accepting positive queer folks is the wishing away of all notions of sin is rather curious or strange.

    Yes, we can discern real sins, still; but being straight or being gay are not necessarily and absolutely among them by legacy fiat.

  2. Hello,

    John I want to thank you for your post, for its honesty and being a good 'thought experiment'. (I hope to goodness that didn't sound patronising - it's not meant to. Discussions like this might in some ways be easier face to face, as then there's tone of voice and body language to go by as well. I'm finding it more and more ironic that so many spend so much time discussing something as embodied as sex on such an utterly disembodied medium, the 'net!)

    I agree with much that you said and I'd like to offer some comments...

    If someone said (as indeed some do say), " gayness is something I can't, in all honesty, accept. I may have these feelings, ...but I really don't think I should express them", i think I'd want to find as gentle a way as I could of asking some questions. I mightn't think, 'How oppressed', but I would wonder about what effects the person's non-acceptance had had in his/her life. Had it led to growth or been a stumbling block, for instance. I'd wonder if there were signs of the person being caught in double binds of the kind James Alison has referred to - "love, and do not love"; "my command is that you should love, but your love is sick". (He is giving, as I understand it, examples of ways in which the voice of church/tradition has been heard by gay people - see his 'Unbinding the gay conscience', available on the net). And yes, wanting to ask such things comes partly from my experience of self-hatred born of non-acceptance. Also I guess I'd want to ask such a person if s/he were willing to sketch reasons for not acting on his/her gay desires. I imagine such a conversation would be very vulnerable for both myself and the imagined conversation partner - but a privilege too perhaps.

    Was interested in your paragraph on acceptance. "I know I can get it from the liberal". If you look at MadPriest's blog ( you'll see someone's left a comment which quotes an assistant bishop saying privately that he supports gay priests, but "you must understand I could never say so publicly". May well be wrong/unfair to assume this assistant bishop would consider himself liberal - so maybe this point I'm trying to make is failing - I guess I'm trying to show that liberal acceptance isn't always 'followed through' in public. But not being a person of much moral courage, if I were that assistant bishop, I fear I might have said the same...

    I do like your paragraph starting, "If, then, I believe...". I think I'm taking it that 'bearing with them as they are' also means 'bearing with myself as I am', learning to be merciful to others as to myself (or vice versa) and unlearning being judgemental - in this and in other things, I have a long way to go.

    And I'm with you drdanfee, especially your first sentence. Quite a lot in this context depends on whether same-sex sex is a sin or not - but maybe I don't need to say again that this is where we disagree!

    Am tired - sorry if I've rambled.

    in friendship, Blair

  3. Hi Blair. You don't have to apologise all the time - this isn't the Fulcrum forum ;-)! Just for the record, I've known two leading evangelical clergy who are gay whom I'd be happy to serve under, both of whom would take the line I suggested above on their 'gayness', but neither of whom could, I suppose, be very open about this. I guess none of us finds sexual struggles something easy to go public on. (I still remember my 12-year old embarrassment in this regard about going to Confession.)

  4. Rev'd John, you write:-

    "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."

    Well, yes and no. Obviously, I don't know whether your life has panned out as you would have wished - whether or not you would have liked to marry. As a heterosexual man, however, your situation is a little different from that of a gay man. You have lived (and can still live) with the possibility of a relationship; a gay man cannot do that. Gays who chose not to express their "feelings" will always have to live not only without intimate relationships but also without the possibility of those relationships.

    Your post is sensitively written but I guess it would be more useful to hear a gay's take on being gay.

  5. Dear Anon of 24 Feb,

    Quite so - I can't bring the full 'gay' experience onto this blog. I can tell you that being 'straight' and unwillingly single has its own problems. The "Why is this happening/has this happened?" question is quite acute precisely because it surely ought to have been quite simple for me to have found someone to marry.

    However, my purpose was not to suggest 'my pain is as big as/bigger than your pain', but really to plead for a proper honesty, and - as much as I can, or feel is appropriate - to lay some of my own 'goods' out on the stall in order to encourage that process.

    It may not be enough, but it's the best I can do!

    Thanks for your comment.

  6. John,
    I should perhaps have explained that I'm a straight woman and not a gay man. I'm also hugely conflicted about homosexuality and the church.

    Conservatives tend to represent gay sex as happening in a relationship void. While they would not dream of suggesting that the sexual element is the whole of a marriage, gay relationships are seen as being little more than sexual encounters. When I look at the lives of gay friends, this is not what I see; instead, there are just people trying to build a shared life together.

    Equally, I recognise that personal experience cannot be the overriding factor in deciding whether actions or behaviours are moral or not. So, if we conclude homosexuality probably isn't compatible with a godly life, where does that leave us?

    I guess I'd like to see less stridency on both sides of this debate. I'd like the pro-gay lobby to drop their rights-based approach as inappropriate but I'd also like to see the conservatives acknowledge the enormous sacrifice gays are asked to make - living without intimate relationships and the possibility of those relationships - something no heterosexual is called upon to do.

    Nice photographs on the site, by the way. You have a good eye.

  7. Oops, when I wrote "homosexuality probably isn't compatible with a godly life..", I meant, of course, behaviour and not orientation.

  8. Hello John and Anonymous,

    a few more comments from me.

    Anonymous, I liked your comment about "less stridency on both sides". I feel that finding quieter and more merciful ways of talking is one of the most pressing things in this debate. Not that that's easy - I have my angry moments - but as I say, I think there's an urgency about it now given how things are. Echoing your original post John, perhaps one could say that the future of the church might well depend on it.

    I should say that I'm a (currently single) gay Christian. Am saying this so you know where I'm coming from - I don't want to inhibit debate by saying so. I agree with you Anonymous that "personal experience cannot be the overriding factor..." but would add that personal experience can be tested and studied. Such study could be part of an attempt to discern whether it's true that being gay 'just is' or whether it's a defective form of heterosexuality. This too seems to me an important element of the debate. For instance, drawing (as I frequently do) on James Alison's work: thinking about pathologies of desire, we can make objective distinctions between, say, regular drinking and alcoholism, or dieting and anorexia. It's evident that alcoholism and anorexia are conditions which endanger the person, not only behaviour patterns. It's surely possible to do something similar where homosexuality is concerned. This is a thumbnail sketch and I'm not trying to say, 'this is the only line of enquiry that should be followed', but I think it's one possibility.

    Lastly, just to comment on the distinction between behaviour and orientation. Once I would have gone along with this, but I'm not sure it's tenable any longer. It seems to me that in part the distinction is an attempt to be compassionate to gay people, while not changing the traditional prohibition on same-sex sex. If it's true that only heterosexuality is a part of human nature then the distinction would hold - any same-sex acts a person might commit wouldn't flow from their true nature, so it would be right to help the person to stop. But if it's possible that we're discovering that there 'just is' such a thing as being gay, then there wouldn't be a reason to insist that the person should not ever have sex - the person would be acting according to his/her being. So, of course gay people could be called to celibacy, or have times of being single, but being celibate wouldn't be compulsory. It seems to me difficult to argue that it's neutral or OK to be gay or have same-sex desires, but not to 'practise' it or act on them - it seems illogical. But there would be a logic to it if same-sex desires themselves were disordered/harmful and so should be resisted or controlled - as one might think in the case of an anorexic or alcoholic for example.

    Hmm - am trying not to be too 'detached' but not too autobiographical either...

    in friendship, Blair

  9. An ex-girlfriend of mine had terrible problems sustaining a pregnancy (this was after she was married!). Hence when their first son was born it was a real cause for celebration; as they were Reformed Baptists they had a ‘thanksgiving’ service at their local church rather than a bapitsm. I was invited, tho’ by this time I had move to another town. When I arrived at the church I was greeted by my ex who thrust a Bible into mind and told me I was doing the first reading of the service.

    As, when we were going out with each other, I had attended the evening services at the church for several months and as the Evangelical Christian scene in the town was fairly incestuous I knew about two thirds of the congregation fairly well and had met many of the other people there over the years. After the service there was a bun fight in the hall next door and I milled around talking to people. However I began to feel uncomfortable, as it I had committed some social faux pas, but was unaware of its nature. Many of the congregation had made up part of my social circle when I lived in the town in my early and mid-20s. There were people there I really liked and I was glad to catch up as I had moved away six years before. I noticed many had married each other and some clutched at babies, almost in triumph, proclaiming their ‘normality’. Within ten minutes I found myself on my own and really began to feel very deflated as it was clear people were avoiding me. At this point I was tapped on the shoulder by my ex’s father (himself Plymouth Brethren) who said in a loud voice ‘Steven and come sit with us and take no notice of this lot!’ So I spent the rest of my time there in pride of place with one set of the grandparents. I was eternally grateful.

    My ex mentioned the incident at our next meeting and apologised for her friends’ behaviour. She had let slip, after I had left the town, that the reason we spit up was because I thought my issues to my sexuality would be an impediment to our relationship. Her friends had taken this as the green-light to shun the homosexual, despite the fact I led a fairly disciplined celibate, Christian life at the time. My ex’s father (whom I got on with very well) had noticed what was going on and was very angry at the way I was treated.

    The story highlights the problem doesn’t it. There is another story in my blog of a gay man I knew who was on the PCC, leader of the music group, a house-group and generally a well loved member of the church, until the day he ‘came out’ and had decided to live with a male friend in what he stressed was a celibate relationship. He was immediately asked to stand down from all posts in the church. As at the same time the lay-assistant had got his girlfriend up the duff it was curious to see how the two situations were handled. The lay-assistant received lots of support and in the end went off to be ordained. The gay guy left the church and I don’t know what happened to him.

    So you soon learn, if you are gay in a conservative church, to keep your mouth shut. And here lies the problem you have revealed. How do you tease apart scriptural reservations concerning homosexuality from prejudice and bigotry?

    It is a problem Evangelical Christianity has yet to solve – and to be frank, the tone of some of the posts on the subject in this blog hardly helps with matters does it?

    Thanks for sharing this, it is something that needs to be said – who knows, if I’d have found myself in a church where there wasn’t the disproportionate scrutiny and ‘condemnation’ ; I could have carried on my celibate and lonely life. Thankfully I am very happy with my partner and I’ll take my chance on God’s mercy any day over Christian platitudes.

  10. Steven, I suspect your experience is typical of many. We (conservative Christians) have a huge amount of work (and, yes, repentance) to do on this. I have often said it is one thing to applaud a member of TfT standing up on a platform, but we surely ought to be able to accept the same from any of our 'great ones'. In fact, it would help enormously if those who could did speak openly.

    Unfortunately (putting it mildly!) the debate has been skewed by the positions of the theological 'wings' in the Church. The conservative stance is thus often a reaction against the liberal stance, not a proper consideration of the issues concerned.

    If the tone here has fallen into that, then I have to acknowledge any offence caused, and be more careful in the future.

    The problem, as you rightly identify, is "How do you tease apart scriptural reservations concerning homosexuality from prejudice and bigotry?" The conservative is often concerned that the 'reservations' are simply being ignored or contradicted. But human nature is to be prejudiced and bigoted (look at how kids address the issues in the playground), and it takes a good deal to knock this out of us. ("If we say we have no sin ...")

  11. Revd JPR: "I have often said it is one thing to applaud a member of TfT standing up on a platform, but we surely ought to be able to accept the same from any of our 'great ones'. In fact, it would help enormously if those who could did speak openly."

    That won't happen very often. You are asking gay people to take on two burdens 1) to deal with the potential loneliness and heartache of 'enforced singleness' and 2) simultaneously fend off the 'isolating' language of prejudice and bigotry.