Over the years truths that are accepted in previous eras are challenged and church practice evolves. For example, few Christians still believe that St Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians mean that women should wear hats in church.
But it is not just the more trivial issues on which the Church has decisively changed its mind. There were few injustices more terrible than the slave trade, and yet Christian advocates for slavery were passionate in their use of scripture to defend it and attack other Christians who fought against it. In 1860, the eminent evangelical scholar Charles Hodge wrote:
“To call slavery sinful is a direct impeachment of the Word of God. If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and his apostles was wrong.”
Here, Hodge stakes the entire truth of the gospel on his belief about this one issue. Undoubtedly he was highly knowledgable about the Bible but his words seem almost incomprehensible from a Christian perspective today.
In the rows today within the Church between those who affirm the legitimacy of gay relationships and those who don’t, both sides appeal to truth – but they are often drawing on different sides of this tension between scripture and experience.
This tension was well expressed in a comment by a 16-year-old girl in a discussion at a youth camp that I was part of last year: ‘The thing is, I love the Bible and I love my gay friends and I want to be true to both’.
The ‘truth’ of the Church’s anti-gay stance is being constantly challenged by the truth of people’s experience. And its clear that increasing numbers of Christians are changing their minds about gay relationships because they have got to know, care about and love gay people. Even without this direct experience many are finding that anti-gay teaching simply does not make sense in the real world where they are living and working.
It is this experience that makes Christians go back and read their Bible’s differently and emphasise the inclusivity in the life of Jesus and his gospel message. As ever, the road between experience and theology is a two-way street.
Lack of honesty
Whatever we believe, the key factor needed is honesty.
Until I was about 25, I had never knowingly met a gay church leader. But my work with homeless people took me into different parts of the church where I met many gay priests. All of them were working within a Church which formally did not accept gay relationships.
Balancing pastoral care and maintaining truth is incredibly hard but it seems that for generations Bishops and other senior leaders have chosen to turn a blind eye about the reality of the situation. A lack of honesty and truth had been institutionalised.
And even within the most conservative evangelical churches, there will always be a wide range of views on gay relationships from among those in the congregation. Whatever the line taken in sermons from the front, the discussions in home groups, and especially youth groups, will betray a wide diversity. This reality often goes unacknowledged.
All of this adds up to a situation where there is a gap between what is said and what is really lived out. It creates a lack of integrity. The Church is at its best when it is a place of honesty and openness, but when it comes to sexuality there has been many layers of untruth which have created resentment and hypocrisy.
Something everyone can do
So for all these reasons, I would encourage everyone to complete this online survey which asks you your opinion about the church and gay relationships, It is being run by Oasis, ahead of a conference on Church and Sexuality they are hosting in April. No survey is perfect but I think it offers the best opportunity to get behind the Church tribalism and actually hear what Christians believe.
It is time to be more truthful and this is a good place to start: Oasis’ Open Church survey
Monday 9th February: Rather unfortunately, I have just found out that Oasis’ Church survey closed today. Jon K