37 years in parish ministry. And I never once wanted to be in any other church or denomination: through all the ups and downs, the changes and chances, of four decades (if you include three years of training beforehand) the Church of England was my chosen and undoubted home. Even when two successive appointments were in Local Ecumenical Projects, as they were called back then, I was never tempted to jump ship and leave the C of E. Quite the reverse: it was ecumenism I lost faith in.
And yet, when those 37 years came to an end in retirement, I found that one of the strongest things I was feeling was just pissed off with the Church of England. I was weary, weary of the endless wrangling about sex, the nonsense of continuing to ordain men who don’t accept the ministry of women, the disobedience of the powerful Evangelical churches and clergy both to the Church and, I would maintain, to the Bible they claim to believe.
When I first came to an active faith, as a student, I took a very ‘traditional’ view of Scripture as well. If the Bible said homosexual practice was wrong, that settled the matter. One of the decisive issues was not just the scriptural prohibitions in Leviticus and elsewhere, but the sense that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’ because it didn’t fit the Genesis account of God creating human beings male and female, so that they would be suitable partners for each other.
So, what changed my mind, over the years? First, life. The experience of getting to know gay Christians, and perhaps even more of knowing Christian parents of gay children, who instead of rejecting them had accepted them and their sexuality. It became clear that they were not rebelling against nature, but that ‘gay’ simply was their nature, it was the way God had created them. Forcing themselves to be other than gay would simply be disobedience to how God willed them to be. And they had just as great a desire and need for love, and to find a helpmate to share their life, as anyone else.
The second thing that changed my mind, was reflection on the way we use Scripture. It’s quite clear that throughout the history of the Church, not every single verse has been understood literally, not every single injunction literally obeyed. So how does the Church decide which bits don’t need to be taken literally, and why? Changed social circumstances, greater scientific understanding of how the created world and human nature actually work, deeper insight into how the Bible came to us, and what it means. Even the deepest-dyed Evangelicals have let go of many beliefs which were once held to be evident from Scripture, usually because it became clear to the body of Christ that a literal interpretation simply didn’t fit with the facts of life, or with the overall sense and direction of the Bible as a whole.
So why are they holding on to their absolute prohibition of homosexual practice, and condemnation of homosexual people, on the strength of a very small number of texts? Texts, moreover, which can all be called in question by
- our deeper scientific and psychological understanding of human sexuality
- the overall sweep of the biblical narrative, in the direction of God’s inclusive love and acceptance of all people, whoever and however they are.
It looks like it’s not about interpreting and obeying Scripture, and it’s not even about knowing and doing what God wants. It looks like what it’s really about, is their own fears, hang-ups, frustrations and desires about sex in general, and their own sexuality in particular. That’s the only way I can account for the irrational passion and the sheer vitriol of the way they express their views and attack those who disagree with them. Or am I missing something?