Now, as most of you know, this site is not the biggest fan of Changing Attitude, especially Colin Coward’s ongoing attempt to insinuate and allude to the gay bishops he claims already exist in the Church of England. However, let’s put that aside for a moment because Keith Sharpe, Chair of Changing Attitude Sussex, has written a devastating piece today on a recent conference in London. I commend it to you for sincere reflection and I copy portions below with appropriate comments.
I have to be honest – I am going to upset some people with this post, perhaps with simply commending a Changing Attitude blog item, but some things just need to be said.
A pitiful conference turnout
Far greater embarrassment lay in store for Anglican Mainstream in the actual conference itself, however. I duly arrived with a gay friend at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster to find all of the doors locked and chained except one. Our way through this was blocked by two very large and muscled security men who gave us the once over, demanded to see ID, and then made us sign the ‘love, Lisa’ declaration, before allowing to proceed to the registration desk where our ID was rechecked and the ‘love, Lisa’ form taken from us.
We entered the big main hall to discover not hundreds, not dozens but about just 30 people huddled at the front near the stage. As the day went on it became clear that many of these were not really conference participants as such but were people involved in the administration and delivery of the day who were part of the contributing organisations. If you take them out, and the four gay people including myself who were there for research purposes, the number of actual supporters was pitifully small, probably just in the teens, a very poor turnout for such a hyped up event in the capital.
It strikes me that if you organise a conference and you have less attendees then the organising committee and speaker list, that you have to ask yourself what has gone wrong. Is it simply all the negative publicity that has driven people away or is it rather that people no longer want to come to this kind of event? Given that some of the organisers run their own churches and would have had plenty of opportunity to advertise this event far and wide, the pitiful turnout should demand some consideration.
Gross over exposure of an ordinary and basically good man
Chris Sugden, chairing the conference, opened proceedings in the manner of a dull and uninspiring headteacher, laying down the law yet again about the ‘love, Lisa’ rules. And we were then quickly on to the star turn, Jim Reynolds, author of the book, ‘The Lepers Among Us’.
Now Jim has a simple message. I had read his book so I knew this. I wonder if anyone at Anglican Mainstream really had. Jim’s message is this: the conservative evangelical churches in Texas where he lives treat gays like lepers. They exclude them. They send them off to psychiatrists, psychotherapists and parachurch organisations (Exodus, Living Waters etc) to get ‘cured’ and made ‘normal’ before they will accept them. Jim thinks this is wrong.
Jim thinks the churches should keep the lepers ‘among us’. The churches should do the ‘healing’ and the ‘curing’ themselves. Jim works with men struggling with the sin of same sex attraction. Yes of course he thinks it is still definitely a sin, but by Texan standards his views count as ultraliberal, and Jim has suffered some ostracism at the hands of his coreligionists.
Jim is actually a really nice well meaning bloke. There were, however, three huge problems with his appearance at this conference.
- He was massively over-exposed. He was billed to speak for an hour before coffee and an hour afterwards. Then after lunch he was to speak again in conversation with Paul Perkin, vicar of St Mark’s, Battersea Rise for another 40 minutes. Jim simply did not have that much to say and found himself repeating things over and over again. We heard about his marriage difficulties in the 80s four times at least. There simply was not three hours worth of structured material to deliver.
- The old adage about the US and the UK being two nations divided by a common language proved excruciatingly true in this case. Time and again Jim failed to understand questions that were asked of him. And in some cases the attempt to communicate with him had to be abandoned. Watching Paul Perkin try to interview him was painful. Paul must have felt that he was drawing teeth, and for Jim too the experience looked profoundly uncomfortable.
- Jim’s whole approach is pastoral and full of homespun axioms about what is right and wrong. Biblical and theological underpinnings to his beliefs were difficult to elucidate. At one point he seemed to quote the story of Sodom in his condemnation of homosexuality. But he also referred to passages in Ezekiel and Matthew which make clear that the sin of Sodom was a failure to care for the poor, needy and strangers. As I have argued in The Gay Gospels (www.thegaygospels.com) not only does Sodom have nothing at all to do with homosexuality it is also the precursor to Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbour. When I put this to Jim he seemed stumped, and chuntered on about the evils of gay marriage. We drew a similar blank over how anyone now can possibly believe Paul’s apparent claim that homosexuality is caused by idolatry.
If you’re going to present a Christian position, you need to root it in a Christian theology and you need to be clear on what you are presenting, why and to whom. I’ve now read portions of Jim Reynold’s book, and whilst it makes some very pertinent points as regards the treatment of those with same-sex attraction by some portions of the Evangelical church in the USA (particularly the South), I’m not so sure that it was overly applicable to the situation in the UK.
We need to be smart about how we do presentations and public appearances. Paul Perkins is a great preacher and Bible teacher, but I could have told you in 5 seconds that he is not the right kind of person to run a lengthy interview with someone. If you’re going to do a “chat show” format you need someone who is charismatic and suitable for that environment. It’s just common sense.
When my church ran a hustings during the 2010 General Election in the UK, although lots of people suggested that I should chair the question and answer session, I actually asked one of our congregation members to do it. The chap I asked was a cool and calm business man, but with a capacity to listen carefully to an argument and ask a penetrating question as a follow-up. He did the job so much better then I ever could (and I was much to busy organising the whole event)!
It strikes me (and here is where I’m going to disappoint some people but I really have to say this publicly) that some of the people who are trying to be active in this area of responding to issues of sexuality in our culture have little self-awareness of how they are perceived. The organising committee of this conference were all mainly in their 50s and 60s and there was, to the best of my knowledge, no-one young involved in the programme. The attendees were of a similar demographic and the whole impression is of a tiny cabal standing talking into a mirror.
Downhill all the way….
After the desultory Perkin-Reynolds interview in the afternoon there was a presentation by barrister Paul Diamond who spoke articulately but appeared to get carried away with his own rhetoric, making absurd generalisations about the police being ‘anti-Christian’.
Then we were on to a management consultant and evangelical church member lecturing us on the causes of homosexuality, though his qualifications to do this remain a mystery. Nature dismissed, it was obviously due to nurture and we heard yet again the well worn discredited thesis of the domineering mother and distant father, which if true should have made every boy brought up in England between 1920 and 1970 gay.
Like Queen Victoria, this speaker seemed unaware of the existence of gay ladies for whose proclivities this thesis is presumably not the explanation. Tea came as a blessed relief and stiffened the sinews for what proved to be the greatest challenge to the will to live.
Let’s put the lesbians on one side and simply concentrate on the brutal facts. The best scientific evidence points towards a complicated combination of nature and nurture in the development of sexual orientation and identity, and to argue that it is simply down to one particular psycho-dynamic model for all men who have same-sex attraction is simply naively ignoring the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Yes, some men find this particular insight helpful but others do not.
The “gold standard” so far of research as regards reparative therapy is the Jones and Yarhouse longitudinal study, but even this is a sobering read. Yes, some motivated men reported movement along the Kinsey scale, but many did not. If we want to pastor effectively in this area we have got to be honest about the scientific research and we have got to be honest about the evidence of outcomes. It is simply not acceptable to just read something put out by a particular institution (for example NARTH) without going to the source material referenced and checking that they are being accurately represented. It was my statistical training that led me to conclude well over a decade ago that the commonly trumped “born gay” hypothesis had little substance, but the same statistical training leads me to recognise that those who claim an exclusive psycho-dynamic model for male homosexuality are deluding themselves. We know that there is more than likely some form of biological component for most people’s homosexuality, so why are we still putting up with people standing on a stage telling us otherwise? Give me 30 minutes on a platform and I will take you through all the science from the past 30 years to demonstrate convincingly that it is not just nurture.
And the very ugly indeed
We were then treated to what can only be described as a lip-quivering and blazing-eyed rambling rant from Ms Nolland about the evils of sex education. She seemed set on outdoing all previous speakers in the smearing of the LGBT community. We had already heard about gays as paedophile child molesters, gays as threats to the family and marriage, gays as spreaders of disease.
But now Ms N was going for gold with her bitter denunciation of LGBT organisations, and especially the Terrence Higgins Trust, for producing perverted and obscene curriculum materials intended to corrupt the innocence of children. Apparently gay activists have conned their way into schools to tell kids that ‘eating faeces’ is great sexual fun (Lisa taught us to call this ‘scat’) and to teach them how to do ‘cock and ball torture’ really well (Lisa said we should refer to this as ‘kink’).
Ms Nolland is also an enthusiastic advocate of the spurious slippery slope argument: tolerate homosexuality and we will be engulfed by all manner of perversions and we will drown in vile pornography. She distributed several ‘information’ sheets including a list of the most popular acts advertised and depicted on the internet such as ‘double anal’ in which ‘a woman is penetrated anally by two men at the same time’, ‘multiple men ejaculating onto a woman’s face’, ‘a penis thrust so far down a woman’s throat that she gags’ etc etc.
Ms Nolland seems to be a world class scaremongerer, alarmist and demoniser. Her presentation was very ugly indeed. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I suspect that even amongst her own constituency there was embarrassment about a lack of balance which appeared to border on pathological obsession.
Once again, some people will not like this, but we need to say it. Everytime someone stands up and gives a presentation like this it undermines the conservative cause. The general public are simply not interested in this kind of approach. They see it as equating homosexuality with promiscuity and the most offensive sexual practices, and since they all have gay friends who are not involved in either of those things, they just see it as demonisation.
Let me be clear – I once heard Lisa Nolland give a very impressive and insightful talk of sexual plasticity that has stayed with me as an important component in my thinking about modern culture and queer theory, but if this account is accurate then I utterly fail to see what relevance such an approach has to the issue at hand. Indeed, if the purpose of the conference was to talk about how to be welcoming to gay people, what possible benefit or addition to that platform could have been served by this section, or indeed ANY of the material after Jim Reynolds.
And this leads me to ask what this conference was really about. Was it, as advertised, about helping churches reach out to those on the fringes, those in this particular bracket (homosexual) who so often find church a dangerous and rejecting place? Or was it simply about repeating once again an agenda and stance that a group of people are trying to bang out, dressing it up with a nice front page but once you turned to the inside sheets it’s the same old same old.
The killer is, it’s not as if any of us who actually do this engagement that the day was meant to be about were even asked to contribute to this conference. To the best of my knowledge no-one who actually tries to do bridge-building in the UK (as we do on this site by allowing all sides to comment, engage and dialogue within a respectful environment) was invited to speak. Is it because if I and others were invited, the people who actually do the pastoral work in this area, we would have presented a different picture to the one painted on Saturday?
Seriously – the conference organisers are well aware of myself and others working in this area, but we have never been invited to speak at any of the conferences that have been run. Instead of putting on a platform the published and publicly respected pastors, theologians and psychiatric professionals who work in this area in this country, we are instead presented with the same old faces talking to a tiny constituency who won’t actually do anything practical when they walk out the door. There are tens of thousands of Christians in the UK longing to be able to witness effectively in this field (witness the way that Andrew Marin has been invited on consecutive years to Spring Harvest to address this very issue), but if all they are presented with is out-of-date and blinkered dogmatism, they simply won’t be interested.
A shocking failure
This was a terrible conference from everybody’s point of view. The content was truly terrible for gay people but also terrible for Christian traditionalists. Their position was poorly represented. The insensitivity and lack of charity evident in the day did not make for a pretty sight.
For Anglican Mainstream also this was a terrible conference. They did not get the support they expected, and the few people who showed up will not have positive memories.
This has been an uncomfortable blog post to write, and I know it will upset some people, but every word I have typed is chosen with concern and, I believe, prophetic voice. I earnestly hope and pray that by making this public stand I will provoke the conference organisers to reflect and take stock, and rather than retreat further into the “everybody hates us so what do you expect” bunker mentality to honestly and openly address the pertinent issues raised by Keith Sharpe. This kind of debacle must never happen again.