As I only have twelve minutes it is not my intention to refresh the conservative position on marriage and sexual behaviour. Needless to say, it was my own journey of exploring the exegesis of the relevant passages that led me onto the journey from self-identifying as a homosexual to today being happily married for almost eight years and having fathered four children. These days I write one of the most popular Anglican blogs in England, if not wider afield, looking at issues of sexuality and sexual identity from a conservative but critical perspective. Part of that critical perspective stems from my day to day work as a consultant statistician, and I take a particular interest in properly exploring and explaining the myriad of research on sexual orientation causation and fluidity, as well as the increasing body of work examining the outcomes for children of LGB parents.
The question to be addressed today is “Living Together While in Disagreement and Discernment”. I say “question”, because my first response when hearing that title was to wonder whether this was really possible. There is also the issue to be discussed as to what the boundaries of disagreement should look like, and what should be acceptable pushing of those whilst the discernment is undertaken. When you look at the official Church of Ireland statements on the issue, and here I am thinking of the 2003 Bishop’s Pastoral Statement together with the 2012 General Synod motion, there is a clear affirmation of Canon 31 as the only understanding of marriage. Of course, in the Church of England we have the infamous “Issues in Human Sexuality” from 1989, which 25 years on continues to be misrepresented as “one rule for the clergy and another for the laity”. In reality Issues has the same rule for both clergy and laity (as the Church of Ireland does), it’s just that Issues gives laity the permission to be wrong.
What does a Church look like that holds to these Scriptural values but at the same time wants to be open and honest about issues of sexuality as part of its exploration of this complicated area? I want to suggest to you that there are two things that need to be considered.
The first is that when we talk about “evidence” in the area of sexuality we need to be open to our own biases and agendas. For example, the typical “born this way / chose this life” dichotomy is naive on both sides and just ignores the plentiful research that demonstrates that homosexuality, particularly female homosexuality is a complicated mix of genetics and environment. Or to take another example, the debate on “gay change ministries” neatly ignores the much bigger corpus of research on natural sexual orientation mutability. For example, Dickson and his colleagues in 2003 showed that of a group of self-identified lesbians in their early 20s, only a third still identified as lesbian under a decade later. And this kind of research is repeated again and again by academics of all political persuasions. The notion that everyone who experiences same-sex attraction is “born this way” and doomed to a life of listening to cheesy Lady Gaga songs is actually not a scientifically supported hypothesis. Websites like the new Living Out project (www.livingout.org) provide personal stories of men and women like myself who have seen, sometimes unexpectedly, significant shifts in our sexual attractions.
But what is interesting about the Living Out website is that it also includes stories of people who have seen little or no change in their sexual orientation, and they raise the second issue that we need to address, that of pastoral support. A Church that wishes to hold together through disagreement, and wants to hold together whilst maintaining the traditional position on sex and marriage, has to reassess its attitude towards pastoral support for those men and women it is calling to a life of celibacy. A church that is serious about maintaining the Biblical model of the marriage of a man and a woman as the icon of the union of Christ and his Bride the Church needs to find the best ways to support those who choose to honour that deep sacramental symbolism by refusing to let their bodies be used sexually in a way that would undermine the image of salvation we find in marriage. For those here that would share my basic theological convictions on this issue, I say simply this – mere theology alone will not help convince the Church and the wider world that your position has pastoral integrity. Neither will shipping people off to specialist ministries demonstrate that the local church is in the business of loving and supporting and walking alongside men and women who walk the difficult world of singleness and celibacy in a culture that revels in sexual activity and the liberty to sleep with who you want, when you want and how you want.
And in amongst all this is the constant eschatological tension of a God who offers us resurrection and transformation, but who deals with us on an individual basis, shaping and moving our lives in a unique way to fulfil his sovereign but mysterious purposes. To some, a deep healing of wounds, a profound transformation of being and identity and attraction, to others, a thorn in the flesh to be borne, a divine wound to be shared, a cross to be carried unto death itself. For many it is the bliss of both.
It is, I offer you, not in the story of “inclusive liberation” that the profundity of the Gospel is most to be discovered, but rather in that glorious tension of dying to self and allowing God to raise by HIS power what HE wills that we see most clearly the gift in Christ that true salvation offers. Self-actualisation is not the goal of the Christian, rather it is union with Christ that is the destination, to know not only the power of the resurrection but also to share in his sufferings, becoming like him even in his death. Some today will offer you freedom and liberation and inclusion and happiness. I offer you pain and sorrow and a Church that bears each others fallenness and sin and in doing so draws close to the Cross and a deeper experience of what it means to belong to the one who makes all things new. True joy my friends lies in the difficult ascent of the mountain and discovering in the purgation of self the other beyond who can provide that intimacy which even the best sexual partner can never offer for all eternity. And only a community that has made that journey itself, that has been through the lows and experienced the highs of such a journey, only such a community can ever offer to a broken and fallen world more than the forces of modern Western self-centred materialism can ever offer.
Friends, if you are serious about walking together, then the Church of Ireland needs to discover together ways to walk alongside those who are called to a particular costly form of discipleship as your own Bishops themselves affirm. Without such a commitment, you will have pastorally already reached a conclusion that I suspect your theology will then catch up with. With such a commitment, “Living Together” becomes not just a way to agree to disagree, but rather a corporate journey of death in Christ and resurrection life beyond that, a sharing of burdens and pain as Jesus has shared ours, a discernment of the depths of discipleship and heights of true Biblical joy. If that becomes your vision, then everything else will follow.