Be Honest – But Only If You Agree With Us

You’ve got to love Changing Attitude. There’s nothing like a bit of double-mindedness to entertain you on a weekend. Take the latest self-publicity attempt which is a letter to every bishop in the Church of England demanding that they be honest.

Changing Attitude knows from the evidence of conversations with bishops and from our supporters that over 50% of bishops dissent from the current teaching and practice of the Church of England on homosexuality. They support, ordain and licence their LGB&T clergy, ordinands and lay ministers, including those in civil partnerships. They know that God does not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation and their expression of love in permanent, faithful, stable sexual relationships.

Just beautiful. What are they going to do with the replies? Publish them? Because if they’re not, what is the point of this exercise? When we question Colin Coward as to what response he got is he going to claim, “Well over half the Bishops said they don’t implement the 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships, but we’re not going to tell you who they are.” That would fit in with the usual bold claims coming out of CA. For example, this week Colin Coward repeated his oft trotted out “There are 14 gay bishops in the Church of England” line.

Some of you reading this letter are gay. Some of you are bisexual. Some of you are in a gay relationship. Some of you were sexually active with men when you were younger. Some of you may be unaware of the fourteen gay bishops in your midst. The majority of you will know some of them.

Lovely. Who are they? Only Colin Coward has the Gnosis and we are not enlightened enough or privileged to have the secret shared with us.

And then we get this classic line.

We hope that those of you who are gay or bisexual have integrated your sexuality and spirituality and know that your same-sex desires are a gift from God and a blessing in creation.

Ah yes, now we know what honesty you want. Changing Attitude aren’t actually interested in honesty, only honest compliance. They don’t want Bishops to be honest about their sexual orientations, they want them to be honest AND agree with Colin. If not, why else would Colin have responded to a senior Evangelical leader coming out last week with this kind of venom and refusal to listen.

Vaughan’s struggle with being gay only arises because he belongs to a sub-set of the Church which believes love-making between people of the same sex is forbidden by the Bible, taboo, evil, hated by God. It’s a world of their own making, derived from seven Biblical clobber passages and membership of a Christian set which is obsessed  by sexual sin and guilt in particular.

Vaughan’s conservative evangelical Christian worldview means he has to develop strategies for denying or suppressing feelings and desires which are natural, healthy, God-given ways in which LGB&T people create loving, physical, intimate, holy relationships. I feel sad for him, and angry that his brand of Christianity continues to infect the Church.

This is absolutely typical for liberals. At the same time as they demand that the Church hear them properly, the distort and misrepresent the position of their opponents. Who said anything about “denying” feelings? Where did Vaughan say that he is “suppressing” his same-sex attractions? Nothing could be further from the truth. There are plenty of us who are conservatives who are more than honest and open about our sexual feelings and desires, we just don’t think they should dictate our lives. Take for example this great piece by Dr Sean Doherty on the Fulcrum website this week.

My own journey is as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction but who has chosen to move away from a gay identity, and I have written about this here.

This means that I know from absolutely first-hand experience that the church’s prohibition of same-sex sexual activity is not based on prejudice but is based precisely on love. I have never experienced homophobic treatment in the church. Rather, the church accepted and nurtured me, and encouraged me in my vocation as a clergy person and theologian, just as it also gave me guidance and direction about how to order my life and relationships. In my experience, unconditional acceptance of me as a person and clear moral teaching about how I should live were two sides of the same coin.

I’m guessing Sean’s honesty isn’t the kind that Colin wants to hear. It doesn’t fit his paradigm and Sean is obviously not happy and he’s probably lying about never having experienced homophobia in conservative churches. How can he be telling the truth, because unlike Colin he doesn’t embrace all his sexual desires and instantly validate them.

What Colin still fails to understand is that the crucial difference between his position and the one shared by Sean, Vaughan, myself and others is not one of suppressing or denying feelings but rather something fundamentally much more ground-line, namely whether feelings are a valid basis of identity for Christians. As Mark Meynell pointed out last week in his review of Jenell Paris’ “The End of Sexual Identity“,

But if desire is not a trustworthy indicator, then what is? Well in a Christian framework, it must be the gospel of grace – that in Christ we can never be more truly loved than we are by him because we can never be loved less than we are by him. So Paris proposes a new identity label: lover and beloved

When desire is seen as the sun around which identity orbits, both become rigid and unassailable; to question desire is to question a person’s selfhood and worth. However, when desire is seen as a shifting planet that moves around the stable sun of belovedness, one’s desire as a child of God can remain in place regardless of how desire changes (or doesn’t change). And when desire is respected as a site of conflict and a venue for grace, it remains responsive to discernment and care – though this may or may not mean that desire will respond to attempts to change it, as Paul lamented so poignantly in Romans 7. (p98)

The result is that whenever people ask Paris what her sexuality is, she invariably replies that she is ‘unlabelled’ (despite being a married mother of 3 children). And she is not trying to be pedantic – it’s simply a helpful way for redirecting our assumptions. And of course, this has relevance far beyond the current culture wars. For it means that my identity is not derived from my social status, physical appearance, wealth, intelligence, power, respectability, or anything else. NONE of these things does any justice at all to what it means to be truly human.

It’s brilliant stuff and it actually shares a lot of ground with queer theory in positing that identity is constructed by volition and society and not dictated by biology. And crucially, it is the utter antithesis of the “honesty” that Changing Attitude demand of the infamous “14 Bishops”, which isn’t an honesty at all. Rather, it’s a dictatorial demand that these 14 men should conform to and affirm the gay-affirming world view propagated by Colin. It’s a demand that stems from a position of intellectual arrogance, based in the very presumption of anthropological superiority that it accuses, condemns and then dismisses others of. It is the height of pastoral domination and and insult to personal integrity liberty, conscience and Christian discipleship.

And this dogmatic attempt to impose on the rest of the Church a narrow constrained view of human sexuality is (and if there is anything in the liberal position that needs it this is it) something from which a change of attitude wouldn’t go amiss.

16 Comments on “Be Honest – But Only If You Agree With Us

  1. To be clear: do you regard the “14 bishops” line as untrue?

    As for queer; have you not noticed the rather significant last letter in LGBTQ? As Gore Vidal has pointed out, in a world without homophobia people would think little or nothing of same-sex prejudice, removing the need for overidentification with sexual drives. But the conservative Christian vision of sexuality is heterosexist (unless you’re going to suddenly start arguing that sexual relationships other than One-Man-and-One-Woman are valid/moral) , and as long as heterosexism exists it will regard labels for the demonised ‘other’.

    And perhaps there’s the issue not of the validity or otherwise of particular testimony but the meanings that can be legitimately extrapolated from it. For example, I of course accept the validity of your testimony in the area of sexuality. However, surely you can see – when considering, generally, the legitimacy of ‘gay’ or the possibility of moving from it to something else – than wanting to snog a man you see on MTV hardly resonates fully with the ‘average’ gay experience? And of course I accept completely that it’s not your fault if particular evangelicals misuse your testimony to overstate their case. The question is not “are people who are gay always gay?” versus “do ex or post gays exist?” supposedly ‘answered’ via anecdotal evidence. There’s an irony in you claiming that Coward judges testimony by the extent to which it supports his agenda whilst regarding Dr Doherty’s testimony as ‘great’ because it supports your paradigm! In contrast this liberal does not regard Dr Dohery’s testimony as somehow ‘bad’ because he says that he hasn’t experienced homophobia in evangelical churches. I believe him. You’ve frequently stated that I have an insufficient sample size to elaborate on evangelical churches, but I’d hope that you don’t think I’m lying when it comes to my st.silage survivor stories!

    • The problem with the “14 gay Bishops” line (it used to be 17 that was claimed by the way so perhaps the House of Bishops has a 20% ex-gay success rate?) is twofold. Firstly, though I know of a few bishops I find the number 14 slightly incredulous.Secondly, it is being used as a political weapon – these Bishop’s sexuality is being used against them and against the church. One might also add that if the 14 are who Colin Coward thinks they are (and a few months ago he pretty well let slip all the names) that several would not agree with his pro-gay theology.

      Some conservative visions of sexuality are heterosexist but some aren’t. I reject your notion that the “marriage or singleness” model is intrinsically hetereosexist. Plenty of “non-straight” men and women marry and live very happy and fulfilled lives. Also there are plenty of us trying *not* to demonise the “others” simply because of their sexual preferences. You do need to move beyond the worst examples that you keep dredging up and instead engage with the best of your opponents.

      I understand completely the “irony” you propose in my post. Yes, there is a conflict of testimony, but it is the paradigms that are in conflict, not the testimonies. In Colin’s world gay people are gay and should affirm their gayness and live it out. Sexuality is inflexible and those report flexibility are either deceiving themselves or a very rare few. In my paradigm there is no denial of people’s sexualities, but they don’t become defined by them. People move beyond the cultural assumptions of how they should act and become liberated in their sexual behaviour, allowing it to conform to God’s will for mankind which itself (God’s will for humanity’s sex life) is intrinsically designed to indicate the atoning work of his Son.

      • I obviously do not expect you to name names, so if you regard the 14 figure as inflated then I’ll happily go along with that. However, I fail to see why not agreeing with Coward’s sexual theology means that one count a bishop as gay. Despite your own advocacy of the post-gay paradigm, surely a bishop who identified as “gay, but celibate for moral reasons” would, as with Sean, be very much on your team? Historically outing, certainly in the most popular expressions (e.g. Tatchell at Outrage!) has tended to favour those who profess anti-gay views publicly despite their own sexuality. As such, ‘gay’ (in the sense of primary same-sex desires) bishops who profess anti-gay views could be argued to be more, not less, suitable to the quasi-outing of a “14 gay bishops” list and naming names in private.

        I am not identifying the ‘worst’ examples. You yourself set up a liberal v evangelical dichotomy in the post; this is not your sexual theology versus that of Colin Coward’s. The Vatican’s line on “intrinsically disordered” desires, for example, is not something I merely or even at all regard as the ‘worst’ argument; it is the ‘party line’ of the biggest conservative denomination and useful on that basis.Similarly, I read Gagnon because many flagged it up as the best articulation of the biblical witness on homosexuality.

        In the example of VR, homosexual desires are presented as something the believer has to reject and fight in a way not true of heterosexual desires (the latter can be a drive to heterosexual marriage . Disagreeing on the amount of weight, as factor of one’s identity, that should be given to sexual drives doesn’t negate opinions on the morality of said drives or the actions they lead to. For example, your pal (;-)) Dan Savage has said that, for all the logic of the anti-label arguments (as Michael Stipe said: labels are for canned goods, not people) labeling venues as gay allows gay people to meet like minded folk. A gay man can be thankful for the existence of gay bars – preferable, surely, to just going to a chain of probably straight bars until he finds the statistical anomaly – without in any way regarding ‘gay’ as a key aspect of their identity.

        And heterosexism does not manifest itself in discourse around desires. If you regard homosexual sexual relationships as intrinsically disordered and unnatural in a way not true of heterosexual relationships then you are heterosexist. ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ is fairly similar to your own theology of sex! For the record, I of course accept that you do not regard celibate-with-SSA individuals as inferior to celibate-with-OSA indivdiduals. The notion of intrinsic sexual complimentariness that gives man/woman unions a validity (accepting of course that man/woman is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a moral union) is heterosexist. I can understand conservatives objecting to ‘homophobia’ labels because they do not actually hate gay/fear gay people, but you hardly have to meet all the potential expressions of heterosexism to be legitimately called heterosexist. Surely you believe God did indeed create Adam and Eve, that male/female sex can correctly signify Christ and the Church whereas gay sex can not etc?

        Aside from Coward’s own views, the LGBTQ label itself is indicative of acceptance of a spectrum of sexual fluidity. And, if paradigms are in conflict, would you not say that there is more testimony supporting Colin’s view than yours? (Am not saying this makes your paradigm innacurate of course; it could well be true that people attracted to Coward’s paradigm are rather uneasily joining cultural assumptions with the Christian faith) I think most straight men of my acquaintance would agree 100% that ‘sexuality is inflexible’ (regarding arguments otherwise as being the “everyone’s bisexual!” stuff of the politically correct gay lobby) , so Colin’s paradigm is, whatever else one may think about it, consistent with how most people experience their sexual drives.

        • Yes, you’re right that a gay but celibate Bishop would be on-side, but that is just the point. CA want such a Bishop to affirm pro-gay theology otherwise they are not being true to themselves.

          • Right. But surely if the 14 gay bishops figure was accurate, it would still remain so even if some/many/most of the figure explicitly rejected pro-gay theology?

              • Reject in what sense? As in “refuse to count as part of one’s team”. If so, then surely your post-gay paradigm is a criticism (or, if we must use inflated language, an ”attack” or ”condemnation”) of those who do “over” identify with their sexuality (you can of course concede this and note that your paradigm is biblical in a way CA’s is not) ? Isn’t all this a bit swings and roundabouts? Would you be ok with someone describing your position on “CA-friendly gay bishops” as rejection and condemnation?

                • No, more than that. They would accuse them of betraying gay people and of somehow being self-repressive in not affirming their “true self”.
                  So it’s not swings and roundabouts. My position criticises its opponents but never calls their integrity into doubt. The reverse is not the same.

                  • In terms of VR, doesn’t CA’s criticism owe much to his treatment of Jeffrey John? Of course not all ‘gay rejecting’ individuals fit into this category, but there’s certainly been no shortage of individuals over the year who embrace anti-gay rhetoric as if overcompensating, which is not a position with much integrity.
                    In terms of the text you quote above: surely stating that VR only views his same sex attraction the way he does because of his evangelical beliefs is to some extent commonsensical? ‘Liberals’ wouldn’t take the same view as VR, surely?

  2. Peter, I think some of my comments have gone into SPAM again. It’s quite exciting that I seem to be able to make such shocking contributions ;)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.