Dear Fulcrum Friends,
The horrific effects of homophobia were once again demonstrated this month when two men pleaded guilty to the brutal murder of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham Common in October of last year. Faced with such violence all Christians must clearly take a stand against homophobia and yet this is particularly challenging for those of us who uphold traditional Christian teaching that homosexual acts are contrary to Scripture and sins. As is evident from the stance of the pressure group IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia), many of those in the forefront of challenging homophobia would include as examples of the problem the views of the Church of England, the Anglican Communion and Fulcrum ('the proper context for sexual expression is the union of a man and a woman in marriage'). It is, however important to realise that those who uphold these views have also been quite clear in their opposition to homophobia. Strong statements against it can be found in the writings of leading evangelicals (John Stott, Thomas Schmidt, Stanley Grenz and the Evangelical Alliance) as well as from the Church of England House of Bishops, Lambeth Conferences and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Why then are evangelical Anglicans often reticent about clearly opposing homophobia? There are, I think, a number of reasons, some more commendable than others:
- The ambiguity of the term 'homophobia' and its polemical use by some against any who hold orthodox Christian views
- The capturing of the term by those with a particular interpretation of 'rights' and 'equality' who then use it to condemn those who oppose social and legislative changes sought by some homosexual people.
- The possible complications and confusions in using the language of 'homosexual persons' which may lead to those using such a phrase being understood to hold a particular understanding of the nature of homosexuality.
- The concern that criticising homophobic elements among supporters of traditional teaching is to attack 'allies' and assist 'opponents' in the church debate.
- The awareness of our own sinful attitudes and responses that need to be critiqued and turned from in repentance.
Given that a major problem is being clear exactly what terms mean and what behaviour is wrong, can we begin to move towards some definition of the 'homophobia' that we must all oppose? The communiqué from the 2005 Primates' Meeting is helpful here when it speaks strongly against 'the victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex' and offers as its theological rationale that 'homosexual people...are children of God, loved and valued by him...'. This clearly means opposing all and any attitudes and behaviours that represent a denial of the humanity of certain people because of their imagined or actual sexual attractions, orientation, relationships or identity. It does not, however, mean we cannot maintain a negative moral evaluation of homosexual behaviour and relationships (although certain ways of expressing those views and certain attitudes underlying them may need to be challenged). Nor does it mean one necessarily must accept social and legal changes which give greater status and recognition to homosexual relationships or treat homosexual and heterosexual activity and love as equivalent.
But does challenging 'homophobia' defined in these terms mean any more in practice than opposing physical violence and verbal abuse? There can, hopefully, be at least three further areas where Christians who disagree on sexual ethics can agree that distinctions and discrimination are theologically indefensible (because different treatment reflects unacceptable prejudice) and so may, by extension, by classed as a form of 'homophobia'. At the very least, those Christians who disagree and claim such practices are acceptable need to present a persuasive theological rationale for such views.
- It is never justifiable to discriminate against someone solely on the basis of their homosexual 'affections' or 'orientation'.
- In many areas of social life, a person's pattern of intimate relationships and/or sexual behaviour is not a ground for judging them ineligible for particular tasks, privileges and position. Discrimination on these grounds (eg in certain areas of secular employment or provision of housing) is also therefore unjustifiable.
- Christians who justify discriminating between two different forms of sexual relationship in any sphere of society or church must do so on the basis that one is a marriage (and so chaste) and the other is a non-marital relationship. A focus on homosexual relationships is therefore not defensible.
With such an understanding of 'homophobia' in place (although an alternative term would probably be preferable) it is possible to be clearer as to the character of this phenomenon as another outworking of our fallen state as sinners. It is a refusal to love our neighbours as ourselves and, as sin, it has deadly effects, fuels hatred and often resorts to deceit and bearing false witness. Such characteristics can even sometimes be discerned in the way people appeal to biblical language and teaching or how they argue in defence of 'orthodoxy'.
If we can gain some theoretical consensus on what is unacceptable 'homophobia' we might also be able to build greater common ground in our assessments of which concrete situations are evidence of its presence. In my experience I have been most aware of and disturbed by this problem in cases such as whispering campaigns against gay Christians, suspicions and concerns about close same-sex friendships in congregations, over-reactions to even a single case of sexual sin in this area, the use of derogatory language about homosexual people, and the assumption gay and lesbian people are a threat to young children. Most recently there was the sad fact that the authors of the recent excellent Grove pastoral booklet on a gay-straight dialogue had to write under pseudonyms because of concerns about being public and open. All of these, and numerous other, some seemingly minor, instances provide evidence of a mix of ignorance, fear, suspicion, anger and antipathy towards homosexual people that must be acknowledged and repented.
More complex but not to be avoided are social and ecclesial situations in which political and institutional forces also come into play. As someone who was actively involved in raising concerns about the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading and urging him to step down I am painfully aware that in the eyes of many people I had, as it was recently put to me in conversation, participated in a 'witch-hunt' which was inherently homophobic. A similar challenge is now being raised within the Communion in relation to Nigeria where there are the added complexities of evaluating at a great distance a particular church's response to secular legislation being proposed in a cultural, legal-political and religious context unfamiliar to us. Nevertheless, if we are serious about being a Communion then there must be mutual accountability and a willingness to challenge actions that appear to be un-Christian in their response to homosexual people as well as actions that commend homosexual relationships. Some of the criticism of the Nigerian church's support for recently proposed state legislation is unfounded because there is no human right to same-sex marriage but there are other concerns that must be respectfully raised:
- Given that homosexual acts are already criminalised (with strong penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment) why is legislation specifically prohibiting same-sex marriages in Nigeria a pressing need especially when such legislation is experienced by homosexual people in Nigeria as intimidating and hostile?
- Is it not unjust and a form of persecution to seek to limit what are generally accepted human rights of assembly and would the new law not potentially limit the capacity of Nigerian Anglicans to adhere to Lambeth I.10 and listen to the experience of lesbian and gay Christians?
- Do the responses of some in the Nigerian hierarchy to the founding of Changing Attitude Nigeria and, in particular, the personal attacks on that group's leader Davis MacIyalla, suggest their stand for biblical sexual ethics is in danger of being seriously compromised and undermined by the presence of unbiblical 'homophobia'?
To address this issue is never going to be comfortable, particularly for those of us committed to the belief that the church is faithful to Scripture in holding to a traditional sexual ethic and viewing homosexuality not as a created good but as one mark of our fallen condition. We must, however, resist the temptation to sidestep or downplay it for at least the following five reasons:
- If we are serious that in both church and wider society there are widespread views about homosexual people, and patterns of behaviour in relation to them, that are wrong and in error then it is a Christian duty to make a stand against these and to witness for righteousness and truth.
- If we are committed to the teaching of the Anglican Communion then we must take this subject with the utmost seriousness.
- If we are genuine about the desire to offer godly, biblical pastoral care and support to those who experience homosexual attraction and also to their families then we must speak up on their behalf when they are victimised, slandered and abused.
- If we are serious about persuading people that the church's traditional teaching is good and true then we need to be willing to assess ourselves and also at times to critique our 'allies' in relation to homophobia.
- If we are concerned to bring the gospel to lesbian and gay people and have a Christ-like mission to gay communities then it is absolutely imperative that we address the issue of 'homophobia'.
The challenge for Fulcrum, wider evangelicalism, and indeed the whole Christian church is to be clearer in taking a stand on this issue and putting into practice the good, and often strong, words opposing 'homophobia' from evangelicals and Anglicans. One example of how this could be done is the excellent web resource Justice and Respect which grew out of the important Bridges Across the Divide internet community. Such resources are a start but ultimately this cannot be kept at an intellectual level of newsletters and in the realm of 'virtual reality'. The problem with 'homophobia' is that it damages real people in 'lived reality' and so challenging it must bring healing to real people and change 'lived reality'.
As evangelical Anglicans we need honestly to examine ourselves individually and as Christian communities. We need to ask whether at times, in removing specks from the eyes of gay and lesbian Christians, we may be missing the beam in our own eye. Any recognition of where we are guilty of 'homophobia' is most likely to come in dialogue and putting into practice that part of Lambeth I.10 which calls on us all to listen to the experience of homosexual people. Only by doing that will we hear from those who suffer the effects most directly about how elements of what we say and what we do prevent us from being able to fulfil our desire to assure them that they are loved by God. But doing that will mean being willing to be corrected and rebuked, hopefully in love, by gay and lesbian fellow-Christians, including those we disagree with over sexual ethics.
As the Anglican Communion and Church of England continues to teeter on the brink of division over issues of sexuality we face a situation in which there are already developing two increasingly distinct groups who may be heading towards becoming two distinct churches. Some Anglicans, often under the tag of 'inclusivity', are already welcoming and engaging with openly gay and lesbian people but failing to uphold biblical and church teaching and so not supporting people in the disciplines of Christian discipleship entailed by that teaching. They are usually strong in their opposition to 'homophobia' but can risk making it primarily an insult to hurl at those with whom they theologically disagree. Others - and here is where most evangelicals are found - are clearly presenting and defending biblical and church teaching. They are, however, often part of worshipping communities where openly homosexual people do not feel welcomed and valued. As churches they are not known for engaging respectfully with the real experience of gay and lesbian people and their struggles. As a result, they often fail to provide the context of unconditional love, acceptance and mutual learning in which homosexual people can become Christians and be supported as they seek to be faithful disciples of Christ. The root spiritual problem for those in this second group may turn out to be one of many strains of that dis-ease which, for want of a better word, can be called 'homophobia'. If that diagnosis has any truth in it then it is absolutely vital for our health and unity and mission as the body of Christ that we recognise that painful reality. And, having confessed the reality, the only ethical response is repentance and a genuine commitment to learn how to give ourselves and our Christian communities a regular health-check in order that we may become genuinely 'welcoming' to all homosexual people even when we cannot in conscience 'affirm' any sexual relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman.
Yours in Christ,
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).