Friday, 8 February 2013

Homophobia and the Church

On Tuesday, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons. While it's by no means guaranteed that it will become law, this seems likely.

The Bill received significant opposition from many members of the House of Commons, and from a number of religious groups, including the Church of England. That has led — as always happens in discussions of this kind — to accusations that the Church (both "of England" and in a wider sense) is bigoted, homophobic, irrelevant, out of touch and so on.

One way of reacting to this is to do the rhetorical equivalent of crawling under a rock and waiting for it all to blow over. And believe me, that's an attractive idea. But it's also a very bad idea, because the more the Church stays silent on matters that affect it and everyone, the more it cedes the ground for discussion. The Church believes — as do I — that it is bearing witness to the hope of the whole world, and talking about this kind of thing is therefore not only important, it is vital.

With that in mind, I wanted to put down a few thoughts about homophobia, and in particular what the Church's relationship is with it. First I'd better define my terms. When I refer to what "the Church" says, I will be talking about the churches that I know well; that is, the Church of England (or rather its official policies) and the opinions generally held by the kind of evangelical free churches that I know (I'm a member of a Newfrontiers church, if that gives you any reference point).

Homophobia is a little harder to define in this context, because it's a much more vague term than you might think. At its broadest, it can refer to any action or attitude that specifically disadvantages or disapproves of gay people or homosexuality. The definition I'll be using is slightly more specific, and reflects the common thread in most of the definitions I've found: "discriminatory acts or attitudes, born of a hatred or intense dislike for gay people or homosexual orientation".

OK then. So, now that our definitions are in place, the first thing I want to say is that the Church's position on gay marriage is not inherently homophobic.

Don't believe me? I really can't blame you.

To explain why I think this is true, let's look at how the Church has reached this position. First off, it comes from the concept that sex outside the context of heterosexual marriage (henceforth abbreviated SOTCOHM, because I'll be talking about it a lot) is incompatible with what the Bible teaches. The Biblical justification for this covers quite a lot of ground, starting in Genesis ("That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.", Gen 2:24) and getting mentions in the New Testament as well (see this fairly long passage from 1 Timothy). Other people have covered this far better than I can (here's a good and very positive article on the subject), so I'll simply say that the key point here is that if you're going to take the Bible seriously, you are probably going to find it pretty hard to square allowing SOTCOHM with that1.

Disregarding the arguments put forward that basically amounted to "blah blah tradition grumble grumble redefining blah", the Church's position regarding same sex marriage was therefore this:

Biblically, SOTCOHM is not something I can support.
Marriage is, essentially, defined by sex2.
Gay marriage would therefore be creating a context for sex that falls under the definition of SOTCOHM.
That's not something I can support3.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

Whether or not you think that reasoning is correct, please understand the absolutely key point here: it does not come from a position of hatred towards either gay people or their identity as gay. As such, it is not, in itself, homophobic.

This brings us on to the next problem, which is, of course, why do people see the Church as being homophobic? I think the answer lies with the cultural context in which we live, and specifically with the shifts in attitude towards homosexuality that have occurred over the years. These have been absolutely massive. It's not even 60 years since the British government hounded Alan Turing to suicide over his sexual orientation, despite his vast contributions to victory in World War II. It's less than 45 years since the Stonewall Riots, 40 years since homosexuality officially stopped being treated as a mental illness, less than 30 years since the UK had its first openly gay MP, only 13 years since the repeal of Section 28, and less than ten years since Civil Partnerships were introduced to this country. While the "ambient homophobia" of Western society is a long way from disappearing completely, it is receding at an immense rate, and particularly among the young it is near-unthinkable that anyone should be hated just because of who they happen to be attracted to. And to be absolutely crystal clear, these shifts are a fantastic thing, and should be applauded not only by Christians but by everyone in society.

The Church's problem, then, is that when it was surrounded by this ambient homophobia, opposition to gay marriage wasn't at all unusual. Let's contrast the above reasoning — which, again, regardless of whether it's correct, is not inherently homophobic — with the below, which definitely is.

Eww! Gays are icky!
Therefore I don't like them.
Therefore I don't want them to have the things they want.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

Or how about this one?

Gay people are scary and I don't understand them.
Allowing them to marry would also be weird and scary.
I don't like weird or scary things.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

The problem should be obvious — opinions which started out from very different places have produced the same result. As the tide of homophobia has receded around the church, suddenly its opposition to gay marriage stands out as unusual, and all that people can see is this opposition — which, because it has been associated for so long with homophobia, and because we have done so very, very little to correct this impression, now itself looks homophobic.

So we can blame it all on an image problem, which other people have to learn about? No. If you take nothing else away from what I'm saying here, at least pay attention to this: If the Church has placed itself into a position where it looks homophobic to all who see it, it has utterly failed to adequately witness to Christ's love. We can argue after the fact in blog posts like this one all we like, but when people look at the Church's opinions and actions, they are going to apply what is sometimes called the "duck test": If it looks like homophobia, and it walks like homophobia, and it quacks like homophobia, then of course everyone's going to think it's a duck homophobia.

So what can we, as a church, do about this? The answer should be simple. We need to never shut up about how much Jesus loves people — gay, straight, whatever. We need to be the most loving and welcoming people in our communities. We need to make it absolutely clear that everyone is welcome in our churches, that Jesus is for everyone, that there is Good News here for all people. When people think "where can I go in this community that will welcome me just as I am, will support and befriend me, and will treat me as a human being", if they think "the pub" before "my local church" then we have done something very wrong. And if this means focusing a bit less on how SOTCOHM is a sin, then I think we can live with that — everyone's already heard that message many, many times!

Finally, given that we as a Church have dropped the ball so badly on this one, we need to avoid complacency, and seriously think about what else we might be saying that can easily be confused with hatred. What are we doing that makes people feel unwelcome or unloved, which we haven't spoken about because everyone else is doing it too? And how can we learn to stop doing it, in order to truly witness to who Jesus is to the people around us?


  1. This conclusion is, of course, disputed by some Christians! One argument I've heard is that there was no concept in Bible times of a loving homosexual relationship, and that all the warnings about it are therefore actually regarding abusive homosexual relationships. It's an appealing theory, certainly, but I'm not personally convinced that the text supports it — the Greek culture in which the early Church grew up was very familiar with homosexual behaviour of all kinds, and if this was really the intent of the Biblical authors I'd have thought they would have mentioned it in contexts other than what basically looks like a blanket ban on anything other than celibacy or heterosexual marriage.
  2. Yes it is. Sure, "lifelong devotion" and "expression of commitment" come into it as well, and are very fine things, but Biblically speaking, the only thing that needed to be present for a marriage to exist was sex.
  3. It's worth mentioning that this is also a leap of logic that not everyone's going to agree with — it's an open question to what extent one's personal or Biblical views on gay marriage should affect national policy, particularly in what is essentially a secular nation. I'm not certain myself how I would have voted on Tuesday if had been an MP, and I'm certainly happy to accept that the Christians who unequivocally support this Bill can be doing so from a position of loving both God and his Word.

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