Friday 15 February 2013

My Marriage Equality Postbag

Since coming out on this subject I have received many messages of all kinds — not mainly about marriage but about church people's attitudes to homosexuality. What’s the score?
  • just over 500 messages of one sort or another, pretty much all so far as I can tell from Christians of one sort or another. This implies that most others in society have moved on from fretting about this subject, if not to full  acceptance, to an acknowledgment that gay people are just people like them, and what people get up to in bed is their own business.
  • about 80% have been supportive. These include some 20-30 deeply personal testimonies from gay couples, telling of love and faithfulness, sometimes against terrible odds over many years. Legal recognition will not make these relationships stronger, but it will de-stigmatise them. Among practising Christians, I have received “Don’t tell my vicar, but...” and “not in my name” messages that imply a need for more openness, confidence and honesty, especially where clergy have attempted to whip others into shape behind a conventional party line. It is inaccurate to characterize all Evangelical Christians as anti. Many of them are far more thoughtful, nuanced and conflicted, with a strong Evangelical instinct that is not about last ditching a particular interpretation of the Bible but striving to be good news to real people. The vast majority of local Churches are personally welcoming to all.
  • Of the 20% agin, about 90% can only be seen as expressions of crude prejudice and bigotry. The phrase “I am not  homophobic, but...” sees to mean “soft or hard homophobic statement ahoy! But don't pick me up on it.” Some of these comments are more genteel than others. I have been told that gay people are lice, animals, insects, should be aborted before birth, disgusting, perverted, sexually voracious, mass murderers and sub-human — all these for just being gay. So whether you like your prejudice genteel, hypocritical, or crude, there’s a carousel of possibilities out there... It is simply false to claim there is no homophobia in the Church. There is plenty of it, apparently, and if Church leaders do not wake up and act to tackle it, the Church will become, even more than it already is, a last ditch for soft or hard prejudice that has now faded elsewhere in society. 
  • Another anti trope has been “Bishop you are trying to be kind, but you are encouraging BUGGERY!!!” (the last word underlined in green biro till it goes through the paper.) A fair number of otherwise inoffensive Church people insist on defining gay people by what they imagine they get up to in bed, with a prurience and obsessionality that is disturbing.
  • Within the 10% of 20% more reflective unfavourable comment, I have made new friends, and discovered a capacity to engage with this among Christians, however reluctantly, that is impressive. Some messages were initially very hostile and angry with me. When I engaged with them on one positive point about which we might agree, the façade crumbled and we were able to have interesting and fruitful conversations. It can be done.
  • I have enjoyed about half a dozen really thoughtful, helpful and reflective conversations with very Conservative Evangelical Christians — nuggets of gold amidst a steaming pile of more general railing and abuse.
One lay comment sticks in my mind. The gentleman pointed out that a positive sense about homosexuality has been building in British society since the 1920’s. The resulting tsunami arrived in the 1990’s in the fields of education, culture media and sport, public life, the law, the military (in which he had been a senior officer), the police. In each of these areas of national life the overwhelming, when it came, was sudden and, surprisingly, almost entirely benign. The Church had parked itself in a siding in the 1990’s, and everyone else, as he put it, was somewhere round Birmingham by now.

The bishops, I was told, had simply taken the easiest way out — try to agree with everyone as much as possible, make generally safe noises about change, be nice to individual gay people whilst constructing fences against their full acceptance, humour reactionaries under a banner of inclusivity, generally treating past certainties as though they still applied as much as possible. As a military man he could say you cannot run any institution, least of all a Church, on niceness, evasion, pusillanimity, cowardice and hypocrisy. That’s one military view, anyway.

I think I am coming towards some general conclusions about the basic subject for most of my correspondents — gayness not marriage:
  1. I have during this time returned to my college notes of the tiny number of Bible passages that could possibly bear directly on this subject. Many (many? there are only 5 anyway) are not entirely clear in their meaning, and none are entirely obvious for interpretation and application. I was very struck by a day I spent studying Leviticus in Hebrew in depth with various rabbinic commentaries, by the depth and subtlety of the text exposed by those formed within it rather than constructing a chain of sound bites from it that just happen to reinforce their basic instincts. There is a crying need for more rigorous reading of the text where homophobic readings used to be adequate to the needs of a homophobic society, with whose norms they easily conformed.
  2. Christianity thrives as good news in the real world. This is not a job for school certificate Biology. Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it
    Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution
    Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution
Notoriously, perhaps, the vast majority of people in this country have moved since the 1920’s from the first position towards a more or less grudging conviction of the second. As the first position fades with the generations, simply asserting it louder is in fact driving change forward faster.

In that sense, supporters of marriage equality should welcome every one of the prejudiced comments they receive. The matter speaks for itself. A fair number of MP’s who were wavering on the brink of voting for last week’s bill were certainly influenced to do so by sheer horror at some of the bigoted nonsense they received under a “Christian” label.

I’m with Tutu. Encouraging the Church to be more aligned with the point of the Bible and less hung up about particular interpretations of its small print should be doable, especially as most Church members are there already. For them being a Christian is about loving God and your neighbour as yourself, not culture wars. That’s the good news.

Desmond Tutu:
The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing -- their race -- and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about -- their gender; hence my support for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. Equally, I cannot keep quiet while people are being penalized for something about which they can do nothing -- their sexuality. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as apartheid ever was.
The bad news is that, as a matter of shameful fact, the Church does appear to contain noisy minorities of homophobes and bigots who use verses from the Bible as a collection of soundbites to validate their disgust, and it will have to work consciously to prevent itself it becoming their last ditch.


Alastair said...

Thank you Bishop - very helpful! I have just purchased 'A Queer Bible Commentary' which I am hoping will assist me in my own exploration of a Biblical exegisis around this issue!

I am about to take a job as Rector of a Church on Vancouver Island and in the interview process I have already expressed my willingness to advocate for marriage equality in the Church, which is finally catching up with a society that has had 'secular' equality in marriage since 2007. Surprise surprise, the world has not ended, towns have not been smited, society has not crumbled. Whilst the Bishop of BC (my Bishop to be) has recently allowed the blessing of same sex unions, there is still some way to go before the Church offers marriage... the journey continues...

Yewtree said...

Best wishes for your ministry, Rev McCollum.

I am especially encouraged that some of the letters resulted in meaningful dialogue, and people changing their minds. I think if we jump to just labelling people bigots straight away, that can be unhelpful if they are prepared to change but want to be sure that it's in line with their faith.

I had an experience recently that showed that it can be done.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I'm a Christian massively in favour of equal marriage and I want a better understand of what the Bible really says about the whole issue of homosexuality. Could you give me the references for the five instances you talk about where the Bible mentions this subject? I'd really like to take a look for myself and like you say, get past the soundbites that people all too often rely on when discussing the Bible

Clare Fourish said...

We have a lot of experience of dialogue, in ecumenical forums. I am transsexual, and that is visible to others, usually, and yet I worked well with Catholics and Evangelicals. Once in public the Catholic priest did not seem to want to be seen with me- this could be my false judgment, I never asked him about it- but was happy to work with me on ecumenical worship.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bishop. I found it most illuminating when first told by church folk that I, (as someone born with a brain that identifies as lesbian), simply must marry a man. So, having done just that, I was expecting the homophobia to stop. Nope. It still occurs. Luckily I found the most marvellous man as a husband, and we have found ways to make our life together a joy. But I'm still a lesbian by sexuality. It doesn't switch off and go. It's like the old saying about "you can stand in a garage, but that doesn't make you a car". Marrying a man doesn't make me straight. So it's little or nothing to do with LGBT individuals 'obeying the Bible' and thus pleasing Christians and God that way (allegedly). It's just some people wanting to hate anyone born different to them. Wish I'd known that a long time ago, in a way.

failedatheist said...


Congratulations for giving in to name calling. Calling people names like 'bigot' and 'homophobe' aren't arguments. They amount to no more than because you disagree with me... you are a *insert nasty word that denotes prejudice*.

I don't agree with same-sex marriage which is in fact a misnomer if you understand what marriage is to begin with (see Robert P. Georges superb article on 'what is marriage?'). Instead I have to wrestle with scripture, one that tells me to love my neighbour (gay,heterosexual, vegan, black, white, racist, beggar, toff, loner etc)whoever they are and however they live. On the other hand certain things (acts & omissions) are considered sinful. However rather than following the cultural zeitgeist I have an obligation to hold to both these facts without necessarily being prejudice.

Your article seems to present a common false dichotomy between being a revisionist or a bigot when there is in fact somewhere in the middle.

I am not a bigot because I believe that the ideal environment for children is in a marriage with a mother and father. Gay couples already have equal legal rights (through Civil Partnerships) in this country, if they aren't recognised abroad then our government should lobby for change in those places.

Also even if same-sex marriage were changed it still wouldn't be equal, at least not in the sense argued because there are many people that wish to legitimise their relationships through marriage who still aren't allowed.


Alan T Perry said...

Since 2005, actually. See the Civil Marriage Act 2005.

June Butler said...

What a splendid essay, Alan. Thank you. The five little Bible verses just don't cut it any longer to justify homophobia. You say:

A fair number of otherwise inoffensive Church people insist on defining gay people by what they imagine they get up to in bed, with a prurience and obsessionality that is disturbing.

So true. When Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, I wished it had not happened, though I thought if the people of the diocese wanted him as their bishop, why shouldn't they have him? But when people I knew repeatedly poked and pried into the intimate lives of Gene and his now husband to justify their objections, I was repulsed by the prurience and ended up in full support of Gene and further as an advocate for full equality for all LGTB persons. They know not what they do...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks all for your contributions and experience. failedatheist, I would be interested to know would anything qualify as Homophobia or Bigotry in your book? In mine, saying gay people are sub human scum who are being punished for their sexual appetites, incapabable of forming loving relationships, and responsible for the deaths of millions is Homophobia and bigotry. If not, I don't know what is. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

The main texts that are thought to bear on homosexuality in the Bible are Genesis 19, the Holiness code in Leviticus 18 and 20), I Corinthians 6 6:9-17, I Timothy 1:3-13, and Romans 1. You might also include Jude 7, but the unnatural sex tat deals with is actually with Angels. Jack Rogers is a Reformed Scholar, whose book "Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality" will take you through the material.

failedatheist said...


certainly, I agree that of course people are and can be homophobic. However one is not de facto homophobic because one doesn't think the conjugal view of marriage should be adapted to incorporate Lesbian/homosexual couples or any other combination. I have given a great deal of time to thinking about this issue, and I don't appreciate being called a bigot or homophobic because I think this (both by Christians and secularists). I have Transsexual and homosexual friends who I treat no differently to anyone else because they are created in the image of God and demand dignity and respect. However that doesn't mean we have to agree.

The things people may have sent you are horrible, but they don't mean same-sex marriage is right any more than examples of the vile things traditionalists get called mean same-sex marriage is wrong.

I still haven't managed to find anything throughout scriptural narrative that demands me to think marriage is something owed to same-sex couples or any other type of relationship as an ideal.

I do enjoy your blog by the way, I just disagree with Christians feeling they must forget Christian ideals in response to pressure from the cultural zeitgeist.


Perpetua said...

A splendid post, Bishop Alan. I've been disturbed by the number of (mostly older) Christians who assume that as an older woman myself and a priest, I must automatically disapprove of homosexuality and oppose equal marriage and are horrified when I say that I do neither.

This may in part be because I live in a very rural area, which is traditional conservative (with a small C) but I think you're right that it's largely a generational thing and time will deal with much of this kind of attitude. I just wish the Church would position itself in the vanguard of change, rather than always bringing up the rear.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I certainly agree that holding a conventional view of marriage is not, in itself bigoted or Homophobic. The vast majority of messages I received in that direction were, I'm afraid, but I did not say what you seem to have taken from my post. I don't think anyone should forget their Christian ideals - just apply them!

June Butler said...

Another suggestion for reading: In his book, Reasonable and Holy, Tobias Haller, an Episcopal priest in the US, discusses all possible passages in scripture that may address same-sexuality.

Joe said...

Thanks, Alan. I hope you share this with your Bishop and Archbishop brothers ('brothers' for the time being). I suspect they need to read the range of comments you received. There is a discernment of spirits task here, and hard data are very useful lest we hear what we want to hear, and end up discerning in a mirror.

Joe Cassidy, Principal, St Chad's College, Durham

Anonymous said...

Bishop Alan, around here calling someone a bigot is worse than saying,"When you do/say _____, I could shoot you." At least they're still human. Call them a bigot, you are telling them that they are sub-human, perverted, Nazis,etc., definitely not Christian. Now you may say that that's not what the word means, but that's the interpretation. Kind of like "homophobia", literally it would be a fear of homosexuals that causes panic etc. like claustrophobia, agoraphobia,etc. but nobody uses it to mean that. So while conservatives are guilty of hate speech for saying anything about gays, progressives can say the exact same thing,or worse, about conservatives and that's acceptable. Our Presiding Bishop just called the conservative Episcopalians who left equal to terrorists and school shooters. Hate is not only found on the conservative side.

I was glad to see you writing about the two sides and I'm glad you found a few conservatives who are worthwile, but apparently their numbers are very few. Will there be enough respect in the church for them to stay? Are there enough to make the effort worthwhile? In many areas of the church I think the answer "No" has already been given.

G said...

Calling people names like 'bigot' and 'homophobe' aren't arguments. They amount to no more than because you disagree with me... you are a *insert nasty word that denotes prejudice*.

Gay and lesbian people are not a proposition to be "agreed" or disagreed withal. Excluding the possibility of an entire category of people's participation in the sacraments is pretty much the textbook illustration of bigotry.

However one is not de facto homophobic because one doesn't think the conjugal view of marriage should be adapted to incorporate Lesbian/homosexual couples or any other combination. I have given a great deal of time to thinking about this issue, and I don't appreciate being called a bigot or homophobic because I think this (both by Christians and secularists).

Wanting to eat your cake and have it too. If you're going to deny the reality of your "homosexual friends' " (now there's a cliché!) marriages, you're going to have to take your lumps. If the label is so objectionable, you may have to re-examine those (gasp!) prejudices.

(hmm captcha = assmods ... )

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

The use f language is something I try to watch. I never call anyone anything as such, but I do describe their opinions as I find them. I think the word "homophobic" is becoming very difficult to use, rather as "Fundamentalist" became a few years back. There are times, however, when there simply isn't another word that will do. Views are not homophobic simply because they are conventional, of course. Expressions of fear, hatred or disgust aimed at reducing the value of gay people are and, reading some of the homophobic stuff I received as charitably as I can, I think the roots of it are fear. Everybody is entitled to their feelings, including feelings of fear and disgust about what they imagine their neighbors do. Such feelings do not, ,however, constitute an adequate basis for legislation, nor do they justify doing others down.

Sam Charles Norton said...

+Alan - I quibble with one bit of your post here:

G said...

I think the word "homophobic" is becoming very difficult to use

I would agree - partly as a result of etymological confusion - and in practice I tend to prefer heterosexism as being an easier concept to pin down. If it's defined as the set of assumptions around the normativity of heterosexuality you can avoid the argument about the Greek connotations of "fear" vs "aversion" and call a spade a spade, since those who hold such views are unlikely to contest such a characterization (after all, defending that normative place in the tradition is their entire object).

Anonymous said...

And what I'm trying to say is that "Bigot" here means all those same things, Grandmere. Just more succinctly. A fact that a group of Britons taught me. They could call each other horrid(to Americans) names and laugh, but to really eviscerate someone, they'd be civil and polite. Was Schori really correct in calling conservatives terrorists and mass murderers?

Bishop, if all conventional views aren't homophobic, just how would someone describe those views so that they aren't automatically called a homophobe? How does one bridge the gap? I'd love to know what the few respectable conservatives you found actually said. And how do the words we use in this fight compare to the word used as "fool" in Matthew 5? Would Christ judge either side as innocent in this?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Geoff for an interesting idea. I am slightly conflicted because whereas the root of much anti-gay expression does actually seem to be fear and aversion, there must be virtue in using labels that people actually claim for themselves. It may be many heterosexists (if that's the term) simply hold their vies to be universal and normative, and thus unnecessary to label in any way. Chris, all conventional views aren't homophobic because there is an intellectual moot completely divorced from fear and disgust to be had about the role of gender in marriage. What you call "the respectable Conservatives" gave personal testimony to their stories on this topic (not intended for publication) and explained their inability to embrace the idea of gays marrying not in scaremongering terms, but using theological arguments of the sort formulated in Christopher Roberts' very interesting study "Creation and Covenant." I am broadly with St Augustine on the fall, so any argument anyone has about anything will be flawed and in danger of falling foul of Matthew 5 on all sides. That's why I am more likely to describe ideas as bigoted than people; though there are some for whom there simply is no other word.

June Butler said...

Was Schori really correct in calling conservatives terrorists and mass murderers?

Chris H., if you refer to this sermon by Katharine Jefferts Schori, I don't see where she called conservatives terrorists and mass murderers. Certain conservatives say she did, but just because they say so doesn't make it true.

Richard Thornburgh said...

Only just come across this post. Thank you for writing it. Hopes and dreams.

Erika Baker said...

Did my comment from yesterday disappear into the intertubes?

I think we need to accept that there are some views and people we believe to be homophobic who genuinely see themselves as being purely rational. It would be helpful to call their views heterosexist.

But the person who called me a child abuser because for a fair part of their childhood my children ere brought up within a Civil Partnership is homophobic and it must be possible to say that.

Dizzy blonde said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this site.

I must be honest - I am not a Christian, I am a humanist and atheist - who supports equality and freedom of belief.

I was however, brought up in a Christian houshold, going to Sunday School each week and I am pleased and relieved to find that there are some Christians who conform to the values of tolerance and kindness that I was taught. I was appalled by much of the aggressive and bigoted "Christian" campaigning against equal marriage.

I hope that this atheist is welcome to visit your blog again.

Rosie Bates said...

Thank you Bishop Alan. We do need shunting out of this siding and you do this well. There are too many wounded passengers and all of us who support homosexuals and receive hate mail experience the burden of discrimination too.

I am a granny now and sadly my own children ridicule the Church of England on all their discriminative policies. They do not wish their children to be influenced by them as they live in the real world and have a number of faithful friendships with homosexuals. Not to mention a mother who is a priest! They had first hand experience of discrimination and fostering their faith two decades ago was tough enough. For those of us who are growing impatient with certain biblical interpretations you are a tonic.

G said...

Chris, all conventional views aren't homophobic because there is an intellectual moot completely divorced from fear and disgust to be had about the role of gender in marriage.

I think this is where many of my generation who have grown up with some kind of queer theory get tripped up: for us, essentializing gender (whether in complementarian or materialist terms) is precisely the kind of anti-intellectual posture which is by definition opposed to reasoned reflection about gender. I don't deny the possibility of a non-bigotted view which defines marriage in heterosexual terms. (I am in the process of writing a paper on this very topic - for now, the teaser version is that I think John Milbank gets closest to such an ethic). My concern is that _every_ opponent thinks they're one of "the good ones" when in fact these are a distinct minority. If nothing else, many opponents of family parity who see themselves as "traditional" - including my own natal Roman Catholic tradition - want to hold simultaneously that marriage is both exclusively heterosexual and the exclusively appropriate form of conjugal relationship. It is this common version of the "traditional" view which I cannot see being held without entailing that gay and lesbian Christians are simply "SOL"

David Shepherd said...

'The main texts that are thought to bear on homosexuality in the Bible are Genesis 19, the Holiness code in Leviticus 18 and 20), I Corinthians 6 6:9-17, I Timothy 1:3-13, and Romans 1. You might also include Jude 7, but the unnatural sex that deals with is actually with Angels.'

Perhaps, there should be one spokesman to explain the liberal position on these scriptures, since one will say it was their desire for sex with angels, another will claim that the guilt of Sodom was indolent affluence and social indifference. The latter is based on Ezekiel: 'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.' (Ez. 16:49)

Yet, Jude also declares 'Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.' Jude 1:7)

Jude must be referring to the Genesis account. If the added sexual guilt was their desire to copulate with angels, it could have only been a sin of ignorance, since they didn't *know* that they were angels. That's hardly the basis for God to condemn and burn them to death.

Instead of this strained logic, we should recognise the desire that was actually expressed by them: 'They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them."' (Gen 19:5)

They wanted those they presumed to be male strangers for gender-indiscriminate gratification: the fact that they were also men did not hinder their desire. Rather than just inhospitality, it was also their lust for gender-indiscriminate gratification, for which they were condemned.

The assumption that Sodom and Gomorrah was only condemned for a lack of hospitality is patently false.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

David, what I'm suggesting is not especially "Liberal" simply the natural reading of the text in antiquity. Thus Wisdom 19:13-14 ("the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them, so the Egyptians made slaves of the guests who were their benefactors") or Origen (184-253AD) (PG12:188-9 - sermon on Gensis: — "Hear this, O you who close your homes to guests! Hear this, O you who shun the traveler as an enemy! Lot who lived among the Sodomites...escaped fire on account of only one thing — he opened his home to guests. The angels entered the hospitable household; the flames entered only those homes closed to guests.") So please don't suggest mine is some novel revisionist interpretation. It isn't It's the most common ancient way of reading the text, which may also be assumed in Jesus reaction tot he cities of the plain as archetypes of refusing God's messengers.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

It's obvious to point out, but perhaps helpful, that this elemen of the sin of the Sodomites was basically gang rape. Nobody who proposes to recognise same sex marriages for what they are is proposing that the law should legitimate gang rape, same sex or otherwise.

Tiggy Sagar said...

They were gangraped by the whole town? Poor buggers! It seems unlikely though and there are other interpretations of that text based on linguistic evidence. Either way, the writings of Elijah, and of the early Rabbis makes it quite clear that the sin of Sodom was selfish inhospitality to outsiders, which in those days could result in death for travellers.

Dennis said...

Every time I get the urge to go back to church I just need to read a blog and see what the good Christian people think to keep me out.

Chris, failedathiest, Chris H, Sam Charles Norton: I would like to say "thank you." For reminding me, once again, why it is still not safe to go anywhere near a christian church. Sometimes I start to think that the tolerant ones such as Bishop Alan represent the church. And then I take the time to pay attention to these discussions. All I need to remind me otherwise is to be discussed as a problem and not as a human being. Thanks for the reminder. I will continue to steer far away and to encourage everyone I can to do the same.

Erika Baker said...

How sadly well said, Dennis.

But those who really object to lgbt equality cannot afford to see us as human beings.
Because then the only genuine response would be to say:
"For some reason, you were created exactly like me only gay, and yet, God thinks it's really important that you must lead a lonely life and that you must be seen as morally inferior to me. I don't understand this at all and I feel really really sorry for that inexplicable burden God has placed on you, but I think we have no option but to follow his will."

And once you start framing it like this you see what complete nonsense all those anti gay arguments are.

The minute you start to see us as real people you will not be able to sustain your theology.
That's why we will remain issues and problems in the church for a long time yet.

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