Introduction: the Bible and the Church
My concern about the homosexual issue is to be clear as to what the Bible says about it. It is then up to the individual and the church to decide whether to follow that teaching or not. The Church of England’s position on Scripture is quite clear. Its Canon Law, which has legal status, states: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.” Canon Law also supports the 39 Articles of Religion which state: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Every Anglican bishop and clergyperson is legally bound to follow these rules. So ensuring an accurate interpretation of Scripture is important.
The official position of the Church of England on Sexuality is stated in a General Synod decision in 1987 based upon a Private Members Motion I put to the synod. The Bishops modified my wording but then the synod voted by a 98% majority that sexual intercourse belongs properly within a permanent heterosexual marriage and that just as fornication and adultery falls short of this ideal so “homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.”
We now live in a very different society from 30 years ago. It has different attitudes towards homosexual practice. Homosexual marriage has been legalised. Even some evangelicals have changed their minds on the issue. But the Church of England is still committed to the 1987 decision and has been granted exemption from having to celebrate homosexual marriages. However, the pressure will increase and there are clear indications that the homosexual issue will be a cause of oppression and ultimately persecution for Christians who stand by the traditional biblical teaching.
We are called to love our homosexual neighbour, as we are called to love all of our neighbours. There is no place for antagonism towards or rejection of homosexuals as people. But loving our neighbour does not necessarily involve loving their behaviour. Homosexuals will, of course, claim that those who don’t accept their sexual behaviour are rejecting them as people. That reaction is understandable but it is illogical. We should strongly affirm that homosexual people are equal to heterosexual people. But that is not the same as saying that homosexual practice is the same as heterosexual practice. All people are equal but not all behaviour.
The marginalisation of the church
The fact that many in society do not make this important distinction leads to the church being seen as intolerant and judgmental. So Ireland, which in 1987 voted overwhelmingly against the legalisation of divorce, and only legalised homosexual practice in 1993, in 2015 became the first country to approve same-sex marriage after a referendum. But there were other factors. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has hugely diminished. This is largely due to what is seen as hypocrisy, namely the allegations of sexual abuse amongst Irish clergy and of the church’s failure to deal with it properly.
A recent poll found that 52% of Americans favoured same-sex couples being allowed to marry and only 32% disapproved. Another poll found that 53% of Americans were favourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 42% towards evangelicals. 18% were unfavourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 28% towards evangelicals.
In July 2014 the UN stated it would recognise the same-sex marriages of its staff. An Ipsos MORI poll in April 2014 found that “the proportion of Britons who think homosexual couples should be able to marry has more than quadrupled in the four decades since 1975. 69% now agree with the statement that “homosexual couples should be allowed to marry each other”, whilst just over a quarter (28%) disagree. When the same question was asked in November 1975, support for gay marriage stood at 16% (with 53% disagreeing). Simon Atkinson, Assistant Chief Executive at Ipsos MORI, commented: “It is very unusual, even over a period of 40 years, to see such a sea change in public attitudes. People in Britain are clearly behind the recent legislation on gay marriage – a rare example of Parliament and public opinion being very much in tune with each other.”
Many Christians uphold the biblical teaching on homosexuality but some, including Evangelicals, support same-sex marriage. Jayne Ozanne is a prominent evangelical I know who was a member of the Archbishop’s Council. She describes herself as “a staunch evangelical … a fully signed up charismatic evangelical … an ardent evangelical” who has “an extremely high regard for scripture.” However she has been in a “gay relationship.” She lays down the challenge that if this is sinful “why then do I see so much fruit in my life? As Jesus said, “Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7). Why does God continue to answer my prayers? Why do I see his power constantly at work in my life; his voice whispering in my inner ear; his healing power touching the lives of people who have been deeply hurt and broken by a Church that has shunned them.” She said that back in 1999 her views on sexuality were “extremely black and white” and added “I did not believe it was compatible to be gay and a Christian.”
Jayne also wrote that in a General Synod debate she read “a draft suicide note written by someone struggling with their desire for love, but knowing that the only thing that could satisfy this hunger was ‘forbidden fruit’. The letter was my own, written during this time of pain – a cry from the created to the Creator, asking why I had been created with such a cruel dichotomy.”
One cannot read this last paragraph without one’s heart going out to Jayne and others like her. We need to pray especially for homosexuals and lesbians who face such trauma. We also need to be sensitive in our approach to the subject.
However, one cannot base moral decisions on emotion or on people’s motives. The crucial question remains: What is the biblical teaching on homosexual practice? The fact that Jayne experiences answers to prayer and spiritual fruit in her life is an evidence of God’s mercy. After all, we are all sinners and don’t deserve answers to prayer and spiritual fruit. Such experience does not justify what is wrong in our lives. Also, it is not just homosexuals who experience great traumas about their circumstances and who cannot understand why God has put them in such a situation. We need to understand them but that does not mean we approve of everything they do.
The Rev Steve Chalke, a very well-known evangelical leader and leader of the Oasis Trust which seeks to provide housing, education, training, youthwork and healthcare in various countries, similarly disclosed his change of view over homosexual practice. Ultimately this led to the Evangelical Alliance terminating the Trust’s membership.
The Evangelical Alliance has been criticised for this decision. Critics point to its “Evangelical Relationships Commitment” which states: “We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time. We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”
Like Steve Chalke himself, the critics say that the issue of homosexual practice is a secondary one. Chalke commented: “It is extremely disappointing that this matter of sexual ethics has again been seen as more significant than central matters of the Christian faith. I would call on the Evangelical Alliance to reverse its decision and declare that acceptance of same sex relationships can be compatible with evangelicalism.”
Dr Justin Thacker, lecturer in theology at the evangelical Cliff College, wrote “My concern is that this looks like a decision, not born of confidence in the gospel or trust in the power of the Scriptures to transform, but rather one born of fear – fear that the church is becoming inevitably compromised by the world and that its time to pull up the drawbridges.”
Accepting Evangelicals is an organisation which states: “We are an open network of Evangelical Christians who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” It has 960 members. It commented that the Evangelical Alliance “can … no longer claim to represent ‘the UK’s two million evangelical Christians’ as there are clearly many evangelicals who they no longer represent, or who they are unwilling to represent.”
Other Christian response
In May 2015 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed by 309 votes to 182 the idea that individual congregations could opt out of the tradition view of marriage and appoint a minister in a same-sex civil partnership.
However when Canon Jeremy Pemberton married his male partner the Church of England removed his licence to minister. The Bishop of Buckingham, who supports equal rights for homosexuals, said this was unjust and that homosexual clergy are subject to “harassment and victimisation.”
Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust did a survey and found that the attitudes of churchgoers has undergone an “ethical earthquake” in the past decade, “despite the more hostile tones of the denominations they belong to.” Around a quarter of churchgoers believe that same-sex relationships should be affirmed by the church, but are reluctant to share their views, a new survey has found. 49.6% of Christians across the main 11 denominations believe that monogamous same-sex relationships should be fully embraced and encouraged. 68% said that their views have become more inclusive over the past decade, with 61% noting that the shift had come as a result of “understanding or interpreting the Bible differently.”
In October 2014 the Vatican published a synodical report which stated:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.
Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York put out a statement in February 2014 about the views of the Church of England House of Bishops which said: “We are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church’s response. However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.”
The legal situation in the UK
In a March 2014 poll BBC Radio 5 Live found that 59% of people believed a person should not be considered homophobic for opposing the legislation that allows gay marriage. However there are increasing attempts to bring legal action against those who do not approve of homosexual practice. In April 2015 The Guardian published an editorial which stated: “It’s at least possible that conservative Christians might at some stage end up as despised and disadvantaged a minority as some of their victims have been in the past … In the west we privilege conflicting but broadly liberal values. We no longer privilege the authority of the Bible. So, once we have determined that discrimination against homosexuals violates the principle of equality – and that is the settled position in both law and public opinion now – the fact that some people are compelled by their consciences to disagree does not exempt them from behaving as if it were true. There cannot be a special exemption for mistaken beliefs held on religious grounds when these harm others.”
The same month an article in The Guardian stated: “Hostility to homosexuality, abortion or extramarital sex may be justified as the teachings of gods, prophets or scriptures … and anyone has the right to follow them. But actions based on those beliefs should have no particular privilege and, if illegal, the fact that the person undertaking them believes in the Almighty should be no defence.”
However the Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated that the UK Same Sex Marriage law provides “protection under equality law for ministers of religion who do not wish to marry same sex couples. The Commission stated that “churches and individual ministers will not find themselves forced by litigation to conduct same sex marriages and no one will be required to promote views about same-sex marriage which they do not support.”
Welcome though this is, it is also evidence of the increasing marginalisation of the church in today’s society. How long will it be before such protections are removed? There are already calls for that. For example Lord Fowler, former chair of the Conservative Party has said that the government should be able to prevent the Church of England from sacking clergy who enter same-sex marriages. We are seeing Christians accepting homosexual practice, despite the biblical teaching on the matter. We are also seeing a further trend towards oppression of those who uphold the biblical teaching. We need to recognise the seriousness of these trends.