‘I’d love the consensus to change, but it’s a dream’
Posted: 08 Jul 2016 @ 00:03 – Comment – ‘CHURCH TIMES’
ATTITUDES to homosexuality have changed rapidly in the past few years, though less in the Church than in society at large. For some, the changes have been too rapid and have not been accompanied by any new theological understanding.
Others, too, lament a lack of theological thinking but believe that the changes in attitude have been far too slow. On the eve of the General Synod’s Shared Conversations, in which members will discuss their differing views on sexuality, we spoke to one young man for whom this is a live issue, and who says that he cannot wait while the Church slowly comes to an opinion about how he should regard himself.
David (not his real name) works in a national post for a mission organisation whose stance on same-sex partnerships is well known.
He began: “I’ve always known that I’m gay, even growing up in a church in which homosexuality was rarely discussed. And I still am, after years of praying that it would just go away. Now I don’t know what’s right. . .
“As a kid, I felt like it would just go away — that it was just a phase. But it didn’t. I believed it was wrong. I’ve been very fortunate with my parents, but there was no question of showing them when I was younger: I felt completely embarrassed about it. All the talk then was that it was OK to be gay — ‘Some people just are that way’ — as long as no one did anything about it. So I didn’t.
“After university, though, I was on the way home, sat on a train, head in my hands, realising that one way or another I was going to lose my life. Either I lived a lie or jumped off a bridge.”
David is not a campaigner. “I don’t want to run down the street carrying a rainbow flag,” he says. “I don’t want to be defined by my sexuality.” But his feelings of isolation meant he had to tell someone.
“The first friend I told, I thought I’d send her a message so that she could respond in her own time. She came back and she was absolutely brilliant. She said, ‘Look, we love you, whatever happens,’ and so I started to tell a few other people who were close to me.”
But it didn’t all go so well. “I did have some people who were definitely not positive. Some people haven’t spoken to me since. There’s some spectacular naïvety out there in the Church, too. Someone asked me if I’d really thought about it. Just every day since puberty, mate. Someone else said they’d help me get through it, to a ‘normal’ life, married to a woman, with kids. They all seemed to feel like they had the answers. I mean, I’d been asking God for years, and he hadn’t given them to me, but thank goodness there were people here to provide what the good Lord couldn’t. People say it takes a weight off your shoulders. It didn’t for me.”
COMING out didn’t mean looking for a relationship, either. “Where I work, and in my current church, I just couldn’t start a relationship. I told my boss, when I started, that I was gay, I thought he should know. He hugged me. He’s been great, but he’s subject to the organisation, too. I feel like a flawed version of normal there. It’s OK while it’s not common knowledge, but, if I was with someone, my reputation would nosedive.
“None of this has ever been an issue for my non-churchgoing friends. They insist that I can’t possibly be sacked for being in a gay relationship. But the organisation I work for would have ways of making life very difficult for me. If I did get into a relationship, I’d either have to keep quiet about it, or leave.”
The psychological toll may be obvious, but David found that few people considered his emotional needs. “Everyone acts like it’s the only important aspect, but it’s not about the sex. It’s the fact that I’ll never have what you have: companionship, partnership, the feeling of belonging to someone. I’m a very relational person — I need to be, for my job. I look at my straight, married friends, and although I can see, sometimes, that marriage might be difficult, it’s also what most of us aspire to.
“I sit at weddings and hear people talk about how it’s the perfect expression of God’s love, partners coming together; how two are stronger than one, and it’s better not to be alone. But if I were to stand there with someone I loved, someone who builds me up, that would be the perfect expression of sin. You’re asking me to run on one leg.”
ALONGSIDE the negative conversations he overhears about homosexuality, David constantly has them with himself. “I think what’s worst of all is that, even in my own head, I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s wrong to be gay. I don’t want to justify something as right if it’s wrong. I don’t know what’s right. There’s always an opposing view in my head, and I can’t tell if it’s my background or my conscience.”
Ultimately, though, he wants to exist — and to come to a solid view — in his community. His is conservative: “I know there have been some high-profile people coming out recently, but those people were always pretty out there in terms of my Evangelical tradition. I’m right in the mainstream. I’m not a fringe individual. I don’t want my ability questioned, or to be labelled as gay. My nightmare is speaking at a major conference, as I do now, and being introduced with my name, title, and then ‘openly gay’.
“It’s so hard to find counsel on this subject because people fall into two camps. They either say, ‘Wait, this is all fine, come and join our liberal side;’ or they say ‘No, it’s wrong.’ And you know what? It has so few implications for them — for any of the people in positions of influence. Their lives aren’t going to change as a result. Sure, spout your views from your armchair, sat next to your loving wife. This isn’t just an intellectual debate that needs to be settled, for me. It has huge outcomes for my life. I’d love the consensus to change on this, I’d love people to say that we, the Church, have been getting this wrong, but it’s a dream.”
The tension is becoming unbearable. For him, it’s a balancing act that cannot be maintained. “I’m coming to the conclusion that a future in Christian ministry is not for me, because of all this. Is all this what God intended?”
In other sectors, none of this is an issue. “There are other career options. I think I’m going to give it a year. I believe God can transform people’s lives — more than ever. But from where I am, it just doesn’t seem healthy to stay. There are already days when I go to sleep not caring whether I wake up or not.”
It becomes clear in the course of our interview that David is a warm, committed, and empathetic character, and his work appears to be valued highly by his organisation. But he may not feel able to stick with it in the long term. “I don’t want to have to face this battle. It’s a burden I don’t want to have to carry. I think I’m out.”
I suspect there are many in this young man’s situation – intrinsically gay and yet aware of his Church’s negative attitude towards the gay community. There is little doubt that he has no other option but to be as he is – silent about his true nature. It is not simply a matter of adjusting to an apparent need to be ‘different’. He is obviously aware that to fit in with the expectations of the Church community that he serves and is a part of, he should opt into a heterosexual relationship and try to conform to their understanding of what they discern as the ‘biblical’ model of settled life in a Christian society. But he just can’t. It is just not a valid option for him. Nor does he want to be celibate. He wants a warm, loving and faithful partner relationship, but is inhibited by the need for secrecy about his inclinations.
One suspects though that there are many of his evangelical counterparts in the Church who feel they simply do not fit into what they have been taught is the ‘proper’ attitude towards their innate sexual orientation. Although society has increasingly come to terms with the etiology of sexual difference – even to the point of welcoming the legal possibility of same-sex marriage – the Church (with some notable exceptions, like the United Reformed denomination in the U.K., which has just stated its openness to the celebration of S/S Marriage on a parish to parish basis) has been slow to accept society’s general acceptance of homosexuals as part and parcel of the total population.
This article in the Church Times was published prior to the closed-door discussion of the result of the Church of England’s ‘Conversations’ on Human Sexuality at the General Synod meeting in York. At this very moment, beginning on Sunday afternoon, the Synod of 500 members are meeting, both in small groups and the larger assembly, with the express purpose of trying to find a way to deal pastorally with people like this young man, who are already part of the Church and who would dearly love to be recognised as who they are in Christ – irrespective of what happens to be their inbuilt sexual identity. Also, they would like to know that, if and when they find the right partner, the Church will publicly acknowledge their monogamous relationship with a Blessing.
Contrary to the expressed opinion of those conservative Anglicans who have refused to be part of the Synod deliberations on this matter, the acceptance of same-sex faithful relationships will not have a detrimental effect on heterosexual marriage. Why should it? Is there any record of a marriage break-up because of same-sex partners being allowed to make their vows together in either a register office or the Church? The reality is that less young people are now interested in the marriage rite – whether civil or religious. Would Same-Sex Marriage affect that situation?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand