A Response to the Working Party on Same-Sex Marriage
I pounced on the report to Conference from the Working Party on Marriage and Civil Partnerships. After all, I am about to embark on doctoral research in to the approach taken by Methodism to the issue of same-sex relationships over the last twenty five years with the aim of trying to construct a positive Theology of such relationships within a discernible Methodist Theological framework.
Any excitement I might have felt rather withered upon the first reading. My initial response was a wearied sense of inevitability: make platitudinous noises, decide nothing, kick the can yet further down the road and, above all, don’t under any circumstances upset the Biblically illiterate majority who seem to run the show! That appeared to just about sum it up.
Reading the excellent response from ‘Outcome’, however, I went back to the document. I decided that my initial response had not been correct; it wasn’t anything like as simple as that. If the church is serious about the path that it has chosen to follow (and I admit that the ‘if’ sounds rather loudly in my mind still) then it has chosen to face up to some enormous challenges.
Firstly, just how does the Methodist Church believe that it can offer appropriate pastoral care and affirmation to Christians who are gay (and those who love them) in the context of continuing, institutionally, to treat them as somehow ‘less than’? Great work is being done, quietly, all around the country, but it must surely begin to ring hollow at some point when the care that is being offered by members of the church really isn’t supported by the church as a whole. It will be a very tough circle to square for the church which has put itself in the position that genuine, wholehearted acceptance on an individual pastoral level is, of necessity, perceived as being offered in spite of the church rather than on behalf of the church.
I was also intrigued by the very forceful insistence upon the avoidance of ‘hate-filled’ and abusive language as the process moved forward. There was a palpable sense in that section of the document that here we were on safe ground; here we could make a positive stand and all must surely agree. Again, however, what a challenge Methodism has set itself. The language that someone might use to express themselves in this debate is crucially important. That language gives a good understanding of where objections are actually coming from. By imposing a censorship on the language that can be used, the church has made it all the more difficult for itself in discerning the reasons behind the stand that people may make.
To insist on polite circumlocution will not take away the fact that there are those (and there are more of them than you might think) in this debate who object to the full inclusion of LGBTQI people because they believe them to be warped, diseased, hated by God, of paedophile inclination, unnatural and even downright wicked. It would have been far easier just to let people say what they want to say, how they want to say it. I would far rather be ‘offended’ up-front than patronised by politically correct language. It is always as well to know exactly what you are dealing with in any debate. Here, the church has handed a cloak of respectability to opinions that sorely needed one albeit with the very best possible of intentions.
Thirdly, much continues to be made of ‘living with contrary convictions’ whilst the conversation carries on. Again, that sounds good. Actually, it is going to be very difficult to do. This is especially so since the pain of living with contrary convictions in this current conversation is borne by only one party to it, as things stand at the moment. For those who object to full inclusion, nothing has changed and, for the foreseeable future, nothing will change. They are still in control. However, to take a personal example, I still cannot go to church with the man that I love and to whom I have been deeply committed for the last fourteen years and make vows before God and my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Furthermore, how is the church to explain a stance that says: “I am causing your pain and I am feeling your pain but I will not act to take that pain away?” It does look, to coin a phrase, a little ‘warped’ that, doesn’t it? Equally, and this is coming fast, just how long can a ‘living with contrary convictions’ approach continue to last when the pain isn’t all one way? How will the church manage this when individual church councils and individual presbyters (possibly in ever growing numbers) lose patience, defy the ban and actually marry gay people in church anyway? It will come; it isn’t that far off. Will the dominant majority accept their share of the pain then? Or will there be a backlash when those who might be seen as repeatedly slapping some of their brothers and sisters in the face actually get slapped back for once? Is conflict avoidable? Is it always desirable to avoid confrontation? These are questions that will present themselves and will demand to be answered.
Most importantly of all, the church will have to face up to the fact that ‘living with contrary convictions’ may actually be something that is wrong as an approach. Could it be that this is a worthily intended veil for this subject that would never be tolerated in any other similar context? Try as I might, I cannot think of one single facet of someone’s personal identity, nor one so essential in the strictest sense of the word, about which the church would equivocate in this way. Would we live with contrary convictions about race, colour, ethnicity, age, experience, physical or mental impairment, the food we like, what makes us laugh, what makes us cry … the list goes on! Of course we would not; it’s unthinkable.
Hence, the church is also going to have to ask itself an uncomfortable question: does this really all boil down to sex? And, if it does, just why does it feel that the physical expression of true and deep love and commitment between two adults is a matter for condemnation and ostracism of the kind that nothing else attracts? That’s going to be a difficult one to explain to itself, let alone those outside of the church.
Of course this ban is, purportedly, in The Bible which makes it alright! You don’t need me to tell you just how much else is enjoined, commanded and instructed in The Bible that we quite rightly abhor or ignore. The church will have to tackle whether or not we are followers of the Living Lord about whom the Bible speaks or the slaves to a supposedly divinely inspired ‘guide book’ of morality. The report makes clear that this is a ‘live’ question and it is a critically important one that will not be answered without serious challenges being faced by both parties to the debate.
These are fearful questions. They are especially so since the membership figures are telling us loud and clear just what society makes of the ‘good news’ that we are offering. We have little time to do something about that and have handed the world out there yet another excuse to brand us as not merely irrelevant but as actively inimical to the establishment of a community based upon wholeness, justice and love. That is insofar as the world is listening to us which, largely, they are not. For example, we have barely even stumbled across the fact that, outside of the church, a growing number of LGBTQI people actually don’t want a belated ‘inclusion’ in the traditional matrimonial institution but are far more interested in discovering a mode of commitment that is especially theirs. We haven’t even thought of that, yet, have we? We are going to have to do so, and fast!
So, really, it would have been easier just to have a good old bust up and stick a flag in the ground one way or another and then deal with the fall-out from that. To adopt the approach that Methodism has done appears nothing short of insane, actually. Just think about what it has set itself to try and achieve and in what circumstances! Often, though it must be said not always, God is to be found in approaches that the world finds bonkers and among people who set themselves a seemingly impossible task. I pray that this is the case now. It will need to be, since Methodism has set itself a path to follow on this issue that will take it right to the very heart of what it means to be church in the modern era. There is great peril in that for it; there is also the possibility of immense blessing. Let us pray ….
Richard Golding (South Fylde Circuit)