Holy Irrelevant? The Church and LGBT Affirmation – A sermon preached at Trinity College, Dublin

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. How is it possible to be born again? asks Nicodemus.

LGBT affirmation in the church isn’t irrelevant to me. I am a gay man, a priest in the Church of England and now an activist working for change in the church‘s attitudes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

I was born in 1945 and for the first 22 years of my life, until the law was reformed in 1967, I was a person who would be criminalised if I had any kind of sexual contact with another man. At the age of 11 I became conscious that I was gay. I was confirmed at the age of 12, and I came to Jesus by night. I came with a carefully hidden, guilty secret. I was gay. I desired the intimacy of other boys.

I grew up in the Diocese of Southwark in South London, where the bishop, Mervyn Stockwood, was known to be gay. I was aware that although to be gay in church and society meant I had to be secret, discrete, I also knew the church to be a place where many priests were gay, and where, by implication, gay people were accepted. It was a moderately safe place. No-one asked questions. The Church of England in the 60s, 70s and 80s, was a tolerant environment for gay men although it was a closeted place.

Over the past 10 years, the church has changed around me. What was becoming an increasingly open church where every bishop I served with knew that I was gay, has become polarised, prejudiced, unsafe.

How did this happen? The present crisis in the Anglican Communion was initiated at a meeting of global south bishops in Kuala Lumpur in 1997. They produced a statement on Human Sexuality. It refers to sexual deviation, lust, our vulnerability to sexual sin, and then to the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions. It says God’s will regarding human sexuality is to be expressed only within the life long union of a man and a woman in holy matrimony.

Kuala Lumpur was the moment when conservative evangelicals began to organise themselves for the Lambeth Conference the following year, knowing that homosexuality was on the agenda.

I was at Lambeth in 1998, a member of the group invited to share our experience with the bishops in the sub-section addressing human sexuality. The bishops refused to meet us. In the final week of the conference I listened to the final plenary debate. As bishop Peter Selby commented subsequently, the atmosphere was as prejudiced and hostile as a Nazi rally.

Since 1998, the policies of my church and my country have drifted apart. The state has legislated to overturn the discrimination practiced against LGBT people. The church has attempted to move in the opposite direction, securing opt-outs from legislation to enable it to discriminate more effectively. LGBT people are now less safe in the ministry of the church than they were 20 years ago. Lay people are denied the opportunity to have their loving, faithful relationships blessed.

The reactionary forces in the Church of England found allies in other Provinces in the campaign they were already waging against the move towards greater understanding for LGBT members of the CofE.

The Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland are no longer isolated Provinces, able to think about and respond to the LGBT people in their midst without reference to the world-wide Anglican Communion and the storm which erupted following the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The Communion has become obsessed with the consecration of one man, and with the issue he represents. Isn’t this current obsession with LGBT people irrelevant, as the title of this Lenten series of sermons suggests, a distraction from more important issues? In a recently published book on the ethics of the New Testament, Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London writes “While the spectres of mass starvation, international conflicts, HIV/AIDS and global warming stalk us like four modern horsemen of the Apocalypse, many Christian churches around the world are overwhelmed by internal wrangling about women in leadership and homosexuality.”

What it means to be ‘biblical’ lies at the heart of these debates, says Richard. He concludes “Whenever we are presented with a choice between being biblical and being inclusive, it is a false dichotomy – for to be truly biblical is to be inclusive in any community which wants to follow and imitate Jesus.”

Why is it relevant to the church that she should affirm LGBT people and why is this a holy cause? Because care for the oppressed and marginalised is core to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Because LGBT people are subjected to abuse, persecution, death threats, murder and execution in many countries now.

Davis Mac-Iyalla, the Director of Changing Attitude Nigeria has been the object of death threats over the past two years, almost certainly delivered by members of the Anglican Church in Nigeria.

Conservative evangelicals maintain that the ordination of LGBT people and the blessing of same-sex relationships is contrary to scripture and the will of God. They claim that the church‘s of the west have abandoned orthodox faith and compliance with Biblical teaching.

Those at the most extreme end of the spectrum claim that the Episcopal Church in the USA has created a new religion which is now a separate entity and not recognisably Christian.

Destructive forces are at work in our Church. A small number of individuals have been masterminding a movement which hoped to evict the Episcopal Church from the Communion, secure the resignation of Archbishop Rowan Williams and transfer the power and leadership of the Communion to the global south.

While these bishops continue to plot and threaten chaos and destruction, creative forces are also at work. Of course they are, because God is a creative God, Lord of creation, woven into the fabric of creation, redeeming fallen humanity and restoring the lost. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Nicodemus was both open to the presence of God in Jesus and afraid of being found out by his fellow Jewish leaders and subjected to whatever taunts or rejection might then follow. LGBT people can easily identify with Nicodemus. Many live in secrecy in the church even if in our lives at work and home we are able to be fully open about our sexuality and relationships. We are fearful of discovery, fearful that abuse and rejection might follow.

Many LGBT Christians will also identify with Nicodemus’ courage and insight into the divine presence within Jesus. The process of discovering that you are lesbian or gay often leads to a deeper exploration of the inner self.

Jesus invited Nicodemus to contemplate the reality of things heavenly, something that proved to be a real challenge to him, a man who was clearly far more comfortable in focussing on things earthly. To contemplate heaven on earth means being able to risk exploring other dimensions, the world within the self and the world beyond the literal and concrete.

The trauma through which Christianity in general is living, and the Anglican Communion is living with particular intensity, is a trauma about far more than LGBT sexuality and sexual activity. To grossly over-simplify what is clearly a very complex dynamic, I’d like to suggest it is about two core things.

Firstly, literalism and the concrete against the spiritual and the divine. Conservatives want to return us to a pre-enlightenment mentality, a time when they imagine people’s world view was more secure and certain. That’s a fantasy, of course, but in a time of deep insecurity and uncertainty, people of our generation are seeking the security blanket of fundamentalism and secure, ’unchanging’ faith. That isn’t the kind of faith Jesus was encouraging Nicodemus to explore.

LGBT people are scapegoats in this dynamic. We may also be prophets, reminding the church that Jesus is gently inviting us to take the risk of journeying further down the road with him.

Secondly, the exploration of the presence of LGBT people in church and society may also be forcing the church to confront properly for the first time in 2000 years the aversion it carries to the truth that God creates us male and female and sexual. Our spiritual and sexual selves are deeply intertwined, and the church expends enormous amounts of time and energy trying to prise the two apart.

LGBT people present the church with an apparently uncomfortable reality. We human beings are sexual, created in the image of a sexual, intimate, relational, pro-creative God. Our sexual lives do not always conform to the constantly trumpeted biblical norms of the conservatives. People of all sexual identities engage in sexual activity outside the one supposedly approved by God – lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage. To acknowledge that people engage in intimacy in non-approved circumstances isn’t to undermine the ideal of fidelity in marriage. It simply acknowledges human reality.

The vocal and visible presence of LGBT people is uncomfortable for many conservatives. If they were able to be honest amongst themselves and their own church members, they would discover that they too, fail to adhere to the so-called biblical norms. They are unfaithful, have affairs, divorce, remarry, parent children who are sexually active before marriage.

Since the introduction of Civil Partnerships in the UK, LGBT people are demonstrating the same desire for contracting faithful, life-long, monogamous relationships as heterosexuals. For centuries, same-gender-loving Christians have lived lives of fidelity to God in prayer and love. We are a gift to the church. God has called us and is calling us now to be faithful to a prophetic ministry in the church. God calls us to come to him in daylight. God is using us to expand the church’s vision of the Kingdom of God, where all, all, all, are invited to be born again.

Of course LGBT people are a holy and relevant gift to the church.


Join the discussion