The Christian neurosis

As I’ve followed the blogs and stories this week about what the Pilling report might recommend I’ve been as interested in the ‘back story’ as I am in whether the rumour about one of its recommendations is true.

By ‘back story’ I mean my interest in what is going on in the inner world of some of the people involved, and in my inner world of ideas, emotions and drives. I’m also interested in the inter-personal dynamics. Why people think and react in the way they do is as interesting and at least as significant than the content of the report, the various campaign strategies and goals, and the events that get us all in reactive mode, often in very predictable ways.

I find myself thinking about people whom I have met and in person – Peter Ould, Chris Sugden, Andrew Goddard and Gavin Ashenden, to name but four who have been on my mind.

When our emotions get swept up in the drama of the Christian conflict about human sexuality, it’s all too easy to forget that every person involved in the drama is a human being with emotions and vulnerabilities, defensive strategies and projections onto those with different opinions. We are people with relationships that are affected directly or indirectly by the drama, people with a strong attachment to our own particular world view and understanding of God and Christian faith.

I find myself feeling concerned for particular people, wondering how they are dealing with the drama emotionally. I’ve speculated on whether, if the Pilling rumour is true, they might feel that the Church is abandoning them and whether they might reach a moment of decision, having to decide whether to stay in the Church or leave. I find myself being concerned for their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

I do this in the context of being acutely aware most of the time that many of the people in my social networks who are LGB or T, plus their families and friends, may be living with their own feelings of anger, fear, despair, frustration, depression, anxiety, and spiritual crisis. We are all affected by the drama and conflict.

There are moments when I consider, as a theoretical possibility, backing down to save people’s feelings, reducing demand for change to a level where change will be minimal, hoping this would help traditionalists and conservatives feel safe and comfortable. I could stop blogging, reacting and commenting, and take the pressure off. If I did, life would continue, the debate would take its course, evolution would move ahead and God would continue to be immersed in the creative process in a loving, life-transforming way.

But backing away from uncomfortable emotions and outcomes isn’t the way of Jesus the Christ and it isn’t helpful for any of us involved in this process of change. And I am in no doubt that change is happening and it is a revision of what some people think is biblical, orthodox, historical Christian teaching about sexual ethics. I disagree with them. Christianity has always been revising teaching about sexual ethics and we have reached the need for further revision rooted in the teaching of Jesus about love and human/divine relationships. I know conservatives will disagree – that’s fine.

We are dealing with a revision of Christian teaching in the context of the discoveries and wisdom of Darwin, Einstein, Freud, Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, and all who have built on their work and developed and refined it further.

Thanks to psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, we understand the human psyche far better than we did a century ago. We understand (well, some of us do), what was labelled by the French psychiatrist Pierre Solignac, ‘the Christian neurosis’, the effect of believing in a God of conditional love, law, rules, guilt-inducing practices based on human sinfulness.

Solignac was writing in 1976 when things were even worse than now.

“The church continues to use guilt, sin and anxiety as the basis of its education. It still continues to confront the rapid development of social morality with a policy of prohibitions. It reacts slowly and cautiously and always tries to align itself, too late, with the majority opinion.”

A young man who sought help from him was infected by the Christian neurosis:

“… in which  this young man found it impossible to regard himself as an independent person, all of a piece, with his own characteristics. He had learnt a code which he was not to transgress, and his neurotic attitude was particularly marked. He had no confidence in himself and no system of personal values. He was entirely dependent on what other people thought of him. Shut in by his anxiety and his aggression, he went round in a circle, incapable of reflecting on himself, incapable of accepting himself, much less of loving himself.”

I have spent my life escaping from the tyranny of this God. I suspect that’s true for the majority of supporters of Changing Attitude and the members of CA’s Facebook group. It’s also true for the majority of LGB&T Africans with whom CA is involved who are aware that the teaching of their churches about homosexuality does them untold harm.

Conservative/traditionalist teaching has to be confronted because it damages and wounds people’s psyche and self-esteem, undermining a healthy sense of self and destroying people’s innate spirituality, and ability to form mutually nourishing, enriching relationships.

An article in this morning’s Guardian refers to Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise of 1670. The state’s purpose, wrote Spinoza, is “not to dominate or control people by fear or subject them to the authority of another”. On the contrary, “It’s aim is to free everyone from fear, so that they may live in security so far as is possible, that is, so that they may retain, to the highest possible degree, their right to live and to act without harm to themselves and to others”.

Radical and audacious stuff politically, and for the church. A God who, like the state, treats us as untrustworthy, co-dependent children who need to obey rules regardless of whether they enhance or destroy our well-being. There is no reason to obey rules that produce guilt and fear and suppress our God-given creative energies for love and life. If some people and the church want to continue to interpret the Bible to suppress the lives, liberties, freedoms, relationships, love, and well-being of LGB&T people, then I reject their interpretation of the teaching. It is not Christ-like. I have no desire to live in a community that wants me to suppress my God-given self and deny all within my being that is creative and flows with energy, life and love.

I mentioned Gavin Ashenden at the beginning of this blog. I’ve known Gavin a long time, through a friend whose marriage I conducted when I was a curate. As he has written in his blog,  Gavin was an enthusiastic support of practicing gay Christians until ten years ago. But ‘God spoke to him’ about the practice of homosexuality; so he went to his friends, and told them that while still being deeply fond of them, he was going to take a different view of the practice of homosexuality. He would simply place it in the same category as other people (straight) and treat it as the practice of ‘sex outside marriage’.

Gavin is a member of General Synod and we meet there. Since God spoke to him, Gavin has become uncomfortably apologetic to me about his changed attitude to, as he puts it, ‘the practice of homosexuality’. Whatever has changed in him, it has made him less comfortable with himself and with me.

He says he grew suspicious of the gay cultural argument when Gore Vidal wrote near the end of his life about how deeply he regretted inventing the term ‘gay’. The trouble was that there were just human beings, – one sort of people, who expressed themselves sexually in a variety of ways – some of which changed and altered over a lifetime. There was no such thing as ‘gay’ people. Just people. I agree – there are just people, with a variety of identities, desires, sexual and physical attractions.

The problem for Gavin and others is that the Bible teaches them that God does not accept that there are just people. Indeed, Gavin abandons the idea of ‘just people’ and there is certainly no such thing as ‘gay’ – in which case there is no such thing as heterosexual, or gender dysphoria, or bisexual – no categories at all – apart from, presumably, what Gavin and others take from the Bible as ‘normal’, ‘God-given.

Gavin homes in on human appetites, about which he writes with extreme imagery, revealing his inner world. In Gavin’s world, Christianity or Christ, comes to the human appetite, whatever it is, sex, money, booze, pride, revenge, and offers to tame it; to tame and transform it.

Sex outside heterosexual marriage is unacceptable to God – who is holy – and who calls us to be either holy too – or else to succumb to the flood of dehumanising appetites that the Tradition has always called sin. I’m sorry, Gavin, but you and I have very different experiences of our ‘appetites’. I am gay and I have friends who are straight, and I’m not aware that any of us have succumbed to a flood of dehumanizing appetites.

Gavin says “the moment Jesus warns that even looking at someone with sexual appetite opens the floodgates of desire in a way that takes us in a direction that is unacceptable to God, I and the majority of people are engaged in a struggle that will carry us to the limits of our self control and beyond. Worse than that comes the moment of falling in love with people we are not married to, and becoming imprisoned by feelings that carry us close to madness.”

If I was a psychotherapist, I’d be really interested in Gavin as a client and alarm bells would start to ring – oh, I am a psychotherapist. But obviously not one to be trusted because I believe I have a gay identity and that, according to Gavin, is impossible under God.

Gavin has been to GAFCON 2 in Nairobi, which is one of the reasons he’s writing. The experience of being with the GAFCON Anglicans leads him to conclude that “there is very little power of the Holy Spirit in this vapid self indulgent spirituality. And perhaps this is partly because the Holy Spirit is an agent of change. The New Testament warns us that the Holy Spirit will come to us to change us – to transform us.”

Yeah, yeah, Gavin, that’s what I believe too, and experience as a gay man, a Christian, and a priest.

Gafcon challenges Anglican Christianity to decide whether or not it is going to allow itself to be defined by a decadent liberalism – a spirituality that celebrates the nice without being able to deliver it; a spirituality that surrenders to secular narcissistic hedonism the authority to make ethical analyses, says Gavin. He asks whether the Church in this country is going to offer people caught up in political and existential impotence and despair the experience of a loving God who will set them free from evil without and evil within; who will set them free to experience the glorious liberty of the children of God, transformation, forgiveness of their sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the demanding and renewing presence of Christ.

Gavin, I really wish you hadn’t written all this. I’m not defined by a decadent liberalism, my spirituality is profound, I haven’t surrendered to secular narcissistic hedonism, I’m not caught up in political and existential impotence – far from it – and I live daily within the experience of an unconditionally loving God.

This is madness, a church for the insane. This is the Christian neurosis that Pierre Solignac wrote about and identified in many of the Christian priests and lay people who brought their disturbed minds and psychosomatic symptoms to him. This is the church in need of reform.

Gavin’s blog is part of the ‘back story’ and so is Peter Ould’s blog and my conversations with Andrew Goddard, Chris Sugden, Gavin Ashenden and many others. I am always conscious of their feelings and the effect my identity in Christ as a gay man may have on them. I think the emotional impact we have on other people, and they on us (which is all part of the back story) is at least as significant for our healthy progress through life as are our belief systems and faith. If our inner world is dominated by a system which majors on guilt, sin, shame, false identity, judgement, heaven, hell, Satan, and other ingredients of what seems to be essential to traditional, orthodox Christianity, then count me out.


  1. says

    One point I’d challenge:

    “The problem for Gavin and others is that the Bible teaches them that God does not accept that there are just people.”

    It’s actually Gavin & co’s interpretation of the Bible that teaches them that; and I’d argue that their approach is a serious misinterpretation.

  2. says

    Great piece Colin. I had many of the same thoughts about Gavin’s piece re obsessions with falling in love with others when married – why focus on that?

    Both Gavin and Peter Ould’s opinion pieces on the Pilling report are really alarming – why should it be legitimate for the most conservative Christians to accuse us more liberal Christians as being not really Christians (blasphemers against the Holy Spirit in Peter’s piece for crying out loud!), simply because they disagree with us? As far as I’m aware, not even the most outspoken amongst liberal Christians accuse conservatives of the same…

  3. says

    Thank you, Colin, for this well-written and researched article, which ought to be read by everyone in the Church who has any doubt at all that homosexual people are not a different species of humanity, hell-bent on turning the world of morality up-side down; but rather, individual people who have found that they simply are not emotionally or physically oriented towards heterosexual intimacy.

    As most heterosexual people can easily understand their attraction to the opposite sex; they have to begin to understand that homosexual people are naturally attracted to their own gender, sexually. This is a fact, and not just a theory, drummed up by those among us who want to be different from the ‘norm’, but a reality of life for a sizeable minority of all human beings – no matter what their social, cultural or ethnic background might be.

    The sooner we all come to accept the fact that there is a continuum of human sexuality, the better. No-one is either absolutely male or absolutely female. We each have characteristics of the other gender polarity and, naturally enough, this affects our predominant (or maybe ambivalent) sexual preference. Either this is a God-given aspect of the human creation, or it is not. As it actually does exist, how could it not be?

  4. Etienne says

    Hmmmm …. so conservative Christians suffer from a form of neurosis, do they? Seems reasonable to me considering the hysterical antics of the conservative Christians I know. Always banging on about how those awful gays are destroying marriage, the Church, the entire world. A bunch of paranoid, depressed, nay-saying contrarians who seem to live for the sole purpose of preaching doom and gloom to the world while condemning everyone they don’t like to eternal torture.

    The problem for liberal Christians however is that Christianity is fundamentally driven by this neurosis. Just like any extreme right or left wing political movement, neurosis is what gives the Church cohesion and zeal. Curing the neurosis takes away the need for gathering in defensive groups to proclaim a manifesto of hatred, exclusion and retribution. So church attendance falls and religious observance fades into the background.

    Conservatives crow about declining numbers in liberal churches such as TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada. They see this as proof of their own righteousness, whereas all it really proves is that fear and loathing are the only things that hold churches together.

    Personally I believe that declining churches are a good thing. The fewer people who gather every Sunday to hear hatred and venom spew from the pulpit, the better off we’ll all be. We’re evolving towards a secular society where faith is a private matter and not a metaphorical club to beat your neighbour over the head with. So I look forward to the Pilling Report with great interest. If, as suggested, it recommends a form of liturgy for same-sex marriage, it can only accelerate the process of decline in the Church of England. Conservatives will splinter off into their own little groups and what’s left will quietly fade away along with the whole concept of a state religion. Imagine that … living in a country where religion has no place in public life and no right of veto over public policy. 🙂

    Vive la république !!! Vive la laïcité !!!

  5. says

    Here in the US we’ve had four recent presidential candidates whose gods spoke to them. In all four cases their gods told them “He” wanted them to run for president. They include 1) A conservative baptist cleric who traffics unabashedly in half-truths and repeatedly ups the ante in the awful things he says about gay people as well as about President Obama; 2) A woman from Alaska who resigned halfway through her term as governor, and who is proven repeatedly to be an apparently incorrigible liar–and not only because she claimed to be able to see Russia from her house; 3) A woman married to a man who, by all appearances to us gay folks is gay himself, but, not surprisingly is involved in “gay reparative therapy; and 4) The governor of a state with conspicuously high rates of unwanted pregnancies and teenage STDs but who, nevertheless, opposes sex education and making birth control available for adolescents. One is tempted to classify such people as suffering, at the very least, from a delusional or dissociative disorder. Or both.

  6. Helen Lewis says

    I have many problems with Gavin Ashenden’s sweeping statements about homosexuality both in the blog and in the interview he gave following the Gafcon meeting. One issue in particular stands out: the appeal to scripture to confirm his views on homosexuality versus the complete omission of any reference to Jesus’ statement on divorce. Now most of us would accept that marriages break down and the church needs to be charitable- but there nevertheless remains-if you take the gospels literally- a prohibition against divorce and remarriage. Gavin is himself divorced and indeed has two children from his first marriage. (He doesn’t seem to want this known.) This doesn’t put him in a good position to argue from scripture aganst homosexual unions. The church, under pressure from the realities of modern society which Gavin scorns so much, has changed its view of divorce and remarriage; could it not be, in admitting his own divorce that Gavin might have to admit that the church is (at last) showing grace and charity in reassessing historic attitudes to homosexual unions?

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