As the trustees of Changing Attitude England know and as will be obvious to many members of Changing Attitude’s Facebook group, as I near retirement as Director of CA England, I am not heading into “retirement” but being drawn by an inner spirit into a new focus on silence, contemplative depth, and the apophatic Christian tradition.
Christianity has problems with gender, sexuality, race, disability, and every attitude that excludes groups and individuals from the Kingdom of God, because Christianity in the C21st doesn’t “get God.”
That’s an extreme judgement to make about the Church, the institutional purveyor of the Christian faith and tradition. I judge the Church because of the inability of Christian leaders to confront the injustice and prejudice which is endemic (and of epidemic proportions) in Church life and practice. I judge the Church when globally many (but by no means all) civil societies have come to understand how prejudice works, what equality (in the Kingdom of God) means, and have taken action to dispel prejudice and attempted to enshrine equality in law.
God creates and loves and values every human being without prejudice, infinitely, intimately and unconditionally. Unconditionally. And what LGBTI people (in the context of CA’s work) are repeatedly told is that God loves us conditionally – conditional on not having sex, not being intimate, and not responding to the love of the person we fall in love with. It’s obscene.
This is why I am a reluctant supporter of the Shared Conversations. The three Conversations that have already taken place have received broadly positive reports from CA-friendly participants. People with very different attitudes to sexuality are generally respectful to each other, trust is established and understanding develops, and people find real value in meeting across difference. A more critical report has been written by one of the people most deeply affected by any potential outcome. Good things happen in the course of the Conversations, but they are infected by the attitude to LGBTI people held by some participants which is prejudiced, un-Christian and un-loving.
We are being encouraged to hold fast to the Anglican ‘broad church’ tradition and to make space for everyone, whatever their tradition and attitude. Other threads on the Facebook group demonstrate how difficult this is: threads about the Irish referendum, the ‘gay’ cake story, a radio interview with David Holloway from the Christian Institute.
I sense I am being asked to be generous and sympathetic and ‘nice’ towards conservative fundamentalist Christians, understanding their difficulties and the integrity of their position.
At the moment I am reading The Solace of Fierce Landscapes – Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by Belden C. Lane, a book about apophatic Christianity. Belden Lane speaks to the work of Changing Attitude and for those of us with a passion for the full inclusion of all, to a world where gender, sexuality, race, ethnic background, ability and disability are irrelevant – people whom the Church finds a disturbing irritant. He writes:
“An eschatological community takes shape on the boundaries, at the liminal place on the mountain’s slope. The established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted. Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new.
“Yaweh frequently moves to the boundary in order to restore the centre, calling a broken people back to justice and compassion.
“Scholars sensitive to the function of place in biblical narrative observe that Jesus, in a similar way, frequently presses the people closest to him into places they find threatening. Jesus is always redefining the nature of ‘centre’. He moves regularly beyond the safety and exclusiveness of the Jewish homeland in Galilee to include Gentiles in outlying regions where his disciples are reluctant to go. He functions repeatedly as a boundary crosser, pushing his disciples to edges they find exceedingly uncomfortable.”
The lectionary directs us to read Romans beginning on Monday. On Tuesday we reached the clobber verses 1.26-27. The division into chapters and verses is imposed on the text, of course, and chapter 1 flows into chapter 2. If the clobber verses are taken as being directly relevant to LGBTI people today (and I don’t accept that), then the opening verses of chapter 2 are directly relevant to those who use the clobber verses to judge gay people.
“You have no defence, then, whoever you may be, when you sit in judgement – for in judging others you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, are equally guilty. We all know that God’s judgement on those who commit such crimes is just; and do you imagine – you that pass judgement on the guilty while committing the same crimes yourself – do you imagine that you, any more than they, will escape the judgement of God.”
I speculated to the CA Facebook group as to why verses 2.1-3 don’t immediately silence those who think it legitimate to use 26-27 against us, out of context? The crimes refer to Romans 1.29-31 – being ‘filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’ Savi Hensman said she finds it fascinating “that those who seek to criminalise LGBT people by promoting untrue claims about a supposed menace to society do not realise that they are encouraging malice, sometimes murder, slander, heartlessness, ruthlessness etc.”
Richard Coles noted that of course the chapter division between one and two was not intended by Paul. Read the passage without the chapter division and it feels very different: “… They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die–yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things”.
Jerry Lynch added that it is remarkable what happens when one asks conservatives not to stop reading at the end of “Chapter 1″, but follow through the word “διό/therefore” which clearly mark it as being of one argument with the beginning of “Chapter 2”. The Bible is not our enemy; selective quotation and lack of biblical education is.
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch broadened the scope in his comment – that Romans 1 is not about homosexuality but about idolatry, on which foundation Paul arbitrarily builds an argument about the unnaturalness of idolatry by comparing its practice with those who turn away from their ‘natural’ sexual identities and practice to that which isn’t part of their nature. Since none of us accept the Aristotelian biology on which this idea of nature is based, the whole argument is irrelevant to homosexuality.
Kenneth Cross added that the reason many of us struggle with Paul in Romans is because (like Augustine after him) his ‘disciples’ have seriously misrepresented his heart and we read Paul with the glasses of those who idolised him – even those of us who long ago left that kind of theology. The first three chapters of Romans – if we can get past the verses which are used (in isolation and without context) as a rod to beat the LGBT community – are genius if only because they penetratingly take us into the depth of the hypocrisy of the human heart and especially of organised religion and put us all on a level playing field. Read deeply and (as Maggie Ross would put it) in a non-linear way, the idea that ‘all have sinned’, stripped of its medieval and then reformation baggage, is profoundly true and puts axe to the root of the tree which is religious hypocrisy and exclusion. Then we discover the flowering of grace – a flowering which I believe can and will occur again in the church (albeit a radically transfigured church) and which will have at its heart the welcome to all – which millions for whom religion has become synonymous with judgement and exclusion – will find to be their homecoming.
Let me return to my thread about being ‘nice’ and generous towards people who hold a different theological and biblical view from me about LGBTI people. Such people may think that this is a matter of conscience, being asked to bake a cake, celebrate the weddings of gay and lesbian couples, because their conscience and core beliefs tell them this is wrong, but they are misreading Jesus, wilfully misreading the Bible, and creating a false God, a God which people in the West are rejecting because such a God is partisan, prejudiced, intolerant and unloving.
I believe God is NEVER behind faith systems that cause people to justify prejudice against another set of people, prejudice which leads to discrimination, abuse, verbal and physical hostility, criminalisation, incarceration and murder.
This is not, by any stretch of tolerance or imagination, what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who leads is into the heights and depths of God’s infinite, intimate, unconditional love.
Changing Attitude is campaigning for the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Anglican Communion. I now know that our campaign has to be underpinned by a radical re-imagining of the Christian faith in the God of Jesus and the Gospels, a re-imagining which is already happening, inspired by individuals with deep faith, profound interiority, attentive prayerfulness, attention to theology and hermeneutics, and to the deeply loving, unconditional presence of God in our lives, gentle, teasing, enriching and sometimes heart- and mind-blowing. This presence Jesus knew in the core of his being.
As John Seymour commented, those holding a judgmental position on LGBTI people read the text in a selective and fragmentary way for eisegesis of a homophobic position and we are not good at calling them to account for this. We have to be more pro-active in challenging their use of scripture, forcing those who use it in this way to see and admit the incoherence of their own arguments.
The apophatic tradition explored in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes allows no escape from the God who “. . . hides from us in an act of loving play, wooing us to the very abandonment that makes love possible. Love cannot exist so long as it remains an object to be possessed. It is born only in the letting go of all grasping and being grasped.”
The apophatic tradition “is a summons to the simplicity of life that flows from the relinquishment of language. It is a longing to see ourselves and our world transformed – to find speech renewed, relationships restored, a new vision of God made possible through the recognition of our limits.”
The apophatic tradition is, of course, deeply orthodox and traditional. It is in this tradition that Changing Attitude’s campaign work rests and evolves.
“In a society that emphasises the limitless possibilities of the individual self, it comes as a strange freshness to be confronted by an unfathomable God, indifferent to the petty, self-conscious needs that consume us.”