Listen, and build a less homophobic society

by
27 October 2010

The C of E should take a lead in engaging with gay people. Its prejudices need challenging, argues Stephen Platten

OTHER people’s problems and op­por­tunities can often remain theo­retical, until they hit us clearly in the face. I learnt this sharply when I accepted an invitation recently to visit a group in Halifax.

We arrived at the secret destina­tion (it is still seen as too dangerous to publicise the venue), both my colleague and I wearing clerical collars. We were warmly welcomed by one ebullient young man, al­though others were suspicious. In some sections of the room, conver­sation died, as glances were stolen. In a couple of cases, there was almost a hysterical nervousness, and indi­viduals bounded over to talk at us.

The event was a regular evening meeting of Gay and Lesbian Youth in Calderdale. Half a dozen people made a presentation, aimed par­ticularly (but not uniquely) at the Christian Churches.

The presentation was not all sur­prises, but some elements were shocking. Gay children are bullied at school. Parents reject children on the basis of sexual orientation. Tragically, this much we might expect. Yet young gay people told us of severe violence against them in the streets and even in schools.

The results of all this are tragically predictable: utter isolation for many, higher rates of mental-health dis­orders, suicidal behaviour, self-harm, substance misuse, and homelessness. Some of the individual stories we heard were shaming to us all.

After the visit, news came through from the United States of four separate stories, in a single month, of teenagers who had killed themselves because of alleged bullying by class­mates. Tyler Clementi, aged 18, threw himself from a bridge after a live video of him having a “sexual encounter” with a man was allegedly streamed live on the internet. Seth Walsh, aged 13, was teased relent­lessly for “liking other boys”. He hanged himself, and was found by his mother. Asher Brown, also 13, shot himself. Billy Lucas, 15, also hanged himself.

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AS A PRIEST — both on that evening in Halifax and after this horrifying litany of tragedies — I felt a particular sense of shame. In 2008, when the bishops came to­gether for the Lambeth Confer­ence, it was an encouraging meeting.

The Archbishop of Canterbury facilitated our conversation in an amazing way, encouraging us to acknowledge our conscientious dif­fer­ences on certain issues, and also to keep the conversation going. The divisive issues had not disappeared, nor had they been swept beneath the carpet, but we remained one family. I felt proud to be an Anglican.

Yet now, although I remain full of hope, there is at least one vacuum in our mutual relationships — and this is where the shame comes in. At both the 1998 and 2008 conferences, a fairly traditional or conservative line was first explicitly and then implicitly adhered to on homosexual relation­ships.

The resolution in 1998 divided the Communion. Alongside this, how­ever, ran a parallel commitment: to listen to the experience and contri­bution of lesbian and gay Christians within the Church.

In some parts of the Communion, this process has begun in earnest. Elsewhere, it has been forgotten, or scarcely begun. In Uganda, the Church has to negotiate a hazardous course in a nation that has teetered on the brink of making homo­sexuality a crime carrying the death penalty. It is also crucial to listen to the experience of gay people from outside the Church, too.

AFTER my evening in Halifax, I wondered whether the Church of England had even begun to listen. I did not feel that I had to any serious degree, at least not to gay people out­side the Church.

What would it mean really to listen? We would hope for more such opportunities to encounter one another. Even the most extreme Anglican reaction to homosexuality does not condemn the orientation. Each of us is a creature of God, and made as he or she is. That includes people who find themselves to be gay and lesbian. Attitudes to homosexual love will vary, as indeed attitudes to human relationships vary enorm­ously. We need to engage with each other effectively, and explore these differences.

In the diocese of Wakefield, we have begun, but only just. We have debated how the Bible can inform our moral decisions, including those on sexuality, and we have also listened to a presentation on friend­ship.

Both these encounters were worth­ while, and were conducted with enormous graciousness. We need also to heed the voices of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Move­ment, and Changing Attitude — although many members will be justifiably suspicious of too close an interest from their bishop.

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THE Church of God (not just the Church of England) should take a lead here. We ought to encourage real listening, allowing for the possibility of a change of heart, if not a change in our own moral outlook. We all have a responsibility to break down homophobia, just as we have to tackle racism or sexism.

Some might think that a Church that appears to be homophobic is hypocritical to speak out. Of course, the Church is heard to make a great deal of noise on this issue because, within it, there are a variety of views. This is not unlike our culture — where we see both calls for equality and rampant homophobia. Perhaps the Church serves a purpose here as a place where all this can be discussed. To claim to be that place, however, we will need to bring people together.

One young woman in Halifax told us that our visit had changed her attitude to the Church. My colleague had done this simply by sitting with her and by breaking down the stereotype she had of the clergy. He had been to gay pubs with gay friends, he said — much to her surprise.

I expect that the reverse might be true. If more Christians sat down with gay people — active, single, in committed relation­ships or not — they, too, would find stereotypes break down. I wonder when most dio­cesan synods last sought a pre­senta­tion from gay Christians about their life in Christ, or dioceses last held day conferences on sexuality and faith.

A healthy society will be both sensitive to all and responsible in deriving a moral code that pro­motes human flourishing. At the moment, it does not feel like that for lesbian and gay people. We are obliged by the gospel to find ways to build that society.

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is Bishop of Wakefield.

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