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Middle of the bed

06 February 2015

THE booklets published to support the facilitated conversations, due to begin later this year, about sexuality, are modest in their aims. There is no expectation that opposing parties will agree with each other. The object is simply to ensure that they remain in the same Church, or, if that is too ambitious, split up in a nice way. On the face of it, this should not be too hard. After all, pro- and anti-gay factions currently exist in the Church of England without doing too much damage to their consciences or each other. But it is hard to find anyone enthusiastic about the forthcoming conversations.

A key difficulty with the gay debate is that too much attention is given to the two extremes. Of course, neither the pro-gay nor the anti-gay party, to label them crudely, believes itself to be extreme: the first can claim to represent the majority view in the UK and the developed world; the second reckons it has the majority of the world's Christians on its side. Where they are united is in believing that there is no sustainable halfway position, no middle ground made up of people who believe that homosexuality is half right. Churches have been ridiculed when they attempt such an accommodation, suggesting, for example, that homosexuality falls short of God's ideal but can be tolerated; or that it is acceptable, on pastoral grounds, for lay people but not for clergy. In this, as in other disputes, the middle ground can be the most dangerous place to be, a sort of no-man's-land where one might be shot at by either side.

The first thing to note about this group is that, by and large, they wish that the issue of homosexuality would go away. Not at first a laudable approach, it encompasses the widely held view that sexuality has been allowed to assume too great an importance in the Church. Every church encounter takes place fully clothed, after all. Sexual behaviour is very seldom an issue, and many are astonished at the heat of the debate. The second point follows on from this: many people have not been exposed to the arguments of each side. Their opinions are largely untested, though they can be strongly held. Third, the direction of travel is almost entirely one way: studies have shown convincingly that each generation is more liberal on this issue than the preceding one. Finally, it is common to be ambivalent on this issue. Sexuality is a deep matter, and many people's views are made up of elements that can be in conflict with each other: assent to an intellectual viewpoint, personal friendships, scriptural doubts, and visceral impulses. Campaigners might be dismissive of such ambivalence, dismissing it as pusillanimity about gospel truth, or indifference to injustice; but, barring the occasional Damascene conversion, this is a stage that most people pass through, and at different speeds. It should, though, be thought of as a stage. If it is of benefit to the Church to come to a settled view, this is equally true of individual churchgoers.

Deterred by those with firm views on sexuality, those in the middle tend to be reluctant to articulate their views. If they can be persuaded to do so in future months, however, they might just provide the catalyst the shared conversations need.

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