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Faith matters to LGBT+ young people

11 February 2022

But they find the Church’s conflicting messages confusing, reports Ken Batty


I CHAIR the main LGBT+ youth service in London. While we were recruiting new trustees, one candidate mentioned an interest in spiritual things. “That’s good,” one of the young people said. “Our leaders are all uninterested in religion and spirituality: it is something we miss.” I was astonished when most of the others agreed.

As part of our response, we ran a couple of online panels on being LGBT+ and having faith. The General Synod member Jayne Ozanne joined one; Fr Bernard Lynch, the founder of Dignity USA, was on another. The turnouts were the largest that we had last year for anything. The questions revealed a deep interest among a generation of LGBT+ teenagers in spirituality and in faith.

The Church’s message is unclear, however. Conservative Evangelicals point to Bible verses stating that same-sex relations are wrong, and talk glibly about “loving the sinner but not the sin”. When asking for practical advice, our young people found that they received little. Guidance was mainly about conversion therapies, ranging from prayers to exorcism. Some were pointed to groups supporting “lifestyle-change ministries”. Most of these have closed, however, their leaders announcing that they did not work. One young person observed that the Church seemed obsessed with sex, but ignored anything about love. They found the response loveless and unhelpful.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who offer a positive approach to the LGBT+ young person. They are affirming in their approach. They see no fundamental problem with LGBT+ relationships, and, rather than condemn, they seek to show the young people how they can grow in the faith and have a real and meaningful place in the Church.

TO DISCOVER these differences, of course, the young people have to engage. The media rarely cover these issues, but recently a couple of stories have gained attention.

Coverage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death included his stand on LGBT+ rights (News, 31 December). Indeed, our decidedly atheist executive director quoted him on social media: “I would refuse to go a homophobic heaven. No. I would say sorry. I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me it at the same level.”

Our young people are also talking about the situation in Ghana, where the government is proposing the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, under which it would be illegal to identify as LGBT+, and advocacy for LGBT+ rights would mean ten years in prison (News, 29 October 2021). Some heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury had said that he was gravely concerned that the Anglican Church in Ghana was supporting the Bill. His words did not receive much media coverage, but, when he withdrew them, and apologised to the Ghanaians, it was widely covered in both national and LGBT+ media (News, 19 November 2021).

Some bishops have been supportive, but this has not cut through to our non-churchgoing young people. What gets coverage, in media anxious for an interesting angle, is Christians with the more extreme anti-gay views. Most C of E bishops are not extreme, talking about welcoming everybody, but they are often vague when this comes to LGBT+ people — because, I suspect, they do not feel able to commit themselves to the reality of what that welcome would entail. This very vagueness makes it uninteresting to the media and confusing to our young people

The Bishops also may not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the Living in Love and Faith process, but the effect is that another generation of LGBT+ people are being turned off the Church. The period from the Ghanaian Bishops’ initial support for the legislation to the re­­port of their expressing con­cern now (News, 4 February) was more than three months. During that time, when hear­­ing of the most ex­­treme anti-LGBT legislation and the support of the Ghanaian Bishops, many church leaders in the UK did not speak up. If any­thing is going to turn young people away from the Church, it is silence about injustice.

THE Church has missed the LGBT+ generation that has grown up since the 1990s, when most legal discrimination against us was removed. The Church needs something relevant to say to the next generation, but its leaders vacillate between silence and equivocation. We won’t hear Desmond Tutu’s voice in future. Sadly, no other leader seems willing to step up and boldly say what should be stated right now: “God is not homophobic, but the Ghanaian government and those that support this legislation most certainly are.”

So, what is the message of the Church to our young LGBT+ people, who, it seems, have a spiritual yearning, extinguished in previous generations? It is sad that the wing of the Church most focused on bringing people to Christ is the most selective about those whom they think he would want them to bring. Dare I suggest that “Come and join us for a life of enforced celibacy, sexual frustration, and prolonged guilt” is not an attractive message, even if it appears so to those who look over at LGBT+ people and, like the Pharisee in Luke 18.11, thank God they are not as some others are.

Ken Batty chairs the Mosaic LGBT+ Young Persons’ Trust.

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