I’m spending this weekend talking and listening about sex. With perhaps a few exceptions, most people I know don’t relish these conversations. On the whole we haven’t been particularly well socialised to talk openly and publicly about sex and sexuality and those of us within the church are quite a few steps behind the rest of society in this regard. As you can imagine, there’s been moments of discomfort, some awkward squirming at times and lots of laughter, because that’s a common way to deal with difficult topics.
The subject has come up as the key area of discussion for an annual Salvation Army conference called Thought Matters. This year’s theme is ‘Honour God with your body: A Christian view of human sexuality’. Whilst the matters under discussion haven’t been limited to same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that these have had a fair bit of attention. We’ve had some excellent presentations with, what I imagine has been, a massive effort in preparation to ensure a range of perspectives, a balanced viewpoint overall and great care not to offend anyone in the process. Now that I say that, I realise perhaps why I’m not down as a speaker this year.
You see, I think there’s great danger in pretending to be balanced here. This isn’t just about competing concepts. We’re not dealing in abstractions. It’s not like debating the nature of the Trinity or the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. It is deeply personal and there are real human casualties. For me, that has to be our starting point. To take a position of neutrality, while opponents work their way through theoretical arguments, is to side with the status quo and the status quo is hurting people.
Today we heard some truly compelling personal stories from people who have been hurt by their experience of church, and specifically by The Salvation Army. I can’t imagine anyone in the room wasn’t touched in some way and a number were certainly brought to tears, myself included. We can’t fix this by saying sorry if we don’t in fact stop hurting people right now. We need to take responsibility for the messages that we put out that tell LGBT people that they are wrong, deviant, unacceptable to us and to God, because these messages are causing real and long-term damage.
Perhaps because of some of the tumultuous nature of the world right now, the notion that occurred to me as a way forward is that we need to institute an immediate ‘ceasefire’. It may be that the solutions we are seeking are still some way off and, as much as we might want to hurry them along, there is no evidence that this is likely to happen. So the least we can do is to stop the rate of casualties in the meantime. As the party with the most power in this situation, The Salvation Army will have to make the most compromises in order for a ‘ceasefire’ to be effective. I don’t have a clear or comprehensive idea about what this might look like but some possible features could include:
- We stop making public statements about other people’s sexuality. (Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have any credibility in this area anyway)
- We do make intentional and specific statements and efforts to welcome LGBT people into our corps unconditionally.
- We work on the default assumption that LGBT people can participate as fully in corps ministries as anyone else, rather than figuring out reasons why they can’t.
None of this is to presuppose a permanent solution. There will still be much discussion to be had and that discussion will need to prioritise the active participation of those most affected. However, I can’t help but think that if we stop the processes and activities that are currently causing so much hurt and pain in people’s lives, then perhaps, just maybe the discussion might be a little more fruitful because its context is one of genuine love and grace rather than pain.
I know that for some people, even a temporary move like this will appear to be a grievous compromise of dearly held principles. I’m honestly not sure what to say to those people. I understand their viewpoint but I can’t with any integrity accept that the church can harm people in the way that it has been doing and not take responsibility for its own complicity in that.
It has to be more than a battle of ideas and we won’t be able to take any pleasure in what we perceive is the moral high ground, while LGBT people continue to feel self-hatred and loathing to the degree that they do, and while they continue to self-harm and suicide at the rates that currently exist. The church isn’t the only cause of these things but followers of Jesus should never be counted amongst those who crucify others.