The church and homosexuality -the challenges in Christian churches and contexts

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The church and homosexuality -the challenges in Christian churches and contexts

This presentation was initially given at A Different Conversation Conference 
27 February – 1 March 2014

L to R Anthony Venn-Brown, Rev Rod Bower, Rev Matt Glover

Introduction

I is a challenge. A huge challenge. Of all the things that I have done I think working in the space of shifting the churches understanding of sexual and gender diversity has been and is the most challenging.

There is no more controversial or volatile space than the homosexuality/Christianity debate. Generally speaking it is a space of conflict with two diametrically opposed views expressed at times with hatred, anger and vilification. It’s challenging to find middle ground. But there is middle ground if people are willing to take it. It’s called GRACE and UNCONDITIONAL LOVE – two profoundly biblical concepts but so frequently ignored.

Andrew Marin, in his book “Love is an Orientation” put it well when he described the challenge of existing in this space of bridge building; likening it to standing in the middle of the field during a storm. We become lightening rods.

But we are seeing a shift in the church. It’s slow though. Annoyingly slow. It’s like trying to shift the direction of a large ocean tanker.

History tells us this has always been the way it’s been.

The Anti-Slavery Movement in the United States commenced in 1833 when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded. In 1865 the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution  was ratified, banning slavery. That took 32 years.

The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally eliminating sex discrimination and gave women the right to vote. That took 72 years. But it gets worse. Nearly twenty years later Maryland ratified the amendment in 1941. After another ten years, in 1952, Virginia ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, followed by Alabama in 1953. After another 16 years Florida and South Carolina passed the necessary votes to ratify in 1969, followed two years later by Georgia

[, Louisiana in 1971 but Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1984, sixty four years after the law was enacted nationally.

African Americans began their struggle for equal rights in 1909 with the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Civil Rights were granted in 1964 and Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. That was a struggle of 56 years.

Whenever there has been a shift in societies consciousness about equality, not only has the church usually been the church the last to embrace it, but have also actively resisted and opposed change. If you spent the time to read through the parliamentary speeches and debates of the time you would find bible verses often quoted – for and against. Sound familiar.

So what history tells us is that Christians are often slow learners and the church has learning disabilities. When I began this work in 2004 I had a 30 year strategy. I hope I’m around to see my end goal.

Of course the belief that homosexuality is a sin, same sex orientation and transgender people are unnatural and that people can change is not necessarily a Christian concept. It was societies belief for many decades. Society began to grow in its understanding of these beginning with the research of Evelyn Hooker in 1957. I was 6 then. I turn 63 in few weeks and today I can live in a society and family that accepts me thanks to the increased knowledge that shifted societies understanding of sexual orientation. It’s a very different story in my Pentecostal world however.

At some Pentecostal churches I would not even be allowed attend. Some wouldn’t let me play an instrument or be on the platform to sing or even serve coffee in the foyer. An insignificant number of them would allow me to lead a home group or serve in a small leadership capacity. But I’d have to live in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” closeted culture. In other words they are expecting me to live with a sense of shame as if I had something to hide, be inauthentic and to lie. And not one of them would allow me to be ordained or make a public commitment of love, exclusivity for life, to the man I love.

Yes this is an incredibly challenging space to talk about same sex issues.

The three main areas of challenge

  1. The challenges that bridge-builders face

Dealing with anger

Every time I hear another story of a church who has separated a lesbian couple of 8 years, with kids because they believe their relationship is immoral – I get angry.

Every time I hear that a youth pastor has told a young 16 year kid that God doesn’t want them to
be gay and He can change them, knowing this will lead to depression and at some point he will think about taking his own life and may actually do that,.– I get angry.

Every time I hear of a pastor who has told a man struggling with their same sex orientation that this woman is a gift from God and that by marrying them it will demonstrate God’s ‘miracle knowing that around mid life he will come to the reality that nothing has changed leaving him devastated, the wife feeling betrayed and the children confused – I get angry.

So what do I do with that anger. Suppress it. Because if I really let out how I feel then I wouldn’t be able to engage in a dialogue. People don’t like to talk with angry people. I don’t. Do you? The challenge is to continue to be loving, respectful and gracious even when you are not afforded the same qualities or values.

The need for patience

As I’ve mentioned change happens over time. Churches and church leaders transform at a pace. It’s different for each person. No one moves from being anti-gay to becoming gay affirming overnight. The challenge is to allow them time to journey. I am often helped by reminding myself that it took me 28 years to resolve my faith and sexuality so I can’t expect overnight results and must be committed to be in this game for the long haul.

Coping with personal attacks

You’d be surprised where these come from actually. I am sure you think it is just the Christian conservatives – of course I get this regularly but I would expect them to say cruel, unkind things and lies. They are speaking out of their ignorance and bigotry. Would we expect anything else? But there are other sources of attack as well.

Hurt and damaged people from Christian backgrounds project their own pain on to me for a whole variety of things I have done in attempting to build bridges with churches and church leaders. Coping with this and not allow it to get you down is a challenge.

Some people in the LGBT community are staunch atheists and hate anything to do with religion. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to realise why this is. The Christian church has opposed every piece of legislation that created equality and a better life for LGBT people. So some attack me for even engaging with churches and religious leaders and say things like “you can go to hell with all your Christian friends as far as I am concerned”…..and that’s one of the nicer ones..

“The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from our enemies”.

 

  1. The challenges for the straight allies

Many of you learnt that even saying sorry to the LGBT community for  the way the church had treated them came at a price. In 1998 the 100 REVS first signed the apology to our community  Some people signed but had to withdraw because of threats from their denominational leaders. Names appeared and disappeared. Even though there were a 100 names only about 30 marched because they were told if they did then would lose their jobs. Some have lost jobs, income, housing, preaching engagements etc because they dared to stand on the side of the marginalised.

If you are a straight ally you will be condemned, attacked, vilified and labelled deceived. Depending on how far you are out there you will pay a price. This will be your challenge. One step ahead and you are a leader. Two steps ahead and you are an innovator. Three steps ahead and you a martyr.

I have seen the implications of straight allies standing with the LGBT community so often I have a piece that I now cut and paste to send to them. It reads.

Thanks so much for standing with us. It means a lot.

I’m sorry to hear that you been attacked for stating what you currently believe and for your actions.

When we look at the life of Jesus in the gospels we see a man who was also attacked. He was the great rule breaker and was constantly attacked by the conservatives and religious leaders of the day for mixing with wrong people and going to the wrong places. Does that sound familiar?

Jesus saw human beings not labels. His life and parables constantly remind us who are neighbours and how we can practically live out the command ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.

Phariseeism is alive and well in the church of the 21st century and some continue to judge, condemn and separate themselves from people they consider somehow outside of God’s grace. I still find it surprising that Christians who claim to be people of the Word can’t see the similarities happening today.

I’m not sure this will be of enormous comfort but worth mentioning anyway.

When any straight person from the Christian church actually stands on the side of the LGBT community they often experience hostility, vilification, judgment and personal attack. By standing with us though you get to experience something that is an everyday experience for many gay and lesbian people. 85% of gay men and lesbians experienced harassment or violence during their lifetime, with one in four gay men and lesbians being physically attacked.  Not for anything they have done but simply for being who they are. In the eyes of the attacker they are abnormal outsiders who do not deserve to be treated like everyone else, that is, with dignity and respect. This is not a special right the LGBT community are asking for, it is a basic human right.

Thank you for being like Jesus and being willing to show unconditional love it has not gone unnoticed by God and those who strive to be like the Master.

And once we have a new consciousness or understanding we are empowered. It’s impossible to retreat to a place of ignorance. Too much is at stake. TRUTH. And it was Jesus who said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

  1. The challenges for church leaders

To understand the challenges ministers and church leaders face we need to understand the context.

You are the pastor of a relatively healthy church in the suburbs a few 100 in the congregation or you are the pastor of a mega church with 20,000.  You have built this congregation up with your blood sweat and tears. If you get involved in this ‘issue’ how will your congregation respond. Of course what most pastors don’t realise is that members of their congregation are further along this journey than they are as they have gay and lesbian work colleagues or family and friends. You know there are ultra conservatives in your congregation. How much power/influence do they have? I have seen what has happened to churches, denominations and Christian leaders who have ventured into this space.

One of the big challenges is that pastors and church leaders are completely unaware of the harm they are causing to LGBT people. Many of them have pastors hearts and if they really knew the suffering that has been caused they would be motivated to do something about it. Like me, they would weep as they sat down and listened to peoples stories of the tremendous suffering caused by the churches ignorance and resistance to change.

The needs of pastors and church leaders

  1. One of the big things church leaders need is a space of confidentiality and safety. They are fearful on a number of levels, one being that their church might split over the issues. I have met secretly with many church leaders because they trust me..If it gets out that they are speaking with me then it can cause all sorts of ramifications which unnecessarily highjack our conversation. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night for a reason.
  2. Giving space for the journey – it will take time of the move through the 7 stages on the continuum from hatred to dislike, dislike to discomfort, discomfort to tolerance, tolerance to acceptance, acceptance to affirmation, affirmation to advocacy. For some the journey takes years. Others get stuck at one of the stages.
  3. Should I make the gay issue a priority?. The gay issue is way down on their priority list. Many have  buried their heads in the sand hoping it would go away. But it hasn’t and won’t. In Australia we are seriously talking about marriage equality now. You can’t pick up a newspaper today without their being something about LGBT rights or some similar story. Sometimes its headline news. You can read here the  reason this should be a priority for church leaders. Pastor Brian Houston from Hillsong recently mentioned this to his congregation.
  4. The challenge on personal faith – if I take this brick out of the wall and discover we were wrong about homosexuality, will that  mean my entire wall of faith will collapse
  5. It is not one issue that needs to be resolved. Its complex and will have ongoing ramifications. When I work with churches and leaders I let them know there will be 10 separate issues will be faced at some time. These include a natural aversion to same sex sex, celibacy, the bible verses themselves that speak about same sex activity, leadership in the church and finally marriage equality. I say finally marriage equality because if the other 9 are not ticked off then they will never come to that place. Moving along through these 10 separate issues can take a couple of years. Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International  works with churches and leaders and assists them to develop a strategy through those issuesand ensure the pace is right and polarisation on the issue is minimized.

With all these challenges we need to remember that we are all entwined in this journey together. No one person can do it alone. We need to discover ways to work together to the end goal of a church that loves, accepts and affirms our humanity. A church that Jesus Christ would be proud of and is a place of welcome to all people..

Sadly while we try and get our shit together people will lose their faith, some will develop mental health issues, Christians will reject their gay and lesbian family and friends and young people will take their lives.

I trust that this makes us conscious of the need for urgency. Some people don’t have forever, they need answers now.

© Anthony Venn-Brown

By | 2017-03-25T23:37:24+00:00 February 27th, 2014|Categories: Church, General, Speech|Tags: , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Anthony Venn-Brown

Anthony Venn-Brown is one of Australia’s foremost commentators on faith and sexuality. His best-selling autobiography ‘A Life of Unlearning – a preacher’s struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith‘, detailing his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s growing mega-churches, such as Hillsong, to living as an openly gay man, has impacted 1,000’s globally. Anthony was the co-founder and former leader of Freedom 2 b[e], Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony is the founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International and has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009).

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