Opinion

Building bridges: LGBTQ + worshippers and Oxford’s evangelical churches

“There is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’ Luke 16:26

The reported social conservatism of Oxford’s evangelical churches – as well as the Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CU) – has recently come under scrutiny, with St Ebbe’s and St Aldate’s both being criticised after the Rectors of both churches signed a 2019 letter which criticised guidance issued by Oxford’s bishops for their approach to LGBT+ people. The issue has been hotly debated on Oxfess, with anonymous posts criticising the signatures, whilst others, from reported members of St Ebbe’s, have claimed that the criticism is unfair. 

My problem with this is two-fold. 

Firstly, I have theological qualms with the interpretation of the Bible that gay people have the option of either a) lying to themselves about who they love or b) accepting that they’re gay but living a love of coerced celibacy because of misinterpretation of scripture.

Secondly, it’s an issue of real-world consequences: it’s no secret that LGBT+ people are often scared, if not terrified, to be open about their sexuality without fear of judgement from their Church. 

So firstly, the theology. Mike Orsmond, one of my favourite theologians, and Pastor of Abergavenny Baptist Church, has separated attitudes of Christians towards same-sex relations into two camps: the traditionalists, and the affirmers. 

The first, as the name might suggest, is more traditional, believing that whilst same-sex attraction isn’t inherently sinful, acting on those attractions is wrong. It’s based on beliefs in the principles of creationism and complementarianism, that in the created order, God created male and female.

Alternatively, the affirming view argues that while same-sex relationships are not ideal, they are entirely appropriate. I mean, all Christians would agree that we live in a fallen world – not everything is ideal. On the face of it, Paul (in Romans 1) says that same-sex intercourse is wrong; but he also said the same thing about men with long hair. Last time I checked, worried parents don’t send their kids to undergo psychological trauma, to be shamed, and told they are less than because their hair is too long. Instead, affirmers argue that we should focus on the new creation in Jesus – in Galatians 3:28, it is declared there is neither, “slave nor free”, “no male or female” but “one in Jesus Christ”.

The Bible has been “misinterpreted, applying the letter rather than the spirit, the practice over the principle, and applying the literal word rather than the intention”. We’ve come to a point where much critical analysis of Christian theology and anthropological and sociological studies of the society in which Jesus lived has begun to feel comfortable in an ever smaller box, afraid to expand its scholarly horizons. 

Now, more than ever, we need to realise that just as context changes, our views should change too. Just as the Atlantic slave trade’s brutal trading of human lives was greatly different to Biblical slavery, the nature of homosexual relations in biblical times was also much different to today. Not existing then was the concept of a loving, monogamous, Christ-centred same-sex relationship. It was about extramarital sex, idolatrous paganistic worship and hugely distorted power dynamics.

Corinthians 6:9 in the New International Version reads: “do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral… nor men who have sex with men.” But, in ancient Greek, the words used for men…with men were two different ones. The first was malakos, which can refer to young boys or male prostitutes. The second was arsenokoitai, which can be translated as a man who is older and more powerful, or who takes the active role in a sexual relationship. So, it’s not inherently about homosexuality: it’s about exploitation, soliciting prositution, or an older man having sex outside of marriage. 

So, we’ve done the hard work of explaining why we should see the Bible as a document which promotes the theology of affirmation. The teachings of Jesus are about acceptance of the outsider – whether it’s Jesus recognising himself as an outsider, or him helping the vulnerable.  

Surely, there is no place for teaching which could justify making LGBT+ people feel excluded from the church? I cannot see any evidence that Jesus would have disregarded a Christ-centred, monogamous and committed relationship between two people of the same sex. In John 15:12, Jesus says My command is this: love each other as I have loved you

As traditionalists continue to reject this view, church can still be a frightening place for LGBT+ people of faith. What needs to be done to promote change this theology and to change the hearts and minds of traditionalists to the side of affirmation and to see the real, Godly love between those of the same sex?  And what does it have to do with Oxfess submissions, the CU, those churches in Oxford frequented by students, and the relationship between the LGBT+ community and Christians overall? 

Students have criticised a number of churches across Oxford, particularly those of the charismatic evangelical tradition, for their theological teachings, which they label as homophobic and transphobic. These criticisms have been greeted with anger from some churchgoers, who say that this overlooks the considerable number of affirming worshippers at their services. 

For St Ebbe’s, one of the primary contentions has been that the Rector of the Church identifies as same-sex attracted, but remains celibate, sincere in the belief that acting upon his desires would be sinful. The first time I read about this, I was devastated: undeniably a deeply spiritual man, dedicated to God, the Rector feels like he is less deserving than heterosexuals of intimacy and love because of that love’s same-sex nature. 

In October 2018, the Bishops of Oxford, Dorchester, Buckingham and Reading (the Oxford diocese) issued guidance in relation to sexuality. The guidance is, from my perspective, uncontroversial. It warned clergy against ‘intrusive questioning’ about sexual practices, and said that it is “unacceptable” to tell people sexual orientation can be changed by faith. It called upon priests to ‘ensure that LGBT+ people ‘know that there is a place at the table for them’ and that they ‘should not discourage LGBT+ people from receiving the Lord’s Supper.’ 

The response was The Letter from Concerned Anglicans which wanted to ‘record our grave concern’ over the guidance. They claim the letter sought to suggest that in relation to church leadership, acceptance into leadership of those who identify as LGBT+ would be required, which, in their view, “carries with it a range of understandings about what is appropriate by way of lifestyle.”

The letter quotes William Love, a bishop in America’s Episcopal Church (the equivalent of the Anglican church) on the topic of ‘blessings’ for same-sex couples. It “does a great disservice and injustice to our gay and lesbian Brothers and Sisters in Christ, by leading them to believe that God gives his blessing to the sharing of sexual intimacy within a same-sex relationship, when in fact He has reserved the gift of sexual intimacy for men and women within the confines of marriage between a man and woman.’” 

But I strongly disagree. What really does a great disservice and injustice to our  LGBT siblings is to reject them from a House of Prayer; to make them feel alienated and constantly unequal. 

They reject the idea that LGBT+ people should not be discouraged from receiving baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Heartbreakingly, St Aldate’s was where I was baptised and is where I participate in the Lord’s Supper. It’s a place for which I have a deep love. But sometimes I wonder if they would have allowed me to participate in Baptism, had they known I was openly gay. Their Letter references 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 which, they argue, clearly ‘discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves.’ It’s painful for so many LGBT+ Christians to find a church they love, filled with wonderful people, which is so silent about or dismissive of such important issues.

Well, I have examined myself. And I have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing in my sexuality which makes me unworthy of having a relationship with Jesus. Is it also time to exclude men with long hair from taking the Lord’s Supper? What about people who wear mixed cloth, or eat shellfish? So next time a traditionalist Christian participates in the Lord’s communion, let them remember what Jesus said: let “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7). No-one is without sin. We are all fallen creatures. 

The problem I have with this kind of theology is that not only is it wrong but also that it has real life consequences. As Kevin Garcia is completely right to point out: Bad Theology Kills. In fact, as of December 2019, male same-sex intercourse was illegal in 71 countries. Uganda’s 2014 anti-gay law, inspired by evangelicals, punished being gay with a lifetime in prison. 

In 2018, Lizzy Lowe, a 14-year-old from Manchester, took her own life after feeling that her Church would not accept her after she began to think that she might be lesbian. Imagine the stresses 14-year-olds have before even considering the extra stress and pressure of having to hide your sexuality in fear of ostracisation and being disowned.. She confided in friends, and in her final moments sent a text message to a friend, which concluded “stay strong. I am sorry.” 

What is so devastating is that the Church she and her parents attended was not a place in which homophobic nonsense was spouted in sermons. In fact, it was said, issues of sexuality were simply not discussed, for fear of causing too much conflict. In times like these, silence can be deafening. 

Following Lizzy’s tragic death, the Church acted admirably. It changed its environment to become more welcoming, even hosting parts of local Pride celebrations. It let people know they were welcome. The Rector of the church commented “we lost a 14-year-old girl to suicide. It doesn’t get more serious than that and that puts everything into perspective.” 

But how many more young people need to die before churches realise that being “careful” around issues of sexuality and identity, for fear of causing conflict, is not careful or responsible at all? Rather, it is a complete abrogation of the responsibility of compassion and acceptance which should form the basis of all Christians’ moral compasses.

Consequently, where does that leave LGBT+ people in Oxford and across the country? Whilst the LGBT+ Society has a committee Faith Representative, as far as I’m aware, the Christian Union does not have an LGBT+ Representative on their committee. One Oxfess criticised the CU for its self-reinforcing social conservatism, leaving LGBT+ people feeling uncomfortable to get involved out of fear of alienation. Private testimony from students has laid blame at the feet of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), which reportedly places limits on what University Christian Unions are able to discuss and disciplines people who go against their teachings. (The Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union has not responded to a request for comment).

It’s now the responsibility of the CU and churches in Oxford to reconcile themselves with the LGBT+ community. And not reconciliation of “we will accept you with caveats,” but rather one that recognises that misplaced interpretations of the Bible have exacerbated the divide between so many LGBT+ people who have faith and the churches from which they feel so alienated. Too often I have met Christians who are affirming, but are silent, or blind, to these kinds of injustices. Your silence makes you complicit. 

There is such a disconnect and lack of trust that there is no opportunity for mutual understanding. This, inevitably leads to further division and harm as the chasm grows ever wider. It is the practical responsibility of Christian organisations to reach out an olive branch to the LGBT+ community, to understand their fears, hopes and faith. It’s their moral duty. 

I also understand that reconsidering personal theology can be a very testing experience. I’m lucky that the affirming theology made sense to me. But for some, either brought up in a traditionalist church, or in a culture which frowned upon non-heterosexual orientations, it can be difficult to change your views. Changing your mind is hard, and it’s even harder when it can put your personal self at risk.  I don’t aim to decry traditionalists as evil at all, but I call upon people to bravely reconsider their theology: the Bible need not tend towards inherent conservatism. It’s incredibly radical and progressive. It’s time to embrace that.

I want to finish with the words of Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopalian Church – he’s best known in the UK for his fiery sermon at Meghan and Harry’s wedding in 2018. The Episcopalian Church has performed gay marriages since 2015, ordained transgender clergy since 2012 and celebrates the authentic identity of transgender people.

When I was a little boy, this was during the civil rights struggle, I remember my father, who was involved in the movement in Buffalo [New York], I remember hearing him say, God didn’t make my children to be second-class citizens in this country. God didn’t make anybody to be a second-class citizen. Of this country, or the human family. I believe it because I believe that’s what the Scripture teaches. And that is clearly what Jesus teaches. He says, come unto me all of you. He didn’t limit love. The dude, he got it.

The Episcopalian Church is all the better for this kind of theology and it’s about time that churches across Oxford and the UK embraced it too.

This article is dedicated to Lizzy Lowe, in the hope that her story will never be in vain. 

I’d also like to thank Mike Orsmond, Pastor of Abergavenny Baptist Church for his theological mightiness, much of which has inspired this article. His Same-Sex Relationships podcast was part of a series on “Tough Topics”. It, alongside other sermons about controversial cultural issues, and their relationship to Christianity, can be found here http://abergavennybaptist.co.uk/tough-topics/4594363973

Adam Wilkinson-Hill

Adam Wilkinson-Hill is going into his third year at Jesus College where he reads History and Politics. He is a former President of Welsh Society and former Co-President of Jesus College History Society. He is a self-proclaimed avid rower (except when it comes to ergs). When not in Oxford, he lives in Monmouthshire, Wales.