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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
An almighty problem
With the future of the Anglican Church threatened by divisions over the ordination of gay bishops, it is hoped a blueprint published on Monday will ease the tensions. But what do ordinary clergy make of the issue?

It was the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire that really stoked the row over homosexuality in the Anglican Church.

African leaders condemned the appointment of the first openly gay bishop, the ensuing row threatening to irrevocably divide liberal and conservative wings of the church.

Over the last year a team of 19 senior churchmen led by the Primate of All Ireland, Dr Robin Eames, has been looking at ways to heal the rift in the 70 million strong church. The Lambeth Commission released its findings on Monday.

As some members of the church predict the report may make things even worse, we invited two ministers from different sides of the debate to engage in an e-mail debate on the issue.

The liberal

A keen advocate of change, the Reverend Anthony Braddick-Southgate is a director of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. He has been vicar of St Antony with St Silas in Nunhead, south-east London since 1997.

The conservative

A member of the group Reform, John Richardson is opposed to the ordination or consecration of practising gay bishops. He is an Associate Minister in the diocese of Chelmsford and author of several books on religion and sexuality.

DEAR JOHN

The Anglican Church needs to accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people because it's right.

It is right because it recognises the truth. LGBT people are already here; we are members of congregations, Sunday School teachers, churchwardens and clergy.

It is unacceptable for Christianity to be a disguise for persecuting people

We always have been and always will be members of the Church, even in countries where LGBT people are executed or imprisoned with the connivance or support of the Church.

The Anglican Church has been and must work to be even more truly a place where many different viewpoints meet to faithfully explore God's calling, such reconciliation is the work of the Gospel.

I want that work to continue, openly. To acknowledge that all of us, gay and straight, radical and conservative, have a place within the Church.

It is unacceptable for Christianity to be a disguise for persecuting people but through language and action the Anglican churches often continue to persecute.

It should be a cause of joy to the Church that despite the abuse that LGBT people have suffered at its hands, so many of us want to stay and work to serve God, but let us at least be honest about who we are.

Such honesty is a gift, a chance to carry on exploring what it means to be human and to be created in God's image. Simple, absolute condemnation does no honour or justice to God, to Christ or to the Gospel which is good news for everyone, including those of us who are LGBT.

DEAR ANTHONY

I agree with your opening comments almost entirely. The Church has always had people with same-sex attraction as members.

Unfortunately, the Church has often followed the ways of the world in ridiculing, condemning and persecuting such people.

There is a great need to repent of this attitude and set a lead in showing real acceptance.

One of our problems is the nature and extent of "acceptance".

Next month, I will be a speaker at the annual conference of the True Freedom Trust (TfT), where over 150 people with same-sex attraction will be in attendance. However, TfT follows traditional Christian teaching on sexuality.

Sex is important, and gender is very important, but I wouldn't want to categorise myself by my sexual attractions

Are these people "accepted"? I think the Church as a whole accepts them. But I suspect there may be a real lack of acceptance in their individual churches, which needs to be addressed.

Where I might disagree with you is over categorising people as one thing or another, which is why I prefer to talk about "a person with same-sex attractions", rather than people being "LGBT".

Sex is important, and gender is very important, but I wouldn't want to categorise myself by my sexual attractions, especially as these change over a lifetime.

Finally, the Christian message does contain condemnation. But it is condemnation for all - since all fall short of God's glory.

So the acceptance contained in the Christian message is also acceptance for all, not because of what individuals are like but because of what God has done for all of us.

DEAR JOHN

To avoid a split, the Anglican Communion should avoid imitating the Roman Catholic Church.

Anglicanism was never supposed to be a world-wide monolithic institution, each province or "national" church is supposed to be able to discern for itself where God is leading it.

The temptation we now face is the temptation the devil faced Jesus with - to use power to establish one answer for all people everywhere.

The way that Jesus chose was to risk the laughter and ridicule of the world, to reach out in love and compassion to those who disagreed with him.

This must surely be the path that each part of the Communion must now choose.

DEAR ANTHONY

Unfortunately, the Anglican Communion is split already, with some Africans refusing to take money from Anglicans in America, despite the problems this is causing them.

However, the idea of God leading different geographical parts of a Communion in different theological directions seems a bit odd if we share a common faith.

Of course, we should not use worldly power - legal action, threats, etc - to establish Christian truth. But that cuts both ways.

So North American bishops need to stop issuing writs against traditionalists, and traditionalists need to rely on persuasion.

Institutions must have rules, but the institutional rules are not the gospel.

DEAR JOHN

I would be interested to know why you think this has become such an issue for conservatives if, like you, they acknowledge that LGBT people have always been a part of the church, both lay and ordained.

The only thing that has changed in the last 20 years is that we have been honest about this and can it really be that the conservative right have a problem with that honesty?

DEAR ANTHONY

The question facing the Church is not whether it contains people who experience same-gender attraction (since clearly it does and certainly it should), but how it is going to respond to them.

Gene Robinson's consecration
Gene Robinson's consecration split the Church

Is it going to follow the "way of the world" of 20 years ago (as it certainly once did), by generally ridiculing and accusing? Or is it going to follow the "way of the world" of today, accepting the line that same-gender attraction is just the same as opposite-gender attraction, whilst most of its members remain secretly thankful that they're not made that way?

It seems to me that both of these are inadequate for a community in touch with God.

Such a community should have the integrity to acknowledge that same-gender attraction is not the equivalent of opposite-gender attraction (indeed, even the bishops have managed to say that much). But it should surely make it possible for any of its members to be open about their experience of life.

A community which simply says "That's OK, you do what you like," would not be Christian. But neither is a community which says, "We don't want to know, don't darken our doorstep." That is our dilemma and challenge.

DEAR JOHN

And here we come to the crux of the matter.

Same sex attraction is the same in value, in meaning and in substance as opposite-sex attraction.

This is not following the way of the world today, 20 years ago or 2,000 years ago.

This is a Biblical truth founded in the witness of the Scriptures, such as Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, which demonstrates God's desire for sexual inclusivity.

The issue is whether one believes in the Bible and, therefore, trusts it to represent the subtleties, the imagination, the poetry and the challenge of God, or one says one believes in the Bible but is too fearful to take it in any other way than at face-value (a literal interpretation is, after all, no interpretation).

We find the same delight, tenderness, intimacy and love in our sexuality and sexual life

Although the Evangelical position on sexuality is currently making victims out of LGBT men and women, unmarried heterosexual couples and so on, the real issue has been and remains the interpretation of the Bible.

The acceptance that we both believe that LGBT people should have is and always will be flawed until it takes account of our God-given sexual life.

Without putting words into your mouth John, allow me to presume you are heterosexual and that you would be happy describing your sexuality and sexual life as a God-given gift.

I would ask you to consider whether the force behind such a conviction comes from your self-knowledge in your personal relationship with God, which you then find to be confirmed by Scripture, for if this is the case what you propose denies the similar lived experience of millions of faithful Christians who happen to be LGBT.

We find the same delight, tenderness, intimacy and love in our sexuality and sexual life, which at its best (again similarly to heterosexual relationships at their best) overflows into an actively sacrificial love for the world beyond the relationship.

Scripture teaches us to test the spirits, particularly in the arena of love: the blessings that flow from our sexuality and sexual life are loving and Godly.

DEAR ANTHONY

My own sexual attractions have indeed, for the most part, been towards members of the opposite sex. But in themselves such attractions have a tendency, as we know, to be an 'unruly' aspect of our personal being.

So Jesus, for example, warns us of attractions which we may consider harmless and 'natural', but which are actually quite wrong: "Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

The reality is that many of our sexual desires and attractions need to be controlled

When I find myself in this position, it hasn't started as a 'personal choice'. I didn't choose to be attracted to women, and I don't choose to find any particular woman attractive.

In that sense you might say I am 'innocent' in such attractions. But somewhere along the line, according to Jesus, this attraction has become something which renders me 'guilty'.

So I need to be very careful not to begin with my 'God-given sexuality' and finish by justifying every expression of it.

The reality is that many of our sexual desires and attractions need to be controlled and, to that extent, denied. And the question is whether same-sex attractions (along with some others) fall into that category.

Incidentally, we shouldn't talk as if "LGBT people" come in one variety or all have the same view on this.

As I said previously, at the end of next month I will be speaking to 150 or more people who experience same-sex attraction, whose Christian understanding is that this is a desire they should not put into practice.

DEAR JOHN

Your reply makes me feel rather sad. Is it really so hard to say that sexuality is a force for good without feeling also the need to couch it in fearful terms of 'control,' 'unruly-ness,' 'denial,' and 'lust'?

A very wise man once said to me, and I am paraphrasing from memory: "Our sexuality is one of the places where we are most out of control, perhaps it is therefore one of the places where we are closest to God."

This strikes a chord with me, it makes me think of that vast body of holy and spiritual writing from both our traditions which talks of the surrender of self and the giving up of control.

I am not naive enough to think that sexuality is not powerful and is not capable of distortion, but then so is prayer, so is religion, so is sacrifice and a whole range of otherwise beautiful things that we never think to couch around with the language of warnings and fear.

I am also concerned that you quote Jesus' teaching about "lustful looks" when I have been talking about love, attraction and relationship - is it really your view that all of this is covered by the concept of lust?

I would find that surprising, and if that is not the case then I fail to see the relevance of the quotation.

I am surprised that although you have said some sexual desires need to be controlled and denied and raise the question of whether this is true of same-sex desires you do not answer the question.

It would feel like an easier discussion if you were able to say directly that you believe such desire to be "quite wrong" needing to be "denied," or to tell me otherwise.

Finally, I agree that there is a vast diversity of opinion in the LGBT population about many issues.

I find it disingenuous however to put an annual meeting of 150 or so forward as an argument for ex-gay groups such as the True Freedom Trust (a nomenclature I know they would not be happy with).

The fact is that there is almost no disagreement within our community about the damage such groups, which attempt to effect a 'therapeutic' change in someone's sexuality, can do and I would go as far as to consider such attempts sinful.

Also, as you will know, TfT is the only significant ex-gay ministry left in this country. In fact, Courage, a similar group, recognised recently that such attempts at change simply did not work and is now working as a support group for lesbian and gay Christians.

I would expect roughly the same number of people at my parish's AGM as you will be speaking to at the end of the month.

I do not wish to comment on those 150 that you will be addressing, but I do wish to point out that the word "minority" does not adequately describe the proportion of the LGBT population, and even within the Christian LGBT population, that hold this view.

DEAR ANTHONY

To put the record straight I must point out that TfT is not an "ex-gay group". On the contrary, they are very much an "ongoing gay" group, and they do not, as far as I'm aware, exist to "attempt to effect 'therapeutic' change" in members or others.

If I may quote Martin Hallett, the director of TfT: "As Christians we need to stop conforming to a world that feels secure behind a sexuality label, even a 'Christianised' one.

"When I first became a Christian I struggled to find a label that fitted. Saying, 'I am homosexual;, implied being sexually involved. Calling myself 'A non-practising homosexual' sounded as if I had given up trying to get it right! Saying, 'I am ex-gay', sounded slightly dishonest. Nowadays, if I choose to share anything about my sexual feelings and desires, it will be not just as a label."

I think these are very wise words, and concur with what I've been trying to say about the LGBT label.

What TfT offer is support in living by what has been, until now, the almost-unchallenged view of Christians worldwide on same-sex activity, namely that it is wrong.

My point in quoting Jesus' words about looks and lust was that it shows that some sexual desires are simply wrong.

Sexuality can be a force for good or a force for evil. It can bring us close to God. Indeed, at one level I have no doubt it is a foretaste of heaven. And it can draw us away from God and take us on a path which leads to hell.

So in the Bible we have the Song of Songs (aka the Song of Solomon) as a hymn of erotic love, and we have warnings like the one I quoted from Jesus, and many examples of how sexuality can go tragically wrong.

However, what we also have in the Bible is a pattern of right sexual relationships based on the relationship between God and his people.

God is pictured in the Old Testament as the husband of Israel. And in the New Testament, the Church is correspondingly pictured as the bride of Christ.

Our human relationships are therefore a reflection of this divine relationship.

The Church of England's Prayer Book says in its marriage service that "holy Matrimony ... is an honourable estate ... signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church". This is the basis of the Christian spiritual tradition about sexuality.

However, as a pattern for us, marriage also provides the parameters - the boundaries or limits - for our sexual expression.

Straying from these boundaries is not necessarily the worst thing a person can do, but it is always wrong.

DEAR JOHN

I would agree that Jesus' comments on lust do mean that a particular way of manifesting sexual desire is wrong, but that prohibition applies to a particular manifestation that is common to LGBT and heterosexual sexuality.

It does not prohibit the sexual expression of all LGBT relationships unless you are saying that all same-sex relationships are solely lustful and never loving.

The use of language describing Israel as God's bride/wife, and similarly with the Church as Christ's bride, is metaphorical. In the Old Testament, we also have Israel described as God's son and the Church, in the New Testament, as Christ's body.

In fact, Jesus himself when describing his disciples used the terms 'brother, sister, mother' he never uses any marital language.

The picture language of husband/wife, bridge/bridegroom is an attempt to convey to the reader/listener something about the nature of the relationship between God and God's people.

It is an attempt to appeal to something familiar, like describing God as a "rock". Israel is not literally God's bride, unless we want to start ascribing gender to the divine and say that God is male.

I would agree that human relationships can and should reflect the divine but that is in terms of qualities. Human relationships should be loving, just, faithful and merciful but that is not dependent on the gender or sexuality of the people involved.

Your quotation from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) actually demonstrates how our understanding of the nature of sexual relationships and interpretation of the Scriptures has changed over time.

For the BCP's image of marriage is that, it is given as a "sop" for those who can't achieve the ideal of celibacy. "...it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body."

This is not language or an idea that you will find in the contemporary Church's marriage rite.

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit our self-knowledge, our understanding of God, our growing into the likeness of Christ should progress and deepen, we should not still be thinking about human relationships in the same way our ancestors did 2,000 or 4,000 years ago when slavery, the subjugation of women and the treating of children as possessions were not only acceptable but seen as divinely ordered.

You ask about the use of the story of Philip and Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8. The Ethiopian Eunuch stands as an icon for all those who are excluded on the basis of the Old Covenant's strictures on sexuality, as in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the very books that provide the law that is the basis of Christian exclusion of LGBT people.

Finally your comments about TfT. It has always been an important part of any of the struggles for liberation to be able to name oneself and in any of those struggles there have always been some who have been so damaged by the oppression that they have called into question the struggle, the labels and said "this is not oppression, this is the divine order of things".

This was true of slavery in the southern United States, the struggle for female emancipation and the struggles against colonialism and apartheid.

I think the very last sentence of your email sums up the TfT position.

It exists to help carry on the homophobia of the past. TfT will not allow you to belong to their organisation if you do not agree with them that God has revealed in the Bible an exclusively heterosexual order for creation.

This is not empowerment and liberation but oppression and suppression. One of the principles of the TfT includes the following: "Growth towards wholeness may involve a change in emotions and sexual feelings, although we do not see it as our aim to 'cure' homosexuality."

This combined with the Roman Catholic line on the virtues of celibacy may not be presented as a 'cure' but it is intended to create a radical change in someone's sexual being.

For this reason, although, they and you do not like the term I see no reason why 'ex-gay' should not apply.

TfT, hopefully, like the other small 'ex-gay' organisations in this country will realise that this is sustainable without the danger of causing severe psychological damage.

DEAR ANTHONY

I want to pick up your assertion that the Bible's language about Israel and the Church as God's bride as metaphorical. I would argue that it is much more than that.

According to the Bible, the world ends with a wedding: "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." (Revelation 21:2).

And the reason for this is that Jesus arrives as a bridegroom. John the Baptist says about his role as the forerunner to Jesus: "I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.' The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete." (John 3:28-29)

And the reason the Church is, as you say, "the body of Christ" is that we are the Bride of Christ: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? [...] Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?

For it is said, "The two will become one flesh (quoting Genesis 2:24 about husbands and wives)." But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit." (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)

DEAR JOHN

I'm not sure a flood of selective quotes from the Bible is the best way to persuade anyone of one's argument.

I, as easily, could present a similar flood of quotes that would argue that this isn't the controlling metaphor or paradigm.

I would agree that it is an important one, but that the conclusion that God is trying to say something about heterosexual relationships and sexual acts with it is to diminish it.

As I suggested previously what I believe it is talking about is the qualities of a relationship and inviting us to imitate the divine in, above all, our faithful and sacrificial love for other people.

I am glad that you do not subscribe to the camp that believe that openly lesbian and gay people cannot be clergy.

To draw this dialogue to an end, I hope that we can both agree with the Lambeth Commission's report that those on both sides of this argument should treat one another with respect, charity and generosity.

DEAR ANTHONY

I think we must agree to differ, but the difference, I fear, is not within Christianity.

A Liberal clergyman wrote to the Church of England Newspaper last week in these terms: "Liberalism has veered from traditional Christian teaching, whereas evangelicalism has remained faithful.... With sadness I have reached the conclusion, shared by many evangelicals, that liberalism has moved so far from orthodoxy that the current Anglican structures cannot hold."

I agree with him. The Lambeth Commission is like a sailor with one foot on the boat and the other on the bank. He must jump or fall in.

That, in the end, is the decision facing us all.


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