Comment: Most letters to me, a Church of England bishop, are in favour of equal marriage

PinkNews logo with white background and rainbow corners

Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, the first Church of England bishop to come Out4Marriage reveals that most of the correspondence that he receives is in favour of same-sex couples marrying.

Since coming out on this subject I have received many messages of all kinds — not mainly about marriage but about church people’s attitudes to homosexuality. What’s the score?

  • Just over 500 messages of one sort or another, pretty much all so far as I can tell from Christians of one sort or another. This implies that most others in society have moved on from fretting about this subject, if not to full acceptance, to an acknowledgment that gay people are just people like them, and what people get up to in bed is their own business.
  • About 80% have been supportive. These include some 20-30 deeply personal testimonies from gay couples, telling of love and faithfulness, sometimes against terrible odds over many years. Legal recognition will not make these relationships stronger, but it will de-stigmatise them. Among practising Christians, I have received “Don’t tell my vicar, but…” and “not in my name” messages that imply a need for more openness, confidence and honesty, especially where clergy have attempted to whip others into shape behind a conventional party line. It is inaccurate to characterize all Evangelical Christians as anti. Many of them are far more thoughtful, nuanced and conflicted, with a strong Evangelical instinct that is not about last ditching a particular interpretation of the Bible but striving to be good news to real people. The vast majority of local Churches are personally welcoming to all.
  • Of the 20% against, about 90% can only be seen as expressions of crude prejudice and bigotry. The phrase “I am not homophobic, but…” sees to mean “soft or hard homophobic statement ahoy! But don’t pick me up on it.” Some of these comments are more genteel than others. I have been told that gay people are lice, animals, insects, should be aborted before birth, disgusting, perverted, sexually voracious, mass murderers and sub-human — all these for just being gay. So whether you like your prejudice genteel, hypocritical, or crude, there’s a carousel of possibilities out there… It is simply false to claim there is no homophobia in the Church. There is plenty of it, apparently, and if Church leaders do not wake up and act to tackle it, the Church will become, even more than it already is, a last ditch for soft or hard prejudice that has now faded elsewhere in society.
  • Another anti trope has been “Bishop you are trying to be kind, but you are encouraging BUGGERY!!!” (the last word underlined in green biro till it goes through the paper.) A fair number of otherwise inoffensive Church people insist on defining gay people by what they imagine they get up to in bed, with a prurience and obsessionality that is disturbing.
  • Within the 10% of 20% more reflective unfavourable comment, I have made new friends, and discovered a capacity to engage with this among Christians, however reluctantly, that is impressive. Some messages were initially very hostile and angry with me. When I engaged with them on one positive point about which we might agree, the façade crumbled and we were able to have interesting and fruitful conversations. It can be done.
  • I have enjoyed about half a dozen really thoughtful, helpful and reflective conversations with very Conservative Evangelical Christians — nuggets of gold amidst a steaming pile of more general railing and abuse.

One lay comment sticks in my mind. The gentleman pointed out that a positive sense about homosexuality has been building in British society since the 1920’s. The resulting tsunami arrived in the 1990’s in the fields of education, culture media and sport, public life, the law, the military (in which he had been a senior officer), the police. In each of these areas of national life the overwhelming, when it came, was sudden and, surprisingly, almost entirely benign. The Church had parked itself in a siding in the 1990’s, and everyone else, as he put it, was somewhere round Birmingham by now.

The bishops, I was told, had simply taken the easiest way out — try to agree with everyone as much as possible, make generally safe noises about change, be nice to individual gay people whilst constructing fences against their full acceptance, humour reactionaries under a banner of inclusivity, generally treating past certainties as though they still applied as much as possible. As a military man he could say you cannot run any institution, least of all a Church, on niceness, evasion, pusillanimity, cowardice and hypocrisy. That’s one military view, anyway.

I think I am coming towards some general conclusions about the basic subject for most of my correspondents — gayness not marriage:-

1) I have during this time returned to my college notes of the tiny number of Bible passages that could possibly bear directly on this subject. Many (many? there are only 5 anyway) are not entirely clear in their meaning, and none are entirely obvious for interpretation and application. I was very struck by a day I spent studying Leviticus in Hebrew in depth with various rabbinic commentaries, by the depth and subtlety of the text exposed by those formed within it rather than constructing a chain of sound bites from it that just happen to reinforce their basic instincts. There is a crying need for more rigorous reading of the text where homophobic readings used to be adequate to the needs of a homophobic society, with whose norms they easily conformed.

2) Christianity thrives as good news in the real world. This is not a job for school certificate Biology. Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it
Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution
Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution

Notoriously, perhaps, the vast majority of people in this country have moved since the 1920’s from the first position towards a more or less grudging conviction of the second. As the first position fades with the generations, simply asserting it louder is in fact driving change forward faster.

In that sense, supporters of marriage equality should welcome every one of the prejudiced comments they receive. The matter speaks for itself. A fair number of MP’s who were wavering on the brink of voting for last week’s bill were certainly influenced to do so by sheer horror at some of the bigoted nonsense they received under a “Christian” label.

I’m with Desmond Tutu. Encouraging the Church to be more aligned with the point of the Bible and less hung up about particular interpretations of its small print should be doable, especially as most Church members are there already. For them being a Christian is about loving God and your neighbour as yourself, not culture wars. That’s the good news.

As Desmond Tutu says:-

The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing — their race — and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about — their gender; hence my support for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. Equally, I cannot keep quiet while people are being penalized for something about which they can do nothing — their sexuality. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as apartheid ever was.

The bad news is that, as a matter of shameful fact, the Church does appear to contain noisy minorities of homophobes and bigots who use verses from the Bible as a collection of soundbites to validate their disgust, and it will have to work consciously to prevent itself it becoming their last ditch.

The Bishop of Buckingham regularly blogs, his blog can be accessed here. He Tweets at @AlanTWilson