Remembering the humanity of individuals in the debate over gay marriage
Sadly, the debate over homosexuality and gay marriage is continuing to generate more heat than light. Stephen Fry for instance has suggested that those opposed are ‘screeching’ extremists, although he seeks to pacify the Church of England by suggesting there is no desire to force priests to marry gay couples. Regrettably, Fry is not a lawyer and there is no authority behind his statement, nor does he seem to understand how the law works and clerics may well find themselves taken to court in test cases on this very matter.
In response to such concerns former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey compares the secularising agenda behind this to Nazism. ‘Remember the Jews in Nazi Germany,’ he asks, and argues that the Holacaust began with dehumanising name-calling. But that was just ‘…the first stage towards that totalitarian state.’ He believes then that we ‘…have to resist them.’ because we ‘…treasure democracy. We treasure our Christian inheritance and we want to debate this in a fair way.’ Martin Robbins though calls Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, a ‘disgrace’ for the crime of affirming the traditionalist position Gay marriage 'Nazis' and the disgrace of Lord Carey. Carey is I think right to put up an argument for a traditional understanding of marriage in line with the teaching of the Established Church, although a shame that we often cannot make our case without engaging in excessive rhetoric.
It is also a shame that many are now vilified for holding to a view that was widely accepted and considered normal and mainstream just a few years ago. How times change so quickly. And there does seem to be wider agenda here to remove the Christian voice from the public square of discourse, and the gay movement appears to be merely a useful tool to attack and silence Christians and the Church. But in our desire to protect ourselves as Christians we must nor forget our primary calling is to be ministers of grace in a hurting world.
And caught in the middle of this fierce debate are real people, often hurting and confused about who they are, with competing voices for their attention. In response to this concern Mark Meynell makes a compelling case that we need to remember the humanity of human beings, created in the image of God, behind the hurling of labels and insults I'm a Christian who won't label sexuality. Will Young has also expressed the concern that he feels an imputed sense of shame for himself, and is present in other gay people, that arises he believes because of the words of churchmen and women. Will Young is not alone- Inflicted shame still damages many gay people. There is indeed a misplaced sense of shame, but the human condition is more complex than to argue that it always arises from other people. True shame is a spiritually defined emotion that may arise in all of us because of our intrinsic God-given humanity, and its purpose is to call us upwards in love towards wholeness and the spiritual aspect of our existence and away from the lust and idolatry of the flesh. Shame calls us towards God, and to the hope of a better life. And this I think reflects something that is lacking in this debate. That is to acknowledge two central Christian themes; that of transformation and transcendence.
When faced with ministries that counsel those with a gay disposition there are often expressions of outrage on the basis that gay sentiment is a given at birth and further comment is inappropriate. The claim, often made without strong supporting evidence, is that it is nature and nurture, but as Meynell argues, we need to move beyond labelling people according to their sexuality. There is the claim for instance in Chalke’s article that homophobia is the cause of a lot of the mental struggles that gay people face, however my own experience of counselling those with homosexual inclinations is that there is a disjunction between the physical and mental, and often even a continued desire for the opposite sex that causes mental anguish over who they are. These issues are complex.
Now of course Christians can sometime have an unloving attitude that says to gay people that they need to just ‘snap out of it.’ This was effectively the approach of the Pelagians who held that mankind could reach spiritual maturity through self-effort alone. This is of course not the gospel found in the New Testament and Augustine emphasised divine grace in response to a gospel of works, although Christians often seem to overlook such grace and fall into error. Both sides in this debate often deny the need for the grace of God. Those who are vulnerable and experience gay sentiment often go through a struggle that they do not seem able to win, perhaps because they seek to do it in their own strength and do not understand how to take hold of the grace of God, even though for Christians they may even pray very hard.
The secret I would suggest is how to fight. A weak analogy is perhaps to consider the martial arts that teach people to use their opponent’s strength against them. I would suggest we need sometimes to just turn temptation aside and in humility let the love and grace of God wash over us as we refocus our minds upon who we are; that is as men and women created firstly in the image of God and to resist labels such as gay or straight.
The Christian gospel, the good news, is concerned with ministering the reality of grace and divine love to people; a grace and love that is present in the world and comes down to us through the life and death of Jesus Christ, and worked out through the Holy Spirit. That is; it is a costly grace, but not one of ultimate loss and sadness, but one born in the hope of forgiveness, resurrection and transformation into the image of Christ. And it is the possibility of transformation that is the hope of the Christian believer. That God can take us from where we are and work in us a new life that rises up in worship towards God.
The concept of new birth in Jesus has become a well-used cliché for Christians, but it is true nonetheless. As human beings we are created to be bearers of the divine image, a calling away from false lusts and idolatry of whatever colour. So transformation leads to transcendence. That is, that ultimately the purpose of each one of us is not to lust after, or idolise the flesh, but to worship God, to refocus our minds not on fleshly things that fail us and cannot satisfy, but on spiritual things that endure; as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, ‘The chief purpose of man is to worship God and to enjoy his presence for ever.’ That is not to say that the flesh plays no part of the hope of resurrection, Christians are not Gnostics who believe that flesh is evil, but instead it is a flesh that is renewed and clothed ultimately with God’s glory as our physical being and mental life are brought into harmony.