Christian conservatives are always at pains to point out how ‘welcome’ people in same-sex relationships are in their churches. But how what do they mean by ‘welcome’ – does their understanding of that word match what the rest of us might mean by it?
The Evangelical Alliance in the UK has recently published a document entitled Resources for church leaders: Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality (commendably published free online), which helps us explore what is meant by welcome in that theological context.
At the heart of the document are nine fictional case studies of LGB people attending evangelical churches. Let’s explore the sort of experience that the people in one of the fictional case studies, Oliver and William, whose story is briefly detailed, might experience in a fictional Evangelical Anglican parish, which I’ll call St. Paul’s, acting in compliance with the guidance contained in the document. All I have done here is follow one of the case studies through the guidance contained in the document – all quotes below come directly from it.
Oliver and William start attending St. Paul’s regularly after attending a course for enquirers. They are a couple in a civil partnership and they have adopted a severely handicapped child. Oliver has made a profession of faith; William hasn’t done so yet, in part because he’s picked up at St. Paul’s that being a Christian and being in a sexually active same-sex relationship are absolutely incompatible.
Oliver has made a public declaration of faith which presumably means that his ‘accountability partners’ at St. Paul’s will be encouraging him to stop having sex with his civil partner. After all, “It is important to make clear the ‘cost of discipleship’ and it would appear that this is part of what William is wrestling with as he considers his response to Christ’s call.”
At first, this done with ‘gentleness’ and ‘patience’ – although even that sounds rather rather creepy. But after a year or two, perhaps it becomes clear that not only has William not made a profession of faith, but Oliver is still having sex with him. At that point, “Sometimes it may be right that this is done in a stark, almost confrontational manner (as with Jesus and the rich young ruler).”
What might that involve? “In such situations some would call for separation and the ending of the civil partnership”. Although this should involve ‘as little damage to the child as possible’, the possibility of damage to the child seems to be accepted as a price worth paying. Until this point in the discussion, the needs of the child have been curiously absent. What sort of welcome might the child expect at St. Paul’s?
As if severely handicapped children aren’t excluded enough, because this child’s adoptive daddies are in a civil partnership, he or she may not be eligible for baptism. But that’s OK because “Other services, however, such as a service of thanksgiving and prayer for the child and for those acting as his or her parents, should be much less difficult.” (Much less difficult for whom, one wonders…) And if you or your congregation is uncomfortable with that happening in public “there is also the practical possibility of offering a private service of blessing for the child (for example in the parental home) rather than a public one before the whole congregation.”
So it seems here that a ‘welcome’ to same-sex couples involves deliberate attempts to wreck previously stable and happy partnerships, followed by marginalising any children they may have and making it clear to them that their parents are inferior to other parents in the congregation.
One’s only hope for Oliver and William is that at some point before either their relationship or any possibility of them accepting the Christian faith is destroyed, they find their way to the gay-affirming parish of St. Crispin’s down the road.
EAUK’s publication could have a significant influence on how same-sex couples are treated in Evangelical congregations, particularly in Northern Ireland where the Evangelical Alliance is strong. Unfortunately, it seems to have opted for the idea that the appropriate Evangelical response to same-sex partners is to be home-wreckers and faith-wreckers – a model of ministry which seems foreign to that which the Gospels recount Christ as holding to. Strong language, perhaps – but those who believe that their challenge to same-sex couples must sometimes be made in a “stark, almost confrontational manner” can have little grounds for complaint.