This week has been a long one, with much of my focus being on the ongoing conversations in the Methodist Church around the issues of marriage and relationships. As well as the tiredness induced by long journeys, I have begun to recognise the enormous sense of emotional and spiritual weariness this process has left me with.
For the last nine months, I have been invited to speak (often with my dear friend, Paul Smith) to groups of Methodists all over the country and have done my best to honour each of those invitations. Often the reception has been warm and welcoming and people have engaged with the issues in serious, loving and respectful ways. Sometimes, the atmosphere has been hostile and combative, with a number of attendees intent on having their say come what may. On the whole, others in the room have tried to accommodate the range of views expressed, even when certain speakers have used inflammatory language or sought to colonise the limited time available.
Over the course of these encounters, I have had to listen whilst a small minority have described me or my relationship as demonic, sometimes Satanic, certainly unnatural, as an enemy of the Church and a heretic. I have listened as a few have advocated gay conversion therapy and mandatory celibacy and refused to condemn attacks on LGBTQ+ folk in this and other countries. When I am asked to explain my position vis-á-vis Scripture, I have always taken that request seriously and done so. Usually that results in the questioner telling me I am ‘too clever’ and am simply trying to trick them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Both in public and behind the scenes, I, along with many others, have tried to work with those in our Church who are struggling to accept any potential change to our understanding of marriage. We have invited leading conservative evangelicals to meet and pray and study together in order to hear clearly where they are coming from and what their concerns are. Each time a step has been taken in the process, I have personally contacted others to hear their feedback and invite them to meet. Virtually every invitation has been met with a polite, but firm refusal. Nevertheless, we have persisted in trying to understand the difficulties of those in our Church with the direction of travel we propose to take. At the same time, we have tried to reign in some of those progressive voices who would wish to go further, faster, regardless of the views of conservatives. The search for common ground is never an easy one. To try to lead others in that search is even more problematic. But the simple truth is, it is impossible to engage in true reconciliation if the others don’t turn up - it is not common ground if others refuse to share it!
I have come to accept that I am called to live with those in the Church who continue to view me with mistrust and suspicion, or even as a deviant of some kind. I am grateful for those many other LGBTQ+ friends who have responded to the same calling with generosity and patience. As a gay person, I have lost count of the times I have heard other Methodists talk about people like me as if we weren’t there, or as a problem to be ‘fixed’, one way or another. I believe we have shown ourselves willing to live in a Church with people who reject us because of who we love, who demean our relationships as akin to bestiality, or who pray ‘for’ us as if we were the agents of Satan. Many of us have demonstrated extraordinary patience with those who would describe our sexuality as a disease or mental disorder and support those who try to cure us.
All this has come at considerable cost, emotionally and especially spiritually. Many words have been spoken with the deliberate intent to wound, dehumanise and exclude, and they have done their job all too well. The story of the Methodist Church and human sexuality is punctuated with faith destroyed, vocations denied and lives diminished. Too many gifted ministers and members, people of kindness and faithful generosity have been driven out of our Church, and even Christianity itself, because they could not reconcile the message of the Gospel with the torrent of abuse and hatred they received from those they thought were their brothers and sisters in Christ.
When a group of us started Dignity and Worth, one of the practices we committed ourselves to was COSTLY HOSPITALITY. That commitment meant that we would not seek a Church that was full of people who agreed with us, but were prepared to live with contradictory convictions. In doing so, we realised that this would mean that LGBTQ+ Methodists would continue to run the risk of ridicule, abuse and exclusion, because some in our Church believe that a strongly-held belief can legitimately be expressed in an openly-aggressive manner using language that demeans. And whilst our Church makes grand statements and policies against homophobia and discriminations, our experience tells us that, in practice, homophobic behaviour will continue to be tolerated and unchecked and its victims will have to find our own ways to bear it. We will, for the foreseeable future, continue to have to navigate safer places on our own. We will, no doubt, continue to be told that we cannot be matched to certain appointments in stationing ‘for our own good’, or that being honest will create problems. Our relationships and families will continue to be discussed as if we were not present in the church. All this, for us, has been and will continue to be the cost of vocation we will be asked to pay. In this, we know we are not alone for others also pay a heavy price to serve our Church. Meanwhile, our leaders invest in grand gestures and official statements but do little to tackle real discrimination when it occurs.
So, whilst I acknowledge that some conservative colleagues are struggling with the proposed changes, I hope they will forgive me if I cannot equate their dilemmas with those lived realities of ministry in the Methodist Church as an openly LGBTQ+ person. Many, many others have already indicated that their evangelicalism has not led them to the same conclusions and will accept the changes, should they come. I will continue to pray for those with whom I profoundly disagree, but I will do so knowing that I have tried all that I can to address their concerns and allow them to continue in the Church with integrity. I have spoken up for them in forums when their own leaders were noticeably absent. I have taken with utter seriousness the scriptural injunction to do all that I can to maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace, and have come to the conclusion, I can do no more. Whilst the proposals for the ‘Mixed Economy’ in God in Love Unites Us are far from perfect, they represent the best chance to continue to live together with contradictory convictions.
So I say to my conservative sisters and brothers: my hand and heart are open when you are ready to respond.