For me a single institution of marriage available to any who choose it is a simple matter of social justice. I believe that to use Christian tradition as a means of discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is not only deeply hurtful to them, their families and to any fair minded person, but profoundly contrary to the values of compassion and inclusivity that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. That a church could discriminate in this way is in thrall to ancient prejudices, rather than filled with a liberating and transforming Gospel. I would go farther and accuse the Church of England, from my long association with it, of institutional homophobia.
Institutional homophobia refers to the many ways in which governments, businesses, educational, religious and professional organisations systematically discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. One of the ways in which the Church of England persistently does this is by failing to include openly gay people from advisory groups: the latest being group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling to advise the House of Bishops on the Church of England's approach to human sexuality.
It does it by its demeaning of LGBT people. It’s unchanging position from a General Synod vote in 1987 is “that: homosexual genital acts also fall short of the ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance”.
This is code for claiming that homosexual relationships and physical expressions of love are unnatural and sinful. Whilst the Church tries to claim that it is listening to LGBT people and encouraging debate on these issues, in reality this is its default position – institutionally it has no ears to hear.
Meanwhile there are plenty of evangelical organisations and churches keen to offer ‘healing’ to homosexuals in spite of the fact that society and medical practitioners have long since ceased to regard homosexuality as a psychological disorder or illness. A further discriminatory practice I was made aware of recently was that of a single candidate (in this case male) for selection for ordained ministry who received a home visit from the vocations adviser (presumably to check there was no lover under the bed) where a nearby married candidate did not.
The debate about equal marriage has enabled the Church to attempt conceal its homophobia behind the claim that the state and its supporters are seeking to undermine society’s and the Church's traditional understanding of marriage. A cluster of traditionalist evangelical groups have been very vocal as part of a Coalition for Marriage.
The Coalition is led by the organisation CARE (which has considerable influence at Westminster through the provision of interns and funding for MPs). Here again we meet the ancient prejudices and fears over homosexual sex. Among their 12 compelling reasons for maintaining ‘traditional’ marriage the Coalition informs us that, “At the moment marriages can be declared void if they have not been consummated but same-sex marriages (like civil partnerships) are not defined in these terms. Even those who support the redefinition of marriage recognise that the meaning of consummation is such that it is biologically not possible for a homosexual couple to consummate their relationship.” Are we really to believe that there is no other way to find perfect consummation and bliss in intimate relationships other than with a penis?
When Jesus’ racial and religious prejudice against a Canaanite woman was challenged by her (Mark 7/Matthew 15) he changed his mind. I believe that Church tradition is a living tradition which is refreshed and transformed by new encounters, insights and breakthroughs. Jesus challenged Sabbath, purity and other traditions in the name of a bigger vision of the compassion of God In the early years of the Way St Paul led a new initiative that broke with received Biblical tradition to welcome the Gentiles into God's family, those peoples whom religious tradition had regarded as morally inferior and impure. Many believers found this very difficult to accept, including St Peter who had his knuckles wrapped by Paul for eating at separate tables. Paul argues (Letter to the Galatians 2) that we don't become acceptable to God by relying on traditional religious practices.
There are many, many examples through history where the Christian tradition on many matters has evolved to accommodate a bigger vision. The slow acceptance of the teachings of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin; the abolition of slavery; challenges to the class system and support for the rights of working people; the education of young children and the equality of women. We no longer believe people with epilepsy or forms of mental illness are possessed by demons and we no longer accept the Book of Common Prayer's clear teaching that all illness is a result of sin.
I and other ministers don't visit hospitals or hospices telling people that they have cancer because it is God's punishment for their sin. The Church of England, with other churches, has opened up its understanding of priesthood to be inclusive of women, breaking with a tradition of a male closed shop that began in the early centuries (though not the very early Church). I joined with others over the years in campaigning for an inclusive priesthood and always in the face of those same tired old arguments that it was against tradition.
Coming from a high church tradition I have always tried to be loyal to my bishop if, on occasions, challenging, I have happily taken the oath of canonical obedience ‘in all things lawful’. But I profoundly believe that the discrimination against LGBT people by the church is inexcusable and unlawful. I rejoiced and wept when I first received communion from a woman. When the state legalises same sex marriage, as I believe it will, I shall similarly rejoice and weep the first time I officiate at the wedding of a gay couple, whether the Church sanctions it or not.
Ian Stubbs is Vicar of Glossop Parish Church in Derbyshire. He has been a priest in the Church of England for 41 years and a campaigner for the rights of LGBT people in the Church.
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