Why the Church of England faces a dilemma as it comes under pressure to back gay marriage

The Christian Church has officially condemned gay people for centuries

Cole Moreton
Monday 06 July 2015 08:25 BST
LGBT rights are under-threat in 75 countries
LGBT rights are under-threat in 75 countries

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high … there’s a place where people live together peacefully, whatever their differences. That is what is represented by the six-colour flag that has become such a potent symbol in recent days. But how do we get there?

The Reverend Sally Hitchiner has an answer that is breathtakingly audacious. “We can’t move forward until lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people forgive their oppressors. That is the big challenge facing the LGBT community. We are never going to reach Utopia until we all get there.”

Forgive their oppressors? On the face of it, until you know more about her, that is an outrageous thing for a priest to say – and not just because the Church has officially condemned gay people for centuries. Leaders of the Christian right in the US are gearing up for a fight this weekend, telling churches to prepare for civil disobedience if they are forced to marry same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruling on gay weddings.

Franklin Graham, who inherited his position as one of America’s leading evangelists, says “God could bring judgement on America” over this – which brings to mind the day in 1993, when his father, Dr Billy Graham, said he thought Aids was God’s judgement on gays.

A preacher in Ohio was filmed shouting about sodomy and brimstone in the face of a seven-year-old girl called Zea, as she held out a rainbow flag to him (although quite why her father didn’t put down his camera is a bit of a mystery).

This is the bad end of the rainbow, where the hate lies on all sides. Some gay-rights activists make no secret of their hatred for believers and have taken direct action, particularly in the States. They have disrupted services, broken stained-glass windows and called for churches to be stripped of their charitable status.

“The fear is that people who are not like us are going to force us to be like them. That is on both sides, and it is what we have to overcome now,” says Sally Hitchiner, who has experienced it both ways. The chaplain at Brunel University campaigned for equality long before she was accidentally outed in a television interview, and founded a movement called Diverse Church for LGBT young people. She was also among the hundreds of Christians taking part in Pride last weekend in London.

“Too many easy statements get made. The non-religious get the message that God hates fags. The Christians hear that you can’t be gay and have a faith. Neither of those things is true.”

The Church of England still holds that marriage is between one man and one woman, but it is under pressure to change as its governing body meets in York this week. Members of all kinds of churches, from Pentecostals to the Vatican, suddenly have to decide where they want to be on the rainbow.

On the other hand, the challenge to those who find themselves on the winning side now is not to crow, not to condemn faith just because a few people use it to justify their bigotry, and to understand that not everybody who has a faith is against them. Sally Hitchiner takes it further, asking them to forgive.

So, her group gave out leaflets at Pride, saying: “We’re sorry if anyone has ever told you that God doesn’t love you. God loves everyone.”

Crowds cheered as the Christians – mostly LGBT but some straight –danced to cheesy songs such as “Living on a Prayer” and held up banners saying such things as “Queerly Beloved”. “It felt amazing to be such a positive presence within a community that has felt judged by the Church. The hostility that we have experienced towards us at Pride in the past was not there this time.”

Pride felt more than ever like a national celebration, because we have gone past a tipping point in our culture. There is still prejudice and hostility but it is also true that people are loving each other more openly than ever before – and when a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter invites you to their wedding, even the most conservative mind is challenged by love.

“There is a real sense of a sea change: that this is not a minority issue any more, it is something for everyone to care about,” says Hitchiner. However, she expects the opposition from some parts of the Church will get stronger. “We’re bracing ourselves for a more bitter fight than we have had to face before. There is a fear building in conservatives quarters that if they don’t do something now, they will lose the ground forever.”

Then there are the people in the middle ground, who hold the beliefs they have always held – and that have been mainstream for centuries – yet who suddenly find themselves at odds with the way society is going. They are shocked, understandably, and confused at being called bigots.

“We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality and we have not fully heard it,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, a year ago. But one of his own bishops says that sticking with the traditional line leaves the CofE suspended in mid-air like Wile E Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon, desperately trying to maintain an impossible position.

“The Church is like a cartoon character who has run off a cliff and is frantically moving his legs faster and faster in the hope it will save him, when he knows there is nothing underneath,” says the Right Rev Alan Wilson, one of the more plain speaking bishops.

“There are about a billion human beings on the planet who have access to same-sex marriage in their country or jurisdiction, so the thought that this is going to go away – or that it is just about a few people in San Francisco – is just wrong.”

He believes a fundamental shift in understanding is happening within the wider Church. “The Evangelicals in particular are in a wibbly wobbly place.”

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said “We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality”

There are about a million Evangelicals in this country, who believe the Bible to be the revealed Word of God and have traditionally held that homosexuality is a sin. They include the leadership of the highly influential church Holy Trinity Brompton.

Some British Evangelicals are panicking at the change happening around them, and have been circulating a cartoon on social media that threatens violence against any of their own who dare to depart from what they see as Biblical truth. It shows Batman and Robin, with the Boy Wonder admitting that he supports gay marriage as a Christian and the Caped Crusader slapping him powerfully around the face, with the words: “Read your Bible!”

But others are thinking again about how they interpret the Word. A number of highly respected Evangelical leaders have come out in favour of equal marriage over the past year or so. Steve Chalke, the British social activist, Baptist minister and leader of the Oasis network, was the first, asking: “Shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?”

Then came Vicky Beeching, the Christian music star and theologian, who let it be known that she was gay and believed Scripture allowed her to be so. But the biggest convert so far has been Tony Campolo, an influential figure in the American church who was spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton at the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair (and who didn’t pull his punches).

“We should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight,” he said a month ago. The Church once continued to offer a Biblical case for slavery long after it was known to be wrong. “I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.”

So, where does all this leave the Archbishop of Canterbury? Waiting, is the answer. Waiting for the result of the “shared conversations” that are being held throughout the Church on this issue, allowing people with opposing views to meet. Waiting for the influence of that process on the Synod elections later this year. Waiting for an employment tribunal to rule on whether a hospital chaplain had his licence revoked unfairly, after marrying.

The result of all of this could be a shift in the Church of England’s position, but that still won’t get the Archbishop off the hook as the spiritual leader of 77 million Anglicans across the world with wildly differing views. The American bishops have just voted to allow gay weddings in church; but the African bishops are appalled, saying their beliefs and culture make it impossible to remain in communion with such people.

That puts Justin Welby in an agonised place, believing that to support gay marriage now would be to force a break from African believers at a time when they are being murdered for their faith. He has seen that for himself, standing beside the bodies of two dozen slain Christians in South Sudan, in 40C heat, with their grieving friends and relatives. “All you could really do was to weep with them. It was hugely painful.”

Dr Billy Graham said he thought Aids was God’s judgement on gays (Getty)

He came back and pleaded with bishops here not to move too fast too quickly on gay marriage. “I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain,” he said privately, but this was not just some airy philosophical position. “I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help – and who we can help – can’t take it [feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us] is something we can’t easily do.”

So, he is waiting for a way to emerge that means he won’t have to break off from them. Meanwhile, those who believe marriage before God should be for everyone who wants it are getting increasingly frustrated with him. But changes in the law are only the beginning of a process that is going to be painful for a while yet. Legislation cannot make us love, any more than it could stop us loving.

Sally Hitchiner believes in the kind of outrageous grace that believers showed in Charleston, when they stood face to face with the man who had killed their loved ones in church and told him he was forgiven. That is the way for all sides in the gay marriage debate to cross the rainbow, she says.

“Martin Luther King said there could be no permanent solution to the race problem in America until the oppressed developed the capacity to love their enemies. That was the way to the beloved land. As he said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools’.”

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