The seeds for my book, “The Gay Conundrum“, were sowed nearly five years ago and likely a lot longer before that. I was then part of a multi-faith group organising a hustings ahead of the 2010 General Election and I got to ask a question that was directed to all the candidates that were looking to be elected as MP for the Southend West constituency. I thought long and hard about what to ask, given the many issues I could select from but, as the other organisers were from some of the faith communities, my task was made a lot easier.
I was aware that politicians often say they look favourably on the contribution of religious folk, in particular the churches, when it comes to doing things for the benefit of the wider community. At the same time we were starting to see a backlash against people of faith who did not go along with the status quo that was being influenced by the rise in the equality agenda. A Christian man working for the counselling organisation, Relate, lost his job because he refused to counsel a gay couple on how they could improve their sex life, a Christian registrar was dismissed for refusing to conduct same sex civil ceremonies even though her beliefs could have been easily accommodated and a Christian couple were being sued for damages for refusing a double room to a gay couple at their B&B guest home.
My question to the candidates was twofold: what did they think of the work being done by faith communities to serve the wider community and how they would encourage this, and how do they square this with the paradigm we were beginning to witness where people of faith were being penalised for merely acting according to their conscience (citing the afore-mentioned examples)? Regarding the first part of the question, all the candidates made encouraging noises along the line “keep up the good work; I will be there to support you“, etc., but fluffed the second part, showing little or no empathy with those who had suffered for acting according to their beliefs. All except for the UKIP candidate, who stated what he would do to reverse the trend we were seeing. A day or so later I got to read a report of what happened in the online magazine: “Pink News” and many of the criticisms directed toward the UKIP guy in its “Readers Comments” section, some of which were vitriolic. I decided to chip in although I did feel a bit like Daniel entering the lion’s den.
From that point onwards, I got to subscribe to Pink News and still receive daily emails notifying its distribution of some new “gay related” story. I still read some of the stories, especially those where proponents of the “faith agenda” and those of the “gay agenda” find themselves to be in conflict. Reading these reports along with my other reading and engagement with gay folk and those who take an interest in “gay issues” has been informative and to an extent has affected my thinking. At the time of the hustings, I would have described myself as Christian Evangelical with fundamentalist leanings (although I always urge caution and suggest check out definitions), and I still do. Certain religious folk I associated with saw homosexuality as being an abomination (as per Leviticus), and a driving factor toward societal disintegration (as per Romans).
While my own view was that to be a practicing homosexual was NOT ok, it was no more rabid than being opposed to the sin or pride or ignoring the plight of the poor or sex outside of mixed sex marriage that is meant for life. At the same time, I was working in the equality and diversity field and would like to think not only did I associate with and like and befriend gay folk, I also made some contribution toward combating homophobic bigotry. I was also a leader in a church and felt from a pastoral point of view I needed to understand the issues and be able to act appropriately and empathetically should gay folk wish to join us and in our dealings generally.
Some time after that, I published the first edition of “The Gay Conundrum”, which examined many of the issues around the concerns of gay people and the changes taking place in our culture as well as those who need to come to terms with these changes, where there has been a clear shift from anti-gay to pro-gay sentiments. I did a lot of reading up, scanning not just media outlets like Pink News but those like the “Christian Institute” that often took an opposite view. I tried to look at all the angles, although invariably there are always more, in particular the great variety of theological perspectives, what is happening in our culture and its impact on religious conservatives and community activism, and what it is that gay folk and others think, who believe it is ok to be in gay relationships. I became painfully aware of some of the pastoral issues, and feel even now there is much work for the church to do.
I became aware of the shifts in attitudes by fellow Christians – it is becoming evident that it is not just woolly liberal Christians that approve of same sex relationships and gay marriage but some card carrying conservative Christians too. While I don’t endorse the argument, made by Steve Chalke, that churches can’t criticise same-sex relationships and still welcome gays, there is the challenge (conundrum) of how best to deal with these matters and balance the call to love and welcome unreservedly all and sundry we come across, with that of upholding righteousness and maintaining godly discipline concerning all aspects of behaviour, not just when it comes to homosexuality. While some have come round to accept Chalke’s views, others feel not to criticise same-sex relationships to be tantamount to endorsing unrighteousness. Even so, there is a good deal of harm in the world directed toward gay folk, including being cold shouldered when some venture into our churches. I argue Christians should seek to embrace all and act in a Christ like way.
Having said that, Steve Chalke’s thought provoking statement goes to the heart of the conundrum that orthodox Bible believing Christians who want to engage with and truly love gay folk have to face. This is discussed in my book without necessarily reaching conclusions that would satisfy those on either side of the argument seen among today’s Christians, assuming there is one. I would respond to the effect that churches should be about welcoming sinners of both the heterosexual and homosexual variety. Moreover, they should doubly welcome their brothers and sisters in Christ irrespective of their sexual preferences. However, above all, they must welcome Christ and that means first and foremost seeking to do the will of God. While the rights are wrongs of same sex relationships are the contentious issues, some will argue that sex outside of marriage is prohibited by God and that homosexual activity is unnatural and something God disapproves of. Sometimes, with great sadness, it might result in them appearing unwelcoming. A church drawing a line as to what it accepts or doesn’t can be a contentious issue and I have found from experience this giving rise to anguish. Picking up on “the other side” of the debate and recent comments by such influential figures as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury about God accepting gay folk who clearly love him, some Christians argue that the church should encourage rather than discourage gay folk in faithful, loving relationships.
As for “conundrum”, it was not meant in any pejorative sense. It is quite evident to me that my calling is to get fully involved in my community. The book I wrote three years ago, “Outside the Camp”, tries to convey in its title the idea that as a Christian I mustn’t remain in my comfortable bubble and relate only with my own holy huddles, but I need to venture into the big wide world and be exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly, as a follower of Jesus. The next edition of “the Gay Conundrum” was included in the book and for good reason. My message was that while I try to serve my community, especially the poor, marginalised, excluded, vulnerable etc., I do so with any I can join and who can join with me.
I also had to, for integrity’s sake, act according to my conscience and, while there is a place for discretion, I am beholden to only believe and do as God will have me believe and do, although I find I often have to distance myself from some fundamentalist views. This can give rise to conflicts, such as in the past week when I was called a “disgusting homophobe” because of the views I hold. I was also kicked off a Christian discussion group for having the temerity to say that one can be gay and Christian. At least by writing my book, I get folk – gay and straight, Christian and non, gay affirming and not, to think through the issues and and encourage the next generation. I am urging people to pursue God, to go “outside the camp“, serving the wider community, for the sake of the gospel, recognising there will be opposition and conflict, but being prepared as best we can.
Of all the issues I deal with as a community activist, homosexuality is a relatively minor one, but because it can be an emotive subject and one that I find people, especially in the church, are giving more thought to, it is likely to attract greater attention. I like to think my position is a middle of the road one. I am vehemently opposed to the actions of the likes of Westborough Baptist Church and their “fags go to hell” banners and recoil at the homophobic rhetoric of some of my Christian friends, just as I am to those who ridicule those who believe gay is NOT ok and marriage should be for mixed sex couples only, and therefore dismissed and vilified as homophobic bigots.
The problem with walking in the middle of the road is you are liable to be knocked down by traffic coming in either direction, and to an extent that has been my experience. I like to think I have friends and those I work with who are gay (some I am not even aware they are gay, as if that matters). I also want to maintain a good relationship with as many as I can, without fudging issues, even if we have to agree to differ. To misquote Martin Luther King, I look forward to the day when people are not judged according to their sexual preferences but on the content of their character. While we must resist the temptation to stereotype others, one quirk I have found is that many gay people share my concerns on matters to do with fairness and social justice, and it is a privilege to join forces with such folk on these matters, and it may help bring us closer together.
As I write this, we are rapidly coming up to another general election, meaning that five years will have elapsed since I began writing the first edition. I daresay the questions I will get to ask those who want my vote will be different to what I asked at the hustings, although I still regard the right to life, religious conscience and traditional marriage to be of paramount importance, even if not political priorities for most. I am now coming up to the fifth edition and once again the book as standalone. Since writing the first edition, the book has doubled in size because so much has happened and is still happening that needs reflecting upon. The book had also become somewhat convoluted as I inserted bits here and there and added new sections, sometimes repeating myself in the process.
I have changed in that time, having reflected on theological and pastoral implications, as well as understanding the views of gay folk better and realising some of the wrongs suffered. I like to think that, while I still take the view that God’s design for human sexuality is for this be expressed in lifelong marriage between one man and one woman, I am more sympathetic toward those who see things differently. I realise more than ever there is so much about the mysteries of the Almighty I do not understand and that while I stand by many of my Evangelical certainties and the need to be resolute in the faith, there are some things I need to recognise that I do not have answers to. The practicalities of what is happening in our culture need to be understood better and dealt with appropriately. Moreover, there have been and continues to be changes that need to be considered if this book is to remain relevant. Few, for example, would have expected five years ago that same sex marriage would be enacted in law and be very much part of life in the UK today.
Finally, there is always a need to consider the words we write in order not to offend unnecessarily. Sometimes people take offence, even when that was never the intention; and it is my experience this is a common response when people are told they are sinners who need to repent (and that is true for heterosexual sinners as much as homosexual ones). While I can’t apologise for the gospel that I love to share, I am keen to break down barriers if I can and deal with the inevitable impasses when possible. When someone pointed out two places in my book where I seemed to have made a link between homosexuality and paedophilia, I was mortified given I meant no such thing and have opposed those who do make that link. Therefore, when this Prologue appears in the next edition of the Gay Conundrum, I will have gone through the content yet again with the view to trying as best I can to correct any misunderstandings.
While I have no doubt there will still be typos and some of the prose may be clumsy, I hope it will be an improvement and will have brought things bang up to date by including postings on my blog that relate to the subject. In short, I have made modifications, resulting in this latest edition, to make it more readable, relevant and current, and less repetitive, offensive and ambiguous. It should still be borne in mind though that the writing of the book partly represents a personal journey of discovery, including in this latest edition a number of blog postings on the subject. There is more I could say, but a lot is said in the book. I humbly and respectfully offer this as my contribution to the debate that is taking and needs to take place. I do so realising there will be those, including among earnest Christians who may profoundly disagree with me.
I suspect the scene we survey today will look a lot different to what will confront the next generation, who may well see things a lot differently. But God’s word does not depend on prevailing cultural norms or is bound by human whims and wisdom. It is this unchanging word that should govern our thinking, even though the way we apply it and the issues we are faced with will change from age to age. If we accept Jesus is Lord (and we should) then doing what he tells us has to apply in all areas. It should be reiterated the book can never be said to be complete as there will always be more that could be added, and always new developments, but it is as complete as it can be as I write and I hope readers find it helpful.