Don’t create a church’s stance on marriage in order to make people happy or stop them from leaving.
In early 2017 (when I started writing this article, since which time it has sat gathering dust) the general Synod of the Church of England voted on same-sex marriage. Well, sort of. The General Synod voted not to endorse a report by the House of Bishops on Same-sex marriage. The report affirmed the biblical and historic Christian view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. To be specific, there are three houses in the General Synod. The House of Bishops voted in favour of the report. The House of the Laity voted in favour of the report. But the support of all three houses is required, and the House of Clergy alone voted not to endorse the report, confirming the widely-suspected reality that the clergy are the more liberal element of the Church of England.
There were many issues discussed at the time and obviously I wasn’t present. On Twitter however I encountered a speech by activist Lucy Gorman. When I saw it I raised a criticism of it, but Lucy quickly blocked me so I can no longer see the portion of the speech that was shared there. Ever the believer in dialogue, I found this a little disappointing (especially since she had initially asked me for my view on the suicide of people who felt hurt by the church, but then told me that she didn’t really want to talk about it with me and blocked me).
So let me bring the issue to you, dear reader.
The Bishops’ report, while expressing the well-known and thoroughly uncontroversial view of the Church through the ages, took pains to stress that we (the Church) do not want to be heard as lacking in love for people who experience same-sex attraction, because this is not the case at all.
Picking up on this remark in the report, Gorman made her speech to Synod. As reported by the Guardian:
Lucy Gorman of York told the synod that “outside these walls, we are being heard as lacking in love”. No wonder, she added, that fewer young people were coming to church. “Why would people become part of a church that is seemingly homophobic?”
In the longer quote that I can no longer see, Gorman lamented the way that same-sex attracted people have responded to the Church regarding marriage as the union of a man and a woman, falling into despair and suicide.
The thought, as I understand it, is this: The Church is not progressive enough on this issue, and that is why people are leaving her (or simply not joining the Church in the first place). That is why she has a grim future, if she has one. It’s because the Church will not change its standards on sex and marriage to adapt to a more liberal understanding. It holds rigidly to old beliefs that are conservative, stale, restricting and not inclusive enough. If only the Church would show the world that it is more loving by altering its stance on love and marriage so that relationships it once considered not-marriage would now be considered marriage to make people feel more accepted and not hurt as they currently are by the Church, the Church would (partly, at least) save itself from attrition.
I have two reflections on this way of thinking, which I know is shared by many.
The Church’s job is not to love you as you want to be loved
While the Church, as the Bishops’ report stressed, does want to be seen as loving because the message and mission of the Church is loving, and while being loving is absolutely part of the Church’s mission, being viewed by others as loving is not part of the Church’s mission. Whether or not the Church is viewed as loving does not depend on the Church, but on others. There are those who think that preaching a Gospel message that we are sinners in need of redemption is unloving. If it was part of the mission of the Church to be seen by everyone as loving in everything she does, we would have to reconsider whether or not we preach this Gospel. To point out that there are people who view part of the Church’s message or practice as unloving is not at all to show that the Church needs to change. What it may show is that there are people who need to reconsider whether or not their assessment of what is loving and what is not is in need of correction.
The Church’s approach to loving you is centred on taking a Christ-centred view of you and a desire to help you be a disciple of Jesus in every respect.
This is particularly so when the individuals concerned are people who have chosen to submit to the teaching of Christ, to the teaching of Scripture, and who have chosen to belong to a community for whom such submission is central to our mission. When there is, on the face of it, a clear biblical teaching about marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as well as a clear history of the Church understanding this to be the teaching of Christ – a Church that professes to love you greatly and which in every other respect demonstrates that love – you should have great hesitation, to put it mildly, in declaring that because the Church’s view on marriage does not align with the sort of relationship you desperately want to have, it therefore does not love you. The Church’s approach to loving you is not centred around what feels natural and desirable to you. The Church’s approach to loving you is centred on taking a Christ-centred view of you and a desire to help you be a disciple of Jesus in every respect. From a Christian view (which, as you might expect, is the view the Church strives to embrace), loving you does not mean “affirming your story” in the sense of proclaiming that all your desires you find yourself having for yourself are the desires that God has for you. To state it bluntly: The Church doesn’t have to serve your will in order to love you. That’s not what love amounts to – even if you feel very hurt as a result of the Church not doing what you want. You can invest work trying to change the Church so that she starts to bear your image because the conflict between your desires and the teaching of the Church is painful, or you can invest that effort into yourself, allowing yourself to be changed by Christ through his Church.
By perpetuating the unloving and false claim that the Church is expressing a lack of love for same-sex attracted people by maintaining a biblical view of marriage, you may be doing terrible harm. The people you point to as examples – those who are leaving the Church or worse, harming and even killing themselves – are people who need to know that the Church’s stance is not borne of lack of love for them, and that they are loved greatly. But there you stand, pouring gasoline onto the emotional bonfire, encouraging them to believe that we don’t love them. Your message should not be directed at the Church, telling the Church to be more loving. Rather, your voice should join that of the Church, directing your message to the people you are expressing concern for, telling them that they are loved. It gives me no pleasure to point out that you are making their pain worse, not better, by describing this situation as one where the Church is failing to love same-sex attracted people.
The Church’s job is not to love you as you want to be loved. Indeed, what is at issue here is precisely whether or not it is loving for the Church to do what you want it to. If the biblical and historic Christian teaching about marriage is correct, there would be nothing loving about the Church, in effect, lying about marriage for your sake.
The Church’s problem is not what you think it is
Secondly, there is a familiar theme in your speech against the Church (I know you might not think you are opposing the Church but only one report by the Bishops, but you should be well aware that you are in fact opposing the stance of the Church throughout history). That theme is that the Church is failing to be sufficiently inclusive, sufficiently liberal-minded, sufficiently progressive, and as a result, the Church is losing members. It’s a message we see coming from many quarters, as in John Shelby Spong’s book title Why Christianity Must Change or Die.
This complaint against the Church is wrong in principle, and it is probably wrong in fact, too. It’s wrong in principle because the goal of the Church is not to proclaim a message that is agreeable to people so that they won’t walk away. From the very beginning, Christians have known that there are people who will reject the Church because of what we teach. Jesus said of his disciples that “the world hates them because they do not belong to the world.” This is not a defect in the Church. You are dangling in front of the Church a proverbial carrot that we should really have little interest in: The carrot of doing what it takes to be relevant and attractive to people.
But there’s a question of fact here, too. Is the threat of attrition faced by the Church really a problem of people thinking that the church is not progressive enough? Or is the problem that as the Church clambers over itself to get more progressive, to be less offensive, to find the path of least social resistance, and to, in effect, sand off the rough edges that are the perceived points of difference between the Church and the world, ostensibly making the Church more appealing, the Church is actually eroding the reasons to belong to the Church at all, exactly because it now offers little by way of principled difference?
Obviously if you raise a flag for people who have left the church over LGBT issues to rally to, as Gorman does, you will hear a concentrated sample of the anecdotes about people leaving the church because it is not progressive and accepting enough. But others who were not pursuing partisan activism have reached quite different conclusions about why people are leaving the Church. In the mid 1990s Benton Johnson (Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon) and others, speaking of the decline of mainstream denominations like the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches in America, explained that “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief-orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.”
They go on:
In our opinion, the mainline Protestant membership loss is simply the next stage of this process of declining commitment to the church and to Christian faith and witness. The cultural revolution of the 1960s may have hastened its onset and added to its severity, but it was not its major cause. Most conservative religious communities came through the cultural turmoil in fairly good shape; the mainline Protestant churches were already too weak to mount an effective response.
A number of commentators have made mention of the turn of younger Christians towards liturgy, the traditional order of prayers and responses in Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and other churches. The move is towards an older, more solid, less changeable form of religion. Indeed that is one of the great appeals of the Church – when the winds of culture blow, when trends come and go, the church represents something solid and steadfast, an anchor of sorts. When you say that really our problem is that we need to be more progressive on sexual ethics (i.e. more like you) and then it will be able to turn its decline around and regain some popularity, you are chasing the wrong goal, and you are probably just wrong about what will happen as a result. As I’ve said on related matters, you don’t get street cred by gutting the content of traditional Christian belief to make the people happy.
We are not called to do whatever it takes to keep people in the church. We’re called to tell and to embody the truth, knowing quite well that some people will hate it. You might not think that’s great marketing. Get over it. You’re chasing the wrong goal. And you also might be surprised about what will genuinely help the church to grow anyway. (Get over that, too, while you’re at it.)