Saturday, March 10, 2012

C4M/C4EM: My thoughts

Hat tip to Peter Watt for inspiring this post

I’m an Evangelical Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins and that by believing and trusting in Him, I am assured of eternal life. I wasn’t always an Evangelical Christian. I grew up attending the local village church and it wasn’t until I was given a Gideon’s New Testament in a school assembly that I started reading the bible for myself. The first thing to catch my eye was the Sermon on the Mount and it has shaped my world view ever since. This teaching turned on its head the prevailing zeitgeist of the 1980’s: “Love your enemies”, “Blessed are the poor” wasn’t exactly the gospel Margaret Thatcher was preaching so I concluded that Jesus must see the world differently from her.

I had very devout grandparents – on both sides of the family. Mum’s family are Ulster Presbyterians with impeccable Unionist credentials. Visiting the troubled province as a small child raised questions in my young mind about when religion goes wrong and we lose the central message of the gospel. My dad’s parents served on the parochial church council of an evangelical parish church on the west coast of Cumbria, though family history records show my paternal ancestors were pioneers of Primitive Methodism in the region. Primitive Methodism, of course, was itself a grandparent of the Labour Party, and yes, one of my great grandfathers was a Labour Party activist – and coalminer by trade. My roots in the Labour Party run deep – as do my roots in the church – and in my mind, I can’t really separate the two.

At university I was in the Labour Club and the Christian Union. This was the first time I realised there might be a conflict between the two. The Labour Club had many LGBT activists – a number of whom are now prominent in the Labour Party – alongside whom I campaigned. Several years after I graduated, the Christian Union made national news when it was expelled from the Guild of Students (the Guild President was a Labour Student) for failing to uphold democratic standards (amongst other things, you were required to be a Christian to serve on the union executive). At the time, I was very much on the side of the Christian Union, though in hindsight there were options for negotiation and agreement that could perhaps have been explored. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, the problem for me was that it discouraged me from getting involved in the local Labour Party, having recently relocated to a new area.

Then Nick Griffin (literally) turned up in the neighbourhood – and, as far as I was concerned, that was my call to arms. But getting involved in the Labour Party again hit obstacles when I was confronted by clergy who questioned whether this was a “Christian” thing to do. The Equality Act was making its way through parliament and this, so I was told, posed a mortal threat to the existence of the church.

At the time, I was fighting a completely separate set of battles. I was in my 30s, I was single and to put it bluntly I was completely miserable. Being unhappily single forced me to examine church’s teaching on “family values”. On the one hand, I was being told “marriage is the bedrock of society”; on the other, if I ever dared to express my unhappiness at being single, I was rebuked – sometimes quite forcefully - for my discontentment. It didn’t – and it still doesn’t – add up. So what did I conclude?

The marriage of Christ and the Church is central to the gospel message but it does not follow that marriage is the bedrock of society. Jesus never married; neither did St. Paul who exhorted the virtues of singleness. Even in the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah offers hope to abandoned, barren women (Isaiah 54) and childless men (Isaiah 56).

The notion of marriage being the bedrock of society affects how communities function and creates precisely the kind of world which Margaret Thatcher envisaged when she said “There’s no such thing as society – only individuals and their families” – a world where individual nuclear families live in isolation from one another disconnected from the communities they are part of. This world is particularly harsh on those who fall outside the nuclear family unit – the single, the divorced, the widowed – and the LGBT. In the 1980’s, economic policies aggravated this by removing the economic centres which had held communities together for centuries. Whereas, people had been able to live, work, worship – and die - in the same communities, now people were scattered all over the place, hundreds of miles away from the people they cared about. Friendships that had once been lifetime commitments were now transient as people moved on to new pastures. I only have to look at my Facebook friends list to see the scale of the problem. One hundred years ago, nobody could have had 532 friends – many may not have met 532 people during their whole life. People would have had a couple of dozen friends but they would have had those same friends throughout their whole life.

Nuclear families are insulated from the full force of this because when they relocate, they relocate together. When a single person relocates, they have to start over, meeting new friends, developing trust. They may have close friends and family elsewhere but they are not there to share a coffee, for a shoulder to cry on, to help change a light bulb.

When I was single, far too many people assumed that I wanted to be in a relationship because I wanted to have sex. But it wasn’t that – far from it. What I yearned for more than anything was permanency in my personal relationships. I had moved house numerous times and I was fed up of making new friends – and of existing friends moving on. I wanted someone who’d still be with me 10, 15, 20 years from now – and who would move with me when I moved.

It’s not surprising in our 21st Century fragmented world that LGBT people want to get married. I can’t speak for them because I am straight but I imagine they yearn for the same things I yearned for – permanency in their personal relationships. Having walked the bitter road of singleness for longer than I ever dare admit, I am perfectly aware of the kind of life the LGBT community thinks the church expect them to lead – and it doesn’t surprise me that this causes the bitterness, anger and resentment that it does. The Church needs to listen to that bitterness, anger and resentment if ever hopes to get a hearing on its concerns about religious liberty.

1 comment:

Al said...

While your points about the tragic character of the experience of many LGBT persons in society, and the need for the Church to be attentive to this, are important, aren’t you just dodging the real issues here?

To what degree should we respond to people’s sensitivities, real as they are, to distort reality in order to make them feel more comfortable? If persons born intersexed feel unequal on that account, should we invent a new sex for them? If blind people feel discriminated against solely on the basis of their disability in not being given driving licenses, do we cave in and start issuing licenses to them?

In the case of LGBT persons, civil partnerships already exist. However, what is sought is ‘marriage equality’, founded upon the notion that there is no significant difference between a committed and loving couple of the same sex and a union of a man and a woman. Would you argue that this is not a time when, although the Church needs to learn a lot about being present to homosexual persons in their pain, same sex couples also need to develop thicker skins and recognize that their unions, by the very nature of reality, can never be equal to that which can exist between a man and a woman?

Do you believe that a connection between male and female bodies is not part of their distinct phenomenology in a manner that doesn’t hold for persons of the same sex? Do you believe that the negotiation of the fact of sexual difference is completely accidental to the meaning of marriage? Do you believe that sex is univocal, that it makes no difference how bodies relate, provided that there is a romantic and companionate bond? Do you believe that the fact that the sexual act with which a man and a woman consummate their marriage is one that is uniquely apt for reproduction is purely accidental to the reasons why society protects and honours marriage and sees sexual union as an intrinsic dimension of it? Do you believe that marriage shouldn’t be designed to hold together genetic, gestational, social, and legal parenthood in a single institution? Do you believe that marriage shouldn’t embody and protect the ideal of the union of the sexes in the act of forming the next generation or the right of every child to a mother and a father? Do you believe that the bonds of blood should have no peculiar institutional support or recognition?

If your answer to a single one of these questions is ‘no’, you hold a position in which same sex marriage is not in fact ‘equal’ to conventional marriage in an important respect, and we have a basis for just discrimination, much as in the case of blind persons and driving licenses. Either we make believe and twist reality (jeopardizing the common good in the process) to fit people’s will and cater to their hurt feelings, or we must rather help homosexual persons to cope with their feelings by being present with them, but also expecting them to develop thicker skins. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not fully entitled to equitable treatment under the law, but equitable treatment cannot be ‘equal’ treatment, on account of the real differences that exist.

In sum, while a measure of sensitivity to people’s feelings is important, allowing sensitivities to drive this debate is incredibly na├»ve and dangerous. There comes a point when we all have to develop a higher pain tolerance to our own and other people’s pain, simply in order to live in a free and just society. A society in which people are always poised to take offense, and we must bend over backwards to make everyone feel approved and good about themselves, is an emotionally immature society, incapable of challenging civil discourse, decisive leadership, or robust social form. It seems to me that granting same sex marriage is exactly the sort of ridiculous policy that such a society, tyrannized by uncontrolled sensitivities, would advocate.