Same sex marriage and the church: there may be trouble ahead

The last couple of weeks have seen a number of news items concerning Christians and same sex relationships. They are noteworthy for the speed with which things are changing in church and society and it matters how we respond to them.

The first was seeing the first same sex marriages performed in England on the news. Of course this day had been coming for a while now but the ceremonies marked a significant moment in this nation's history. It was quickly followed by the first anglican cleric Canon Jeremy Pemberton who married in spite of the House of Bishops guidance which bars such unions for clergy.

The second was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s newspaper interview where he was asked about gay marriage. His response was to acknowledge suffering on all sides and to seek to do what is possible through consultation and agreement. However, in spite of his careful comments the newspaper argued that this meant that eventually the Church of England would find some way of accepting gay marriage. Indeed the same newspaper also published an interview with the Dean of York, the Rev Vivienne Faull a senior Church of England priest, who said she has no problem blessing same sex marriages and that the church's current position was dreadful.

The third was the experience of evangelical relief and development charity World Vision in the US who announced they would hire employees in gay marriages but who then changed their minds after two days. There is no doubt that World Vision made a complete hash of their announcements. It must have been clear to them that deciding to hire employees in gay marriages would be hugely controversial and any change would need to be carefully explained and defended; and the board would need to be prepared to ride out a rough storm of protest. World Vision appeared to do none of these things.

However, the issues World Vision faced will become normal for churches and Christian organisations over the next few years. Those of a more liberal disposition will see this as a gradual shift, a development of doctrine appropriate for a changing context. Those of a more conservative disposition will find this tougher. For charities who argue that there is a genuine occupational requirement for the post holder to be a practicing Christian it will not be possible to argue this necessarily prohibits people in same sex marriages. For church denominations it will become even harder to maintain ministerial rules which prohibit same sex marriages as a necessary part of the ethical conduct of ministers or as something which would bring the denomination into disrepute.

Fourth, the announcement on Friday that the Evangelical Alliance had discontinued the membership of Oasis Trust because they had not complied with the Alliance's request for more 'balance' on their websites discussion of same sex marriage.  Oasis is a significant evangelical organisation in the UK; founded by Steve Chalke it is involved in a wide variety of social projects, Church plants and other work and for it to be removed from the EA may prove a defining moment for Evangelicalism in England. Whilst it is sad for evangelicalism in the UK I suspect a split between the two (certainly between EA and Chalke) was inevitable and while many evangelicals will applaud the EA for taking a stand there are many others who are concerned. Evangelicals have had different views over lots of things including slavery, hell, and the role of women in leadership so why was this the defining issue?

How churches and Christian organisation respond to these things matters. Society and the views of some in the church are changing fast.  There are now a number of well known Christians from an Evangelical background who want to be inclusive and supportive of same sex relationships. Vicky Beeching, who has been well known in Christian circles for writing many of the songs sung in evangelical churches and leading worship at events like Spring Harvest has recieved lots of abuse from Christians for her support of equal marriage. She’s intelligent, articulate and theologically well read with a theology degree from Oxford; currently she is researching for a PhD in religion, ethics and technology. She’s currently blogging at the reasons for her support. There are loads of younger Christians like Vicky who support equal marriage and who also want to take Scripture seriously. If we tear ourselves apart no one benefits and our desire to defend the truth becomes, in itself, a denial of the gospel we are seeking to uphold.

But navigating these changes is challenging for Churches and Christian Organisations. For example, much of UK Baptist life is funded (at least in part) by the Union's Home Mission Fund; the money given by local churches to help the mission of the Union. What if churches withhold their money unless the Union adopts a particular stance? Or say a UK mission agency states it will employ those in same sex marriage but finds its support base stop giving and so mission, relief and development work overseas is halted. Or perhaps a Christian organisation is taken to court for refusing employment to someone because they hold to the traditional view that same sex marriage is incompatible with consistent Christian living.

I wasn't surprised last week when I got a telesales call, it happens all the time. But I wasn't expecting it, when having established I was a minister, the caller asked my views about gay marriage and wanted to spend ten minutes quizzing me about it. (Those who want to know what I think can refer to my blog Gay Marriage) How we handle these questions isn't just about how seriously we take the Bible, or about how committed we are to truth, justice and holiness; but about how seriously we take the need to be missionaries in our society. Whatever our view we have some explaining to do; those who wish to accept same sex marriage have to show how it fits into a consistent reading of Scripture and a theology of personhood, sexuality and redemption; those who hold to the historic teaching of the church have to find ways of explaining their objections in language that people understand.

So I fear there will be trouble ahead; dividing lines are being drawn, people are being hurt and disputes will become clear for all to see (I also accept that there are no pain free options here) . Yet I also believe that with care, grace and a commitment to gospel values it is possible to walk through these difficulties and that we must try to do so. It's imperative for our mission as well as our ethics.

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