Is it too obvious to say that much of what divides us as Christians on issues of human sexuality is down to Biblical Interpretation? Is this too obvious - and is it even helpful?
I have given much thought to this question, mainly because I know that it was and is my understanding of scripture that gives shape to my faith and to my feelings about my sexuality. It is not too obvious to name this because I think we often forget that ultimately it is our understanding of the Bible that dictates our doctrine, our theology and how we understand our humanity and our relationship with the divine.
The Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church affirms that:
'the highest authority for what we believe and do is God's Word in the Bible,
alive for God's people today through the help of the Spirit.'
This is true when we face questions within ourselves as individuals and when we come together to seek the will of God as a Denomination. As a statement it sounds very easy - nice and succinct, but I'm sure we are aware that when we come to scripture to find God's Word we do so with our own agenda and our own intention. Not only do we bring ourselves to scripture but we have to take seriously the fact that we are dealing with letters, poems, songs, 3rd hand accounts, theological constructions, personal opinion and historical contexts - which we will struggle to get beyond. Do we search for the historical Jesus - trying to get back to some idea of the historical reality of the stories we read? Do we search for the Christ of faith - looking for the theological and doctrinal significance of each passage?
Simply put - it is not possible to purely open a page of the Bible and read it with complete understanding. If the Christian Church is made up of 1 billion people, then we can be pretty sure that there are 1 billion ways of understanding and approaching scripture.
This is what can mildly be called diversity!
In the URC's Commitment on Human Sexuality, passed at the 2007 General Assembly - it is this diversity of opinion that is expressed and cherished.
This is a hard place to be. Disagreeing with another human being on whatever topic it is you disagree, is not an easy place to stay and most of us, if we are honest, seek to avoid it.
I accept that there are people who feel that my sexuality is not suitable for a person of faith - but I don't like it.
I revel in our diversity and our difference - but I find it hard.
I do believe that we must strive to save our unity and to hold together in the midst of division - but it is painful.
As I have said in my letter to Reform a while ago - being Liberal is not easy. My liberality makes a call for me to hold the myriad of opinions as valid and valued which is an almost impossible task and one that has profound psychological and personal consequences.
'The Way Forward?' is published by SCM press and edited by Timothy Bradshaw. It is written in response to the St Andrew's Day Statement which forms the basis for much theological thought within the Anglican Church after the difficult discussions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The book pulls together the work of a variety of theological thinkers; Gerald Bray, Jeffrey John, Oliver O'Donovan, Elizabeth Stuart, Stephen Sykes, Anthony Thiselton and Rowan Williams.
Last night after watching The West Wing and eating ice cream in bed, I looked at Anthony C. Thiselton's contribution entitled 'Can Hermeneutics Ease the Deadlock?' He quite usefully takes each of the major texts in the area of Homosexuality and seeks to explore there meaning for us as we try to hear God's Word. Towards the end of his study he says this:
'First, while gay or lesbian sexual acts fall short of the ideal along with, for example, materialism or self-indulgence, we require a more rigorous standard in all these ethical matters from our church officers than from others'.
It raises two useful thoughts:
1. Do we require a more rigorous standard in all ethical matters from church officers than from others?
Surely the point of our journey of faith is that we are all on that journey - church officers, policemen and women, the Queen, the unemployed and the drug addict. I am actually more inclined to follow people who have faced life in all its ups and downs. I see more integrity and respect in a person who is able to say 'I was wrong, I've made a mistake and my life has changed as a result'.
2. I most profoundly disagree with that idea that gay or lesbian sexual acts 'falls short of the ideal'.
Within the realms of Human Sexuality we do fall short - but not because of the sexuality of the person I choose to have sex with. We 'fall short of the ideal' when we dishonour ourselves and others through sex that is outside of loving, committed and consensual relationships.
The point of this - is that as part of the URC's Commitment on Human Sexuality, is the commitment to go on talking and listening and discovering together. I am committing myself to reading and talking and listening widely - to as many voices and opinions as I can.
My library contains quite a large number of books from authors whose opinions and understandings I completely disagree with - in some cases they are simply offensive to me as a person. They are in my library, because they broaden my understanding and they help me to see the world through someone elses eyes. I may not like what I see - but I can also find the common ground.
I hope that the URC and all it's members - in fact I hope that the church Catholic, can commit to talking and listening with each other about our sexuality. We will not always like what we hear and it may even be very painful for us to hear how others view us - but I pray we will see each other as human beings - each one different and each one loved and valued and created by God.
I do however, wonder if there is a time and place for individuals to say 'it is to painful'.
The process of listening to others does mean being open to hearing those who deem me sinful and evil. There is, I think, a limit to how open we can be to hearing those who profoundly disagree with us.
For those who understand scripture as being against homosexuality, it will be painful for them to hear me speak of a God who created me as a gay man.
For me to hear those who speak of my need to repent of my homosexuality has been and will continue to be very hard.
Is there a limit?
Is there a time and place to say - 'for my own sanity and peace and can bear no more?'
The answer to this lies with the individual - but I hope and pray they will feel it is OK to stop listening to others and to focus on God's unconditional love. I have been through a time of deep despair when I felt unable to stand back and to give myself space to be me - unjudged.
I have learnt that we do need gay men and women to be brave in speaking and listening with others - brave in committing to the URC's process, but the most important thing I have learnt is that it is OK to stop the world and get off.
God calls us to be brave - but not to personal destruction.
If the Church does feel like a place where you are not welcome - take the time to stand back and to rely on God's grace to build you up again.