by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury
Someone I know is getting married this month. He is an active sincere Christian and his faith has been nurtured in his local middle-of-the-road parish church; he is from a loving Christian family, and they have been involved in many and varied church activities over the years.
His fiancée is from a large, conservative Evangelical church. He worshipped there often as a teenager and was blessed and nurtured by its teaching and fellowship. He has grown in faith through it. This is the church where they will be married, although he has continued to worship in his family’s church.
One of the reasons for this was because of an incident a few years ago. A member of the church’s youth group he, along with a number of others, was asked to give public statements to the rest of the youth group that he accepted the teaching of this particular church on same-sex relationships. In short, they were required to stand up and repudiate same-sex sexual activity. He naturally felt torn between belonging to a supportive fellowship of young Christians and making a statement he felt was lacking in Christian love. In the end, after talking it through with his parents, he decided to decline to make such a commitment. From that day he said, things were never the same again. Something changed. He was now clearly a second-class member of the group, he said. He was told he could not take any leadership role in the group or in the wider church. And yet he stuck to his principles and refused to compromise (ironically, a lesson about his Christian faith he had been well taught in this very church!). He is a fine young man.
Last week saw the publication in the United States of the “Nashville Statement”. It emerges and is aimed at a different culture than the UK, although it has been signed by two, prominent, same-sex attracted English Anglicans. When I read its long list of fourteen binaries (“we affirm…we deny”), I am reminded of the position in which this English church put this young person and his fellow youth group members. Setting aside the spiritual abuse of requiring young people to make a choice between making a public statement of this nature and their membership of the youth group, what strikes me is the insistence of both groups of drawing boundaries around membership by requiring public statements.
Nashville adds nothing to the debate on sexuality any more than getting a few teenagers to make public statements does; all both do is simply to draw the boundary lines more clearly. What those inside the ‘circle of soundness’ want is to be certain that they are standing in the will of God. Public statements like these reinforce their sense of uprightness. They are a subtle form of works-righteousness, a badge of orthodoxy that will allow those inside the circle to sort the wheat from the chaff, the faithful from the unfaithful, the saved from the lost, despite the clear teaching of Scripture that leaves such things to God.
I’m reading Richard Rohr’s demanding The Divine Dance at the moment and it has caused me to ponder the fundamental nature of God as relationship rather than being. When I look at my own life and behaviour, I’m not always very proud of my choices or my conduct. Sometimes I’m not even proud of my consistency in keeping to my principles. But what Rohr has reminded me of is that, as I stand in relationship with the Trinity, I am free to be foolishly wrong yet am still loved. As such, I can continue to reach out to those who hold to a different view of sexuality knowing that, even if they are right and I am wrong, I need not be afraid of God.
Sadly, I am forced to conclude that those who signed the Nashville Statement cannot say the same, of me or of God. Invested as they are in confidence that they are right, and deeply afraid of the consequence of being wrong, they circle the wagons closer and closer, even excluding many who hold a conservative position on sexuality, forever asking fewer and fewer people to make more and more stringent promises. It is self-justifying and fear-driven and, as such, is a false gospel. Believe you are right, by all means. We all believe that. But believe it with humility and be confident that the truth of your claim requires no coercion, nor lines in the sand.
Nashville is not just a place, it’s also the name of a Country and Western Band. One of their greatest hits? This Love ain’t big enough. Enough said.