by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media and Director of the Ozanne Foundation
“Your sexuality does not define who you are, Jayne” is a phrase I’m becoming increasingly familiar with – which I tend to hear most often from my evangelical friends who then (always) go on to say, “for your identity is actually in Christ” (as if I somehow I must doubt or negate that).
“Amen to that!” I will always reply.
But then I also always go on to add that my sexuality is actually an integral and important part of me, and that it is something that I should never ever have to hide or be ashamed of. Indeed, it is something I believe that I am called to celebrate and own – especially as I have spent so much of my life hating it and trying to change it.
And there lies the difference between us.
Of course our identity is “in Christ”. But if we truly mean that, then we need to own and celebrate who Christ has uniquely made us each to be. Tall, short, black, white, large, small, blond, bald, straight, gay. No shame. No jealousy. No comparisons. Just me in the body God has chosen to give me – or as the psalmist so beautifully says, the way I have been wonderfully ‘knit together in my mother’s womb’.
But there are times when I fear a new form of Aryanism has somehow crept into certain parts of the Church.
The one that expects us all (silently) to meet certain standards, dress in certain ways – where we need to have 2.2 children and all smile with gleaming white teeth! You know, those churches that are led by “muscular men with their beautiful wives” – who when they get up on stage (sorry, pulpit) immediately introduce us to their family so that we all know that they are without a doubt ‘good heterosexuals’.
Now, they’re the ones who I want to remind that their identity is in Christ, and that in fact our identity as a Church is made up by the fact we are the body of Christ. A body made up of unique and differing parts.
Accepting these differences and therefore who we each individually are is one of the most challenging journeys that most of us will ever face.
Young people wanting to be brighter, thinner, faster, more popular. Older people wanting to be younger, thinner, slower. Those on one side of the garden fence always wanting to be on the other side – where they perceive the grass to be far greener.
This dissatisfaction with who we are can be the root cause of so much unhappiness and more often than not leads us into dark places, which as the Archbishop of Canterbury has himself shared this week, can result in us becoming depressed.
This week we marked (I don’t really feel I can say ‘celebrated’) World Mental Health Day. It is both encouraging and refreshing to see leaders – especially men – being so open about their struggles with their ‘black dog’ as one famous male world leader, Sir Winston Churchill, called it.
I’m particularly glad that we are talking about it within the Church as there has in the past been a dangerous tendency of believing that mental health issues can easily be ‘cured’ by a few well-meaning prayers and a nice cup of tea.
Somehow we have also at times embraced a teaching that we are not being very good Christians if we aren’t happy and positive all the time…as if God is somehow ‘let down’ by our periods of sorrow and despair. This false teaching has caused more damage than nearly anything else I know and has been like salt in a wound to so many brothers and sisters who have already been hurt enough.
The truth is though that there are still many teachings and actions that the Church itself promotes that lead, I believe, to increased mental health issues for some of the most vulnerable in our midst.
Many within the Church know this to be true but don’t want the responsibility of admitting it. It’s as if they would be ‘letting the side down’ if they did, so instead we are all encouraged to carry on with the charade – and therefore we are never in a position to let the truth set us free!
I myself long for the day when we can have the equivalent of our very own ‘Truth & Reconciliation Commission’ in the Church, and where those in authority – that’s to say those who wear purple – sit and listen to the stories of those of us who have been so badly hurt, abused and/or traumatised by the Church. Would it be too much to hope that tears might be shed, that inadequate apologies offered – and meant – and that hearts would at last be changed?
For then the healing journey – for both sides – might finally start.
And then we would fully be able to grasp that our identity as a Church is indeed in Christ – a beautiful body made up of unique and disparate individuals. The whole body – especially the parts that some of us would rather not recognise and would perhaps like to disown or change.
And of course that goes for those on both sides of the argument!