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Mercy and Truth

I read Peter Lineham's story with interest, commiseration and frustration.

I know many people who would call themselves gay, or same-sex attracted. Most of these people are Christians. I have heard hundreds of accounts of experiences of gay people in “conservative” churches whose members have had no understanding (or very little) of homosexuality and what it feels like to come to a dawning understanding (early or later) that you are attracted to the same sex. A discovery that is made doubly worse when you know that what you have found yourself to be is a stigma to your community of faith and apparently an “abomination” in God's eyes – especially when you genuinely love God and want to serve and know Him, and also want very much to belong. The rejection and confusion can be traumatic for someone still struggling to come to terms with his or her discovery.

Peter did not simply leave, or attempt to dissemble. He had the integrity to front up to Christian co-workers, some of whom he knew would relieve him of his responsibilities or at least cool towards him.  He went public. He has been upfront about where he is in the process of integrating his love for God and his understanding of himself. That sort of public transparency and vulnerability takes courage and deserves to be treated with respect.

Typically people who find themselves in his position do one of two things – they move towards a theology and community of believers which will allow them to be both practising gay and Christian, or they leave the faith altogether, because they know no way to reconcile what they are, with what they know of God and no way they know of stopping the attraction. Often they join the more “liberal” branch of the church in which gay relationships are acceptable, or join the gay-specific Metropolitan Community Churches.

In my opinion the response of both these major streams of the church misses the mark – hence the “frustration” in the first paragraph. What has got lost these days in the stand-off between “conservative,” and “liberal” church/gay Christian” is any meaningful discussion of the third option, change - because it is too complex, or too divisive, too hard, too controversial, and mainly, simply outside anyone's experience.

My husband and I
[1] have researched homosexuality for 17 years, and in the process worked non-selectively through more than 3000 research papers (scientific/sociological/psychological), books and publications on homosexuality and written 3 books on the subject  – each a substantial research effort in its own right. What is clear from the masses of statistics and surveys is that sexual orientation is very malleable and that no-one is born homosexual, or heterosexual either. An enormous amount of change goes on: people can slide up and down the continuum, either way over years, or even over a relatively short time. In other words, our “sexual orientation” is definitely not set in concrete.  It is something we acquire – sometimes shakily – from earliest years over several decades. Without going into a discussion of how we actually acquire our heterosexual orientation (which is a complex process) what we can say is that it is “learned” (absorbed osmotically) over years and has a number of well delineated stages. In a similar way homosexual orientation is learned and the learning blocks can also be clearly identified.  We have found no evidence that homosexuality is biologically hard-wired: hormonal, a result of brain microstructure, or directly genetic – though efforts to find the link continue and are usually misreported in the media.

There are some people with a homosexual orientation (or what I much prefer to call a homo-emotional orientation which our sexual drive naturally enough engages), who cannot find in the Christian scriptures any mandate to sexually express their strong drive to connect with others of the same sex. They do not see God as a punishing figure, nor do they have “internalised homophobia”, but they do not want to continue to have homo-emotional/sexual drives.  They set about the process – usually a long and gradual one – within a supportive and knowledgeable network, of unravelling the contributing factors, of making up gender deficits other ways than through same-sex sexual relationships and of acquiring (learning ) heterosexuality.

Many people react angrily to this option, perhaps because they believe it makes people with same sex attraction look deficient when they have already spent a life-time feeling “different”, and not “belonging. Some have made such a huge investment – and a courageous and costly one – in taking on a gay identity that the possibility of change is too painful to even contemplate.

Many people with same-sex attraction are driven out of the faith, or over to accepting churches because of the rejection they experience in conservative churches. The conservative church (and I speak in stereotypes) badly needs to understand that homosexuality smells no worse to God than a great many other heterosexual sins and shortcomings. The Romans 1 list makes that point, and other New Testament mentions of homosexuality merely place it in the context of other sins. In the Old Testament an adjective commonly used to describe homosexuality is also used of many other things, including – wait for it – love of money, greed for gain, failure to keep promises, pride and haughtiness, deceit and lying, thoughts of harm to another, partiality, meaningless and hypocritical prayers – all of which heterosexual Christians do on a fairly regular basis.

But, the wholesale acceptance of homosexuality as God's good gift to these individuals by churches at the liberal end of the spectrum is the equal but opposite error in my opinion. It looks like love but isn't. It's a false compassion coming from a lack of understanding or acknowledgement of either the roots or redemption of homosexuality and fallen heterosexuality - a lack of understanding that it shares, in general, with the conservative church. No doubt acceptance without understanding is better than rejection without understanding.

I would like to quote excerpts from a statement by a retired physician and psychiatrist
[2], and practicing Anglican, working in London:

“The lack of understanding of homosexuality and the lack of spiritual power has led the church to advocate tolerance – assiduously avoiding the category of ‘sin' but therefore contributing to the polarisation of the evangelical wing, which despite a strong theology of ‘sin', has assiduously avoided the possibility of change.

“The selective listening of the church, excluding the voice and experiences of those who have a homosexual attraction but for whom homosexual practice is not their choice, has increased the polarization.  It has allowed other voices to go unchallenged.  It has caused confusion and frustration, encouraging an over-simplification of the issues, and it has reduced the basic tenets of our faith to mere theory and contention – denying believers the healing and restoration they expect to find in Christ.

“If the church seeks “to encourage dialogue with all people who have a homosexual orientation and listen to their experience, then the church must elicit and include the contribution of those who are looking for and have reached a place of real change. This is a matter of basic integrity.

                                                                                                               Briar Whitehead

[1] Dr NE Whitehead has a PhD in biochemistry and has spent 35 years working as a research scientist in NZ and overseas. Briar is a journalist and writer

[2] Dr Lisa Guinness, in comments on the schism in the Church of England over the issue of homosexuality

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