Day 11: Crumbs from the table
St Columba’s United Reformed Church in Oxford gave me an excellent welcome today. I joined in their lively and thought-provoking service this morning before speaking at the church this afternoon. St Columba’s was one of the first churches to contact me when I announced my intention to undertake this pilgrimage back in December. They have been consistently and actively supportive, as have First Sunday, an LGBT Christian group linked to St Columba’s.
People who turned up to the event this afternoon included both regulars at the church and people who had heard about it through other means. First Sunday had done a good job of publicising it online as well as handing out leaflets at Oxford Pride. There were questions on issues included the nature of the Bible, the meaning of marriage and the Jeffrey John controversy. One of the most interesting questions was about the media’s tendency to focus on homophobic Christians while saying far less about those Christians who support inclusion and equality.
I do not think the media can take all the blame for this. Pro-equality Christians have often failed to speak up as loudly or clearly as their opponents. We have failed to engage with the media and been too keen to avoid controversy. We have also been extremely under-ambitious. A sign of this is the fact that some supporters of equality have welcomed the Church of England’s decision to allow gay people to become bishops as long as they don’t have sex.
The problem is that this is no progress at all. Gay people can theoretically already become bishops if they don’t have sex, because the anti-equality lobby insist that they are concerned with behaviour, not orientation. The very fact that this controversy exists at all gives the lie to this claim. I have no doubt that potential bishops are questioned and challenged on all sorts of moral issues, and rightly so, but why is it this one that causes so much controversy? Imagine the Church of England giving as much time and energy to debating whether a person who owns shares in an arms company can become a bishop.
Allowing gay men to be bishops only if they are “celibate” will mean holding gay people to a higher standard than straight people. It will mean telling bisexual people that they better be careful about who they happen to fall in love with if they want to be accepted.
Another, equally important, point is often overlooked. Some people are called to celibacy as a vocation. Some people choose celibacy, a very legitimate and valuable choice. What an insult to people with a vocation to celibacy to suggest that their calling is nothing more than a second-class option for people that the Church does not really accept.
If we are to defeat homophobia and come anywhere near to the radical inclusivity of Christ, we cannot accept feeble offerings such as the acceptance only of non-sexually active gay men (they’re all still men, remember) as bishops. Accepting this decision would mean nothing more than agreeing to eat the crumbs dropped from the anti-equality table.
Photo credit: Andrew Smith