A few Sundays ago in the context of an evening service I presented a paper (rather than ‘preached a sermon’) on ‘What does it mean to be an inclusive church? Are gays welcome at Central Baptist Church?’. In that presentation I looked at a number of options, but did not come to a formal conclusion. The other Wednesday evening some 95 people turned out to talk through the issue. Technically it was not a ‘church meeting’, but a ‘church night’ – not only was the meeting open to all, but from the outset we were clear that this was a meeting where no policy would be formally decided.
We began by looking briefly at three case studies drawn from the experience of other Baptist churches. The purpose of this was to help people understand how challenging and complex inclusivity can be. I then outlined three issues from within the life of our own church.
- Some years ago we lost a group of enthusiastic young people as a result of the homophobia of two of our youth leaders, who told our young people that gays were an ‘abomination’ to God. The young people left the church not because they themselves had any inclination to be gay, but because they felt that we as a church were rejecting their gay friends. Sadly, none of these young people are found in any church today. They appear to have been lost to the Kingdom.
- More recently one of our teenagers requested baptism. She was a keen young Christian, but she had come out as a lesbian. At the time I refused to baptise her. She has never been to our church since. She too is in danger of being lost to the Kingdom
- A year ago one of our church members stopped coming to church. I discovered that she had entered a gay relationship, and felt that there would not be any point in coming to church, for she would not be welcome
I then continued with the following statement:
As a ministry team we feel that as a church we need to think through what our policy should be to gay people. In saying that, we are not asking the church to bless gay partnerships, let alone permit gay marriages. We believe that there is a middle way – even although we are far from certain what form that middle way might be.
I need to make it absolutely clear that in no way are we proposing to question the authority of Scripture. As Baptists we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and as such is the supreme and final authority for what we believe and how we live our life together. No, the issue is not the authority of Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture. To give a simple example, nobody now would advocate putting to death practicing homosexuals – even although that is the clear instruction of Lev 22.13. The fact is that on certain issues we all re-intepret Scripture.
I find it significant that over the years we have changed our stance as a church on a number of moral issues, without necessarily compromising our principles. Let me give you three examples of the way in which we include people today, in a way we did not when I was young:
- We welcome divorced people to our church. In the old days, if a divorce took place, then the people concerned were often drummed out of the church. Today, it is very different. It is not that divorce is OK. The reality is that, where appropriate, pastoral discipline is exercised, but we do not ask the person to leave the church.
- We welcome girls who have had babies out of wedlock. In the old days, they would disappear. Today, we support them. This does not mean that we approve. But we do believe they need our love and care.
- We welcome cohabitees to our church. In the old days, for instance, I would only marry people living together if they were to separate for a period before the wedding. Again, it is not that we approve. I always make it clear that I do not approve of their living arrangements.
Over the years evangelical Christians have become more inclusive. Why should we not become more inclusive as far as gays and lesbians are concerned? Please note: I am not proposing that we abandon our principles – but rather asking whether we need take a fresh look at the way in which we apply Scripture.
I went on to say:
Although this is not a church meeting, it is perhaps helpful to bear in mind a formal definition of what happens when Baptist Christians come together: it ‘is the occasion when as individuals and as a community, we submit ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and stand under the judgment of God that we may know what is the mind of Christ’.
Recognising that strong feelings and convictions were at play, I set out guidelines for how the conversation then was to proceed:
If you wish to speak, please put up your hand. Only speak once you have been given a microphone and have been invited to speak. When you speak, please do not speak for more than four minutes. We want to give an opportunity for everybody who wishes to speak. Initially at least, we would ask people to speak only once. If the conversation begins to dry up, then there may be the possibility to speak again.
The conversation then began, and for the next hour people shared their perceptions. To my delight, everybody respected the guidelines for the meeting; everybody spoke courteously to one another; everybody listened to one another – there were no interruptions. It was all the more remarkable, because of the underlying strength of conviction of many of those speaking. Some had come with prepared speeches; others were more spontaneous. Although the overwhelming majority of those who spoke felt that all same sex relationships were inherently sinful, whether or not that relationship was stable and committed, there was nonetheless a clear acceptance that gays and lesbians were indeed welcome in our church. For that I was grateful. Indeed, I rounded off the meeting drawing attention to Jesus’ befriending of ‘tax collectors and sinners’, pointing out that in an Eastern context to sit down at table with others implied not just acceptance but commitment.
If the truth be told, my own reflection on Scripture has now led me to adopt a more open position than many of my people, with the result that I found myself privately disagreeing with many of the views expressed. However, as I left the meeting my chief emotion was one of gratitude rather than of frustration. In a large meeting of this kind people could have spoken very differently. I was proud to be the minister of a church where people could express disagreement in a positive courteous manner.
For the time being the public conversation has come to an end. But when the conversation does resume, then I am hopeful that precisely because of this positive experience, people will have less ‘angst’ and be even more able to talk through issues where we see things differently.