Why I Voted for Same-Sex Marriage in Church
I recently voted to allow same-sex marriage in church. It is another step towards equality not only in the Methodist Church but in wider society as well. However, overturning centuries of Christian tradition may well cause serious division and attract some personal criticism.
So why did I vote in favour?
A long journey
I clearly remember the first step on my path to this vote more than twenty years ago. It was the day I phoned to join the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). Not the most radical act of a young church minister but it was perhaps slightly unusual. At least for a heterosexual married man with two young children.
There was some initial confusion at the other end of the line when I said I was ‘joining LGCM for a friend.’ Then came gentle enquiries about my ‘true’ sexuality, and did I want to talk about it.
The person I spoke to knew what I knew: ‘married with two children’ does not necessarily equate to ‘heterosexual.’ Several high profile evangelical pastors have demonstrated this particular hypocrisy over the years. Once I convinced my sceptical inquisitor of my honesty and good intentions, I found myself providing personal details. I could even hear a bemused whisper to other staff in their office: “I’ve just signed up a straight church minister!”
The reason for joining broke my heart then, breaks my heart now, and prompted my vote for same-sex marriage in church. You see, I joined on behalf of Patrick,* one of the kindest, most compassionate and saintly people I’ve ever known. And to support the many gay men and women who have enriched my life.
Shame and loneliness
Patrick had not long retired from a job where he was loved and respected by everyone. He had also devoted his entire life to the church and congregation into which he was born. The congregation where I was the minister. He came to see me to resign his church membership and I could not hide my shock and disappointment.
Patrick told me how, in the twilight of his life, he had decided to acknowledge, accept and explore his sexuality. In his eyes, that made him no longer worthy to belong to the church.
Just to tell me that he was attracted to other men rendered him distraught with shame. He had not been born with that shame. It was inflicted upon him, then sustained and nurtured by church doctrine, family expectation and societal norms. I gently refused his resignation.
His sense of shame kept Patrick isolated and deprived of an emotionally and physically intimate relationship his whole life. Shame that ran so deep he couldn’t even have an LCGM-stamped envelope delivered by the postman. Because the postman would KNOW his shame.
So I had the mailings sent to me and I passed them on to Patrick in a plain brown envelope for the remaining months of his life. And in that time he changed the way I saw the world.
It's a Sin
Sexuality is, for most of us, fundamental to our existence. It frames our identity, provides physical pleasure,Patrick enabled me, a straight man, to imagine an alternative reality. One where my sexuality is considered an abomination. In that rare moment of clarity, I was horrified.
Sexuality is, for most of us, fundamental to our existence. It frames our identity, provides physical pleasure, and defines our place in society.
The TV series, It’s a Sin, captures the social judgement heaped on same-sex attraction in the 1980s. The exclusion, marginalisation and fear — all of which were shared and promoted by the church. AIDS magnified the stigma faced then, a stigma still faced in some places, by gay men in particular. All those years ago I couldn’t accept that my sexual preference and marital status made me good and accepted. Or that every other expression of sexuality and attraction could somehow be sinful and bad.
What about the Bible?
Methodists and other Christians understand their faith through a combination of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. These elements were central to recent discussions leading to the same-sex marriage vote. Of the four, scripture is considered to be the most important. Particularly for people like me who were raised in an evangelical tradition.
For many years since I was a military chaplain I have struggled with questions of faith and God and church. I often find it difficult to see the ‘divine’ in so-called divine revelation. Perhaps especially in the bible. But I have never lost my sense of injustice at how gay men and women have been treated, and are still treated, by the church.
My vote for same-sex marriage was therefore shaped more by justice and fairness than an appeal to biblical texts.
Bring in some honesty
Let’s be honest, Christians around the world — even self-declared bible-believing Christians — are selective about the biblical commands they follow. For example, over the years I have heard many Christians justify their negative attitudes towards gay men in church by quoting the Old Testament words: ‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.’ Yet when I ask them, not one (thankfully) has obeyed biblical commands to stone to death adulterers, mediums, stubborn and rebellious sons and people who gather wood on the Sabbath.
My favourite example of someone who regularly got in trouble for ignoring Old Testament commands (though he would have known it as the Torah), is Jesus himself. He repeatedly broke strict religious rules and cultural expectations. Jesus worked on the Sabbath, touched lepers, and spoke to a woman across ethnic boundaries. My kind of example.
While some Christians obsess over same-sex relationships, they are happy to turn a blind eye to God’s biblical command to murder, kidnap and sexually enslave. Or explain it away as ‘a mystery’ or God having ‘a purpose we don’t understand’, and so on. One thing I understand all too clearly: ISIS recently showed the world the human devastation that comes from literal obedience of ancient religious texts in the twenty-first century.
Pioneer for social justice and equality
My attitude to justice and equality is shaped by many influences. Perhaps the most important but least-known is a pioneering nineteenth century Methodist, Catherine Mumford Booth. She is perhaps best known as the wife of William Booth and co-founder of the Salvation Army. Yet her practical Christianity and social activism has left an unsung legacy.
Catherine Booth fought for equality in many areas. She reached out to the poor, the addicted, the homeless and exploited sex workers. She championed equality with men in church ministry. She also said:
‘To better the future we must disturb the present.’
Disturbing the present
So I voted to disturb the present. As I voted for same-sex marriage in church I remembered Patrick. Technology allowed me to share the moment with a dear friend half a world away, as I thought of those who have been marginalised and shamed by the church for who they love. May they forgive us for taking so long.