I love to travel and explore and discover places that are new to me. Standing in front of a departure board I enjoy dreaming about the possibilities of all the destinations listed. Looking around it is clear to see that people are preparing to go away for business; it is part of the normal repetitive work life. Others with families excited about the holiday they are embarking on. Then there’s the sports team travelling to a tournament, the young adult heading out for a gap year or the friends embarking on a six month adventure travelling the world. Of course there are also those who are returning home after some time away – be it for a few days of work, a few weeks holiday or the over due visit to parents or other loved ones not seen in too long. In addition to those preparing to depart there are those who have come to drop off, to wave good bye and to wish bon voyage. For good or for ill all gaze at the same departure board.
Standing in the same place looking in the same direction does not mean that everyone is heading to the same destination and neither does it mean they have come from the same place. So it is with the Church and human sexuality. It cannot be assumed that everyone has started with the same view, is asking the same questions and travelling the same journey of biblical understanding. To understand something of the different destinations we first need to recognise where we are coming from.
What is often referred to as the traditional biblical view of same sex relationships is (at its furthest extreme) one which reads and interprets the Bible to say homosexuality is an abomination. This has been the traditional teaching of the Church and therefore anyone who has grown up attending and participating in the life of a church inherits such a perspective.
Those who do not have a church or religious background do not have the same influences but will have deeply ingrained ideas inherited from their cultural context. For example, it was only in 1992 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declassified same-sex attraction as a mental illness and the Isle of Man fully decriminalised homosexuality in 1994.[i] So even without the traditional biblical perspectives relating to same-sex attraction the world at large has carried a less than favourable bias. Coming to faith and accepting the teaching of the Bible will not necessarily alter this inherited cultural perspective even if opinions about other aspects of life and different people do change over time.
Both the societal and Church responses to human sexuality have meant that those who identify other than heterosexual have at best felt rejected, isolated and out of place. At worst they have been persecuted, subjected to ridicule, forced to deny their true self and suffered emotional and psychological trauma. Even with significant changes to legislation and rights in recent decades much of this negativity remains. Statistics demonstrate that young people who identify as LGBT half have reported self-harming and 44% have considered suicide[ii] (at least two times higher than the general population)[iii]. Furthermore 48% of trans-people aged under 26 have attempted suicide.[iv]
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 granted civil partnerships for same sex couples in the UK and later the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 giving the same rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples. This means children aged 14 and under have never lived when same-sex civil rights were not provided for and it is unlikely that anyone aged under 18 would have any memory of such a time. The impact of this is that young people are increasingly less likely to consider heterosexuality as the only norm or understand why those who identify as LGBT+ have faced the intensity of discrimination they have to date.
Both the societal and Church objections to homosexuality have meant the LGBT+ community had to keep their true identities hidden. Recent decades have seen this community gaining a voice and witnessing favourable legislative changes for them. Churches have not been required to face up to the issues of discrimination because the relationships within churches have silenced or kept out those who do not identify as heterosexual. This is changing. The once voiceless are gaining a voice. Scripture is being reread, re-examined and studied as those within the Church look at the departure board and ask whether they will stay put or go on a journey. Are we prepared to end up somewhere new or to one day return to the point of departure having experienced more of the wider world?