‘I have learnt to watch my back when there are Bishops around’. That came from the lips of an outstanding priest who is in a Civil Partnership. Whatever our view about the issues raised by same sex partnerships in our time the remark is disturbing. Sadly, it is not the first such remark that has come my way over recent years. The fear and anxiety which these comments reveal is shared by the church’s leadership who similarly and paradoxically do not know what to do and how to respond. In an atmosphere of mutual anxiety pastoral care disappears and a distance is created where there ought to be deepening bonds of love and support.
Yet among the community of the baptised there is much to celebrate. I have listened to lay people in churches with a strong conservative tradition speak in the same breath of their own spiritual awakening and of their support and affection for gay members of their family and circle of friends. ‘We have learnt more about what love really means from James and Phil than from many of the married couples within our circle of friends’. So in the day to day experience of Christian women and men we find a desire and capacity to recognise goodness when it stares you in the face. The leadership of all our churches needs to work hard to develop that relaxed and appreciative attitude towards sisters and brothers whose life experience may be different from their own or even from what they might consider to be appropriate.
Providing space for the other and creating a culture of respect for the integrity and for the conscience of others is basic to a wholesome and mature community and so for the life of the Christian church. Both inside and outside the church our culture is making huge strides in this direction. Studies, for example, in the USA reveal that the cultural attitudes of people under 45 and even more so people under 25 are completely bypassing the inherited attitudes of the conservative Bible belt churches. Whatever is held in the pulpit as ‘Christian’ for our culture is not believed in the pews by the emerging generation of Christians let alone others.
In our own society this goes hand in hand with a commitment to human rights and to a proper respect for human equality across the diversity of contemporary social experience. People are much less willing to accept discriminatory attitudes and practices than was the case 15 or 20 years ago. So when the churches appear to want to distance themselves from the provisions which protect against discrimination they distance themselves from the expectations of a growing generation of people today. People hear the stories of the poor treatment of gay and lesbian friends in some religious contexts and come to the conclusion that this is all about institutional protection and unwillingness to help this generation find help and support in living out a faithful Christian commitment.
The basic challenge is not theological – we have learnt to live with plurality of life within the Gospel community – it is attitudinal. When we look positively upon one another across the rich diversity of human experience we will be able to find the language of faith to interpret the tradition in our own time and for people today.
Watching our backs when the Bishop is around is not a happy picture of how church is received by those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.