Friday, July 31, 2015


I’ve just read Ed Shaw’s ‘The Plausibility Problem - the church and same-sex attraction’. I’m reading around a few books from different evangelical standpoints on gay issues at the moment as I do a bit of writing myself. 

The writer is an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate and gay. Well, he’s keen we don’t use that last word - he prefers ‘same-sex attracted’. He speaks of his own journey, of his struggles and desires and sufferings and of his absolute confidence in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues.

His set-up is that in today’s world, keeping and teaching his moral stance has all sorts of plausibility problems because people inside as well as outside the church make basic errors of understanding. He tackles them personably and engagingly, and takes on all sorts of opinions that would disagree with him in the process.

Now I need to make two confessions. First, if you read this blog, you know that I too am an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate & gay. (I’m happy with that word). And second, I don’t agree with everything in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues - because I don’t find them biblical or godly or true enough. 

But I am absolutely committed to engaging with folk who agree with me and folk who disagree. The Christian Church is not defined as “those who believe in Jesus and take X stance on contemporary moral questions”; if we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. So I have a vested interest in taking the time to listen to and read ideas that I disagree with, and if possible in talking to the people who hold those ideas dear so that we might not be faceless foes hiding behind barriers of print and piety. We are family.

Ed’s book has had a lot of evangelical coverage, and I’ve seen people point to it as a very helpful resource. Ed is one of the people behind the Living Out website, which itself is an interesting phenomenon (I read it and wonder how helpful I would have found it when I was a student; maybe my memory of where we have come from as a church is too good always to rest easy with it.) The book is an engaging read, and I can see why people like it. There were all sorts of things I liked and disliked about it, and I’m going to focus on some general themes in order to (ultimately) make some specific points.

As I read the book I had three main worries that kept coming back to me:

1. A Rose-Tinted View of the Past
I kept feeling that the sub-sub-title might secretly be something like “How to live as
yesterday’s Christians in today’s world”. There is a view of spiritual life here that feels like it came straight out of the 1950s, without any irony. At times this made me smile; occasionally I winced.

Let me give an example.

Right at the start, Ed talks of two fictional characters, Peter & Jane (a smile - only English people of a certain age are probably getting the reference, but the choice of names has a connotation) struggling with their faith and with being gay. Ed writes:
“The single life we are calling Peter and Jane to today was plausible in the past - but it seems so unreasonable today.”

It’s a spit out the coffee moment. Plausible in the past? In the past, if they wanted to exist in a church they just repressed, repressed, repressed. Any other option would have led to a criminal conviction. Many, many people struggle with issues of sexuality, and within my lifetime acting on one’s feelings as a gay person could result in prison in this country. And even when it was no longer a physical sentence, for most people for a good long time being gay remained a social crime. 

Now that “seems unreasonable”. But Ed is unaware of these things, and just presumes there must have been other reasons why good Christian people didn’t make their struggle public.

I am delighted Ed is public about his struggle. It took me a long time to be public about my life, because it was made pretty clear to me right at the start of my journey towards ordination that if there was any hint of anything “suspect” about my life, I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t serve God or his people if I was gay. 

Now the world and the church have changed. 

The single life I set out on fresh out of college was not “plausible” or reasonable. It was compulsory. Thanks be to God, times have changed. Too rightly, that clock can’t be turned back.
 2. A Perfect Church

I kept worrying that for Ed’s vision of the world to work, you need to belong to a really great church. And by really great, I mean one where even if you are just a bit odd, people will welcome you into their homes (on days other than when the homegroup meets) and let you have care of their children. A church where inclusion is about making sure that everyone goes to the cinema and on holiday together. (Finance is never a problem for gay people, despite living alone.) Where inspirational teaching always shows people the point of life, and it’s Jesus! And our “appropriately intimate” friendships back this up. Where “single-minded service” is more attractive than sharing your life with another human being; and where being single in ministry is seen as an advantage not a hindrance. And most of all, this really great church rejoices in suffering and every member learns how to see thorns as the path to grace.
I’m piling this on because Ed does. Ed knows and I know and you know that this kind of church isn’t often plausible - and I’ve belonged to big churches and small churches and know that size or lack of size is no guarantee of any of these qualities. And if we need all these things to line up before a lifestyle becomes “plausible” - we are saying it’s not very plausible very often.

Now don't get me wrong - I agree with a lot of the things Ed values. As Ed works through this list of issues, I often find myself disagreeing with how he gets there theologically or how he enforces his viewpoint across the board, but I live most of this stuff. 

I’m happy to be called ‘gay’, but he’s right - it’s not my root identity: that’s in my life with God. I will never have my own family, and that’s OK - I pastor churches; Ed’s right, I have so many members in my family, so many folk I’ve been privileged to draw to faith and nurture, and so many wonderful folk I’ve been nurtured by. When I left the last church I was vicar at, I knew it was important to really leave and let go of everyone so that I didn’t hang around and (without meaning to) cast a shadow over the wonderful chap who followed me. But letting go of that congregation was leaving home for me; I had to leave my family and couldn’t look back and it hurt. And I also get what Ed is aiming at when he points out that things that the world says make us happy matter not one bit next to trusting God. That’s how I try to live. 

I could keep going through Ed’s list - 

But the whole thing is a big ask. It presupposes a pretty amazing Christian environment for the ordinary person in the pew. And as a church leader, I’d say I’ve not always had that. So I’m just cautious about its realism as a life-programme for every gay Christian.

3. More Sex, Vicar?
In this book, Ed presents marriage as being about sex. Honestly, I find myself surprised at quite how focussed his emphasis is. 

Now, as I’ve said, I’m an Anglican vicar, so is Ed, so I’m presuming that he reads the introduction to the Anglican marriage service as much as I do. And sex gets mentioned there - openly in one version, and in the words “bodily union” in the alternative. But it’s a mention, and then there’s lots of other things marriage is for. 

Time and again, Ed’s emphasis on sex as (what often seems to be) the only point of marriage gets the better of him and of his theology.

“We can’t make marriage anything but the permanent sexual union of a man and a woman without undermining its central purpose of pointing us to the passionate consummation of God’s love for his people.”

Marriage is about sex because heterosexual sex (within marriage as the focus and point of marriage) points to the ultimate union of Christ and his Church. 

It’s not that this is wrong; it’s just not enough. It misses so much - for example, how deep human relationships demonstrate our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness, and how marriage is an exploration of the divine gift that is our humanity. 

Of course, Ed talks of acting on his same-sex impulses by discovering more of God’s love for him (a wonderful and completely unworldly comment, when most would think one might just hold another’s hand). It's a throwaway comment that shouldn't get lost. But he also writes: “I once Googled the word ‘intimacy’ and found the images to be 99% sexual”.

Of course I did the same after reading that. I’d be interested to discover what you find - there are sexual images there, so be warned. But most were images I wouldn’t put in that category. Holding hands. A couple standing watching a sunset. Various kisses, many of which I would label 'gentle', ‘loving’ or ‘affectionate’ but not ‘sexual’; those also are there - as I say, be warned. I guess what counts as "Sexual" is in the eyes and mind of the beholder. 

For a book about sexuality, I feel at times its terms of reference are hazy, but its general trajectory is clear. An image of holding hands is "sexual". We hear Ed's freely confessed occasional self-loathing for sexual desire. And the definition of the opposite of celibacy we are given is "self-indulgence". I might gently want to question this journey. 


My point in raising these three issues at length rather than doing a chapter-by-chapter review of Ed’s book is this: 

When we discuss the issue of how Christians think and talk about being gay, it’s complicated. On paper Ed & I have a lot in common. But everyone has a background, and we reveal it more than we know in how we write as well as what we write. 

Ed’s book reveals to me a theology that yearns for the past, without facing up to that past. I agree with him in many of his observations on contemporary culture, but I’d add this: thus it ever was. Neither the world nor the church have ever been perfect, and if it used to be easier to encourage young Christians struggling to live with their sexuality to “stay true”, it wasn’t always because they’d been convinced by a Bible Study. There is a value in openness even if it’s an openness we then have to deal with. The truth shall set you free.

It reveals to me, as someone who has spent most of his ordained life away from the vigour of large-church life that understanding the context most people face is complicated. Even where I disagree with Ed’s theology I’ve lived the life he commends, and often it’s been the things he points to that have helped. Often. Not always. And being a leader with a compulsion to serve and good people ready to be there for you makes a heck of a difference - as Ed has experienced, though if he acknowledges that his status might just have helped his journey, I missed it. My apology. 

And, in what will be my biggest departure from Ed, it’s not all about sex. Being gay and wanting to share your life with someone is exactly the same as being straight. It’s about sharing a deep, committed, exclusive relationship with another that is a means of grace, a holy mystery, giving yourself to another throughout your life and being united in that love as Christ is with his Church. It’s about comforting and helping each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is about love in all its forms, and that includes sex. But sex isn’t just sex. For the Christian even that joy in the here and now is about strengthening the union of hearts and lives. Sharing life with another brings the possibility of nurturing others; children; for love isn’t selfish. It’s not about hiding but about a life in the community, a life that all should honour, an undertaking that is breathed into being reverently, responsibly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. And that's not self-indulgent, it's self-giving and holy and a Biblical calling.

Ed sees celibacy as “a gift you automatically have unless it has been replaced by the gift of marriage”. I’m with Jesus, St Paul and most of the church’s history in disagreeing with that line. A spiritual gift is a spiritual gift, not simply a label. I’m not sure I have that gift, still less sure I’d want it. And it’s not because I fixate on sex; well, not always. It’s because one day I’d like to know all of the above paragraph with someone. 

A Grace-Shaped Space

And yet, I read Ed and know his struggles and understand where he comes from. Ironically though my theology allows for the possibility of sharing my life with someone, I’m absolutely content as I am. I don’t have Ed’s “kitchen floor” moments where he very frankly describes “the acute pain (he) sometimes feels as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.” Not any more. I used to make myself ill repressing who I am, and God in his kindness has led me through those dark days. 

But I hear his words and they resonate with me. Someone who knows so much of life from my side of the fence deserves me to listen to them, whether I end up agreeing all the way or not.

In the end, as I read the book, I found myself marking my copy for all sorts of things where I felt Ed missed an issue or targeted an Aunt Sally or overstated something or just got it wrong; and I marked my copy for phrases that really said something well, and for questions that need more thought, and for honesty. Not that personal stories make everything right - Ed himself points that out. 

Ed Shaw has a ministry and a life in Christ that is blessed by God and which blesses others. What unites us is more than what divides us, and as we continue to talk about issues where we disagree in the church, it’s fair to ask all these questions - in the context of acknowledging one another as belonging to Jesus. If you want to read a contemporary conservative evangelical theology on the issue, this isn’t a bad place to start. He asks questions, gives answers, has a world-view and lives out what he preaches. 

For this is a grace-shaped space, and the disagreements we have will never be solved by name calling. Kindness and time to worship together and a little more conversation will remind us all we love because God first loved us. And our Heavenly Father loves us still, even if we’re struggling to get on right now.

Now how's that for pushing plausibility? Yet I believe it.