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In many ways, homosexuality isn’t an elephant in the Church’s room; it feels like every time the Church gets any press coverage it focuses on its attitude towards gay people. But what does all of this mean for youth and children’s ministry? Helen Crawford investigates…
Back in the days of Fun house and the first incarnation of The crystal maze, when many of today’s youth and children’s workers were children, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal. If you were involved in a church and were aware of any legal debate about homosexuality, it most likely would have been around the attempt to repeal Section 28, the article banning local authorities from portraying homosexuality in a positive light, in 2000. You would never catch a same-sex kiss on TV before the 9pm watershed and even after that it was considered a shock. You might know gay people, you might have had people in your class with same-sex parents, but it wasn’t an observed societal norm. Few teachers were openly gay.
But over the past two decades, things have changed. Attitudes towards homosexuality among both individuals and public society have softened. Today, according to 2017’s British social attitudes survey, 73 per cent of Brits with no religion believe homosexuality is “not wrong at all”. Same-sex marriage is legal and Ireland (where abortion remains illegal) has just appointed its first openly gay prime minister. Gay characters are more present in film and TV, and children’s programmes are no exception.
So where does this leave the Church? Millennia of mainstream Christian teaching has taught against homosexuality but views are changing in here too; 17 per cent of Anglicans think that same-sex relationships are always wrong”. That’s the lowest level since records began in 1983, when 50 per cent held this view; 47 per cent of those Anglicans think LGB people should have the right to marry. This evolution of views shows that homosexuality is probably one of the most divisive issues among Christians today, posing the biggest threat to the unity of not just the Church of England, but the global Anglican communion. Other denominations are having their own discussions, only further from the media spotlight.
Nobody mention the elephant
Some would argue that homosexuality itself is wrong, taking the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ approach. Some are less kind to the ‘sinner’. For these, any move by the Church to teach otherwise is seen as a compromise, a departure from the truth. Moves away from this view can feel distressing.
Others feel wildly differently. Campaigning for equality for LGB people in the Church and wider society, they take a different approach to biblical references of homosexuality, feel that God totally accepts it and may well despair that this article still needs to exist in an ‘elephant in the room’ issue of a magazine.
Despite this, 62 per cent of churches say they never talk about same-sex attraction with only 3.6 per cent saying they often talk about it. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of Christian 11-19-year-olds say they are interested in discussing the topic.
So why aren’t we talking about it? It’s a sensitive issue. Sexuality is deeply personal. We don’t want to hurt people, we don’t want to be hurt and it’s true to say that the nature of the debate has, at times, been far from Christ-like.
Perhaps part of the challenge in discussing homosexuality is that most of the debate tends to be polarised. Expressing uncertainty over your position or understanding can be seen to be really an alliance with a particular position (normally the opposite one to the person you’re speaking to!). But there are a plethora of views; there are those who welcome same-sex couples but wouldn’t invite them to take any form of leadership position in the church, those who are same-sex attracted but believe it’s wrong to act on those desires and many more. There are plenty of nuances. And almost all of these positions are argued from the Bible.
The impact of theology
How we handle these differences speaks volumes about the Church. It shows how we relate to those we disagree with, how we handle our conscience, how we interpret the Bible. But mostly, what it looks like to love one another. You might recall the devastating case of Lizzie Lowe, a 14-year-old who committed suicide over fears about telling her Christian parents she was gay. Her father said news of her sexuality would have been met with a: “wealth of love and acceptance.” It’s so painful that one would feel, in a Christian community, which should be loving and accepting, so unable to be oneself. And so while young people today are growing up in a society that welcomes same-sex relationships, some gay young people in the Church are hearing the message that they’re not OK as they are.
Don’t just lean on the assumed views of those around you or follow your church’s ‘party line’. Work out what you really think and then let your heart be battered for those who’ve been hurt
In fact, a recent report by Oasis claims that the reasons behind higher levels of mental health problems for LGB people are, in part, caused by a sense of “societal inferiority” and that: “The Church and local churches are one of the biggest sources of direct discrimination against LGB people.”
In our midst
Perhaps there are people in your groups asking: I’m gay, do I even fit in here? Can I square who I am with my Christian faith? Does God even love me? Will I ever be able to tell my parents?
Expressing uncertainty over your position or understanding can be seen to be really an alliance with a particular position - normally the opposite one to the person you’re speaking to!
Other children and young people are being raised by same-sex parents or, at the very least, know same-sex couples. For children or young people living with same-sex parents, the way homosexuality is discussed will have a bearing on how welcome or excluded they feel in your church or youth group, as well as the way they feel about themselves.
Others will be trying to work out how they support friends exploring their sexuality, or they might be the only Christian in an RE lesson listening to Christianity being presented as anti-gay. How do they respond to potential accusations of homophobia? Or to their own questions? How do they themselves interpret what the Bible says about homosexuality?
Both sides of the elephant
Perhaps one of the first steps is to make sure we’re comfortable with exploring these things. Read (or find podcasts that deal with) views from both sides of the argument (or just read the next few pages!). Look at the Bible texts yourselves; interrogate them. See what a range of scholars say about those biblical texts.
Listen, too. Seek out those who’ve lived through the experience of being LGB in the Church: the good, the bad and the really, really difficult. Share this with your young people as far as is appropriate.
Don’t just lean on the assumed views of those around you or follow your church’s ‘party line’ (if there is one). Work out what you really think and then let your heart be battered for those who’ve been hurt in this area.
When you’ve done all that, you’ll be well placed to partake in or facilitate the conversations. Whether with colleagues, young people, your church leadership, parents in your church or children, walk with grace.
Make it be OK to identify as gay. Make it OK to talk about the pain, the experience. Make it OK to talk about the joys of feeling accepted into a Christian community as a gay person. Make it be OK to not be sure what you think about it all. Make it OK to question and explore how others in the faith have understood homosexuality. Make it OK for people to hold fast to their views and their conscience. At the same time, make it OK to move one’s position, to think differently, to be open to new ideas.
All of these positions cultivate a place where children and young people can talk. They can host and hold those conversations that many of them want to have. You can’t know what they’re thinking, battling with or considering if you don’t make space for them to share it with you. It will help you advise parents, too, who are also questioning their position, their sexuality or responding to children who are gay.
Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of views, let’s disciple young Christians who really love their neighbour, whether they agree with them or not. So that as a Church, it’s clear we really do think the gospel is good news for everyone.
Amid fears of a forming schism in the Anglican church over the issue of homosexuality, Archbishop Justin Welby said: “The Church is a family and you remain in a family even if you go your separate ways. That’s always been the case and it always will be. God puts us together and we have to work out how we live with that and how we serve God faithfully in a way that shows that you can disagree profoundly and still love and care for each other.”
Maybe you read this as an LGB youth or children’s worker, hurt by the Church you’ve sacrificially served for years. Maybe you read this as someone unsettled by the wild compromise of the Church in learning towards culture on something you see as so clearly prohibited in the Bible. But we’re all in this together.