Sexuality and Silence image

Sexuality and Silence

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I’ve heard rumours of a silent trend beginning to take hold in some city churches in the UK and the US. I don’t just mean a trend that takes hold silently; presumably most trends do that. I mean a trend towards silence: a decision not to speak out on issues that are considered too sticky, controversial, divisive, culturally loaded, entangled, ethically complex, personally upsetting, emotive, likely to be reported on by the Guardian or the New York Times, uncharted, inflammatory, difficult, or containing traces of gluten. Since I do not attend a city church, but am a proud member of the backward bungalow bumpkin brigade, this is coming to me second hand, and it may turn out to be a storm in the proverbial teacup, or even (for all I know) entirely fictional. But let’s imagine that there were such things as well-written booklets which had been discontinued simply because they were about sexuality, and leaders who were avoiding making any public comments at all on controversial ethical issues, or churches whose lectionaries or sermon serieses were systematically avoiding passages which addressed pressing contemporary questions, presumably in the name of being winsome or wise or likeable or culturally sensitive, because of the number of Influencers and Powerful People in the area. Without knowing any of the behind-the-scenes discussions that had taken place – all well-intentioned, I’m sure – what would I say then?

Seven things.

1. Winsomeness is a good servant and a terrible master. Jesus called his disciples to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, and to that end, we need to keep asking ourselves whether the way we are saying things is the most helpful or appropriate way of saying it, given the culture we are in. But this is not the same as asking whether we should say anything at all. After all, soon after telling his disciples that, Jesus went to his death and promised that they would follow in his footsteps, and it seems that ten out of twelve of them did. In Pauline terms, there’s a time for saying “I’ve become all things to all men”, and a time for saying “I wish those guys over there would castrate themselves.” In Petrine terms, there’s a time for saying “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable”, but not in a way that conflicts with “we must obey God rather than men.” Our desire to be wisely engaged in the culture should affect how we talk about ethical issues, but not whether we do. We call it cultural engagement for a reason.

2. Likeability stops at the water’s edge. When you tell Israel that they will be deported if they keep going up to the high places, they probably won’t like you, no matter how nice you are. There comes a moment in Schindler’s List when Oskar realises that being nice and likeable to Amon Goeth isn’t saving any Jews, and a different approach is needed. Every culture has its high places, its sacrosanct areas of affiliation and adulation that cannot be defiled without all hell breaking loose, and ours is no different. When you denounce them, in however carefully phrased a manner, nobody likes you. That’s what courage is for.

3. Pastors are to proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the parts that won’t cause any fluttering in the Fleet Street dovecotes. Paul is able to pronounce himself “innocent of the blood of all of you” because he “did not shrink from proclaiming to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). The implication, I suspect, is that if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be.

4. Ducking difficult ethical questions leaves churches in confusion when they most need clarity. The vast majority of people in my church are not facing questions about eschatology or the parables at the water cooler (or, for that matter, from their students or their teenage children). They’re facing the same few questions, over and over again, and how the church responds to sexuality is always one of them. So if I avoid topics that are making waves in the wider culture, then I end up operating with the bizarre maxim that the more relevant an issue is, the less I will talk about it – and this both misses out on opportunities to land biblical teaching in real life, and leaves them apologetically stranded when they most need my help. And That’s Just Silly.

5. Ethical confusion makes church discipline much, much harder. If a local church is confused about how to handle certain texts, and therefore ethical issues, then it will be even more confused if and when church discipline needs to be exercised (which is presumably also more likely if the church is confused). By default, many will operate with a rule of thumb that is the opposite of 1 Corinthians 5: (a) my friend loves Jesus, (b) my friend is doing X, therefore (c) X cannot be incompatible with loving Jesus. Unless X, whatever it is, is taught on clearly, and in a way that models grace, holiness, acceptance, love, righteousness, repentance and new creation, the church will have no idea what I am playing at if, as may happen, I have to respond to unrepentant sin in a professing Christian. That won’t help any of us.

6. Silence unwittingly reinforces the dominant cultural narrative. The recent Independent article on Vicky Beeching’s sexuality is just the latest in a long line of similar articles in the popular media, each of which assumes that there are two camps when it comes to Christians and sexuality: on the one hand, retrograde bigots who hate gays, troll, write abusive emails, perpetuate homophobia, and assume all same-sex attraction is demonic, and on the other hand, courageous heroes of compassion who are either gay themselves or are sure that God is absolutely fine with gay sex. If those in the middle – those who love gay people, pastor gay people, care for gay people, and continue to preach the gospel and teach biblical truth to gay people – sit this one out, then the dominant narrative is simply reinforced. I know the Independent will never run a feature on the men with same sex attraction we’ve baptised recently, or on any of the Living Out contributors, and I don’t care. But I want to make it as hard as possible for them to tell their story without reference to the radical middle, and as hard as possible for anyone else to believe it. Modelling how to respond, albeit imperfectly, is far better than dancing around the issue and allowing the agenda to be set by the extremes.

7. Those of us who instinctively cheer when we read the previous six points are probably in the greatest need of hearing what the advocates of silence have to say. Personally, I’m persuaded that most city churches in the UK today need a nudge in the direction of clarity more than nuance, and of courage more than sensitivity. But the very fact that I believe this means, despite all I’ve said, that I need to stop and listen to what these city churches are saying by their silence. For instance: speaking about these issues is often done badly. Or: most people already think Christians are obsessed with sexuality. Or: booklets and sermons can put your congregants, especially those who carry significant responsibilities, in difficult positions. (Our church currently has the chair of the County Council, three town councillors, two former mayors, and a prospective parliamentary candidate, all from one of the two major parties in our area, so I’m not speaking from a vacuum here.) On balance, I think speaking about pressing issues carefully is far better than not speaking at all, and obviously, I think all churches should agree with me. But I want to hear what those who disagree with me are (not) saying.

As I say, I don’t belong to a Silent Church (and let’s face it, I probably never will), and it may be that even the reports of their existence are paranoid exaggerations or fictional flights of fancy. I hope so. But I think posts like this are still worth it. Just in case.

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