The Church of England’s General Synod is meeting this week and – as many people have pointed out – many of the most noticeable agenda items seem to be concerned with sexuality and sex. As a trainee lay minister in that Church, one of the roles I’m supposed to carry out is being a bridge between the institutional life of the Church and other parts of our society and culture. So I wanted to briefly discuss an aspect of the Anglican controversies over sexuality which I encounter in my day-to-day life: how I think it affects many young people, and how it prevents them from hearing the Gospel.
In my day job I’m a university lecturer in English literature and drama. I spend a lot of my working life discussing poetry, plays and novels with young people, ranging from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith. This means I hear a lot about their view of the world, what they think is important, and how they see society. Because I mostly teach literature from earlier centuries, it also means that I frequently find myself explaining aspects of Christianity to them, to help them appreciate the works we’re analysing and the world they emerged from. As the majority of them are not Christians, this can be a very revealing process, during which I discover what they know – or what they assume – about our faith and our Church. They’re a reasonably diverse group of people, and of course there isn’t one single view that they all hold, but I do have a pretty strong sense of how a certain group of young people view Christianity.
One of the major points of view that I hear is that Christianity is immoral. They don’t use exactly that word: they’re more likely to describe things as “discriminatory”, “oppressive” or “unjust”, but that’s the general gist. There are moral principles of inclusion and justice which are central to their lives, which they see the Church as transgressing. They are used to looking at the media, or at politics, and criticising the misogyny or homophobia they see, and institutional Christianity is no exception. The same disdain for minority groups, the same discrimination.
I mention this because in public discussions of ethics, young people are often stereotyped as selfish and opportunistic, just wanting all the pleasure they can get out of life without taking any responsibility. I don’t think that’s true of my students, and it’s not what makes them suspicious of Christianity. When a lot of young people argue that the Church should be more inclusive of LGBT people, it’s not usually because they want to “get away” with anything, or because they don’t have moral standards. They’re not trying to drag down the general moral tone so their own transgressions can be allowed. It’s because they see the Church’s position as itself immoral, and they think that is a result of its oppressive beliefs.
Another major theme I hear in my university life is that Christianity is essentially about sex. When I discuss the concept of “sin”, as it appears in Milton or Austen, my students almost always assume that word is a synonym for “sex”. “Original sin” is somehow about sex, though they’re usually unclear on how (and to be fair to them, they could read a certain amount of medieval theology and still have that general idea). I have discussed Paradise Lost with students who are convinced that the Bible says Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden because they had sex with each other. This suggests two things to me, on reflection.
Firstly, a lot of young people seem to view Christianity as a rather mucky-minded business, full of people forever going on about sex and who’s having it with whom. Again, this goes against a common stereotype: that young people are continually thinking about sex, and the Church attempts to direct their thoughts towards higher things. In the general attitudes I can discern among my students, it is the other way around: many of them see churches as unhealthily sex-focused organizations.
Secondly, I worry that so long as they have this image of churches, the Christian vision of sin and redemption will not make much sense to them. If “sin” is another word for shagging, much of the spiritual world of Christian faith simply does not make sense. The vision it offers of the tragedy of human lostness and the hope of salvation becomes incoherent if some of its basic vocabulary is so distorted in the ears of the listeners. What can “Incarnation”, or “creation”, or “Trinity”, or “redemption” mean if Christianity is a system for stopping people having sex with each other?
On a more anecdotal level, I have met a number of young people over the last few years who are profoundly interested in Christianity. When it has come up in literary discussions or in historical seminars, they have found it intriguing and strangely inspiring. However, the perceived (and actual) homophobia of the Church is a continual issue for them. One student earnestly asked me if I knew what “your lot” were saying about gay people, when some leaflets were delivered to his hall of residence.
At other times, I have discussed the Bible and Christianity with liberal and progressive students whom I expected to veer away from the subject of sexuality and gender in Christianity. On the contrary, they weren’t going to avoid the topic in order to make anyone feel comfortable: for them it was a central question about the faith. Some of them were LGBT themselves, and some of them were not, but nonetheless took it as a first principle that a homophobic religion could not be an option for them.
An unfortunate knock-on effect of this situation is the way I sometimes find people regarding Christian groups which do affirm LGBT people. There is an air of “she’s Christian, but…” around this. A feeling that the people in question are Christian, but, you know not hardcore serious Christians. Christian but nice. Christian but don’t buy into all that stuff the Church says. Christian but modern. Christian but not too Christian. As long as inclusiveness of LGBT people is not a major part of our public message, I am afraid that this will continue, and that affirming Christianity will be seen as a sort of watered-down version.
For Christians like me, who are deeply attached to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, and who find their spiritual life in the liturgy and sacraments, this is a troubling distortion. Our commitment to inclusivity is not a compromise we have made between our faith and the situation we find ourselves in, it is a central part of what that faith can reveal to modern society. If the situation continues, I am concerned that many people will understandably see our inclusivity as proving that we are only sort of Christian, since “serious” Christians have to discriminate against LGBT people whether they like it or not.
To sum up, I am deeply concerned that our current situation is preventing thousands upon thousands of young people from hearing the Gospel. I have met some of them personally, and I am fairly sure that they represent large swathes of people in the same age group and situation. This issue is getting in the way of their interest in Christianity and their view of the faith. This is not a question of fitting our Christian witness to what people want to hear, but of taking seriously the message of reconciliation and repentance at the heart of the Gospel. The objections I come across from many young people to the Church of England are not selfish, self-indulgent or shallow, they are profoundly moral and based on a rather Biblical notion of justice.
Sending out signals is hugely important, I have learned. During my first years as a lecturer I did not have many students coming to me for pastoral advice, but that increased significantly as soon as I spoke publicly, in lectures or on my blog, on questions to do with gender justice and inclusivity. I quickly discovered that there were a number of people who needed to talk about these issues, and who were in distress about them. But I only found that out because I first made it clear that I cared about these issues, and made it clear that I was a safe person to discuss them with.
I think the same is true in this case: besides the faithful LGBT people already in our churches, there are surely many young LGBT people outside, wondering whether it is safe to pursue their interest by coming to a church. Many of them are probably used to watching intently for the signs that a place might be safe and supportive, or might be threatening and harmful. I believe they are watching us now, and I am eager to let them know who we are, and what our message really means.