How can we ensure we have good discussions with those Christians who disagree with us on sexuality?

by Canon Dr Andrew Goddard

One of the challenges facing Christians who uphold biblical teaching on sexual behaviour and seek to persuade the church to remain faithful to its historic stance is how to engage with those in the church who disagree with us on this issue.  Many people shy away from engagement in such discussions, perhaps fearful that simply entering into them is compromising.  Others will approach those they disagree with in a combative and confrontational mode.  I want to suggest that neither of these is a faithful or a fruitful response.  Instead I offer nine principles for how we should be involved in discussions with those of different views.

My first major experience of such discussions was back in 1995 when, as an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, my personal tutor was Michael Vasey.  He kindly gave me the draft text of his important book Strangers and Friends and I remember going round to his house and discovering time fly as we discussed our different views.  In my curacy I was involved in an internet and email discussion group called Bridges Across the Divide, one of whose other contributors, Justin Lee, has just written an important book (Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs Christians Debate) from across the other side of the divide. I also learned that in the Church of England if you offer a critique of material you find biased on this you might find yourself being invited to join a group of people working to help the church discuss the subject better.  When I did this, Bishop Richard Harries asked me to join Jo Saunders’ group and there I not only met Giles Fraser for the first time but worked with others in putting together days which helped Oxford Diocese consider the subject (Jo describes these in an Appendix to Some Issues in Human Sexuality).  Also through Jo’s work in the diocese I met Colin Coward of Changing Attitude and we have kept up conversation and developed a good friendship over more than a decade.  Other conversations – personal and private but also collectively in organised groups – have followed and been significant to me as I’ve tried to understand better the issues at stake, the people involved and what God is teaching us through this difficult process.

The first principle I’d give is build relationships and friendships.  Many of us spend most of our time with those who share our views on this subject, or at least those we assume share our views.  The danger then is that we find ourselves responding to ideas rather than to people.  Even more seriously, on both sides, we easily caricature, even demonise, those with whom we disagree. That is, of course, more difficult when someone we know and respect, someone we count as a friend, tells us they are having doubts or have changed their mind on the subject.  Those relationships can be the hardest for some people as they struggle to understand why the person does not see things as they do.  For others, it is being able to set the disagreement in the context of an existing friendship that helps then to build out and develop new friendships with those with whom they disagree.

Second, and flowing out of this, it is good to set discussions on sexuality in the context of wider sharing of views and learning from and about each other. That’s easy if there is already an existing friendship and a lot in common but it can be hard when what brings you together is simply your disagreement on sexuality. Very often, that is what attention always gets focussed on and not surprisingly such concentration on where you disagree – often strongly and fundamentally – Is not always conducive to building trust and understanding.  Finding other areas to explore can be of great value.  In most of my conversations with Colin Coward we now spend a good amount of time – sometimes the majority – discussing other areas of theology, spirituality, the ups and downs of our lives, the joys and frustrations of the Church of England more widely.  Meeting socially over a meal helps here – one my best memories is how I attended the launch of Inclusive Church in Oxford and was invited by the preacher Giles Fraser to join him and some of his friends for a meal afterwards in a local restaurant. Such steps might even lead to partnership in areas of common concern such as was achieved by the Don’t Throw Stones initiative.

Third, always be willing to listen and learn as well as to speak and to teach. One of my earliest involvements in the Communion discussions was being a co-author of True Union in the Body? Its opening chapter set out the following principle both for its own contribution and for how we should all engage in the church’s listening process:

Our motive, then, is not the defence of our truth but a contribution to the present conversation in the Anglican Communion and the promotion of Christ's love. We are well aware that truth claims can be a cloak for power-games, and that worldviews can be imposed on others in ways that are abusive and oppressive or which marginalize the voiceless. In this situation we must listen out all the harder, not to those who shout loudest, but to the voice of the living Christ who defines the character and limits of his Body as its founder and present head. ... All of us need to be conscious, not of the 'speck in our brother's eye' but rather of the 'plank' in our own (Matthew 7:4). Thus the whole Church needs to open herself to God's judgment in the confidence that God's word, if it judges us all, also brings us all life (1.14).

Fourth, always engage with the best case of your opponents. Like many of these principles, this is simply an application of Jesus’ Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  We can imagine how we might feel if opponents set up our position in the worst possible light in order to knock down and dismiss it.  It is therefore vital that we take seriously the best arguments and proposals from those who are supportive of same-sex sexual relationships as Christians.

Fifth, keep the focus on Scripture. The traditional position is ultimately taken because of the witness of Scripture and our belief that Scripture should be the supreme authority for the individual disciple and for the church. We need, therefore, to be wary of building a case which depends on or highlights other important areas in the wider debate such as theories of the causes of sexual attraction or possible changes in it, or evidence about patterns of sexual behaviour in contemporary society.  Of course, a focus on Scripture does not mean simply on the specific texts which address same-sex behaviour.  We need to communicate the whole sweep of Scripture including such areas as what it means to be humans as male and female, how we flourish as sexual beings, the importance of our bodies and bodily union, and the good news of forgiveness of all sin, including sexual sins and God’s inclusion and transformation of all who put their trust in Christ.

Sixth, share the experience of those who are faithful to Scripture.  Unquestionably one of the most powerful arguments in contemporary society is the appeal to experience, and those supportive of same-sex partnerships have advanced their cause significantly by sharing the stories of Christian gay and lesbian couples.  While insisting that Scripture, and not experience, is the criterion for authentic Christian living, we believe that the Word needs to be embodied. Stories, such as those on this site, which bear witness to faithful discipleship with same-sex attraction are an important part of discussions with those who offer an alternative pattern.  Were the church to follow wider society and treat same-sex unions as equivalent to marriage it would further marginalise and deny support to those Christians committed to biblical teaching.

Seventh, draw out the logic of others’ claims.  Part of discussion has to be entering into the thought patterns of those with whom we disagree and clarifying the nature of the disagreement.  For example, we need to work out and help others see whether people are openly rejecting what Scripture says directly about same-sex behaviour, or are claiming we have misread the biblical texts.  If claims are made about the need to support loving relationships or to express one’s sexual attractions we need to point out sensitively that such arguments have more wide-ranging consequences than this debate. For example, the recent biography of Roy Jenkins has highlighted how a married couple may agree that loving extra-marital sexual relationships are acceptable but few Christians would support this. Similarly, most Christians would accept that the requirement to be faithful means that someone strongly attracted to both sexes cannot express their sexuality fully.

"We need, above all, to engage in discussions prayerfully and trusting that Christ is faithful to his word – he will build his church, he will be with us always, and we need not and should not worry, for his Spirit will teach us what to say, and lead us into all truth."

Eighth, don’t be afraid to disagree graciously or to be changed in discussion.  Genuine dialogue and conversation requires both the boldness to state disagreement - speaking the truth in love - and the vulnerability to be changed by recognising one’s own errors.  Some are fearful about disagreeing – particularly if they don’t want to damage a relationship or if they know they will be in a minority.  Others are fearless about expressing their views but perhaps fearful of being wrong.  Our different temperaments perhaps explain which of these we are most susceptible to but both are dangers we need to avoid. The remedy for both is the final and most important principle

Ninth, be confident in God. It is so easy for us to focus on this particular issue and our arguments for our position.  We can put our trust in the case we are presenting or the strength of our own commitment or our rhetoric or our networks.  Then, when that case comes under attack, or we begin to have questions, or we see the church shifting its stance, we can respond defensively or dismissively. We need, above all, to engage discussions prayerfully and trusting that Christ is faithful to his word – he will build his church, he will be with us always, and we need not and should not worry, for his Spirit will teach us what to say, and lead us into all truth.

 

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