It’s no coincidence. Three people who I have either read, heard speak, or spoken to recently about same sex issues and the church, have all said the same thing: if the evangelical church is offering a thicker, richer expression of community to rival what is on offer “out there” as some sort of enticement, it’s doing a pretty good job of hiding it.
Two of these people have come out of the gay community into the Christian community. One is author, commentator, and former professor at Syracuse University, Rosaria Butterfield. The other is a bloke I am getting to know called James. Both of them speak publicly about the church’s response to the gay community, while James is working on an information campaign for the “No” position on SSM in Australia. Both are evangelicals who now affirm and live out the biblical accounts of gender, sexuality and marriage.
Anglican minister, speaker and author Sam Allberry is the third in this group, who has struggled with same sex attraction from childhood and is resolutely celibate. He became Christian just prior to university through a great set of Christian friends who loved him and accepted him.
Now as far as I know none of the three have ever sat down and compared notes, but here’s what they have in common: they all challenge the church’s often thin version of individualist, deeply privatised community.
Now this problem is not completely true in all cases of evangelical churches. We belonged to a household church group in the UK that, for better and for worse, did thick community. (It also did a somewhat toxic version of that, but that’s another story).
But here’s what I found interesting. When I read Sam Allberry’s helpful little book, Is God Anti-Gay?, (and when I heard him speak on the topic) and then, when I read Rosaria Butterfield’s deep, rich and enticing book, Openness Unhindered, I found myself hurrumphing in agreement as they deconstructed the culture’s view of sexuality, and explored the depths of the Bible’s teaching on gender, sexuality and union with Christ.
“Hurrumph! Hurrumph!” I would go, before grabbing another chocolate and coffee to read some more, “Hurrumph! Hurrumph!” They ticked all the theological boxes as far as I was concerned.
But the “Hurrumphs” stopped and I started to shift in my seat uncomfortably when both their books started to challenge the church’s rather aenemic commitment to community. The coffee cup cooled, and the chocolates took on a slightly bitter taste. They were on to something that I wasn’t so sure we were addressing.
Rosaria, in particular, stated that the lesbian community of which she was a part, pretty much ran an open door policy. The community, understandably, saw itself contra the culture, and as a consequence was a band of sisters that was tight, robust and welcoming to the waifs, strays and outsiders.
I found all of this a real challenge, because it made me cast my eye around me and ask, is that true of us in general, in the West, in Australia, in my city of Perth? Is it true of me, more particularly!
Now if you have heard or seen or read Rosaria Butterfield you will release that she is a larger than life American with a ringing laugh. Who could do community at the level she does, I mildly objected. It would be exhausting surely! And she sounds like she lives in a small US town that is quaint, twee and has a flag in every window.
But Sam Allberry consistently raises the same concerns, and he appears to be, from my limited and distant observation, a much more reserved, quintessentially middle class English man, of the type not known for outbursts of singing on a crowded Tube train on the way home from a busy day at the office.
But they have this in common: Both note that the church needs to do intimate Christian community much better, particularly to the converted SSA celibate person. The church needs to demonstrate to the gay community that truly fulfilling community is found among the people of Jesus in a way it is found, and can be found, nowhere else.
James put it this way, in the context of talking about the “No” campaign in the upcoming Australian marriage plebiscite:
“Our ‘No’ must have a greater ‘Yes'”.
James meant two things by that. First he believes that true liberty (for anyone, gay/straight/bi) is found in knowing the astonishing love that God demonstrated in the cross of Christ. He said that the gay church he went to in the UK many years ago had a gospel of safe sex, but no gospel of the cross of Christ, and it wasn’t until he heard that gospel, that he fully understood how intimately loved he was and could be. That’s just “wow” eh?
But here’s his follow up, and it lines up with Sam Allberry and Rosaria Butterfield: The gospel that gathers the community of God needs to taste as sweet as it sounds. If the community fruit of the gospel is dry, withered and slightly bitter, then the question has to be asked; Have we missed, messed, or mangled up something about the gospel message?
And this is by no means restricted to the experience of SSA people in churches attempting to live out a godly celibacy. In my own experience I have watched my divorced and long-time single mum struggle to find meaningful community in the church beyond the privatised “How are you on Sundays?” nuclear family life, baptised by the culture.
As a late teen, most Sunday lunches at our house would have been alone. Would have been, if my “love God and others” mum had not taken the initiative and invited the waifs, strays and outcasts over for meals after church. Meals that she could barely afford, but which, miraculously, God kept providing.
At one stage we often had a family of ten sleeping over in our small villa the night before church, because having been forced to leave their Exclusive Brethren Assembly in a country town, they craved thick community, having been excluded from their own.
Those tough, early years were the bitterest times of mum’s life in many ways, but she wouldn’t have swapped the richness of community she experienced for anything. Mum will never have the public platform of Sam, Rosaria and James, but there’s no doubt they’ll share the stage with her in the age to come for that reason alone.
Singles groups are only the answer in church if we see the problem of singleness as best solved by marriage or by a grit your teeth, go-it-alone in a manufactured redemption group.
But for those for whom marriage is either not possible, or not desirable, then the primary problem is not the lack of an intimate partner, but of an intimate community. And the solution to that is a community table (real and virtual) at which all members, single, married, widowed, newly divorced, long-term divorced, kids, professionals, tradies, ethnic minorities, same sex attracted, have a welcome and constant seat.