There is something liberating about ‘what if’ questions. Much of life – work, running a household and so on - happens in situations which act against imagination and creativity. This is just one reason why ITV1 continues to exist or Dave still gets an audience. It is also why many organizations, desperate to break out of ruts, have ‘vision days’ and (awful as this phrase is) talk of ‘Blue Sky Thinking’. Hypothetical thinking – precisely because it involves asking ‘What if ‘x’ was like this?’ – can generate new imaginative possibilities.
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I’d like to pose a hypothetical question in an area in which the church has got, at best, rather bewildered and, at worst, horribly divided and angry: human sexuality and specifically gay sexuality. I do this in the hope of opening up some imaginative space within this difficult and complex situation and of drawing some heat out of the traditional arguments.
I acknowledge that I do not do this as a neutral. I am gay or to use my preferred term queer. In some people’s eyes this disqualifies me from even attempting to move discussion forward. However, I’m not sure ‘neutrality’ is an option for any of us: our views, whatever they are, will always reflect our stories, interests, and history. Thus the value of the hypothetical situation: it does not require that you agree with me, only that you let your imagination play.
My question is: What might the church look like if Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans (LGBT) people were a gift and a blessing? That is, if LGBT people were as much of a gift from God as anyone else; and as such something to give thanks for.
It is clear that LGBT people challenge some well established ideas and attitudes within the church community. Being ‘queer’ challenges the assumption that the nature of sexuality and gender is monochrome and obvious. For example, transgender people raise questions about how nuanced and complex gender actually is and the extent to which male and femaleness is a social construct; their experience of ‘gender dysphoria’ clearly unsettles preconceived notions of what it means to be human.
Suppose that LGBT people and the challenge we present to comfortable assumptions and ideas were embraced as a blessing or gift to the church. What might the church and our pictures of God and human beings look like?
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The church – despite its many wonderful gifts – has often been rather zealous in patrolling its borders. Even a cursory examination of church history reveals the energy expended and, on occasions, violence perpetrated by those keen to ensure that doctrine or liturgy or morality or the 'purity' of the community remains unsullied. Even a cursory glance at history will demonstrate the extent to which the church - in authoritarian mode - has contributed to the formation of a persecuting society. Thankfully, the church has sought to become increasingly welcoming towards groups it has historically held sanctions against – for example, the divorced, the remarried, and single parents – but, in some quarters, that is not the case for queer people. If LGBT people were treated as a gift and a cause for celebration perhaps the church would look even more remarkable than it already is. It might be an even greater sign of hope – hope of acceptance and affirmation. It might be a sign that instead of erecting walls the church was seeking to bust them down and embrace difference.
Clearly there are already a goodly number of LGBT people within the church – a fair number of them clergy. Historically, we have shared our gifts while remaining silent about a significant part of our identity. If LGBT people were treated as a gift, a key part of their identity might be properly acknowledged and celebrated. LGBT people are as various and interesting as anyone else and do not deserve to be reduced to their sexuality, any more than a straight person. However, LGBT people potentially offer deeply needed gifts. For example, a common queer experience is of feeling silenced and, therefore, of having important aspects of their personhood denied. This experience - of being silenced – is more common than many people might assume. It is a common experience among women, the disabled and so on; LGBT ministers may bring rare sensitivity into complex pastoral situations. One thing is clear though: If LGBT people genuinely were a gift for the church there is a sense in which Church would become a bigger, more surprising and unexpected place – both for its members and those looking from the outside.
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At the same time, we would need to think more deeply about our pictures of human beings. Identity really matters to Christians: ‘Who we are’ is actually one starting point for our exploration of ‘Who is God’ (and vice versa). We are, as the famous formula has it, bearers of the Image of God and yet called into the Likeness of Christ. In the hypothetical picture I’ve sketched, queer people – as people who challenge certain conventional pictures of human identity, specifically around sexuality and gender – reveal new, thrilling dimensions of human possibility and thus of what the image of God might actually look like. That the very Image of God might include LGBT dimensions represents an expansive picture of being.
Equally, if our Image of God is enriched, then we have a picture of God who creates, sustains and celebrates a truly remarkable humanity – not just straight folk, but people whose stories are quite different. This would be a God who is radically simple – for in love and for love he has created all – and expansively graceful enough to embrace all.
I am prepared to admit that – as a hypothetical picture – this may be nothing more than a beguiling fantasy. It may, even if contains a glimmer of truth, be an overstatement. I am even prepared to admit – at the level of logical possibility - that I may be so entirely wrong about LGBT people that we are actually a curse on the church. But I would struggle to imagine what the church would look like if that were the case, let alone offer it my commitment.
The Bible suggests that, through the Spirit, young and old will dream dreams and have visions. This picture of a church in which LGBT people are a blessing which opens us up to greater imaginative possibilities may ultimately be wrong. But if we are to be faithful to the God of abiding love and grace, I’m not sure we risk dreaming of anything less.