In a recent Question Time on BBC television, Welsh politician Chris Bryant recounted a time when the Papal Nuncio asked him how his wife was. The openly-gay Member of Parliament answered: “he’s a man”. To which the Roman Catholic dignitary responded: “what do you mean? Is she very butch?!” Bryant explained that he was gay and that he was in a civil partnership. The Papal Nuncio’s response was shocking, as he told the politician: “you do realise that you will do more damage to this world than climate change”. On the Question Time panel, Bryant then looked at the audience and gave a challenge to those who “for maybe understandable reasons” are passionately opposed to gay marriage: “just think of how you advance your arguments, because it can be very, very painful to some people”.
This anecdote reveals something of the oft-ignored issue in Christian discussions about same-sex marriage – the pastoral issue. Whatever our own theological and ethical viewpoint, it is undeniable that the Church’s attitude to gay and lesbian people has, at times in the past, been negative, judgmental, and uncompassionate. Instead of standing alongside a group of people who already feel wounded by a prejudiced society, the Church has either turned its back on them or, worse still, has been actively hostile. In other words, it has often failed in its pastoral duty towards a section of our community that has needed visible signs of God’s love. Ironically, in light of our call to offer pastoral care to all within our churches and parishes, the Church’s uncaring and unsympathetic attitude has led to a sense of disapproval, abandonment, and alienation.
It is a sad fact that our faith, which should offer unconditional love, hope, and liberating forgiveness, is seen by many in today’s society as hateful, guilt-inducing, and judgmental. On Morrissey’s critically-acclaimed 2004 album You are the Quarry, the one-time lead singer of 80s iconographic pop group The Smiths announces he has finally found it in himself ‘to forgive Jesus’, who has left him with guilt, hang-ups, and low self-esteem. He finishes the song by screaming repetitively at Jesus – ‘do you hate me? Do you hate me?’ Instead of being a source of forgiveness, the Christian faith is now deemed to need forgiveness itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our attitudes towards gay people, who have felt unwelcome, unloved, and branded as ‘sinful’ by Christian reactions towards them.
The Church, therefore, needs to express an apologetic contrition for its past treatment of gay and lesbian people, before embracing a future pastoral response rooted in Jesus’s teachings and actions. Such a response must be centred upon a radical compassion – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional love that transcends differences of politics, ethnicity, and sexuality. We need to follow the risen Christ on the Emmaus Road, who came and walked alongside the two disciples, not forcing them to stop or to turn around, but entering into their current situation and engaging with it. As in any pastoral situation, there must be a desire to encounter Christ in “the other” (Matthew 25) and an openness to the possibility that our own attitudes may be radically changed from our engagements. After all, too often gay people are talked about, rather than listened to, in our churches.
A pastoral statement to lesbian and gay Anglicans from 188 member bishops of the 1998 Lambeth conference, including Rowan Williams, pledged to ‘continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church’. Such a pledge has profound implications for gay people who are already professing Christians, but also for those on the periphery of the Church community, and it should radically challenge those of us in ministry. After all, at the very heart of Jesus’s life and teaching is the ideal of a compassion that is intimate and intense (Greek splanchnizomai), rather than simply a basic compassion (Greek eleeo). Jesus’s whole existence was one of standing alongside “the other” and championing God’s deep, unconditional love for all his children. Our call, which is both simple and challenging, is to follow that model of radical compassion.
“The life of Jesus suggests that to be like God is to show compassion” (Brennan Manning)
For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.
Thanks to Revd Rosie Dymond for helping me formulate some of my thoughts in this blog post.