I have been recently watching a programme on iPlayer about hate preaching in the States. The programme presented the ministries of some American pastors whose raison d’être seems to be a constant emphasis on the condemnation of sin. This mainly focussed on an obsessive hatred of homosexual behaviour. Because this one sin is deemed to be so much more important than any other, we would claim that there are deep cultural and psychological reasons for making this emphasis. Indeed, we have already on this blog offered suggestions to help us understand why Christians feel it necessary to hate homosexuals with such vitriol. We are not just talking about the condemnation of what is thought to be sin. We are effectively into an area of behaviour which, in its obsessiveness, could be said to be pathological in nature.
Pathological behaviour is never going to be attractive. This apparent fixation for many Christians over this single issue of homosexuality has already been identified as one of the reasons why many people are repelled from Christianity and the church. Young people under the age of 35 especially cannot understand why there should be so much focus on this area of human behaviour. Why do so many Christians make this issue a defining one? There are, in fact, many other people in the church who would wish that this constant debate could be left behind in favour of other topics such as climate change, international justice and the issues around poverty and inequality.
I was recently brought face-to-face with the issue of what a younger generation might think about homosexuality when overhearing a conversation between my elder daughter and her son aged 7 ½. My grandson has apparently unconsciously imbibed the idea from his parents that sincere lifelong partnerships can be undertaken by people of the opposite or the same sex. For him the important thing was that two people love each other in a way that would keep them together for a lifetime.
I have no reason to think that my grandson has been indoctrinated into a pro-gay position. Obviously at the age of seven he has little concept of the meaning of sexual activity. What has happened is that he will have observed the behaviour of people in committed relationships, both gay and straight. Nothing he has seen has suggested to him anything unusual going on when he meets same-sex couples. It would of course have been helpful that no one in his family has ever shown any negative reaction when same sex couples were encountered.
From this conversation within my own family, I am left wondering how far the rampant homophobia in parts of the church is something that is a learned response by Christians. Is a revulsion and condemnation of gay partnerships something that is indoctrinated into us rather than something we are born with? Is it too much to suggest that most children and young people outside the influence of a dogmatic conservative setting might be, like my grandson, unable to see anything wrong in the idea of a same-sex committed relationship? If we are not born homophobic, that is a ground for hope for the future. History does indicate that reactionary social attitudes do change over time so that even conservative Christians have been known to give way to contemporary social mores. It is not many years ago, indeed in my lifetime, when race was an issue and mixed marriages were regarded with strong social disapproval. Things were said by many people on the topic of mixed marriage 50 years ago which would now not be tolerated. The intolerant comments made then would now constitute grounds for a possible prosecution on the charge of racism. This gradual suppression of racist attitudes in our society has allowed great social advance in the status of many UK minorities and in their relationships with the dominant white majority. Problems continue to exist for some ethnic groups who have resisted this assimilation into the majority culture. Many Muslim women in some of our cities are unable to speak English and seldom leave their homes. When no attempt at integration is made, there are likely to be real problems for such groups in the future. A community which does not mix with the wider society is in danger of becoming a ghetto and an enclave of underprivilege. So, while many of the barriers connected with colour and race have been dismantled, there are still outstanding areas of division in our society which have yet to be overcome.
The record of the church in being in the forefront of breaking down racial and cultural barriers is not particularly distinguished. Far too many immigrants from the West Indies in the 50s and 60s found themselves effectively turned away from white-dominated churches. We have today the phenomena of black led churches which might sometimes be described as Christian ghettos for people from non-white backgrounds. The existence of so many black churches, especially in London, has not been without problems for the wider church. In the first place the vibrant cultural traditions of black Christianity have been denied to the mainstream church. Secondly certain excesses within the culture and styles of worship in these churches might well, arguably, have benefitted from the more restraining influences of mainstream Christianity.
The great challenge for the church today is whether, having failed to be in the forefront of racial integration in the UK, it can embrace the new patterns emerging in contemporary relationships. When the church fails to be at the forefront in welcoming the LGBT community, it will find almost inevitably that it has little appeal to a new generation who, like my grandson, can see nothing wrong in same-sex committed relationships. We have explored already through this blog the reasons for many Christians being vitriolic in their opposition to same-sex partnerships. We noted that these reasons have little to do with theology. They seem to come far more from antiquated and reactionary patriarchal attitudes which, like racism, are increasingly irrelevant in 21st century society. The more that fair-minded people can glimpse these internal psychological processes at work among many conservative Christians, the more these latter groups will be seen to be dinosaurs and reactionaries. A new generation will not only reject this version of Christianity that is being offered, but they may well support a political process which will deem all such attitudes as criminal. I see in fact striking parallels between the racist attitudes of 50 years ago which are now illegal and the homophobia of today. It may take even less than 50 years before the society which successfully criminalised racism does the same thing in this area of homophobia. Another generation may well declare that homophobia must be rooted out of every part of society, including Christian institutions. If the church does not cooperate with these rapidly changing public mores, it may find that it faces not only irrelevance but even extinction. How tragic it would be if the church was confined to small groups of people who were prepared to cut themselves off from society as a whole in order to preserve their ‘bible beliefs’. For them such beliefs were a touchstone of bible truth, while to everyone these same beliefs can be seen to be antisocial and criminal.