The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, same-sex relationships and church membership: six problems (Long Read)

I don’t know about you but I’ve never really believed the adage that ‘All publicity is good publicity’. Allegedly it comes from Oscar Wilde who said ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

Well, speaking of Oscar Wilde, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has sure been talked about over the last couple of weeks. Twitter storms, widespread media coverage inside Ireland and beyond, public resignations, and many and varied responses online all followed its debate on same-sex couples and membership at the 2018 General Assembly in Belfast.

People have asked me what I think; friends in other PCI churches have emailed telling of friends they have who have been exploring faith and coming to church now thinking of leaving; we’ve had animated family discussions around the dinner table and, as usual, I’ve learnt most from those. So here are some thoughts.

An online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’

I’m an elder in a local Presbyterian Church outside Dublin. For most people in it, Belfast and what goes on there during General Assembly is pretty much ‘out of sight out of mind.’ They are Presbyterian with a small ‘p’: people from all sorts of backgrounds, few with any family, cultural or theological ties to Presbyterianism who gather together to worship and try to follow Jesus.

But it’s hard to ignore the fall-out of GA 2018. It has long-term implications both in the official policy of the Church (that all Kirk Sessions are supposed to be trained in) and for the mission of local churches like ours (I can only speak of the context I am in)

Much social media I’ve looked at just dismisses ‘the other’ for being homophobic or a liberal depending on where you are coming from. It’s like an online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’ with both sides feeling virtue is on their side. So I’ll try (and probably fail) not to caricature and will quote from the Report and the PCI directly in aiming to be fair to its thinking and motives.

A point of clarification: this post is not discussing the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, ‘active’ or not. It’s responding to the process and new policy of the PCI.

The PCI statement can be seen here (pdf)

The actual report of the Doctrine Committee can be read here – go down to Appendix 2 (pdf)

‘Same-sex couples’ and a ‘credible profession of faith’

In case you have missed it, the furore has been about a Report from the Doctrine Committee of the PCI responding to a

a request from the General Council to prepare guidelines for Kirk Sessions to address the issue of same-sex couples who may seek communicant membership … or who may request the baptism of a child.

And the Doctrine Committee Report therefore focused on

the specific theological question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith and how it is to be understood and applied in these particular pastoral situations.

The ‘credible profession of faith’ is the key phrase: as the Report says

within the Reformed tradition the notion of a ‘credible profession’ is effectively a shorthand for not only a credible profession of Christ as Saviour but also a credible walk in obedience to him as Lord.

And the key conclusion of the Doctrine Committee was

In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.

For non-Presby readers, the logic here is the covenant theology around infant baptism. The child obviously cannot make a profession of faith. The parents promise to bring up the child in the faith within the community of the church. To do so they should have a ‘credible profession of faith’ themselves. Since ‘same-sex’ couples have, in effect, an ‘incredible’ profession of faith, they cannot have their children baptised.

The Report was debated at the GA 2018. Rev Cheryl Meban proposed that the relevant parts of the Report (Appendix 2) not be received, but in the debate that motion did not succeed and the Report was adopted as the official position of the Church.

So, if that’s the story, how to interpret it? Here are some perspectives. These, of course, are my personal opinions. Always open to correction, learning from push-back, apology for misrepresentation. There are few more emotive and sensitive subjects than this one. Comments welcome.

Logically Consistent – what’s all the fuss?

Looking ‘logically’ at things, the vote is perfectly comprehensible. The PCI has produced several reports on Homosexuality over the years. They are gathered together in this document (pdf) which has a summary article by Prof Stephen Williams (2013), an original report (1979) and pastoral guidelines (2007). I’d recommend you read them if interested in hearing what the PCI is saying in its own words in officially agreed documents.

In the 2013 summary, it says

The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.

So, if ‘homosexual activity’ is inconsistent with Christian discipleship, and if ‘credible’ Christian discipleship is required to be a communicant member and have children baptised, therefore, when asked the question, the answer of the Doctrine Committee Report is hardly that surprising.

Fair enough? Not really. For what it’s worth, here’s why I think it is a deeply misguided decision.

6 Problems

  1. Pastorally deaf

The Doctrine Committee Report saw its job as answering one narrow question. In their own words:

The Committee approached this issue in the understanding that the General Assembly has already agreed pastoral guidelines on homosexuality and has offered substantial pastoral advice for Kirk Sessions.

So, after mentioning pastoral guidelines, they are then set aside, effectively irrelevant to the task. Doctrinal implications are then worked out to their logical end.

But when you actually read the pastoral guidelines of 2006, the tone and content is light years away from the abstract, logical and pastorally deaf conclusions of the 2018 proposals.

The 2007 Report was written specifically in request of a resolution of the 2006 General Assembly that accepted that there were homophobic attitudes within the PCI:

“That the General Assembly recognising homophobic attitudes within our Church and society request the Social Issues Panel to prepare guidelines to help our Church to develop more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Remember, this is also ‘official’ PCI policy. The 2007 Report says things like this:

many people in churches who have same sex attraction are afraid to be open about it for fear of how they will be treated by those in their church, amongst others. There is no reason to assume Presbyterians are any different. Representatives of the Gay Helpline state that they have regular calls from people belonging to PCI who are unwilling to disclose their same sex attractions.

It is clear that people of all ages who have same sex attractions are very reluctant to tell others because of fear, prejudice etc. Keeping their feelings hidden out of fear has a significant impact on mental health.

The Report tells several stories – here is one worth recounting in full:

Bob’s story. I was brought up in a strong, loving, Christian home and was very actively involved in a lively, evangelical Presbyterian church. I became a Christian when I was young and was well taught and have a real love for the Bible. I was very committed to the youth work in my church and tried to live for Christ and witness for Him inside and outside the Church. During my teens I began to realise that I was different. I found myself attracted to boys rather than girls. I didn’t choose it to be so, it just was. I resisted it, prayed against it. I understood well the Bibles’ teaching on homosexuality and wrestled to overcome my feelings and pretended to be like ‘the lads’. Eventually in my late teens I confided in a Christian friend. He continued to talk to and pray for me over a number of years. Knowing and respecting the churches teaching I practiced celibacy but felt alone, fearful and overwhelmed. The pressure of keeping it to myself, the feelings of shame, the guilt of feeling that I was living a lie and the fear of how the news would affect my parents and my church life eventually took its toll on my mental health. I had to take various medicines for depression and on one occasion came very close to committing suicide.

People in the church would crack jokes about ‘Gays’ and I just wanted to crawl into a hole. How could I open up to them when my struggles were joked about? I respect my minister and his teaching, but when homosexuality was mentioned in church the Biblical position of calling practising homosexuality sin was outlined without ever a word of compassion or understanding for people like me who were struggling so hard and hadn’t chosen to feel the way I did.

One of my greatest struggles was that I had always been brought up to respect and to tell the truth. Yet here I was living and telling lies to protect my family and myself. Eventually I felt I had no other option but to tell my parents about my struggles. They were devastated and so were my friends at church. It is devastating when all who made you and shaped and directed your life turn on you. I am not bitter, I still love my family and respect my church but when I really needed someone to listen to me without judgement, there was no one. I would love to be straight. It would cause so much less pain but for the sake of my own sanity I have eventually had to accept that I am gay. I am both a Christian who loves God and His word but I am also gay.

How I wonder does ‘Bob’ feel now in light of 2018?

It seems to me that the message he, and everyone like him has received, is that the Church has gone backwards, not forwards in its attitudes since 2007. It is not a safe space to share struggles with sexuality. It’s better to keep quiet, whatever the cost. You are not welcome here.

  1. Missionally disastrous

I also wonder about the internal politics of the Church that led the General Council to ask the Doctrine Committee to give an answer to this one specific hypothetical scenario. It seems to me to be an intentional ‘marker’ of orthodoxy setting the Church against a rapidly liberalising culture, particularly around sexuality and gender.

Now I have no concerns about the Church of Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the state let’s not forget, being counter-cultural. That is its job. I agree that a Christian sexual ethic is, and will seem increasingly, bizarre within Western late-modern culture. So be it.

But why proceed in such an oppositional, defensive and exclusionary way? It feels a bit like those under siege, retreating to the Keep, drawing up the ramparts and taking up arms, fearful of the surrounding hoards.

It feels like a retreat from conversation and engagement. Whereas the 2007 Report made serious efforts to dialogue, this is theology done in a vacuum, abstracted from real people.

Such an approach is, in post-Christendom, missionally disastrous. It speaks of a Church Community speaking only to itself. I would have thought that after the 2007 Report, there would have been a sense of humility at homophobia within the Church (that the Church itself acknowledged) and a sensitivity to the relational impact of such a Report.

There is a flood of good theological thinking and practice out there on learning from the multitudes of people exiting institutional Christianity. It is exactly this type of bureaucratic, abstract and un-relational process that puts post-Christendom people off denominations.

A theme that keeps coming up around gender and sexuality is the need to listen, to learn and to apologise for how attitudes and actions in the Church have hurt people like Bob. This isn’t ‘selling out’ beliefs on what the Bible teaches, it is being relational as well as doctrinal.

I’m afraid that this PCI process and Report lacks humility, of learning from the Other and of generous hospitality to those different from ‘Us’. Its tone is that ‘We have nothing to learn’ and we are putting up boundary fences instead.

I’m writing something related to 1 Corinthians at the moment. There is perhaps no more relevant letter in the NT for contemporary Western culture. Yes, Paul puts boundaries around Corinthian sexual behaviour (among other things) but he does so passionately, compassionately, persuasively and lovingly as a father who cares for his children.

This is how theology works – in relationship, inspiring, exhorting, encouraging Christians to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Passing a hypothetical rule about a specific sin that rules hypothetical people out of membership and being able to baptise their children does not seem very biblical to me.

  1. Hierarchy of sin

Choosing to focus on ‘same-sex sin’ as a bar to membership also gives the impression that the PCI has a hierarchy of sin, with same-sex relationships at the top. There are innumerable other sins that Presbyterians commit but are not (as far as I know) specifically singled out to be examined when it comes to membership and baptismal promises.

The irony is, when it comes to infant baptism, it has been the church’s failure to practice it consistently which has all but destroyed the integrity of baptism within Christendom Reformed churches. (See David F Wright’s book, What has infant baptism done to baptism: An Enquiry at the end of Christendom?). The notion of a ‘credible profession of faith’ has been given lip-service for generations. To start tightening up sacramental discipline with same-sex couples speaks of double standards. I know many cases of couples who hardly, if ever, appear in church or show ‘visible’ signs of a living faith, suddenly appearing for a baptism of their baby. Or of couples living together being welcomed as members with no questions asked.

Paul’s ‘sin-lists’ in the NT are pretty catholic in their scope – greed, gluttony, envy, pride, hetero-sexual sin and others all appear and more. If the Church is serious about stricter sacramental discipline, then how is this going to happen? Are other sins going to be specified as that which exclude people from communicant membership?

Now the Doctrine Committee report is aware of this:

The Doctrine Committee recognises the danger of giving the impression that there is the only area where sacramental discipline might apply. However, the current request to the Doctrine Committee asks for guidance in one particular area.

So, the Committee was aware of the problem but, in effect, seem simply to have pressed ahead with their remit anyway. The danger foreseen is now fulfilled: same-sex relationships DO seem to be treated in a distinct way to every other sin when it comes to sacramental discipline.

In contrast, the 2007 Report on pastoral guidelines says this

When we condemn homosexual practice in isolation or single it out as somehow worse than other sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage then we demonstrate homophobic attitudes.

I’ll say no more.

  1. No consideration of pastoral accommodation

The motive for this Report was to give guidelines to Kirk Sessions (elders) within the PCI. Apart from laying down a law, I am not clear what guidelines are being given.

Not only is there a lack of guidance to elders on how to approach the ‘straight-forward’ hypothetical situation of a same-sex couple seeking membership and / or baptism of their children, there is no discussion of other likely scenarios.

What, for example, of the following example? (I have no agenda in the one that follows. I am just trying to show that the PCI process has not addressed pastoral realities and passing a law is an inadequate approach. I am sure you can think of other scenarios.)

A legally married same-sex couple, with children, become Christians. They want to become members of the church. What should elders do? To obey the recent decision of the GA 2018, such a couple cannot become members and baptise their children. Should they be advised to get divorced and split up the family? What if they stayed married, but celibate? Or can some form of pastoral accommodation be worked out on a case by case basis?

A useful book discussing alternative theologies of same-sex is Sprinkle, P. (ed) 2016. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids. Zondervan. I’m going to zone in on one of the contributors, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes, because he, like the PCI, argues on the non-affirming side. His chapter carefully considers the arguments for Christian same-sex marriage, and for a new form of relationships to be accepted – like Robert Song’s ‘Covenantal Partnerships’. He is not persuaded by arguments for either of these two options (and the book itself gives space for other views which do).

But Holmes addresses a crucial question that the PCI does not – what then does the church do with a situation like the one above? Holmes opens up the question of pastoral accommodation.

“If the Christian theology of marriage is not extensible to same-sex couples, and if there is no space for a new discipline of ‘covenantal partnerships’ that includes sexual activity, what are we left with? The answer, it seems to me, is pastoral accommodation. Churches that believe same-sex partnerships to be wrong might nonetheless find space within the life for people living in such partnerships out of pastoral concern.” (191)

He refers to how Protestant churches have made space like this for divorced people out of pastoral concern. Most now allow remarriage. In Africa, some churches have done similar with regard to polygamy. He says

“We must at least ask ourselves how we can refuse to give the same permission to gay people.”

The PCI Report makes no mention of pastoral accommodation. To begin to answer it, the PCI should, I think, be considering the sort of issues Holmes’ raises. To leave things as they stand after the GA 2018 is deeply unsatisfactory:

  • If addressing issues of sexual practice and discipleship, then there should be a renewed emphasis on sexual ethics for straight people. How can the Church do this before making judgements that exclude same-sex couples?
  • Holmes says “general rules or guidelines are almost always unhappy”. And “pastoral questions are properly answered at the level of individual lives, not at the level of generic themes”. Sadly, the PCI did not take this view. Going forward, there needs to be more thinking about pastoral practice.
  • How do we approach issues of discipleship around sexually active converts in non-marriage relationships (whether same-sex or opposite sex) if they have joined the church? Is it consistent? Will there be limitations on areas of service into which they are invited?
  • How will the church relate to gay and lesbian church members who come out? What space will there be for them to open and honest about their sexuality? What if they are married and likely with children? How can the church support all the family in their discipleship in such a scenario?
  1. Loose language

A not insignificant point in the loose language of the Doctrine Committee Report. Throughout it talks of ‘same-sex couples’. Nowhere does it distinguish between a couple who may, out of Christian conviction, be in a non-sexual same-sex relationship. What difference might that make to communicant membership?

  1. Love

It is unfair to say that the Doctrine Committee Report does not mention love – it does here.

In this context it is important to emphasise that the Church invites and welcomes all who wish to sit under the means of grace at public services and to have access to the pastoral care and counsel available within her fellowship. Like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion. This posture of grace and welcome should not in itself be confused with moral indifference or approval of any behaviour contrary to God’s Word. It is rather the warmest of invitations to receive Christ Jesus as both Lord and Saviour in all of life.

The problem with this is, it is one thing to claim for yourself that you reach ‘out to all with love and compassion’ but it is of much more relevance to ask ‘Do the people you are reaching out to feel loved?’

I’m afraid that there is very little likelihood that the process and the Report would make a gay person feel loved. It is also pretty unlikely that they would have any prospect of feeling ‘moral indifference or approval’!  It is hard to feel that it represents ‘the warmest of invitations to receive Christ’.

Overall this final paragraph feels hollow in light of the overall content, tone and pastoral insensitivity of the process.

21 thoughts on “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, same-sex relationships and church membership: six problems (Long Read)

  1. Thank you for articulating this so patiently and fairly Patrick. Like you I’m disappointed by this decision and equally disheartened by the partisan responses.

  2. While I admire your attempt to be ‘fair’ to the thinking of the Doctrine Committee and PCI, I regret to say that, in my view, as you suggest you might, you fail in that attempt.

    Over 10 years ago some of us worked very hard in a specific situation with this very issue of how to be pastorally sensitive and caring and at the same time take seriously the issue of credible profession. Yes, it is difficult, but the gospel demands we work hard at both. In my view PCI is working hard at this at many levels. In the congregation I attend, for example, the Sunday morning teaching series through the summer will be on 1 Corinthians 13, ‘Love is…’, while the Sunday evening series will be in Psalm 119. Love and truth. It’s a biblical balance and truly missional.

    • Greetings Alistair
      My impressions I know – but the tone and content of 2007 Report seems to be significantly different to the recent motion and debate. It comes across with a real openness to critical self-reflection, listening and wanting to change attitudes within the Church. As an outsider looking in, it seems hard to reconcile with choosing to go down the route of general law of defining credible profession around same-sex couples for the reasons outlined in the post. I don’t doubt for a second how love is working in action in countless congregations. I give thanks for my own experience growing up in Holywood of a warm hearted nurturing church community for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect. I just think that the recent decision is negative, unecessary and defensive. It’s purpose seems to me more marking out lines of orthodoxy.

  3. Thanks so much for this Patrick,
    It expresses so many of my concerns, especially as Presbyterian marooned out here in Connacht far away from the epicentre of Presbyterianism up in the north. I feel isolated enough out here. We just had the 8th referendum and you realise the anger, indifference lots of younger people feel towards the church.
    I always used to mention the fact that I moved here because of the Presbyterian church as nobody knows what it is and it’s a good starting point for discussion. But now many people will think that we’re the church that has it in for LGBT people. It doesn’t matter about the tone of the conversation at general assembly, it’s sadly the way things go on social media.

    I think it is disaster for mission, we have a LGBT resource centre just around the corner. How do we love our neighbour? The last few weeks
    I think it does set up a hierarchy of sin.
    When you’ve a lot asylum seekers from places in Africa things like polygamy might become an issue. Or you might have those who had to flee from countries because of their sexuality, then they’re in direct provision limbo and they turn up at your church. Would this stuff make them feel welcome and in a safe place when they’ve been though so much and are still going through so much?
    I was so annoyed at the time, I feel like people were given a hospital pass and are now having to deal with it.

  4. Thank you Patrick.
    I was also a little bit disappointed with the theological direction of the report. The references to Murray, the two Hodges and Poythress seem to indicate the only appropriate theology within the PCI is in the direction of Old Princeton/ Westminster.
    But thank you for your thoughts, they helped me develop a lot of my own thoughts on the topic

  5. Claire, Canalways and Clive – glad if of some value. I had some hesitation in posting this, I don’t like being negative and am aware, as Alistair Dunlop has said, that there are many who have worked sincerely at this issue for a long time.

  6. Hi Patrick,
    I can’t say that I have ever stumbled over your blog before. However, I’d like to thank you for being so honest. There are points of this post that I find myself in wholehearted agreement with, but others in which I find it troubling.

    I wholeheartedly agree on your line of questioning with regards to the PCI’s policies on pastoral care. The examples of a same-sex couple coming to Christ, whilst already living together and having children is an important difficult situation to handle. And worthy of time spent considering implications. That is a specific scenario which is difficult to wisely navigate out of. However, for our young people, the norm is either marriage between one man and one woman, or celibacy. There are no other options for those who live with Christ as Lord and Saviour.
    As you rightly point out, this means that the implications for a Same-sex couple who join a church provide difficulties and limitations. Yes, they probably cannot hold ordained office, of Word and Sacrament, or Eldership. They probably cannot take on leadership roles in teaching the congregation, but they can, serve the church family as faithful church members in a whole host of beneficial manners. We are all one body, but many members, with different skills and attributes for the benefit of all.

    I do, however, take issue with a few points of your blog. Your use of “Bob’s” story is particularly troubling as it shows a real lack of grasp of the issue at hand. Bob’s story was one of faithful celibacy, and yet being faced with Family and Church Family who have not truly been taught the nature of sin and grace. The pastoral problem in that is what the Church had sought to fix. I am sure there is still a long way to go. But Bob was not turning and saying that he believed he should be allowed to do whatever he likes, regardless of what the scriptures said. That, is the real problem at hand. In general, Same-sex couples presenting for communion are not asking for humble dispensation for the sake of others, but asking to ignore Christ’s reign and still enjoy his benefits. They want the security of the gospel, without the gospel himself. They want Christ without a cross. That, is where the PCI’s decision at this assembly is centred. It is certainly a gospel issue. Same-sex marriage is not ordained by the creator of marriage himself and is not recognised by the church. A couple in a same-sex relationship presenting for communion and asking a church to turn a blind eye, is like standing and asking for a share in a kingdom without submitting to its King.

    This, is not unloving to tell to people, for the eternal repercussions are far greater than the uncomfort and pain of today. If a same-sex couple come to Christ, they are not the only ones giving stuff up. Christ has first given up for them, far more. He is not unaccustomed with suffering or sacrifice, but is a faithful and merciful high priest, as the writer the Hebrews says.

    Speaking truth is not unloving, particularly if they are seeking to join the church. But in fact the most loving thing the Church can be doing. (An aside, being loving isn’t necessarily always met in others with feelings of being loved. If you have been a parent, or even been a child, I’m sure you will have encountered loving action that is not necessarily met with loving feeling in its object).

    In summary, I think your pastoral insight into the tricky situations are right to point out. Hopefully the PCI will see fit to engage with them both corporately and as individual congregations seeking to honour Christ, proclaim his gospel, and love those who are under their care.

    However, the PCI at its general assembly has made an important stand. There is no doubt as to what God has created marriage to look like. And there is no doubt that coming to Christ’s table requires submission to Christ. The individual contours and wisdom calls will need to be thrashed out. This decision is not an attack on same-sex people. It is a defense of the good news of a saviour who died for real and actual sinners. It is the defense of a saviour who by the sovereign will and love of the father, placed himself in the way of divine wrath, satisfying it. It is the defense of his rescue of those who do seek to serve and honour him, in the midst of their same-sex attraction. As Christians our call to trust Christ is always costly. That is the nature of belonging to Christ in a world that is hostile to him. We can both seek to build up brothers and sisters who are same-sex attracted in the Church, while honouring God’s design for human flourishing in the biblical doctrine of marriage.

    I am sorry this has been so long. If you have any questions or disagreements I’d love to hear them.

    Warmly in Christ,


  7. Paul,
    Greetings and thanks for taking the time to write. I appreciate your approach to conversation and disagreement. I think we are talking past each other somewhat. The bulk of what you say is restating traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage which my post did not get into. My argument is around how to approach that difference missionally and pastorally, rather than the content of that difference itself. ‘Bob’ was an example of someone who only heard doctrine but not pastoral listening and was left isolated and desperate. My concern with the PCI decision is more of that ‘doctrine / boundaries first’ approach. In Kinnahan & Lyons’ book ‘UnChristian’ , 91% of non-Christian 16-21 yr olds think the church is ‘anti-gay’. That’s an extraordinary stat for followers of Jesus to think about.

  8. Hi Patrick, thank you for your work on this and for laying out so clearly the journey of PCI.

    I think, though, that while there is a clear contrast between the 2018 statment and previous ones, I believe there is little evidence that PCI are really interested in listening well to LGBT people. The Doctrine Committee’s statement may be as much a product of PCI’s general approach as it is a disturbing contrast.
    There is a deeper analysis that can be done on that but some quick points to illustrate:
    1. There is no such person as “Bob” in the 2013 summary report. It is a “combination of several stories” that is placed in a short sub-section of the 50 page document. It appears to be the only action of active listening to LGBT people and it was only with “young” people. In contrast, other parties such as parents of LGBT people and church leaders are afforded much more space and their stories are not conflated. As usual these young people are described as “having same-sex attraction”, a label I know they did not use in self-describing and any engagement with their identifiers is entriely absent.
    2. Another report on LGBT people was in the 2018 Blue Book. The Moderator tasked a “Human Identity Group” to explore the area of gender identity with a view to resourcing congregations. They met and concluded that it was best to read a book by a cisgender man that they already agreed with. Trans Presbyterians were never directly mentioned or listened to in their report. It would appear they do not exist.
    Recognising homophobia is great but the benchmark to contrast the 2018 statement is the listening posture of Christ. I have been a part of listening exercises alongside LGBT Christians in Ireland. What is striking and impactful is the massive contrast between reading about a pseudonymed LGBT person in a national report and encountering an LGBT person in a local setting. Participants specifically name this local encounter with the bravery and faith of the LGBT Christian as being crucial.

    • Sorry last bit of comment got cut: If PCI cannot overcome the chasm between “Bob’s(‘)” testimony in Section 2.3 of the 2013 statement and the enormous weight of tears, doubt, faith and encouragement that straight church leaders experience having shared local space with their LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ then, I think, we will only experience more of the same in the years to come.

  9. Hi Richard. I’m trying to write a book on love in the Bible at the moment. it is such a simple yet complex word. I agree – the first response for all Christians is to seek to love as Jesus loved across boundaries of group exclusion, sin and shame. What that means, of course, is the issue.

    I find Luke 7:36-50 a powerful story. Jesus asks Simon at one point ‘Do you see this woman’? For he hadn’t, even though she was right in front of him. To him she was just a sinner (abstract category) who shouldn’t be touching a Rabbi. Jesus, in contrast, welcomes her touch and talks to her and publicly reinstates her in front of witnesses. We are not told but he had probably had some interaction with her earlier since she comes ready to anoint him. Jesus ends her social exclusion and describes her in exalted terms. We can’t say Jesus’ approach was dependent on her repentance; her transformation was result of his welcome not a precondition. He begins with relationship across boundaries that others do not want to cross due to their understanding of holiness. Seems to me that is what Christians are called to do today as well.

    • Thanks Patrick, yes that’s a powerful passage on Jesus’s engagment with women. The breaking down of categories also extends to the fact that it was men like Simon who were dependant on women like the one featured to bring them the good news on Easter morning. Extending love to people is not only demonstrating such kindness that THEY have the freedom to become like US but the possibility that WE are the ones in need of mercy from THEM (surely Simon’s experience in Luke 7). We are not welcoming without precondition when we are closed to the idea that the locus of transformation and repentance might be in the opposite place we expected and that the boundary to cross might be Christ having to get straight Christians to realise that the historical pew (how have we, gay and straight, loved one another?) rather than the abstract mission field (we really would try to love LGBT people were they to come in) is the place of encounter. I think this is why upcoming discussion on legislation around conversion therapies might cause churches to avoid the abstraction that marked marriage equality discussions. Real stories on our shared past are going to have to be told as statements on what is ‘historic’ or ‘orthodox’ (with only scant reference to orthopraxy) will be insufficient.

  10. Hi Patrick:
    Thank you for this post, which it was a bit above my head! Nothing to do with you. By the way, my thoughts may appear twice because of problems with my password.

    I am not a theologian, nor a Presbyterian, I am just an ordinary Jesus follower but I have some thoughts on the issue.
    Yesterday, when I was coming from a meeting, I passed a Protestant church which had a sign of welcome mentioning different groups of people, among them, gay people. I was not uncomfortable about it, just surprised. I put that together with what the Presbyterian church is saying and led me to think a couple of things.
    I think the pendulum can move too far one way or the other. We are the inclusive ones, the others are the exclusive ones. We can be in danger of being shaped by the culture that surrounds us so become relevant or we can be known by the people who only accept certain type of people.
    I know the church has treated gay people badly, but it is not the only group that experienced that. When I became a Jesus’ follower one girl in the church got pregnant out of wedlock and she was denied communion and other things. Times have changed and now we can feel horrified about it.
    I think each person who comes trough our doors comes with a baggage, in some cases the baggage is obvious in other cases hidden. We should create communities that welcome people without labelling them. We can fall into a dangerous territory when we start making lists, who is in, who is out. As Jesus’ followers we should welcome, receive, journey with each person individually and all the time discerning what God wants to do in this person life.
    As I get older I realise that there are more grey areas than black and white ones, and that is ok. Jesus navigated those grey areas with compassion and discernment.

    • Thanks Ana, wise words. Good to hear from you. Going back to that story in Luke 7, Bibles routinely insert a heading like ‘A Sinful Woman Anoints Jesus’. But I think it would be better called ‘A Woman’s great love’ because that is what Jesus highlights. She is transformed from a socially excluded and shamed sinner into a lover of Jesus. Seems to capture what discipleship is all about: transforming sinners – whoever they are – into forgiven people set free to love and serve Jesus wholeheartedly.

  11. Thanks for this post Patrick. Can you explain to me why the Church of Scotland feels able to take a different stance to the Presbyterian Church of Ireland? How is it possible for one learned group of biblical scholars to reach one opinion, and the other group to reach another opinion, yet each is absolutely certain that they are the correct ones? Surely there should be, at least, an acceptance that this is one view of the truth, and a concession that others may have a different view that might be correct?

    • Greetings Peter and welcome.

      That’s a question that could be answered at many levels. At a general level, there are multiple issues over which Christians, who share a high view of the Bible as God’s inspired Word, differ on how to interpret what it means. So there is a simple fact of interpretive diversity. There is no easy way round this fact. But there are some basic principles / attitudes that can be applied (and these are just some initial reactions – it is a big question).

      1) Humility: As a Christian, I do affirm the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, but I’m also aware that there are Christians I highly respect who read things differently on certain issues. That ought to lead to a certain humility – our interpretations may need correction.
      2) Openness to learn: We need to be open to learn from others. And those others include Church Tradition, scholars, wise leaders etc. I think especially today, Christians from majority world cultures who can help us Westerners see how culturally conditioned we are. This is what the idea of ‘semper reformanda’ is all about – reformed and always reforming.
      3) Do the work of research, biblical study, theology – and learn from those trained in those areas.
      4) Keep the main thing the main thing. In other words some issues are more important than others. Whether Jesus was resurrected is more important than our theology of baptism for example,

      In class I want students to think about an issue using:
      Context: why now? Links to changes in culture
      Content: what is the theology saying?
      Critique: critical assessemnt biblically and theologically
      Consequences: what is at stake? What action may follow?

      So to come back to your question. There are various arguments from the biblical texts and from theological frameworks, where some scholars have argued for the church to accept the legitimacy of faithful, same-sex relationships, functioning like a heterosexual marriage (monogamous covenant relationship). People like Robert Song, Daniel Loader, and from a different angle Daniel Kirk are examples. The Church of Scotland (and some others, like the Episcopal Church USA) have also gone down this route.

      The reason that such views are exceptional is that – they are exceptions. It is a novel and, until recently, virtually unimaginable argument to make by Christians committed to the authority of Scripture. To make it work, requires a radically new way of reading the Bible. Perhaps via a theology of inclusion that overrides the Bible’s apparently clear rejection of same-sex sexual relationship. It is telling, I think, that excellent scholars like Loader and Kirk both acknowledge that the texts cannot be ‘interpreted around’, but have to be transcended using some sort of overriding theological framework.

      Personally, in terms of critique, I am not persuaded by the arguments made by Loader, Kirk and Song (as examples). So that puts me on the ‘non-affirming’ side – along with the PCI and many other churches. To be consistent, I’d want to try to hold that view keeping those 4 principles in mind. And I guess where I disagreed with the PCI was on ‘Consequences’ – how act in light of your convictions? I won’t repeat the reasons – they are in the post.

      • Thanks for your detailed reply. The Unitarians say “pastoral care trumps doctrine” and when you witness the suffering experienced by young gay Christians who feel as if their essence is being denied by their church, it’s hard not to disagree with this sentiment.

  12. Patrick
    I have been reading your blog for a while and appreciate your thoughtful way of looking at things.

    As a lay person without theological training this whole area can be very difficult to navigate. Both (or all) sides seem very confident in their differing interpretations of the bible. Added to this are the range of personal testimonies from Christians who are gay but have often come to very different conclusions about what the Bible does or doesn’t say about being gay.

    This is compounded by the often heated way this is talked about. It feels that if you hold a traditional view then you are a bigot who contributes to serious mental health problems and if you have a non traditional view then you have abandoned the Bible and your faith. These are obviously broad brush strokes but as a non confrontational person it can make me feel like I should just not say anything. If friends who are gay and/or who are not Christians (or anyone in general really) were to ask me about this I would probably puff out my cheeks and give an answer that would satisfy no one. I have a feeling I may not be the only person in this situation!

    Obviously reading a book is not a substitute for relationships and we are talking about people lives not just abstract concepts. However if you have books or resources that help me clarify my thoughts that would be helpful.

    Any guidance would be welcome!

  13. I feel I should clarify my previous post. I meant to say

    “It feels that if you hold a traditional view then those with different views see you as a bigot who contributes to serious mental health problems and if you have a non traditional view then those with different views think you have abandoned the Bible and your faith.”

    Was trying to get across the divisiveness of much of tone around this but didn’t do a great job.

    Hope this makes more sense!

  14. Thanks for your comment and welcome Mikebrad.#
    Have been travelling so the delay in replying, sorry about that.
    Some resources:

    Goddard, A. ‘Covenant Partnerships as a Third Calling? A Dialogue with Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships’. In Noble, T. A., Whittle S. K. and Johnston P. S. (eds.) 2017. Marriage, Family and Relationships: biblical, doctrinal and contemporary perspectives. London. Apollos.

    Hays, R. 1997. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. Edinburgh. T&T Clark. [A classic book and I think one of the best theological discussions on this issue – chapter 16]

    Hill. W. 2010. Washed and Waiting. Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Grand Rapids. Zondervan.

    Marin. A. 2009. Love in an Orientation: elevating the conversation with the gay community. Downer’s Grove. IVP Books. Mostly Marin’s remarkable story of building bridges to the GLBT communities. For a detailed and positive review see Andrew Goddard

    Song, R. 2014. Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. London. SCM. (Arguing theologically for affirming same-sex relationships)

    Sprinkle, P. (ed) 2016. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids. Zondervan. Probably the best discussion and debate book. Includes two proposals affirming and two non-affirming.

  15. Patrick
    Thanks for the book recommendations. Hopefully they can help me to clarify some of my thinking

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