In this LGBT History Month we have cause to celebrate the enormous changes we have seen in Britain and many other countries, both in the law and in the general attitudes of society.
However, it seems that faith communities continue to be cautious and often hostile to this progress. A small minority of churches welcome LGBT people into their congregations without judgment. An even smaller minority are willing to accept them as ministers or to celebrate same sex marriage. We are beginning to hear sympathetic speeches from prominent church leaders like the Pope and the bishops, but as yet no mainstream church has officially changed its doctrine that homosexuality or gender reassignment is either sinful or at least falls short of ‘God’s ideal’ for human life. Similar attitudes prevail in Islam, Judaism and virtually all the other major faiths. What is it about religion that makes it so cautious on these issues?
To understand this we have to look at where the religions come from. Each of them began with a simple, central, world-changing idea. It is remarkable how similar that idea is across all the faiths: they nearly all teach in one way or another the unity of God and the treatment of other people with love and goodwill.
The problem begins with the fact that the founders and early teachers of the faiths lived at a certain time in a certain place, and the way in which their teachings were presented inevitably reflected the culture of that time and place.
Judaism and Islam both came from a desert culture in which small groups of people needed to bond closely and fight fiercely to survive. All the faiths came from a pre-modern world in which life was short and precarious. Women died in childbirth, children often did not survive into adulthood, and malnutrition, disease and war were a constant threat to life. To have children, and the more the better, was a necessity for the survival of the family and the tribe. This meant that marital sex was a social responsibility, and to be exclusively or predominantly homosexual was to undermine the strength of your community.
Most ancient societies also had a strict patriarchal structure: the men were in charge, and women were inferior. This too had its effect on attitudes to homosexuality. The soldiers of a conquering army would often rape the enemy soldiers: they saw it as humiliating them by treating them as women. If a man spoke or behaved in a feminine way, and especially if he allowed another man to penetrate him, he was degrading himself to the status of a woman.
At the time when Christianity emerged from Judaism, the Roman Empire was at its height of power. Both Jews and Christians were appalled by the gross excess and exploitation in Roman society, one feature of which was the unrestrained sexual exploitation of children, young people and slaves of both sexes.
As Christianity developed, it became deeply influenced by the kind of Greek philosophy that stressed the difference between spirit and flesh. It regarded human beings as immortal souls imprisoned for a time in a physical body. There was an element of male superiority in this too. Women, with their more obvious physical functions like menstruation and childbearing, were regarded as less spiritual than men. For a man to cultivate the spiritual life, the ideal was celibacy. For married couples, the only virtuous reason to have sex was to produce children. To have it for any other purpose – i.e., to enjoy it – was unspiritual. This meant that homosexuality was especially sinful because it was the enjoyment of sex quite unrelated to its purpose.
Having come to birth within a particular culture, each of the faiths produced teachings, writings and traditions that have been handed down to the present time and regarded as authoritative. The problem is that their central message has come to us in a package which also contains other things that were simply part of the culture of their time.
The Bible, for instance, has nothing to say about people who are by nature homosexual, transgender or non-binary. In the biblical world people were married at an early age, usually by their family’s choice rather than their own, and by the time they had done their duty of producing and nurturing the next generation they were old. Only the very small minority of wealthy and leisured people had time to think about romance and self-fulfilment.
To expect specific guidance from the Bible on LGBT+, or indeed on any contemporary issue, is anachronistic. We do not find the truth by unquestioning literal acceptance of Scriptures and creeds. Nor do we find it by imposing our own experience and feelings on everyone else. To have faith means to be part of a community formed by many people with different thoughts and experiences across a great range of time and space. We approach the truth by being part of this ongoing conversation.
Bringing about the change of attitude many of us would like to see must be a long-term process. We must certainly stand firm in defence of vulnerable people who are suffering through intolerance and bigotry, but the process of changing hearts and minds calls for some gentleness and patient teaching. Many people have been taught that their faith is a set of doctrines that must be taken as a whole or abandoned. It is a bit like a game of Jenga – take away one piece and the whole structure may collapse. Religious leaders and teachers need to unpack and articulate the core values of their faith – to help believers untangle what is true, right and pure from the things that were culturally normal or expedient in a bygone age.
Those of us who have a faith must keep seeking to grasp it and live it out, working out what is right not from a text or creed but in relation to its essential message. As a Christian, I have to ask: what are the implications, here and now, of the gospel (the ‘good news’) that God is love? And what does it mean, here and now, to love God and love my neighbour as myself?