Attacks on the decision by the Charity Commission this week to grant charitable status to the Christian group Living Out are quite revealing.
Living Out supports Christians who are same-sex attracted but who don't believe it's right to engage in sexual activity with people of the same gender. The Charity Commission thought this was perfectly reasonable, saying in its statement that the group was "concerned with promoting the wider Christian principles of unconditional love, compassion, acceptance and understanding, and a welcoming place in the Christian Church for same-sex attracted individuals who wish to stay true to their Christian faith".
However, Tory MP Mike Freer – a former party vice-chairman – was outraged and said it amounted to public backing for 'gay cure' therapies. He told PinkNews: "I am surprised the Charity Commission could remotely believe this to be of 'public benefit'.
"Imagine if this group provided counselling and pastoral care to support those 'attracted to' stoning people to death for wearing two different cloths, or for the desire to sell ones daughter in a foreign market! That'd be helping to live a life according to biblical teaching!
"They may not use the words 'gay cure', but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – it's a duck! This is gay cure therapy rebranded!"
We should note the violent and contemptuous hostility toward the Bible Freer's outburst demonstrates. We should also be clear that Living Out doesn't advocate the discredited 'gay cure' therapy that so exercises him; it says it offers "counsel and pastoral support to live a chaste life and, as part of this process, some may seek and experience changes in the strength or direction of their same-sex attractions". It's rather odd that Freer – and another Tory politician, Lord Blackwood – should take offence at this; the notion that sexuality is rather fluid is usually taken for granted among cultural liberals.
But, there is, I think, something more going on here. At the root of the hostility demonstrated towards traditional Christian sexual ethics is not just a critique of its attitude to homosexuality. It's a rejection of the idea of sexual restraint at all. The idea that someone should deliberately deny themselves what is one of humanity's great pleasures in the name of an abstract belief in a higher good is baffling.
The Western world is probably, at present, the most sexually 'liberated' in human history. Sex outside marriage is no longer frowned upon. It's become routine to have multiple sexual partners before settling down with 'the one', if indeed that's the end result. All sorts of sexual expression are mainstream. This new normality is reinforced by sitcoms regarded as family viewing and by a public discourse in which sexual fulfillment is assumed to be a basic human right.
It hasn't necessarily made us happier, though there are things about the collapse of the consensus formed under Christendom that aren't bad. Perhaps we're more honest. Perhaps more people who need help in what can, after all, be quite a complicated area can find it more easily. Whatever one thinks about the appropriateness of homosexual relationships for Christians, no one can look back at the days when homosexuality was criminalised and gay people were stigmatised with anything but repugnance.
But still, the assumption is that sex is natural and that restraint is unnatural. It's like eating or sleeping; why wouldn't you? The only constraint is in the area of personal choice. It becomes a question of autonomy: if I want to do something it's not up to anyone else to tell me I can't. So morality becomes free-floating, self-generated and unaccountable. If there are any considerations outside the purely personal, they have nothing to do with a vertical relationship to God or some other moral absolute: the highest good one can reasonably aspire to is not hurting someone else.
So there is something at best pitiable and at worst offensive for Christians to assert their freedom to choose celibacy over sex. It is not, in fact, a choice all Christians, gay or straight, feel obliged to make, and we should not be too quick to condemn their choices. But those who do are making a statement that runs so starkly counter to the cultural current that reactions like Mr Freer's are only to be expected.
The truth is that if we truly believe, it will have consequences for how we live. Helping people understand and live out those consequences is what the Church does, and has always done. In 1 Corinthians 6:13 Paul quotes a proverbial saying: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food." In other words, the sexual appetite is as normal and morality-free as any other. But God will destroy them both, he says – and "The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body."
To stand against the universal consensus requires considerable moral courage. But part of being a citizen of a different kingdom is that you live by different rules. We don't believe our happiness or our value as human beings is demonstrated by whether we are sexuality active. We believe in friendship and in community. We believe our worth isn't measured by whether we've 'succeeded' in the relationship stakes, but by how we grow into maturity as people redeemed by Christ and patterning our lives on his. We believe in God.
In the sort of world we live in, it's no wonder people don't get it. But same-sex attracted or otherwise, we're called to walk the same path toward Christlikeness, and sex has very little to do with it.