The pain for those who are both gay and celibate, when a church changes its doctrine on marriage
The Church of Scotland was brave to apologise to LGBT people for the prejudices and horrors in the past week. Yet, no one in the recent decision by the Scottish Episcopal Church to redefine marriage has asked the question of why saying sorry for the past has anything to do with playing God's role in the present.
Instead, the Scottish Episcopal Church, among many others, has trampled on celibate LGB people with the decision to depart from God's own teaching in scripture. Next year, when I move to Scotland to study, I may not be able to attend a Scottish Episcopalian Church. The question of whether I can continue to attend in line with the Anglican church I attend in the south of England hangs over my head.
A certain comment from the recent synod flagged this for me. 'Gay people can now be married in God's eyes.' Such a view highlighted the danger we first witnessed in humanity's parents. This danger is making God in our own image by eating from a kind of knowledge and role that God has. We are redefining things that God has already defined for the Church. We hear that voice whisper 'Did God REALLY say [that he made them male and female for marriage]?'
When quoting directly from the creation narrative in Genesis, Jesus does so by rendering what appears in the Hebrew as God's voice, straight from the Creator's own 'mouth'. In Matthew 19:4, 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female and said, for this reason a man shall leave his father.' When one decides who and what God's image is in contradiction to what he has said, one puts themselves in the place of God. When the Church exalts herself above God, she breaks covenant with God.
As a former agnostic gay rights activist involved in campaigns for gay marriage, I thought the Christian God was the justification of homophobes and a moral monster. He was a weapon in the hands of conservatives who deprived LGBTQI people of their rights. A God of such objectionable character, who wrathfully rejected homosexual people and yet 'made them that way' was beyond the pale of existence. It wasn't until I experienced God's love in a pub in 2009 that my life was turned entirely upside down. I discovered that what I thought at that time, in fact couldn't be further from the truth. God's incredible love for all people, beyond any label, is the reality that must be stressed above all, shown most principally in the giving of Himself on a cross to save us from our own self-made destruction.
The journey from agnosticism to Christian faith was what pushed me, among other obvious reasons, for gay marriage rights. I wanted to marry my partner in the holiness of Christian marriage. However, as I mined the depths of scripture, and came to know Jesus Christ more profoundly, deep doubts about the revisionist theology I had adopted to quickly started to emerge.
Why would this God of love make us male and female to the exclusion of other realities? What was the effect of our fall from relationship with God in these bodies and our sexuality? From these discussion, I discovered I wasn't created this way but like all human beings, I was born as a beautiful but broken creation.
As I discovered who God was in worship, I came to realise that marriage was not for just the sake of procreation or to exclude homosexual people from marriage as I often heard from conservative Christians. Rather, marriage between one man and one woman was designed as one way that our Earthly lives can reflect our deepest unity with God in Christ. The creation of physical sexes was to allow us to enjoy an allegory of this greater hope, not to exclude LGBT people. To enshrine gay marriage in the Church as the Scottish Episcopal Church has done is to erase the unique humanity of the sexes, and to 'exchange the image of the Creator' expressed in the designation of male and female sexes for another image. This is a false reformation, an anathema, equivalent to those who taught the Law had to be added to salvation.
And yet part of the issue lies in the Reformation, and that it did not go far enough. When Martin Luther reformed the church, he threw celibacy out as the pendulum swung one way against the corruptions of Catholicism at the time. He made celibacy into a 'lofty asceticism', and marriage, the godly ideal of the average Christian. This has done damage ever since, especially to those like myself who want to follow Christ with our homosexuality. Celibacy is now seen as some cruel deprivation of a human right, and absolute necessity for human flourish. Scripture teaches the exact opposite.
What I see in this recent decision by the Scottish Episcopal Church is not just a decision on a societal issue, but a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is built on the good news that your worth or value is not dependent on marrying; our worth and value and acceptance are based in Christ and in our identity as children of God.
As a gay celibate man, who has given my whole self to God, and He, His Son, I am not interested in self-justifying theology – I am interested in the truth of the unchanging, holy God, our Father in Heaven. By standing against His image in creation in such a decision also disenfranchises one group of LGBTQI people, gay Christian celibate people like myself. We are already a minority within a minority, with the loud voices of the romantic sectarianism, which will continue to insist that we need romantic love to be whole. We are often treated with contempt or spat at by many in secular society. Now we will have to enter churches in the future where our deep sacrifice for Christ is dismissed as a joke.
My heart mourns for the church of Jesus Christ who is forgetting the everlasting wisdom repeated by God since humanity fell: 'Flee Idols, and worship me alone.' Anything less is not worth the deathly dividend. If the whole church was living in the costly sacrifice of normal Christian discipleship, homosexuality and celibacy would not be an issue in the slightest.
The decision to legalise gay marriage reflects our cultures inability to see nuance, and shows that the damaging effects of polarisation and the ignorance of the culture war. This ignorance has become so deeply ingrained we have opted to change God to accommodate our hurt, brokenness and fallen desires.
I am deeply grieved for LGB people like myself, who have denied ourselves, picked up our cross and followed Jesus. We will have to find our place in the wilderness as activists and churches continue to ignore, neglect, culturally marginalise, malign and close their doors to us. Our voice is left unheard. For many of us our choice to be celibate is not some easy gift, but a costly sacrifice that speaks louder than these words ever can. I wish my family walked the narrow path of righteousness with me. Nothing has really changed since Jesus' own life – his true followers, like him, will be thrown out of the places of worship as he predicts in John 16. Perhaps we are better off there.
David Bennett has recently completed postgraduate studies in theology at the University of Oxford and is currently completing his first book, A War of Loves: A Gay Rights Activist Encounters Jesus Christ, with Zondervan to be released mid-next year. Follow him on Twitter @davidacbennett.