Learning how to minister well to the LGBT+ community

By the Revd Mark Hammond

“Would you feel able to consider a written contribution around how we minister well to the LGBTQI community and your experiences?” said the email.

Not for the first time, I feel a pang of embarrassment at being approached as if I am an expert in this area. In reality, I am just a learner; a middle-aged straight man trying his best to learn how to become a better ally to the LGBT+ community.

Moreover, my personal history is not a pretty one. Thirty-one years ago I sat in a gallery gazing down upon the back of President Brian Beck as he chaired the Methodist Church’s Derby Conference, and I felt very far from comfortable with the general thrust of the six newly minted resolutions on human sexuality, not least the last one calling all Methodists to join together in a “pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality”.  

A year into that pilgrimage, full of righteous indignation, I stood at the tribune of the 1994 Conference and spoke against any move away from traditional interpretations of the bible texts around sexual relations. From Wesley’s chair, Leslie Griffiths directed me to stand down - I still quake at the thought of it.

During the ensuing years, I underwent what might be termed a transformation by the renewal of my mind, such that a quarter of a century later, during the God in Love Unites Us consultation, I preached from those very same bible texts two sermons about same sex relationships and concluded that I would now gladly conduct the marriage of two people of the same sex.

Those two sermons, posted online, were viewed thousands of times, and many contacted me to share how their personal stories echoed my own.

In common with others, my childhood church taught me that sex is God’s marriage gift to straight couples. That worked for me. I am straight, and naively assumed that like me everyone must be wired straight.

As a youth leader in the ‘90s, I taught young people that sex is strictly intended to be enjoyed by straight married couples. No deviations allowed. In the first of my sermons, with their permission, I accept the damage this view did to members of that youth group. At a terrible cost, I had presented them with a one-size fits all approach to sexuality that simply did not fit.

We only need to look at the statistics to see the level of damage done. Compared to their straight peers, gay young people are three times more likely to consider suicide. Those brought up in the Church are even more likely to commit suicide.

My traditional approach, which cost me nothing at all, was very costly to the gay people in my care. I had previously accepted, and strongly taught, the view that the Bible was very clear in its condemnation of sex between two people of the same gender. I now believe I was wrong.

Many contemporary scholars believe the five brief Bible texts that talk directly of same sex relationships, simply do not refer to the kind of permanent, faithful, stable relationships we are referring to today. Our reading of these ancient texts says far more about us and our prejudice than it does about the texts themselves. The way we read them is deeply conditioned by the traditions within which we have been raised, by our native culture, and by our personal experiences through life.

A key question is what are the fruits of our theology on this issue? The traditional theology I once so diligently espoused produces in the lives of many gay people all kinds of serious mental health issues, self-harm and even worse. By contrast, a more inclusive theology yields in their lives the fruit of belonging, freedom, safety and security. I believe this latter approach reflects the love of Christ.

I used to think that to condone and accept any form of same sex relationship was to be guilty of causing young Christians to stumble. But knowing the damage I have done, and reading the scriptures in the light of that experience, I am now convinced it is wrong to condemn committed, faithful and loving same sex relationships and that to do this is to be truly guilty of causing young Christians to stumble.

The Church’s traditional condemnation has strongly supported a culture in our churches and our societies that is oppressive and poisonous for gay people. I know there are some gay Christians who themselves hold to the traditional interpretation of the five texts, and have taken the vow of celibacy. They have my respect. I recognise that the traditional interpretation is open to us. But I believe it is neither the only interpretation nor the best.

I now strongly believe that where two people of the same sex fall in love and make a life-long and exclusive commitment to each other, that is not a sin. In fact, I want to go further and say that I want to celebrate such relationships and ask God’s blessing upon them with the same enthusiasm with which I do straight marriages.

I am so glad that the Methodist Church has at last had the courage to allow those churches and ministers who believe it is right to do so, to conduct weddings for same sex couples. I am thrilled that I am now registered to conduct such weddings at www.highstreet.church.

In common with many churches, the membership of High Street remains a mix of both those who are fully supportive of this progressive move and those who are not. Many times since preaching my same-sex sermons I have experienced the sadness of pastoral conversations with members who have chosen to leave us over this. I have been sorry to see these people leave our church community. I am pleased that others who hold a traditional view have remained with us, and that we continue to move forward together with our contradictory convictions.

There is, however, no mistaking a dilemma here. I am a minister and preacher who believes that giving “dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality” requires me to say regularly and clearly what I believe, and yet I am also seeking to minister and preach to those who struggle with what I believe. Mindful of this tension, now that the votes on same sex marriage are behind us, it is tempting to stop raising the subject of inclusion so as to avoid the discomfort of some, but that is not a valid option for those of us who truly believe that God is calling the churches we lead to become truly safe places for LGBT+ people.

The sad reality is that many Christian churches are still far from being fully inclusive communities, and the fact that so many choose to avoid the subject altogether does not help. In the experience of LGBT+ people, churches are still generally unwelcoming and unhealthy for those who stray from the very narrow limits of conventional norms when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation.

It is therefore vital that those churches that are seeking to be more inclusive,  communicate that often and clearly. This necessarily requires us continually to risk the discomfort of some as we regularly preach, minister and lead in a way that is openly and actively seeking to include and affirm LGBT+ people and their allies. I think we need to sensitively promote the healthy discomfort that arises from an awareness of the mismatch between inherited beliefs and lived-experience. That discomfort was a necessary part of my own individual transformation. I sense it is now a necessary part of High Street’s collective transformation. 

Having said all of that, and returning to where I started this piece, I am under no illusion about my own inadequacy for this task. I remain no more than a middle-aged straight man on a steep learning curve, knowing just enough to comprehend the great magnitude of my own ignorance of the lived-experience of many of those alongside whom I seek to minister. I am blessed to be surrounded by an amazing team of people whose life-experience is far broader than mine, and who tell me whenever my own words or actions or choices are exclusionary. My hope is that our High Street community will continue to accompany me along this change curve, that we will continue to learn together. I hope that more LGBT+ people and their allies will join our community and help us, that we may more fully represent God’s all inclusive kingdom.

As a sign of that intent the inclusivity page on our website contains these words, with which I will sign off:

We aim to be a church that is inclusive of all.

You are most welcome at High Street on your own terms regardless of your race, gender identity, sexuality, ability, background or current life circumstances.

We want to be a church where each and every person feels equally valued and encouraged to bring their true selves to our worship and work so that we can truly reflect the full diversity of God’s kingdom.

We are actively working towards this goal and still have a lot to learn. We will make mistakes, we will get it wrong at times, but our intent is to be a community where every member can fully belong and fully express their God-given gifts.

We’d love to encourage you to join, serve and lead in any area of the church according to your gifts. If you want to explore opportunities to get more involved, or if you see areas where we are not meeting our aim of being fully inclusive, please do speak to
Rev Mark Hammond or Deacon Sarah Wickett.

As a step on the way we are delighted that we are now able to perform marriages and blessings for same sex couples.

 


Mark Hammond’s original sermons on same sex marriage and his more recent sermons on wider issues of inclusion can be found at www.highstreet.church/inclusivity.


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