In this blog, Dave Shaw, a Pioneer Missioner at Bridgeway Hall, The Meadows, Nottingham considers the extent of change around LGBTQI+ theology and the Methodist Church.

My initial response to this question was 'probably not much, but pastoral care has improved'. However, on further consideration I recognised that I may have been judging a little harshly. Let me explain. In responding to this question I approach it as someone from a 'Conservative Evangelical' background, who would now identify as 'gay', but with fairly limited experience of Christian communities with either a more fundamentalist or liberal approach to scripture. I continue to place a high value on scripture and the biblical hermeneutic that seeks biblical clarity through critical examination, as well as inspiration. I had the opportunity to take an MA in Mission at Cliff College during 2020/21 and my dissertation explored the subject of pastoral care for Christians who experienced same-sex attraction.

However theology doesn't take place in a vacuum but in a cultural context and as I know from my professional life as a business change consultant, culture tends to only change slowly. The changes in our own society, in regard to the public affirmation of LGBTQI+ individuals and their relationships, may appear to have been quite swift but this assessment overlooks the growing pressure for change from at least the 1950s in the UK and some would argue from much earlier! Growing public awareness of the issues faced by members of the LGBTQI+ community have been a driver for greater theological discussion and consideration of the key pastoral challenges. For some Evangelicals the response has been to seek to soften the pastoral blow of enforced celibacy, for those experiencing same sex attraction, while maintaining a traditional theological standpoint (and in regard to the trans community, a less clear one). For other theological thinkers there has been a greater searching of scripture for a more redemptive trajectory for members of the LGBTQI+ community.

So what has changed for me and what have I observed in the wider Church? My high regard for scripture has led me to look at the whole of scripture when considering its relevance, including the challenging bits. For instance, while recognising that sickness and disability are the result of living in a world that groans for liberation (Romans 8:22) I (along with most of us I hope) would not regard this as being a bar to entering God's presence (Lev 21:21-22, Acts 3:2). Yet the location of the healings in Matt 21:14 probably added to the indignance expressed by the religious leaders. As a Methodist worship leader, the work to fully include and enable the ministry of those who live with disabilities continues and many of us face the challenge of adapting our buildings and liturgies. I think a similar focus is needed to include and make church more accessible for LGBT+ folk. For instance, in redesigning our buildings the inclusion of a suite of toilet cubicles around a common wash area which can each be used by someone regardless of mobility or gender speaks strongly of equality and inclusion. 

Biblically, references to eunuchs (non-binary individuals) may seem irrelevant to our Western context. Yet, in regard to this group of people, the constriction of the Torah (Deut. 23:2) gives way to the hope of inclusion (Isaiah 56:4-5) and inclusion in the church (Acts 8:36-39) and again the work of making our liturgy LGBT+-friendly continues. This may mean asking local preachers not to make assumptions about the gender that people present as or assuming the composition and function of family units. We already find this a challenge in our congregations at Bridgeway, where we have a high than usual level of single households and refugees. We may face criticism for making these changes, as a denomination, and for an apparent focus on so called 'political correctness', but this is the work of tackling injustice and securing inclusion. These are examples of how I see the Bible telling God's story of salvation, but the whole of scripture has to be allowed to be its own witness.

I've also come to recognise that the embrace of the Gospel is inclusive, whether considering the coming of the Magi to worship (no evidence of repentance or change of practice there!), the healing of the centurion's servant (another Jewish outsider), the aforementioned baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (a fulfilment of Isaiah 56:3-8?), as well as the story of Rahab and Ruth (among others) in the Old Testament. All of these came as 'outsiders' and from the margins of society (whether privileged or in poverty). If the Gospel is broad enough for all these individuals then it surely must be broad enough for the LGBTQI+ community and the focus for direction will be found in worship and discipleship. 

I have come to appreciate that scripture affirms a diverse range of relationships and different forms of marriage (only a few of which resemble marriage in the Western World) – the lover / beloved of the Song of Songs, the deeply affectionate relationship between David and Jonathan, the physical intimacy of Jesus and John (John 13:23), the arranged marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, Adam and Eve (Eve 'taken from Adam'), the obligation to marry relations to maintain the family name (Matt 22:23-33, Luke 20:27-40, Deut 25:5-6). Considering how scripture affirms these different kinds of relationships, some of which may be irrelevant for our context, leads me to consider the foundational principles of covenant and commitment which underpin our theologising in regards to all human relationships.

How has this affected us as a church? In our practice I think we have become more conscious of the limitations of language in our theologising, and particularly the limitations and biases of translators in conveying scriptural truth. The Holy Spirit continues to be the one who enlightens, leading us into the full reality of that truth. As already mentioned, our theology does not take place in a vacuum and I recognise a greater willingness to wrestle with our understanding of the nature of God and his purposes for the LGBTQI+ community, particularly in challenging injustice (Micah 6:8). Being a justice seeking church means that we are called to stand up for the marginalised and oppressed. We especially seek to discover where God is at work among those who may feel rejected by the church or whose life experience has never brought them within the orbit of a Christian community.

As we seek to care for creation, I wonder whether it is 'Mission Accomplished' in regards to Genesis 1:28? This plays into LGBTQI+ theology as a criticism levelled at the community is their inability to 'naturally' fulfil this commission. This is cited as being essentially 'sinful', in the sense of 'falling short' of God's intentions; however, in the context of potential planetary overpopulation, I want to ask if this commission be regarded as being fulfilled? Is further population increase going to simply increase acceleration of species extinction? Are we already beyond 'subdual' (NIV)?

So how is theology changing and does it matter?
Our theologising has to be principally for furthering the work of mission, indeed this needs to be the focus of all our endeavours. Consequently our theological response must be both missional and pastoral, expressing the wonder of who God is and God's purposes for our world. Our church congregations need to reflect the make up of the communities that surround them, or at least contribute to being fully representative alongside other local Christian communities. This includes representing the local LGBTQI+ community as well as differing socio-economic groups. Do our congregations appear homogeneous or do they exemplify local diversity? Do we affirm those who are single (LGBTQI+ or otherwise), who are carers, nurture gifts of leadership amongst those with disabilities and see the inclusive work of the Spirit orchestrating harmony and shalom? In essence does our theological outlook enable each LGBTQI+ member of our congregations to be the best versions of themselves – 'fearfully and wonderfully made' (Psalm 139:13-16)? Or as Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn we are focusing on for Lent, 'Changed from glory into glory', the Imago Dei restored.