Regular readers will know that this blog isn't of the "confessional" kind - and that whilst it represents me as a person, it isn't about me. The subject matter of this post has been on hold for a long time, mainly because I've not felt that these pages appropriate for such personal subject matter. Indeed, I'm not the type to share too freely in any circumstances, not just online!
Previous thoughts of posts on this topic have been, typically, prompted by posts by my friend Stephen Glenn and some of his friends involved with these issues in Northern Ireland. Today's post has been prompted by Stephen's blogpost "I like Steve Chalke cos he is a nice guy." In it he references this (extended) piece by Mr Chalke which is well worth a read and this video in which he elaborates his reasons for raising the issue of pastoral care of gay and lesbian people.
Coming across Chalke's name was a blast from the past and that's what has finally prompted me into composing this post. I remember a series of videos he presented entitled "Lessons in Love" from my teens as well as hearing him speak on a number of occasions at various Christian youth events and at the "Spring Harvest" conferences. But that's jumping ahead...
I grew up in a Christian Brethern household and going to the church (or, rather, the Assembly) was a large part of my parents' lives. On a Sunday, we would have the Breaking of Bread, Sunday School, Ministry Meeting and Gospel Meeting. In the summer this would be augmented with the "Open Air" (an outdoor evangelical meeting) and there were additional meetings during the week as well as on Saturdays, particularly over the winter when many assemblies would host day-conferences.
As a teenager, I joined the assembly after being baptised on my 16th birthday (a coincidence of timing, there is no significance in that). Not long after we moved churches as a family but I continued in faith even after moving away from home - first in Edinburgh and (after another period at home) subsequently in Dumfries.
During those teenage and early-twenty years, I began to move in wider church circles - always within the Evangelical fold but often in more charismatic circles; it was an interesting time, especially given the advent of the so-called "Toronto Blessing". This was when I also became aware of Chalke amongst many of his contemporaries in (what felt like) a burgeoning and growing evangelical community.
Of course, as someone who has grown up attending Ministry Meetings from childhood and various books on Christian Missionaries and Martyrs, I was well aware of the Church's teaching on a whole host of topics. Years of learning memory verses meant I knew sizable chunks of the Bible off by heart. And I was acutely aware that my attraction to men went against all that I knew was right.
So for years I lived with feelings I could neither act on nor reconcile with my faith. Or, to put it another way, for years I lived with a faith that denied me the opportunity to express who I was. For years, nobody (or so I thought) knew who I was. For years, I believed that I would (and could) live a celibate life.
But I always felt like a bit of an outsider - like I could never fully join in. I wasn't free to say who I was, to love who I could, to fully express myself. So I was always holding something back - and for someone who doesn't easily form close friendships, this exasperated that.
I was, of course, aware that there were those who argued that the Bible wasn't as cut and dried as I had always been taught. Who had, through interpretation, found ways to reconcile their faith and sexuality and, in doing so, found others with whom to celebrate their love and their Christian believes. Personally, though, I was never convinced of the theological basis on which they based their convictions.
And so, gradually, I began to move away from the church and to explore life without the same level of (self-imposed) discipline. It should be noted that I've never taken what could be termed full advantage of this - but that's another matter!
At the time, when church friends asked if I didn't feel there was something now missing in my life, I would (perhaps glibly) say that no - I had packed up my faith in a box and put it to one side, whilst opening up a box that I'd previously stored away.
Of course, such glibness masked that both the packing away of the first box, before replacing it with the box marked "faith" played down the fact that those years had had many difficult moments, including a period of mental illness. The desire to suppress ones nature - whether it comes from external or internal sources, or both - is liable to do this. Even when this period had passed, the risk of its return never really seemed distant enough.
Would teaching such as Chalke's made a difference to me? I don't know; as I said, my interpretation of scripture was, of itself, quite traditional. Perhaps the thought that there was someone with the evangelical church (as opposed to those from other traditions) with understanding would have been encouraging. I suspect, though, that I would still have made the transition from believer to "agnostic apostate" (as I used to term myself) and eventually to Atheist.
I'm sure, though, that Chalke's words will already be helping many who struggle with these issues - and those trapped in situations like the various cases he mentions in his article. They may not be in his direct Pastoral Sphere but for someone from his background, with his prominence to seek to move the agenda on this is to be applauded, and supported.
One of the things liberals (and Liberals) are supposed to be keen on is tolerance. But we - especially those of us without a faith - can often be remarkably intolerant of those who do have a faith. This, of course, is often compounded by the tone adopted by certain religious organisations, particularly over moral issues - in particular those around human sexuality issues.
Whilst one could hardly expect him to express a similar change of views, I can't help but feel that others in the church at large (I'm looking at you, Archbishop Nichols, amongst others) could learn something from Mr Chalke. His contribution should be welcomed as an honest effort to sensitively address an issue which causes a great deal of suffering and anguish to those who struggle to reconcile their faith. Liberals from other faith groups (and none) should recognise his bold move, support it and engage in the dialogue he has started.
P.S. Chalke's Oasis Trust runs a number of Academies. Whilst I retain reservations about this (as I do with any and all religious organisations running state schools - including the CoE and RC churches), I hope this new approach is also reflected in the support of LGBT pupils in these schools.