Published in the Church of England Newspaper – 13th September 2013.
I love walking in the Yorkshire Dales.
During my last visit there, I decided to walk up Great Whernside, a big bald moor rising above Wharfedale. I set off with my map, bag and compass, quickly reaching the moor wall, beyond which there are few obvious features to help in finding the path. As I checked my map, I saw a dotted line reaching up towards the summit so I set off, following it with the help of my compass. I could see no visible path on the ground, but that was not unusual, and I pressed on across the moor.
Before long, I got into difficulties. The ground became increasingly boggy, until I reached a point where I had to jump between tufts of marsh grass and dark sodden areas of peat bog. I remember missing one tuft of grass and ending up thigh deep in thick peaty water scrambling to get out. I checked the map again. I was still on the dotted line but I realised that continuing on this route was both impossible and dangerous.
So reluctantly and carefully, I turned back and retraced my steps out of the bog and back to firm ground.
In the pub that night, I recounted my failed attempt to a local who looked surprised, and then roared with laughter when I showed him the dotted line I had tried to follow.
“That’s not a path” he said when he had stopped laughing. “That’s a parish boundary!”
Reflecting on this later, I saw the absurdity of what I had done. I had diligently sought to follow the map. I had followed this dotted line carefully and accurately. But because I had misread the map my progress had ground to a sticky and dangerous halt in a miserable bog high up in the Dales. The map wasn’t the problem – it was my interpretation of the map which was at fault.
I can’t help but think that we have made the same mistake in our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Bible and homosexuality. As the church, we have joined together a faint dotted line of scattered verses and have thought we understood the map of the scriptures. We have tried to follow the path faithfully, only to find ourselves getting stuck in an ever more treacherous bog.
And now we have ground to an uncertain halt.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury noted in his address to General Synod, the world has moved on, and the church’s stance on sexuality, same-sex partnerships, and now marriage is putting us at odds with society at large. At the recent opening of the new headquarters of Evangelical Alliance he spoke about the way in which the church’s position on sexuality is alienating younger people. “We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible, but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism.”
In Australia, research by the evangelical group Olive Tree Media showed that 69% of non-Christians surveyed said that church doctrine on homosexuality is a ‘belief-blocker’ – only exceeded by child abuse in churches.
As Evangelicals, we are passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that opens hearts to a personal relationship with Him. Yet our interpretation of Scriptures has led us into a dangerous dead-end where we are alienating the very people we want to evangelise. We have sought to follow the Scriptures – our map – but perhaps we have misread them just like I misread that dotted line, and have found ourselves alone in the wilderness as a result.
On the moor, there was only one option for me – turn back and look again. Perhaps we need to do the same.
Rev Benny Hazlehurst, Accepting Evangelicals