Our new patron, Bishop David Gillett shares his reflections from attending a recent event organised by Changing Attitude:
‘My Catholic friends tell me that I should always do something special and memorable on my Naming Day which, for me is March 1st, St David’s Day. And this year I did; I attended the celebration, ‘Unadulterated Love’ arranged by Changing Attitude in London.
It was the first of their events I had attended and I went mainly because It was suggested to me that as a bishop and an evangelical who had formerly been principal of Trinity College Bristol it would show support and bring encouragement to many LGBT people. Well, I am always sceptical about how my being at something can be much of an encouragement, but events certainly proved me wrong!
I was one of two bishops there and, being soon after the House of Bishops guidelines on same sex marriage had been issued, our presence was seen as significant – even though neither of us are members of the House (me because I am retired). I was asked to facilitate a couple of group sessions where there would be opportunity for both straight and LGBT folk to share their stories and challenges etc.
Pervading the occasion was a note of celebration and mutual support, some touches of confusion and sadness, but to my surprise very little anger about how the church was handling the issue of same sex relationships. Rather I detected a sense of compassion for a church that would soon hopefully embrace a wider understanding of the all-encompassing love of our gracious and welcoming God.
There were other evangelicals there who, like me had come to an understanding of scripture and the gospel which impels us to support those who are, by their God-given nature attracted to people of the same sex, both those who are single and those in a relationship. We exchanged some experiences of how our theological and pastoral position meant we were suspect by a number of our evangelical friends, but also how many more of them were also seeing the gospel and scripture in a more inclusive and accepting light. My personal concern in the group sessions was to share how important it is for me to celebrate together with my LGBT friends the acceptance of God and his blessing upon all committed faithful relationships, such as my wife and myself had known throughout the whole of our married life together.
But for those who shared with me, the main talking point was how a good number of them had found it difficult as gay and lesbian Christians to be accepted and comfortable within their own evangelical churches, whether they were single or in a relationship. Some spoke of years during which members of their own fellowship ignored them and never spoke to them once they had been open about their sexuality. Others told of similar cold shouldering at evangelical theological colleges. For some there was a determination to continue in the spiritual tradition which had nurtured them, but others spoke of how they felt forced out by the coldness to look for a fellowship which would be more supportive and accepting even though that meant them leaving behind some close Christian friends and the spirituality they had long valued.
However there were indications that the tide was turning. Some were determined to stay within their fellowships and were gradually seeing a dawning of a new sense of acceptance and joy in their relationships with straight Christians in their local church. This sense of acceptance was clearly more marked in the younger age group but it was also evident that many lay folk in evangelical churches were more open than some clergy. Was this, some wondered, because the close ties within the evangelical clergy-world meant that a good number hesitated to embrace a fresh understanding because their friends and colleagues would cold shoulder them too?
But I did not leave the day despondent about the place of LGBT folk within evangelical churches. It is still clearly very hard for many, but the tide is turning and I am confident that the facilitated discussions which are being set up in the wake of the Pilling report will be one means through which many evangelicals will reevaluate their position. I believe also that Accepting Evangelicals will have an increasingly important role to play in accompanying many, particularly clergy as they take a closer look at their understanding of scripture, the gospel and our mission in a society where equal marriage will soon be seen as part of the natural landscape. I know of some evangelical clergy who already offer services of blessing for those in civil partnerships and are also looking for greater freedom to celebrate with those who enter into same sex married relationships as the law allows. Clearly we are in the midst of considerable turmoil over this issue within the Church, but I believe, to quote a phrase that several of us used during the day, ‘the dam is about to burst!’
Rt Rev David Gillett