There was something very affirming that happened when Tom Daley appeared on the Jonathan Ross Show on Saturday. Public affection for Daley already rides high with his youth, good looks, sporting prowess and achievements working to his advantage. The death of his father to cancer adds to his story and now we have his announcement of a relationship with another man. The audience sitting and listening to his revelations poured out warmth and support for him and his decision to go public. Any fear Daley might have had of a negative reaction would surely have dissipated as Ross tactfully encouraged him to open up.
What was affirming was not that Tom Daley is dating someone twice his age, which in any relationship would result in at least a few raised eyebrows, but rather the acceptance of him as an individual, irrespective of his choice of partner.
What this episode in Daley’s life has demonstrated is that relationships and sexuality are often not as straightforward or black-and-white as some would like to think. Pink News, the popular gay news site quickly put up a piece following Daley’s announcement reporting that he had come out as gay. It was then hastily changed with a subsequent apology from Joseph Patrick McCormick, the deputy editor. Daley, who admitted he still likes girls had refused to fit himself to a stereotype. He said to Ross, “I don’t see any point in putting a label on it – gay, bi, straight, any of those kind of labels”. In an article two days later, reflecting on the attention Daley has received, Mr Partick McCormick made this observation:
‘What is also interesting is that Tom Daley’s coming out has opened up a really honest debate from within and outside the LGBT+ community on where perceive that we stand with equality, and most prominently it seems, people’s own decisions to define (or not define) themselves as they please.’
The Church of England has been having an honest debate too about matters of sexuality over the last couple of weeks since the long awaited Pilling Report was released a couple of weeks ago. Whilst some in the gay community appear to have an obsession with labelling every form of sexuality and fitting people into boxes, some in the Church have a habit of winding each other up over issues of homosexuality without making any worthwhile progress despite a lot of talk. That’s probably why the epically long and detailed Pilling report was mostly met with indifference outside of Christian circles. Tom Daley’s thoughts on sexuality are of national interest, but the Church’s – and in this case the Church of England’s – are not.
The Church of course largely has itself to blame. For too long it’s sent out negative vibes and messages towards gay people that have been anything but welcoming. Even when apologies have been issued for this treatment from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, they have fallen on deaf ears. The Church really is in a no-win situation on this one. If it questions the culture as it has done institutionally on equal marriage, it is seen as bigoted. If it makes moves to engage and soften its approach, it is ignored or told it is not going far enough. Unless it goes along with the culture it is considered to be out of touch, but if it does just that, it dangerously loses so much of its value bringing its existence into question paradoxically making it less attractive to those on the outside. Take for example the Church of Sweden, which according to Phil Whittall, a British church planter living there, “Is well-known for its mainly liberal positions on pretty much everything from ordaining the first lesbian bishop to archbishops happy to say that Jesus is not the only way. There are few churches that in their theology are as inclusive as the Church of Sweden. The irony is that no one wants to join.”
What the 221 pages of the Pilling Report, along with the plethora of responses, highlights yet again is that different factions of the Church are not going to to come to a consensus any time soon on matters of homosexuality. Impassioned calls to find areas of commonality have had little impact. It’s not entirely surprising when the Church is so very slow at even considering making decisions and on this subject. The Pilling report took over two years to compile. It gives 22 recommendations of which the third is that the ‘Consultation on this report should be conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years.’ This painfully drawn out approach by the Church of England is another reason why the public has little interest in taking notice of what it thinks. This lack of urgency and delay will only cause more problems when gay marriages come into effect next March, creating a new series of challenges for churches to deal with.
The time has come for the Church of England to make its mind up. Theological and pastoral issues have been picked over for long enough and those in a position to decide on any changes have no excuse for not being sufficiently knowledgeable by now. Churches may be feeling pressure to adapt to the rapid changes in societal views on sexuality, but the public apathy towards the Church’s views on homosexuality would suggest that the pressure is mostly internal, at least for now. How many people will find themselves more attracted to the Gospel if churches liberalise their approach to same-sex relationships?
It won’t please those who want to see churches more willing to bless same-sex relationships, but the Pilling Report’s recognition that ‘there is not sufficient consensus to change the church’s teaching on human sexuality’ is correct, as is the comment from a supporter of faithful same-sex partnerships that there are no texts in the Bible that endorse such relationships. Trying to produce a fudge that results in official teaching and practice diverging is of no benefit; it is being deceitful. Can the Church honestly be in disagreement with practicing same-sex relationships and at the same time bless them in public services, even if there is no authorised liturgy?
But, and this is a big but, churches and Christians need to work much harder in order to be welcoming to those who do not fit into the heterosexual, waiting/waited until marriage to enjoy sexual relations category. Single parents, couples living together and those who have made a mess of their marriages are welcomed into good churches and accepted for who they are even if their relationships and living arrangements are not going to be publicly blessed. Why should the situation be any different for someone who is gay or already in a same-sex relationship? There is still room within this framework for ‘pastoral accommodation’, which upholds church teaching, but can be expressed in private prayers focusing on God’s grace and thanksgiving for the virtues evident in a loving non-heterosexual relationship.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 says this: ‘Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.’ Self-sacrifice and self-control are key components of the Christian faith, but for those who choose not to stay single there needs to be understanding and grace from others.
However the church also has a duty to support and encourage those who are gay and choose to live a chaste lifestyle. The recently launched Living Out website tells the stories of such Christians and offers guidance to churches for pastoral care. This sort of care is incredibly important, but sadly often neglected. In one of the videos on the site Peter Ould talks about the freedom that came from realising that his identity was not tied to his sexuality and began accepting that he was Peter, a man who found who he is through his relationship with Christ.
The Church may appear to be out of touch with culture and attitudes to sex, but actually it can offer something deeper that society mostly forgets. We don’t have to be defined by anyone else, our jobs, our sexuality, our wealth or belongings. We don’t need to give ourselves labels in order to find out who we are. Tom Daley refuses to label himself or be labelled by others and rightly so. There is far more to us than our sexual preferences. God has made each one of us in his image. Sexuality is understandably a big deal for the Church, but that shouldn’t get in the way of giving any individual the love and acceptance we all need to receive.
A suitably helpful analysis of the Pilling Report can be found at the Fulcrum website.