AS THE GOVERNMENT has announced the date when the first marriages for same sex couples in England and Wales can take place, churches which remain challenged by this social change would do well to follow the lead of Steve Chalke, a high-profile evangelical church leader, who earlier this year called for a radical rethink of Christian views on sexuality and marriage.
Steve Chalke is more than just a Christian minister – he is also a social campaigner, educator, TV & radio presenter, columnist & author. He is the founder and President of Oasis, which pioneers educational, healthcare and housing initiatives in the UK and around the world, including:
- Oasis Media, a communications agency with a track record in producing values-based TV programmes for major broadcasters including ITV, BBC and Sky.
- Oasis Community Learning, which delivers secondary education. There are currently 36 Oasis Academies throughout the UK, supporting 20,000 students.
He is also the founder and Chair of the Stop The Traffik, a global coalition campaigning against people trafficking, and a United Nations special adviser on community action against human trafficking.
Steve was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2004 for his services to social inclusion. He is also the official holder of the Guinness World Record for the largest amount of sponsorship money ever raised by an individual through a single event (£1.85 million by running the London Marathon).
An impressive CV, I’m sure you’ll agree. So when he talks, more than just his local church congregation listen. He is one of the most prominent Evangelical preachers in the UK, described as ‘an icon among Evangelicals‘. So when he decided in January to speak publicly in favour of committed, faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships, his announcement was described as ‘a bombshell’ by his US colleague Tony Campolo.
As part of the ‘fallout’, Steve decided to set out on a public speaking tour to explain his position. In October* I had the privilege of chairing a public meeting with him in Liverpool, sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool and St Bride’s Church, an inclusive city centre Church of England community.
Steve spoke passionately about how he realised the need to speak on sexuality, but was reticent because of the potential consequences, not just for him, but for the many people he employs and ministers to. At first he remained silent, for fear of damaging important relationships. Then he considered publishing under a pseudonym, but felt it would be futile due to the lack of impact coming from an apparent unknown.
Then he considered writing in his own name and publishing after his death, but as political and religious debate heated up, triggered by the UK Government’s consultation on extending marriage to same-sex couples, he realised it could not wait until some unknown future date when death would protect him from any risk or consequences.
So he prayed he would be the only person hurt by the potential fallout of his decision to publish. He wrote an article for the February 2013 issue of Christianity, a conservative, Evangelical publication, which also gained much attention from the mainstream UK press. He published it, in full and abridged, on the Oasis UK website, and released a video statement to explain his intentions:
and a follow-up video where he responds to nine questions raised in the conversation so far:
The Oasis website also includes resources for discussion and education for churches, small groups and those seeking pastoral support, around the issues raised by the challenge of inclusion and open conversation.
Steve felt strongly that because the Oasis Academy schools he set up have a Christian foundation, people would assume that Oasis would back the mainstream church opposition to same sex marriage and so, by association, would its staff and students, unless he spoke out before the Government set the agenda for change. As Oasis aims for an inclusive educational ethos, he wanted to create an ‘umbrella of care’ for all those who are part of the Oasis family.
He was also moved to be pastoral in response to the needs of members of his church who were seeking good counsel and, in some cases, experiencing hostile rejection and spiritual harm. He told the story of a young man who struggled with his sexuality and faith, to the point of allowing church members to attempt to exorcise the ‘demon of homosexuality’ from him. Instead he experienced mental distress and attempted suicide. He told Steve he felt his life had been destroyed, not because of his sexuality, but ‘because I am a Christian and I went to Church.’
In Autumn 2012 Steve conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two gay members of his church. He explains:
‘I did this to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.’
The article in Christianity magazine was the start of his response, which is ongoing in his ministry, writing and public speaking. The response to his pro-inclusion statement was massive – he said he could easily have devoted full-time hours to the issue, but he felt it was important to maintain his other commitments too in order to maintain his credibility and presence in circles where this message needs to be heard, and not risk dismissal as a single issue preacher.
The Evangelical Alliance and The Baptist Union threatened him with exclusion, but did not follow through with this which, he believes, means it is possible for those organisations to change their position in future.
Colleagues from Oasis in Uganda and India considered leaving the organisation but did not, which suggests that even in these countries a more open conversation may become possible in time.
Of the correspondence he received post publication, 60% of church-going respondents were supportive, 30% were not sure but thankful that Steve had opened the conversation on the issue, and 10% were against, 2-3% of those Steve described as ‘absolutely mad’.
To those who claim he has abandoned the Bible, he stated that ‘to be truly biblical is to be pastoral as God is love’. He believes the Bible calls the church into an ongoing debate, therefore our Christian duty is to be involved in ongoing conversation, not to claim to have God’s final word on any issue. His stance on this is part of a wider analysis of Biblical study which he aims to publish in 2014.
One critic scored him ‘100% for being pastoral, 0% for theology.’ Steve’s response was: ‘There’s something wrong with your theology if it’s not pastoral – you can’t out-pastor God!’
To those who claimed he brought disgrace on the church, he replied that ‘dis-grace’ means a lack of grace, therefore it cannot be a disgrace to show grace to those in need of pastoral care.
As Steve Chalke is in the business of education, he pointed out that, based on the conservative estimate of Government statistics which state that around 6% of adults in the UK identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), in a class of 30 secondary school students you could expect two or three in every class to be LGB. Not an insignificant number, especially as these young people are at greater risk of bullying and mental distress than their peers, therefore may be in greater need of pastoral care.
As the leader of an LGBT youth group, this area of Steve Chalke’s work was of particular interest. One might reasonably expect that faith schools to have a better track record on tackling bullying, but this is not true for bullying based on sexuality.
- Only half of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils report that their schools say homophobic bullying is wrong; in faith schools it is 37 per cent.
- One in four (26 per cent) lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils – and more than one in three gay pupils in faith schools (36 per cent) – report that teachers who hear homophobic language never challenge it.
- While no gay young people said they experience ‘bullying’ by teachers, 17 per cent say that teachers and other school staff, however, make homophobic comments. This increases to 22 per cent for pupils in faith schools.
- Fewer than a third (31 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people say their school responds quickly to homophobic bullying when it occurs. This proportion is even lower in faith schools at 24 per cent.
- Pupils in faith schools are now no more likely to report bullying than those in non-faith schools, even though faith schools are still less likely than schools in general to take steps to prevent and respond to homophobic bullying.
With Steve Chalke’s example and the Oasis Academies’ commitment to inclusion and diversity, I would hope to see these figures improve significantly.
Steve also spoke of private and confidential conversations with senior church leaders in his own and other denominations who felt, as yet, unable to speak out as he has, though they are broadly supportive of his stance. Perhaps, following his example, they too may find the courage of their convictions. He acknowledged that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appeared to be ‘testing the water’ of the national and international debate on faith and sexuality.
Steve Chalke’s statement and the range of responses he has received demonstrate the change in social attitudes towards homosexuality, even among people of faith. Research from Stonewall into the relationship between faith and sexuality in the last five years shows that public hostility towards homosexuality espoused by prominent church leaders is not representative of most believers.
Love Thy Neighbour (Stonewall 2008) found that many people of faith hold significantly more moderate views of homosexuality than is often claimed on their behalf. Participants suggested that when the perceived tension between faith and sexual orientation is discussed in public, the agenda often becomes so dominated by aggression and sensationalism that levels of respect between faith communities and gay communities are overlooked.
- Three in five people of faith (58 per cent) support Government plans to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples.
- Four in five people of faith (79 per cent) who say prejudice against LGB people exists believe that it’s right to tackle it.
- Almost nine in ten people of faith (87 per cent) disagree with the statement ‘homosexuality is morally unacceptable in all circumstances’.
- Four in five (79 per cent) believe LGB people should be able to be open about their sexual orientation, in any circumstances.
- Contrary to what is often suggested by some faith leaders, people of faith are just as likely as people in general to support tackling homophobic bullying in schools (92 per cent), protection from discrimination at work for LGB people (92 per cent) and outlawing stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation (92 per cent).
- Nine in ten (88 per cent) support protections making it unlawful to refuse people services such as healthcare on the grounds of sexual orientation.
- Almost three quarters of people of faith (73 per cent) support civil partnerships, against four in five (81 per cent) of the wider population.
- Nine in ten people of faith (88 per cent) say they would be comfortable being friends with a person who identified as LGB – two in five of all people of faith (39 per cent) have LGB friends.
- Seven in ten people of faith (71 per cent) would be comfortable if their local religious representative were LGB.
While these figures are encouraging, it remains the voices of faith leaders that is most often heard, and most often reported by the media. I have also heard of a mother who was proud of her gay son and his partner, but too afraid to tell fellow parishioners that she was going to visit him to celebrate their anniversary, and of people who did not support the anti same-sex marriage petition circulated by many churches, but felt peer pressure to sign as they were expected to do so in front of others in the congregation. These voices are more common than many faith leaders would have us believe.
I am grateful to Steve Chalke for making this issue a matter of integrity for himself – it always has been for me, and many other lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians. But we do not usually have the place of privilege from which to speak out and be heard by a mainstream audience. Deeper social change is more likely to occur with the support of influential allies such as Steve whose courage to speak out is enabling many others to do the same.
* I am late in publishing this article as my father went into hospital the day before the public meeting with Steve Chalke, because of what turned out to be his final illness. I am just returning to writing after two months of hospital visits, funeral arrangements, and recovery.