Tuesday 28 June 2011

Bisexual - or just greedy?

I have read a number of blogs recently which have mentioned bisexuals, and the following comment appeared on my recent post on same-sex marriage:
Could you clarify something for me, since I am not totally clear on everything you have said here. You rightly point out that part of the marriage vows are "... forsaking all others, be faithful for so long as you both shall live."

How do bi-sexual people do this? Do they deny one part of their desires, and only have one partner for life? Or do they have two partners, and "faithfulness" then means "faithful toward two different people at the same time", and so is redefining "faithful" to mean "not monogamous"?
The fact that such questions need asking show the misunderstanding there is about what it means to be bisexual.  This often leads to confusion among Christians (and even among some of the gay/lesbian community).

Those who are honest and open enough to say they are bisexual, often run the risk of all sorts of unspoken assumptions being made.  Indeed I used to do the same.
I remember making the crass statement once to someone who I now know to be bisexual, that I couldn’t see what the problem was – “if you’re bisexual you should simply find someone of the opposite sex to fall in love with – and then all would be well.”

Others seem to think that all bisexuals want to ‘have their cake and eat it’ needing sexual partners of both sexes to feel a sense of fulfilment.
So what is the real story on bisexuals?  Are they indecisive, fickle or greedy – or is there something deeper going on?

The following is the story of one married couple who have worked through this issue.  It is used with their full permission:

‘My wife & I are dedicated evangelical Christians. I am not bisexual – but my wife is.
The strange thing is – I always knew that.  Even though we couldn’t talk about it because I didn’t have the language or understanding to do so, I knew.   Soon after we met and fell in love I somehow knew that if our relationship didn’t work out, her next partner would probably be a woman.  I don’t know how I knew, but I did.
We never talked about it – how could we?  I was still a conservative evangelical believing that all same sex relationships were wrong.  On one level, we didn’t need to talk about it.  We were in love with each other, and in time, we made our marriage vows to each other, promising to love and care for one another, forsaking all others, until death do us part.
And yet, we did need to talk about it, because until we did, there was a part of who my wife’s identity that was closed off from our relationship – and that meant that there was a part of her that she could not share with me, and which I could not receive and seek to understand.
It was many years later - after I had realised how wrong I had been about gay and lesbian relationships – that we were able to talk together about this part of her which we both knew was there, but neither of us had been able to verbally acknowledge.
Now before any minds start racing with questions and wrong conclusions, let me state categorically that:
> My wife and I have both been faithful to our wedding vows.

> We have each ‘forsaken all others, to be faithful to each other, and we are just as committed to our marriage vows now as we were 20 years ago on our wedding day. 

> Since we have been able to talk with each other openly, there has never been any sense in which my wife has sought a same-sex partner any more that I would seek another opposite-sex partner. 

> We consider that either of these would be adultery, and we are dedicated to one another.
But since we have been able to recognise her bisexuality, and talk to each other freely, our relationship has grown.  My wife no longer needs to hide or ignore a part of who she is, and I have come to value her even more.  She has come to know that I love her for who she is (with nothing hidden) and I know that she chose me out of all the people she knew – not just the men!’
So the assumption that bisexuals will always ‘need’ or ‘choose’ to have partners of both sexes is clearly not the case.  In fact, I would argue that among Christians, almost all bisexuals I have encountered would say exactly the same thing.  They seek to live faithful dedicated lives with their partner – whatever sex that partner is.
There are of course some who choose a different path – just as there are heterosexuals who decide (for whatever reason) to have ‘open’ relationships or join ‘swingers’ clubs. I personally do not understand such an ‘open’ lifestyle, and would say that is not what marriage is meant to be.
There also those whose marriages have not proved to be the life-long, life-giving commitment they had hoped, and after a marriage breaks down a bisexual person may then fall in love with someone of the same sex.   But that does not make bisexuals greedy, indecisive, or fickle – just human.
All too often, Christians start at the wrong end of the issue.  We get pre-occupied with sex, rather than starting with love.  What most people long for is to meet the person who they fall in love with, and who falls in love with them.  If that love is deep enough, then a partnership will follow, and for many, the desire to make promises to each other in marriage.  This is the same whether you are gay, straight or bi.
The hard bit is to live out those promises (and not just the sexual ones) in a life-giving, life-long partnership – and that is exactly the same whether you are lesbian, gay, straight or bi.  It requires commitment, dedication and the strength to say ‘no’ sometimes out of love for your partner.
The only difference between bisexuals and gay/straight people is that their orientation means the person they fall in love with could be of either sex.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue:  being bisexual is about orientation, not about lifestyle.  Statistically, most people are attracted to people of the opposite sex, but some are attracted to people of the same sex, and some are attracted to both.  It is what we do with those attractions that matters.
It is high time that allowed bisexuals to be recognised for who they really are, not as some distorted stereotype.  It is time for us to listen rather than assume. 
As another Christian bisexual said to me recently, “I am bisexual and my lovely husband is straight. I do find I face a lot of problems if I am open about this, because of some awful assumptions and prejudices people have!  Even in LGBT circles I (very occasionally) face problems because people think I am being dishonest or do not belong in a gay Christian group.
It is time for bisexuals to be able to speak freely about their sexuality without having to battle with the prejudice which would keep them silent.

The T-shirts pictured on this blog are from The Bisexual Index, and are for sale! 

There is also an excellent FAQ page which is an good place to find out more.

Friday 17 June 2011

Employing the politics of fear ...

It could lead to polygamy and incest!

Such was the cry from Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney when he spoke against gay marriage last week.

Such is the politics of fear which conservatives are now deploying in a desperate attempt to oppose same-sex marriage.

Others have used different prophecies of doom.  One writer to the Church of England Newspaper recently claimed that research has shown that only 1% of LGBT people choose faithful relationships, and that accepting same-sex marriage would introduce a kind of institutionalised adultery into marriage which would destroy it from within.  (As if there are no heterosexuals who engage in adultery, swinging, or shagging around!)

Of course conservatives have a vested interest...

For many years the most straightforward argument against same-sex sex was that marriage is the only appropriate place for sex to take place.  As long as marriage is only be open to heterosexuals, this is a cast iron reason why sex between 2 men or 2 women could never be right in God's eyes.  Put simply, the churches conservative voice has said to homosexuals,

"If you can't get married, you can't have sex - and, oh dear - you can't get married!" 

You get the circular argument...

So the spectre of same-sex marriage is quite a threat, because it would remove this prohibition at a single stroke.  This is why the big guns of fear are being rolled out onto the church lawn.

But what would really change if people of the same sex were allowed to get married?

Would the church's marriage vows change?   Would the promise to 'love, comfort, honour and protect' each other disappear? 

Would we have to leave out the promise, 'forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live'?

Would 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health'  have to be watered down with something less demanding?

The answer is clearly 'No' because these are the promises which are at the heart of Christian marriage vows, and those coming to be married are not given the option to pick & choose which bits they want & which bits they don't.

It may be that the number of 'open relationships' among homosexuals is higher than for heterosexuals (although nowhere near as high as the scaremongers claim) but that is no reason to stop those who want to promise faithfulness through good times and bad.  Indeed it is arguable that providing the opportunity to make such vows would go some way to reversing the moral and ethical vacuum that our blanket condemnation has created.

As for polygamy and incest, Christian conservatives and fundamentalists would do well to remember that a literal interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve leaves little alternative to incest as the way the earth was populated - and there is a strong and consistent message in the Old Testament of male success being measured by the number of wives (not to mention concubines) that they had.

The truth is that our concept of marriage has moved on since Biblical times.  Brothers are no longer required to marry the widow of their deceased sibling to provide for her.  Abraham today would not have the choice of which wife to sleep with tonight.  Jacob would not have to work for another 7 years to add the wife he really wanted to the wife he was given by deceit!   King David would not have the option of coving up his adultery by marrying Bathsheba.

In the same way, the provision of same-sex marriage would be a step forward - not a step back - and would no more undermine marriage that the recognition of interracial marriage (which  was only fully legalised in the USA in 1967).

 So take your tanks off the church lawn, Dr Jensen, because they really do look out of place.

Monday 13 June 2011

Now I know how it feels ...(a bit)

This week I was told that I wasn’t eligible to volunteer for something because I wasn’t gay!

It rather took me by surprise.  I was indignant.  I felt devalued, disqualified, and stunned!  Without needing to know anything else about me, I was told that because I was straight, it ruled me out from being a volunteer!

More than that, I was being ruled out because of a survey of opinion amongst the users of the group I wanted to offer my services to.  Can they do that, I wondered?  Isn’t that what equalities legislation was meant to stop?  Putting an end to considering someone’s sexuality as a criteria for deciding if they were suitable?
Now I must stop there, because I have to say that having thought about it, I quite understand why this particular group has decided to only have gay volunteers.  It is a confidential help line for gay farmers who were looking for volunteers, and thought ‘I could do that!’  As I live in deepest rural Dorset, and have several years’ experience of being a vicar to 4 local villages and their farmers, I felt that I might have some appropriate knowledge and skills to offer.

When I heard that all volunteers had to be ‘gay and out’, I asked why.  The answer came back that people who had already benefited from the helpline felt that it was important that each volunteer should be able to truly identify with the issues the callers were facing.  As a straight person, try as I might, I could not.
So actually, I'm cool with that – but the experience of being turned down (in this tiny way) because of my sexuality was a very sobering experience, and made me reflect on the way in which the church does this time and time again to LGBT people.  Lesley's recent blog 'What does it feel like to be bisexual and a Christian?' revealed in graphic honesty what it feels like to suffer such discrimination.

It is only when we experience discrimination at first hand that we truly begin to understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of it.
I remember spending time with a black youth worker called Trevor in the West Midlands.  He was (and is) a deeply impressive person – a former professional American Footballer and Rugby League Player, he was disciplined and committed, physically strong and athletic, and yet gentle and compassionate, always ready to listen.

On the way back from work one day we called at a carpet shop to get a quote for his flat, but the white shop manager clearly didn’t want to serve him.  First he ignored him.  Then he answered all of Trevor’s questions with one word answers, and when Trevor persevered, he finally gave an estimate  that was 10 times more expensive than it should have been.
I was incensed with the blatant racism of it all.  I felt like steam was ready to blow from my ears.  I wanted to challenge the shop keeper - and in a less than constructive way! 

But Trevor took it all in his stride.
When we left the shop, I asked him why he put up with it.  He could have picked the guy up with one hand if he had chosen to – he could have intimidated him with one look – but he chose not to.  The answer he gave has stuck with me.

He said that, “When you have grown up with that kind of thing, you learn how to deal with it.  It becomes part of life - you can let it destroy you, or you can learn not to let it get to you.”  But he also said, “With an attitude like that though, he won’t be in business for long.”
Sure enough, before the year was up, the carpet shop had closed down.

I wonder if there is a parable and a warning for the Church in that?
Time and time again we act with prejudice and discrimination towards gay people simply because they are gay.  We make them feel like I did when I was told that I was disqualified because of my sexuality (but 1,000 times worse).  All too often, we act like the shop manager, putting every barrier in the way to send the message "We don't want your sort here!"

So I wonder - if we don't change, how long we will be in business?

Friday 10 June 2011

Communion from a Child?

I am immensely grateful to Laura and her blog in Lay Anglicana for the inspiration for this post.
Some readers will know that I recently left full-time ministry as a vicar to spend more time caring for my wife who is partially disabled.
One of the benefits of this has been to see our children (aged 11 and 13) grow spiritually in new and wonderful ways.   We have been attending a non-Anglican church on Sunday evenings and their radically inclusive approach has been a hugely liberating experience for them.
First of all they have been set free from the embarrassment of having their dad at the front of church, and the fear of being ‘picked on’ as ‘willing’ volunteers in the sermons!  But more importantly, they have been included in leading worship in ways which would make most Anglicans mind’s boggle.
Not only have they been invited to present readings and lead prayers, but that have also been asked to celebrate Communion – and much to my surprise and wonder, they have said ‘yes’ with confidence and enthusiasm.
Now I know this might seem a bit of a stretch for most members of established churches.  After all, most churches in the Church of England still struggle with the idea of children receiving Communion, let alone celebrating it!  This has never been an issue for our children.  When they were 2 and 3 years old, I became vicar of a church whose practise was to give Communion to everyone who wanted to receive it – whatever their age.  So from the first time they held their hands out at the communion rail, they have been included fully in this celebration of the Body of Christ - but to celebrate Communion was far beyond anything which would be permissible in the CofE, so this was something quite new.

The first time they were asked, they simply used the Communion prayer of the church, holding up bread and wine, and then stood alongside the church Minister as she then distributed Communion and prayed a personal prayer with each individual, couple or family group who came forward to receive. 

The second time however, they went even further.  Instead of them celebrating and the Minister distributing Communion, they did both.  As each person, couple or family came forward, they gave them the bread and wine and prayed for them.  By the time we were all seated again, half the congregation were in tears – tears of joy and blessing.

So yes – I do agree with Lay Anglicana that we need to start at childhood to train our worship leaders of the future – and that might take us further than we could ever envisage.  It has been such a joy for Mel and I to see our children blessed by the opportunity to lead, and it has been such a blessing for the church to receive this ministry from children.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said  "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Perhaps it is time we began to allow our children to show us how…?

Monday 6 June 2011

Prevention or Abuse?

I came across a shocking book last week which is being advertised in the USA.  What shocked me was both its content and the person whose articles are promoting it - Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship .

The book is called "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality" and is by Dr Joseph and Linda Nicolosi.  Dr Joseph is described as a psychologist specialising in gender disorders.
The articles begin with the heart-rending story of a little boy whose parents suspected that something was wrong when he was aged just 5.  He was playing with dolls, liked dancing and the colour pink.   Nicolosi described the boy as a "prehomosexual male" and says that "without intervention, he had a 75% chance of growing up homosexual, bisexual, or transgender."

The solution for such boys appears to be intervention  to 'interrupt an unhealthy mother-son bond" by replacing it with a strong but caring father-son bond.
He talks about the "toxic blend of sensitive temperament and an environment in which the boy does not receive affirmation ... to develop a masculine identity".

Leaving aside the many questions I have about these presuppositions, I am appalled by the potential abuse to children which this book could evoke.  I have pictures in my mind of paranoid parents constantly assessing the 'risk' of their children becoming homosexuals - using the book to measure the percentage danger that they were facing.  I wonder what lengths they will go to in order to 'interrupt the unhealthy mother-son bond' in children as young as 5 years old.  I wonder how some fathers will take it upon themselves to be 'stronger', motivated by fear and prejudice.
When I first saw the article, I thought it must be a new book to warrant the attention, but when I looked into it, I found it was published in 2002 by IVP Academic (what were they thinking!)

I suppose that Chuck Colson thinks that this is a good time to push it again.
The whole premise reminds me of a time in history when left-handed children were forced to 'become' right-handed by having their left arm tied behind their back.  Perhaps we ought to bring that back too?

As a left-handed straight male who can remember a time when I was interested in dolls, but who has never fancied a man, I think that this needs to be called by its real name - child abuse.  Children need to be nurtured, not 'prevented' -  they need to be valued for who they are, not treated with suspicion and fear for what they might become - they need to know that they are loved for themselves, not conditionally according to their likes, dislikes and tastes.
The only results I can envisage for Dr Joseph's patients are increasing inner conflict, strained psychotic parental relationships, and a whole load of therapy that will be needed in adulthood.

But Dr Joseph Nicolosi is not interested in wholeness in the way in which most Psychologists are.  He is a founding member of NARTH which campaigns for 'Reparative Therapy' and 'Re-orientation' for homosexuals against the views of all the mainstream American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations.
In an interview at the launch of the book, Joseph and Linda are asked what parents should do if their child says they are gay.  They respond by saying, "Parents can make it clear, lovingly, that they're grieved by their child's lifestyle choices. They can also clarify that they don't believe that that gay is ultimately "who a person is," in the deepest sense."  So the appropriate response is grief, hurt disappointment, and denial.

Practising those views on adults is bad enough - but extending them to children?
That is abuse.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Genderless God?

In one of his responses to my article “Towards a theology ofgay marriage”, John Richardson made the following comment…

Far from being ‘genderless’ however, this mystical union undergirds the very notion of gender – including the basis on which we call God ‘he’.   As CS Lewis once put it, “What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relationship to it.”
While I do not have sufficient expertise in relation to CS Lewis to know what point he was trying to make, John Richardson’s comment did make me reflect about God as solely male - so ‘male’ that we can only call him ‘He’.

Many women have, of course found this difficult to accept, particularly since the rise of feminism.  The Christian faith has come under attack from some feminists for our male only hierarchy and male God, while others have sought to redress the balance with prayers addressed to ‘Mother God’ or ‘Our Mother who art in heaven’.
It reminds me of a joke I once heard about someone who had died and gone to heaven. 

He was met by St Peter at the Pearly Gates and given a tour of paradise.  After being shown rooms for different Christian Traditions each with their own appropriate decoration, trappings and ornaments, the new arrival finally asked if he could meet God now.  St Peter hesitated, and looked unsure.  Finally he said, “Well I suppose so, but you will have to be prepared for a shock”.
The new arrival tried to assure St Peter that he was ready - that he had read his Bible and knew that he would almost certainly be overcome by awe, wonder, and godly fear at the sight of the omnipotent, great “I am” whose presence has struck fear and trembling into people throughout  human history.

St Peter eventually agreed, but as they came to the door into God’s presence, he whispered to the new arrival, “It’s not those things that will shock you – you see, She is Black!”
The biggest problem with those who would want to keep God as solely masculine however, is that it simply isn’t Biblical.

Alongside the feminine pictures of God which appear in the Bible, (like that of a mother comforting her child  or a hen gathering her chicks ) there is the clearest indication in Genesis 1 that we cannot restrict God in this way.
At the creation of human beings in Genesis 1:27, we read that

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

For me the Word of God here is very clear – both women and men, in all their fullness, are made in the image of God.  Anything less would be to subtract from the Scriptures - and in a way which then affects our view of everything which follows, from Genesis 1 all the way to Revelation 22.  For God to create male and female in his image, God must be both male and female in a way which transcends our limited human understanding. 
But that does not imply a ‘genderless’ God anymore than same-sex marriage implies ‘genderless’ marriage.  What it actually implies is a 'genderful’ God who is able to relate to both men and women fully, and with whom both women and men can relate fully without having to set aside part of their gender or sexuality in the process.

For me personally as a man, I have always been comfortable in calling God Father (while recognising that others find this difficult) but I have felt equally comfortable relating to the Holy Spirit as female and allowing Her to enrich my Christian life and faith.
She has filled my life with the presence of God, and She has made the reality of God more real in my life.  She has led me in the Truth of Christ, given me Her gifts, and enabled me to grow in Her fruit.  In all of these things, I am indebted to God, who is both male and female - Father Son and Holy Spirit.

I believe in a Genderful God.

(You might also like to see the response to this post on Significant Truths which expands and develops the idea of a Genderful God in a very helpful and creative way)