Making Ourselves ‘Other’

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

It is a privilege to respond to the Via Media series of moving and challenging reflections on LGBT+ Christians experience of the Church and the wider implications of that experience for the LGBT+ community, and for the identity of the Church as a genuinely inclusive culture. As a straight white male, I feel inadequate to the task. These are (in Thomas Merton’s phrase) conjectures of a guilty bystander, offered in the hope that together we can navigate the map of the new country faithfully, inclusively, and assured that Jesus takes us as we are because we can come no other way.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced the infamous Catholic ban on artificial contraception. That came as a surprise. The aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council was going into reverse. A young Catholic woman wrote later: “that was the day I took control of my own morality”.

Over recent decades the drip feed of fearful intolerance about human sexuality has had an equally toxic effect. LGBT+ Christians have long since taken control of their own morality. Like the popular response to the Vatican ban, this is corrosive for all of us and gradually erodes the ability of the Church to be heard seriously on a wide range of ethical dilemmas. Why should anyone listen to the churches on major biblical issues such as the evil caused by borrowing and lending money at interest (about which the Bible says so much) when it seems incapable of addressing issues of human sexuality (on which the Bible as a whole says almost nothing, and on which Jesus is completely silent)?

More disturbing still is that the landscape and rhetoric have become increasingly contested. A decade ago, when I was an acting Archdeacon, my evangelical colleague asked me to put together some resources that we could make available to clergy for the blessing of same sex partnerships. We – and our Bishop – saw this as completely uncontroversial. That today we are formally not permitted to bless same sex couples seems astounding. The recent outspoken decision of a hundred Roman Catholic priests in Germany to defy the latest Vatican ban on blessing same sex couples is a standing rebuke to our own lack of courage here.

In his 2006 collection, The Other, the Polish Nobel Prize winning journalist and commentator Ryszard Kapuscinski critiques the Western response to the non-European and says something absolutely crucial about what happens when we “other” people who are different. At best it harms both the other and the other-er. At worst it leads to genocide. Othering may have been theologically validated by parts of the Dutch Reformed church in South Africa, but excluding people on the grounds of taste and culture dressed up as principle is both common and deeply corrosive both for living faith and for wider community cohesion. So-called “conversion therapy” is an extreme form of othering, and responding with compassion is necessary but not sufficient, certainly for churches with a very uneven track record in their response to diversity.

Once again, Jesus in the Gospels gives us startling counter examples. Jesus loves and welcomes the “other” (and those othered by Jesus’ own community): a Jewish tax collector; a pagan centurion and his boy; a Canaanite woman; and so on. Instead of judging them, he holds them up to others as examples for us to imitate. The exception here of course is when it comes to the religious elite. Most extraordinarily, Jesus others himself in extreme ways in order to stand with the other.

Multiple pathologies hover around human sexuality among many Christians. These are inexplicable by reference to Bible, tradition or reason. Sexuality stirs up a much more visceral reaction. Some years ago a senior church leader said that he felt physically sick when people talked about homosexuality. That is not good theology!

Why is sex the stumbling block? At what point did sexual identity and orientation become the touchstone of an entirely novel understanding of biblical orthodoxy?

For western Christians, the double whammy of Original Sin (a doctrine unknown to patristic and orthodox theology, and – I would suggest – unknown to the Bible) plus the linking of that doctrine to genital activity have left a toxic legacy which constantly threatens our ability to have sane and faithful conversations about human sexuality. There is a related and consequent inability to recognise the damage we inflect on others. We still have a significant way to go to climb our way out of an Augustinian pessimism about sex, and indeed about human flourishing more generally.

Pope Francis’ made a splendidly inclusive statement in the context of Black Lives Matter: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of human life.” Fantastic logic, but – as a comedian quipped recently on the radio – banning the blessing of same sex couples was not the obvious way to follow that up. And as a young woman involved annually in Pride, my youngest daughter has developed a wonderful sense of irony as year by year she faces fellow Christians (of rather different convictions) yelling at her that she’s on the road to hell. Really?

It would be helpful if we were a bit more honest – that for most of us there is very little theology in our response to most issues in human sexuality, but rather a visceral response. At least the medieval church – hardly sympathetic to LGBT+ rights – recognised that there was very little in Scripture to support their position and largely resorted to arguments from natural law.

In a beautiful comment recently on the BBC World Service a devout Moslem lesbian described the resolution of her own struggle with her sexuality. She came to the conclusion that because Allah did not make mistakes, Allah could not have made a mistake in making her. Those are words of deep reassurance that the Christian churches need to say unequivocally to all of those it has “othered” – not simply expressing a vague liberal tolerance of difference but insisting that all of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) and intended by God. Our failure to see that is part of our own alienation.

Traditional Christian moral teaching takes seriously both the sensus fidelium (i.e. what most Christians are thinking) and personal conscience. These have not been so obvious in contemporary Anglican discourse. The challenge of the experience of so many of those whom we have “othered” – so powerfully expressed in the Via Media testimonies about conversion therapy – suggests strongly that churches need to go rather further than therapeutic listening and have the boldness to embrace the “other” as the lost part of ourselves.

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2 Responses to Making Ourselves ‘Other’

  1. moirabiggins says:

    If we can make people – including ourselves ! – more aware of the human tendency to “dress up taste and culture as principle”, we could make a lot of progress.

  2. Revd Canon Dr Michael Blyth says:

    ‘I have many things to say to you, but you could not bear them now’. In my retirement sermon in 2012 I argued that on the day of judgment Christ would have a very sharp question to all the churches on the subject of diversity: “And where are my missing sheep?”

Any thoughts?