"Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities’ Experiences of Faith and Church in Northern Ireland" – Report Launch 7 September

image The Irish Peace Centres (IPC) will launch its latest report, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities’ Experiences of Faith and Church in Northern Ireland” on Wednesday 7 September at 3.30 pm at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast.

The report, researched and written by academics Dr Claire Mitchell and Dr Gail McConnell, is already available on the IPC website.

It was the subject of a panel discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, featuring the IPC’s Faith in Positive Relations fieldworker Pádraig Ó Tuama, two of the anonymous participants in the research, Rev Norman Hamilton (a former moderator of the Presbyterian church) and Rev David McIlveen (a Free Presbyterian minister well-known for his condemnation of homosexuality).

Listen to the discussion here, click the play button:

The report could add some timely perspective to another story that has broken over the past several days – that of Rev Tom Gordon, a Church of Ireland minister and Dean of Leighlin Cathedral in Co. Carlow. Gordon is now in a civil partnership, and his bishop was aware of this when Gordon was appointed Dean.

Today’s Belfast News Letter carried the not-so-subtle headline for its front page story: Church Rocked by Gay Clergy Storm.

The article says that ‘senior figures from the traditional wing of the church’ held ‘weekend meetings’ about Gordon, leading the News Letter to describe the Church of Ireland as ‘the latest battleground in the Anglican debate about clergy in gay relationships, which threatens schism in the worldwide communion.’

I always think it’s sad when language such as ‘battleground’ is used to characterise debate about such matters, but unfortunately ‘battleground’ probably is an accurate description of way church people talk with one another about LGBT issues.

Ó Tuama picks up on this in his introduction to the Report, posted on William Crawley’s blog:

Clearly some people wish for more inclusion of LGBT people, and others are dismayed by it. What interests me is the following question – how do we speak with each other?

What has often passed for public discourse has been little more than the mutual exchange of insult. Accusations of bigotry and perversion can be exchanged from one side to another. What is achieved through this? It seems to me that little is achieved. Furthermore, the ones who bear the fallout of this mutual exchange of insults are the ones whose lives are most affected – the ones who may have to fear for the safety of their own home, their jobs, and their relationships.

The Sunday Sequence debate remained civil enough, although McIlveen drew some responses from Ó Tuama and the research participants when he seemed to claim that the Report demonstrates that LGBT people are full of self-loathing. He implied that if LGBT people realised that homosexuality was sin, they wouldn’t feel this way anymore.

Ó Tuama and the research participants protested that McIlveen was picking up on the sadness and rejection that LGBT people felt because of the way that they had been treated by Christians.

I was exasperated listening to this part of the debate because I felt that McIlveen was either deliberately misrepresenting what the participants had reported to the researchers, or else he was reading his own opinion into others’ stories.

Hamilton was in the interesting position of representing what is a relatively moderate position within many of Northern Ireland’s churches. He said he was impressed by the Report, and recommended that all church leaders should read it. It seemed he was willing to accept the participation of LGBT people in local congregations, but he was unwilling to go so far as to say unequivocally that homosexuality is not a sin.

There were no clergy on the panel who openly affirm LGBT Christians, such as Rev Chris Hudson of All Souls Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Belfast, who is mentioned in the Report. That said, Sunday Sequence presenter William Crawley also interviewed Tom Gordon in the slot immediately preceding the panel discussion, so in a sense the ‘affirming’ perspective was represented on the programme.

I have yet to fully digest the Report, but there are some rather shocking and depressing stories that stand out.

For example, there was a very short list of congregations where LGBT people said they felt welcome: All Souls, St Georges Church of Ireland, Clonard Monastery and the Quakers (p. 49).

Then there was the appalling description of a pastor who ‘outed’ a 16-year-old girl from the pulpit, ‘based on the fact that she had written on her facebook page that she thought she was “half gay”’ (p. 49).

“Cathy,” the 16-year-old, told the researchers that she is:

Tired of hearing that being gay is equivalent to being a paedophile, or that there is no such thing as a gay Christian. She says, “ministers need to understand the power their words have. They don’t understand the damage their words do.”

It remains to be seen if or how the Tom Gordon story will play out in the Church of Ireland, and how this story will be covered and debated in the media. Like Hamilton, I think that all church leaders should read this report and allow themselves to hear the pain that some Christians have caused LGBT people.

I hope that this Report can encourage people not to see the Tom Gordon discussion, and other future discussions about the LGBT communities and Christianity, as a battleground. There are enough wounded Christians – LGBT and straight – out there already.

Other Resources:

Church Times Interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama

Review of Jay Bakker’s book, Fall to Grace

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