What should ecumenical and interfaith dialogue actually be about?

I’ve taken, in the manner of Jeremy Corbyn, to asking for suggestions for things that I might write about on the blog. This article stems from a suggestion by Hugh Foy via twitter.

It seems to me that in Scotland, things are very different within the ecumenical movement to where we are thinking about interfaith. Indeed, I’d say that it is difficult to see much energy these days within the ecumenical world whereas, I think there’s still a lot of interest in things interfaith.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, ecumenical is to do with how churches within Christianity relate to one another and interfaith is to do with how churches relate to other believers and maybe atheists, secular humanists and other groups focused around non-belief too.

Ecumenical endeavour and interfaith work feel very different because I think that there has been a default position within the ecumenical movement to focus on that which unites churches and to ignore the things which divide the churches and also ignore the things which divide people in churches one from other. It is an understandable thing to do but it seems to have led us into a bit of a cul-de-sac. Action for Churches Together in Scotland, the main ecumenical organisation in Scotland is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I remember very well the hopes that surrounded its founding – particularly since it represented the first time that the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland had become a member of an ecumenical body. Unfortunately the arrival of the Roman Catholics led to the withdrawal of the Baptists. Even more unfortunately, when the Scottish Parliament came along, the Roman Catholic Church opted to set up its own parliamentary lobbying office in addition to the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office.

I have never known the ecumenical movement to be at such a low ebb as it is at the moment. I say that whilst trying not to make value judgements about it. It just doesn’t seem to have much energy nor a huge amount of relevance to the life of the churches. This is partly because there have been competing visions of what ecumenism would lead to. The most passionate advocates of ecumenism hoped very greatly that there would be a move towards the organic unity of at least some of the denominations involved. The last great attempt was something called SCIFU which was an attempt to bring several of the churches into one new denomination that would have been distinguished by retaining all the buildings (“worship centres”) of the former churches and also importing every different flavour of church governance that was known to Christendom. It was a madcap scheme (and here I do start to make gentle value judgements) that deserved to fail because of its insanity. (And here I depart from being gentle and pretending to be objective). It would have left us drowning in governance structures and magnifying our problems with buildings forever more.

There have been some noble attempts to find something to build on from the ashes of the SCIFU experiment, not least the EMU efforts between the Episcopal, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. These are successful in that they would be entirely unknown by most of our church members but give those who like that sort of thing something to have a passion about. I’m convinced that here will be no further attempt at organic unity that affects my own church within my lifetime even if life on our own becomes terribly difficult. Better well hung than ill wed – as Kierkegaard’s rather vivid translation of Shakespeare would have it.

People are making their own ecumenism anyway. My own congregation is made up of people from all kinds of traditions very happily worshipping together. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Cradle Anglicans and Anglican Converts, Baptists, the odd atheist or agnostic and those on the run from the Brethren all happily receive communion together and sing God’s praises with laldy and I don’t think I ever hear any arguments or trouble about where we all come from – we just get on with it. The governance of St Mary’s falls within the Scottish Episcopal Church and my own sense of identity as an Episcopalian is something I care about hugely but I have to recognise that a lot of people are happy simply to receive their formation from one church and then live in an entirely different one, which may have quite distinct doctrines, without caring a bean about it nor even moving their membership formally from one to another. Others within the community do care and do need ceremonies and ways of marking their decision to pitch their tent under the Episcopalian umbrella, to mangle a metaphor into a rather glorious image of togetherness. I have to care both for people who do care about denominations and those who don’t.

There’s a big contrast when we start to deal with the interfaith movement. The best thing about the interfaith movement is that we are at the discovery level in most of our engagement at the moment. We are going through a period where we are literally getting to know one another and even better, there’s far less expectation than within the ecumenical movement that we all think the same things.

Within the ecumenical movement the basic presumption for many people is that we all agree and we discover when we get to know one another that we don’t. Within the interfaith movement the base principle is that we are different and don’t agree and then when we get to know one another we are often surprised by how much we recognise and how much we do actually agree on in the end. This actually makes interfaith work easier in some respects. There are fewer expectations and fewer ways in which you can fail.

Now, I think that ecumenism and the interfaith movement could benefit from talking about some hard topics.

A little while ago I was at a banquet that some Muslim folk had invited Christian leaders to in order to celebrate one of their festivals. I found myself sitting with a Sheikh and a Roman Catholic archbishop. All of a sudden in the middle of the dinner, things go interesting when the Sheikh leaned across and said to the Archbishop and me, “Tell me about how the Christians are dealing with homosexuality”.

All of a sudden, ecumenical and interfaith became completely entwined. It was a good setting for a conversation and I know that each of us learned something whilst eating our onion bhajis. It was a grace filled conversation because it took place over food in an atmosphere of friendship where no-one’s reputation was at stake. Was sodomy the same as homosexuality? Was homosexuality amongst women different to homosexuality amongst men? What was our attitude to changes in the law? How did different age groups within our communities deal with these questions differently? How had our communities been taken by surprise by changing social attitudes?

My hunch is that the interfaith movement may yet prove to be the salvation of the ecumenical movement. As Christianity encounters other faiths, its practitioners encounter one another. And I think that we’ll find that both informal conversations and formal ones need to go alongside one another. It could well be that we need more of the informal if we are going to deal with any of the real questions that matter to us. In such contexts we will may be able more easily to deal with the things that clearly matter to us all – poverty, LGBT issues, ways in which women and men relate to each other, God and society, safety on the streets, immigration, globalisation and so on. One thing is clear to me and that is that if ecumenism is only about ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is simply about interfaith dialogue then each has failed utterly.

Throwing a banquet or two for our interfaith friends may well the best way for Christians to get on. Is not extravagant hospitality not one of the hallmarks of what it means to be an authentic faith community in the first place?

Anyone want to establish the Banqueting Committee of ACTS?

If so, I’m in.

Some Bisexuals are Christian (and there’s lots of them)


Today is designated as Bisexual Visibility Day and it seems to me that it is about time that I said something about the B in LGBT that is so often silenced or invisible.

Some Christians are bisexual. In fact rather a lot of Christians are bisexual. Rather a lot of people now describe themselves as bisexual and their experience is very often missing from discourses about sexuality and particularly missing from discourses about faith and sexuality.

I must admit that there was a time when I’d never really considered bisexuality at all. It didn’t seem to speak to my experience (though more of this later) and had not really thought about it until I met and got to know someone on a retreat. Now, I’d signed up for this retreat on the grounds that it was a retreat for gay men. (There was a prominent gay author leading it and that had signified to me that this was what it was). And so I was puzzled when the person I met told me that he was getting married (in those days marriage could only mean between a man and a woman) just a few weeks after the retreat. “But how? But what? But why?” I can remember thinking. And indeed, I remember someone else muttering that the person in question didn’t know who he was at all. In fact the opposite was true. He knew exactly who he was and remains very articulate about being a settled bisexual person who happens to be married to someone who happens to be female. He just happens to be someone capable of falling in love with both men and women.

The thing is – if you listen to what young people are telling us about the way they think about themselves, there’s a huge increase in the number of people identifying as bisexual. But what does that mean? Does it mean that young people are different to the way young people used to be? Is their behaviour different or is it their perceptions? And for those who see sexuality as being fixed and God given (and you do hear such things being said these days) what does it mean? And, you can hear the conservatives mutters, if everyone is really bisexual isn’t that a cue for a revival of the idea that being gay is a choice and that everyone should make straight choices in order to please God who prefers things that way just because he does?

Let’s start with the recent statistics.

A YouGov poll recently showed that nearly a quarter of people in the UK identify themselves as not being completely heterosexual and the figure is far higher if you restrict the survey to those who are between 18 and 24. Thus they found that of that age group, 52 % identified themselves as exclusively either straight or gay with 43% putting themselves on a continuum whereby they experience feelings for both men and women which might vary from the occasional notion whereby someone unexpected catches their eye, to the experience of actually having relationships with both men and women. If you are looking for the lost 5%, don’t forget that some people identify as asexual, some don’t identify as either one gender or another and some just won’t say.

Now there is clearly a huge change since I was young. I’m not convinced that younger people are actually behaving that much differently to the way people behaved when I was younger but they are clearly feeling very differently about themselves.

When I was speaking recently at Greenbelt, one of the questions at the end came from someone who seemed a bit puzzled by what I was saying and said simply, “But everyone I know is bi anyway?” He seemed to imply that coming out as gay (or indeed straight as I was trying to argue straight people need to do) was in fact a bit alien. It was one of the comments which really made me think.

In my days of being 18 – 24 there was a strong narrative, supported by the churches, of young people who might end up identifying as gay being “confused about their sexuality”. It seems to me that this narrative is now diminishing and is being overtaken by the narrative that “very many more people are bisexual and what’s wrong with that?”

I tend to identify as being a gay man even though I don’t particularly think sexuality is immutable and am far from certain that I’d ever say that it is God given. My loves and cares are certainly tied up in what I believe about God’s loves and cares but that is a far cry from believing that God made me gay. I hesitate these days in the face of the oft repeated argument that “God makes people gay and God doesn’t make mistakes”. I do accept that this is how it feels but I’m not prepared to say that it is ontologically true. And it is a useless argument if we then move on to talking about the T in LGBT, but that’s for another day.

I do know that as the “everyone is really bisexual” way of thinking about things becomes more established there will be a resurgence in the “well you should make straight choices then” argument from conservatives. Faithful Christians who identify somewhere under the rainbow flag need to have arguments all ready for such conversations because I think they are coming our way.

I have a different take on human sexuality to many people. I think looking at the different sexualities is like looking at the night sky. If we look at the stars for long enough we start to see shapes and we begin to recognise these shapes as they move across the night sky. Now, the stars themselves have been used by human beings for different things – some more legitimate than others. Sometimes we use the stars and the shapes they make to navigate around the world. It is a joy to recognise the pole star and know one is heading true north if one is driving home late at night from the south. The stars and what we make of them are useful and there’s all kinds of good science to be enjoyed in learning about the universe that we live in. We make the constellations in our minds though and people have used the constellations to make myths which have been rather less scientific and seen meaning where there’s no intrinsic meaning there. Orion or Cassiopeia only make sense to me from my perspective here on earth. The patterns would be lost from other places in the universe. The meanings that human beings have imputed into the shapes of the stars are only human attempts to give meaning to where we find ourselves in the universe. If we stood in a different place in the universe we would see different shapes and patterns.

So it is with sexuality. The L, G, B, T, Straight, Asexual and other claimed constellations of sexuality may simply be our ways of trying to understand who we are in the universe that contains far more possibilities than we currently know. People in different times and in different places have understood human sexual activity radically differently which is why it is rather silly to think that the bible or any religious book contains the sum of all that should be known about human love.

We are developing in the West a way of understanding sexuality that argues that legitimate relationships are those which cause no harm – or rather relationships are legitimate which are mutual, consensual and lead to the flourishing of both parties concerned. This is the basis of marriage in my church these days and it didn’t used to be.

In that context, thinking of people as being essentially bisexual – filled with the potential to make either a male or female partner flourish makes complete sense and is completely legitimate. (And we need to fight off those who still mistake bisexuality for polyamory – the two are not the same).

However, all of that depends on there being an understanding about self determination. It cannot be legitimate for one person to coerce another person into a sexual relationship that they don’t want. Neither, and here we have the argument against any conservatives wanting bisexuals to make straight choices, can it be legitimate to coerce someone into a sexual identity with which they don’t identify.

So on this Bisexual Visibility Day, I’d say that in the future, expect to hear rather more about bisexuality than we’ve heard in the past. And look out for arguments about self-determination for LGBT people.

That’s the territory we’re headed towards.

Anyone wanting a badge like the one depicted above can buy one (or a pack of 10) via the St Mary’s website here: