It’s not enough to #PrayForOrlando. People of faith must fight homophobia

This article appeared earlier today on the STV website.

As I stand outside St Mary’s Cathedral every Sunday in Glasgow I often witness a curious thing. As people walk down Great Western Road towards me, I notice that some of the gay couples who belong to the congregation reach out to one another as they get closer to the church and come in hand in hand.

I’m proud to be working in a religious institution where that is something that generally passes without any comment at all. However, whenever I see it, I reflect on the fact that there’s all too many institutions, religious and otherwise where a simple display of affection from a gay or lesbian couple will result in disapproval, abuse or even violence.

As I bless my congregation at the end of each service and send them out into the world, I know that the gay couples amongst them have less than a couple of miles of the streets of Scotland in which they might feel safe to show their affection for one another, and even then only at certain times and in certain company.

Religions often have a problem with gay people. But gay people have a problem every day with homophobia which infuses and poisons the world in which we live.

I simply don’t know any gay person who has never felt afraid to be themselves somewhere and I know all too many who are afraid to be themselves anywhere, even now and even after the passage of the hate-crimes and equal marriage legislation.

The attack in the Pulse Club in Orlando has rightly shocked the world. But condemnation of the violence comes more easily than identifying what it is that motivates such deadly hatred.

The question now is how do we prevent such a thing ever happening again?

To begin to find an answer to this question, we have first to acknowledge the everyday commonplace homophobia that exists in every society, even including Scotland, widely acknowledged as one of the best places to be gay in the world.

Religious institutions in particular have struggled to know how to respond to Orlando. The Church of England swiftly issued a “Prayer for Orlando” (recycled from the Paris and Lahore attacks) which mentioned neither Orlando nor LGBT people. The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted his concern for all involved but especially “police and pastoral carers” and somehow managed to say nothing about those who were the target of the attack.

Gay people will not be safe on the streets until homophobia has been defeated in religious contexts.

This is something that even LGBT-positive institutions in society seem reluctant to tackle. The largest LGBT supportive organisations in Scotland sometimes seem to expend more energy on defending the right of religious people to hold anti-gay views than they do to tackling faith-based homophobia. Religion is not a special category. Faith based homophobia shouldn’t be off limits to those fighting for a more equal world. If anti-gay views can be tackled in healthcare, the police and even the armed forces, who have made tremendous progress, then it must be tackled in pew, pulpit and mosque as well.

Religious people wanting to pray today, comment today and make things better on this day when America’s worst multiple shooting has explicitly targeted those who are gay then they need to face up to some uncomfortable truths about where anti-gay views are most nourished. Those trying to represent the love of God in the world need to remember that in order to be in any way helpful today they need to be explicit about welcoming gay people and working for gay rights. It isn’t enough to weep with those who suffered violence in Orlando this weekend without a commitment to tackle the roots of that violence tomorrow.

Every gay person I know has been frightened to kiss in public. For the last few years I’ve been working to make it possible for them to kiss at their weddings in church. Recognising gay love at the altar is one of the most significant symbolic ways to tackle the underlying, prevailing homophobia of the everyday that every gay person knows instinctively.

We’re getting there, but painfully slowly.

The Orlando attack is a challenge to all who believe in the love of God. The idea that most religious people have is that God’s love is unconditional and open to everyone. The experience of countless people who are lesbian or gay is that the love of God that religious institutions have communicated is partial and very much conditional – not on offer for them unless they deny being the very person that God made.

And yet, even saying that, I have to bear witness to being a gay man who works right at the heart of the church who has found it a place of encouragement, welcome and healing. Gay friendly congregations exist and they are frequently being sought out by straight people who want their children to grow up in a religious environment where they might never ever hear anti-gay words spoken. Many religious institutions are struggling these days, but my hunch is that the future is bright for congregations which can somehow rise to the challenge of tackling anti-gay views and do so whilst specifically speaking out against all forms of identity oppression. After all, homophobia has some ugly sisters – racism, sexism and sectarianism who are not unknown in religious communities.

Preachers face a challenge this week. I know so many clergy who believe in gay equality who are frightened to speak about it publicly because they fear that their congregation just isn’t ready to hear it.

This week, it isn’t just their congregation that needs to hear it from the pulpit, it is the whole world.

Next Saturday night, “I will survive” will play in every gay club in the world as people shimmy their way into the great global dance for justice that even yet is proved a matter of life and death.

Next Sunday morning, gay people need more than just a few awkward prayers from religious leaders. We need commitments from religious people to turn faith institutions around and bring about change. That’s what repentance means and that’s what religion is at least partly about.

God’s beloved gay and lesbian children deserve nothing less.

We worship a non-binary God. Don’t we?

male, femals, non-binary form

Just over a week ago there was something called the Scottish Church Census. Churches all over Scotland were asked to count how many people were present and to account for the gender diversity, ethnic diversity, age profile etc of the congregation.

Those organising the census helpfully provided a brief form which people could use to tick the various categories in order to make an accurate return. Though this was helpful, I quickly realised that we couldn’t use the form that was supplied as using it was not going to be inclusive of everyone in the congregation. The first question on the form asked people to indicate whether they were male or female and I was aware that for at least one person in the congregation, that was not going to be a helpful question.

I was aware that there was someone in the congregation who does not identify themselves in a way that would allow them to tick either box with any conviction, seeing gender as something rather more complex for themselves.

Once you start to notice this, you realise that the world is full of forms that require one to identify oneself as either male or female, very many of them forms for which gendered information is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Anyway, we ended up producing our own local version of the Scottish Church Census form with a third box. The options were now male, female and non-binary.

When all the forms were gathered up and counted, it turned out that three people had ticked the non-binary box, one of them circling the words and writing “thank you” next to them.

Thus I found out simply by asking the question, that there were three times as many people in the congregation that day than I would have estimated who would describe themselves as not male nor female but in some way non-binary.

We’re going to hear quite a lot more about this in the coming years I think. In Scotland there’s going to be a consultation about allowing people to legally be regarded as being of a non-binary gender, the law neither regarding them as male or female. It is a change which should go ahead I think though one suspects that a great number of people have never thought it through.

The three people describing themselves as non-binary in St Mary’s that Sunday were towards the younger end of the (very mixed) age profile that we have. This suggests to me that this way of identifying oneself is likely to become more common as time goes on and may be very helpful.

Gender does push people’s buttons a lot and we don’t all agree. There’s a pernicious law being pursued in some parts of the USA trying to ensure that people use the “correct” toilets according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This is problematic for those who have transitioned from one gender to another, those who were born intersex and those for whom gender is simply more complex and who would regard themselves as non-binary.

(We have both gendered and non-gendered toilet facilities at St Mary’s Cathedral. At home I only have a non-gendered toilet, like most people).

But here’s the thing. Christians worship a non-binary God, don’t we?

Haven’t we come (rejoicing) through  the days of feminists calling upon us to recognise that there is a female aspect to the divine which makes all talk of God as purely male to be inadequate?

Haven’t we come to a point of recognising that God is beyond gender?

When the government comes to the point of asking us all what we think of introducing a non-binary gender category, won’t the churches joyfully embrace it and support it because this reflects the God we know and in whose image and likeness we are made?

Might the non-binary gender category that is increasingly going to become an option for people be a helpful way in which we might reflect on the nature of God?

In congregations like my own, I suspect that will be the case very quickly but maybe for the whole church this shift in the way we regard gender may help us in the way we look at God.

I wrote last week about the fact that anyone who insists on God being a male authority figure or even daddy is readily challenged by simply reading the bible where God is seen more by attributes that go way beyond gender. When we address God these days in my own congregation we are more likely (far more likely) to address God as “Eternal God” or “Loving God” than we are to talk of “Father God”. This is partly because not everyone has a good model of fatherhood in their own experience but far more it is because this simply isn’t the God whom the bible has introduced us to. Jesus used fatherhood as a metaphor for God but that has to be seen in the context of a book which speaks of God as a flower – the Rose of Sharon, a carnivorous wild animal – the Lion of Judah or weapon – sharper than a two edged sword, along with dozens of other complex rich and sometimes perplexing images.

We worship a God who is beyond gender even though our tradition has sometimes embraced images of God which are highly gendered – sometimes I think, to distinguish the faith from other highly female gendered images of divinity with which Christianity was competing. (I’ve seen an effigy of Artemis of Ephesus and can honestly say I wouldn’t like to meet her during a dark night of the soul).

Christian people are not in the business of dealing with a Mr God.

And Christian people need to wise up fairly quickly to the questions about gender which are coming our way.

Dear God who is beyond gender,
give us a greater dose
of your holy spirit of common sense
in dealing with gender
than we have seemed to the world to posses
over your gift of sexuality.