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Gay Rights and the Church: An Introduction

Old Compton Street, LondonWhat follows is one reflection - The Demands of Love and the Intimacy of Justice -  and three essays - Diversity and Collusion, Violence and Christian Responsibility, and Peace and Unity – all dealing with the Church’s response to the demands of gay rights and justice. They all speak to the ongoing “de-liberation” on the place of gay people in my own church, the United Reformed Church in England, Scotland and Wales. However, I am confident that the issues I discuss are universally important throughout the international Church and others not in the United Reformed Church will find some value in what I have written.

 Most Churches around the world either directly or indirectly support a public policy of faith-based discrimination against gay men and lesbians. There are notable exceptions. The United Church of Christ in Canada, the Society of Friends in the United Kingdom and the United Church of Christ in the United States, for example. However, the overwhelming number of churches in the world still proclaim a faith-based bigotry towards gay people. Bigotry is never a neutral position. It always has consequences. It nurtures, if not encourages, discrimination and hatred against gays.

 Faith-based discrimination against gay people was never, is never and never will be about sex. It is about injustice and peoples’ lives. It is our responsibility to denounce the injustice and argue for justice. I realise this is a very complicated issue – cultural difference around the world, evangelical/fundamentalist and liberal/progressive interpretations and sensitivities to balance, the Church’s desire to maintain its so called “peace and unity” at all costs, etc. However, I gave up being impressed by the argument of “it’s complicated” a long time ago. Life is complicated. We are called and get paid to do complicated.


The Demands of Love and the Intimacy of Justice

Many people are very supportive of gay men and lesbians but, and perhaps this is more true of men than women, they are also clear in establishing that they themselves are not gay. Many are willing to accept the risk of association, but not the risk of mistaken identity.

Balans, Old Compton Street, London

A friend, who happens also to be gay, claims my heart in unusual and profound ways. We met years ago in California, in the United Church of Christ. Walker was a student training for the ministry and I was assigned as his pastoral advisor for the duration of his training. A committee told me he was openly gay and handed me his file. I was flattered. You see, it polished my liberal inclusive identity. It rewarded my advocacy. It sanctified my struggle for justice. It redeemed my risking professional advancement and personal attack.

Our first encounter was in a Berkeley café. He was wonderfully crazy and creative and I felt ponderously conventional and established. In time mutual caution became mutual respect. Respect became friendship. Friendship became love. In time Walker was ordained and called to the only ministry the church could, at that time, tolerate. He became the AIDS minister. And all this time he was the gay friend and I was the straight friend. That is until he kissed me, on the lips.

The kiss was not an advance. It was not an invitation. It was simply a spontaneous gesture of loving friendship. The kiss was not sexually threatening, exploitive or manipulative. And yet, all my self-defined noble deeds, all my self-exaggerated risks, all my self-conceived bold public statements, all my self-important theological and biblical arguments were exposed as painfully bounded in one moment of lips touching lips. The unease I felt became articulated in a quesiton: did I truly love this man, or was my love actually checked by the fact that he was gay?

As it turned out, others saw the kiss, the result of which was the quasi-public questioning of my sexual identity and another question for my soul to ponder. The question was this: was my commitment to justice constrained by my unwillingness to be identified, not with, but as one of those treated unjustly? The issue of sexual identity has been made profoundly complex and important due to an equally profound and complex history of homophobia in our church and society. However, if I truly believed that a gay person had as much ethical, theological, or anthropological integrity as any straight person, then why would I care if others thought I was gay or bisexual? It was not a matter of guaranteeing a correct identity. It went deeper. It went to my integrity of being. In many ways I no doubt made it clear to everybody and anybody that, while I supported gay rights and had gay friends, I was straight. Justice was one thing, my identity was another.

Until that kiss my love for gay men and lesbians was conditional and my support of gay people was qualified. In a church and society that metaphorically stitches pink patches on our clothing in the attempt to identify those who must be rejected, conditional love and qualified justice is not good enough. For the sake of love and justice it doesn’t matter if I am gay or straight. It does matter where I stand when others inflict spiritual, emotional and sometimes physical violence on God’s people.

 Copyright © 2002 Dale Rominger

This reflection was first published in:

Courage to Love. Compiled by Geoffrey Duncan. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2002, pp 151-152.


Diversity and Collusion

The United Reformed Church often speaks of “living within our diversity.” Obviously the phrase and its underlying sentiments come into play most often when we are faced with debate and controversy. Often an appeal to “living within our diversity” is a wise and sensitive response. It makes sense given that the wonder and goodness of God’s creation, including human culture, is in large part due to its diversity. Diversity demands acceptance, and when acceptance is difficult, tolerance. But tolerance is not limitless, particularly when what is at stake is not simply textual interpretations or theological nicety, but people’s rights and the quality of their lives. After a years of a moratorium on policy decisions regarding the acceptance and place of gay people in the church, the United Reformed Church is once again discussing the “issue.”

Old Compton Street, London

There are, of course, assumptions underlying the call to “live within our diversity.” It assumes that the position that gay people are sinful and/or pathological may be anthropologically, ethically, biblical and theologically sound. It assumes that formally authorised institutional faith-based discrimination against gay people may be justifiable. Furthermore, it assumes that it is acceptable that the United Reformed Church be known publicly as a church that holds, at least in part, that gay people are sinful and/or pathological and that institutional discrimination against gay people is, at least in part, a reasonable policy.

The call to “live within our diversity” implies that church unity is more important than justice. The church is often quite willing to put the demands of justice aside to preserve its peace and unity, implicitly or explicitly asking those enduring injustice to be patient (and quietly recognising that if they cannot they may leave). Given that issues of justice are more than not about how people live their lives and how they are allowed to live their lives, “living within our diversity” can also imply that church unity is more important than the quality of peoples’ lives.

At present the United Reformed Church’s position on gay rights is similar to the position held by the United States military: Don’t ask, don’t tell. I have no idea how many ministers in the United Reformed Church are gay, but there are more than a few, including some in senior positions. Nor do I know how many elders, members and adherents are gay. Gay people in leaderships roles in the church are there because they were deemed worthy of the position, and often the best of many candidates vying for the post. They are liked and respected. However, many are in the closet while some are uneasy about how openly to live their lives. They recognise that the United Reformed Church accepts as credible both sides of the “issue” and that the church does not in either policy or spirit grant them full rights. They realise that the church has not yet decided if they are sinful and pathological distortions of God’s good creation or are in their very nature a good and healthy part of God’s creation.

J. Philip Wogaman looks to the doctrine of creation to provide a theological basis for building a Christian ethic: "it is through a doctrine of creation that we express our understanding of how it is that related to the structures and events of this world...Creation expresses our understanding of how God relates to human life in the actual setting of concrete existence.[1]"

Within Christian theology, creation and covenant cannot be separated. Without creation, all that we understand through Christian faith would merely exist in the mind of God; that is to say, creation makes real and concrete the covenant God has and continually seeks with humankind. Without covenant, creation is merely a reality void of God's redemptive relationship with humankind. Thus, creation can form a foundation for a Christian ethic while covenant can give that ethic hope.

To speak of reality as created implies that nature is not self-originating, and that the meaning of nature cannot be fully understood from nature alone. To say nature is created is to say that it has a beginning, source, and intention in something Other; that Other called God by Christians. Thus, a theological interpretation of nature and human life must always address the question of how in our world God's intentions can be fulfilled in and through human activity. If God has an intention for creation and a covenantal relationship with humankind, which is part of that creation, human character and action become crucial for human existence, the divine-human relationship, and creation itself.

Peter Hodgson says that God is above all else a creative being who not only "calls into being everything that is but also creates a more complex and differentiated world by offering novel possibilities for advancement, thereby luring finite beings forward into new and richer possibilities of being."[2] Our theological and ethical understandings are grounded in the goodness of creation itself, and ethical advancement is intimately bonded to God's intentions for creation and humankind. To those who claim that homosexuality is incompatible with God’s intentions in creation, I would assert that the differentiation represented by same-sex loving relationships both expresses the diversity of creation, which is good, and expands human possibilities in ways that lead to a deeper understanding of God. Even a casual glance at creation reveals that God does not intend for everyone to be the same. Our different desires, experiences and perspectives enable us to express more fully the image of God.

Made in God’s image, human beings have worth. God does not damn creation or diverse human beings within it. Rather God participates in the world as created, loved, condemned, and reconciled in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, creation is valued by God, to the point where God is willing to make his home in us as we make our home in him (John 15:4[3]). What is so disturbing about the church’s exclusion of gay people is that the church cloaks its bigotry and sometimes hatred in sacredness. The church attributes to God its own hatred.

Henri Nouwen reflected at some length on the John 15 passage. He says:

Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home. By making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him...Thus we can remain fully human and still have our home in God. In this new home the distinction between distance and closeness no longer exists. God who is furthest away, came closest, by taking on our mortal humanity. Thus God overcomes all distinctions between "distant" and "close" and offers us an intimacy in which we can be most ourselves when most like God. [4]

 Unless we retreat into dramatic individualism and exclusive personal piety, which is not Nouwen's intention, this new home is the Body of Christ, and should be the Church. Is it possible that the distances found in race, gender, sexual orientation can be overcome in this home? Nouwen's suggestion is that home is a place of intimacy, or friendship, where fear cannot take root and thus will wither and die, and that if fear cannot grow, it cannot transform race, gender and sexual orientation into dividing walls of hostility. However, I am not naïve. Race, gender, sexual orientation make very fine dividing walls.

Nouwen does not see intimacy as private or small or exclusive. Intimacy in God's house transcends the merely personal and becomes social. In this home, we are in it together. Nouwen says:

Those who have entered deeply into their hearts and found the intimate home where they encounter their Lord, come to the mysterious discovery that solidarity is the other side of intimacy. They come to the awareness that the intimacy of God's house excludes no one and includes everyone. They start to see that the home they have found in their innermost being is as wide as the whole of humanity.[5]

 The step from friendship to solidarity is not great. How can individuals or groups proclaim friendship and at the same time allow that friend to stand alone? But while it is a small step from friendship to solidarity, it is a larger one from solidarity to inclusiveness. Nouwen says: "Christ in whom all people are not gathered together is not the true Christ."[6] This new home in Christ is vast, it is intimate and it is radically inclusive.

I have been told that I cannot use the word “inclusive” because its implications disturb the church’s peace and unity, that we need to “live within in our diversity.” It was a remarkable statement  for a Christian to make, and becomes more troubling when I realise this sentiment may becoming a default setting, at least in public meetings. Given that the United Reformed Church does not have a formal  policy of individual or corporate discrimination against gay people, and given that many of our members and church leaders are themselves gay, it is fascinating that such an attitude could be tolerated. The other side of the coin is equally true. When I hear people speaking of gay people as sinful and pathological, and when I hear them say gay people cannot be accepted fully into our church, into the new home in Christ, my peace is disturbed. It is a cheap “peace” that demands some in our community remain silent if not invisible.

“Living within our diversity” demands that I collude in attitudes and behaviours that I find unacceptable, and though my personal culpability may be painful, unfortunately it does not stop there. My collusion provides a safe place for anti-gay bigotry and a platform for the voice of faith-based prejudices, thus affording them credibility. I sanction informal discrimination. In my silence I conspire in the dehumanising of others and sometimes in expressions of hatred and acts of violence towards others.[7]

My personal responsibility was driven home to me while watching the film Milk. Harvey Milk was a business man, a gay activist and politician. He was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, serving on the Board of Supervisors for the city of San Francisco. Dan White, a colleague on the Board, assassinated Milk.

A short scene in the film between Harvey Milk and Dan White has had a lasting effect on me.

Dan PUTS HIS ARMS AROUND HARVEY for a sort-of macho but really weird birthday hug. Harvey stiffens, it's such apeculiar moment. Dan steps back, looks him over.


I've really learned a lot from watching you, Harvey.


I doubt that.


No, I have. You gotta get out there. Get noticed. That's how it works. But, you have an issue. That's your advantage.


It's more than an issue, Dan. Dan. I've had four relationships in my life. Three of those four tried to kill themselves. I know it was my fault they did it. I told them to stay quiet. To hide. Most of my life I've been closeted. That's what living this life is like for most of us. The way things are...This isn't just about our jobs, or any issue, it's our lives we're fighting for. [8]

Most people in the church identify the struggle for gay rights as the “gay issue.” However, this is not only about biblical exegesis, though it includes that. It is not only about theological reflection, though it is also in part about that. It is about justice and human lives. My collusion and silence harms peoples’ lives and mocks the heart of justice. Living within our diversity and preserving our peace may imply, at least in this case, that many among us must remain closeted and others must continue to collude with bigotry and prejudice. That doesn’t seem like peace and unity to me.

These are (just) words. Words can have impressive power, but they are not everything and not enough. Speaking of a new intimate, just and inclusive home as an expression of God’s creative intentions can be inspiring, even revelatory. Words can lay the foundations, but to actually build that home takes ethical actions as well. There is no home of friendship, solidarity and inclusiveness without effort, without relationship, without sacrifice. Our inaction and inappropriate actions can render our words dishonest and vacuous.


[1] Wogaman, Philip. A Christian Method of Moral Judgment. The Westminster Press,1976, p 68.

[2] Hodgson, Peter C. Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology. SCM Press LTD, 1994. P 175.

[3] See the New Jerusalem Bible translation, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.

[4] Nouwen, Henri. Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York: 1986, p 37-38.

[5] Ibid., p 43.

[6] Ibid., p 45.

[7] I am aware that some will find it offensive to suggest that members of the United Reformed Church would express hatred and/or be involved in acts of violence. However, it is important to remember that at the height of the church’s debate on gay rights, one synod moderator instructed his office staff  not to open his letters and emails because they were so disturbing and hateful. I personally received numerous letters and emails that could only be described as hateful and violent. At a public meeting a man went up to the microphone with a block of wood and a knife and when he began his anti-gay rhetoric stabbed the knife into the wood. Violence is not simply a matter of doing overt physical harm to another. There is institutionalized overt physical assault (e.g. war); personal covert violence (e.g. violation of a person in ways that are psychologically and/or spiritually destructive); and institutionalized covert violence (e.g. institutions or structures violate the personhood of another) (see Robert McAfee Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987, pp.7-8).

[8], 8 April 2009.

Copyright © 2011 by Dale Rominger


Violence and Christian Responsibility

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was tied to a fence, robbed, pistol whipped, and left in the freezing Wyoming night. He was found eighteen hours later and eventually died in hospital. Two men were arrested and convicted for the murder. Christians picketed Matthew's funeral, carrying posters reading: "God hates fags." In the United States, Christians also carry posters claiming that God wants gay men and lesbians  killed. We in Britain may find such practices repugnant, but we are not free of violent practices, the most extreme example being the Soho bombing.

It is generally accepted that Matthew was yet another victim of a culture of hatred towards gay men and lesbians. Given that Christians picket gay  funerals, and that the Church generally, but not universally, maintains a position of exclusion based on an understanding that gay people are ontologically immoral or pathological, it can be suggested that the Church is, at least in part, responsible for the culture of violence that led to Matthew's death. It can further be suggested that Christians are, to some degree, responsible for their Christian brothers and sisters proclaiming divine hatred towards gay men and lesbians. If as a Christian one does not wish to be associated with and held accountable for Christian violence, one must at the very least denounce those Christians who practice violence.

Violence is not simply a matter of doing overt physical harm to another. There is institutionalized overt physical assault (e.g. war); personal covert violence (e.g. violation of a person in ways that are psychologically and/or spiritually destructive); and institutionalized covert violence (e.g. institutions or structures violate the personhood of another) (see Robert McAfee Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987, pp.7-8).

Admiral Duncan, Old Compton Street, London

Obvious examples of violence range from physical harm to systematic injustice. But if we take seriously that covert attacks on another's personhood are also a form of violence, we must be cognizant of the use of dehumanizing and violent language, psychological and spiritual repression, the creation of institutional structures that formally exclude,  and scriptural and theological interpretations that define gay being as less than human. Defining a group of people as "less than human" has often been used to justify both overt and covert violence against them.

The United Reformed Church is now debating whether it will formalise the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from the full life of the Church. It is generally accepted that formal discrimination and exclusion of people based on their class, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation/practice is a form of injustice and repression, and that injustice and repression are forms of violence. Further, if the Church contributes to an individual and/or institutional justification for violence (based on particular theological and biblical teachings) it implicates itself in all realisations of that violence, even when practised by others. The Church is complicit in the violent acts of others when their violence is a result of Christian teaching and practice, and it should be held accountable by society. I have not heard a convincing argument that exempts the Church in general and the United Reformed Church in particular from the ethical demands to overcome and avoid such violence. Justifications based on selective literalist readings of the particular biblical passages are unimpressive.

It seems reasonable to ask why the Church involves itself in violence. First, it may be that the Church maintains, on theological and ethical grounds, that overt and/or covert violence against certain groups of people is necessary. Some Christians believe that gay people are rejected by God, that gay sexual practice is an abomination and should be prohibited if not eradicated. Such a position calls for, at the very least,  covert violence in the form of exclusion. Such Christians should simply state their position clearly: yes, we discriminate against gay people because that discrimination is justified given our theological, anthropological, and biblical understandings.

Second, it is possible that the Church does not accept that its anthropology and structures result in overt and covert violence against gay people. If this is the case, the Church would claim that its teaching of personhood and its institutional prejudice and exclusion of gay men and lesbians does not contribute to the culture of violence that victimises them. Such a claim is problematic, however. If the Church takes such a position it is declaring its own irrelevance and impotence to influence, for good or ill, the practices and attitudes of the society in which it has pitched its tent. If, on the other hand, the Church does claim to possess and exercise a moral and spiritual authority which can and does influence people and society, it must also admit that it contributes to a culture of violence towards gay people. To finesse this paradox is an expression of naiveté at best and dishonesty at worse.

Third, it is possible that the Church actually recognises its own attitudes and acts of violence towards gay men and lesbians, its complicity in the acts of violence of others, understands that violence as ethically and theologically wrong, but still does nothing to stop it. One might ask why. Perhaps the most potent reason for the Church's reluctance to speak out against its own violence is the perceived fear of disunity. For generations the Church has asked men and women of colour, straight women, lesbians, and gay men, to wait for justice because their full and open inclusion would cause conflict and schism. Even when the Church recognized that its practices marginalised others and resulted in institutional injustice and individual trauma, it continued those practices in order to protect its own peace and unity. In the present debate in the United Reformed Church, it has been made clear that maintaining the peace and unity of the church is of paramount importance, more important than justice or judgment.  

The United Reformed Church knows that its peace is fragile. It has voiced its intention of avoiding a "witch hunt" against gays already in the church, thereby admitting that the acceptance of Resolution 34 could lead to the creation of spiritual and social attitudes and an institutional ethos that might further victimise gay people. The very use of the phrase "witch hunt" highlights the fact that the church is introducing language and structures that may encourage violence. If the United Reformed Church actually wants to avoid a witch hunt, it can do so by avoiding the language and structures that encourage the hunt in the first place. However, as long as unity is more important than the avoidance of covert and overt violence, the best we can hope for is a genuine effort by the Church to shun the violence it has itself encouraged.

It has been argued by Christians that Christian theology, ethics, and anthropology offer an alternative to Western individualism. It is said that Christianity offers instead an understanding of society that is based on organic, corporate, covenantal oneness. This understanding is, in part, grounded in a theological interpretation of the Trinity, in which each member can only be defined in relation to the others, where their relationship is organic and covenantal, and where the character and actions of one are intimately related to the character and actions of the others. The Trinity offers a model for relations between individuals and in community that understands human identity and nature as existing in a corporate wholeness with clear ethical implications.

If we take this argument seriously, then each Christian finds his/her identity and meaning in relationship to others. Each Christian is responsible for and accountable to others in God's covenantal community. Responsibility and accountability come in degrees, of course. Saying the Church contributes to the culture of violence is not to say each Church member should be held morally and legally responsible for all violence. But it is to say that Christians who recognize individual and institutional covert and/or overt violence in the Church should denounce it.

Copyright © 1999 Dale Rominger


Peace and Unity

People have begun voicing concern that the “peace and unity” of the Unity Reformed Church is being threatened. A gentle reminder. The “peace and unity” they want to protect demands that straight people who experience unease or even angst about being a member of an unjust institution remain silent, and demands that gay people in the church remain silent and invisible, thus not revealing who they actually are as human beings (or at least please remain below the radar and don’t bring your partner to the URC party). This “peace and unity” is built on false relationships. How do you speak of peace when one person needs to deny their full humanity knowing that honesty might lead to conflict and rejection? The “peace” of such a relationship may be comfortable but it is a fabrication, a lie. URC “peace and unity” is only peaceful and unifying if you are standing on the right side of the fence.

It may be that straight people remain silent because they just do not want to deal with the inevitable negativity that will come their way. Very few people actually want to be the cause of conflict, particularly in situations and institutions they love. It may be that gay people do not want to reveal themselves fully because it makes the URC less than a safe place, having to face the possibility of rejection. Very few people actually want to be the source of disturbance and become identified as unacceptable in ways that might harm their relationships and ministries, not to mention that might lead to the loss of livelihood and calling.  Given that I am a straight person who goes out of his way to avoid conflict and who won’t have to face the consequences gay people no doubt will, I can only respect those decisions. But let us all – uneasy straight people, quiet gay people and disturbed protectors of the status quo – let us all at least be honest about the nature of our so-called “peace and unity.” It is grounded in an unofficial  policy even the United States military has abandoned: Don’t ask, don’t tell.  

But perhaps all this doesn’t really matter, beyond the ramblings of one malcontent. Outside almost all URC local churches are signs saying that all are welcome, and if I demanded in the interest of a greater honesty that we admit at least some of those welcomes are qualified, it would be churlish of me. Besides, given that churches in the UK have won exemption from human rights legislation (presumably because they disapprove of the ethical, moral, anthropological, philosophical and political arguments that led to particular human rights laws), if we do practice faith-based discrimination against certain people, we will not have to face the legal consequences. And surely the then Hothorpe Group’s Damascus Road like discovery of “peace and unity,” the same “peace and unity” that some now think is under threat, was the movement of the Holy Spirit. (Wait. What was the Hothorpe Group? What committee or council of the church was it? How did the progressive and evangelical members actually find “peace and unity?” Given that the group was formed to discuss the post-moratorium URC, there were gay members, right? I’ve never heard the details, though I was asked, apparently through some kind of spiritual osmosis, to embrace the Hothorpe Group experience and vision as if it were my own, and not just my own but everyone’s.) But no matter. As we once again wrap our fear, prejudice, collusion, indifference and ignorance in pretty biblical wrapping paper and tie them up tight with bright theological ribbon, we will know that everything will be OK.

Copyright © 2011 by Dale Rominger