Last year, I invited Steve Chalke to come to Sheffield and lead a day where we could have an open debate. Nicole and I worked for his charity Oasis in Bangladesh and have always had a good deal of respect for him, even though I don’t agree with all of his theology. That’s ok isn’t it? After a barrage of emails and letters from leaders in the ‘big’ churches haranguing me, one actually suggesting that they would hold a demonstration outside the building on the day, another telling me that I was demonically oppressed, and another that I couldn’t possibly hear from God (young man), I felt just a little intimidated. So, I thought I’d pop down to Steve’s church, to a conference they were holding, and see what was going on for myself; I took my trusty wife with me.
As a result of the conference, I cancelled his visit to Sheffield. Please hear why.
In one of the seminars, during a conversation about The Father, I was openly accused of being a misogynist by the speaker because I happen to hold the view that fatherhood and sonship existed before creation; it was the blueprint from which we were created, not a construct through which we understand God. It can therefore not be destroyed, altered or created. It is eternally existent. It is not a personified abstraction, a way that we can understand God; sonship and fatherhood is the very nature of God himself. The doctrine of eternal sonship was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D and flows from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the writer of Hebrews Col 1: 13-16; Heb 1: 2.
I felt squashed flat. I had wanted to hug them, hold them and weep with them. Instead, I got a good kicking. I cried out in my Spirit as I felt their pain, their anguish. I listened to their stories of abuse by ‘the church’, of the most appalling rejection. I felt a rush of emotion, which then turned to anger. How dare they suggest that I don’t understand them. How ridiculous not to see that The Father loves them. I left the room, offended and hurt, rather than loving and compassionate. At my first skirmish, I had lost. There I was, a straight ‘progressive’ church leader, making the effort to come down to London to at least hear ‘their side’. I had even thought that maybe I could be ‘one of them’, without actually being ‘one of them’. I was owed more than this. After all, I had stood up for ‘them’! I had taken the ‘flak’ from all those church leaders in Sheffield, and now I was stuck in the middle, taking hits from both sides. I wanted to find my camp, the place that would accept me and my views, and yet I had found myself in no-man’s land, battle lines drawn, trenches dug and missiles flying overhead. I wanted my voice heard, and yet I had been cut-off.
I then had the privilege of hearing a man called Andrew Marin speak. A straight, evangelical Southern Baptist Christian who holds the Nobel Peace Prize for his work amongst the LGBTQ community in Boystown, Chicago, for building a bridge between the LGBTQ community and the church. Surely they would welcome Andrew like the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem! And no, even he was under pressure to reveal his theological opinion in order that ‘sides’ could be established, such was the pain. He too was obviously hurting at his treatment, and he said as much. To be honest, everyone was hurting.
I cancelled Steve’s visit not because the church in Sheffield wasn’t ready, but because I wasn’t ready, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure that Steve Chalke was either. You see, I had made the age-old mistake of thinking that issues like this can be tackled from the mountain top, at a distance; where as in fact, these battles can only be won in the valley that is called loving, face to face relationship. We can fight this war (and yes, it is a war) on Facebook or in chat rooms, at a distance, neither side really having to descend into the bloody mess of face to face engagement. We can rally to the flag that agrees with our own opinion and see who can shout the loudest. Or, we can all, (and I mean all), get on our knees and ask Jesus to release to us the Grace to listen. To weep with those who weep and to mourn with those who mourn, regardless of whose ‘side’ they are on. That’s the firm ground where I know that the banner of Jesus is firmly planted.
I can’t love the ‘LGBTQ community of Sheffield’, if I don’t know them. I also don’t agree with all of the ‘liberal’ theology regarding sexuality that has been written recently. And that’s ok, because God asks us to love our neighbour, someone we can actually see and have to cross the road to. So, I do love those men and women who I eat with, drink with and pray with in my home, people I walk with, laugh with and often cry with. Some of them are gay, some are lesbians; some are questioning. I also love and deeply respect those of my Christian family that hold theological views that are on the ‘conservative evangelical’ end of the spectrum. And no, by the way, I don’t agree with all of their theology either. It’s just so annoying! I’ve found that it just isn’t that straight forward. Whenever I think I’ve ‘got it’, I meet someone who smashes my preconceptions. Once again, I’m stuck right in the middle of this awful mess and to my shame, I too, at various points, have treated both sides equally badly.
But that’s where I think God is, right in the middle; amongst us. The question is, are we brave enough to join him, together, in the valley, and dare to find out what real love looks like? Please; let’s not reduce the work of Jesus down to a few cheap shots on Facebook or other social media, if we aren’t also brave enough to accept his invitation to cross the road, kneel down, dress the wounds and wash the feet of either the gay Christian, or the pastor of Westborough Baptist Church, whichever one Jesus would describe as our personal neighbour. That’s radical Christianity my friends.