Just fifty years ago, homosexuality was almost universally regarded as a disease, and in most countries homosexual behaviour was a crime (Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in Reading Gaol for it). In Britain, it was possible to avoid prison by agreeing to undergo psychiatric therapy – which was usually a form of aversion therapy involving electric shocks, and must have been like torture for the unfortunate men involved. And it didn’t even work.
So homosexuality was a major problem for those individuals who found themselves sexually attracted to people of the same gender, but not a problem for the Church. But then homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, and within 4-5 years the gay community was ‘going public’ with demonstrations, protests and marches. Now homosexuality is regarded as a variant of normal, the state recognises gay marriage – and suddenly it’s the Church that has the problem. Instead of being broadly ‘in step’ with the rest of society, Biblical teaching on homosexuality goes against the flow of increasing acceptance, and Christians who seek to uphold the traditional viewpoint are denounced as ‘homophobic’ and even prosecuted. So homosexuality is not only a very controversial topic, but also one in which the media regularly portray Christians in a bad light.
Sadly, this state of affairs is not without some justification. In the early 1980s, gay men in the USA started dying like flies and AIDS was discovered. Christians should have been in the vanguard of caring for those early AIDS victims, just as in times past we cared for lepers and other outcasts. Instead, there was a lot of talk of divine judgement in the form of a “gay plague”. It was not the Archbishop of Canterbury who was seen on television visiting an AIDS ward and shaking hands with the dying, but Princess Diana. It’s true that we have moved on since those days (at least, most of us have), but we have moved far too slowly. And the gay community has not forgotten.
The issue of homosexuality is in many ways a testing ground for Christians: in how we interpret the Bible, in our personal and corporate ethics, and also in our ability to live out the Gospel. Are our churches truly communities of acceptance and healing, communities of forgiven sinners who are themselves forgiving people? The experience of many gay believers is that the support offered by church is only partial. If you share with a Christian brother or sister that you have a problem with alcohol addiction, or pornography, they will almost certainly (after the initial shock has worn off) sympathise, offer to pray for you, refer you for counselling, or do whatever else is appropriate. But admit that you are gay or lesbian, and there is a real risk that you will meet with hostility, rejection and ostracism. So what do gay people do, especially if they have already been on the receiving end of such a reaction? They suffer in silence, or live a double life – or give up on the church altogether. Brothers and sisters, it’s not Their fault – it’s Ours.