Building Jerusalem

Tim Farron’s gay sex saga continues on Daily Politics: Chris Bryant and Anne Atkins pick up the debate

As I mentioned here a couple of days ago, the Tim Farron gay sex saga continues unabated. On Thursday, BBC Daily Politics hosted a discussion between Labour MP Chris Bryant – an openly gay, former Anglican clergyman – and Anne Atkins, a practicing Anglican broadcaster and journalist who regularly speaks on issues pertaining to faith. The discussion wa sa direct follow on from Tim Farron’s Premier Christian Radio interview. You can watch the discussion by following the link (BBC embed codes don’t seem to like WordPress).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05tjkfr/player

The discussion was infuriating for several reasons. First, there was the way that both contributors ended up cutting each other off with frequency and not allowing the other to finish their points. Second, there was the talking past each other. For example, Anne Atkins tried to explain that sin, as Christians understand it, is not what non-Christians hear when the word is used. Chris Bryant, by contrast, merely pointed out that Tim Farron lied, which is itself a sin (aha!) and in no way answered the point. Third, though Atkins was right that the question was bound to lead to misunderstanding, she did not help her cause by suggesting Tim Farron wasn’t lying. He did lie and, though we may have sympathy regarding the pressure he was under, to pretend otherwise isn’t helpful. By contrast, Bryant wilfully misconstrued the fact that Farron (and Atkins) acknowledge their own sinfulness and were arguing this is common to us all, not unique to gay people.

I found myself in agreement with Chris Bryant on a few points. For example, I agree that the Church of England has tied itself up in knots on this issue. He was quite right that the Anglican position permitting civil partnerships so long as they – cross my heart and hope to die – are celibate whilst not permitting gay marriage is, indeed, a fudge and a nonsense. He was right that most people, churches included, recognise there is a distinction to be made between sexual orientation and sexual practice.

However, at this point, he made a logical leap. Having noted that same-sex attraction ‘is not a choice you have made’, Bryant went on to argue that the question is then ‘whether churches want to support people in loving relationships or want to decry them and say they are sinful’. Anne Atkins, given the opportunity to respond, rightly pointed out that Tim Farron – as well as the wider church – do not condemn anybody based on their orientation but make a distinction between inherent orientation and practice. Sadly, because Bryant cut her off mid-sentence, she was unable to go further.

Her answer did need to go further because Chris Bryant was guilty of creating a false dichotomy between loving people by blessing their same-sex relationships or condemning and hating them. This fails to contend with the fact that it is possible to love people without affirming them in their actions. This is a direct outworking of Atkins’ point that everyone is a sinner, including any Christian making the claim. If calling something sin is tantamount to condemning and hating an individual, then Christian people condemn and hate themselves along with everyone else in the world.

There was an assumption that unless we affirm somebody’s chosen action we implicitly condemn and hate them. This is an assertion that needs to be challenged. For example, my wife loved me during my most serious bouts of depression, of that I have no doubt. But at no point did she affirm me in my stated, planned and attempted desire to kill myself. Much of my identity at the time was tied up with depression – it was a major part of who I felt I was. Yet, she loved me before I saw myself as a depressive, whilst I did and afterwards too. What she didn’t do, however, was affirm all of my chosen actions and that in no way diminished her love for me.

Likewise, my son – whom I love dearly – remains my son whether he is behaving beautifully or terribly. When I discipline him, when I am adamant his chosen course of action is unacceptable, it in no way diminishes my love for him. Indeed, I discipline him because I love him. I am prepared to handle his potential ire at being told his chosen behaviour will not be indulged because I love him, not inspite of my love for him. Do I believe he is in sin when he flagrantly disobeys me? Yes. Do I hate him at that point? No – I love him all the same. It is, indeed, possible to love somebody without affirming their behaviour or self-stated identity, whatever that may be.

Bryant then made an emotive point related to the rates of suicide among homosexual people. Clearly, nobody should see such stats a good or acceptable thing. No bible-believing church could, or should, ever glory in such a sad thing. The question is how do we best help those who face depression and suicidal feelings? Bryant argued that any suggestion homosexuality is sinful adds to these sort of statistics. In other words, he was saying the discussion must cease altogether and, if it doesn’t, those who won’t affirm homosexual practice have as good as killed swathes of homosexual people.

The problem here is three-fold. First, it assumes that the only means of supporting an individual is to affirm them in their actions. But imagine we looked at suicide rates amongst those with anorexia (which are also not great) and took the same approach? We would either be killing anorexics by driving them to suicide because we didn’t affirm their behaviour or we would be killing them by affirming their decision to stop eating food on the grounds they were fat. Apply the logic to depression and you get similar results. Sometimes affirming people in their actions is not loving them. The argument being advanced by Christ Bryant is tantamount to emotional blackmail – affirm this or you’ll have blood on your hands!

Second, it assumes that the emotional struggles people face are a direct result of the shame they feel whenever somebody doesn’t affirm their behaviour. Whilst that may be the case sometimes, why presume this is necessarily the case all the time? Those figures inevitably include people who sadly took their own lives despite supportive family, friends and work environments. The argument is a little like suggesting those who belittle depression are responsible for the suicidal thoughts and feelings of all depressed people. Whilst we can all accept that insensitive comments are unkind and do not help anyone, we cannot simply presume that disagreeing with somebody’s behaviour will lead to suicide, particularly when that disagreement comes from sources where care and support may still be rendered in a variety of different ways.

Third, it shuts down any discussion no matter how careful and sensitive. I really do not want to belittle the emotional struggles of anybody who identifies as gay – whether practicing or not. But where do we draw the line? If disagreeing with behaviour might drive somebody to suicide, how can we be sure any time we disagree over anything – no matter the issue or minor the disagreement – we might not be doing the same? Taken to its logical conclusion, we can never suggest a behaviour or idea is sub-optimal on the grounds that somebody struggling may be driven to shame and subsequently suicide.

I have no doubt many same-sex attracted people have deep struggles, and I firmly believe we must be sensitive and supportive of them, but to suggest that because they have struggles we cannot disagree with a behavioural choice (bearing in mind the distinction from orientation) is incredible. It is actually quite patronising to suggest such people cannot cope with disagreement. But that is not the why the point is raised, it is simply an attempt to shut down discussion and to stop those who diverge from cultural orthodoxy on this point from daring to speak.

Tim Farron certainly could have been clearer about his views. It is my view that as soon as he backpeddled and lied (and, make no mistake, that is what it was) it was game over for him. Few Christians would have found it easy to support him when it was obvious he was lying to kill a story and few non-Christians would be sympathetic to his view nor terribly pleased at being misled either. The wider point, however, bears considering.

There is an intolerance of any who depart from standard cultural orthodoxy. Journalism in particular has become incredibly boring in its interviews with anyone that bears the name Christian. Rather than focusing on policy, they ask repeated questions about homosexuality and sin. Be under no illusion, Farron was right when he suggested that nobody asking the question was the slightest bit interested in the theology behind the answer.

Journalists smell an easy bit of controvery that will garner more views and likes on various platforms. They know, as well as anybody, that there are Christians who share Tim Farron’s religious views right the way across the political spectrum. They may not have the theological nuance to recognise one’s theological view of homosexuality per se won’t determine which rights one supports or otherwise; it is theological understanding of the imago dei, the nature of sin and the wider Biblical principles related to civic society that are determinate. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise an Evangelical on the right of the Conservative Party will approach the matter differently to a Labour MP on the left of his party.

The point here is that we need to address the heart of the issue if we are to get anywhere in discussions on this issue. The key problems are (1) an unwillingness to tolerate other views and (2) a misunderstanding of the nature of what sin actually is. Anne Atkins lauded Justin Welby’s wisdom for refusing to answer the question on homosexuality. I don’t think it is wise (or right) to just refuse to answer the question, but I think there is a good case to be made for refusing to answer the question until the terms are clearly defined. Only if we can agree on what we mean by ‘sin’ and its relevance to us, and we are clear that tolerance is only tolerance when we are tolerating views we don’t like (otherwise it is just agreement), can we even hope to begin a sentence with, ‘I do think it is sinful but…’