‘Gay conversion’ and the church

As a person of Christian faith, I welcome the bill prohibiting so-called ‘gay conversion’ practices currently before our state parliament. As a pastoral leader within the church, I believe the legislation’s intent is good and worthy of our support.

In my view, this bill’s determination is important to all people of faith, not just those it is designed to protect. It speaks to one of the central values of the Christian tradition: the worth of all humankind. Each one of us, regardless of age, colour, nationality, gender, ability or sexuality, is uniquely and wonderfully made in the image of God. The invitation of the gospel — so beautifully embodied in the Christmas story — is God’s call to live into the fullness of the life we’ve been given in Christ, whatever shape it takes.  

Of course, within the church we hold a diversity of views on this, many of which have been shared publically in recent weeks. While I disagree with some of those views, I am more grieved by our approach to the debate and the level of self-interest too much of it betrays. 

I grieve the fact that we appear to be more energised by a perceived threat to our own rights and freedoms to do and say whatever we choose, and seem to have comparatively slight regard for the rights and flourishing of one of the most vulnerable segments of our community. Surely standing on the side of the wounded is where we must begin the conversation. 

I grieve the speed with which we move to the alarmist ‘consequences’ of legislation like this rather than deal with the legislation’s central intent. We did it with the marriage equality debate and we are doing it again now. It is so much easier to point away from the issue than to deal with it honestly. Surely we owe more respect to the integrity and wellbeing of the LGBTQI community than this.

I grieve our apparent failure to comprehend the damage we have done that has led to legislation like this; indeed, the damage we have done to members of our own congregations whose sexual identity is different to that of the majority. This damage is perpetrated not only by extreme conversion therapies — therapies we now conveniently distance ourselves from — but by our longstanding proclamation that those of different sexual identities are damaged goods and will never know the fullness of life unless they suppress their most natural and God-given selves and ‘convert’ to something entirely different.  

I grieve our inability to listen to the stories of countless men and women — those broken not by their discovery of who they really are, but by the relentless messaging of the church that who they are is dysfunctional and must be denied. We claim to listen, but too often we do so only to correct. We listen to set others straight but rarely to understand. To understand is to know that we are complicit in the brokenness they experience. We in the church can quickly demonise a bill like this one only because we have so little understanding of where it comes from and the tragic reality it seeks to address. 

Finally, I grieve the absence of a more considered conversation on the nature of prayer itself. The fear that this legislation will intrude upon our freedom to pray for the burdened and the broken in a particular way assumes that, in regard to the unique story and pain of the one we pray for, we already know the mind of God. The outcome we seek is pre-determined. Surely there is more to the sacred ministry of prayer than that.

I support this bill and I encourage other people of faith to do the same. But more than that, I hope those of us within the Christian church will engage in this debate with a good deal more humility and with more concern for the interests of those most vulnerable than for any rights of our own.

Violence and ‘biblical manhood’

The horrific tragedy of Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder in Princes Park in June was close to home. I live in Parkville just across the road from where Eurydice died. The park is where my partner and I walk every morning. Even more, my daughter Ali lives in a share house in Carlton just blocks away. The route Eurydice took that night is one she walks. Though shaken by the tragedy of this woman’s death, I was more deeply impacted by Ali’s response. She is 23. Standing with thousands of others at a candle lit vigil in the park, Ali’s tears were more than momentary. Her feelings of vulnerability, fear and rage were sustained, confronting, and mirrored in the countless young women who surrounded her. As I stood in this crowd myself, the intensity of these feelings was overwhelming.

In Ali’s case, her despair is heightened by her studies in social work. In her recent placement at a women’s prison, she confronted the fact that every woman she connected with was the victim of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, most commonly at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. As they are elsewhere, the statistics around domestic and sexual violence in this city are shocking, the overwhelming majority of cases in which men are the perpetrators. As today’s paper reminds us, though Eurydice’s story may have gripped our community in a particular way, there are countless other stories, equally appalling, we do not hear.

I have felt many things since that night. Most deeply I have felt inadequate. I have struggled to know what to do or how to respond. While I may be able to say ‘I am not violent’ or ‘I am not an abuser,’ I cannot say ‘this is not my problem.’ Standing with my daughter, I understand afresh that this is my dilemma as much as it is hers. This is so because I am her father, of course, but there is more to it than that. It is mine because I am a citizen, a neighbour, a church leader and, most significantly, a male. The stark realities of male violence and their underlying causes are mine as much as they are anyone else’s. But what to do with that reality, that’s where I stumble. And I am not alone.

There is much talk today of a “crisis of confidence” among men. The goal posts have shifted, we are told, as traditional roles have been up-ended; the image of the male as provider, protector, leader and defender is no longer assumed. Apart from the fact that we have proved ourselves atrociously poor stewards of such roles, the underlying assumption that they are ours for the claiming is now vigorously questioned. And rightly so.

As a member of the church, I am part of a community that struggles with this “crisis” in a particular way.  It is often argued by Christian men that the answer to our predicament is to reassert our authority, to retake our God-given roles as leaders and protectors. According to this view, the “radical feminisation” of society has led to the emasculation of men and the disorder that has followed. Conversely, it is only by reclaiming what’s called our “biblical manhood” that Divine order will be restored and society healed. What this order includes, of course, is the “complimentary” role of women to comply, to submit and to go back to their kitchens. Such is the passion behind this view of things that the call to re-embrace manhood becomes a call to arms. We are urged, in the words of Brad Stein’s anthem of Christian manhood, to “grab a sword, don’t be scared; be a man, grow a pair.”

To be honest, any talk of “biblical manhood” makes me nervous. I have a sense that, in truth, this coupling of leadership with testicles has little to do with Christian virtue and more to do with a base need for men to reassert their dominance.  Type the word “masculinity” into Google and countless images come up of shirtless men flexing their biceps. Traditional views of manhood are equated with power. Thus when we men feel powerless, vulnerable, emotional, afraid or uncertain, we have learned to identify such feelings with weakness and emasculation. Consequently, we lash out at the shifting of traditional roles and want desperately to reinstate them. But to whose benefit? Rather than finding a way to hold our vulnerability, to name our emotions, or to own our fears and responsibilities as human beings, we grasp again for power.

The fact is, this idea of “biblical manhood” is challenging. While images of masculinity abound in the bible, they are so tenuous and various as to be, at best, illustrative but rarely prescriptive. Think of David and Jonathan: David the warrior and slayer of giants, a philanderer who can’t keep his pants zipped; his dearest friend Jonathan, a man of letters and poetry, moderate, wise and politically manipulative. Take brothers Jacob and Esau: one a hairy outdoorsman and the other a mother’s boy, hairless and soft of skin; one given to underhanded deception and the other to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Think of disciples Peter and John: gregarious Peter, fickle and full of bravado, a risk taker who wears his heart on his sleeve, and John, quiet, unassuming, leaning against the breast of Jesus with deep affection. The truth is, while the bible is full of ‘manly’ stories, none provide stellar models of manhood. From beginning to end, these men are as broken and fragile as they are heroic.

Personally, as I think of those young women, my daughter included, gathered at the memorial for Eurydice Dixon, I struggle to see how the benevolent re-application of male authority could be an answer to their despair. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the call to reclaim the balls of a “biblical manhood” has anything to say to this tragedy that is not deeply offensive.

If I find anything in my faith relevant to this issue, it is not a call to Christian manhood, but the persistent call of Jesus to be human, fully human. Foundational to the Christian faith is the belief that we are made in the image of God. In this is our common call to personhood, and it is ours no matter what our gender, race, religion, sexuality or the colour of our skin. This shared identity, affirmed and reclaimed in Christ, is what binds and obligates us to each other.  If the God-given roles of leadership, providence and protection are ours — and I believe they are — they are not the exclusive rights of office or gender. Rather, they are responsibilities that we share as those made in God’s image.





I am a Christian, a person deeply formed by the Church and its gospel. Even more, I am a Baptist minister. For the past thirty-five years I have given my life to understanding, living and proclaiming the message of Jesus. It is because of this, not in spite of it, that I’ll be voting ‘yes’ in the upcoming plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

There is nothing that goes to the heart of human identity as much as our sexuality. It is that God-given reminder, persistent and powerful, that we are made for relationship—intimate, covenant relationship. When our need for intimate communion with another human being is violated through the horrors of sexual abuse, cheapened through sexual infidelity, or invalidated through sacraments of love that exclude, it is not only our rights that are threatened, but our identity as those created in God’s image.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Saint Paul speaks of sexual failings as far more impacting than all others. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex,” he writes, “that is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.” Why? Because our sexuality takes us beyond a particular sexual act to our embodied nature, our personhood. It is certainly true that for the majority of people, sexual identity is most naturally expressed in heterosexual unions. For a small number, however, it is in same-sex relationships that they find who they are as relational beings. The truth is, those of us who are gay or lesbian are wired differently from those of us who are not. Homosexual longing is as natural to some as heterosexual longing is to others.

Of course, this is not the view of all Christians. Indeed, the majority of those within my own tradition disagree with me. Their perspective is that homosexuality is a dysfunction of identity—a failing of personhood that needs to be confessed and overcome. It follows, then, that allowing same-sex couples to marry will only legitimise a dysfunction God never intended. My experience says otherwise.

Through more than three decades of pastoral ministry, I have sat with countless men and women for whom their sexuality is most naturally expressed with persons of the same sex. Indeed, this expression of sexuality is as instinctive to them as left- or right-handedness, as given as the colour of their skin. Asking them to be other than who they are as sexual beings would be asking them to deny their very selves. Sadly, I have witnessed the denial of sexual identity lead people to dark places of despair, isolation, self-loathing and, sometimes, even death.

In much church commentary of recent days, church leaders are at pains to underline their love and respect for LGBTI people, claiming that their aversion to same-sex marriage does not equate with their denial of the integrity of same-sex persons or the worth of their families. The availability of civil unions, they will say, is an expression of this; never have the rights of the LGBTI community been more protected, they argue, and rightly so, but marriage is surely a step too far. The uncomfortable fact is, however, the churches these people represent have historically fought developments in LGBTI rights at every turn, and, despite the current tenor of conversation, the underlying belief has not changed: homosexuality is a dysfunction of personhood. Indeed, the entire argument against same-sex marriage rests on it. To claim otherwise is not only misleading; it is dishonest.

If homosexuality is not a dysfunction of personhood, but an expression of one’s being and identity in God, then withholding from the LGBTI community the most commonly accepted expression of loving, covenant relationship is wrong. We Christians fight for the sanctity of marriage precisely because we believe it is more than a legal contract between two people. It is a sacred and public bond through which two people promise fidelity to each other, to the family they form, and in the presence of the community that surrounds them. To quote advocate for same-sex marriage Rodney Croome, “The kind of choices, commitments and sacrifices marriage entails run to the core of what makes us human.” In my view, the argument to withhold these choices, commitments and sacrifices from same-sex couples in the context of marriage is not only a profound act of exclusion; it rests on dubious ground.

So, it’s a ‘yes’ from me.

Simon Carey Holt
Pastor, Collins Street Baptist Church

Fullstop theology

Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you’ve taken time to write. Clearly you’ve read the things I have written on homosexuality and, more recently, in support of same-sex marriage. I am sorry you’re not happy with me. The truth is you join a good number of people who are disappointed by my views. Apparently I’ve been dropped off a few prayer lists and added on to others!

Among other things you’ve exhorted me to read my bible more. That’s good advice. I love the bible and have read it through, cover to cover, a few times now. In fact, the more I read it the more my regard for it grows. The fact is, the bible remains the most formative text of my life. Certainly as a Baptist I happily acknowledge its authority and am committed to taking it seriously. More particularly you’ve challenged me to read what the bible says about homosexuality. ‘Don’t try to interpret it to fit into your own thinking,’ you say; ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’ It’s here, Jeff, that you lose me.

You are right of course; there are texts in the bible that appear to make God’s view of homosexuality crystal clear. Words like ‘abomination’ and the command that perpetrators be ‘put to death’ make it a chilling read. It’s not your encouragement to read these texts that bothers me. It’s your final statement: ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’

The truth is, Jeff, I have some trouble with this ‘fullstop’ approach to the bible. It infers that I have no choice but to take the literal statements and commands of the bible just as they are, and that any effort at interpretation will lead me down the dark alley of compromise. If that’s the case, there is a long list of biblical exhortations that I simply don’t know what to do with.

  • ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling‘ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Women should be silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘If a man commits adultery both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘On the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not make any tattoo or any marks upon you for I am the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘All who curse father or mother shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘For no one who has a blemish shall draw near (to the presence of God), no one who is blind or lame, no one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles’ FULLSTOP

Good heavens, we’re all in serious trouble aren’t we?!

Yes, I know. For me to list these exhortations in this way is to take them completely out of context and thus to abuse any real truth they might point to. The fact is, every one of these statements has a textual, cultural and historical context absolutely essential to understanding how it applies to us today. You are right, Jeff; the art of biblical interpretation is a dangerous and risky business, but do we really have any choice?

I don’t mind at all that you disagree with my view on homosexuality. Join the queue! And I reckon having a respectful conversation about it is essential. But if we begin with a fullstop approach to the bible, then the conversation is over before it begins.



[‘Jeff’ wrote anonymously to me some time ago, providing no surname or return address. My original posting of this response was provided in this form for want of no other way of replying to him]

We Baptists need to talk

A few weeks back Victorian Baptists had a difficult conversation. It was all to do with marriage, more particularly our response to the possibility of same-sex marriage in Australia. Anticipating future change to the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples, a motion had been tabled to affirm our Baptist commitment to marriage as between a man and a woman; further, to ensure that pastors who marry according to Baptists rites act within that definition no matter what legislative change lies ahead.

Breaking previous records, our attendance at the delegates’ assembly illustrates the importance of the issue. While we may not all agree, when it comes to matters of sexuality we are a zealous bunch. Understandably, our Union leadership struggled with the best way to frame and conduct the conversation. Consequently the possibility for open debate was minimized. Prior to the gathering, two one-page documents were circulated to the churches, one making the case in favour of the motion and the other against. Similarly on the night, one person was asked to speak in support and one opposed. Discussion was then limited to the tables at which delegates were seated after which there was a secret ballot. As expected, the motion passed.

It is no secret where I stand on this. My appointment to Union Council in 2014 drew considerable opposition, and I was also the one who made the case against the motion on the night. Though disappointed by the outcome, I was not surprised. I understand that I hold a minority view on this issue and as much as I personally grieve the implications of the decision, I remain committed to our Baptist community. My purpose here is not to argue the case any further, but to name my concern over the continuing tenor of our conversation.

As much as I would love to simply move on – to conclude that our talk is done and our decision made – this is not an option. Firstly, the conviction of those Baptists who believe marriage equality is a gospel issue is not so easily shelved. When it comes to the gospel, we Baptists are a stubborn lot. And secondly, a steadily growing majority of our neighbours consider this an issue of some urgency. Whether we judge it to be so or not, the strategy of labeling the issue ‘non-core’ or blocking our ears to community views won’t flush. The conversation, internally and externally, has to continue. How it continues is crucial. In a context where sensitivity to issues of perceived discrimination and the violation of human rights is heightened, our neighbours are listening. Indeed, I would go as far to say that how we have the conversation is as important as the conclusions we argue for. In light of that, I reckon there are some things worth holding onto.

We Baptists listen: By conviction, we are a listening people. Without a formal creed or governing council to guide us, we have always had to take the tasks of listening and discerning seriously. We listen in our congregations and communities, and we listen within our wider fellowship of churches. That said, I fear we are losing opportunity for this sort of listening. Forums for rigorous discussion – discussion that takes us beyond one-liners and one-pagers to a more nuanced conversation – have almost disappeared. Our aversion to conflict has whittled away opportunities for real and respectful debate. While I certainly don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ of denominational trench warfare, the loss of opportunities to listen to perspectives other than our own diminishes us.

We Baptists reflect deeply: Most Baptist would agree that the days of ‘the bible says it and that settles it’ are gone. We have had to wrestle with too many issues, culturally and theologically, to be so naïve. That said, as those who continue to hold to the authority of the Bible, the business of its interpretation is deeply challenging. Early last year a pastor who holds a different view from my own on homosexuality contacted me. He asked is we could meet periodically to talk through our approaches to the Bible on this issue. We have done so now several times and it has been one of the most enriching and challenging disciplines I’ve experienced. Each time we have prayed, read the scriptures and laid our questions on the table. While our differences remain, we have pressed and honed each other along the way and with a common commitment to the gospel. What’s more, neither of us has asked the other to check our critical faculties at the door. I long for more of this in our Baptist community.

We Baptists are sensitive to the power of testimony: The truth is, whenever we talk about these issues, there are those within our own communities – sitting at the same tables, hearing the same arguments, even within our own families – for whom being gay is not an issue for debate but the daily reality of their lives. Some may be open about this while others keep it hidden. Even in that meeting of delegates, there were men and women who could not so easily separate themselves from the issue. Their personal testimonies are deeply entwined. Whatever our view on marriage equality, we do well to remember that our words, inferences and convictions are heard and felt. Indeed, each time we talk about these things we could do worse that imagine a person from the LGBTI community sitting at the table. The question is important: how would this change the tenor of what we say?

We Baptists preference faith over labels: On both sides of this issue we have an unfortunate propensity to label those who oppose our position. Clearly labels make dismissing those in disagreement so much easier. I often cringe at the ease with which those in favour of marriage equality dismiss the opposition as ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic’. While I have no doubt that bigotry and fear are alive and well within segments of the church, in my experience the majority of Baptists who oppose same-sex marriage do so out a genuine desire to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures. Similarly among those opposed to same-sex marriage, to speak routinely of ‘gay lobbies’ and ‘liberal agendas’ simply dismisses those who come to their affirmative position out of a genuine desire to follow Jesus. Of course, lobby groups exist on both sides of this issue and agendas run rampant in all corners of the church. But assigning labels does nothing but shut down conversation and push fellow Christians further into their trenches.

We Baptists pray … together: Earlier this year I received a visit from some Christian leaders who had asked to meet with me to discuss issues of concern. I agreed. Once we sat down it was quickly evident that this was an intervention. They were grieved by my public position on the issue of marriage and felt compelled to call me to account. Once I realised where we were headed, I asked if we could begin in prayer. The leader of this group was quick to respond, ‘We cannot pray with you, but we will pray for you.’ With that he led a prayer outlining my errors in dot point and asking for the conviction of the Spirit. On one hand I am pleased that these leaders came to me rather than speak about me from a distance, but I was deeply troubled by their perception that I was not someone they could pray with, as though my perspective on this one issue rendered me spiritually suspect. At its essence, prayer is an act of humility, a means through which all people of faith bow in submission to the presence of God. If we cannot begin there, I wonder if the conversation is really possible.

All this said, we Baptists do need to talk, and keep talking. More important still, we Baptists need to listen, and keep listening. If we are to find ways ahead on this issue that honour God and flow out of our common allegiance to Christ, there really is no other way.

We can’t ‘move on’

With news today that the High Court of Australia has overturned the ACT’s marriage equality laws, Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby says that we should now ‘move on.’ He keeps saying it. It’s his line. He said it again on the news tonight: ‘It’s time to move on!’

In Shelton’s logic, with ‘nine parliamentary attempts’ (and 30+ weddings) behind us, any further agitation is stirring a pot that should no longer be stirred. To proponents of marriage equality, his advice is clear: take off your aprons and put down your wooden spoons. The stew is cooked.

To be blunt, it’s a silly thing to say. More than that, it’s insulting. Whatever we judge to be the rights or wrongs of a particular issue, suggesting that citizens of this country who feel passionately about that issue should just give up and give over after a few rounds in the political arena is extraordinary. Sadly, it betrays just how little Shelton and his lobby group understand what motivates those who fight for this issue or how deeply it touches their lives.

For me and others, this is an issue of justice. It speaks to the most fundamental values of cultural belonging and inclusion. I stand publicly for marriage equality because it flows directly from my commitment to the integrity of human relationships and to the sacred connections between love and fidelity. Agree with me or don’t, but surely you can’t wish me to just ‘move on.’

Imagine for a moment the issues that would never have been brought to resolution if courageous people just gave up and moved on. In his fight to end the slave trade, Wilberforce took his bills before the British parliament more than twenty times over as many years before he found success. The story is similar with women’s suffrage, Indigenous land rights, the end to the death penalty and so much more.

It seems especially odd to me that a lobby group like the ACL should propose a ‘move on’ approach to social issues.  Their continuing agitation around the legalities of abortion, for example, is surely testament to their resolve to remain actively engaged even when the movement of legislation is against them.

Truthfully, I don’t care much for the ACL and what it stands for, but I am glad it’s there. As a political voice, it operates out of conviction and represents the views of its constituency (however large or small) with energy and resolve.  I would only hope that Shelton and others will acknowledge those who support marriage equality as more than a marginal nuisance group that can simply ‘move on’, as though its concerns are of no lasting consequence.

A prayer of blessing

In as post a few days back I responded to an article published by the Baptist Witness. Written by a ‘bishop’ of the church, it was an article I felt to be grossly unfair and hurtful to members of LGBTI community. Intentional or not, the damage done by words like these is the damage I see played out every day in my own faith community and many others like it.

The responses to my own post have been many, and most have shared a similar sense of disappointment, but often in words much more poignant than my own. One response came from a friend and fellow Baptist Bronwen. As with so many others like her, Bron’s hold on the church is tenuous but persistent. That she is still able to offer a prayer like this one is a gift to us all.

Blessings on us, on all of us
who search for
our callings, our giftedness, our place to be.
Blessings on all of us
who must stop, and wonder, and ask
whether we are welcome
before we offer our talents, our time, our selves.

Affirm in us, God, the welcome born in us
when we first heard you call our names.
Affirm in us the rightness of our being
formed this way as we were knitted together
in our mother’s bellies.
Affirm in us the knowledge
that we have much to offer, and that the church
needs us, far more than we need it.

Grant us courage and strength
to walk paths that will lead us into light and truth.
Grant us hope and compassion
that we may walk with eyes for the outcast and lost,
creating welcoming banquets
out of the crumbs we scavenge along the way.
Grant us pride and tenacity
so that we may walk with heads held high
refusing to be bowed by ignorance,
by intolerance, by injustice.
Grant us laughter and celebrations
alongside the bitterness of tears.
Grant us warmth and humanity
when faced with the deserts of rejection,
hate and fear.
Grant us love,
above all, grant us love.
So that we can continue to grow,
and become, and discover,
and be wholly
who we are.

Those pesky gay activists

The Baptist Witness, the state publication for the Baptists of Victoria, is currently running an article by Bishop Joseph Mattera of the ‘Christ Covenant Coalition’ in New York. It’s entitled 10 ways homosexual activists have shifted culture and what the church can learn from it. The Witness has invited comment on the piece. This is mine.

Mattera’s thesis is that a pesky but savvy coalition of ‘gay activists’ has, in the span of just one generation, turned western society on its head. So much so the homosexual community has moved from being an ‘oppressed minority’ to a ‘protected elite’ exercising extraordinary and culture-changing influence. At the same time, the Christian majority has been sidelined and silenced. In fact, ‘Bible-believing Christians’ are now experiencing minority persecution, ‘bashed with impunity’ by the gatekeepers of this new order.

According to Mattera, this switch has taken place through the gay lobby’s clever implementation of a set of carefully devised ‘strategies’. What’s more, if the church is to regain its ‘ascendency’ in this battle of ‘world-views’, it must learn from these strategies and rally its troops with equal intent. The gay strategies that Mattera identifies include (i) hijacking language, (ii) infiltrating cultural and educational agendas, (ii) buying political influence, (iv) moving culture from tolerance to the celebration of difference, (v) humanising homosexual people though ‘sympathy and victimhood’, (vi) winning the propaganda war, (vii) lobbying for the changing of laws–the list continues.

Frankly, there is so much about Mattera’s article that is painful to read. Of course, it includes an element of truth. That a significant degree of change has come in societies like ours is undeniable. That the struggle of activists has advanced that change is also true. But that a ‘bishop’ of the Christian church thinks that through words like these he is doing nothing more than affirming the success of ‘the gays’ so as to stir up ‘the Christians’ to action is so breathtakingly ignorant and pastorally bereft. The barely veiled assumptions that underlie these ‘ten points’ are like rocks heaved at those who are already wounded. Mattera may not intend to wound, but like so many in his position, he does.

The assumptions:

The gay agenda: That the movement of a whole community from the hidden and persecuted margins of society to acceptance and participation should be reduced to the devious ‘agenda’ of a pesky group of pinko activists is so incredibly demeaning. Do we really believe that if those activists had just shut up and gone away we would no longer have this ‘problem’? Do we really think that by putting ‘Bible-believing Christians’ back on the cultural throne the real life stories of gay men and women will dry up? The liberation of sexual minorities is not about competing ‘agendas’ and which one wins. It’s about people.

The gay conspiracy: That we Christians could be so fear-driven and ridiculous as to really believe that the ‘homosexuals’ are organising to secretly infiltrate the halls of power, educational establishments and religious institutions so as to wrest power and shift culture is nothing short of insulting. It reads as if homosexuals are an alien race, until fifty years ago hidden away from us all, but now on the march. Surely the fact that there are more people now able to come out from the cultural shadows and be who they have always been–in whatever profession or context they are in–is a sign of cultural maturity not evidence of a creeping conspiracy.

The weapon of normalisation: That we would view the ‘normalising’ of homosexuality as the insidious plot of the ungodly is breathtaking. God forbid that a young gay man should consider himself normal! God forbid that we might begin to address the tragically high suicide rates among LGBTI youth by treating them as anything but ‘queer’. The fact that we have been moved from ‘abhorrence of the gay lifestyle’ to seeing homosexuals as ‘normal people with normal lives and problems’ is surely as it should be.

Claiming discrimination: To imply that we predominantly white, middle-class, western Christians–members of the largest and most influential religion in the world–are an oppressed and sidelined people, simply confirms that that when it comes to the debilitating power of real discrimination, we just don’t get it. We can only make such a pathetic claim because we have never in our lives experienced the real thing. We end up sounding like spoilt children who no longer rule the playground.

The language of ‘us’ and ‘them’: All the way though Mattera’s article he refers to the gay community as ‘them’ and ‘they’ as though ‘we’ are an entirely different race. As long as we Christians continue to describe members of the LGBTI community as ‘other’ than we are, we will continue to alienate and wound. The fact is, ‘they’ are ‘us’. And that, more than anything else, is why culture has shifted. More and more as a society, we are coming to understand that ‘they’ are the people we love, the people we work with, the children we parent, the neighbours we live next door to, the people who sit next to us in church. This is our story, not theirs. To so distance ourselves from it diminishes us all.

We may well struggle as Christians to discern what faithfulness to God means in the expression of our sexuality. Surely, though, as we wrestle with these issues together, we can do better than this.

Marriage equality and a search for belonging

Regardless of where one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, there is much to be said for those who maintain a sense of calm and humility in the thick of debate.  It’s heated territory, so when I meet someone able to sustain a spirit of respect and avoid the temptation to dismiss or demonise, I find listening easier. For me, Rodney Croome is one of those people. I’ve heard him speak in a number of different forums now. Though as coordinator of Australian Marriage Equality he takes a very public role in the debate, I am always drawn in by the care with which he does so. What’s more, his family heritage ties him to the life of a small Baptist church in the farming hamlet of his youth. What’s not to love? Croome has contributed an essay in the latest issue of the Griffith Review, one that only underlines my respect. Entitled The Promise of Belonging, the essay is a very moving account of the journey of his native and beloved Tasmania from the last Australian bastion for the criminilization of homosexuality (laws tightly held in place until 1997) to the state with the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the nation. Within this broader story of transformation is Croome’s own story as a gay man. The journey of change has been a torrid one, for Croome and many others. Some left Tasmania never to return. Croome stayed. His observation that it’s ‘impossible to be truly free until we are free in the place that has shaped who we are’ is one that propels his ongoing investment in the issue, his hope for full inclusion for all Tasmanians and all Australians.

“It is this hope that inspires me to campaign for marriage equality. Allowing same-sex couples to marry promotes inclusion because marriage is such an important social institution. To be admitted to such a valued legal and cultural space is a sure sign of belonging. But the link runs deeper than this; it is about features inherent to marriage itself. Marriage is not just a legal contract between two partners. It binds them closely to each other and to their families. It admits them to a universal language of love and commitment. For same-sex couples, the value placed on marriage is the most powerful antidote there is to the poison of prejudice and crimilisation same-sex relationships have endured for so long. In times past, the law’s recognition that women, servants, prisoners, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people were mature and responsible enough to choose their own marriage partner, rather than have that decision made for them by others, was the key to the recognition of their full humanity. It is the same today for same-sex attracted people. The kind of choices, commitments and sacrifices marriage entails run to the core of what makes us human. In the words of a young gay man, Jackson Tegg, in a letter to the Hobart Mercury published last year: ‘marriage equality is important not because of what the law says I can’t have, but what it says I can’t give.'”

For Croome, the journey of his home state continues as he and many others advocate for change to our marriage laws on a national level.

“To be at home among the rocky peaks and verdant valleys that are the contours of your soul, to be as one with the people who nurtured and shaped you, these are some of life’s greatest gifts. Correspondingly, to be driven out and cleaved from these sources of meaning and strength is to suffer a type of violence. Belonging matters all the more because it can neither be seized by those who are excluded, nor granted by those who exclude. When the promise of belonging is broken, as it was in Tasmania for so many for so long, it is only through the myriad daily interactions of all who lay claim to a contested identity that a sense of belonging is rebuilt and renewed. This is what happened in Tasmania over the past quarter century and it is what will happen nationally as we negotiate our way to marriage equality.”

Whatever your view on the issue, this is certainly an essay worth reading.

Let’s talk about sex

We Baptists don’t talk easily about sex. It’s not taboo; it’s just complicated. With no creed and no pope, each congregation embraces faith with a high degree of freedom. That freedom comes with responsibility. Each church—autonomous in government, holding tenaciously to the Lordship of Jesus, and respecting the authority of the scriptures—has no choice but to discern the mind of God within its own context as faithfully as it can. There’s no handballing that discernment to someone further up the ecclesial chain. When it comes to our discussions about sex, the local conversation is loaded.

Given the current debate about same-sex unions and the good possibility that our definition of marriage will be broadened accordingly, we Baptists join all Christian traditions in having to discern a response. One pressing issue is, should such a change be made, will Baptist pastors like me be free to celebrate same-sex marriages? It’s a difficult question but one we can’t avoid.

The Baptist Union of Victoria, an association of some 250 churches in the state and one to which I’m proud to belong, is constantly asked to articulate an agreed ‘Baptist position’ on this issue. But how do we do such a thing? Wisely, our denominational leadership has initiated a statewide process of discernment, but one that honours our Baptist identity and form of government—a process that begins and is centered in the local church. Personally, I am very grateful for this. It has felt to me like there have been movements on the national level to bypass such a process, to make rulings and statements on behalf of all Baptists without conversation.

The fact is, Victorian Baptists—individuals and churches—hold a range of views on issues of sexuality and the prospect of coming to an agreed position is fraught.  It’s hard enough in one community, let alone within the broader association. What I’ve always loved about Victorian Baptists is our diversity. It is our strength and our challenge. Read a good history of our community and you discover it’s always been so. We’ve had some good arguments over the years, heated disagreements over theology and practice. But we’ve done so as a family, holding together through thick and thin. With this in mind, the invitation from our denominational leaders to talk about these things comes with some good reminders.

First, how we engage in this conversation is as important as the convictions we bring to it:

‘Instead of rushing to the conventional adversarial positions, how can we model God’s abundant hospitality, and show Christ-like love, in the context of robust debate? Can we show the world how we engage in loving disagreement?’

And secondly, before these are issues of doctrine or dogma, they are missional and pastoral issues that we are debating:

‘Given the history of the church’s failings on matters of sexuality, we need to be as clear and wise as possible when communicating a public position. These issues have a missional dimension that we cannot avoid. If we exist to advance the Kingdom of God, we have to work out how we do that in our own context.’

I am certainly thankful for good state leadership in this issue, and I pray that as the conversation proceeds we will be known by our commitments to love and hope.