The Westboro Baptist Church may think God hates fags, but not all Christians agree. This year 100 clergymen from all over Australia made a formal apology to gays and lesbians for the way they’ve been treated by the churches, and marched with us in the Mardi Gras Parade.
Michael Hercock, the Surry Hills Baptist pastor who started 100 Revs, got the idea for the march and apology after seeing the damage done to some men with HIV by intolerant Christians.
There were a couple of guys whose stories particularly affected me -¦ and as I came across more guys like them, I thought, we need to have a conscience about this and ask ourselves some hard questions about what we were saying to these guys, he said.
I started sharing this with some other ministers and it resonated with them too.
Pastor Hercock is adamant that the time has come to speak out.
We have vilified the gay community much more than any other marginalised group. Our silence on First World HIV/AIDS is deafening. We’re all happy to go overseas and help out -¦ with HIV/AIDS, but here there’s nothing. All through the 1990s, we did nothing.
The 100 Revs included a few Pentecostal pastors, usually thought of as among the most anti-gay. But Pastor Hercock says those who get outside their own church walls and engage with marginalised groups such as the homeless, problem gamblers, and gays and lesbians, change their views.
He compares his critics with the Pharisees, who were sticklers for the letter of the law, held themselves to be superior to others, and disdained to engage with ordinary people.
Jesus was criticised very heavily for the people He engaged with -¦ He went out of His way to spend time with -¦ the equivalent of the people who are marginalised today -¦ accused of having dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors, His response was, -˜Well, actually, these are the people I came for.’
Former Pentecostal preacher Anthony Venn-Brown, who has written about his experience as a gay man struggling to reconcile his spirituality and his sexuality (A Life of Unlearning) said the denomination was changing.
When I was a preacher there were no Pentecostal churches involved in any social interaction, he said. Since then many go to prisons, homeless shelters. What that’s done is made people more real to them. Within congregations there are now people who understand that gay people are as they are. It’s a shift happening at the grass roots. They actually know some gay people.
At the same time the worldwide Anglican Church is mired in a long, drawn-out battle over an American gay bishop, and the blessing of gay relationships. For the first time a number of bishops and archbishops -“ including Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen -“ will boycott this year’s Lambeth Conference, the 10-yearly meeting of the world Anglican hierarchy, and hold their own conclave in Jordan.
They want the US church to condemn homosexuality, stop blessing gay relationships, and to sack the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson.
One of the leaders of the group is Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who accepts the practice of polygamy among members of his congregations for what might be called social reasons -“ because polygamy is traditionally African and he’s in competition for converts with Islam.
Father Nigel Wright, the openly gay former vicar of St Agnes Anglican parish in Glen Huntly, describes this as total hypocrisy.
Well, if it is as he says a matter of social concern, why isn’t the west also allowed to -¦ bend the rules for their own social reasons, and accept gays and lesbians? he asks.
Rev. David Still, Fr Wright’s successor at St Agnes’s, says the argument is about more than just gays and lesbians. The same people who object to Gene Robinson also object strongly to the election of one of his supporters, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as Presiding Bishop of the American church.
They could just about tolerate a gay bishop, but not a gay bishop and a woman primate. Especially not a gay bishop with a partner. If Robinson had been single I doubt much of this would have happened.
Fr Wright also doubts that theology is the major driving concern, with large amounts of money going to some of the African and Asian churches from the rich churches in western countries, including Australia.
Sydney is the second richest Anglican diocese in the world, Fr Wright says. It would be interesting to know where Sydney is spending its money, on theological colleges in Africa and Asia, for example. I suspect a kind of mad colonialism.
Fr Stuart Soley, the openly gay vicar of Sunshine/Braybrook, says the bishops boycotting Lambeth aren’t interested in healing the divide. At the 1998 Lambeth conference the bishops made a commitment to listen to the stories of gays and lesbians, but not everyone followed through.
Very little of it has been carried forward. Some parts of the church have done it, he says.
Years ago when I spoke to the Synod about being gay, I told them that if you’re going to listen, you’ve got to give people permission to speak, and you’ve got to encourage them to speak. And that takes courage on the part of the listeners, because they may hear things they don’t want to hear.
But like Pastor Hercock, Fr Soley has met many gays and lesbians who have been damaged by those who are unwilling to listen.
I suspect they don’t want to hear about the fruitful lives people have of faith and sexuality, he said.
Once you get past the gay/straight labels there’s not much difference. There’s the same issues around relationships, earning a living, even spiritually. It’s wrong to put labels on people rather than asking, -˜What is it like for you?’