Open Church conference
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

This was the aim of last week's two-day conference Open Church: The church, sexuality, mission and the future hosted by Steve Chalke, Baptist minister and founder of international charity the Oasis Trust.

Steve hit the headlines two years ago when he called for an 'open conversation' around same-sex relationships and marriage in response to the UK government's consultation on changing the marriage law.

Despite being described by prominent US evangelical Tony Campolo as:

one of the most prominent preachers in the United Kingdom, and an icon among Evangelicals

the Oasis Trust had its membership of the Evangelical Alliance discontinued and Steve Clifford, EA's general director, said:

The danger we all face, and I fear Steve has succumbed to, is that we produce 'a god' in our own likeness or in the likeness of the culture in which we find ourselves.

I followed these developments with interest, and chaired a discussion with Steve Chalke when he came to Liverpool in October 2013. I'm not from an evangelical tradition (though I flirted with Charismatic expressions of Catholicism as a young adult), and I've spent the last ten years running a youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people. So I booked my place on the Open Church conference with an open mind, to see whether this conversation would be as open as Steve hoped.

The event description promised:

Our speaker team represents a range of views but each member shares a commitment to an open conversation.

Those we heard broadly agree that we need to do something different, though they advocated various approaches as they grappled with what it means to be truly inclusive as a Christian community. Oasisi invited others with more diverse views, including N T Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrew's University, but they did not accept. Around 250 people attended, some LGBT, some Evangelical, some seeking meaning in their experience or the experiences of those they have met pastorally. Our host asked us to:

Be prepared to be challenged, to challenge and to be open to change.

The opening prayer was adapted from Brian McClaren, and an event organiser praised Rob Bell, both from the Emergent Church movement, who are now anathema to conservative evangelicals for having 'left the church's teachings and worship'. This may indicate the direction of the journey Oasis in on. Steve made a passionate comparison of the Church's treatment of LGBT people with traditional, now rejected, Church views on slavery, women's rights and apartheid, once vehemently defended with Biblical texts. He gave examples of how the modern understanding on marriage has evolved which makes arguments for 'Biblical marriage' hard to sustain. He added an exposition of the Bible as a library, not a book, hence the conversation and contradiction between texts. Nothing new to anyone with knowledge of church history or the development of the canon of the Bible, but an attempt to reassure those present who hold the traditional Evangelical belief in Biblicism:

Through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the God who is objectively there has revealed universal and eternal truth to humankind in such a way that all can grasp it.

Steve shared an insight from a recent visit to South Africa, where the post-apartheid government has achieved reconciliation after generations of oppression. One of the community he visited said:

Everybody believes in liberation theology until they become liberated, and then they become conservatives.

To counteract this, the campaigner told Steve, we need to remember that 'everyone is God's representative and image bearer.' Drawing another comparison with evolving doctrine in church history - the excommunication of Copernicus for proposing a sun-centred solar system as opposed to Ptolemy's Earth-centred universe which Genesis appeared to corroborate, Steve called the required change 'a new Copernican revolution.' He advised that we need to avoid the 'cut and paste' approach to the Bible, and read it through the lens of the words and actions of Jesus and an understanding of our evolving moral consciousness. He added that orthodoxy is not necessarily a criterion for inclusion in the church:

We are included not because of how right we are but sometimes despite the positions we adopt, so we have a responsibility to offer inclusion to others.

The first keynote speaker, Susie Flashman-Jarvis, is a former Page 3 model and heroin addict who became a Christian and now counsels vulnerable adults. She once boycotted Eastenders for portraying two women in a relationship, but lately found herself responding positively to a radio station survey asking whether 'same-sex attracted' characters should appear in children's books. I put her phrase in quotes as this term is common among evangelicals who struggle to accept anything other than heterosexuality as a valid sexual orientation. Yet she confessed to being confused and on a journey since her teenage adopted son admitted that he is gay. The story of Ryan and his evangelical parents moved her too. Ryan's parents prayed after he came out that they wouldn't have a gay son, only to lose him to a drug overdose having asked him to choose between his sexuality and his faith and family. She also shared the quotation with which I opened, from a poem called Turning to one another by Margaret Wheatley, which expresses well what the conference organisers aimed for.

Vicky Beeching, the Christian music star and popular religious commentator who came out as a lesbian in an interview with The Independent in August 2014, called for compassion in the church's debate on sexuality, taking inspiration from  Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh:

Love is impossible without understanding. In order to understand others, we must know them, “be inside their skin”. Then we can treat them with loving kindness.

Having made her name in the heart of evangelical Christianity in America's Bible Belt, she became ill with a rare auto-immune disease which a specialist told her had no known physiological cause. When he added that psychological trauma and stress was the most likely cause, she knew it was due to suppressing her sexuality for fear of rejection by her faith community and loss of her reputation and livelihood. Once fully recovered, she came out publicly, only to receive messages wishing her sickness and death, including one calling her an 'Omen of the End Times.' Despite losing friends and income, Vicky says the experience has been amazingly liberating. She said she feels 'more alive, whole, and able to breathe at last.' She is now a UN advisor on issues of faith and LGBT rights. She urged:

The future of the Church depends on story-telling with open hearts, to listen, to know and truly love each other.

Vicky said the church needs to reflect on culture, mystery and humility, since:

The issue of sexuality in church is more about culture than doctrine.

The culture of certainty in some churches means that expressing doubt and difference can lead to marginalisation and isolation. Vicky did not come out until she was 35 for fear of rejection, which proved justified. She initially experienced dissociation and displacement: 'I lost my tribe.' Yet she says she now feels more embraced by the LGBT community than she ever felt in church. She suggested that churches need to rediscover the Christian mystical tradition's acceptance of mystery. Doubt and uncertainty need not be feared, but can be a sign of spiritual maturity, as portrayed in The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross. She also advocated the need to rediscover our humility and take inspiration from the words of Thomas Merton:

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.

She explained:

Arrogant clinging to certainty prevent us from admitting we don't know all the answers and we may be wrong about some.

She cited the challenge to Jewish purity laws revealed to Peter in Acts 10 ('Don't call anything unclean that I have called clean') as God's 'fresh word', requiring humility to step away from certainty, suggesting that the same may be true for the church's position on sexual ethics. Vicky shared that since she came out, her spirituality

has felt more real, organic, holistic; saying everything I couldn't say before gave me greater honesty and authenticity.

She contrasted artificial pride and real humility to the difference between having a rocking horse or a real horse in your bedroom:

Real is disruptive, alive. Real might be messy, but that's the sort of Christianity I want to give my life to.

Andrew Marin, author of Love is an orientation, spoke of his journey from being 'a straight, white, conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical male' to becoming the founder of a charity whose purpose, according to their mission statement, is

to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church through scientific research, biblical and social education, and diverse community gatherings.

As a young adult, his three closest friends came out to him. At first he distanced himself from them as he believed a 'good Christian' should, but felt called to speak to them about what to do, and ended up living together with them in the Boystown district of Chicago, the first officially recognized 'gay village' in the United States. He learned how it felt to be in the minority, since 89% of the neighbourhood identified as LGBT. When word got round, people were curious to find out why he was there, and shared stories with him about why they had left their faith. Andrew took inspiration from the words of Martin Luther King:

There is a constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

and began holding 'Living in the Tension' gatherings,

an opportunity for anyone interested in the intersection of faith, culture, gender and sexuality to come together and safely discuss these divisive topics.

An atheist gay bar owner saw the impact of these gatherings and offered his bar and refreshments free for these quarterly meetings. He was happy to be interviewed for a BBC World Service documentary on the work of the Marin Foundation. Over time the meetings grew to more than 200 people. but they realised they were only talking to themselves, and nothing would change unless they engaged with churches. Andrew cautioned against a definition of inclusivity which could create a new form of segregation, e.g. 'Come in and agree with me.' He believes both sides of this debate need to be involved in determining 'a new normal', and challenged us to consider whether we could include people who have been our oppressors: 'We don't need to agree to love well.' Can we accept the equality of human dignity in everyone, and see Jesus in those who don't agree with, or are hostile to us? He described the Living in the Tension gatherings as

intentional communities of diverse disagreeing people who agree that 'we're going to live this better'.

Andrew argued that he is not 'passively promoting structures which cause pain and shame', but drawing on both world views to enable social change. His challenge is to look beyond cultural reconciliation which says 'If you believe the same as me, we can be reconciled'; reconciliation does not necessarily require agreement. The key for him is 'countercultural personal interaction', reaching beyond the safety of relating to those who are like us and agree with us to include those most different from us. This requires 'building bridges not armies'. Rallies filled with people who have already bought in to your message can build an army, while reaching out to people who have a low-level of 'buy-in' will build a bridge and include those with whom we disagree. And while individual relationships are key to reconciliation, these can fluctuate and good work can suffer, so  a commitment to engagement with the wider community is crucial for reconciliation to be sustainable. Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson recently published a book on same-sex marriage. He told us 'a tsunami of change is heading our way' because of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the tensions between faith, sexuality and gender identity which are all protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. He said:

I don't think we have a gay problem - I think we have a hypocrisy problem.

adding that the Anglican hierarchy discouraging talk of homosexuality for fear of disunity

assumes that those who have been hurt or excluded by the church are not part it, and gives permission to bully and scapegoat.

He encouraged the evangelicals present by saying:

the best conversations are coming from evangelical churches, which have a low tolerance for institutional silliness and place a high value on truth.

Invited as a conservative voice, US sociologist and evangelical pastor Tony Campolo spoke via video link. He wrote a response to Steve Chalke's 'open conversation' statement in 2013, disagreeing with his conclusions while agreeing on the need to do something differently:

Those of us who will have to deal with what Steve Chalke has said need not necessarily agree with his theology or biblical hermeneutic to affirm the truth that he boldly declares, which is that the Church cannot afford to go on alienating the youth of the nation by the way it treats gay people.

Unlike some evangelicals, Tony's sociological training means he knows that the causes of sexual orientation are unclear, and that gay or bisexual people are unlikely to change their orientation. Tony, now aged 80, admitted he has become 'uneasy' with his traditional position, particularly around his understanding of marriage. He now believes Jesus calls us 'to be transformed into fully actualised individuals' and his experience of marriage is that it is a 'primary, humanising, edifying, actualising force', thanks to his wife, who holds a more liberal view. He has begun to reflect on whether this could be an argument in favour of same-sex marriage. He is concerned that some Christian churches, including the Anglican Communion, have made a conservative stance on same-sex relationships a defining issue, while a range of views on other issues are permitted in an inclusive church. He added that we create a dichotomy:

We put people on the other side of the line, but Jesus is with them on the other side.

Reassuring a mother of a gay son who was told 'gay is not God's best', Tony said:

God's existential will is for us to be loved just as we are. But 'just as I am' implies 'just as you are' too.

This is the challenge and responsibility of relating with others in an inclusive community. Following Tony's brief reflection on the six so-called 'clobber texts' against homosexuality, Steve Chalke commented that these have become 'bullets in a gun fired at every LGB person' by Christians, which is 'entirely the wrong approach'. Steve's call for a more inclusive ethos

won't fit like a new brick in a crumbling wall - we need to go back to the foundations of our faith and rebuild

which is why some Christians feel so challenged by his new perspective on sexual ethics. Delegates signed up for a choice of three workshops across the two days, with facilitators including some of the keynote speakers, and:

I attended those most relevant to my experience as a youth worker and LGBT awareness trainer:

  • An exploration of sexuality and gender identity around the world led by Anji Barker, a community leader with the Oasis Trust who spent 12 years working with young people in Thailand. She reflected on cultures with a concept of a third gender, which is important for the Church in developing its understanding and inclusion of human diversity, and in refining its concept of marriage, which is defined in terms of the gender binary, recognising only male and female.
  • What does it mean to provide inclusive youth work? led by Adrian Smith, Principal of the Oasis College of Higher Education, which trains youth workers. We explored definitions of inclusivity, participation, boundaries and responsibilities in an interactive reflection on our own practice in secular and Christian contexts. Inclusive youth work is important as many LGBT young people feel unable to attend, or are excluded from, church youth groups, and LGBT youth workers have often been barred from this ministry if they come out.
  • Young people. sexuality & suicide led by Ben Edson, Associate Rector of St James & Emmanuel parishes in Manchester, where 14-year-old Lizzie Lowe, daughter of a family at the heart of this community, took her own life in September 2014, in part because she struggled to reconcile her emerging sexuality with her faith and feared rejection if she told her family or church leaders. The clergy felt they were inclusive but had not explicitly communicated this, at least not enough to reach Lizzie in her distress. They produced a statement after her inquest, and asked the PCC to approve an inclusion statement adapted from Inclusive Church resources,  though they have not affiliate with that organisation as they are about to embark on a listening process with the wider church community on what it means for them to be an inclusive church.

During breaks there was time for discussion sparked by presentations and workshops. I was mainly in the marketplace in my role as Modern Church website editor, promoting the journal Modern Believing, in particular the issue on same-sex relationships and marriage. Delegates were offered three months free access to this issue via the Liverpool University Press website.

Panel discussions also gave space for reflection between presentations, including one called 'I Respectfully Disagree', with most of the keynote speakers, The Lived Experience, including LGBT people sharing their stories, a youth panel responding to the question 'What does Generation Z think?' and a Question Time with audience queries for keynote speakers. panelists and the chair challenged Andrew Marin to declare his own views. He responded:

My role is about figuring out what to do to produce relational healing and social reconciliation, through an ethic of inclusivity and the practise of love.

One question from the floor reflected the tension that some in the room are still living:

Have we made theology in our own image or are we subservient to cultural relativism? How can we be more inclusive and faithful to Biblical teaching?

The LGBT experience panel gave poignant insights into mental isolation and damage to self-esteem from the cognitive dissonance of living with a different sexual orientation or gender identity and a faith which struggles to accept those whose identities don't conform to a traditional understanding of human nature. While some have refused to absorb 'toxic' or 'harmful' theology, others have felt no choice but to leave as the church felt unsafe. One panelist compared the prejudice and marginalisation she experienced to racism:

If I were black, I wouldn't want to work for an organisation that was racist.

She also lamented the church's inability to cope with bisexuality the 'silent B in LGBT', assuming that because bisexuals are attracted to men and women, they will inevitably be unfaithful. Several panelists commented on how quickly attitudes can change when people realise they know someone with a different sexual orientation or gender identity, and understand the impact of ignorance or discrimination. Commenting on why so many leave the church, one drew this analogy:

Why would a heterosexual couple stay with a group of friends who were proactively trying to break up their marriage?

The consensus was that while churches can excel at supporting some marginalised groups, LGBT people are not often recognised as being marginalised or oppressed. Summing up, Steve Chalke used an image of an incoming tide, 'overwhelming the sandcastle of resistance'. He described the process of inclusion as an 'irresistible force' and 'a re-evaluation in the light of pastoral need.' He quoted the welcome statement used in Oasis churches, which ends:

And though we are not yet strong and vulnerable enough to show the unconditional love of God at all times, we hope we are moving in that direction.

So why is this a conversation that matters?

  • Some can't understand why the church is still debating this issue, as the 'Generation Z' panel confirmed. Few, if any of those people were at this conference.

  • Many who mostly strongly disagree with the 'Open Church' ethos were also unlikely to be present - one panelist called it the 'Parents Evening' phenomenon, where the parents of the naughtiest kids rarely show up. However, I am reliably informed that Stephen Green, National Director of the conservative Christian Voice and some allies were present on day two, and diverted the workshop called 'Why can't gay people be cured?' onto the subject of paedophilia, conflating it with homosexuality.

  • A contributor to the Changing Attitude Facebook group wrote on Sunday:
    'I have only recently learnt that some churches in the Oxford Diocese have demanded (and been given) alternative episcopal oversight because the disapprove of +Alan (Bishop of Buckingham)'s views on sexual equality. In allowing them that alternative oversight, the Diocese, and thus the Church, is condoning a position which is utterly heterodox (yet, ...matters which the Church considers historically unorthodox are condemned, whilst others are permitted, even encouraged.)'

    UPDATE 18th April: Contributors to the Changing Attitude Facebook group have since informed me that the above claim about alternative episcopal oversight for those who disagree with the Bishop of Buckingham is unconfirmed, and +Alan commented on the thread to say simply 'News to me.' However, the fact remains that it is being discussed as a possibility, which still demonstrates the challenges to inclusion we are facing.

  • As I write the Core Issues TrustAnglican Mainstream and Christian Concern are at a day conference in London. They advocate 'gay conversion therapy', despite the fact that 14 UK medical and therapeutic professional associations, NHS England, the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy and the Association of Christian Counsellors, recently agreed a Memorandum of Understanding on such therapies, stating that:
efforts to try to change or alter sexual orientation through psychological therapies are unethical and potentially harmful.
Conservative evangelical archbishops, bishops and other church leaders from around the world are meeting in the UK this week to discuss whether to back a parallel Anglican church in this country.

The 'Open Church' ethos invites us to dialogue with groups such as this, and find ways to include them. Perhaps we can accept the challenge to dialogue with those with whom we disagree, but how do we respond with love and include those who refuse dialogue because they disagree with us?