Yesterday evening while I was at the Peace Centres Ireland and Changing Attitude Ireland event in Belfast it was mentioned that in 2007 that my church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), had come up with Pastoral Guidelines. I thought I'd better read them, especially as I also felt compelled to write a letter to my minister following last Sunday's sermon which was on 1 Thessalonians 4.
The first thing that strikes me is the first paragraph of the preamble:
While a person's sexuality is a very important part of their lives, it does not define who they are. Biblically we as a church maintain that a person is defined in the first instance in terms of their relationship to God – creation in relation to Creator. To refer to a person as a homosexual, a lesbian or a heterosexual is therefore to narrow their identity to their sexuality alone. For this reason it seems better to refer to 'people' who have 'same sex attraction'.
Now there are a lot of things that define my identity. I don't call find a way to avoid the fact that I am male, even though that doesn't express my identity alone. Nor do I shy away from being a Liberal Democrat, an ex-sportsman, a geek etc. There are many things that make up my identity, being homosexual is just one of them.
My homosexuality isn't also merely a matter of attraction to someone of the same sex. A dictionary definition of attraction is:
a. A feature or characteristic that attracts.b. A person, place, thing, or event that is intended to attract
a. The electric or magnetic force exerted by oppositely charged particles, tending to draw or hold the particles together.b. The gravitational force exerted by one body on another.
There is hope in the opening paragraph setting out the need for Pastoral Care with this paragraph:
It is clear that people of all ages who have same sex attractions are very reluctant to tell others because of fear, prejudice etc. Keeping their feelings hidden out of fear has a significant impact on mental health.
Sadly it is very true, that the element of keeping sexuality hidden can have an impact on sexual health. We are taught as Christians not to bear false witness, yet part of our witness as gay Christians is our sexuality. As I mentioned last night the fact that when people realise it affects people they know
There are some positive affirming statements (emphasis mine):
When we condemn homosexual practice in isolation or single it out as somehow worse than other sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage then we demonstrate homophobic attitudes.
There needs to be the recognition within the church that the desires for love (in all its aspects), intimacy, companionship etc. that move heterosexual couples towards marriage are the same desires that motivate those with same sex attractions.
Sadly there is the footnote:
As stated, the position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is that sexual practice is only for heterosexual marriage. As a church therefore our aim ought to be to help ALL unmarried people to cope with sexual pressures. We realise this raises issues regarding celibacy. While this is an area of debate in relation to the 'hope of marriage', essentially ongoing sexual pressures still need to be controlled.
The debate for the 'hope of marriage' is one that I think needs to be discussed, especially in light of the comments above about desires for love in all aspects. As I've mentioned before 1 Corinthians 7: 7-9 says:
"I (Paul) wish that everyone were like me, but each person has his own gift from God. One has one gift, another has another gift. Now for those who are not married and for the widows I say this: it is good for them to stay unmarried as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desires." New Century Version
So you have a church that is telling me it acknowledges my love has desires in all its aspects yet denies a physically expression of that love outside marriage. What level of that physical expression is a line to drawn? Wherever it is I have already crossed it, because I do burn with sexual desires, often stemming out of deep love, not merely attraction, for a man. The bible through Paul tells me it is better to marry than to burn with such desires, yet I don't have that option from my church, however much I want to.
What am I to do?
I'm writing two letters one to my own minister in light of last Sunday evening's sermon, the other to Board of Social Witness to ask about their seven recommendations, especially some of the latter ones.