Alan Wilson, the only CofE bishop to wholeheartedly support same-sex marriage, discusses his journey to believing it to be a moral purpose …
When I first became a bishop in 2003, I was told to do three things about the continuing Anglican controversy over sexuality. First, I should read the Bible with fresh eyes, to work out whether traditional interpretations were the only possible option for the future. Second, I should get to know gay people personally, especially gay disciples. I should listen to their experiences of love and life, to understand better what their lives were about. Third, I was to mug up the facts of life and the ongoing search for scientific understanding about sexuality. What were its moral implications?
Obedient as ever, that’s what I did.
On the way, I discovered there was very little new to say about the tiny amount of Bible verses that were supposed to refer to this subject. Getting to know gay people, I came to question the stereotypes I had acquired through my upbringing in Britain in the 60s and 70s. I experienced a whole range of personality and upbringing types, not an exotic, deviant minority with distant fathers and authoritarian mothers. Thirdly, I went back to relearn the facts of life. I am no specialist, but I could see that the only way to understand homosexuality scientifically was as part of a wide range of human sexual longing and expression, not an anomaly, sickness, or lifestyle choice.
I asked myself ‘what does God want for gay people?’ As I did this, I began to realize that it was the same as his intentions for anybody else – flourishing in faith, hope and love, individually and in community. There was no other Gay X factor about this.
This all led me to the conviction that allowing gay people to marry was a moral purpose, not primarily a concession to secular modernity. I was open about my convictions, on my blog and elsewhere. Soon I was hearing almost a thousand different people, discussing the matter with them. I met many gay people, some of them living lives of extraordinary courage, integrity and resilience through years of adversity. A very small minority of straight people I met were diehard homophobes. I dislike the term, but there’s none other for people who tell you, in the name of God, that gay people are lice and vermin who should be aborted before birth. Every bizarre homophobic argument I encountered was supported by religious arguments. The very worst statements were sometimes larded about will all kinds of bleating about how much the speaker loves gay people really.
The vast majority of people I met, however, were travelling along a road like mine. A small minority of those with gay family members or unresolved sexuality issues in their own lives were trenchantly anti-gay. Very many more, however, were just trying to love their neighbour as themselves, whilst struggling to understand the changes about sex all around them. The fact that sex isn’t an easy subject to discuss with strangers didn’t help. Most people’s instincts were magnificently inclusive and understanding, but on their journeys towards equality, the head often lagged behind the heart.
In my book, More Perfect Union: Understanding Same-sex Marriage, I will backfill aspects of gay marriage as I worked them out along the way. I met various Christians, like myself, in their 50s. They had been invited to a same-sex wedding and wanted to be able to join in wholeheartedly, rejoicing with those who rejoice. All that held them back was a vague uneasiness about the whole subject, arising from their upbringing, conventional stereotypes, and the hangover of thousands of years of fear and discrimination about gay people.
My aim in writing my book is to help Christians who feel this way unite head and heart in a fully positive response to gay people marrying.
Alan Wilson is Bishop of Buckingham. His book More Perfect Union: Understanding Same-sex Marriage is published by DLT Books on September 26, paperback, £9.99.