Learning to Disagree: Gender and Sexuality
Last winter, Trinity students participated in a plenary week that brought together speakers with a variety of perspectives on the issues surrounding gender and sexuality to address our students, who themselves hold a variety of perspectives. As the week unfolded, our students responded by providing both those invited to college and one another with the space to have honest conversations, loving one another by listening with respect and humility, while maintaining a simultaneous concern for biblical faithfulness. Ordinand Helen O’Sullivan writes about her experience during the week.
In February, as a college, we had the opportunity to engage with and reflect on the ethical and pastoral issues for the church today concerning the areas of gender and sexuality. The week was thoughtfully planned and led by our theology and ethics tutor, Rev Dr Jon Coutts, and all students were able to engage in some or all of the week’s activities. I was fortunate enough to be able to assist with the week alongside a group of other students, supporting logistical and technical aspects of the week, as well as welcoming guest speakers. Learning, discussion, and reflection took place in large-scale lectures, pastoral groups, and presentations by visiting speakers.
There were many threads and challenges that arose across the week, and this reflection does not have the capacity to do more than scratch the surface of these. But for me, the themes of inclusivity and integrity were central to our discussions—that as a Church we are called to be inclusive and welcoming, and that we have a mandate to live with integrity and to be biblically faithful as the body of Christ, the first fruits of the new Kingdom. But what do we do when an ethical issue creates a feeling of tension between these two callings for some but not others within the Church?
I was reminded that none of the individual issues we might discuss exist in a vacuum. They are shaped and mediated for us by other factors before we even begin to discuss them. For a start they sit within a much broader biblical framework, which can support, challenge, and give structure to conversations, and they are also located within the cultural norms of our societies. We cannot engage in any of these discussions except out of our own experiences and understanding, and so we must always acknowledge that we will only come with part of the jigsaw, and that in order to begin to wrestle with the bigger picture we are reliant on others to share their stories, experiences and positions. With the challenges of the ‘social media bubble’ where I have found myself following and sharing stories with those who generally think the same way as I do, and churches’ tendencies to gather in like-minded tribes where we can feel comfortable and at home, it is easy to find ourselves hearing only one side of a story. This week reminded me that, as with any issue, it is vital that we make room for the voices of those for whom these issues are not simply theological points to be debated, or church policy to be developed, but for whom the issues are personal and part of their everyday lives.
During the plenary week we had the opportunity to hear from a range of different speakers with a variety of experiences and positions on issues of gender and sexuality. Their honesty, vulnerability, and humility meant we were able to engage with the choices they have personally made in light of their own biblical reflection and circumstances. Their stories helped me to reflect on the fact that everyone has a contribution to make to conversations in these areas; however, everyone also has to take responsibility for the position they hold, for doing the hard work of theological and pastoral reflection. We need to use every hermeneutical and reflective tool at our disposal if we are to discuss these issues robustly. I was challenged to realise that if I don’t do this work, I am in danger of either resorting to platitudes or proof texts or worse—lapsing into an uncomfortable silence of indecision.
Elaine Sommers, a transgender person who came to speak to us, highlighted this for me by reflecting on her own perception and experience of hearing issues of gender and sexuality spoken about in churches. Her main reflection was that, despite the ongoing debates at national and international levels, she has found an almost deafening silence in local churches around these issues. And yet it is in local churches where congregations need to be equipped to ask, ‘What is the faithful thing to do in this time and place?’ How do those of us who lead, preach, and disciple in our churches ensure that, no matter what views we hold, we speak about them constructively? This week has helped me to develop my understanding that to be able to speak constructively about divisive issues we need to be able to share the same starting points—robust theological work and engaged pastoral reflection—enabling a shared conversation with integrity and inclusivity.
I was left with the challenge that both integrity and inclusivity are vital to the identity of the church as the body of Christ and the mission of God. While as the Church our witness to the world is to be shown in our love, this cannot justify avoiding taking a stand on ethical issues. However, we must also recognise that debates on ethical issues are by their very nature integral to people’s lives and will be received in relational terms. Inclusivity and integrity can only have meaning when enacted in a community rooted in a given time and place. They become a reality in the way we relate to God, the way we relate to the people around us, and how these two sets of relationships interact. In seeking to live out inclusivity and integrity in our locations, we need to speak about how to discuss and make choices with biblical faithfulness and humility.
For me this week was not so much about answers to a specific issue as about developing a robust and sensitive approach to issues that might ignite division in a church. While it was both interesting and helpful to engage with the area of gender and sexual ethics, for me, my main learning was around how the church can better engage in general with challenging ethical issues. Looking to the future, as a church leader, I will have other divisive challenges to face and will need to have the skills and attitudes that will enable me to be responsible for my own opinions and to be willing to be vulnerable and humble enough to listen well to others and to God’s word.
Finally, it was so encouraging that the week’s conversations were framed in an attitude of respect and generosity, and as a community there was a desire for different views to be heard and considered. The vision was for a safe space where people could share their views as well as have the courage to try out new thoughts or changing ideas as the week progressed, which was visible in people’s engagement in discussions, the questions they asked, and the grace with which disagreements were handled. Our existing relationships as a college community enabled courage and vulnerability to lie at the heart of disagreements rather than a desire to win an argument. For me, this showed the strength of holding these conversations in a community where relationships are built around a vision of the Kingdom as a people united in Christ.
Helen O’Sullivan is an ordinand from Winchester Diocese pursuing a Diploma in Theology, Ministry and Mission.
(Reprinted from the Spring 2017 Trinity News)