The statements about Article 377A in the media in Singapore, by Christian and other religious bodies, whereby consensual sexual relations between male adults are outlawed under former British colonial legislation, have prompted me to share with the Council for World Mission (CWM) membership, here in Singapore and beyond, something of CWM’s vision of churches as inclusive communities. I think CWM has been silent for too long on these issues and this must feel like complicity and consent for those who face rejection because of their God given sexuality. I write to you as General Secretary of CWM but also as a pastor and a father, who comes from Jamaica, a context where homophobia is very strong, in order to appeal to you that we look to Christ’s vision of life in fullness for all to build inclusive and life affirming communities where all feel equal, safe and empowered.
If Christians are to be bearers of Christ’s promise and gift of fullness of life, they must make themselves known in communities which show the radically inclusive love of Jesus. Such life affirming community is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet we see in Isaiah 26 and share in the celebration of communion. The Holy Spirit, which inhabits all of life, is embodied in communities which reflect all of life, including human sexualities and gender identities. Communities which make space for the full diversity of God’s world become the basis for creating alternatives to the world of exclusion and death which marks out so much of our economic, political, religious and social life. We follow Jesus who was unfairly tried and put to death for politically expedient reasons. Thus, the Church is called to be bearers and defenders of human dignity, which seems to suggest that we ought to support laws which defend the rights of all persons in our societies. As Martin Luther King Jnr said, ‘Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere’.
If our communities are drawn fully and deeply from all kinds of people then we can speak authentically and believably of Christians loving the world, with all its diversities. In such communities, it is homophobia which needs to change, not LGBTQ people. The love we all long for, a love which doesn’t judge, is inspired by God’s grace, which each receive in being affirmed fully as followers of Christ. Inclusive communities empower because they send people into doing justice sensitised by the needs of those we live amongst. Accepting and embracing God’s love, as revealed in Jesus, helps us to make room for those amongst whom Jesus dwells – the poorest and the marginalised in our societies. Our living in community with diverse people tests whether we are loving like Jesus and reveals our obedience to Jesus whose life was devoted to an alternative way of thinking and being in community. There are vital and urgent contributions to the mission of God which LGBTQ people can make and are making, especially as they challenge churches to embody Jesus’ life of radical love. Therefore, LGBTQ people should not be cast away by religious communities but be affirmed in all parts of our communities, not least of which is the church, which claims God’s grace as an undeserved endowment.
LGBTQ people are made in the image of God just like all other people. However, this is not the experience of many LGBTQ people around the world and in Singapore. LGBTQ people face significant reproach in societies, and religious groups add shame on top of this. By regarding LGBTQ people, people God has made, as sinful in our preaching, the Church has done great harm. The Church has inadvertently fostered hostility and rejection in the way the Bible is used to make LGBTQ people feel less than God’s people. The ‘Othering’ and scapegoating of men and women, young and old, is not the central message of Christianity, nor is it the proclamation of the Gospel; yet for many outside the church this is all we seem to stand for. In some contexts, such religiously sanctioned views have led to violence against LGBTQ people. That is sin. Churches, followers of Jesus, are called to be communities of hospitality and healing, not communities of hostility and harm, to God’s people. Christian communities speak of loving all of God’s creation, which includes LGBTQ people ‘despite’ their sexual orientation. However, unfortunately, LGBTQ people are excluded from this love and left feeling stigmatised and judged. Rather than confronting the sinful violence of homophobia, the Church has used the Bible as a weapon to strip people of their God-given dignity and worth because of their sexual identity.
The consequences of this approach to reading Scripture fall heavily on the LGBTQ community, placing them under a shadow of fear, and even depression because we insist that they should repress a God-given part of themselves. Indeed, LGBTQ people are acutely aware that they risk familial and social rejection, damage to their self-worth and family alienation if they are open in who and how they are. I am afraid that the heavier consequences will fall on the church, who are failing in our calling to be God’s people, loving the world and all who inhabit the Earth. Even where some members within the church community begin to change its treatment of LGBTQ people, it is often too little too late because we have already sacrificed the good faith and example of many, who cannot trust the Church to provide them safe spaces.
CWM is a mission organisation with over 200 years’ experience of sharing the Gospel of Jesus, believing in the God who changes life, heart and world he brings. There are many biblical texts which can be used to harm others, and they have been so used. White people have used the text to justify the enslavement of black people. Men have used it to justify the supposed inequality of women. The Bible has been used to defend the demands of empires to go to war and to take land and life. The Bible has also been used by religious leaders to create norms which are a product not of the Gospel but the cultural norms of particular times and places. No biblical text can be treated as the single authority for all our attitudes and actions, because there are so many different texts we can choose and there are many ways of interpreting a given text. We, therefore, do not have the permission to privilege some and not others. So, the task of a mission organisation, such as CWM, is to heighten consciousness as to the reading and use of biblical texts to bring closer the heavenly banquet that God is preparing in our midst for all to come.
CWM is based in Singapore, a secular state which proudly seeks harmony through social integration and inclusion and recognition of the constituent races, ethnicities and faiths in the island. Doing the same for people of different sexualities seems to me an extension of the same wisdom. Singapore seeks harmony in a secular space because, sadly, the world’s religions are not widely trusted with delivering peace and harmony. This leads me to believe that CWM can also only be trusted to do this if we actively, openly and rejoicingly build inclusive communities in which all persons, regardless of sexuality, genders, race, ethnicity, ability, class or caste, find their dignity affirmed and their key part in the mission of God enabled. We continue to work hopeful of the transformation inclusive communities can bring. We are advocating the dismantling of all prejudices as fundamental to sharing the peace of Christ. The CWM family, seeks to be an inclusive community. Our history tells of how we shrugged off colonial control and colonial Bible readings in 1977, in order to live as equals and partners. Thus, I invite CWM member churches to recognise in the LGBTQ members of its churches, families, communities and nations, equal persons whom God loves fully and calls to follow freely as they are; and to advocate for, and take steps towards bringing an end to the culture of homophobia in churches.
Rev Dr Collin Cowan
General Secretary, Council for World Mission