Why on earth are evangelical statements of this kind treated differently?

I was surprised to read in today’s Guardian two particularly good comments, within the same article, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here, Justin Welby outlined the difficult position in which the Anglican Communion finds itself regarding gay marriage.

The first comment, which really outlines the difficult position, was the headline of the article. Welby suggested that African believers will be killed if the CofE accepts gay marriage. He told of the mass grave he had seen in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been killed by their neighbours. He said this atrocity was justified by those who committed it this way: “If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians”.

Welby went on to say “I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact”. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, “the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world”.

Welby is right to outline this issue. The Anglican Church does not operate in a Western Liberal bubble and its pronouncements are felt across the world. Moreover, it is not only those who subscribe to Anglicanism who are affected. All Christians will feel the brunt of their decisions and statements, irrespective of whether they themselves are Anglican communicants. Most people do not have enough theological nuance to differentiate between denominations and theological views. Typically, whether believers like it or not, Anglicanism is seen as the authentic voice of Christianity across the world. As such, not only do CofE pronouncements affect Anglican believers, they have knock-on effects for all Christians, especially those in countries in which Christianity is less than welcome.

However, the far more interesting part of the article came later, almost as an aside. The article stated:

Welby also condemned homophobia in England. “To treat every human being with equal importance and dignity is a fundamental part of being a Christian,” he said. Although he continued to uphold what he called the historic position of the church, of “sex only within marriage and marriage only between a man and a woman”, he agreed with the presenter, James O’Brien, that it was “completely unacceptable” for the church to condemn homosexual people more than adulterous heterosexual people.

This is the closest statement to the scriptural position on gay marriage I have seen from the Archbishop and it was this that caught my attention.

As a caveat, I appreciate there are some fundamentalist, and fewer evangelical, churches who would not frame the Christian position in this way. There are those who would major on homosexuality in a thoroughly unhelpful (and unbiblical?) way. I also appreciate there are those who, though they would make similar comments, say and do a series of other things that rather undermine their stated position. Again, however, I think these churches are in the minority within both fundamentalist and evangelical circles.

This was the thing that interested me most. The Guardian, the paper most likely to cry foul play on this issue, reported fairly that the Archbishop “condemned homophobia”. They rightly stated the scriptural position that all people should be treated with dignity and respect – irrespective of whatever sin they may have committed – as “a fundamental part of being a Christian”. All of this was stated alongside the clear view of the Archbishop that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman but that it is nevertheless wrong to condemn homosexual behaviour more than adulterous heterosexual behaviour. All of that, I completely endorse.

Why then, given the Archbishop of Canterbury was deemed – by the Guardian no less – to have “condemned homophobia”, do evangelicals who make exactly the same case get castigated as homophobic? Almost every evangelical church I have known (with few exceptions), would state the position of scripture and their individual, independent churches in almost exactly those terms.

Recently, evangelical writer and rector of St Ebbes, Oxford – Vaughan Roberts – expressed precisely this view in an interview for Evangelical Now, as well as in his book Battles Christians Face. In both interview and book, he bravely spoke of his own personal struggle with same-sex attraction. Other evangelical writers have written similar articles and books making much the same case. It simply beggars belief that this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury can be deemed to condemn homophobia whilst nigh on identical statements from evangelical quarters are roundly condemned as homophobic.

If the scriptural position stated by Justin Welby is recognised as condemning homophobia, continual claims of evangelical homophobia need to be addressed. If it be homophobic to call homosexual acts (whilst still respecting the rights and dignity of those attracted to people of the same-sex) sinful, in precisely the same way as calling adulterous heterosexuality (whilst still respecting the rights and dignity of those people) sinful, then it is hard to see how Justin Welby’s comments escape this charge. If, however, the scriptural view is not deemed fundamentally homophobic – that all people irrespective of the particular sins they commit (of which, we all commit some) are worthy of dignity and respect but that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage does amount to sin – then Justin Welby, the CofE and the majority of evangelical churches cannot, and should not, be labelled uniformly homophobic.

I would love it if this signals a change in media reporting. I would be delighted if this means the genuine nuances of the scriptural view, and majority position within evangelicalism, are reported fairly. It would be great if Christians are not simply denounced as homophobic when they differentiate the choice to commit homosexual acts from the homosexual people who do not choose to be attracted to people of the same-sex. This is exactly the same as the differentiation between the heterosexual people who do not choose to be attracted to people of the opposite sex but do choose when, and with whom, to engage in sexual activity.

When evangelicals speak of homosexuality as sinful, they rarely mean same-sex attraction is of itself sinful, intentional and chosen. I hope these nuances are reported fairly and this marks a sea-change in the way evangelical, and broader Christian, views of homosexuality are seen in the media and the public square. I hope this is the case but I shan’t hold my breath.