British Baptists debate gay marriage

A prominent pastor’s call for inclusion and conversation and a move by the government to legalize same-sex marriage make homosexuality a front-burner issue for Baptists in the United Kingdom.

By Bob Allen

The recent call by a prominent evangelical to re-examine the church’s traditional rejection of homosexuality prompted debate in the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

The Baptist Times, the union’s online news journal, reported Jan. 25 that its most-read articles in the last 10 days were three columns responding to a commentary by leading UK evangelical Steve Chalke saying he has changed his mind about the sinfulness of committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships.

By going public with his views, Chalke, an ordained Baptist minister who in 1985 founded the Oasis Trust charity for housing, health care and educational projects, put himself at odds with the view of the majority of British Baptists -- that same-sex orientation is not sinful but homosexual acts are -- BUGB leaders said in the articles.

“Many will strongly disagree with Steve,” observed BUGB General Secretary Jonathan Edwards, “but it is vital that we talk through these important issues as we seek to be faithful to Scripture and to be obedient to the call of God.”

By policy, accredited ministers of the Baptist Union of Great Britain are not permitted to participate in the formal blessing of same-sex civil partnerships. The policy, adopted in 2009 by the union’s governing council as reflecting views of member churches, will likely be reviewed in 2013 in light of bills being introduced by the government to legalize gay marriage.

The Baptist union has developed an educational program to help congregations reflect on same-sex relationships from differing perspectives and “welcomes debate and discussion on this complex matter,” Stephen Keyworth of the BGUB faith and society leader team and Paul Goodliff of the ministries leader team wrote in a Baptist Times article.

“Baptists have attempted to avoid the more destructive controversies amongst other church traditions in recent years, turning instead to an educational program for churches and ministers that continues to be used occasionally,” the leaders said. “But since Baptists have the same passion for effective mission as others (and like to think in greater measure) this wrestling with our acceptance or rejection of homosexuality is unavoidable.”

kleissnerAndrew Kleissner, minister of Christ Church (United Reformed/Baptist) in Ipswich, said he would like to see the policy changed.

“It appears that the government wishes to push through these changes to the law within the next two years,” Kliessner wrote in another article. “How wonderful it would be if our denomination could be ahead of the game in our discussions and resolutions, rather than appearing to be fighting a somewhat ineffectual rear-guard action against a fait accompli. Would our progressive stance not, in fact, be a real testimony to the openness and acceptance which Christ offers to all?”

Malcolm Duncan, founder and director of a leadership organization named Church and Community and senior pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church in Chalfton St. Peter, said he agrees with Chalke that Baptists haven’t always been Christ-like in their attitudes toward gay people, but unlike Chalke he believes “the Bible clearly prohibits homoerotic relationships.”

Malcolm duncan“The church must surely acknowledge that we have failed gay people,” Duncan wrote in a blog. “We must be repentant about this and change our ways. But the greatest disservice we can do is to assume that two wrongs will make a right. I cannot condone what Scripture clearly prohibits -- and I am not free to change its words to suit my perspective.”

Steve Holmes, a Baptist theologian who chairs the theology and public policy committee for the Evangelical Alliance, the largest and oldest body representing evangelical Christians in the UK, critiqued Chalke’s use of a “trajectory” reading of the Bible, where themes develop within Scripture and the task of readers is to continue to develop those trajectories.

“He offers standard examples of slavery and female church leaders, and then suggests that gay relationships should be treated the same way,” Holmes wrote in his commentary.

Holmes said the idea that humans move ever onward and upward is pervasive in Western culture and was applied powerfully in the 19th century by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.

Holmes said “trajectories” sound very good to contemporary Bible readers, but “biblical history has a different shape.”

“Biblical truth is always culturally located, and there is an important hermeneutical task of discovering what the unchanging ways of God look like in a different culture,” Holmes wrote. “For me, however, this is a task of translation, not of finding trajectories.”

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