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Diversity and Collusion

The United Reformed Church often speaks of “living within our diversity.” Obviously the phrase and its underlying sentiments come into play most often when we are faced with debate and controversy. Often an appeal to “living within our diversity” is a wise and sensitive response. It makes sense given that the wonder and goodness of God’s creation, including human culture, is in large part due to its diversity. Diversity demands acceptance, and when acceptance is difficult, tolerance. But tolerance is not limitless, particularly when what is at stake is not simply textual interpretations or theological nicety, but people’s rights and the quality of their lives. After a years of a moratorium on policy decisions regarding the acceptance and place of gay people in the church, the United Reformed Church is once again discussing the “issue.”

Old Compton Street, London

There are, of course, assumptions underlying the call to “live within our diversity.” It assumes that the position that gay people are sinful and/or pathological may be anthropologically, ethically, biblical and theologically sound. It assumes that formally authorised institutional faith-based discrimination against gay people may be justifiable. Furthermore, it assumes that it is acceptable that the United Reformed Church be known publicly as a church that holds, at least in part, that gay people are sinful and/or pathological and that institutional discrimination against gay people is, at least in part, a reasonable policy.

The call to “live within our diversity” implies that church unity is more important than justice. The church is often quite willing to put the demands of justice aside to preserve its peace and unity, implicitly or explicitly asking those enduring injustice to be patient (and quietly recognising that if they cannot they may leave). Given that issues of justice are more than not about how people live their lives and how they are allowed to live their lives, “living within our diversity” can also imply that church unity is more important than the quality of peoples’ lives.

At present the United Reformed Church’s position on gay rights is similar to the position held by the United States military: Don’t ask, don’t tell. I have no idea how many ministers in the United Reformed Church are gay, but there are more than a few, including some in senior positions. Nor do I know how many elders, members and adherents are gay. Gay people in leaderships roles in the church are there because they were deemed worthy of the position, and often the best of many candidates vying for the post. They are liked and respected. However, many are in the closet while some are uneasy about how openly to live their lives. They recognise that the United Reformed Church accepts as credible both sides of the “issue” and that the church does not in either policy or spirit grant them full rights. They realise that the church has not yet decided if they are sinful and pathological distortions of God’s good creation or are in their very nature a good and healthy part of God’s creation.

J. Philip Wogaman looks to the doctrine of creation to provide a theological basis for building a Christian ethic: "it is through a doctrine of creation that we express our understanding of how it is that related to the structures and events of this world...Creation expresses our understanding of how God relates to human life in the actual setting of concrete existence.[1]"

Within Christian theology, creation and covenant cannot be separated. Without creation, all that we understand through Christian faith would merely exist in the mind of God; that is to say, creation makes real and concrete the covenant God has and continually seeks with humankind. Without covenant, creation is merely a reality void of God's redemptive relationship with humankind. Thus, creation can form a foundation for a Christian ethic while covenant can give that ethic hope.

To speak of reality as created implies that nature is not self-originating, and that the meaning of nature cannot be fully understood from nature alone. To say nature is created is to say that it has a beginning, source, and intention in something Other; that Other called God by Christians. Thus, a theological interpretation of nature and human life must always address the question of how in our world God's intentions can be fulfilled in and through human activity. If God has an intention for creation and a covenantal relationship with humankind, which is part of that creation, human character and action become crucial for human existence, the divine-human relationship, and creation itself.

Peter Hodgson says that God is above all else a creative being who not only "calls into being everything that is but also creates a more complex and differentiated world by offering novel possibilities for advancement, thereby luring finite beings forward into new and richer possibilities of being."[2] Our theological and ethical understandings are grounded in the goodness of creation itself, and ethical advancement is intimately bonded to God's intentions for creation and humankind. To those who claim that homosexuality is incompatible with God’s intentions in creation, I would assert that the differentiation represented by same-sex loving relationships both expresses the diversity of creation, which is good, and expands human possibilities in ways that lead to a deeper understanding of God. Even a casual glance at creation reveals that God does not intend for everyone to be the same. Our different desires, experiences and perspectives enable us to express more fully the image of God.

Made in God’s image, human beings have worth. God does not damn creation or diverse human beings within it. Rather God participates in the world as created, loved, condemned, and reconciled in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, creation is valued by God, to the point where God is willing to make his home in us as we make our home in him (John 15:4[3]). What is so disturbing about the church’s exclusion of gay people is that the church cloaks its bigotry and sometimes hatred in sacredness. The church attributes to God its own hatred.

Henri Nouwen reflected at some length on the John 15 passage. He says:

Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home. By making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him...Thus we can remain fully human and still have our home in God. In this new home the distinction between distance and closeness no longer exists. God who is furthest away, came closest, by taking on our mortal humanity. Thus God overcomes all distinctions between "distant" and "close" and offers us an intimacy in which we can be most ourselves when most like God. [4]

 Unless we retreat into dramatic individualism and exclusive personal piety, which is not Nouwen's intention, this new home is the Body of Christ, and should be the Church. Is it possible that the distances found in race, gender, sexual orientation can be overcome in this home? Nouwen's suggestion is that home is a place of intimacy, or friendship, where fear cannot take root and thus will wither and die, and that if fear cannot grow, it cannot transform race, gender and sexual orientation into dividing walls of hostility. However, I am not naïve. Race, gender, sexual orientation make very fine dividing walls.

Nouwen does not see intimacy as private or small or exclusive. Intimacy in God's house transcends the merely personal and becomes social. In this home, we are in it together. Nouwen says:

Those who have entered deeply into their hearts and found the intimate home where they encounter their Lord, come to the mysterious discovery that solidarity is the other side of intimacy. They come to the awareness that the intimacy of God's house excludes no one and includes everyone. They start to see that the home they have found in their innermost being is as wide as the whole of humanity.[5]

 The step from friendship to solidarity is not great. How can individuals or groups proclaim friendship and at the same time allow that friend to stand alone? But while it is a small step from friendship to solidarity, it is a larger one from solidarity to inclusiveness. Nouwen says: "Christ in whom all people are not gathered together is not the true Christ."[6] This new home in Christ is vast, it is intimate and it is radically inclusive.

I have been told that I cannot use the word “inclusive” because its implications disturb the church’s peace and unity, that we need to “live within in our diversity.” It was a remarkable statement  for a Christian to make, and becomes more troubling when I realise this sentiment may becoming a default setting, at least in public meetings. Given that the United Reformed Church does not have a formal  policy of individual or corporate discrimination against gay people, and given that many of our members and church leaders are themselves gay, it is fascinating that such an attitude could be tolerated. The other side of the coin is equally true. When I hear people speaking of gay people as sinful and pathological, and when I hear them say gay people cannot be accepted fully into our church, into the new home in Christ, my peace is disturbed. It is a cheap “peace” that demands some in our community remain silent if not invisible.

“Living within our diversity” demands that I collude in attitudes and behaviours that I find unacceptable, and though my personal culpability may be painful, unfortunately it does not stop there. My collusion provides a safe place for anti-gay bigotry and a platform for the voice of faith-based prejudices, thus affording them credibility. I sanction informal discrimination. In my silence I conspire in the dehumanising of others and sometimes in expressions of hatred and acts of violence towards others.[7]

My personal responsibility was driven home to me while watching the film Milk. Harvey Milk was a business man, a gay activist and politician. He was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, serving on the Board of Supervisors for the city of San Francisco. Dan White, a colleague on the Board, assassinated Milk.

A short scene in the film between Harvey Milk and Dan White has had a lasting effect on me.

Dan PUTS HIS ARMS AROUND HARVEY for a sort-of macho but really weird birthday hug. Harvey stiffens, it's such apeculiar moment. Dan steps back, looks him over.


I've really learned a lot from watching you, Harvey.


I doubt that.


No, I have. You gotta get out there. Get noticed. That's how it works. But, you have an issue. That's your advantage.


It's more than an issue, Dan. Dan. I've had four relationships in my life. Three of those four tried to kill themselves. I know it was my fault they did it. I told them to stay quiet. To hide. Most of my life I've been closeted. That's what living this life is like for most of us. The way things are...This isn't just about our jobs, or any issue, it's our lives we're fighting for. [8]

Most people in the church identify the struggle for gay rights as the “gay issue.” However, this is not only about biblical exegesis, though it includes that. It is not only about theological reflection, though it is also in part about that. It is about justice and human lives. My collusion and silence harms peoples’ lives and mocks the heart of justice. Living within our diversity and preserving our peace may imply, at least in this case, that many among us must remain closeted and others must continue to collude with bigotry and prejudice. That doesn’t seem like peace and unity to me.

These are (just) words. Words can have impressive power, but they are not everything and not enough. Speaking of a new intimate, just and inclusive home as an expression of God’s creative intentions can be inspiring, even revelatory. Words can lay the foundations, but to actually build that home takes ethical actions as well. There is no home of friendship, solidarity and inclusiveness without effort, without relationship, without sacrifice. Our inaction and inappropriate actions can render our words dishonest and vacuous.


[1] Wogaman, Philip. A Christian Method of Moral Judgment. The Westminster Press,1976, p 68.

[2] Hodgson, Peter C. Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology. SCM Press LTD, 1994. P 175.

[3] See the New Jerusalem Bible translation, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.

[4] Nouwen, Henri. Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York: 1986, p 37-38.

[5] Ibid., p 43.

[6] Ibid., p 45.

[7] I am aware that some will find it offensive to suggest that members of the United Reformed Church would express hatred and/or be involved in acts of violence. However, it is important to remember that at the height of the church’s debate on gay rights, one synod moderator instructed his office staff  not to open his letters and emails because they were so disturbing and hateful. I personally received numerous letters and emails that could only be described as hateful and violent. At a public meeting a man went up to the microphone with a block of wood and a knife and when he began his anti-gay rhetoric stabbed the knife into the wood. Violence is not simply a matter of doing overt physical harm to another. There is institutionalized overt physical assault (e.g. war); personal covert violence (e.g. violation of a person in ways that are psychologically and/or spiritually destructive); and institutionalized covert violence (e.g. institutions or structures violate the personhood of another) (see Robert McAfee Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987, pp.7-8).

[8], 8 April 2009.

Copyright © 2011 by Dale Rominger

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