There has been some discussion on social media about a new 5-session course, Love that dares to speak, written by Hilary Brand ‘exploring Christian reactions to homosexuality’. I’ve co-led many small group courses – various Emmaus ones and a Pilgrim one – in our church and I remain committed to this way of helping people think about their faith, so I thought the best thing was to buy a copy for myself. The following reflections come from my general experience with the sort of group the book is aimed at, together with reading the material: I’ve not yet used it myself (it has only just been published).
As with everything else, let’s look at the author first. She’s written Lent courses, as well as a guide to what on earth church is about. She’s a realist: ‘All churches of all types are really bad about making assumptions of what they’re doing and not explaining it very well.’ Amen, sister. And, as she explains in Love that dares to speak, she’s from an evangelical background but is aware that her views have changed and that she’s ‘still dealing with uncertainty’ (p.20). So far, so good.
Bearing in mind Brand’s background, it’s not surprising that throughout the course there’s a focus on the need to ‘find out what the Bible actually says and what factual evidence is actually available’ (p.11). In terms of the factual evidence, she uses some survey material (but without interrogating it for reliability) but there’s only passing reference to what the sciences are currently saying about homosexuality. Each of the five sessions includes engaging with specific Bible verses or short passages, which seems to count for the purposes of the course as ‘serious Bible searching’ (p.37). Often this is done in a quick-fire way, with timings: after reading 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14, there are three minutes in which to list the practical ways in which life for women has changed since Paul’s day (p.24). Leaders’ notes at the end give the correct, or expected, answer. So far, perhaps, so predictable. Alongside this approach, there’s also acknowledgement that, while Brand has ‘picked out specific verses for convenience’ (p.47), people should be encouraged to read for ‘the broad sweep’.
However, what makes this book much more interesting are the broader questions addressed to participants. These are refreshingly direct and don’t avoid the real issues. ‘Why do you think it matters what the Old Testament says?’ (p.41). ‘Is the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy a sensible compromise or inherently two-faced? What might be the benefit of using it? And what is the down side?’ (p.94) – a mere two minutes allocated for that! Is it possible to keep the Anglican communion together, or should we see division as God’s will (p.94)?
There are few modern works quoted or included in the bibliography – this is a short course and that seems the right approach – but they are an interesting mix. Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’ is used with approval, although it’s ‘f*ck’ here, which may indicate something about the audience (p.82). Openly gay writers like Jeffrey John and Jayne Ozanne are quoted with approval, as is Wesley Hill who, like John, has taken one of the celibacy options. Broken is listed as a good discussion starter.
On the whole, I think this is a brave book, which genuinely tries to keep things open so that everyone can express their views. But I do have problems with some of the assumptions. While there’s a brief reference to key dates in the history of marriage in church and as a sacrament (p.69), the timeline ‘Setting the scene of the sexual revolution’ (pp.127-8) bizarrely begins with the commercial availability of tampons in the 1950s. While this goes a whole decade further back than the Shared Conversations’ version of history in which everything was uniform and static until the 1960s, it still gives a very odd impression of before/after, of a recent watershed in our history, which is not borne out by historical studies. Claims of a sexual revolution have been made before.
And then there’s the Bible. ‘How many Bible verses refer directly to homosexuality?’ (p.37). The answer in the Notes is ‘six or seven (one repeats itself)’, estimated as 0.002% of the Bible, and contrasted by Brand with the 10% on economic justice. This may well be news for some in the groups, but there are two problems with the original question: first, it assumes ‘homosexuality’ is a category which we can use for the different societies whose lives form the background to the Bible (something which Brand does criticise elsewhere) and second, the lack of agreement today on what the verses in question were originally about. The issues of translation are touched upon, but to my mind there isn’t enough here about these: the only Greek terms which come up are malakoi and arsenokoitai, and the discussion of them is cursory, the result of a deliberate decision not ‘to add to the verbiage here’ (p.52). But when so much can be hung on the words, a little more discussion seems desirable.
My main problem, though, comes from thinking about what it would be like to use this with the groups with whom I’ve worked. The anticipated audience comes across in questions like ‘Think of couples you know who are “living together” or did so before marriage?’ (pp.73-4). No acknowledgement here that such couples could actually be in the group: shock! horror! If (and it’s a big ‘if’) we accept her answer to the ‘What percentage of the UK population is gay?’, based on the 2013 Office for National Statistics, as 1% gay and 0.5% bisexual (p.112), then even my very standard country town parish seems remarkably gay, and my circle of friends and colleagues even more so.
And, as ever, the sparkly elephants in the room, LGBTQI+ people themselves; there’s not a lot in the course on those who are in the BTQI+ part, although ‘transgender’ turns up in the anticipated ‘answers’ to the Week 4 question, ‘What are other areas of sexuality and human relationships that have gone awry?’ (p.117). Oh dear. And how about Week 1: ‘Ponder and share (10 mins): What images or experiences do the words “gay”, “lesbian” or “homosexual” conjure up for you personally?’ (p.23). I’m straight, but I feel rather ill at the thought of what some people in a congregation are likely to say if they are encouraged to be honest here. Brand is brutally honest about her own reactions, such as finding her first exposure to a Pride parade ‘menacing and disturbing’, although looking back on it she now acknowledges the feelings of anger of some of those taking part (p.19). But my main question is this: would you really want to be the one gay person in the discussion group? When you are the object of study, can you also be the subject doing the studying? This is a course on ‘Christian reactions to’ … YOU.
I’m very interested to see how others find this material, especially in its use. I’ve said as part of the work towards the Living in Love and Faith report (formerly known as the Bishops’ Teaching Document) that we definitely need something to help everyone in the church think through human sexuality, and at the moment this is the only published course I know.