Churchgoers all over Sydney heard official statements from their denominations on June 17 with a firm and united message: “Marriage is only for heterosexual couples.”
I needed to see this for myself, so I and four gay Christian friends summoned our courage and attended the evening service at St Andrew's Cathedral.
We all felt the pressure of walking inside that church as outsiders. These messages usually come from a safe distance in the form of op-eds, media releases and church notice boards. To look the speaker in the eye was a way of reaffirming to ourselves that on both sides of the discussion are human beings.
As we walked through the door, we received a copy of the archbishop's statement. It said that since Jesus defined marriage on the basis of Genesis, where God "made them male and female", society should do so too.
The church was youth-oriented. A pre-sermon speaker introduced the theme of marriage with a game of "love song dedications trivia", and a video was screened of a Sunrise interview in which Archbishop Peter Jensen put forward his case against what the conservative side of the debate calls "redefining marriage", or what we call “marriage equality”.
Jensen said: "It's like playing rugby league on an oval, that's a different game ... In order to create a family, you've got to bring together two who are different ... to bring in two who are the same won't be marriage."
Local Bible college lecturer Rob Smith told the congregation about “the good gift of human sexuality”. He set out the options for Christian sexual expression: heterosexual marriage that celebrates God's fullness in the present life, or celibate singleness that waits for fulfillment in the afterlife.
"We are living in a sexually disoriented culture," he said. Sex has been secularised. We have privatised and consumerised sex, he said, treating it as a right which entails no responsibilities. This is all because we have left God out of our understanding of sex.
This was different to the overt homophobia we sometimes see on the news. I even found some of his points profound, especially on how privatisation and consumerism affects human relationships negatively.
Surprisingly, Smith didn't mention homosexuality. Although if heterosexual monogamy and celibacy are the only two options, then… you do the math.
But I came away with some troubling thoughts about where this difficult decade of social reform and religious reaction has taken us.
One: Friendships, families and communities are being damaged
Most of the people who were at the cathedral on Sunday will have lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) friends and relatives. Sometimes their family will be split over the issue of what attitude to take towards a family member.
In my work as a pastor, I have met countless kids who felt unwelcome in their homes and churches. Admonishment is very often done with loving intentions, but parental and pastoral disapproval is emotionally crippling, and alienates people from their communities.
The division is also happening on broader structural levels. The stance being taken by the mainline denominations is top-down, and being dealt with through official statements, rather than through healthy discussions.
Alternative views are there in the pews, especially among young Christians, but they’re not always given a chance to speak. This kind of division between the hierarchy and grassroots is growing rapidly and cannot be sustained.
Two: Gay vs. Christian is a dead-end struggle
Sexual and religious diversity are here to stay, so nobody will win in a political contest between gays and Christians.
And not all the blame for these problems can be attributed to Christians. The tensions have also been exacerbated by unhelpful political strategies and the politics of identity used by the LGBTI community.
The early gay liberation movement protected its interests by the creation of gay ghettos. It was a safe place for many people, a dangerous place for others.
Some activists on the radical left sought to oppose the family unit itself, instead of working for constructive goals like decriminalisation, anti-discrimination and marriage equality.
The ghetto made some forms of sexual expression and identity into political ends, which cannot help but imply that heterosexual and monogamous people are innately conservative or “less evolved” than LGBTI people.
The church's current reaction is partially a result of the misguided political strategies of the ghetto.
We need to aim higher than mere "religious freedom" and "tolerance", and unite gay and Christian voices against oppression in general. Religious communities can be part of revolutionary social change in our world.
The anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the United States were spearheaded by evangelical Christians, and the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt was overthrown by a predominantly Muslim crowd in Tahrir Square.
If such religious communities have beliefs and practices they wish to uphold, it's nobody's business but their own. We should not only affirm, but also defend the right of Jewish people to observe kosher dietary restrictions, Muslim women to wear the hijab, and, of same-sex attracted Christians to practise celibacy if that is their conscientious choice.
But that leads us to my third and most troubling thought.
Three: Gay kids from Christian backgrounds are killing themselves
It is now recognised by most professional psychiatric bodies that gay kids exhibit shockingly high rates of suicidal feelings. Those who grow up in churches are the worst affected.
Now, this is the issue that Christian communities need to be addressing internally, instead of worrying about secular law reforms of marriage, which do not affect their own religious practice.
The message such emotionally vulnerable young people are hearing from their leaders now is they will never be able to have a fulfilling intimate relationship or any form of sexual expression “in this life”. At St Andrew's, there was no mention of counselling, support networks or suicide-prevention hotlines accompanying the message.
What does that do an emotionally distraught gay teenager? I know the song well because it is the experience I and my friends all had growing up as gay kids in conservative churches. We lived in fear and shame, and nobody helped us.
It’s time for churches to get active about these evils. It is not the role of LGBTI activists or archbishops to tell Christians how to deal with their own internal struggles, but it is time for the grassroots in each denomination to rise up and take back some power to protect vulnerable people in their midst.
[Reverand Karl Hand is pastor of CRAVE Metropolitan Community Church and a member of Sydney’s Community Action Against Homophobia.]