Last night, as you do in Lent, I joined a Lent Group. This one is ecumenical so it means meeting people from other churches, which has to be a Good Thing. The average age is, however, higher than at my church; at nearly 60 (I can’t quite believe this) I am still among the youngest there. I won’t comment on that but you’ll get my drift.
On my table we had a mix of Methodist, C of E, Baptist and Quaker. But this isn’t your standard Bible study group; led by a Baptist, we’re looking at sections from Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking. Our meetings take a very different approach from some Bible study groups, and I find their format helpful; there’s no competitive ‘how quickly can you flick through your Bible to find Micah?’ or ‘how many bookmarks and sticky notes do you have in your Bible?’ The pattern is that the Bible passage (last night, Matthew, the start of the Sermon on the Mount) is read out loud by a few people who’ve got different translations, then the group leader reads McLaren’s chapter on that passage aloud (this takes just over 10 minutes) and then the group members are asked to talk about some set questions, but in a reflective, not-saying-more-than-you-need-to sort of way. What others say should be received without challenge.
One of the group asked the leader who Brian McLaren is. The answer was factual, and avoided any controversy. Now, I’ve read a few of his books and I was challenged and also supported by them. But McLaren’s hardly uncontroversial; indeed, he’s been labelled a ‘false teacher’ and as someone ‘dangerous’ because he is seen as putting experience above Scriptural revelation, because he doesn’t use masculine pronouns for God, and because he won’t denounce universalism.
When Time magazine included him in their list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, it reported that, when asked at a conference in 2004 what he thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied to the question, ‘You know what, the thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.’ That strikes me as one of the best things yet said on the topic. He estimated that 6% of people are gay, and that at least 30% of the population are affected because a child, a parent, a sibling, a friend is gay.
In 2013, McLaren’s son married another man, and he led a commitment ceremony for the couple. Those who find McLaren dangerous would, I assume, see this as yet another example of him prioritizing experience. But he has written about how his view on human sexuality has changed gradually over three decades. Here are his words:
One of the characteristics I most appreciate about “a generous orthodoxy” or “a new kind of Christianity” is the freedom to stay unified and stay in fellowship even when we disagree.
In terms of how many people’s views on this subject have shifted over the past thirty years or so, he observed that:
It’s much easier to hold the line on the conservative position when nearly all gay people around you are closeted and pretending to be other than they are.
That struck me as a very useful observation. The Church of England’s policy of pretending nothing was going on characterized my experience of church from the local to the national level. Those who were openly gay in other contexts could suddenly become not gay at all when asked for their views on the subject or when speaking in a debate at a synod.
And finally, I find helpful McLaren’s response to those who ask what will change next if we accept the full humanity and human rights of gay people:
I hope we will tackle the elephant in the room, so to speak – the big subject of poverty. If homosexuality directly and indirectly affects 6 – 30% of the population, poverty indirectly and directly affects 60 – 100%. What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value – far beyond monetary or corporate value – of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus’ proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, proclaiming God’s amazing grace to all creation.