CESNUR 2004 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
In the UK, as in other Western societies, the great majority of the principal denominations have made policy statements on homosexuality and most of them take a hostile, if sometimes ambiguous stance to acknowledging gay rights both within the church and wider society. Their obligation to take a stance has partly resulted from the gay Christian constituency within the churches which, to some extent at least, operates as a new religious movement within the churches.
This paper will consider the opponents to the gay lobby within the Christian Church and the tactics that they use to undermine and discredit the gay movement and the implication that this has for its possible advance. The emphasis will be on the more conservative-minded 'cause' groups. Perhaps the most obvious tactic of the anti-gay lobby is to label the gay Christian movement is portrayed as committed to promoting the historic traditional teaching that all sexual activity outside of marriage is morally wrong, the Christian gay movement is perceived as heretical. Yet, while their objection to homosexuality is biblically-based, conservatives have discernibly reduced their essentially 'religious' moral element in order to defend their position and to partake of the secular language and the rhetoric of rights that had long been embraced by their liberal counterparts. Conservative Christian lobby groups have therefore increasingly endorsed the logic of their opponents in order to resist them. Given the various strategies used by anti-gay Christian factions in the churches, this paper will conclude by considering the level of their success and future prospects.
Introduction: The Issue of Gay Rights in the UK Churches
Along with the ordination of women priests, the subject of gay rights within churches in the UK is probably the most controversial and challenging issue facing contemporary Christianity. It has split the Anglican communion, divided opinion in other denominations, and prompted a stringent response from conservatives and traditionalists within the Church.
In line with other elements of the gay liberation movement from the 1970s, the gay Christian movement has sought to organize and mobilize in order to extend and protect what it regards as fundamental rights.(1) The principal organization in the UK is the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). Most LGCM supporters are largely liberal in orientation, both politically and theologically, regarding a number of other key issues in the Church and put a great deal of emphasis on related social programmes. Many have embraced a 'higher criticism' of scripture which views the very few biblical prohibitions on gayness as either a historical product of time and place and not applicable to today, or misunderstood and misread by the Christian Church over the centuries.(2) Yet the challenge of the LGCM to the contemporary Church is not just in terms of theology but that its cause overspills into the secular political arena and overlaps with the ever-broadening agenda of civil rights.
Little is known of the gay Christian movement nor its achievements. While there exists comprehensive historical analysis of the wider gay rights movement (for example, Weeks 1977; Shepherd & Wallis 1989), few commentators have shown interest in the evolving parallel movement within the churches. At the same time, there has been little by way of academic review of their conservative and traditionalist opponents who, through various caucuses, seem to act rather like anti-cultist groupings.
This paper considers those (largely Protestant) groups that have mobilized themselves against the gay Christian cause. It considers their ideology, tactics, and levels of success. I will argue that the most useful theoretical framework to begin an analysis is that developed by Charles Tilly and his associates (1975): a resource mobilization approach that begun as a theoretical framework within the field of political sociology. This perspective is one which suggests that the level of success of any social movement in the political arena will depend on the utilization of certain 'resources', especially in competition with other groups organized around the same cause. These include money, manpower, ideologies, the media, and the level of internal cohesion. Tilly was also aware that social movements are encouraged or constrained by the state and political institutions. Such an approach has rarely been applied to the sphere of religion. One of the most impressive, however, is Loftland's work on a millenarian cult. Loftland suggested that successful religious movements need to mobilize such resources as member's motivations, internal cohesion, a strong belief system and the manufacturing of a good public image and public duty. The attempt to mobilize such resources allows the potential of explaining and evaluating the partial success of the more organized anti-gay lobbies.
The Conservative Anti-Gay Stance
Protestant conservatives are the most vociferous, organized, and wealthy constituency of the anti-gay campaigners although they lack much of the cohesion of the LGCM and frequently distance themselves from their Roman Catholic counterparts. Several of these conservative groups begun to mobilize themselves in the 1970s, although the origins of some go back a decade earlier (Parsons 1994) in the activities of the National Festival of Light (NFL) and the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA). This earlier movement soundly condemned what it called 'militant homosexuality' as a perversion of God-given sexuality and saw it as the greatest threat to family life in the UK in the environment of the declining morality of the so-called permissive society (Caulfield 1975).(3)
The attitude of the anti-gay groups must be put in context, one which allows a recognition of a sea change in conservative opinion. Indeed, to suggest that there is a clear black and white approach to the gay controversy by church groups is an over-simplification. Frequently, the acrimonious debate has tended to polarize between pro-gay and anti-gay lobbies in the church while, in reality, there are a range of orientations towards the issue in the Christian churches.(4) Generally speaking, however, there is good evidence that anti-gay doctrines have soften somewhat from that which traditionally viewed both homogenital expression and the homosexual condition/orientation as sinful. This position is largely rejecting-nonpunitive - one which opposes homogenital acts but not the homosexual person. Here, gays are to be accepted as people but their activity condemned as sinful. In some respects this marks a more human approach to gay people. Nonetheless, homogenital acts are condemned as contrary to human nature and against scriptural prohibition of homosexual behaviour.
The pastoral response of conservatives to the homosexual persons would seem to include reorientation where possible, or a life of complete sexual abstinence. The blame for a gay orientation is thus moved from the individual to a fallen world where people are 'abused' and models of homosexual behavior are said to be rampant. Despite this concession, a judgment remains regarding gay behavior which still relies heavily on biblical texts that are conventionally understood as clearly condemning homosexuality. My own research, based largely on a review of the literature produced by non-denominational conservative lobby groups shows a tendency not to see a gay orientation as a result of a genetic or hormonal predisposition, which tends to be a major plank in the argument of the LGCM, but as essentially learned or otherwise acquired. For instance, the conservative organization the Christian Institute rejects in its literature the gay gene theory which supports the view that gay men and women are 'born that way'. One of its publications states the following:
Teenage boys can be confused about their sexual attractions. They can go
through a phase of being attracted to those of the same sex, but in the vast
majority of cases they simply grow out of it and develop normal attraction
for women. (Bankrolling Gay Proselytism, The Christian Institute,1999:1) (5)
Conservative Lobbying StrategiesFringe Group Activities
When it comes to battling against the gay Christian movement there are arguably three conservative strategies which have resulted in the formation of three over-lapping groupings. The first are small-scale fringe groups, not particularly well-organized, based around a number of active members, individual churches or small organizations that include the Intercessors For Britain, Facts Matter, the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and the Anglo-Catholic group Cost of Conscience and Reform (which has threatened to refuse to pay their members dues to the Anglican Church if it accepts practicing gay and lesbian clergy). The majority of these factions utilize fundamentalist biblical material aimed at outlining same-sex relations as a sin since the proclamation of a scriptural line remains their primary concern.
Part of this constituency are the groups formed by ex-gays and these include Courage, True Freedom Trust, Ellel Ministries, Turning Point, and Pilot; and many follow in the footsteps of the NFL in setting up a number of agencies which claim to 'cure' repentant gay men by the power of prayer. This amounts to a kind of spiritual aversion therapy that contradicted the growing body of scientific evidence about the early and largely unalterable formation of sexual orientation. These groups are of a very mixed bag. Some use 'reparative therapy' or other techniques to 'cure' homosexuality 'through the power of the Holy Spirit'. Also included are evangelical groups who offer a broader 'healing' ministry which involves prayer, healing, laying on of hands or deliverance (exorcism) from homosexuality - indicating the underlying view that a gay orientation can be healed.Serious Campaigning Groups
A second anti-gay constituency is what the LGCM itself refers to as 'Serious Campaigning Groups' (Gill 1998). They are recognized as the most forceful and resourceful antagonists. These are usually registered as companies and charities with a large and easily mobilized support base and include the Christian Institute, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), the Maranatha Trust, and the Evangelical Alliance. They have set out to combat what they saw in the 1970s as 'the moral pollution' in UK life, organizing themselves for pluralist politics and accept the legitimacy of democratic politics, to further their aims.
Various resources have been adopted by this anti-gay constituency. Firstly, critics within the church have amplified the deviance of the gay lobby by linking the LGCM with promoting promiscuity, pornography, pedophilia, sadomasochism, and illegal narcotics, all of which pose a public threat (Gill 1998,66). In addition, they have made much of the fact that the LGCM has stocked such controversial books as The Joy of Gay Sex for mail order and, furthermore, and asserted that some churches were being used as 'pick-up points' for homosexuals. All this amounts to an attempt to apply a deviant label or what Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) call a process of deviantization. Goode and Ben-Yehuda contend that in the contemporary pluralistic context of Western societies, competing moral systems, whether religious or secular, will frequently attempt to apply a deviant label on others in order to advance their cause. This is essentially an element of the power struggle to both legitimize their own worldview for internal consumption and to convince external agencies of their truth claims. Deviantization of opponents thus becomes an important resource in the group struggle.
Secondly, the conservative lobby groups, like their LGCM opponent, have attempted to court influence on related secular and legislative issues such as lowering the age for homosexual relationships from 18 to 16 years old l Offences Act) and the repeal of Section 28 of the Department of Education Circular (12/88) that prohibited the education of school children in regard of alternatives to heterosexuality. This shift of emphasis has wooed supporters who otherwise might want to separate themselves from the more conservative variants of Christianity and the broader moral agenda that they may embrace.
The contest is thus clearly significantly more than theological mud-slinging. Both sides of the gay debate have sought to mobilize resources inside and outside of the churches. There is an appeal to a secular legitimacy, the search for internal unity, and the manufacturing of a public image, besides the mobilization of the material resources of people and fund-raising campaigns. What is particularly noteworthy is the appeal to the secular world since it provides a marker as to how marginalized the Christian Church in the UK has become in that it is obliged to court wider secular agencies and engage with the broader discourse on civil liberties. As part of this tendency, conservative Christian lobby groups have increasingly endorsed the logical framework of their opponents in order to resist them. They can no longer choose their own ground and have begun to play down the moralist argument and advance their cause by adopting the rhetoric of civil rights and utilitarian arguments. In essence, they have discernibly reduced their essentially 'religion' moral element in order to defend their position and to partake of the secular language that long embraced by their liberal opponents (Davies & Hunt 1999).
At the Anglican Lambeth conference (held every ten years) in 1998, where the gay issue was top of the agenda, a band of miscellaneous conservative protesters handed out anti-gay leaflets proclaiming that 'homosexual practices are a diabolically deviant act and an unnatural discrimination against women kind. There is, of course, a certain playful irony evident in this jargon. Yet it says a great deal of the way in which the conservative have begun to think. More seriously, the language of freedom is generally in respect of 'religious freedom under threat', the freedom of the family, or the liberty of Christians not to be offended by homosexuality. Liberty is also attached to responsibility. Hence, the argument that people have the responsibility of voting and for the right moral reasons since the lowering the homosexual age of consent will not only put teenage boys at risk but undermines the institution of the family (Faith in the Family Advocate, 1, Dec 1998, The Christian Institute). Thus anti-gay groups have acknowledged that biblical quotes and theological arguments do not strike a cord with the public at large or politicians, even though their primary objection might be scripture based. Thus, biblical and theological language is notably absent from the publications of the Christian Institute, CARE and Intercessors for Britain.
This acknowledgment of the importance of the language of rights has enabled such groups to fight on the relatively new front of public policy and to have a greater ecumenical breath and, emulating USA religious Right lobbying, has allowed such groups to work across ecumenical boundaries free from some of the internal politics and policies of a particular denomination. Senior politicians are thus courted, brought on side and then offered material assistance in terms of information, researchers and consultants for policy issues on which they share a common concern. Both the Christian Institute and CARE operate in this way within the Houses of Commons and Lords in the UK Parliament. Fourthly and relatedly, the anti-gay lobby makes use of databases and the management of 'people resources'. There is some evidence to suggest that people opposing permissive social tendencies are used as a resource for different campaigns. There is evidence to suggest that those opposed to say abortion have had names and addresses passed on to the anti-gay cause. Thus the Internet is another growing resource for the Christian conservatives and they are swiftly learning the benefits of a free flow of through electronic communication in reaching potential supporters.
Finally, Christian conservative groups in the UK, as in the USA, are skilled in presenting themselves as quasi-academic or research bodies. They employ qualified staff and often carry out what is frequently referred to as 'research' in public policy areas. The use of terms such as 'research' or 'policy' in their titles suggests that these organizations offer a public service and deflect attention away from their primarily religious and biblically-literal agenda. Their work supplements that of the Serious Campaigning Groups.
The objective and serious image which the conservative Christians attempt to cultivate for themselves is backed up by the quasi-academic use of statistics. Moreover, there is also the trend to misuse otherwise reputable research. This is particularly evident in recent publications about the age of consent and Section 28. A potential weakness however is the possible negative reaction of the public to the religious doctrines they play down. It relies on a small group of 'born-again' researchers, doctors and academics with their clear agenda. This can backfire. One is the myth of the gay lifespan based on spurious research such as the discredited research of Paul Cameron who has been rejected by both the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Society.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century it might appear that the honours are about evenly shared in the advocacy and opposition to gay Christian rights. Within their denominational communities religious conservatives and fundamentalists have largely successfully blocked the full participation of openly gay and lesbian believers in virtually every denomination. It is probably true to say, however, that the possibility of victory for the anti-gay Christian constituency is limited in the UK. To some extent this is because of internal group dynamics. Unlike their adversaries, the conservative factions are not single-issue groups. This has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that the subject of homosexuality can be addressed in the literature alongside what may broadly be perceived as public threats including drugs, abortion, pornography, and the breakdown of the family. In comparison, however, the LGCM are more focused and pour all of its resources into promoting one issue. This has enhanced the movements sense of cohesion that could have otherwise been weakened by simultaneously advancing other liberal causes such as the ordination of women priests.
While these aspects of internal cohesion amount to an important resource, as outlined by Tilly et al, there is something more fundamental to consider however in terms of the wider political environment, not least of all the reaction of the state. Moreover, manufacturing a suitable public opinion, an image of respectability, the use of manpower resources, and finance funding is insufficient. In many ways the aim of the conservatives to bring a religious revival and reversal of the permissive and increasingly materialistic and individualistic society that has evolved from the 1960s seems particularly unrealistic. Reforms are not easy to instigate. Neither are they likely to be subject to wholesale repeal. Most Right wing politicians have little interest in the religious lobby. The attempts of the Christian conservatives in the UK to influence the outcome of general elections over some three decades by appealing to religious moralism have proved ineffectual. This may not only be because, at least in Western societies, conservative Christians are operating within an increasingly secular culture. Rather, in attempting to mobilize support for their goals, religious organizations are less effective than secular organizations as a result of the tendency of the former to follow vague, universal, and usually moral goals. Such goals are, in many respects, often abstract, unattainable, and unwinable. The religious motivation may sometimes be hidden by the claim to be advancing the public good and the respectability of so-called research findings. However, should this lack of transparency then come to light, a negative reaction by politicians and the public is more than likely.
Perhaps, above all, the most important observation to be made is that the cause of the LGCM is much in line with developments in the secular world in that the enhancement of gay rights is seen in increasing liberal legislation. This means that the Christian church at large is in a difficult if not unsustainable position. In forging public opinion, as much as reflecting it, the UK state is a powerful determinant especially when it has to fall in line with the recommendations of international agencies such as the European Community. Ultimately, the pressure by the LGCM for the churches to fully accept the gay and lesbian orientation as legitimate may be successful. Rather ironically, that victory may not come through the activities of the LGCM or similar movements but via the legal requirements of secular society and public opinion that will identify the Church as out of 'sinc' with the culture and ethos of the contemporary world.
1. Probably the best historical account of the gay Christian movement in the UK is Sean Gills The Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement.
2. This is not to suggest that gay Christians in the UK are theological liberals on all fronts. There is evidence to suggest that a sizeable minority are opposed to womens ordination. The Guardian newspaper, 19/5/96.
3. Some of these groups place great faith in the teaching of their own denomination, and in particular many accept the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all anti-gays are evangelical and some do not derive their views from the Bible, while Protestant and Roman Catholic traditionalists will have little to do with each other.
4.See Nugent and Gramick's work (1989: 29-42) which argues that there are four broad responses by the churches regarding expressions of gay and lesbian sexuality: The Full Acceptance position, the Qualified Acceptance position, the Rejecting-Punitive view, and the Rejecting-Nonpunitive stance.
5. Lesbianism is rarely mentioned in such literature.
Davies,C. & Hunt,S. (1999) Religious Resistance to Secular Moral Permissiveness, Paper presented at the Politics and Religion Conference, Lincoln Theological Institute, 24th Feb.
Gill,S. (1998) The Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement: Campaigning for Justice, Truth and Love.
Goode, E. and Ben-Yehuda, D. (1994) Moral Panics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Loftland, J. (1979) White-Hot Mobilization: Strategies of Millenarian Movements, in M.Zald & J.McCarthy (eds) The Dynamics of Social Control and Tactics, Winthrop Publishing, 157-166.
Parsons,G. (1994) 'From Consensus to Confrontation: Religion and Politics in Britain since 1945' in G.Parsons (ed.) The Growth of Religious Diversity in Britain: From 1945 , London: Routledge, 123-59.
Shepherd,S & Wallis,M. (1989) Coming on Strong: Gay Politics and Culture, London: Unwin Hyman.
Tilly, C., Tilly, L. & Tilly, R. (1975) The Rebellious Century, 1830-1930, Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Weeks,J. (1977) Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, From the Ninteenth Century to the Present, London: Quartet Books.