Sometimes people make mistakes and have to apologise. It happens to us all. This week it happened to Iain Lee, a presenter for BBC Three Counties Radio, with a phone guest on his show. Libby Powell, from campaign group Christian Concern, was discussing the case of Revd Barry Trayhorn, a prison worker taking his employer to a tribunal amid claims he was forced to resign for reading a Bible verse about homosexuality. In the ensuing interview Lee repeatedly accused Powell of being a ‘bigot’ when she defended her conviction that the Bible deems homosexual activity sinful.
The BBC admitted the language Lee used, and the tone in which he conducted the interview, was 'at several points inappropriate' and Iain Lee himself apologised on air.
To give a sense of the nature of the interaction here’s a transcript of part of the interview:
Iain: I’ve got friends who are gay…so they’re sinners are they?
Libby: Everyone is a sinner! I’m a sinner!
Iain: No I’m talking specifically that they go to bed with each other.
Libby: Right, well God says that’s a sin.
Libby: And we stick by God’s word and we have the freedom to do that. But can I just say as well that God loves to forgive sinners. He’s forgiven me…
Iain: He’s gonna forgive the gays is he? What do the gays have to do to be forgiven by your ‘ever so loving God’?
Libby: He is an ever so loving God, he really is...
Iain: Yeah, that’s why he hates two men who fall in love with each other and two women with each other
Libby: God wants people to repent and he will freely forgive them. That’s not just the behaviour of homosexuality, that’s all kinds of sins.
Iain: In the eyes of the law to stand up in front of people and say two men having it away with each other is sinful – that’s homophobic…It’s interesting you can’t recognise that. Yeah it might come from your God but it’s homophobic and it’s attacking a minority. That’s unfair isn’t it?
Libby: Homophobic is about a fear. Barry is not scared…
Iain: No no no. Libby, Libby. Cute answer, but wrong as you know. Homophobia isn’t just necessarily a fear and you know that…don’t try and do the cute answers with me…you know homophobia is also a hatred of gays
Libby: Barry does not hate gay people
Iain: Oh would he embrace them?
Libby: Of course he would
Iain: Bit gay
Libby: This is about the lifestyle. In those verses it’s not just about the homosexual sin, it’s also about people who had sex before marriage…
Iain: I’ve done that!I did that!
Libby: OK well in God’s eyes… you’re a sinner just like me. I’ve done some of…
Iain: Can I tell you Libby? I am nothing like you. I am absolutely nothing like you because I don’t think I’m a bigot, I don’t hate groups, and I don’t hate people who fall in love with people…People like you break my heart , you really do, because you’re doing Christianity and religion a real disservice. There’s a reason a lot of people don’t like Christianity because they perceive it as bigoted, outdated and homophobic…You’re saying my friends won’t get to heaven, if we assume for a second heaven exists…
Iain Lee has apologised for ‘any offence given’ by the interview. But judging by the response from his followers on Twitter after he posted Premier’s news story on the apology, they (perhaps unsurprisingly) feel the presenter has himself been wronged:
@iainlee but they are bigots, why apologise?— @JustHelens (@JustHelens) November 12, 2015
@iainlee it was an excellent interview and was good to hear their nasty poisonous views be challenged— Ali (@AlisonTarrant) November 12, 2015
For me the whole story demonstrates the fact that evangelical Christians no longer speak the same language as the non-Christian world when it comes to sexuality. The radio interview was a text book example of two people speaking past each other. Even as Powell tried to qualify her position as not being against gay people per se, Iain Lee was having none of it.
Evangelical Christians no longer speak the same language as the non-Christian world when it comes to sexuality
It was not so long ago that Christians who held a conservative position on homosexuality would have been deemed to have a right to their opinion by most secularists, even if they disagreed with it. Even same-sex equality campaigners like Peter Tatchell have defended the right of street preachers to air their views. Now however the narrative has moved towards seeing those who take a traditional Christian position on sexuality as narrow minded ‘bigots’, no matter how much they qualify their position that ‘God loves the sinner but not the sin’.
Iain Lee may have apologised (and it’s perhaps not too hard to imagine that he was leaned on by his BBC bosses do so), but the fact remains that most people in the secular world would take exactly the same line he did in the interview. If you believe that homosexual activity is sinful then it’s no longer simply an unpopular opinion that you are entitled to - you are a bigot. Full stop.
So how do Christians who do take a firm line on sexuality respond when it comes to airing their views in public? Are evangelicals who abide by a traditional biblical understanding of sexuality forever to be deemed by the wider world as moral dinosaurs who can’t accept that the world has moved on? Can we avoid interviews like Lee’s in which both sides seem to be talking past each other? In an age where most media outlets are looking for drama and soundbites, I’m a bit pessimistic about it to be honest.
I think the best hope for evangelicals who want to change the narrative is to engage at a deeper level. That’s where the work of people like Living Out comes in. An organisation where the chief spokespersons are themselves same-sex attracted church leaders who speak from a place of personal experience and pastoral sensitivity.
I could be wrong, but it’s hard to imagine the interview with Iain Lee would have had the same dynamic if he had been interviewing someone like Living Out’s Ed Shaw, a same–sex attracted church leader who has chosen to remain celibate. That lifestyle choice may be confounding and confusing for a secular audience, but it’s harder to label Ed a ‘bigot’ as someone who has lived the reality of experiencing same-sex attraction.
When it comes to LGBT issues the gap in understanding is growing ever wider between evangelical Christians and the secular world – anything that can be done to build a bridge across it, would be welcome.