There’s no doubt that we live in a society that has bought hook, line and sinker into the cult of celebrity.From footballers to popstars,TV presenters to gardeners,supermodels to super-chefs,we want to know what they ’re eating,drinking,wearing,who they are dating and where they are taking their holidays. This cult,however,is as fickle as it is enthusiastic.It gloats over knocking celebrities off pedestals just as easily and instantly as it puts them there to begin with.But of course,Christians wouldn ’t be so shallow as to engage in such antics. Or would we?
With the onset of summer comes the conference and festival season.Up and down the country pulpits and platforms will be graced with the most influential and respected leaders this country, indeed the world,has to offer.In our Christian subculture teaching and preaching are the new rock and roll.We pack out big tops,marquees,cattle sheds and conference centres to hear the wisdom and insight that drips like honey from the mouths of our favourite speakers.Not only do we recognise the names of these people,we probably know more about their lives than we do about the Old Testament prophets.And that can be their downfall.One slip in their public or private lives,and the status that may have taken years to build up can come crashing down overnight.The price tag that goes with national leadership is a high one,for unlike others,they can ’t just move parish and start afresh –the whole Christian community knows their sins.
One man who will be conspicuous by his absence this year will be the Reverend Dr Roy Clements.His most public of resignations,and saddest of separations from his wife less than two years ago,is still the cause of much pain and soul searching.Roy was one of the most respected and dearly loved of evangelical leaders.When he stepped down after 20 years as minister at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge,his departure was described by another well-known leader as,“The greatest blow to the Evangelical cause in Britain.”Comparisons with John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones sat easily on his shoulders.I for one learned much over the years as I watched,listened and read what Roy had to say.But the superlatives about his preaching were soon ditched once it became known that he had secretly been hiding his homosexuality.Angry,bitter,disgusted,saddened, disappointed,betrayed,hurt.All these adjectives have been used over the months to describe the responses of those who had followed Roy ’s ministry But as much as these disillusioned people would like to sweep the past under the carpet and move on,perhaps,only now as the dust begins to settle,do we have to face up to the real issues raised by Roy ’s departure from the mainstream evangelical circuit.
For a start,there is far too much fear surrounding the vexed issue of homosexuality and the Church.In fact,on his website,and in an open letter sent to leaders of the Evangelical Church,Roy argues that what kept his secret hidden for so many years was the knowledge that to ‘come out ’would almost certainly “ruin my career,damage the reputation of my church and in all probability finish my marriage.”History has proved him right.But surely it ’s a tragedy to have to live in fear of a community that is called to be compassionate –the indisputable proof that God is love.What would Jesus say to a Church that he has already commanded to love each other,not to mention demonstrated what he meant by washing the feet of a disciple who betrayed him and one who vehemently denied knowing him?Love,we are told later in scripture,should drive out fear.
But there was also another fear held by some.That Roy would use his considerable talents on behalf of the gay community.And that fear too has been realised. Over the last few weeks and months, Roy Clements has begun to find a new voice and a new platform as a leading spokesperson for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.And as part of that role he has joined their call for an open debate to take place within the Evangelical Church as to the true nature of homosexuality,and to answer the charge that it is institutionally homophobic,maintaining a consensus because its members fear having their boat rocked.
With the Evangelical Alliance already acknowledging that there are pockets of homophobia in the Church should we listen to him,or are we assured that we have the truth on these matters firmly sewn up?If we do,then why the fear?
Perhaps it ’s because,if there is a loophole in our confident exegesis on the issue of homosexuality,it will be someone like Roy Clements who will find it.Not because he is driven by some agenda,but because he has the abilities and the gifts to interpret scripture and unlock its meaning for Christians living in the twenty-first century.Isn ’t that why we marvelled at him for so many years?I think we ignore him at our peril.
As ever Roy ’s analysis on this issue is clear and perceptive.Even though we wave the banner of evangelicalism, which we march under,our differences are many.We have varying and contradictory opinions on the nature of hell, divorce,the role of women,creation verses evolution and so on.Even though we rightly hold to the authority of scripture,we are not always certain what it is saying.And Church history has proved that conservative opinion does not always turn out right in such controversies.Roy is very strong in his criticisms on this point.“Aren ’t those who wish to wield the sword of church discipline against gays in danger of over-estimating their moral infallibility and destroying wheat as well as weeds?”
Let me make it quite clear,I ’m not siding with Roy,nor am I trying to give any opinion on the issue of homosexuality But what I am saying is that we should not shy away from this call for dialogue.
After all,Jesus himself never passed up the opportunity to discuss issues with all manner of people,from rabbis and Pharisees to businessmen and prostitutes.I am convinced that Jesus would be at the centre of any debate we may have on homosexuality.But I am equally sure that he would bring some wider,yet pivotal,issues to the table for both Roy and the Church to face up to.
Jesus is never recorded as saying anything about homosexuality,but he had much to say on hypocrisy.For many,the fact that Roy continued in his ministry for so long while hiding his homosexuality and his relationship with another man was hard to stomach.This was particularly so when he was,as one senior evangelical leader called him,“The crowned prince of the reformed wing of evangelicalism,” – the very section of the Church he is now attacking and demanding that they acknowledge their “blinkered, moralistic pontifications.”It begs the question as to just how much of their dogmatism has been informed,influenced,supported and even driven by Roy ’s own approach over the years?Even if he has managed himself to avoid any direct condemnation of homosexual activity,he has sat closely alongside those who have been quick to draw very clear lines in the sand,and the rigid exegetical principles he posited are precisely those he now claims are used by the Evangelical Church in their position on homosexuality.Now,even though both sides clearly think they have the upper hand,they are actually duelling with the same weapons and tactics.So,if Roy gets his debate,it will be with opponents who have learnt from him and he might yet find that he falls on a sword he has helped to sharpen.
But both sides in the debate need to be careful.Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee who thought himself in the right and free from the sinfulness of those around him.Though we are all aware that we have sinned and ‘fallen short ’,too often our eyes are fixed on those we believe have fallen further! This is precisely the sin of arrogance that the Pharisee was shown to have –a sin that all of us involved in this debate, including Roy,must work hard to avoid repeating.Having listened to Roy for many years,I know just how much his ‘fundamentalist ’stance pushed him to boldly claim the moral and theological high ground.And the tone of the open letter that I,and others,received recently from him,suggests that perhaps he still does.But now there are others made in Roy ’s theological and exegetical mould who are keen to lord over him with an even higher attitude.Jesus would,without doubt,tell all concerned that none of us are in the position to start throwing stones,and in any case,stone throwing isn ’t dialogue it ’s war!
Roy’s letter and present attitude casts the debate in a small arena,that of his treatment as a ‘gay Christian ’,which he appears to be keen to hermetically seal off from other aspects of what,it seems to me,amount to a larger issue.For instance,Jesus would probably want also to bring the issue of faithfulness into the debating arena.For while we get side-tracked into the hot topic of Roy ’s sexual orientation would Jesus not also want to speak about loyalties and commitments to spouses,children and friends?
Celibate or not,Roy ’s relationship with another man was one of unfaithfulness to his family and his friends.That ’s because faithfulness is not simply about whose bed we share,but about the whole area of intimacy that we are to reserve for those who we commit our lives to before God.And if you are a minister,then there is also a commitment to be faithful to those who you teach and for whom you have pastoral responsibility.If Roy ’s hand had not been forced, then who is to know how long he would have continued to live this double life.
I ’m not condemning Roy,I have no room to do so.I am,like Roy,in the end dependent on God ’s grace.However,if it ’s an honest and open debate he is calling for,then it should be exactly that. Having said all this,by the same token there is the equal need for faithfulness on behalf of those who put Roy into his lofty position from which he fell.A faithfulness to support him in and through the difficult years ahead,whatever sin they think he may have committed.
The debate about homosexuality isn ’t going to go away.We can ’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it will.An open debate,sooner or later,is bound to happen.A debate in which it is doubtful that Jesus would take sides,despite what any of us might think the Bible says on the matter.He is more likely to be the chairperson and start with an opening statement that would say something about splinters and planks needing to be removed from our eyes.Jesus would also be at pains to point out that dialogue is a two-way street that requires graciousness from both directions.In addressing Roy Clements,Jesus would probably say something along the lines of,“I know the anger you feel but if you want to take the heat out of this debate then venomous statements like ‘the only crucifixion the [Evangelical Church ]seem anxious to advertise is that of the gay community ’ need to stop.If you have a grievance put it right with your brother before it escalates into a destructive bitterness.” To those of us on the other side of the debate we will probably be asked to recall how often Jesus used those who were despised and on the edges of society to show the true meaning of the gospel.“Remember the sexually immoral woman who came into the Pharisees house?Did she not show me a purity of devotion and love even though many found her sexual sins unforgivable?In fact wasn ’t I harsher on Simon for his lack of hospitality and his excluding of the woman.All these attitudes have no part in a community based on grace,for when it becomes a battle ground of us versus them,then it is always grace and the gospel which are the real casualties.”