There are many of us who have come to feel that “debates” in the Church about issues of sexual ethics have become stale and useless repetitions of well rehearsed positions, a “dialogue of the deaf”..
Here is my version of what has become an extensive genre of “what we need to do to get out of the rut we’re in” pieces,
The first thing I think we need to do is start taking seriously what the people we don’t agree with say they think. Far too often the “arguments” amount to telling people that they don’t hold the positions they do for the reasons they say they do. Another, less reputable, motive is ascribed, preventing any real engagement. This seems to me something that should not be tolerated in conversation between those bound together in Christ and instructed to love one another.
The two arguments I have in mind are:
- those who wish to maintain traditional codes of sexual ethics do so not because of their fidelity to Biblical instruction (as they claim) but rather because of an irrational, possibly unconscious, and anyway unacknowledged, prejudice against forms of sexual behaviour (chiefly but not only same-sex behaviour) that upset them
- those who argue for a more accepting approach to those who engage in these behaviours do not do so because they think this is in line with the teaching of Christ (as they claim) but because they crave and seek acceptance by wider society beyond the Church whose attitudes they are simply adopting and then trying to provide with theological cover.
There may be something in both or either of these arguments (as it happens I think they’re both true) but diagnosing someone’s unconscious or unacknowledged motives is almost never a good way to engage them in dialogue. We need to take seriously what those who disagree with us say, work out how one could come to think like that and explore both the strengths and the weaknesses of it, seeking to learn rather than to persuade in the first instance.
Which brings me to the second thing we need to do, which is to remember that we all, always, have things to learn. When we engage with those who disagree with us we have to think that there is something new for us to think and feel, if not directly learned from them then at least from the process of working out why, exactly, their arguments don’t convince us.
The third and final thing I would like to see us all do is be clear on what the really crucial issue is, for us. If everybody was clear in saying: “this is the matter of principle that is really at stake for me in this” I suspect we’d start finding we have more in common than we currently seem to.
So, a three point proposal:
- believe people when they tell you why they think what they think (even when you disagree strongly with them)
- be ready to learn from talking to those who say things you don’t like, rather than digging in to defend your positions
- except insofar as you are able to say what is non-negotiable for you and why