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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 1

Conscience

I have been asked whether I would consider a series of articles for Courage dealing with various aspects of the Christian life for a gay man. I have only agreed on the basis that readers will accept that I do not write as an expert in any sense of the term, and claim neither special insight nor sanctity.

The only qualification I have for writing these articles, apart from being a Christian, is that I believe myself to be still a learner, and one who has been travelling for some time. I would like to share my approach and hope my thoughts will stimulate thought and discussion in other gay men and women. I shall write from a male point of view and mostly in the terms of the male. The subject matter that I will be dealing with may also in the main apply to women, especially in respect of Christian living. Please expect no deep analysis – more a brief incursion into current issues for the gay Christian.

I shall try to be as honest as I can, and will welcome emails or letters – send earmarked ‘Tony Cross’ via Courage ([email protected]) if you wish to make a comment, ask a question or share an experience. I don’t promise to answer all emails, but some will certainly get dealt with in future articles.

The first subject I have chosen is to look at very briefly is the role and function of conscience. This is particularly fitting as St Paul (I Timothy chapter 4) talks of men whose consciences are seared by lies and self deceit. For many fundamentalist Christians ‘homosexuality’ and ‘Christian’ just cannot mix – they see homosexuality as a grievous sin (or, if not a sin, at least a serious sickness) - something that sears the consciences of those who indulge in it. They see homosexual Christians as deceiving themselves.

So what is conscience and what part should it play in the lives of Christians and, particularly, in the lives of gay Christians?

If we accept that we are created by God with a purpose, then we have to accept that there is a role for conscience in our lives. And yet it is so easy to assume that conscience has grown and evolved over mankind’s history on this planet simply because it is a most valuable evolutionary tool as an aid to human beings who want to live in communities. It provides a mechanism that helps human beings to get along together – it is a useful mechanism for the internalizing of the rules of behaviour of a group, which thus enables a tribe to grow and prosper.

This view is enhanced when one realizes that a person’s conscience is a mental process that can be off-centre - can become ‘diseased’. For example, they can believe that various insignificant actions and attitudes in their lives can be deadly sinful, deserving of death. Down the centuries there are numberless examples of Christians who have agonized over peccadilloes. Likewise, of course, it is possible to have someone – a psychopath for example - who may have no sense at all of error or sin. They conduct their lives independently of conscience and they ignore any other criteria.

So conscience is at the least a mechanism within the human being that has served human society very well indeed, helping human groups cohere and prosper. But it is not an infallible guide. For the Christian, however, the conscience is surely a God-given function which has a very useful warning function. If your conscience is pricking you over something then, as a Christian you would be wise to listen to it, examine the matter in depth, perhaps share your concern with a fellow Christian, and finally come to a decision about it. This is not to say that conscience is ‘the voice of God’ – clearly it is not, although it is probably generally accepted by Christians to be part of the way that God sometimes communicates with us.

Alongside the existence of conscience it is necessary to remember that down the millennia mankind’s moral sense has been and still is growing. Two thousand years ago St Paul did not even mention the sinfulness of slavery. As a creature of his day and age he accepted what was and sought to find a Christian way through the problems it threw up between people. But today no sane person, and certainly no Christian, could be heard to defend slavery. It is now seen for what it is – a crime against the humans imprisoned in the system.

So we need always to examine the output from our conscience with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in an attempt to be truly and continuously open to the truth of God in our situation.

That equally applies to sexual attitudes and practices. We need to examine what exactly is being said (by other people or by our consciences) before we decide whether homosexuality ‘sears the consciences’ of those who express their sexuality in this way.

The problem we have to deal with, as gay men and women, is that we were mostly brought up to believe that homosexuality was wrong. When I was a child homosexuality was not only the unmentionable sin, it was also illegal and could land you in prison. Whether we come to understand our homosexual natures early in our lives or late, we eventually realize, as Christians, that homosexuality is a state blessed by God and as valid as heterosexuality. But although our minds and hearts tell us this is right, our consciences, instructed as they were when we were young children, may still say the opposite. Hence the agony that many gay Christians endure – their hearts and minds say one thing, their consciences stubbornly say the opposite. Once we recognize the source of our internal conflict we can begin to accept ourselves as fully God’s children – not sick, or perverted or even a little odd ! Just homosexual.

To a heterosexual Christian it would be a sexual sin to indulge in gay sex. To a homosexual Christian no other sex is really satisfying or fulfilling. (I will come to bisexuality, and celibacy, in another article). Many church-going Christians are taught by their preachers and leaders that homosexuality is an abomination – gay Christians know that it is not. When they are bold enough to follow the light as they see it and overthrow the dead weight of a wrongly trained conscience, they discover that their Lord continues to bless them and to bring rejoicing to their hearts. They know that homosexuality is much more than sexual activity with another person; it affects every aspect of their personality and provides a richness and a diversity for which we should be grateful. They know the leading of the Holy Spirit, not just in spite of, but through their homosexuality.

It is true, of course, that you can deaden conscience by repeatedly indulging in an activity which has been troubling it. We all do it all the time. We speak evil of others – we gossip, denigrate others. We are jealous, we covet, we hate. We make idols of things or people. And so on. All these things deaden our conscience and the sense of God within – thank God for the Holy Spirit who continuously seeks our return to open-hearted allegiance to Christ. Thank goodness that God never leaves us to stew in our sin. Always he seeks and saves the lost. How else would any of us be saved?

So what is the role and function of conscience for the gay Christian? It is a valuable check and test – but, perhaps, one that must rank well down the list when it comes to matters of morality in dispute between Christians. Some of the things that come before it (in no particular order) include the Bible, the experience of other Christians, the teachings of the churches, reason itself and the various other aids to evaluation of what is a right course of action. Those who place their interpretation of the bible on a pedestal, ahead of everybody else, and then insist on it dogmatically for everybody, are usually seen later to have disappeared from view down some cul-de-sac or other !

When it comes to matters of ethics and morals especially, Christians have to be forbearing towards each other, conscious that there are many varieties of belief about ‘what is right’. It is also true that our understanding of what is right is constantly evolving. Gay Christians must therefore be forbearing towards the majority of Christians who still hold outdated views of homosexuality, and who cannot break away from the grip of a conscience that was educated to believe that homosexuality is an abomination. It seems as clear to us that they are wrong as it appears to them that we are wrong. In such a situation there is no place for hate or anger – nor even disdain. We have to show love and charity, bearing in mind that they are our brothers and sisters and that the jury is still out. One day the right view, whatever that is, will prevail. We leave the matter in God’s hands. Meanwhile, we must find ways of accommodating Christians with different views, acknowledging that we are all seekers after the truth, and that this applies even when they take a more doctrinaire attitude towards us. Indeed, the Christian who believes he has already arrived at final truth in the matter of ethics has a long way still to go.

A J Cross


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