THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 69
Over the past decade or two the number of people attending the Church of England has gradually declined until we have reached a point where the church authorities are panicky about the future. The Church is clearly losing contact with people. Not only are the collections in jeopardy – the Clergy pensions are at risk! Something must be done!
Alas, it may be a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Over the past twenty five years a whole generation has learned to live a comfortable and fulfilling life without darkening the doors of the churches, and they are not going to be enticed back inside easily, no matter what changes are instituted by the clergy. The people have escaped and they have tasted the freedom of a clear Sunday – what bliss after the hectic week endured by so many.
In addition to the vanishing millions, many members of the gay community have had to struggle with their status in the Church. All the normal daily pressures that apply to the others apply also to them, but in addition they have had to struggle within the Church with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who are often anti-gay. The degree of their experience of anti-gay virulence varies from church to church – and thank goodness there are many churches that do tolerate or even welcome gay people. But the majority of evangelical churchgoers seem to be gripped, still, by the mindset of yesteryear and to be quite unable to see the devastating inclusiveness of the gospel. They are still bound to Church Leaders who want to condemn, and to keep a strict control on who they let in and whom they keep out.
You may feel, however, that the Lord is telling you to hang in there. It might not be easy, but the witness a gay person can give to the other Christians of being led by the Spirit, and not living a promiscuous lifestyle, can do more to open their minds than anything else.
But if the criticism and the condemnation become too great, many gay men and women with deep Christian convictions and sound experience of the Spirit working in their lives quietly leave the church. It is one of the great tragedies of our times – the failure of many church people to show love towards men and women who are fully committed to Christ but who are gay.
These gay departees are often unable to find an acceptable church in their neighbourhood and so there is a real danger that they slip into a practice of non-attendance of church. This article is for all such.
I want to make some suggestions that a Christian gay person (or indeed any Christian) may follow in order to preserve his spiritual health once he decides to stop attending Church regularly. He may decide in an initial phase simply to go to church less often, disengaging slowly with the church meetings and activities. Usually this is a half way stage, and leads to permanent absence eventually.
Let’s suppose that for one reason or another you have decided to leave your church, which you no longer find conducive to worship. They are just too stuffy or too judgemental or too plain stick in the mud. You have not ‘lost your faith’ – but you have lost your faith in the Church. What therefore you need to do is try to keep your faith in God alive and flourishing. Going to church assists that – now you must try to produce the same effect in a different way. Here are some suggestions as to how you may preserve your Christian life without church:
1 try to stay in fellowship with one or two Christians friends if you can.
2 try to maintain at least some contact with your old church – perhaps with the walking club, or the churchyard gardening group – any contact with Christians is better than none.
3 read books that challenge you and stimulate your faith. For example – a book by Despond Tutu (e.g. God has a dream) or Philip Yancey (e.g. What’s so amazing about grace?)
4 try to be let it be known you are a Christian in at least one area of your life – not necessarily at work.
5 try to have some pattern of prayer or quiet time. It may not be daily (though early every morning is still the best of all, I think) – it may be that you take a quiet walk along country roads periodically, when you think about your spiritual life. Or maybe when you walk the dog. Such occasions might well become a time of worship for you.
6 have some Christian friend with whom you can share periodically. Not a time of confession, but a time when you might share the deepest things in your life. Ideally get a Spiritual Director – find some way of regularly reassessing your spiritual life. The Retreat Association can help in this respect.
7 find some way of regularly serving needy people
8 give money to needy causes – if possible a regular amount or a proportion of your income.
9 gather a stock of Christian music tapes and use them to stimulate your time of personal worship. Have some in the car.
10 obtain tapes of Christian speakers from time to time and play them on the way to work or at some other convenient time.
11 cultivate Christian friendships. Maybe meeting with one or two other gay Christians once every month or two for a meal and the evening together. Seek to serve them, for in serving others you are alongside Christ.
12 don’t let yourself go to seed morally. Maintain some discipline in your life. Give up something you like or some indulgence for a spell every so often, just to maintain your sharpness. Don’t let not going to church be the beginning of a moral slide.
13 go to some Christian films or ‘uplift’ films if possible. Listen to Christian programmes on radio or television sometimes – for example, Songs of Praise.
14 be prepared to talk about your faith when appropriate. Just because you don’t go to church does not mean you have no right to talk as a Christian. Don’t miss opportunities to do what some call ‘witnessing’.
15 read the Gospels (and other New Testament books), if possible on a regular basis. And get one of the latest translations – there is never any excuse nowadays for saying that one cannot understand the Bible. I recommend ‘The Message’ and also the New Living Bible – both can open up fresh understanding of what it is all about. You might want to obtain one of the booklets that give daily readings.
Departing the church is not the end of the Christian life – but it is a severe test because you are depriving yourself not only of worship and fellowship and opportunities to serve, but also you are casting yourself adrift from a valuable regular renewal and feeding of your faith. Being in a church means that you are in discussions with other Christians and this helps to test your way of life. The Church authorities can be wrong in a big way – as with the whole gay Christian thing – but they are much nearer the truth than anyone else on many other aspects of the Christian life. You will miss that help and must therefore be all the more open to listen to God when he speaks to you.
Obviously, leaving your Church is a last resort. If your church rejects you – saying, for example, that you must repent of being (or doing) homosexuality, then you may feel you have to leave. You may perhaps feel they are prejudiced beyond reason, and that there is no point in entering into discussion with them. They probably won’t change their view this side of the grave. It is sad, but there it is. So you may need to move out to find some Christians who are untouched by homophobia.
Going to church regularly adds stability to our lives and conversely, not attending church Sunday by Sunday can lead to an imbalance which can have negative consequences. Such an imbalance may take a time to take effect, and the danger is that you may wake up one morning to discover that your faith has vanished, that you are aimless and bored with life, that you have no port to go to when the storms of life start to blow.
To stop attending Church, after you have been a regular worshipper, is rather like cutting yourself off from a loving family. What one has to do is to try to preserve one’s spiritual life without the aid of a body of like-minded Christians around you. How important is that body of believers alongside? Well – very important, but not essential. People have survived on a desert island without losing their faith. Sick people who are housebound have kept their faith. People have survived in prisons without a church congregation around them. And it seems that God makes special provision for the Christian who is forced for one reason or another to live without the fellowship of other Christians around him.
Naturally you will cast around to see whether there is another church, which is more welcoming in your area. Be ready to go back into a Church family as soon as you can – it is the natural place for the Christian to be.
If any of you are in London, consider whether you can get to the Courage meetings – see the website for details – as these are good times of worship and fellowship. They are a lifesaver for some!