Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Letting be

 Yesterday, I read this post about the often cold or flawed nature of the welcome that  conservative churches give to LGBT people, even those who embrace celibacy. It wasn't a new story to me because there are some depressing attitudes around and conservative LGBT Christians can get the worst deal from churches as they can feel uncomfortable theologically and personally at "affirming" churches but do come up against an insidious prejudice in some conservative churches. One person told me that the church he went to told him that they were quite happy to have him there as long as he wasn't in a relationship, but then, a few months later when he offered to be more involved in church life, announced he would not be a "good role model." I want to hasten to say that there are conservative churches who do manage things much better than this, equally there are "liberal" churches which still manage to be crass or insensitive.
So what can you do if institutions or the people within them make you angry, bitter or hurt? Well, you can leave, or you can stay, or you can work to change them from the inside. It doesn't matter which of these options you choose as long as you recognise that being angry/ bitter/ hurt is not generally a realistic proposition as a long term emotional state. There are always a few individuals, of course, who thrive on their anger or outrage and use it to galvanise them to work for change. This can be admirable, although they can also run the danger of being one track crashing bores, but it does not suit the average person.
Over the summer I read Anthony De Mello's How to Love which was a book recommended on the Available Light blog. There was a lot about the book that I struggled with, didn't agree with or thought was too simplistic... and yet... there was something in it. I went back to the book several times and found myself in the strange position of either fervently agreeing or fervently disagreeing with almost every idea in it. I also found that it helped me cope better with a colleague with whom I had had a disagreement- and we were at a bit of an impasse. De Mello says that a lot of our unhappiness is caused by our ideas and expectations about the world around us and our need to try to arrange the world to our liking. He writes,

" Yet another belief: Happiness will come if you manage to change the situation you are in and the people around you. Not true. You stupidly squander so much energy trying to rearrange the world. If changing the world is your vocation, go right ahead, but do not harbour the illusion that this is going to make you happy... as well search for an eagle's nest on the bed of an ocean as search for happiness in the world around you."

De Mello does take this idea to the extreme and advocates a kind of asceticism in thought that even extends to a lack of concern at the thought of losing those closest to you - I have to say I have not reached this point yet! However, his ideas about letting people be themselves, not worrying too much to change them but just accepting them is good advice. It moves you from anxiety to peace. We all seek the approval of other people, but De Mello helps you to see that the only place  really worth seeking approval is with God and within yourself, your own conscience. And once you have reached that place external things such as people and institutions will no longer have the power to make you bitter, angry or hurt.

1 comment:

  1. Peter (not his real name) was a fine and upstanding member of an Evangelical Anglican church attended in Leeds, in the late 1980s. Peter was on the PCC, a leading light in the music group and led a house group. At the time I lived in a shared flat with two housemates from the church. It was our custom to have people round for meals on a regular basis and that is how I first met Peter – he came to our flat for a meal.
    However I instantly recognised him. I have a good memory for faces and I remembered seeing Peter in the Greyhound, a gay pub in Huddersfield, two years before. I never mentioned this to anyone else, but I was fairly confident Peter was gay. Move forward a few months and Peter began to attend church with a man around the same age as himself who was a little more obviously ‘gay looking’: the obligatory moustache of the 1980s, the bright, American Cloth button eyes, his clothes perhaps a size smaller than was actually comfortable for him to wear... And (again remember this is the late 80s) he had a penchant for lumber-jack shirts. No one commented on this new friend and I really wondered if the congregation was blind!
    Move forward a year or so and suddenly Peter had vanished. He had approached the then vicar and informed him that he and his friend had decided to live together in a committed, but celibate relationship. He was told this could not be tolerated and was asked to step down from the PCC and any other positions he held in the church. He decided to leave the church. What is interesting is at the same time, the parish lay-assistant proved to be more lay and less assistant as his girlfriend had become pregnant. What happened? He had to apologise to the church – in reality an apology for breaking the 11th Commandment (‘Thou Shalt Not Get Found Out...’) and he proceeded on his merry way and he is now a vicar himself.
    At the time I found the hypocrisy concerning this incident hurtful indeed. The earnestness of a gay man was see as worthless and he was severely punished, whilst at the same time a toffee-nosed Evangelical vicar in embryo was given every opportunity to sweep his indiscretion under the surplice and get on with his ecclesiastical career.
    This instructive story aside, I will note that LGBT people have a problem from the start. They are a minority – which means they tend to lack any real power in a church. Moreover, religion is, like it or not, discriminatory in nature (save/unsaved; believer/non-believer; clean/unclean etc.) and believers have a habit of imposing on others judgements they could not bear themselves. Believers WANT to feel better than their neighbour, they want to feel special, chosen, redeemed and altogether less sinful than the rest of humanity. Religion is primarily a species of institutionalised narcissism. In this respect LGBT people will always be useful scapegoats - a means whereby the imperfect parishioner can at least feel better than these poor unfortunates who somehow bear the burden of the Fall far more than your average parishioner.
    That said, care is also needed that the LGBT person doesn’t fall foul of a consanguine species of vanity, namely victimhood and the conceit of paranoia. There is the temptation for the Christian LGBT to be burdened by a double weight of the narcissism implicit in a goodly portion of religion and the narcissism of the victim fuelled by the vanity and conceit of paranoia.
    It is a difficult way forward – but if a LGBT person finds themselves communicant members of a church – when their sexuality is fully known - then I would just get on with it lest there is a temptation to fall foul of wanting special treatment or of imbibing the behaviour of others with a sinister motives that might just exist more in the mind of the wannabe victim rather than in objective reality.