For quite a while now, liberal Christianity has been strongly defined by the gay issue. It is unhelpful to say "let’s move on", as if the issue can be magicked away, but there is a need to remember that liberal Christianity is bigger than any single issue. It is time to reassert the big picture, within which the gay issue fits.
Otherwise, gay-friendly Christianity becomes a self-righteous subculture. It is natural for groups who feel discriminated against to become closely-knit, to create a space of safety. But, in the context of the church, it is also dangerous. When I receive email updates from a certain Christian gay-rights lobby group my heart sinks a little: why are you organising your own carol service, or Lent group or whatever? I want to ask. Why do you seek this cultish separatism? Do you not see that it does not help your cause?
I had the same feeling when I heard Gene Robinson speak a couple of years ago, and read his memoir. His approach seemed very close to that of a secular gay-rights campaigner; he spoke and wrote as if this issue was a crusade, a holy issue, the very essence of liberal Christianity in our day. It may sound like I’m being prejudiced but it needs saying: there was a victimised stridency in his tone that I found offputting. See the piece I wrote at the time. The problem was his willingness to overuse the rhetoric of civil rights, as if the struggle for gay equality is just as righteous as the struggle for racial equality.
What’s the difference? Sexuality is more ambiguous. Gay rights is joined at the hip to cultural forces that are, from a Christian point of view, dubious. I mean sexual liberation, individualism, hedonism. We are talking about human desire, which is endlessly fallible. The language of liberation therefore does not quite apply. If a racist repents and starts a mixed-race family, that is an unambiguous story of liberation, holy progress towards the kingdom of God. If a man leaves his wife because he decides he is gay, well, that is more ambiguous. To spin it as a marvellous tale of courageous self-realisation is dubious.
The problem with the Christian gay-rights lobby is that it insists that homosexuality is something to celebrate. Shouldn’t all forms of loving relationship be celebrated? Well, we should tread very carefully when sex is involved. The reality is that this thing called "homosexuality" is ambiguous. It does not just refer to stable committed same-sex partnerships. It also refers to a culture that detaches sex from commitment. But you could say the same of "heterosexuality". Yes: all sexuality is ambiguous. But the gay lobby implies that we should overlook the ambiguity and affirm homosexuality as a holy cause.
So although I am in favour of the ordination of homosexuals, I am very wary of the righteous aura attaching to homosexuality in liberal Christian culture. What is so fascinating about the gay issue is that it has been the best of liberal Christian causes, and the worst. It has been the best of causes because it revives one of the most basic themes of liberal Protestantism: God calls us to move beyond moral rules, beyond "the law".
There is no code of Christian morality other than "Be perfect" – and we are all forced to decide for ourselves how to failingly pursue this. Even when the person issuing the moral rule is St Paul we must overlook it, for his larger message is that the gospel frees us from moralism. The gay issue separates the advocates of Christian freedom from the legalists. It is a crucial shibboleth. Those who appeal to holy rules against homosexuality should indeed be denounced as sub-Christian.
And yet it also has been the worst of liberal Christian causes – because it overlaps with secular humanism. It has led to the perpetuation of a rather flabby liberalism that speaks the language of self-help therapy and political correctness. Feminism has also contributed to this, of course. The gay rights (and feminist) narrative of "accepting who you are" is one that should not be mixed up with Christianity, which teaches that you should strive to be very much better than you are. It points Christianity in the direction of soft spirituality.
How can liberal Christianity move on? How can it develop a larger sense of purpose which can put the gay issue in its place? Simply by being more theologically ambitious. It must strive to articulate the entire liberal Christian vision, it must re-narrate all of modern politics and culture in terms of it. It must put away its little books about victimised minorities and read – and write – some meatier ones. It must man up.