When Danica Roem became the first transgender person elected to a state legislature in Virginia last month, there was outrage from some sectors of the American church. One affronted church leader tweeted, “Christian parents, the nation’s first transgender elected official enters American history tonight. What are you doing to prepare your children for that?”
In response, bestselling author and University of Houston professor, Brené Brown tweeted:
We’re doing what we should have always been doing: loving God and loving others.
But are we? Is that what we’ve been doing, because if it isn’t, I suggest the church should get back to it.
In my homeland of Australia, we recently had a national survey on the question as to whether same-sex marriage should be legalized by the parliament. There was a hard-fought campaign waged on both sides of that debate. It wasn’t always very pretty or edifying.
In the end, the Yes vote romped it in – 61.6% to 38.4%. For some perspective, if a federal election was won by that margin it would be the most comprehensive landslide in Australia’s history.
As a result, many church leaders are asking a similar question to the one we began with here: what are we doing to prepare ourselves for being the church in the new era of Australian society in which same-sex marriage is soon to become a reality?
I like Dr Brown’s response: still loving, caring, serving, welcoming, feeding.
Now is the time to redouble our efforts to love our neighbours, to seek to be Christ’s representatives in the world. And all the more so because recent events in this country have greatly damaged the church’s reputation.
Not only has the same-sex marriage debate rocked Australian society, but we are currently enduring the painful but necessary ordeal of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony presented to a government enquiry into church responses to child sexual abuse. We’ve heard story after story about priests and church workers either abusing children in their care or turning a blind eye to that abuse. All of it reported on the nightly news. It has reached the highest levels with archbishops and the leaders of Australia’s largest churches being called to bring evidence.
German Jesuit scholar Hans Zollner, visiting Australia recently, reflected on the enquiry and said he felt Australians have completely lost trust in the church.
“There seems to be almost nil trust in what the church says,” said Fr Zollner, “This is not true in other parts of the world. I think you are in a pretty unique situation.”
But people aren’t rejecting the church just because they hate Christ. They distrust us because of the way some of us have behaved. Not only have they listened to stories of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders, they were also dismayed to see the conduct of some sectors of the church in prosecuting the No case in the same-sex marriage survey.
Sure, Yes campaigners behaved badly (there was an assault on the former conservative prime minister; a No voter was fired from her job for posting her position on Facebook; two churches were graffitied with references to Nazis), but it’s also true that a lot of the No campaign, supported by the churches, was essentially dishonest, and designed to foster fear among voters.
While some Christian campaigners tried to make the No case based on biblical interpretation and Christian tradition, a great many tried scare-mongering, with stories about kids being taught “genderlessness” in schools if same-sex marriage was legalized and openly questioning the legitimacy of non-traditional families. These campaigns were funded by the major churches to the tune of several million dollars.
There seemed to be no sensitivity to how these kinds of charges would be felt by those who don’t or can’t fit into traditional family arrangements. Many in the LGBTIQ community found the whole thing extremely difficult. Calls to helplines increased by 30% during the campaign period. One line received 10,000 calls.
Now that the vote is in, we need to grieve for the anger, fear and hurt that occurred during the campaign and seek to make amends for the ways we may have contributed to that.
Instead, the discussion has shifted to a campaign by the churches to ensure that their religious freedoms (not to be forced to perform same-sex weddings) are preserved. It has led some commentators to suggest the church is just a bunch of self-interested sore losers.
The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story that read, “…if we are going to turn over some rocks in a debate on religious freedom, we may see a greater need for freedom from religion, not freedom of religion.”
As you can see, the church is not viewed positively by many Australians. The fastest-growing category of religion over the past 50 years has been “No religion”, up from just 0.8 per cent in the 1960s to 30 per cent last year. Christianity isn’t just seen as irrelevant in contemporary Australia, but as insidious, dangerous, corrosive.
Now is not the time for the church to be moaning about the outcome of the same-sex marriage debate. Or about a transgender citizen being elected to office. Or about what are perceived as “attacks” against the church. Neither is it the time to appear so attentive to how this new world will affect us that we look self-focused and fearful.
Now is the time to do the same thing we should have been doing yesterday and the day before that: loving neighbors, giving thanks, and finding the face of God in everyone we meet.