Gay Marriage at New Wine and Greenbelt Festivals: 2 September

The Bible is against gay marriage, end of debate. Discrimination against gay people, including marriage discrimination, is clearly unjust and out of date: end of debate. These two positions dominate the Christian terrain, with New Wine generally preaching the former and Greenbelt the latter.

This year I had good days at both New Wine, Newark, and Greenbelt, Cheltenham. Spending time with friends, worshipping, listening, thinking. Each is good in its own way.

New Wine is the more coherent, uniting around a Charismatic and semi-Evangelical approach. People camp in ‘villages’, organised communities mostly of people from the same area. People cook and eat together. At key times most people gather in the same place, with a couple of smaller alternative venues.

At New Wine, women are welcomed into leadership. The usual argument for such a welcome is that the Biblical principles of the equality of the sexes, as demonstrated by Jesus and proclaimed in broad terms by Paul, carry greater weight than the Biblical prohibitions on women speaking in public and not wearing head-covering. The specific restrictions on women are shown to be for that 1st Century culture. The principles of equality are shown to be for all times and places, as far as local culture allows, without making the Gospel seem ridiculous or out of the question. In our culture restricting church leadership to men seems ridiculous and out of the question. It is a serious hindrance to the Gospel. The New Wine leadership would probably say that this is a truth into which the Holy Spirit has led.

At New Wine, gay people are not welcomed into marriage. There was no specific seminar on the subject when I was there, but the implications of what some speakers said were that the Bible is against gay sexual activity, and therefore against gay marriage. Last year this was made explicit by a speaker from the Evangelical Alliance. (see

But could it be that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church in a similar way in which He led over women in leadership? Could it be that the principles of equality and of life-long exclusive faithfulness carry greater weight than the particular Biblical gender prohibitions? In our culture, where excluding gay people from marriage now seems ridiculous and out of the question, making a considerable hindrance to the Gospel, is the Holy Spirit leading us to apply fundamental principles over culturally specific instances? It would make sense for New Wine, who stress the current activity of the Holy Spirit, to at least consider these questions. But the indications I heard were that no such consideration is happening, at least publicly.

I had a private conversation with a leading young theologian and speaker at New Wine. He questioned the whole approach of distinguishing between fundamental principles and possibly culturally specific instances. I replied that that was easy. Jesus distinguished between the weightier matters of the Law and the specific Laws of tithing herbs and spices. The distinction made by Jesus on this occasion is part of the foundation of all our thinking as Christians. The distinction is not for that instance only but for us to make more generally. The theologian was not convinced. He didn’t think that I was drawing a legitimate conclusion. I think he is aware that emphasising such a distinction would work in favour of gay marriage.

Greenbelt is different, less coherent. People camp as individuals. A few cook; many buy food on site. On Sunday morning most people gather in one place for a Communion. Most of the time there is a multiplicity of venues, approaches, formats. One cause around which Greenbelt officially seems to unite, though, is gay rights.

Steve Chalke was welcomed and applauded for his support for gay marriage. This was not the main point of his seminar, though. ‘An Issue, an Issue, we all fall down’ was the title of the main seminar addressing gay rights – by Mark Oakley, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mark described himself as gay and ‘a Greenbelt virgin’, delighted with the new experience. His message was simple. Gay rights are an issue on which we must not fall down but make a stand. We Christians should be championing the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. To do anything else is to indulge in deception, discrimination, and despising of fellow human beings.

Mark talked about the deception which for him began when he offered himself to be selected for ordained Anglican ministry. From the beginning he had to hide his sexuality. He said that he was encouraged in this deception by people in Church leadership, including Bishops. He bemoaned the continuing deception of Bishops who privately support gay priests and publicly rule out gay marriage.

Mark did not talk about his own decision to hide his sexuality. Why did he not simply pursue another career or join or establish a more pro-gay Church? Mark spoke with considerable wit and the audience responded warmly to him. Part of this, however, was his highlighting the ‘victim’ part of his own story and ignoring the ‘responsible adult’ part. Winsomely saying ‘poor me’ is likely to draw out sympathy from a sympathetic Christian audience.

Mark was strident in blaming others, particularly Bishops. He went on to talk of General Synod as containing ‘bed wetting depressives.’ Hardly an attitude of respect for Church authority, or of Christian grace for brothers and sisters with whom he disagrees.

Mark spoke with little regard for the serious concerns of others. He blandly adopted the gay rallying call for the inclusion of bisexual people, without explaining how marriage is to be expanded to include sexually active bisexuals. On the face of it, gay marriage, as heterosexual marriage, excludes any sexual activity other than with the spouse.

Mark must know that the latest statement from the Bishops is based entirely on Jesus’ description of marriage as between a man and a woman ( ) but he failed to mention it. The words and life of Jesus are the foundation and cornerstone of our Christian understanding. The Bishops commend building our understanding of marriage entirely on Jesus’ explicit description of marriage. I think there are other words of Jesus which should also be considered in this context (see Mark chose to ignore the words of Jesus and of the Bishops and instead make below-the-belt swipes at his own Church leadership.

I think Mark, and others like him, have a good point. The Biblical, Jesus, principles of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves could well be leading the Church in our culture to welcome gay marriage. Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage, certainly not to Christian faith as a whole. We need to look afresh at the whole of what Jesus said and the Holy Spirit is saying, messages which support gay marriage and those which undermine it. Strident nasty arguments which demonise those seen as on the other side are not to be applauded. Nor is hiding behind a ‘Bible says’ wall.

Roger Harper

12 Responses to “Gay Marriage at New Wine and Greenbelt Festivals: 2 September”

  1. Remade Says:

    Mark Oakely spoke very movingly and compellingly about his own experience in the church – and of the degree to which church tradition and church teaching has very often caused gay people to live lives with an unjustifiable degree of dis-integration (and not just ordained but lay people too). This isn’t true of those on the other side – those wishing to preserve the heterosexist hegemony in the church but who then go home to the loving intimacy of their married relationships (even if a bit fraught that others seem to be ‘undermining the integrity of scripture’.)
    Both sides have had to or are now being asked to ‘give up’ something profoundly important to them – but surely there is a gulf between the two situations: traditionalists being asked to continue fellowship with others whose interpretation of the scriptures on these issues appears to question innerrancy – and gay people being asked to make a choice between their vocation and their committed relationship?

    • rogerharper Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry for my delay replying.
      Yes it is important that we think compassionately of the personal impact of our varying approaches to gay marriage. Experience is one of the factors we use in Church decision making. Yet experience is not the only, nor the chief, criterion in Christian decision making. Both sides need to pay more careful attention to the whole range of what Jesus said, for He is the head of our Church. We are to be guided by Jesus, by what He said as has been recorded for us, and by what He says today through the Holy Spirit, including the possibility of some things which we ‘could not bear’ before now. It is better for all of us if the debate focuses more on Jesus and less on name calling, including harsh phrases like ‘heterosexist hegemony.’

      • Remade Says:

        Hi Roger
        Thank you for your reply here and no worries about the delay.
        I agree totally with all your points here but I am sorry that you struggle with my use of the phrase ‘heterosexist hegemony’ – this is shorthand for a lot of ill-advised and/or unexamined prejudice in the Church, bolstered by those selected verses (on sexuality and marriage) that we all know so well. Thankfully, the balance of power is shifting even if at a teeth-grindingly slow pace, as more and more people seem to be coming across the divide from a traditional to an inclusive point of view and not many people are going the other way. Meanwhile, the message received by secular society recently over the same-sex marriage debate is quite clearly and loudly ‘gay people are not fit to marry’, no matter how far we rationalise this with theological justifications (incomprehensible to anyone outside the Church).
        NALT Christians need to raise their voices and be heard in the market place:
        I am reading your ‘Gay Marriage Maybe’ pieces to better understand your viewpoint.
        Thanks again

      • rogerharper Says:

        Yes indeed the Church changes slowly by slowly – as it always has done. Please try to think the best of your fellow Christians – that they are trying to follow the Bible in the way that they have been taught. There may be prejudice there too, but you are not going to win people over, nor witness to the love of Jesus, by dismissing their arguments as unexamined prejudice bolstered by selected verses. Have you read ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ which examines very carefully all the pro gay marriage arguments and retains a conservative view? Better to respond to that in like manner.
        Please could you also explain Christian, NALT, understanding of full inclusion for sexually active bisexuals? It has always puzzled me how that is envisaged as working out… I may be missing something here.

  2. Remade Says:

    I’m sorry – Mark’s name is Mark Oakley
    It’s getting too late for commenting ….

  3. Remade Says:

    Hi Roger, thank you for this.
    No, I am not going to win anyone over – no-one is won by argument, we are only won by the power of the Holy Spirit bringing conviction into our hearts and minds over these issues. Although, where people are ‘following the Bible the way that they have been taught’ we often have a culture of exclusion, judgementalism and foot-dragging with respect to the LGBT inclusion process, and a lot of people failing to come to faith, deepening discipleship, taking their place in the Body of Christ and completing those works ordained for them at the appointed time. We will be held accountable to God for this.
    With respect to bisexuality – well, a possible scenario: in Church X, Tom is a young man in the youth group. He is in a relationship with Bethany. They make a lovely young Christian couple, the church supports their relationship and the assumption is that it is not a sexual relationship. However, in time and for whatever reasons, Tom and Bethany call it a day. A year down the line, Tom has entered another relationship – this time with Simon. The church does not respect their relationship and the assumption is that it is sexual. However, Tom is the same ‘Tom’, committed to church, committed to discipleship and with the same personal ethic with respect to relationships. How does the church now cope with Tom (previously he was an asset, now he seems a problem) and how is Tom to cope with his church?
    If your question is on polyamorous relationships – personally, I support the right of people to marry the person of their choice, but only one person please. However, this is just my opinion and I am nobody. If in future, a majority decision in the UK voted for extending the definition of marriage to polyamorous units then I wouldn’t waste time, money, breath or pixels opposing it – but I would want us to look at developing a pastoral strategy that would allow members of polyamorous units to be accorded the same privacy, autonomy and respect currently extended to dyadic married couples in our church congregations.

    • rogerharper Says:

      Thanks again Jane,
      Yes indeed we are to look to the Holy Spirit to bring His conviction into our hearts and minds. One way, though, through which He brings this conviction is through the arguments of fellow Christians. The history of the formation of the Creeds, which we deem guided by the Holy Spirit, is the history of arguments, sometimes fierce, in both sense of that word. It is important that we speak the truth as we see it in Jesus, and in such a way that affirms that other Christians are our sisters and brothers. Showing understanding of why people may not be as quick as you are to overturn centuries of Christian understanding, speaking of them in terms that you would like them to use to you, is helpful.
      Your envisaging the inclusion in Church of polyamorous units surprises me. Yes we Christians, post Christendom, cannot set the rules for other people, and we are better for it. Post Christendom we are freer to follow Jesus more whole-heartedly, with less compromise. Jesus was remarkably strict on sexual morality and His standards were, and are, higher than anyone else’s. Marrying, ie joining in a faithful, committed, exclusive sexual relationship with only one person, for life, enshrined in a public act, is not just what we might want, it is Jesus’ call to all His followers. Christians are not autonomous; we submit to Christ as Lord. If you move away from that, you are moving away from the foundation and cornerstone of our faith and distancing yourself from most other Christians. Yes there can be a pastoral response, as there is in places where people in polygamous marriages become Christians. There is generally no exclusion of the people, but a commitment not to marry further wives is expected, and polygamists are not involved in church leadership.
      Christians can, I believe, come to see gay marriage as a Spirit-led extension of the teaching of Jesus. Christians cannot rally to the secular liberal banner of full LGBT inclusion, which conflicts with the teaching of Jesus.

  4. Remade Says:

    Thank you Roger for your reply here.
    You mention that in various cultures, the church does not exclude polygamous people (but would expect them not to marry further wives and that they would not be involved in church leadership). You don’t suggest that polygamous husbands are asked to divorce all but one wife or even to limit sex to only one, selected wife. If polyamorous units were to become legalised in our society, we would not implement a policy of exclusion either to individuals or to units – some churches would ask them not to increase the number of partners in the unit and they would not be involved in church leadership. The waters are muddied, of course, because polygamous relationships are understood to be entirely heterosexual whereas polyamorous relationships may be opposite sex or same-sex. Those churches which struggle now with accepting and affirming same-sex couples will no doubt have a similar difficulty with the individual relationships in poly units. But we are jumping the gun here, our current issue with integration of same-sex couples is a challenging enough point of focus.
    “Marrying, ie joining in a faithful, committed, exclusive sexual relationship with only one person, for life, enshrined in a public act, is not just what we might want, it is Jesus’ call to all His followers. Christians are not autonomous; we submit to Christ as Lord. If you move away from that, you are moving away from the foundation and cornerstone of our faith and distancing yourself from most other Christians.”
    Yes, I agree with this mostly – although I wouldn’t say that the call to marriage is mandatory, nor is everyone called to marriage. The problem is that many people would like to commit to marriage but if they are gay and their partner is of the same sex, this is not yet a possibility and even civil partnership may still not be viewed as a commitment-to-marriage-where-marriage-is-unavailable. The change in the law will enable the Church to eventually get over itself with respect to its own self-imposed Catch 22 (no sex outside of marriage/no marriage for you (to gay people). Within the decade we will see same-sex married couples within our congregations and we will hopefully treat them with the same privacy, autonomy and respect we extend to opposite-sex married couples.
    I’m not sure why you feel that Christians who support same-sex marriage are moving away from the foundation and cornerstone of our faith and distancing ourselves from most other Christians – many Christians are making the crossing from a traditionalist to an inclusive point of view ( Overturning centuries of Christian understanding isn’t too difficult to do when that Christian understanding meets reality head on – it is the ongoing witness of the fruitful, loving and faithful lives of Christian civil partnered couples that is leading to a mass shift in changed attitudes within all our church fellowships.

    • rogerharper Says:

      Yes indeed the witness of faithful, committed, loving gay people is making a difference. This witness is far better than strident arguing.

      I don’t think that Christians who support same sex marriage are necessarily moving away from the foundation and cornerstone, but those who support active bisexuals clearly are. I can envisage marriage being extended to include gay people, but not to include polyamory as am option for Christians to pursue. The witness and standards of the pre-Christendom Christians were considerably stricter than their contemporary culture. The same is needed post Christendom.

      Jesus’ disciples are to ‘do all that He commanded.’ New disciples are to be taught to do this. This is the opposite of the autonomy, which you seem to prize. Jesus’ commands cover money, prayer, conflict, as well as sexuality. I know that the Church has, sometimes spectacularly, failed to pay serious attention to this form of discipleship. We should base our teaching not on the failures of the Church but on the life and words of Jesus.

  5. Remade Says:

    Civil partnered couples are couples committed to marriage where marriage is unavailable. If there are still churches which attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the autonomy that in opposite-sex marriages is considered non-negotiable, then we have a problem. Of course, civil partnered couples need to be selective about which churches they join – there are plenty of inclusive churches which will allow them the same autonomy as married couples (allowing God to convict by the Holy Spirit in both cases if he has a problem with any aspect of their lives, including the sexual component). Meanwhile those churches which do attempt to deprive civil partnered couples of the autonomy that in married couples is considered non-negotiable, will over time gain a reputation in the local community for being anti-gay, and will find their efforts to theologically justify their position gain no traction whatsoever. More to the point, they will fail to see civil partnered couples joining their congregations (and neither will even local inclusive congregations as civil partnered people give all churches a wide berth). Our arbitrary line-drawing then potentially undermines God’s wider kingdom purposes to see gay people come to faith – this may or may not justify a degree of ongoing online conversation/strident arguing (but hopefully it won’t be necessary by say about 2030 when we will have resolved much of this and married couples (both opposite-sex and same-sex) will find themselves equally respected in our congregations.

    • rogerharper Says:

      Jane, your language and arguments, as I have tried to explain before, put you on the edge of the Christian community.

      Christian heterosexual couples are not usually seen as having autonomy. They are taught and encouraged to follow the way of life set down by Jesus and in the Bible – no polygamy or polyamory no adultery, no wife swapping, no sleeping with prostitutes, no withholding of sexual relations, and, more importantly a mutual care of and submission to each other. If you continue to talk about autonomy rather than, for instance, discipleship, you are distancing yourself from most of the Church.

      The Church, generally, believes that as well as being guided by the Holy Spirit in our conscience, we Christians are also guided by Jesus and the Bible. We do not need the Holy Spirit to tell us that bank robbing or adultery is bad (however bad the banks or the spouse may be) because we have the 10 Commandments which, Jesus told us, are not to be changed one iota. We cannot simply leave it to the Holy Spirit to teach people Christian ethics. There also has to be public teaching following Jesus and the Bible.

      You also lack any sympathy for Christians, who, simply, take a long time to accept a huge change in the Christian understanding of marriage. Writing of them as simply depriving others of autonomy is harsh – ie not in the Spirit of Jesus. You may well be right that the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual marriage will fade away. Given the many centuries in which this distinction has been seen to be part of God’s way for humankind, you need to be more patient and respectful, both with those Christians who still say gay marriage as wrong and with those of us who aren’t yet sure.

  6. Remade Says:

    Thank you, Roger.
    Very well, let me substitute the word ‘discipleship’. If Christian same-sex couples commit to their Christian discipleship to the same degree that opposite-sex couples do with respect to submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, mutual care of and submission to each other, faithfulness and commitment – will both couples be treated in the same way by their church leadership?
    Sin separates us from God, separates us from other people, separates us from ourselves – such is the nature of sin. The Holy Spirit reconciles us with God, reconciles us with other people, reconciles us with ourselves – such is the nature of the Holy Spirit. Where the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of committed couples, both opposite-sex and same-sex, how far is their church required to intervene?
    Not so long ago, I had an email correspondence with a pastor who sees it as his duty to split up gay couples – he is exercising his own autocratic power to pick and choose which scriptures he wishes to implement in his church, he justifies this as keeping his church ‘sin-free’. How far is this control and manipulation an abuse of power? How far are we prepared to undermine God’s purposes to meet our own agenda?
    I have endless patience with those Christians who are genuinely struggling with our changing cultural landscape with respect to marriage but who are prepared to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated – I’m afraid I have difficulty with those Christians who are already wagging fingers at people with a disparaging “you’re not in a ‘real’ marriage” verdict.

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