Editor’s note: Contained in this article are two opinions
You probably know them. They’re your friends, that couple who have been together so long no one remembers a time before they came as a pair. They’ve been living together since uni days in increasingly fancy flats and they live the most middle-aged, domesticated lives out of your whole friendship group – it’s all matching soft furnishings and homemade hummus.
They’ve got no plans to marry, and it’s not for lack of commitment – it’s just that he thinks marriage is a patriarchal institution, and she hates the idea of spending so much money on a party.
They know you disagree, that for you, marriage is an important public commitment before God to cement a lifelong relationship, and that you don’t think it’s right to live together before then. You’ve swapped opinions over a few glasses of wine – watching out for their cream carpets, of course – and just once it got a little heated, but you love and respect them, and they love and respect you. You’d never deny the faithful, sacrificial love they have for one another.
Then one weekend, they ask you over for lunch – and you suspect there’s some news from the excitement in their voices. “We’re having a baby,” they grin. Your grin soon rivals theirs, you know they’ve been trying for over a year now.
“A baby!” You squeal. “Congratulations!”
Isn’t that what you’d do, in that situation? You wouldn’t have to think about what to say, would you? Of course ‘congratulations’ is the right response – you want to share in their joy at this amazing next step in their lives. Now is not the time for an argument, or a prophetic declaration that their child will be born in sin. Now is not the moment to reiterate your condemnation of their unmarried status. Now is the time to celebrate all that is good in their relationship and their lives; the family they are building and the loving home this baby will be born into.
It seems so simple to me that I was fairly confident we’d be greeted with the same reactions, my partner and I, when we announced our engagement recently. I’m aware, of course, that some of my Christian friends don’t agree that same-sex relationships are an appropriate expression of human love. On the other hand, I, as a bisexual Christian, have also wrestled with biblical texts and Church teaching and reached a place where I truly believe that committed same-sex relationships can be a beautiful expression of God-given love and mutual self-sacrifice. I’m grateful for the open and honest conversations that I’ve been able to have with people of varying views about the issue over the years and I hope that for the most part, we’ve reached a place of mutual respect and understanding.
So I hoped that most people would recognise the goodness at the heart of my partner’s and my decision to commit our whole lives to each other in public and permanent relationship, for better or for worse. I expected that, whether or not our friends shared our opinion about same-sex relationships, they’d still react with a squeal and: “Congratulations!”
Sadly, some didn’t. There were plenty of hugs and champagne and cards and everything you’d hope from an engagement announcement, but from some people there came awkwardness… silence… questions… worried faces… grave words. We tried hard not to let it put a downer on our excitement and focused on the wonderful families and friends who shared our joy. But it was impossible not to feel wounded by those who would not, could not, celebrate.
I understand the very fine line that Christians with a conservative social theology have to tread. I have a deep sympathy for how hard it must be to navigate these decisions about when to make a stand against something you think is wrong and how far you can show generous love in the context of disagreement. All of us Christians have to make those judgement calls on the issues we feel strongly about – but it must be especially hard when you’re at risk of being called a homophobe from one side, or a compromising wooly liberal from the other.
I get it. But what I want to suggest is that conservative Christians already have a blueprint you can apply for pastoral response when it comes to life-events such as this. It’s the blueprint we’d use in my example above: picking your time for honest debate and conversation about aspects of people’s life decisions that you disagree with, and then rejoicing with those who rejoice, over every bit of good you can find.
Rejoice with those who rejoice – that principle leads us to join in the baby shower of the unmarried couple. That principle encourages us share in family christenings to celebrate a baby’s birth and their place in the Church family, even if our own beliefs say baptism should be for adults. Mourn with those who mourn. It’s the principle that tells us not to moralise and tut: “I told you so,” when a dodgy relationship ends, but to offer comfort, empathy and ice cream – even if you did say all along it was bad news.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, upholds the Church’s anti-same-sex-marriage stance, yet he freely praises good when he sees it: “You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship.” He says he has “particular friends where I recognise that and am deeply challenged by it”.
So if you see any good at all in the life-long commitment I and my partner are making, any reflection of Christ in the love and self-sacrifice we’re promising, any benefit in the faithful, stable support we want to offer one another, then celebrate the good. “Congratulations!” is all you need to say.
I’m spending the rest of my life with the woman I love. Rejoice with me, friends. It will mean more than you know.
There are people we love too much to simply preserve social niceties. Our deep concern for them means that we can’t hold back from carefully saying hard things to them – even as we continue to rejoice in all that is good about them.
My favourite example of this is from literature: Mr Knightley’s loving rebuke of Emma in the Jane Austen novel that bears her name.
Emma has just publicly humiliated their mutual friend Miss Bates and Mr Knightley rightly chides her: “It was badly done!” He then goes onto beautifully justify his sharp words: “This is not pleasant to you, Emma – and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will – I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do me now.” (Echoes of Proverbs 27:5-6?).
Mr Knightley is a true friend to Emma because he, as the apostle Paul would put it, speaks the truth in love. He could have politely avoided conflict and just focused on the good he sees in her. But instead he courageously finds the right time and words to graciously tell her what he feels about her damaging behaviour.
It’s that sort of honest affection that I’m wanting from all my friends. And it’s what the gospel demands of my Christian friends because they are more than just friends – they are my sisters and brothers in Christ. And that eternal kinship puts an onus on them – and me – to be open and honest with each other. Because we are family we are to say the hard things that are the expensive currency of a truly loving relationship – rather than settling for the polite platitudes that are the cheap currency of normal social interactions.
The friends I most value in life are those who have gently told me when things I’ve done were badly done. I most relax into a friendship when this Rubicon has been crossed because I know they love me enough to speak the truth into my life. I have been most damaged by the friends that have thought one thing and said another. Friends who have – to put it strongly, but accurately – lied to me for the sake of a quiet life.
That is why I wouldn’t want my Christian friends to simply say: “Congratulations!” to me if I ever got engaged to another man. I would be asking them to please me by lying to me about how they felt. And I think that would be friendship badly done.