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Last Sunday, I was invited to the Dedication of the beautiful daughter of a very good friend of mine. It was to take place in a Pentecostal Church in East London, with a full service and food afterwards. Naturally, I said I would attend – I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see an important milestone of this child’s life. The chance to see friends I hadn’t seen in a long time was something I couldn’t miss. I thought nothing of it and then, as the time approached, it dawned on me. This would be the first time I had been to a religious service in around ten years – the first since I had officially ‘come out’ – and not only that, I was going to a church that was specifically, and vehemently, anti-equal marriage (if not anti-gay). However, I was interested to see how the service would work and, prepared to be offended, I went along.
I arrived, with a female friend, and entered the unassuming church building. As I walked through into the main hall, I was greeted by smiling faces, warm ‘Good Morning’s and handshakes. We were ushered into a row and took our seats as the live band and singers were warming up. The service began with a welcome to new people (we were asked to stand up and applauded by the congregation, and hugged by those closest to us), and then we moved into the music. Such inspiring music. The singing in the church was warm and without embarrassment, and I couldn’t help but find myself dancing and singing along with the band, congregation and singers on the stage. Men, women, old, young were united in praise of love, friendship and God. Whilst I am not a believer, I could get on board with the love, friendship and unity that is celebrated; and I could see why people came to this church. The messages from the Moderator and the singers were inspiring and all encompassing – showing love and friendship for all men and women in the congregation. I felt completely welcome and supported.
And then, the preacher stood up. And this love and friendship fell apart. His sermon – family values. My heart sunk. I knew full well what family values meant – an opportunity to rage against the breakdown of the family caused by sex outside marriage, careerism, a lack of spirituality in life, an inability to evangelise at the workplace and, that sin straight from the devil himself, same-sex marriage. Hidden in a humorous, cheerful and parental style sermon that grew in its intensity and excitement, all thought of inclusivity, love and friendship were dropped in the place of outdated Biblical teachings on wives submitting to husbands, children brought up to fear their parents and feel ashamed of their natural urges, and where any deviation from straight, child producing marriages is sinful.
The preacher ended with the rabble-rousing ‘male and female, not female and female or male and male’. Were it not for the fact that the actual dedication hadn’t happened yet, and I was here to celebrate friendship, love and commitment, I would have walked out of the church and not returned. I was disgusted that a preacher could use a happy and momentous occasion in a child’s life to spout hate. I was more appalled at the cheers received in the church as his final statement was made. These were the people who had hugged and welcomed me. These were the people who, at the end of the service, hugged me tighter – thanking me so warmly for attending and telling me how I should come again.
I believe that, used correctly, religion and faith can absolutely be a force for good in the world. It unites societies and cultures, it provides for real philanthropy, protects the vulnerable, and gives people comfort in times of emotional need. I am sure that the majority of people in religious congregations are loving and tolerant, and I know that there are so many individual preachers, churches and denominations that can see that God loves and cherishes all people, regardless of who they love. However, religion and faith used as it was in this sermon alienates huge sections of society and acts as a despotic and outrageous attempt at control of people.
Until the love that I witnessed upon entering the church is replicated to all people, and by all churches, then I struggle to find the place that modern religion has in our society. Church leaders need to open their eyes to the diversity of not only society, but of their congregations, and realise that humanity is there to be united and loved – not divided by something so small and insignificant as the gender of those we fall in love with.