Why Tim Farron’s experience of intolerance cuts both ways

If I had a pound for every one of the column inches that have been written on the Farron affair I’d have a nice little windfall. Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve thrown my tuppence halfpenny worth in a couple of times too.
In fact, on the first occasion I had initially been reluctant to contribute and on the second the point of my contribution was to encourage fewer words not more.

Unfortunately, what goes around comes around and this week I came to the conclusion that, perhaps regrettably, there was yet more that needed saying. The prompt was Farron’s churlish response to the whole episode in an article in i News, 'You're meant to feel marginalised as a Christian.'

I understand that Farron will feel got at and is probably hurting quite a lot. It will have been a bruising row to be the centre of and at least some of what he has had to contend with has resembled a stream of personalised invective. I get too that there are those in his own party in particular who are sorry to see him go and feel he has been hard done by. I know some of them and respect their view.

But, irresistible though it proved to be for him, I might in his position have bided my time before reflecting. Not least because by his own admission he has not always handled the whole stushie very well. But also because there are moments when it’s wise to step away from the key board and I suspect this was one of them.

As I have acknowledged in both my previous contributions, as a gay Christian I’ve been around the block on this one more times than I care to remember. And the first thing that struck me about Farron’s piece this week was his assertion that he has been ‘slagged off by his political opponents for his faith.’

And by some people, he may have been, but by most, he has in fact been criticised for his views on homosexuality. Not his voting behaviour, which is a matter of public record and which although not unblemished is more positive than that of many on gay rights. Not for his public pronouncements in support of gay people facing torture, as welcome as they have been.

But for his own stated views, albeit sometimes muddled and contradictory, that gay sex is sinful.
The fact that from his perspective this standpoint is derived from his Christianity is something that he has to take responsibility for, not his opponents.

And therein lies part of the problem. Farron inevitably interprets things from his own perspective. But a balanced consideration and a more nuanced one might involve a vantage point which has three chairs rather than one. One for him, one for his opponents and one for an observer. That’s the only sure way to make sense of the situation.

Had he done so might have been more willing to acknowledge that very many of those in the opponent’s chair were Christians too. And had he sat in the observer’s chair he might have been able to turn the tolerance argument on its head and see it from the perspective of lesbian, gay and bisexual people within Christian institutions.

Much of the defence heaped on Farron has centred on the notion that the political arena has been intolerant of his faith. Maybe. But the thing is, many gay Christians would argue that the religious arena has been intolerant of their sexuality for a long time. And it takes two to tango.

My first experience of this was on a Scripture Union summer mission as a callow 18-year-old in the summer of 1979. I had grown up in a Christian household, had been a regular church goer since early childhood and it had never occurred to me that I was anything other than a Christian. It was my second year as a volunteer on the mission but in the intervening 12 months, I had come to acknowledge something else about my identity. I was almost certainly gay. And it wasn’t a passing phase.

Scripture Union is on the evangelical wing of Christianity and unsurprisingly in hindsight, I was subject to some pretty entrenched reaction that summer, much of which centred rather pruriently on the act of sodomy. This was perplexing because, bar one grubby moment in the shadows, I had until then barely held hands with another man.

But what actually hurt more was that fellow volunteers implored me to ‘just let Jesus in.’ Aside from the fact that it made him sound like the cat, it had never occurred to me that I had let him out. And so began a long journey away from Christian institutions, though never entirely from Christian faith. A journey not of my choosing but borne out of the intolerance of others.

In my early 40s, the journey came full circle and I found myself once again regularly attending Mass at a Redemptorist led parish and serving as a reader every Sunday. I was, in a quiet way, an openly gay parishioner and for the first time in my adult life, my sexuality and my faith could breathe together.

My participation didn’t come without a point of view being shared from time to time but always, I hope, respectfully. I had no desire to march down the aisle with a banner, just to be comfortable in my own skin in the body of the church.

During that time I applied to join the board of a Catholic adoption agency. My credentials were impeccable by any standard; adopted, experienced board member of another agency and a practising Catholic. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, quite quickly, proved to the answer. On arriving at my first meeting I found to my dismay that the very first item on the agenda, correspondence, featured a letter about gay adoption. I realised almost immediately that my credentials were about to unravel.

Within a few weeks, I was faced with a choice, leave the board before I had started, stay but agree to differ in silence or stay and argue the case. When I enquired which of those options might be acceptable it was clear that arguing the case was a non-starter.

And so in good conscience, I left. The church had proved, not for the first time, to be a less than tolerant space to be. And in part that’s been my problem with Tim Farron and some of his defenders all along. Intolerance cuts both two ways. You can find yourself marginalised in religious institutions too.

Being Christian, Farron argues in his i News piece, is ‘counter cultural’. That may well be true, but being gay has been counter cultural for a long time too and being both is an even more complicated gig. Being a practising homosexual and a practising Catholic has certainly not proved straightforward (no pun intended) for me.

And the piece de resistance in Faron’s article is his swipe at those of us who are in and around that space. The charge of cultural Christianity, smacking as it does of my faith is real and yours is fake. I really believe this stuff, he is saying, but you’re just playing in your ‘funky garb’ at your ‘colourful festivals’.

How extraordinarily insulting. One thing I have never doubted about Farron is the integrity of his faith but he obviously sees no difficulty in having a swipe at mine and that of many other gay Christians. Yet our faith has been tested to within an inch of its life. Go ask any serving gay cleric.

And for the record, the one thing I loved about my time at in the parish I attended was that it was pretty traditional. No ‘funky garb’ for sure. A solemn space in which I felt included. A fragile accommodation at times perhaps, but its inclusion was no less significant for all that.

Ultimately however aggrieved Farron might feel, the case he makes this week is, ironically, an intolerant one. His claim to be a true believer as against thousands of others who it seems he thinks are not, demeans his argument and belies the fact that Christianity, like liberalism, is a contested space.

Unfortunately, it appears that he would rather be the victim to the last. But as the words of Tom Waits song go, come down off the cross, Tim, we can use the wood. Many whose faith has far greater integrity than mine would argue that climbing down from such a lofty space is the very thing Jesus would do.

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    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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