I wonder how many dead teenagers would be enough.
Would it take more than one? Five? What about a few dozen?
The Bible is clear, it’s one man, one woman.
My theology prevents me from calling them by what they want to be called.
It’s all woke nonsense these days.
I’m talking here about the culture of shame incubated, perpetuated and weaponised by our mainstream churches here in Northern Ireland. For many ministers, youth pastors, volunteers, elders and senior members, the issues of the day (equal marriage, gender identity, same-sex attraction to name but a few) are abstract and hypothetical. Debates to be settled doctrinally, by taking shelter in the denomination’s guidelines and the Bible’s supposedly clear instruction.
But for many young people (and many older people), these issues are not intellectual, nor are they hypothetical. This is not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This is more, is it easier not to be alive than try to reconcile myself with the people and theology of my community. Am I better off dead?
Just Like Us, a UK charity, found in 2021 that LGBT+ young people in Northern Ireland are three times more likely to contemplate suicide than their non-LGBT+ peers, and are more likely to than LGBT+ teens in England, Wales and Scotland.
As a theologian, I cannot help but wonder what the cultural differences are between NI and the rest of the UK. The legacy of the troubles plays its part. But so does NI’s deep and pervasive commitment to religious fundamentalism. It sets us apart from our neighbours.
How many dead teenagers would be enough to start to change things?
Does the God of Christianity still require child sacrifice? Surely not.
10%, according to most surveys, if we’re talking about the proportion of LGBT people in our society. That’s about three of four young people in every decent sized church in the north. It’s about 10 or 12 adults in a mid-sized congregation.
What are they being told by their leaders?
And, crucially, what are they not being told?
Are they properly signposted to the right people, who will support them and make sure they know their life is more important than the theology of the men who run their church? In most cases, no.
Are they still being told, implicitly and explicitly, that their being is wrong. Punishable with hell? Yes, in many cases.
I tried — for years — to make the case of inclusion within the church in gentle, persuasive terms. I tried to see both sides and try to bridge the gap, cheering on the churches who became ‘affirming’ (I hate that word — who do they think they are that they have the power to ‘affirm’ someone). Now, I see there is no more persuasion to do, no more information to be given out.
We have reached a point where every church member in NI knows exactly what they belong to. And, if they don’t, the ignorance must now be wilful.
At one time I thought the Church’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge its own role in the mental torture of many young people was only to be resolved through theological dialogue. If only they could see the intellectual errors they were making in their theology, things would change. I’ve given up on that. If leaders in our churches still cling to theological homophobia in the face of real life stories of religious abuse, there can be no theological life raft to bring them back to sanity. They are beyond the point of saving. God will abandon them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desire, to gloriously misquote St Paul.
But for every powerful bigot moving their church policy to more fully reflect their fear and cruelty, there are dozens of ministers and leaders in our churches who are silently embarrassed by the shift happening in their organisation. And to them, I say shame on you.
How many dead teenagers would it take?
Silence is complicity.
There is a time coming when we look back at this moment with shame at the lack of courage and conviction shown by our spiritual leaders. And, when the church finally catches on, they will be welcome to sit at the table and enjoy the fruits of what has been achieved in the face of decades of theological torture. I just hope when the day comes, they are embarrassed.
There is a time coming when this place is purged of the fear, the shame, the torture powered by our mainline churches. A place that looks back at its religious past with no nostalgia.
The work has already started to Save Ulster from Theology.
If you need someone to speak with regarding any issues above, The Rainbow Project offers the only co-cultural counselling service in NI.
Andrew Cunning is a theologian and teacher working in Belfast.