An interview with Dr Sarah Nicholson, a queer-identifying Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, explores the relationship between the two communities.
The LGBTQ+ and Christian communities have a history wrought with conflict. Interpretations of Christian ideology are often the driving force of active discrimination towards LGBTQ+ rights; the teachings of the church have long been influencing our mind set with visible effects from our laws to our media. Over her years of teaching, Dr Sarah Nicholson of the University of Glasgow’s Theology and Religious Studies department has witnessed a shift in this dynamic. Her position as a queer-identifying professor of Theology provides a rare insight of expertise on the intersection between two aspects so intrinsic to our identities: sexuality and faith. In this increasingly secular society, where does this relationship stand?
“My interest in this relationship is partly from having been involved in both but largely on the periphery. When I went to university, it was really exciting to discover that most of what I’d heard at [my boyfriend’s] evangelical church was rather warped.” Sarah had attended church regularly as a student, and still enjoys going to church from time to time, although she would no longer describe herself as Christian. Over the course of university, she started becoming involved in relationships with women, however it was a while before she recognised her sexuality as “a real thing”: “It took me a long time to realise that what I was experiencing had a word – it wasn’t some aberration or deviance. And that came fairly late for me, even though I’d just spent the last four years acknowledging that Christianity wasn’t always telling the truth about sexuality.”
Through her studies, Sarah realised that our understanding of Christianity’s approach to the LGBTQ+ community was misguided. The homophobia perpetuated by the church is predominantly drawn from biblical passages that have been cherry picked to apply to an agenda. As a theologian, Sarah emphasises the dangers of a lack of contextual knowledge: “When practicing Christians do start spouting stuff about Leviticus to me, I just ask them if they’ve read it in Hebrew. They never have. There are some words in there that we really can’t translate. In fact, they’re so difficult to translate that when Saint Paul picks them up later to quote from, he simply uses the Greek word he’s familiar with. It’s translated ‘homosexuality’ in the bible, but there are a lot of words in the ancient world for homosexuality in Greek (it was their thing!) and yet he doesn’t use any of them. He uses this word that is virtually untranslatable in Hebrew, so actually the state of the text is very difficult. I think for those ‘solo scriptura’ bible believing Christians arguing that these verses absolutely demonstrate that God hates the gays and wants them dead – there’s literally no basis for that, all you need to do is learn Hebrew – and it’s not that hard!”
The issue of mistranslation is far more than simple debate over ancient languages; the existing translations have spread their roots within the way our world is run. “I recall in the American presidential campaigns, Ted Cruz was best buddies with a preacher who was arguing that LGBTQ+ people should be put to death – put to death – on the basis of his reading of the bible. It’s not just a minor detail that people are mistranslating it. This is involved in the political systems of the most powerful nation in the world. It’s a big deal.”
Christian ideologies both influence and reflect our systems of power and our understanding of the nature of humanity: the categories of gender as stable binaries, and marriage and procreation as the proper purpose of men and women. “It might take time to unravel that. It is inevitable that there will be a resistance, particularly from the cis-het patriarchy because that system has worked in their favour for a very long time; they don’t want to lose it. It’s what gives them power. But they will lose it, I’m confident.”
Sarah acknowledges the “massive weight of history” that Christianity holds as the largest religion in the world, inevitably carrying a level of responsibility for its injustices. This makes it difficult to envision how the two communities could begin the long road to reconciliation, although attempts have been made to make amends. “The Church of Scotland issued a formal apology to LGBTQ+ people for the way that they treated them. Apologies are good but I think it needs to be the stuff that is preached week in, week out. If somebody is at the pulpit preaching the word of God, it needs to be absolutely clear that we’re all God’s children and it’s not just the respectable married people who are producing children that are part of the kingdom of heaven but actually everybody – it needs to be explicit.” However, the burden of responsibility does not lie solely on the leaders of the congregation. “The people who go to church are part of the rest of society, so most people are going to be encountering a world in which everyone else thinks it’s normal, because it is.”
Sarah notes that within the University, the issue is less about explicit discrimination and more about an underlying lack of awareness. “I think one of the things I find really interesting having worked in an ancient university, a place where there’s a lot of privilege around, is that I always take a feminist approach to some of the material but almost every year somebody will say in the student feedback that I spend too much time talking about women. I haven’t yet been accused of spending too much time on LGBTQ+ issues. This is interesting because it does come up. I actually think that sometimes straight people don’t notice that’s what I’m doing. It’s people who are coming from an LGBTQ+ place who see what I’ve done and go ‘Oh ok, that’s interesting’ and come and talk to me. So, it’s not exactly discrimination but more invisibility.”
When asked about how to bring these revelations of queer theology to the wider world, Sarah believes “it trickles through. I find it very interesting that we have so many LGBTQ+ students in Theology because people would assume that they would be discriminated against in various ways and what happens is, they come and they learn and we teach and that’s how it gets out there.”
This positive approach reflects the general atmosphere of Glasgow towards LGBTQ+ rights. “For two years running, Scotland was found to be the best place in the world to be LGBT. That’s very encouraging. I don’t know whether it’s great to be gay in Scotland in general because we’re more secular or because the religion that persists tends to be more diverse.” This draws attention to the important role that location plays in Christian attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights. It is impossible to form a homogeneous Christian theology as various denominations and socio-political contexts result in wildly different beliefs, evident between Western and non-Western Christianity. Many countries practice a theology embedded with colonial roots harking back to the work of missionaries, whose influence makes the situation all the more complex. It’s easy to create a narrative of “backwards societies” whilst forgetting that homophobia is so deeply entrenched in the environment and propaganda, partly from colonial influence. This makes it difficult to place direct blame on the individual without acknowledging the source of collective beliefs. It is not a case of excusing homophobia, or denying the need to fight for change, but rather recognition of where these attitudes stem from – which leads to the question of how to approach this discrepancy.
Sarah’s answer: ask questions. “As a white, middle-class, middle aged person who benefits from almost every possible advantage, it’s not my place to tell people that they’re wrong. But I might ask questions: ‘What is it about the kingdom of heaven that might exclude people who perform sexuality differently from the heteronormative? What about that passage about eunuchs for the kingdom? What’s that about, if not people whose way of being is not the traditional getting-married-having-children thing?’ Then I would accept the answers I was given. It’s not my role in life to go out and challenge people’s strongly held faith. But I do think it’s my role in life to ask a question or two along the way.”
These questions allow us to unpack our own views – with such a sensitive topic involving elements so inherently personal, arguments rarely change beliefs. “That’s not how it works. How it works, in my experience, is that people think the whole gay thing is wrong, and then they meet someone that is LGBTQ+ or they find out that someone they’ve known for a long time is LGBTQ+ and that experiential learning is far more effective than anything I could say.”
Nonetheless, the church has developed a negative reputation, and deservedly so in many ways (referring to the organised system as a whole, historically). However, individual Christians carry this reputation, with non-Christians forming assumptions of their beliefs which in reality vary from person to person. Sarah would counter these assumptions with a reminder: “It’s about politics, not religion. It’s religion being co-opted for a political cause and that happens all the time throughout history. The church has a lot to answer for, of course, but also people have used religion for political purposes since the beginning of time.” She emphasises the other side to religion which is often unacknowledged in non-religious contexts: “I’m not saying religion should be exonerated but at the same time when atheists argue that religion should be abandoned because it’s the cause of so much trouble… it’s also the cause of an immense amount of comfort and immensely good things. I don’t want to let the church off the hook for the things they’ve done wrong but they have done some things right too.”
In support of this hopeful evolution of Christian attitudes, Sarah describes Christian spaces in Glasgow in which her department’s LGBTQ+ students have felt comfortable and welcomed, such as Saint Mary’s Cathedral led by Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, an openly gay priest. The church runs an LGBTQ+ network and their website describes the congregation as “Open, inclusive, welcoming… We have different abilities. We have different understandings of the truth. We have all kinds of different reasons for choosing to make this our spiritual home.” Sarah also mentions the Metropolitan Community Church who she believes “its purpose is to be a place where people who grew up in the more conservative traditions can find a way to find themselves acceptable to God as people who are LGBT.”
In spaces such as these, they have begun the process of attempting to mend their relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, but there is still a long way to go. Sarah, however, is confident in the future with the surge of liberation theology fighting for social justice, and the encouraging examples of a return to religion as a source of comfort, making amends, and rooted in love and tolerance.
Sarah left me with a recent example which struck her, in light of the hope which exists for the future of the two communities: “I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest. He said the church had been more loving to him than his family had [when he came out]. I thought that’s a really strong, really powerful statement. By accepting him as a gay man, which his family hadn’t, his church had shown him more love than his family and I thought – that’s beautiful. Of course it’s sad that his family were not accepting, but it was beautiful.”