This interview was first published in June 2006
“Why is anything which is not from the gay position defined as homophobic,” asks Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, a Christian charity and lobby group in its 160th year of using a commitment to Christ and the Bible to engage with society.
My view of evangelicalism has often been megaphone-wielding preachers in Oxford Street telling shoppers to accept Jesus, or having leaflets shoved into your hand telling you homosexuality is a one way route to hell.
As we sit in Jamaican minister Edwards’ office, there is not a megaphone or leaflet in sight, I can forgive the operatic background music and his untucked shirt displays a calmness that made me believe I would not be accepting Jesus just yet.
The Evangelical Alliance represents 3000 churches and 30,000 individuals across a broad political, social and denominational, spectrum. The whole organisation would represent a constituency of 1 million.
The questions of gay marriage, civil partnerships and gay adoption have been done to death.
You would have to be living on a different planet to not know that, surprise surprise, there is a lot of Church opposition to same sex partnerships and adoption, but Edwards insists these views do not make the Evangelical Alliance homophobic.
“If it could be proven that sociologically and ontologically that there is no distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality then lets go for it, but until then we say its not the same.
“All evidence seems to suggest marriage between man and woman is crucial for family life, and the best context for children.
“We are saying God has proscribed marriage for man and a woman for practical, sociological, cultural reasons, not because we are prudish about the gay community.
“We are willing to listen to evidence, we do not seek to stuff our convictions down people’s throats, but we do have certain convictions based on Biblical principles, also bolstered by pragmatic, sociological evidence.”
These biblical principles can be found in the Bible which is available in most churches, bookshops, libraries and hotel rooms, so not much point in going into too much depth, but Edwards clarifies the evangelical view.
“Homoerotic practices are inconsistent with the Bible, sex belongs in marriage.
“This is a position we are convinced about through scriptures which informs our response, not about sex, we have a much wider lens than that.”
His reference to sex seems interesting as much of the gay lobby would complain that Christian homophobia is based on just viewing the person through their sexual orientation, yet Edwards tells me that is exactly what churches in the Evangelical Alliance are trying not to do.
“As a Christian minister I believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and that is no different to saying gay relationships are wrong.
“I do not believe in the vilification of gay people anymore than I believe in the vilification of heterosexual people who have sex outside marriage.
“The church shouldn’t be defined by sexual preferences, it is about seeking to enter into a relationship with God.
“Anybody and everybody should be welcome into a congregation, if you are a gay person, straight, or in complicated relationships, I think that’s the nature of the church, but if you are saying can you sign up as member of the Evangelical Alliance and agree with these ideas then the onus is on the individual.
“We don’t go around with hard helmets on a Sunday checking every local church saying who is gay, who is straight.”
So who is more obsessed with not being defined by who they sleep with, the gay community or the Christian groups?
For Edwards, it is an issue for the gay community.
“Why is it that whenever I talk to friends, or individuals from the gay community you appear to be disinterested in other questions and elements of what we are doing.
“Why zoom in on sex and not the other things we are doing.”
I suggest that it may be that the gay community view religious thought as slightly outdated and bigoted, he replies:
“Why am I not allowed to have my view, the natural outcome is that therefore you are wrong and cannot be right in any circumstances.
“It’s like I’ve got to be wrong and there seems to be an incredible inability to hear an alternative world view about human sexuality without calling it homophobia, anything which is not from the gay position is by definition homophobic, whereas in a liberal democracy that is really freedom of speech.
“I believe homosexuality is sinful, but I believe heterosexual relationships outside marriage are sinful, the gay community must not misrepresent the proportionality of what we call sinful we are not raising the level of the sin and sometimes it sounds that way because people up the stakes on the gay debate.
“We see the issues around gay sex as no different to heterosexual sex, we don’t see God coming to clobber the gay community, it’s not like we see the gay community as superior sinners.”
And it is this viewpoint that has seen the Evangelical Alliance push for religious viewpoints to be represented in faith schools, in light of the Equality Bill which guarantees access to goods and services despite sexual orientation.
It seems a relevant point, is a gay view automatically more valuable than a religious one or vice versa?
Edwards says its about balance as he highlights areas such as HIV programmes where Christian organisations are working with gay people without discrimination.
“Sexuality is fundamental to who we are but its not all that we are, how do we live as people, not just sexual people, I am fascinated that I can never get into a conversation unless it’s about sexual orientation and justice proscribed by sexual orientation, but the world is bigger than that.
“If every time I met an evangelical they had one subject I’d tell them to get a life.
“I want to engage with the gay community on the wider thought on justice, we believe sexuality belongs in the heterosexual relationship, we recognise not everybody signs up to that but in a liberal democracy we have a responsibility to juggle and balance issues of justice, equality and diversity with our conventions and our challenge to the gay community is that you must also find a way to juggle with us.
“We mustn’t be put in a position where we are homophobic because we believe certain things about sexuality and sometimes the Church does this imperfectly and sometimes has a lot to apologise for, but generally we are seeking to connect to people and have an opportunity to be fellow citizens who happen to have different views.”
So is it possible for homosexuality and Christianity to work together?
He expresses in interest in the work of gay campaigner Peter Tatchell.
“I have a lot of admiration for his passion for justice. The gay community may become partners with the church on a wider agenda away from gay-straight dialogue, because there is room to be committed to justice, but if the only take on justice is about sexuality I would question how committed are you?
“I do not want to defend fundamental behaviour but I don’t think gay people should defend pushing everyone who disagrees with them into a homophobic corner, that’s like me saying because I’m black anybody who disagrees with me must be racist.
“There are pockets of the Christian community that are aggressive and that’s wrong, our challenge is to learn how to speak about our convictions and do it gracefully and the gay lobby has an equal responsibility to allow us to do so without marking us down as homophobic.
“We may actually find our common humanity by tackling issues that our much bigger than human sexuality.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission announced yesterday that Mr Edwards has been appointed a commissioner.