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The Rev Steve Chalke says Christians need to find ways to support those in or seeking faithful same-sex partnerships
An influential evangelical minister has declared his support for monogamous and loving same-sex relationships, and called on the church to stop treating gay people as pariahs.
The Rev Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister who founded the Christian charity Oasis, says the time has come for the church to demonstrate its compassion and commitment to inclusivity.
His intervention comes amid the Church of England's continuing struggles with the highly divisive issues of celibacy for gay bishops and the introduction of female bishops.
In a long and passionately articulated piece
for Christianity magazine, Chalke writes: "I believe that when we treat homosexual people as pariahs and push them outside our communities and churches; when we blame them for what they are; when we deny them our blessing on their commitment to lifelong, faithful relationships, we make them doubt whether they are children of God, made in his image."
Chalke, who is senior minister of Oasis Church Waterloo in London, says Christians need to acknowledge the emotional and psychological pain that many gay people feel, and find ways to "formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ's body".
He writes of the conflict between his understanding of "the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion [that] sit at the very heart of Jesus' message", and the Bible's teaching "that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is a sin or 'less than God's best'".
He uses examples of his own ministry to illustrate how he has become increasingly aware of the suffering of homosexual people within the church. He recalls conducting a dedication and blessing service following the civil partnership of "two wonderful gay Christians" in his church last autumn.
"Some will think that I have strayed from scripture - that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible's authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously," he writes.
Strikingly, he goes on to ask questions about the interpretation of the Bible, wondering how some Christians can choose to obey its pronouncements on homosexuality even though they have long since departed from its teachings on slavery and the role of women.
"Rather than condemn and exclude," he says, "can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?"
Chalke says it is his duty "to ensure that everyone - gay or straight - knows that I believe God is for them", concluding: "If the church in this country wants to be at the forefront of delivering social provisions, we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone knows the services we provide are for them.
"However, this commitment to inclusion is not just necessary in order to play a role in today's society; it is, in my view, the most biblical way of mirroring the life of Jesus Christ."
Chalke's stark attack is bound to infuriate those on the conservative side of evangelicalism, although it will be welcomed by those who treasure its history as a champion of radical social causes.
Steve Clifford, director of the Evangelical Alliance, said he believed Chalke had come to the wrong conclusion about the Bible's teachings on the subject of homosexuality.
"It is with both sadness and disappointment that I reflect on how Steve has not only distanced himself from the vast majority of the evangelical community here in the UK, but indeed from the church across the world and 2,000 years of biblical interpretation," he said.
"Generations of Christians have faced the challenge of making the gospel relevant within their cultural settings. The danger we all face, and I fear Steve has succumbed to, is that we produce 'a god' in our own likeness or in the likeness of the culture in which we find ourselves."