by Dr Tim Wright G.P.
As part of Church from Scratch’s “Embrace Resources”, we invited local GP, Dr Tim Wright to speak with us about the medical view of sexuality and how that has changed over the last 500 years. In his training session with us, Dr Wright drew connections between various Christian understandings of sexuality and ethical positions held by different Christians. Dr Wright is himself a long-standing Christian.
A summary of Dr Tim Wright’s talk follows:
Some of us can roll our tongue but some of us can’t. There doesn’t seem to be a gene that codes for tongue rolling, you don’t inherit the ability to tongue roll from your Mum or your Dad, you either can or you can’t.
Our tongues and the nerves and muscles in our tongues develop over time, and there is a similar pattern of development with handedness, whether you are right or left handed. About 10% of people in the population are left handed, you don’t inherit your handedness, it’s something about the way our brains develop and you either get a dominant right hemisphere or a dominant left hemisphere of the brain.
In all this we get to celebrate our diversity as being left or right handed, tongue rollers or not. We’ll come back to tongue rolling later in this talk.
First we are going to talk about the history of the medical understanding of homosexuality, using that term as it was used more in the past to explain these differences in sexuality.
A SINFUL COMMUNITY
Starting 500 years ago, around the time of Henry VIII, the church and the state were closely aligned, and the scientific community was under the control of these two. The Church said homosexuality was a sin and in particular it was a sinful choice, something that people chose to do. The scientific community at that time pretty much went along with what the church said. In 1533 Henry VIII made homosexuality illegal.
A SICK COMMUNITY
But over time, things changed. In Victorian times around the 1850s, the medical community was developing and it started to do ground-breaking research and spoke with people who were gay! People from the gay community were quite oppressed at thet time, homosexuality as a lifestyle was illegal but these people were coming to the medical profession saying, “these feelings that I am getting, they are coming from within, they are not a choice that I am making, it is something different, something that I have been born with, something that has developed.’
So, the medical profession started to move away from an understanding that this was a choice and instead they decided to call homosexuality a ‘sickness’.
As a result, therapies and treatments emerged for differences in sexuality, and this continued right up into the 1970s, provided by the NHS, even past the stage when homosexuality was legalised in 1967. And at this point the therapies were reaching their peak.
Around the 1970s the doctors were increasingly realising that these therapies and treatments were not only not working but they were incredibly traumatising for those involved, both patients and doctors.
So because the conversion therapy treatments were not working the medical view was moving away from the idea of homosexuality as a sickness towards describing it as being part of our natural diversity. So things were improving towards the end of the 1970s.
A RISKY COMMUNITY
In the 1980s the HIV and AIDS epidemic arrived, it was a complete disaster, particularly for the male gay community in this country: not only because of the lives lost which was horrific but also because of the effect it had on the medical profession’s understanding of the gay community,
As more and more people lost their lives the medical profession moved away from labelling homosexuality as a sickness towards doctors being taught it was a risk dependent on sexual activity and sexual history. The gay community were labelled as a ‘risky community’ and their sexual behaviour was seen as risky behaviour putting people at risk of getting this disease – so things were still not looking good for the gay community.
But fortunately things have changed significantly; our treatments for HIV and AIDS have improved dramatically and we now recognise it is not a ‘gay disease’ linked to homosexual behaviour; it is a disease that can affect all of us.
AN AT RISK COMMUNITY
That brings us up to modern times as we move beyond these understandings. The medical profession now understands the LGBTQ+ community as being ‘at risk’ of mental health issues, depression and an increased risk of suicide, particularly among the transgender community.
Now why is that? There is no reason why being LGBTQ+ should make you at risk of mental health issues.
However, if you have been rejected by society, if you have been rejected by your friends, if you have been rejected by your family, if you’ve been rejected by your church then that’s going to make you depressed.
As a medical profession we recognise that impact and we do see these people coming to us as patients, struggling with mental health issues – not struggling with sexuality as they might have in the past but struggling with the way society has treated them.
THE EVOLVING MEDICAL VIEW AND FAITH PERSPECTIVES
There’s a range of views in the church about how we respond to differences in sexuality, and you might find that your view fits into one of these historic medical views:
You might find that from a faith perspective you see homosexuality as a sinful choice and you might feel this is what the Bible has taught you.
Or you might recognise it is not a choice, you understand it as a sickness, or a spiritual sickness that needs curing, that needs fixing or a problem that needs healing. And maybe that is where you are from a theological point of view.
Maybe you don’t believe it is a choice or a sickness and you want to welcome the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community into your church, but perhaps you are concerned about the behaviour in the gay community and you think the behaviour of this community is risky or spiritually risky in some way.
Perhaps you think that welcoming this LGBTQ+ group of people into your church may be risky for your church or you may have some concerns that welcoming the LGBTQ+ community into your church would be risky for your church – perhaps you see gay marriage as a risk for your church
Or maybe you are where the medical profession is these days and you don’t see it as a sinful choice, a sickness or risky behaviour and you have reached the point where you are welcoming and affirming of this community and you recognise that this community is ‘at risk’ of mental health issues and at risk of rejection and harm in our churches, through what the church does. And also at risk from what the church does not do. And maybe you see this as a group of people that we need to help and protect and that risk needs mitigating.
BACK TO TONGUE ROLLING
Going back to tongue rolling: we can all sit around in our Bible study groups and home groups, our wider church community and the chances are we’re not going to talk to each other about whether we can tongue roll or not, or say whether we are right or left handed.
But an interesting thing happens when we do talk about things like that, when we expose each other’s diversity, when we talk about the things that make us us.
We get to celebrate each other a little bit more and know each other better and love each other better.
And to my mind, that’s what makes church.