An anniversary, and some weddings and funerals

We have just started watching the latest series of Grantchester, the clerical murder mysteries set in the eponymous village near Cambridge. The date is 1958, and the timid curate, Leonard Finch, has, with great tentativeness, started to come out of his closet, and embarked upon a very secretive and illegal relationship with a local photographer. His boss, the robustly heterosexual Will Davenport, knows about it and supports him. To risk even this Leonard has had to overcome a lifetime’s self-loathing and a crushing fear of exposure and punishment by a society and church that hates homosexuals.  

Leonard Finch

All goes well until the characters go on a holiday together to a holiday camp. A redcoat there makes a pass at Leonard, and, being rejected, decides to take his revenge. He finds Leonard and his partner in bed together and reports it to the police and to the bishop. Eventually, fighting through the shame and disgrace, Leonard pleads guilty to gross indecency (though there is no indication that anything of that kind has taken place) with an unknown man (shielding his partner) and is jailed for six months. He is broken, but he has discovered the dignity of being truly himself. It is a masterful piece of character acting by Al Weaver. 

Among the villains along the way are Archdeacon and the Bishop. They abandon Finch to his fate, they assure him that he has no future in the church, and they put pressure on Will Davenport, his boss, not to support Leonard, lest by so doing he brings shame on the church. Will ignores them, and so a new curate is imposed on him whose job it is to report everything that goes on to the bishop. Even showing support and compassion to a gay man, then, is enough to make you the enemy of the institution. The bishop tells Will, “Did it not occur to you that I did this to protect you? Well, I won’t protect you any more.”

As someone who has had their permission to officiate removed, and has been told that I will never get it back until and unless my husband dies, I found watching Leonard’s story very moving and unsettling. I have never had to cope with the pressure that he faced, but I do understand the hostility of church authorities, and their reluctance to face the homophobia of their actions. I am retired now, but I have had to let go of a ministry I loved, and of years in which I know I could have continued to do good work and support the ministry of others, because of my determination to honour the man I loved and to make a marriage with him. I have no regrets about that at all, but the hurtfulness of the church’s attitude, and its inability to welcome same-sex marriage continues to have its damaging effects, on individuals, and on the church itself. 

Revd Mpho Tutu van Furth

Yesterday’s media told of the refusal to permit Archbishop Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu van Furth, to officiate at the funeral of her godfather, who had asked for her to take his service. She is not resident in the UK, but no permission was forthcoming from any bishop. The Diocese of Hereford said: “Advice was given in line with the House of Bishops current guidance on same-sex marriage.” Ms Tutu van Furth reportedly told the broadcaster the decision “seemed really churlish and hurtful”. I have seen no reaction applauding the rigidity of the diocese, and much disgust at the decision. It can’t make the church attractive.

I know exactly how she feels. Since my PTO was removed I have been asked on a number of occasions to take weddings or funerals for close friends and family. On every single occasion on which permission was sought for me to do so in a variety of dioceses, it was refused. I was not permitted even to participate in a service being led by someone else. The closest I have got is being allowed to lead prayers in a wedding service, just as a lay person might. 

I think I found Leonard’s story so upsetting because on Monday I pass forty years of being a priest. Though I have never been put through any kind of disciplinary procedure I have had the full force of Anglican passive aggression turned on me (not least because I had the temerity to go to law against them) and have been efficiently and effectively excluded from priestly ministry. So the capacity of the church to turn on Leonard reminded me of how little has changed, and how much fear and uncertainty there still is among LGBT clergy who know that their position is tolerated as long as it stays within bounds. At present, those bounds do not include marriage, and there are many clergy since 2014 who have chosen to have a civil partnership, not because they conscientiously want one rather than to be married, but because that is the only way to continue in ministry. 

I won’t celebrate my anniversary on Monday. I will let it go past with some private thanksgivings to God for all his goodness to me, a bit of personal rededication, and I will do my best not to be angry. We still have a very long way to go.

“Smoother than oil”

The publication of the ‘lessons-learnt’ report commissioned by Emmanuel Church Wimbledon on the activities of their former vicar, Jonathan Fletcher, has stirred a lot of memories for me. And because they go round and round in my head, I have decided to write them down. This may be quite long, as I am going to try and untangle several threads.

The first thing I want to say is that I was never a victim of Fletcher’s. But I was exposed to Iwerne and its methods, and I think they did me no good, and it might be useful to others besides myself to understand what was going on and what I suspect still goes on far too much.

When I was seventeen, I had a very powerful experience of coming to faith in Christ. I was not a happy teenager at that time. My mother had died two years before and I was very bereft. I think I was also realising that I was not like the other boys, and that the story I tried to tell myself about homosexual attraction being a passing phase was a lie in my case. And there was no one to talk to about all of this. Besides, I could hardly talk to myself let alone anyone else.

I had grown up with a reasonable amount of conventional churchgoing. I had sung in a church choir. My very loving parents had considered sending me to a choir school, but somehow never did. I was a fairly thoughtful child and wondered about things, and had had some rather inexplicable spiritual experiences. But the death of my mother made me decide that God was probably there but that he was careless of the chaos of the world and its pains. So I was very angry about that.

A friend of mine had been to the Christian festival Spree ‘73 in the summer of that year and had heard Billy Graham speak. He was, as it happens, the only school friend to whom I had felt able to confide my deep unhappiness. When he returned to school in the autumn, he wanted to share his newly deepened faith. He did so with me, and I had an overwhelming spiritual encounter. It was my last term at school; I had stayed on after A levels to do Oxbridge entrance exams, as you did in those days. My spiritual experience completely threw me off balance – I remember being told that the staff room had discussed whether I should be referred to a psychiatrist. My kind housemaster, a down to earth Methodist, was understanding and patient, didn’t undermine my enthusiasm, and helped steady me. I completed the term and left.

When I got to university, I found it quite hard to settle down to study. My interior life was both very spiritual and very tormented by what seemed very fleshly and forbidden desires. One way of dealing with the latter seemed to be to concentrate on the former. I went to chapel, to the Christian Union in college and centrally, and to St Aldate’s Church. My spiritual experience the previous year had included a discovery of the charismatic movement, and St Aldate’s seemed open to that. But in reality, I was thrashing around, out of my depth, looking for a toehold.

One afternoon, quite early on in my first term, there was a knock at my door. It was an ordinand from Wycliffe Hall. He told me that someone had told some friends of his that I was coming up to the university, and that I was a Christian, and he wondered if I would like to do some Bible Study with him each week. I was a fairly trusting soul, and he seemed all right, and I didn’t like disappointing people (a big theme in life for me), so even though it didn’t sound very exciting to me, I said yes. And that was my introduction to Iwerne.

The ordinand and I studied our way through the Letter to the Romans over the next few terms. I am not sure how much I retained or understood, nor indeed, how much he understood, but I knew he wanted to be helpful. He was a kind man, and a sincere one as well. So even though I often thought I didn’t want to carry on doing this, I did, and got on my bike and pedaled up to Wycliffe. He encouraged me to go to the OICCU (University Christian Union) meetings as well – peopled by very earnest young men and women. They all had an unnerving facility for extempore prayer that I did not possess, and which I found intimidating.

By the time we got to the summer term, he had explained to me about Iwerne Minster camps. I had gone to one of the “right” schools, so I could be invited. I was no longer a schoolboy, so I was asked to come as a senior camper and help out. I think at some point during that year I had met David Fletcher, who ran the camps, Jonathan Fletcher’s older brother. In the summer of 1975, I made my first visit to the ‘Bash’ camp at Iwerne Minster.

Clayesmore School, where the Iwerne Camps took place

It was like a hyper-Christian version of school. It had a tremendously strong ethos all its own. There were all kinds of things that you just didn’t do, and which real Iwernites knew. You didn’t talk about feelings, you didn’t talk to the largely unseen girls in the kitchens who did all the cooking for all these men and boys, you didn’t pray in tongues, and you certainly didn’t masturbate or find other men attractive (the last two were unspoken – except that purity was talked about a lot). I was told off for the first three at my first camp.

I wanted to like it. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like some of the devastatingly beautiful young men who were there. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. I didn’t like David Fletcher. He was oleaginous. I somehow didn’t and couldn’t trust him. John Smyth was there and Jonathan Fletcher. They were so far above me that I never remember speaking to either of them. Smyth was rather scary to me – very serious. And Jonathan Fletcher had his coterie, of which I was not a part. But everyone else seemed to love it, and said it was really important in their Christian growth, so I muted my fears.

I went again the next year. And now I noticed the mind control. That questions were not encouraged. That there was a system that you learnt of what was meant by sound teaching. In the intervening period I had ventured out of my first-year shell and been to worship at the Catholic Chaplaincy and with the Jesuits at Campion Hall. I had gone to the University Church to listen to sermons. I had started to read and to think about my faith, and wrestled with much that I heard at OICCU, and everywhere else.

I can’t remember precisely when I started to drift away from Iwerne, but I think I was invited to a post-Christmas house party, and I declined. That was when I got spoken to by David Fletcher. He wrote and then he saw me when he was in Oxford next and told me how concerned people were for my spiritual health. It was very unpleasant pressure, and all delivered with smiles and all the kinds of appeals to class and school ties that he could use. He told me the usual tropes about the importance of work among men from the right schools, of being part of something special. I smiled and was polite and inwardly decided not to have anything more to do with him.

My world and that of Iwerne diverged. Some of my friends at theological college were Iwerne men, and still very much in that world, doing “personal work” with the undergraduates from the right sort of schools. One of them told me about holidays on the south coast of Ireland at a holiday house owned by Jonathan Fletcher, where seven or eight of them would gather in the summer for swimming and fishing and boating and so forth. He said that when it was hot they would all be naked all the time. This story was at one and the same time rather disturbingly interesting, but also utterly creepy. I wondered aloud that my friend couldn’t see the homoerotic content in all this – but he denied it. I think now that he was dissembling. What I didn’t see at the time was the manipulation of young and dependent men on their spiritual leader. Now we know. Anyway, it all added to the picture of a rather sinister, cult-like organisation that I was well clear of.

Some years later, when I was a curate, I was invited to a preaching conference led by Jonathan Fletcher. I took preaching seriously (and still do) and decided to go. There was a relatively small number of young men at the conference – about ten to twelve of us, I think. No women, of course. The format of the event was that we had Bible readings given by Fletcher, and then each of us in turn expounded some passage of the Bible. Our exposition was then critiqued.

When I was in training in Cambridge, I was attached to St Barnabas Church, whose vicar at the time was Dennis Lennon. Dennis was a Londoner, who had played in the ruins of the blitzed city in his childhood, and who definitely did not go to the right kind of school. He had been a missionary in Thailand and was then ordained in the Church of England. He was also the most brilliant and thoughtful expository preacher. He was a man without affect, straight-forward, kindly, encouraging, and I owe him a huge amount. I well remember the service he took with his surplice on back to front, looking like he had lost his hands – when questioned afterwards, he showed the wine stain on the front – “I didn’t have time to get Sonja [his very kind Swiss wife] to wash it”. He died some years ago, and I remember him with great thankfulness very often.

Besides being a low church evangelical, Dennis was an intellectual. He read very widely, and his sermons might be peppered with quotations from some obscure Polish poet, or Dostoyevsky or sociological writings or almost anything else. And he really wrestled with the text he was preaching on.

So I was formed by this approach, and the conference that Jonathan Fletcher led seemed shallow and formulaic by comparison. If people did not exegete the text they had been given in the ‘correct’ way, then, with smiles and patronising words, they were cut down to size. I remember defending my reading of Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is shown as a loose woman (by patriarchal standards), prepared to act brazenly if only she can get people to listen to her. I was told this was not right and unhelpful (a crucial word – very present too, note, in Alpha). I disagreed; I said it was there in the text, and therefore it was helpful to draw it out. It might not be comfortable, it might be shocking, but it was helpful. I was definitely made to feel that I was straying from the path of righteousness.

I left the conference. I was a bit upset – and had a minor car accident on the way home. It was the end for me and Iwerne.  In fact, it was the beginning of the end for me and evangelicalism. I found the narrowness, the anti-intellectualism, the lack of honesty in facing difficulties all too much to take. I hovered on its edges by being a missionary and found some very noble evangelical souls among the missiological community. But I was, in truth, done. Of course, had I stayed, or had I been suckered into the whole conservative evangelical world I would never have been able to come out and live a healthy life as a gay man. So I have no regrets.

The title of this blog is taken from Psalm 55. The writer laments the way he has been betrayed not by his enemies and the people he might expect to let him down, but instead by ‘mine own familiar friend’, with whom he ‘took sweet counsel together and walked in the house of God as friends.” He goes on:

The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart:
His words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords
Ps 55:22 

That is what Jonathan Fletcher was.

But I associate the smoothness with David Fletcher too. He too knew how to use the tools of effortless public-school pressurising. He inherited from EJH Nash and then built up the whole edifice of Iwerne and its spiritual style. He sustained and promoted a structure inside which Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth operated their horrendous regimes. What did David Fletcher know about what his brother was doing? I was only tangentially connected with the whole thing, and yet I knew about Jonathan Fletcher. The denials of sexual motive rang totally hollow to me. I knew that people were in thrall to him. I did not know quite how bad things were. But if I knew what I knew, then I simply can’t believe that people who were a lot more closely connected with Fletcher didn’t know too, and a lot more besides.

It is too early to pretend that lessons can be learned, when all the people who upheld the culture that shielded Smyth and Fletcher are still in post. They have been asked to consider their positions, but there is no sign that any of them think they should step down. They should. I am an outsider to it all, but I have some admiration for the evangelicals who want to see a very different culture. It would be some consolation for the victims of so much abuse by Smyth and Fletcher if the senior and shadowy figures in that whole milieu stepped aside for something new to grow. 

Deadly Pressure

It was reading the reports of the Oxford Diocesan enquiry into the events in the parishes of Stowe and Maids Moreton that made me pick up my digital pen this morning. You can read the report at

It tells of the activities of a very dangerous young man, Ben Field, who insinuated himself into the life of these evangelical parishes, and used his position to exploit and steal from vulnerable old people, eventually, in 2017, murdering one of them, Peter Farquhar.

Peter Farquhar was not Field’s only victim. Indeed, the whole community was abused by his deceits. He put himself forward for ordination and made it some way down that road before his crimes were exposed. He was utterly cynical, and said of his plans for ordination, “I’m gonna become a vicar … just because I can outmanoeuvre the Church.

But what made Peter Farquhar’s vulnerability even more dangerous, says the report, was the attitude of the Church of England towards homosexual relationships. Farquhar was a closeted homosexual, and Field managed to get into a relationship with this elderly man, which Farquhar insisted should be kept secret, lest the conservative members of his parish should find out.

Those anti-LGBT attitudes, both external and internal to Peter Farquhar, inside his local community and the national church, which are still espoused and spread on a daily basis by some in our church, created a prison of shame and guilt. And the warder of the prison in this instance was someone who stopped at nothing to rob and destroy his victim.

The story is at once tragic and appalling and depressing. It is encouraging to read in the report that the parish has made efforts since 2017 to become more open and supportive. However, it remains the case that the Church of England exerts all kinds of unhealthy pressure on its members, lay and ordained, by the teaching that it has failed to address and change.

The last fundamental debate on sexual ethics in the Gerneal Synod of the Church of England was as long ago as November 1987. The Higton motion said”that fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are sinful in all circumstances; and that Christian leaders are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, as a condition of being appointed to or remaining in office“. This was a bit too strong for the bishops even then, and was amended by Michael Baughen to say “homosexual genital acts fall short of [God’s] ideal and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion“. Remember the voting numbers too: 403 in favour, 8 against, and 13 abstentions. It has never been superseded. It was reaffirmed by the bishops in January 2017 in GS 2055. 

Higton remains the millstone upon which all the LGBT members of the Church are ground. It rather mirrored the hostility of Thatcher’s government towards gay people in the age of AIDs. It was not particularly out of tune with public attitudes.

By 2005, and thanks to the courageous work of Stonewall, and the many reforms of the Blair governments, the whole official Church of England attitude to LGBT+ people was significantly out of step with society. The bishops opposed the introduction of civil partnerships almost to a man. I remember the furore when the first priest, who ministered in Durham diocese had a civil partnership – the bishop was spitting feathers.

Malcom Macourt (left) and Rev Christopher Wardale
Mr Macourt (left) and Rev Christopher Wardale in Newcastle

But by 2013 you would have thought that bishops, eyeing the approach of same-sex marriage, had invented civil partnerships. They ran towards them as providing a safe haven for them, because they could always assume and pretend an absence of sexual activity in civil partnerships in a way that they felt they could not in marriage. Of course, many splendid marriages have little or no sexual activity, and the House of Lords declined to try and introduce any notion of consummation into same-sex marriages. Their Lordships minds boggled at the idea.

I chose to marry. We had discussed having a civil partnership, but we felt that a business contract that technically could be contracted with each of us going into the room to sign at different times was very far from our understanding of our relationship. We both believed in marriage, had experienced marriage, had mourned the failure of our first marriages, and we had a strong sense, from different perspectives, of what marriage did to join two people together.

In a way, though not planned as such, marrying was a refusal on my part to lie any more, or to accept second best, or to allow myself to be put under pressure by the Church. Consequently, the pressure was piled on and I lost an employment because of the actions of a bishop. I remain a pariah priest unable to function in the calling that is still very alive in me.

What I have noticed in the years since we married, is that clergy in particular have felt obliged to contract civil partnerships for the sake of their callings. Some of them would have chosen a civil partnership for reasons of their own. Fair enough. But many others reveal in comments they make or in the language they use, that what they would have done, had they felt free to make their own choices, was to marry. They talk about their ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, they speak about ‘weddings’, they make comments about ‘marriage’. It all slips out, unbidden – because it is in them. But they aren’t married. Some of them are even explicit about accepting ‘second-best’, because otherwise their progress towards ordination or their ability to find a curacy or a parish would be halted. What it all reveals is that they live under pressure.

For the few clergy who married early after the change in the law, sanctions were applied hard and fast “pour encourager les autres“. In many cases, this worked, and civilly partnered clergy are ten a penny – I can’t imagine what Tom Wright now thinks of that.

Higton remains the millstone on which we are all ground. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people live almost daily under pressure from the church of which they are faithful members. That pressure in one or two instances had been deadly, as for Peter Farquhar. But it also kills hope and trust and creativity in so many more.

The Church of England will soon release its Living in Love and Faith resources. But unless those resources address the fundamentals they are as doomed to irrelevance as Pilling and the Shared Conversations and all the rest. Someone somewhere has to make the case for a sexual ethic which affirms the goodness of desire and its sexual expression between adults. It will encourage the goals of fidelity, loyalty, and commitment. It will uphold marriage for life as the gold standard. It will acknowledge the reality of human failure to live up to ideals and will make room in its official teaching for the ending of marriages. It will also finally end the hypocritical misery of pretending that LGBT+ clergy and lay people don’t have sexual lives, and will acknowledge the potential for good in homosexual as in heterosexual love.

One day someone will break in half the millstone of Higton, and liberate us as Christ has liberated us. The pressure to hide will come off, and respectable old professors will fear exposure no more, bishops will no longer have to hide their natures and relationships, and loving adults will be freely able to choose how to formalise their partnerships. One more vulnerability against abusers will have been terminated. Until then, despite all the well-meaning provisions of LGBT chaplaincies and the supportive words of some bishops (which I don’t despise), we are doomed to circle round and round the millstone that is Higton and which should now be cast into the sea.

Funerals in a time of plague

I have been taking people’s funerals since I was twenty-five. I have seen hundreds and hundreds of funerals of all kinds, in all kinds of places, surrounded by a huge variety of rituals and customs that made the grieving manageable for the mourners. But I have never seen a time like this.

Everything in us calls out to be together. In Congo, as soon as a death was known, you headed for the home of the deceased. There, in the main room, was the body laid out in the middle of the room, and around the walls were all the mourners, wailing, crying, praying, singing, testifying to God’s goodness in the life of their bother or sister. No one was excluded; children and babes in arms, the oldest and most infirm, all took part. It was the same in 1980s Hartlepool – still the custom to have the deceased at home in the front room, with visits from family, friends and neighbours, and there was still open and very public wailing at funerals. No middle-class sniffing.

Nevertheless, however we do it, we want to do it together. And now we can’t. No touches, no hugs, no arms around shoulders. Nothing that tells us, in a way that words struggle to, that we are together in the face of death, that there is human solidarity.

Churches are dark. No funerals there. Churchyards are still open. One or two clergy taking graveside services. A very few mourners, and all told be socially distanced. But many don’t have open churchyards in their parishes, and besides, not many people want such a ceremony. Funeral Directors find it hard to find clergy who will take funerals, they tell me – the retired are staying at home, and the active are too hard-pressed. So they ring celebrants.

Crematoria are still open. The picture of what happens and is allowed is hugely variable. Leeds, Bradford and Airedale have banned all families from attending. In this region there are limits on the numbers allowed to attend. Most crems allow at least ten mourners, some fifteen, and one, up to twenty-four. This seemed a lot to me, and I was nervous about going there. But the organisation of the place was such that people were well spaced. There was copious wiping down of everything between every ceremony, masks and gloves. I was marginally relieved.

All preparation has to be done by phone. This is not what I would want. The long calls are exhausting – much more than making home visits. And they are much less useful to the families. When you visit they get to see you and have a sense of what they are going to get on the day – sometimes they say how reassured they are after meeting. But that is gone.

The funeral itself is all very strange. I don’t go out and meet the family as I would normally. I stay inside and wait for them to come in. I remain behind my lectern. If a family member wishes to speak they must do it from where they are. There is no touching of coffins, no laying of flowers on coffins. There are no floral displays – the florists are shut.

Most crematoria now require the curtains to be closed around the coffin – not something that many people want. At the end we file out. There are no hugs, no touching, no consolation. We stand around awkwardly for a minute or two. There are no wakes, no celebrations, no funeral teas.  No time to stand and chat and remember. After a very short time we all head back to our isolation.

There will be memorial services, I am sure. But, as one funeral director’s bearer said to me yesterday, “It won’t be the same; the moment will have passed.” There are some who are too afraid to go to a funeral, or who don’t want to be bothered – they chose Direct Cremation – just a hearse with a plain coffin turning up and dropping off a body for burning – no ceremony, no mourners, no one, nothing. I wonder what all this unprocessed grief will do to the nation in the years to come.

I try and write my ceremonies as carefully as I can – I listen and reflect what the families have said to me. I pray if they ask for it, and I pray internally all the time. I try and let my words carry something that will offer some consolation. And I always send them a complete script of what is said, so they can look at it afterwards, when the emotion of the moment has passed.

At the first socially distanced funeral I took, there were three mourners in the front row. They were well-separated. As the curtains closed, one woman reached out her hand to the chief mourner, the son of the deceased. He started to raise his hand, then hesitated, and went no further. The gap between them remained unbridged. They wept alone.

Italian School; Noli me tangere; The Courtauld Gallery;

But then, Jesus did not always want to be touched. And yet his presence is to be found in look, and word, and in the loving that is expressed by message and note and screen time. In cake left on the doorstep, in shopping done and dropped off, in the smile that accompanies the avoiding of passers by. For now we cannot, but we will touch again, we will hug, we will hold hands, we will wipe away each others’ tears.

There will be so much to do, so much to listen to, so much to help ease the pain of our plague-time. God make us ready for a vast, unseen, unnoticed task that lies ahead.

Sexuality and Intimacy: are we thinking straight?

Yesterday I went to a lecture-workshop led by Professor Traugott Roser , Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Munster. It was entitled, “Sexuality and Intimacy in a time of severe illness and death”. The lecture at the beginning told us about research conducted with a cohort of terminally ill patients and their spouses or partners in Canada and Germany ten years ago. It was undertaken through semi-structured interviews, so that the results of the interviews were comparable. But the process also produced a lot more biographical material than the research team were expecting.

Participants were asked what they understood sexuality to be, their experience of sexuality and intimacy, and how this had changed and was changing through their illness. They were invited to explore changes in both understanding and experience, the impact of their illness on their intimate relationships, and to discuss whether they had had, in their total experience of care, enough opportunity to discuss this part of their lives. The study also looked at the impact of the changes brought about by their illness to patients who were widowed or divorced and those who had never had an intimate sexual relationship and were now facing the end of their lives.

Listening to this were some chaplains, and a group of care home managers and the equality and diversity managers for MHA, a leading carehome provider, and me.

The discussion that followed ranged far and wide and covered topics as diverse as the WHO definition of sexual health (not what you think, see here), intimacy in care home settings, how to break the ‘appropriate/inappropriate’ binary, care home design, the attitude of churches to sexuality and intimacy, requested touch from patients to chaplains, and much more. It was a remarkable conversation, both for its thoughtfulness and honesty. After three hours a silence descended on the group and we realised that our work was done.

I cannot remember many occasions on which I have taken part in a more healthy and thought-provoking group discussion about sexuality. What was so significant about what we did was that, because the focus was on people who were either terminally ill or elderly (the MHA clientele), the assumption of society that sexuality and intimacy is not a subject that is terribly relevant for these groups was overturned. For many of the subjects of the research (though by no means all) sexuality could no longer be expressed through intercourse or even other genitally-focused activity, either because of the effects of illness or ageing, yet this did not mean that their sexual and intimate lives were necessarily over.

For some, whose vision of sexuality had been entirely focused on sexual intercourse its loss meant that they felt hugely diminished. One respondent, on receiving his terminal diagnosis had sent his girlfriend away because they would soon no longer be able to make love, and was struggling with the depression caused by both a loss of a sense of manliness because of his illness’s impact on his erectile function and the crushing burden of loneliness he was experiencing through loss of touch.

Other respondents, who had a vision of sexuality as being something much broader than sexual intercourse (see again the WHO definition), found that while one side of their sexual expression might come to an end, sexual feelings and intimacy were maintained and could even be reported as being enhanced through loving touch and hugs. What people needed most of all was the recognition that they still wanted privacy and space to experience this side of their lives, which gave them so much significance and meaning.

As I listened I could not help reflecting on how the study we were hearing about and the reflections of the group contrasted with the Statement put out last week by the Church of England’s bishops. One participant asked how a Church of England bishop might feel if they were in the room with us. Those of us who were members of the Church of England looked at each other. The consensus was that it would make them very uncomfortable.

There is a reasonable reading of the the pastoral guidance that the bishops offer that says it is obsessed by genital sexual activity, and the context in which this is or is not permissible according to their reading of the Christian tradition.

But, as this study clearly demonstrates, sexuality is much more than this. So is sexual intimacy. It may not involve genital activity principally or, indeed, at all, but may be connected to loving touch, to shared life, to tender commitment to a host of ways in which sexuality and intimacy find ways of working themselves out between a couple who love each other. Looking at this question from the point of view of those approaching the end of life was, for me, revelatory.

It offers a completely different way of approaching sexuality and intimacy – one that coheres with people’s lived experience. It stops us trying to compartmentalise sexual expression in a way that is profoundly unhealthy and unnatural. Sexual expression is not Tab A and Slot B – it is much more subtle and diffuse than that. Holding hands can be just as much an expression of desire, tenderness, commitment, and appreciation as can enthusiastic intercourse.

And of course, to look at sexuality and intimacy in this kind of way also makes the distinctions that the Church of England seems obsessed with making much less tenable. A priest, for instance, might live with someone of their own sex, but, because of their respect for the church’s rules, does not have genital contact with that person. But they like to hug and cuddle, they may share a bed, they spoon, they hold hands and kiss. They have declared their love to each other. This is a sexual relationship, whatever doesn’t happen in the bedroom or anywhere else. But if those actions which must not be undertaken are not undertaken and yet it remains a sexual relationship, then is it wrong and if so, in what way, and why?

It would also not be true to call that kind of relationship, because of the absence of genital sexual activity, simply a friendship – though friendship as part of a whole that is filled with sexual and intimate elements is clearly a huge part of any successful relationship. The best couples are almost always each other’s best friend too – that friendship is part of the world of intimacy that the two have made with each other.

This diffusion of an understanding of sexuality and intimacy also makes more space for the social significance of all kinds of couples. This is not simply about freely chosen bedroom activity – it has a social dimension that is hugely important. That may be expressed through parenting children, (their own or through adoption or fostering) or it may be found in the social action for and with those who need support or care which the partners in the relationship give because of the strength and the love that their relationship gives them. It is a fruit of their sexual and intimate relationship. Fecundity can be read in a number of ways. And good sexual and intimate relationships, whether they include sexual intercourse or not, are a blessing to society as a whole.

In the Church of England, after the disaster of the Pastoral Statement from the House of Bishops last week,we now wait for the publication of the resources of Living in Love and Faith – the culmination of a two-year project. My hope is that it will embrace a broad understanding of sexuality and intimacy to enable us to move away from the sterility of the perspectives of Issues in Human Sexuality and most of the reports since. That is my hope; it is, sadly, not my expectation. Old people and the dying, however, can lead the way here. Sexuality and intimacy are for everyone and for the whole of life – but almost certainly in ways that many of us have not yet thought about.

Making a Case for Pastoral Guidance

The latest pastoral guidance by the Bishops of the Church of England is designed to address the change in the law in England and Wales that has now opened up Civil Partnerships to opposite sex couples as well as same sex ones.

In the guidance they have provided the bishops make one or two things clear:

  • Sex is for heterosexual marriage and nowhere else
  • That civil partnerships are a form of friendship
  • That they should be sexually abstinent, whoever is in the CP

Let’s look at the good things first. First of all, this is clear guidance. No one can be in any doubt about where the bishops stand over the question of sexual relationships. Secondly, at least it does not discriminate further against LGBT people – it takes precisely the same stance over the sexual lives of heterosexuals as well. Thirdly, there is a certain bravery about offering guidance that is so massively at variance with the mores of the time. According to a recent survey, only 4% of British people now think that sex should wait until marriage in all cases.

That is all that I think can truly be said in its favour. The Guidance has been received with obloquy. Here are some of the reasons why.

Having a sexual ethic that says sex is only for marriage between a heterosexual couple made quite a lot of sense when there was no reliable contraception and no antibiotics. It did not stop people having all kinds of sex, but as an ideal it made a lot of sense and offered protection to the most vulnerable – the young women who would get left holding the babies. In the days before social security and child support, when single parents were almost unknown because a single woman with a child simply could not survive without independent means, only family and societal pressure could oblige young men who fathered children out of wedlock to do the decent thing; marry and support their children. It didn’t work with rich men who had no compunction in abandoning girls of a lower social status. So that ethic wasn’t just about an ideal of virginity, it connected with the real lives of almost everyone. There could be and often was real cruelty in society’s response to those who fell short of this norm, but there was also sometimes real compassion.

But if the bishops are going to adhere to this ethical norm, which has an uncertain basis in Scripture, which assumes for the most part that women and children are the property of men, they had better start by explaining why. Telling us it is what the Church’s doctrine teaches is not an answer – why does the doctrine teach it (if it does)? Why is there nothing else that can be said about sex, except no? Why have medical advances made no difference to what we have to say? If there was really good quality relationship teaching coming out of the House of Bishops about personal and sexual relations people might be more inclined to listen. But there isn’t. All we have is a Church under siege for the way it has handled sexual offending and continues to behave extremely defensively towards victims and survivors.

Again, some consistency would help them. When Prince William, as he then was, was going to marry Miss Kate Middleton, the Archbishop of York was asked about their decision to live together before marriage. His rather flippant and tasteless answer made no reference to the importance of virginity and abstinence, but rather suggested that he assumed they would be having sex – “Taste the milk before you buy the cow”. Why should we take any notice of pastoral guidance which says the opposite?

There is, in this guidance, which follows the lines or argument of the 2014 guidance about same-sex marriage, one novel twist. There is an attempt to distinguish between civil partnerships and marriage by focusing on vows. Vows are not obligatory at a CP, though many people entering one choose to have vows. One senses the bishops reaching for anything that might increase the distance they want to create between marriage and CP. But this is not a help to them.

For a start, I don’t know of any bishop who would say that a heterosexual civil marriage is not a marriage. Yet it is not a requirement that couples contracting a heterosexual civil marriage use any form of vows at all. They are often introduced – but they form no part of the legal requirement. Other religious communities also contract marriages without vows – the Orthodox, for example.

The bishops make a lot of sex – and nothing at all of love. Sex is mentioned forty-nine times in the Guidance, love not once. They correctly point out that civil partnerships do not presuppose sexual intimacy and can be simply a kind of covenanted friendship. They hold on this as being the reason they can permit clergy to be in same-sex civil partnerships – because they assume them all to be celibate. Daring bishops may have asked for assurances that this is so, but they are not really supposed to do that these days. Obedient clergy may be adhering to this discipline. There is no way of telling.

Marriages, they think, presuppose sexual relations. But this is, of course, mistaken. There are lots of sexless marriages contracted for all kinds of reasons. There always have been. They have all been marriages, just as much as the ones where the couples have an enthusiastic and energetic sex life. Sex, in and of itself, does not make a marriage. Marriages, in the old language, can be consummated. But they are marriages anyway. Non-consummation is a ground for a marriage to be annulled – at least in the case of opposite-sex marriages. This notion was not included in the legislation for same-sex marriages.

My own experience is that, under cross-examination, an Anglican bishop and a senior Church House official were quite unable to offer any convincing explanation of the essential difference between a opposite-sex marriage, a same-sex marriage and a civil partnership. The doctrine of the Church tells us that marriage is “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” This doctrine is trotted out cheerfully by the supporters of the bishops’ views. They never really explain satisfactorily why the indissolubility of marriage, which it seems to me the plain meaning of these words expresses, is now more observed in the breach. And if that feature of the doctrine can be flexed, as it is, to support and permit remarriage after divorce, then why can’t other aspects of it?

Lying behind this latest guidance is the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage. There has been no attempt to develop a sexual ethic that takes account of any of the changes of the last century. With those changes have come also huge social revolution in peoples’ personal and sexual lives. There has been determined resistance at a formal level to the changes that have brought some equality and dignity to the lives of LGBT people.

The sexual revolution has not been without its victims. Human beings hurt themselves and others just as they always have done. But, as even Justin Welby could recognise, same sex relationships can be “stellar” in their quality, as can opposite sex ones. So too can civil partnerships of both kinds. The bishops need to do a lot more work to explain to us how and why what happens in their different bedrooms is determinative of the goodness or otherwise of the relationship.

They also need to focus more on love and generosity, and on the contributions that good relationships make to our society. These contributions take all kinds of forms – as diverse as the homes they come out of. They all need encouraging.

The sad thing about this Guidance is that it reeks of an attempt to maintain some consistency with earlier offerings. But that is an internal conversation – it is simply arse-covering, and its audience are the conservatives in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion who are always quick to see heresy in any softening of tone or content in the church’s teaching. Just look at the criticisms that are currently being aimed at Steven Cottrell, the Archbishop of York designate.

This guidance offers nothing pastoral. It never deals with the deeper questions about why doctrines are as they are. And if the bishops believe their own rhetoric, and people are asking deep questions about how to live, then a dogmatic response like this is worse than useless when what is needed is an apologetic for the Christian life as a joyful calling.

On Not Sharing the Peace

When I was a boy, there was no such thing as sharing the peace. The 1662 Prayer Book Communion service is a liturgy that resolutely maintains the sense of the individual amidst the corporate. Charles Willams’s poem, At the “Ye that do truly” expresses the sense of separation of one Christian from another in this rite:

Now are our prayers divided, now
must you go lonelily, and I;
For penitence shall disallow
Communion and propinquity.

Charles Williams

The liturgical reform of the later 20th Century rediscovered the Kiss of Peace of the early church, and it was introduced in the Church of England’s experimental Series 3 liturgy in about 1971. It was controversial. For many long-standing church people there was something intrusive about having to have such an explicit acknowledgement of our participation in the communion of being part of the people of God. For others, the discovery of fellowship, to use a good Old English word, was a dimension of believing that had been missing in our practice (though not, I think, in Cranmer’s theology).

Hence the theological meaning of being part of the Body of Christ, gathering to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ that we may serve him in the world, found part of its renewed meaning in the exchange of a “sign of peace” – kisses were a bit much for the English – a handshake or possibly a hug was as far as it usually went.

With that too went a rediscovery of the importance of the quality of our fellowship – the dominical warnings about forgiveness in Matthew 18 and Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church about discernment have elevated the importance not simply of our self-examination before God, but also the significance of making good our human relationships as far as in us lay, before approaching the altar. Because we understand that not only must we recognise the solemnity of the presence of God’s saving love in Christ in the elements of bread and wine, we must also see and play our part in preserving and enhancing the meaning of those words which so often introduce the Peace – “We are the Body of Christ”.

We know that every member of that Body is vital to the fulfillment of the realisation of that mystery – Christ’s presence among us, and in and through us. That is made explicit in Paul’s lyrical description of the indispensiblity of every part of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. So maintaining the peace of the body is important.

Which is why today was a very difficult day for me. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, came to Southwell Minster at the end of a weekend of diocesan mission, and preached at our Eucharist. I have some history with the Archbishop at one remove. In my trials with the Church of England, it was the archbishop who discussed with the then acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the late Richard Inwood, what was to be done about this priest who had gone against the Pastoral Guidance of the House of Bishops and had married his partner. Bishop Inwood’s decision to remove my permission to officiate led inexorably to his refusal to give me a licence to a senior chaplain’s post in the NHS, and I consequently lost that employment.

I decided to respond with a legal challenge to what had happened, and for a time, thought to involve the Archbishop in it, but that was not possible. Nevertheless, I saw, from some distance, Archbishop Sentamu remove the licence of a well-loved and long-standing Reader in his diocese for doing the same thing as I had done.

My legal challenge was unsuccessful. I continue to be a priest who is not allowed to function, because I remain, very happily, married to my husband. Recovering any kind of permission to officiate seems unlikely at the moment, unless and until my situation changes, or the attitude of the House of Bishops changes.

I was in my place in the choir for today’s service. I had not been looking forward to seeing the Archbishop, but I have a job to do as a singer, and, in any event, I love that church and I am part of the body there. So you can perhaps imagine my discomfort at the Peace when I saw the Archbishop look in my direction, confirm in a whispered conversation with the Dean that it was me he could see, and then head towards me. He held out his hand; “Peace.”

I have never before, as far as I know, refused to share the peace with someone. I take seriously what it means, and the importance of maintaining it. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t share the Peace with Archbishop Sentamu. Because there had been no conversation, no opportunity to say how deeply I had been hurt, or for him to tell me how distressed or angered he had been by my actions. It was as if he wanted to cut through all that and, in a stroke, pretend that that had never happened. To be honest, I felt he was attempting to manipulate me. I said to him, ” No. I do not have peace with you.” And I did not shake his hand. He moved on.

I daresay for the Archbishop it was intended simply as a friendly gesture. No hard feelings. But then he has the power, and the security, and the freedom to think that a little local difficulty more than five years ago is surely something that should be put behind us. Sharing the Peace with me would symbolise that.

But it is much more than that to me. For me, the reality I live with is the dishonouring by my church of my marriage, which is a source of love and life not just for me, but for many others who know us. It is living with a punitive attitude to gay clergy who marry, with no prospect of my punishment ending. That, surely, is a marker of a disproportionate and unjust response in almost any circumstance.

So the peace I would love to see restored cannot be done by a simple exchange of Peace in a Eucharist. Not by one archbishop reaching out. My refusal to engage in what he offered was not about hardness of heart. It is simply a recognition of a brokenness in the Body that desperately needs mending. I hope that I did not share the Peace because it was not there to be shared. There is a lot of work to be done with many LGBTI+ Christians before they feel that the peace we all long for, the peace that is proper to the Body of Christ in all its diversity, has been restored.

Our gospel reading was about the lost sheep. Many of us know what it is to have that sense of having been found and loved and brought home to God. It is the shepherds of the church who manage to make us feel pushed away.

I may be wrong. Perhaps I should have shared the Peace with the archbishop. Fake it till you make it, they say. But that is about the things that you can change yourself. This fracture will take all sides to work hard to make the changes we are called to. Not sharing the Peace was a painful symbol of where we are.

In Praise of Method and Application

A propos the priesthood, Giles Fraser writes in praise of Incompetence in his latest Unherd blog. He talks movingly and rightly of the dangers of any priest ever pretending that they are “successful”. And of how the grace and love of God uses the unlikely, the odd, the incompetent to advance the cause of God’s love and justice. The Bible and our faith’s history are littered with fine examples of how great things have been done on a large and (perhaps much, much more importantly) a very small-scale by those you would least expect to do so. All of this keeps us humble and reminds us of the truth of Paul’s telling us that we have this treasure in jars of clay.

I want, however, to raise a flag for hard work and organisation. I have been a priest since I was twenty-five. I never had a career before I was ordained. I was lucky to be a fairly naturally hard-working person, and had a dutiful sense that I was under an obligation to do my best. But over a long ministry as vicar, rural dean and chaplain I have noticed many colleagues who did not naturally have this drive.

The trouble with being a clergyperson is that you are paid a stipend. This is an allowance sufficient to allow you to live and to perform the duties of your office. But you are not paid a wage or a salary. Your work is not tied to time. You work when you want to and need to in order to fulfil your responsibilities. This is a tricky business to manage.

The naturally lazy can spend a long time doing very little indeed. Or taking an inordinate amount of time to do relatively simple tasks because they were poorly organised. But provided they turn up at church and take the services they must and don’t do things so badly that the archdeacon is complained to, then they can drift on for years unguided and unmanaged and unimproved. I have known clergy exactly like that – who did a few services a week, visited the one or two parishioners they liked for a bit of gossip, and pottered about reading or in the garden.

Conversely there are the clergy, who, because of the unbounded nature of the role, work themselves to a standstill because they can never do enough, and the jobs are never finished and the to do list remains ever full. There are many clergy marriages that have foundered on overwork and burn out. Thankfully, places like the Society of Martha and Mary exist to support and help the clergy who do work hard discover some balance.

I want to suggest, however, that hard work is not always well-directed, or well-organised work. In the 1990s and 2000s I was rector first of five parishes and then of a team of thirteen parishes in Cambridgeshire. I worked hard, very hard, to manage and to grow the spiritual life of the villages I ministered to. But two people helped more than I can say, and I have never properly acknowledged what they gave me. I won’t name them, but they will recognise themselves. They were both colleagues in the Team Ministry I led.

One was my curate. I had the fortune to be asked to train a man who had worked for Parcel Force before he trained for the ministry. What that meant he brought to his ordained life was a real ability to organise methodically pieces of work that needed doing. The classic case was working out how we were to have all the meetings that we needed in a benefice of thirteen parishes without clashes and confusion. The answer, which my colleague provided, was to devise a spreadsheet which booked all meetings eighteen months in advance, so everyone knew in very good time, when and where everything of that kind was happening. It was a big piece of work – but once done could be easily updated.

I was initially a bit resistant to this. It seemed rather unministerial to me. But I was soon converted – there was in his method a truly liberating truth – getting organised frees you to do other things and stops you wasting time sorting out messes.   That spreadsheet made for hours more pastoral contact time with all kinds of people. He completely converted me to forward planning and organisation in one spreadsheet. I am forever grateful.

Another colleague had been a senior HR manager in IBM and now farmed. He offered to take me through an appraisal process. I agreed and he very gently told me of some of my greatest failings. They were mostly about prompt responses to communications. He helped me find a system that made sure I responded fast to people who wanted to get hold of me without letting their needs overtake me. I learnt how to do my job better. I improved. I will always be hugely grateful to him for what he gave me in that process.

The lessons they taught me have never left me. I used them extensively in Chaplaincy. Now I run my own business in celebrancy. I rely on my reputation to earn my living. My bookings come almost entirely from Funeral Directors recommending me to families and then booking my services. I have to be both hard-working and organised as well as pastorally sensitive, or I would get no work. If I messed up it would reflect on the Funeral Director and I would never be asked to take a funeral again by that company. And word soon gets around.

The benefits of applying oneself with method and organisation are not primarily for myself. I think that what makes them really important things to hold on to as we labour is that they are both, in ministry, ways of showing that we truly care for other people. If I want to love my neighbour as myself, then the dreary virtues of being well-organised, punctual, and prepared show that I value the people I am going to see. Working from a snowstorm of paper on my desk will impact on how I take care of people or not. Easy for the naturally well-organised, not so much for some of us. But these are things that can be learnt, can be bothered with. And in so doing we bother about other people, and we show them that we do.

Of course, it is God who is at work in us however we work, however lazy or shambolic we are, when something extraordinary and gracious and life-transforming takes place. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in the Power and the Glory taught us that. But that is no reason not to try our hardest or seek to be as well-organised as we can. The same Paul who tells us so often that the initiative is God’s in working in us and through us also says. “leaving what is behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal”.

How will the Church of England respond to heterosexual civil partnerships?

The Church of England likes to portray itself as the friend of civil partnerships for LGBT+ people.

This is notwithstanding the fact that when the legislation was passing through the House of Lords in 2004 the majority of its 26 bishops in the British upper chamber of parliament voted for an amendment that was widely seen at the time as a way of wrecking the bill.  

The amendment failed, and the bishops published rather grudging pastoral guidance as the new arrangements came into force, including a refusal to offer any services of blessing for couples entering civil partnerships.

Since then same-sex marriage has been introduced, and bishops have discovered the joy of civil partnerships, which is that they can be assumed to be sexless relationships.

In the Church’s teaching, sex belongs, you will recall, only in a lifelong, exclusive marriage between one man and one woman. Just don’t ask about divorce and second marriages – somehow they don’t alter this fundamental position.

However, because there is always the possibility that people in a civil partnership might have discovered the delights of sex, the bishops still don’t want to ask God to bless anyone entering such a union. Just in case. Because sex is so yucky and awkward and worrying.

In a ruling in the British Supreme Court last year, the judges found unanimously that barring entry to civil partnerships for heterosexual couples (as had been the case) was, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, discriminatory and against the human rights of heterosexual couples who wished to make such a commitment.

The passage of a bill recently changing registration arrangements has now opened up the prospect of the Secretary of State being able to change the rules around civil partnerships to include heterosexual couples. And the timetable for this to take place is before the end of the year.

This is going to put the Church of England in a bit of a spot.

Any heterosexual couple in England has a right in law to be married in their parish church. If a heterosexual couple choose to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage, but also want this union blessed in the church and present themselves to their local vicar, what is s/he to say?

The Church of England doesn’t bless civil partnerships. But what is the essential difference between them and marriage?

If a civil partnership is between a man and a woman should it be a sexless thing like for same-sex couples? Or will the Church of England agree to bless heterosexual civil partnerships officially, but not homosexual ones?

The uproar that would cause doesn’t bear contemplating – even the most tin-eared Lambeth Palace apparatchik must know that would be PR suicide.

Up until now the bishops have not had to address this question. But the clock is ticking. The end of the year is the latest date the change in regulations could be introduced, not the soonest.

We deserve to be told what they will do.

There is no time for the Living in Love and Faith process, a major report into – as the Church describes it – “human identity, sexuality and marriage” due to be published next year, to debate this for years.

Will gay and straight people entering civil partnerships get equal treatment as regards a blessing? If not, why not?

If no blessing is offered, on what grounds is this denied to heterosexual couples? And if it were to be offered equally, then is the assumption about “sexlessness” being abandoned? In which case, why doesn’t the Church of England bless same-sex marriages as well?

It could be a very interesting few months.

This blog post was first published on 7th May 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

The Church of England must break its toxic colonial legacy

March 12 marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women priests within the Church of England. Yet while today marks one milestone, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain second-class citizens.

Next year the Anglican bishops from around the world will meet for the Lambeth Conference. Except that a tranche of them, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, will boycott the event because of the toleration (as they see it) some churches show towards ungodly behaviour.

In their eyes, this is because the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States (and one or two others) have welcomed and included LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of their churches and support equal marriage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sits poised anxiously and uncomfortably on the fence between these two blocks.

He doesn’t want to be seen as being nasty to the gays, but he doesn’t want to be the man on whose watch the Anglican Communion (the loose worldwide federation of Anglican churches) falls apart terminally. He daren’t offend the anti-gay churches by being seen to be too supportive of the English LGBT+ faithful and their frustrated cries for inclusion.

So the LGBT+ community faces oppression for the sake of a greater goal – inter-church unity.

This Anglican Communion only exists because of British colonialism. As the empire spanned the globe, so too did the Church of England. And after some time, indigenous churches sprang up along the Church of England model. This is not all the story – Scotland and the United States have a close relationship and an entirely independent route through history into this family of independent reformed catholic churches. But the dominant influence was churches being established on the coat tails of British colonialisation.

Those colonial churches have been independent for many years. They are in places where the British introduced harsh laws against homosexuality. The majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 53 sovereign states of the Commonwealth and legal in only 18.

This has been described as being the legacy of the British Empire. In most cases, it was former colonial administrators that established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts during the 19th century and even earlier. The majority of countries have retained these laws following independence.

Due to the common origin of historical penal codes in many former British colonies, the prohibition of homosexual acts, specifically anal sex between men, is provided for in Section 377 in the penal codes of 42 former British colonies, many of whom are today members of the Commonwealth.

Perhaps, then, LGBT+ Christians and their allies in the Church of England should give some attention to this toxic legacy. We should be supporting the work of groups like the Human Dignity Trust. Changing the law in these Commonwealth countries requires lawyers who will work to get this done – they need our support. It is work that needs to be done for its own sake.

However, when decriminalisation arrives in, for example, Uganda, Kenya or Nigeria, then it will start to put real pressure on, for example, Uganda’s churches to change their homophobic tune. Those Anglican churches that are most virulently anti-gay are also financed and resourced by extreme conservative Christians from the United States.

These links also need exposing and breaking.

It might also free the Archbishop of Canterbury from the bind he now finds himself in and help him to do the right thing by the many LGBT+ members of his own church who are tired of being second-class Christians.

This blog post was first published on 12th March 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :