Honouring the whole Body

To be a Christian is to be woven into a community of all the baptised. I can no more go it alone in my spiritual life than I can in my ordinary secular living. There, I can pretend to be sturdily independent, but in truth my food, my housing, my transport, my comfort, my clothing, my healthcare, my information – all of it depends upon a vast network of other people to whom I am ineluctably joined. So pervasive is this that we know that the premise of “Six degrees of Separation”, that each of us can make a connection with any other human being on the planet in six human connections or fewer, is not far from the truth.

In the Christian life I am joined not simply by our common humanity, strong enough reason though that is to reflect on how I relate to those I live among, and on the people far away whose lives are affected by the choices I make. I am joined by baptism to the life of God by being incorporated into Christ. It is he who holds me in being, loves me, forgives me, blesses me, changes me and urges me on. And by that baptism I am therefore joined to the other baptised.

This not always a comfortable fact. I don’t always like other Christians, and I don’t expect them to like me. I don’t like the way some of them think or act. But that is not the point, and it doesn’t alter the fact of our most intimate and unbreakable connection in and through Jesus Christ.

It is good to remind myself of all this today, when the leadership of my church has managed to deliver my trans sisters and brothers a dreadful slap in the face by declining to act in the way that General Synod urged them to last summer. The unwillingness of a subcommittee of the House of Bishops to do more than recommending local adaptation of an existing rite reaffirming baptism suggests to me that they have not truly considered the needs of that segment of the Body of Christ.

There is no recognition of the pain, the courage, the persistent determination, the sense of being born again that is so often present in the stories of those who transition. There is no recognition of the danger and hostility that trans people still face in our society. And because of this unwillingness to recognise both spiritual courage and the risks of living as a trans person, their suggestion comes across as failing utterly to offer what a suffering part of the body has so badly needed.

The House of Bishops know their Bibles. So they will know 1 Cor 12:22-23:

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect“.

I think the key word here is ‘seem’. Those of us who are privileged to have trans friends know very well that there is nothing “weak” or “dishonourable” about them, but that in their journey of discipleship and discovery they are courageous and honest and true – often far more so than the cis-gendered. But those friends know too often what it is to be treated as shameful, or less than respectable, in a society that can make their lives difficult and even dangerous.

From the church they should should be given “greater honour” and “greater respect”, because they are an indispensable part of the Body. Of course the best way to find out what would signify that honour and respect to our trans siblings would have been for the members of the House of Bishops to engage with them. I don’t know why they didn’t.

I hope that for the sake of the whole body and its health they have the grace to face the anger and grief they have caused, and try again. Because we are bound to them for their good too; we, who are so often seen as problems to be managed, or issues to be debated.


Prayers from Pride

Happy Valley Pride in beautiful Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, is a five day celebration of life and love and diversity. It was a huge privilege to be part of it this year. I was asked to speak in a Human Rights strand with the distinguished lawyer, Flo Krause, and found myself judging the Dog Show with Carol, the deputy mayor of the town.

Howard Pask, the vicar of St James’s Hebden Bridge, had welcomed a Eucharist for Inclusion on Sunday morning as part of the celebrations, and I was invited to lead the prayers. Here they are:

In the beauty of this day, let us pray to the Lord:

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

John wrote:
“God is love, and those who live in love live in God , and God lives in them”

We pray today first of all, in a world too short of love and too full of hate, for our enemies, because Jesus told us to pray for them:

  • for those who nurse their hatred of others and express it in violence or cruelty
  • for the neo-Nazis of the USA and Europe
  • for those who hate others because of what they believe, or how they look
  • for the powerful who despise the humanity of little people and talk of “collateral damage” when they mean killing innocent people
  • for every person who today will hurt or harm either because they want to or because they are too weak to resist evil power that makes them work wickedness
  • We ask you, Lord, restrain these evils and heal the sicknesses of hate and violence and abuse of power

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer

We give thanks today for the gifts of life and love:

  • for all those who taught us about loving and being loved
  • for parents, grandparents, step and foster-parents, carers, sibilings, families and friends
  • for the people who showed us that each one of us is a special gift from God, precious and irreplaceable
  • for the people who teach us and mentor us, and from whom we keep on learning about this beautiful world
  • for those who hug us, and dry our tears, and encourage us and give us hope and inspiration
  • Help us love, encourage, inspire and support others in the way we have been so cared for

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer

We thank you, Lord, for the delights of diversity and difference in this world:

  • for a Pride Celebration in Happy Valley that encourages us to open our eyes and see the beauty in our neighbours who are not like us
  • Thank you for all the different children: tall and short, with their own special looks and the different things that interest them
  • Thank you for different families: mums and dads and mums and mums, and dads and dads and many more
  • Thank you for every family where love grows and the community is enriched
  • We thank you that we live in a part of the world where we can support and affirm difference:
    • different abilities
    • different sexualities
    • different gender expressions
    • different social and ethnic backgrounds
  • Help us to fight for a world where every person is helped to become all they could be and where their specialness is prized not punished

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer

We pray for those whose lives are difficult and who are suffering:

  • For those who are sick and especially those on the sick lists and those who have asked us for our prayers
  • For those coming to the end of their lives
  • For those who have died and those who mourn the loss of loved ones especially…
  • For young people questioning their sexuality, who are fearful and don’t know where to find support
  • For those facing questions about their own gender identity
  • For those living with mental illness for whom every day is a day in black and white and not colour
  • In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act we pray for those men whose lives were blighted and spoiled by society’s persecution of their way of loving
  • For every person who feels so desperate that they are pondering ending their lived
  • God of love, give us the love to support, sustain and bring healing presence to those who are passing through great trials and troubles

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer

Finally, dear Lord,
Teach us your way of love; hold us close to you and never let us go.
Merciful Father,
Accept these prayers for the sake of your son,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.


Letter to General Synod Members before the July Synod

Dear Synod Member,

Thank you for your contribution to the life of our church. I do not underestimate the amount of time that it takes for you to prepare for a Synod meeting, and to give up time for what is a very intense few days. I know too, from my time as a Rural Dean, how much you have to do in relating to meetings of deanery synods and other diocesan structures. So, thank you.

Can I ask you carefully to consider supporting the Diocesan motion put down by Blackburn Diocese, and the Private Member’s Motion sponsored by Jayne Ozanne. Blackburn’s motion (background paper GS 2071A) is the first time anything concerning trans people has ever been debated at Synod. It has huge support from trans people of faith, who I believe are writing to you and telling you from their own experience how very important a liturgical event marking their transition would be for them. The most useful background reading material is that provided by Revd Dr Tina Beardsley which you can find here (http://www.onebodyonefaith.org.uk/blog/blackburn/ ). What Tina doesn’t tell you is the detail of the struggle she had when she transitioned to find acceptance and welcome for her ministry, which has been outstanding, .

Can I ask you to treat with great caution the voices of those who are not trans themselves and who yet presume to know what trans people ought to be feeling or experiencing? In particular Martin Davie’s Latimer Study, Transgender Liturgies?, and Vaughan Roberts’s Transgender. In advocating attempting to dissuade people from transitioning, come what may, they stand against current medical best practice. Such efforts can do more harm than good. Christina recommends reading information from GIRES, the Gender Identity, Research and Education Society (http://www.gires.org.uk/ ).

Again, I hope that you will support Jayne Ozanne’s Private Member’s Motion (background paper GS 2070A) asking Synod to endorse the  January 2017 statement by a number of medical and psychological bodies as well as some campaign groups, which clearly identify what are known as Conversion Therapies as “unethical and harmful and not supported by evidence”. She further asks for the Archbishops’ Council to associate itself with the Statement.

Notwithstanding the right of people who don’t wish to describe themselves as gay or lesbian (which I entirely defend) there is clearly something very concerning about offering scientifically untested and demonstrably ineffective “therapies” to vulnerable people for something that is not a mental illness or a psychological syndrome. That the major medical and psychological bodies in the field have come out so strongly against this being an ethical “treatment” ought to make us content to support this weight of opinion.

Again, I don’t know if you have ever had the opportunity to listen to those who have survived conversion therapies of various kinds. They are often the kind of thing that young men (mostly) are offered, and the stories of what they suffer; the shame and the humiliation, the intrusion and the spiritual abuse, make these very painful hearing. Here is one example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/realities-of-conversion-therapy_us_582b6cf2e4b01d8a014aea66

The survivor says this:

The first step ― which usually lasted six months ― [is] where they “deconstruct us as a person.” Their tactics still haunt me. Aversion therapy, shock therapy, harassment and occasional physical abuse. Their goal was to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ (most of us were gay, but the entire spectrum was represented), and they knew what they were doing.

This is simply spiritual and psychological abuse, and our church ought to have nothing to do with this kind of activity. There is no version of this kind of “therapy” that can be reliably used and whose results can be repeated or controlled. As the Huffington Post article says: ‘According to Dr. Jack Drescher, a leading specialist and critic of conversion therapy practices, there is not just one set of practices understood to be used in conversion therapy. “People have tried all kinds of things because none them really work”.’ The theoretical basis of all this is unclear and speculative at best, and incoherent and dangerous at worst. Please support Jayne’s motion.

The House of Bishops has also put forward proposals following the rejection of GS 2055; these are in GS Misc 1158. I have two principal concerns about the road map which the bishops are laying out here: first of all, despite their commitment to a “radical new Christian inclusion”, and the promise that groups involved in work on Church of England documentation would be “inclusive”, the proposed membership of  the Pastoral Advisory Group includes only one person who is openly not heterosexual. That is Revd Sam Allberry of Living Out. Members of Living Out have a commitment to celibacy which they believe they are obliged to undertake to be faithful Christians, and which they urge on everyone else who, as they describe it, is “same-sex attracted”. The vast majority of LGBTI+ Christians do not share their perspective.  There is no representative of the mainstream of LGBTI+ Church of England members at all.

Again, on the membership of the Co-ordinating Group for the Teaching Document, the only gay person is Canon Giles Goddard. While Giles is a very experienced General Synod member and is out and partnered, his presence is not, in my view, a sufficient level of representation for LGBTI+/SSA people. Both these committees are, frankly, very largely going to be talking about us without us. This is simply not acceptable any more. There is no one from, for example, OneBodyOneFaith, which represents nearly a thousand members, many of them Anglicans, and no one from Inclusive Church, or the LGBTI Mission.

Again, the timetable for the production of the teaching document is set at 2020. This is nine whole years after the beginning of the Pilling process. We have made no substantial progress in all that time and despite a huge expenditure on the Conversations. You will know that I want to see real progress towards accepting as properly Christian, theological and pastoral positions different from those that are now the official position of the church. I don’t want to see those as the only position, but I believe that other positions can be held with integrity, and should be allowed to be held. Indeed, without moving towards this it is hard to see how “a radical new Christian inclusion” can be achieved.  And it is not as if, in those nine years, those who hold the traditional view as the only acceptable view can be said to have made any progress towards reaffirming their position. We really could do with getting on with this with rather more urgency. Can I ask you to consider making some of these points in the debate on GS Misc 1158?

Thank you for reading this and assuring you of my prayers for you in the run up to and during the time of Synod.

Yours sincerely,


Jeremy Pemberton

Restoring Dignity in the Church of England

It is July. It is time for General Synod in York. This is the kick-back Synod. Time for sandals and open-necked shirts, strawberries and ice cream, and clergy not looking clerical, except for the ones who always do. But the external relaxedness masks some serious business.

Three pieces of business around sexuality and gender issues are to come before Synod. GSMisc 1158, the House of Bishops’ proposals replacing the ill-fated report GS2055; A motion from Blackburn Diocese, GS 2071A Welcoming Transgender People; and Jayne Ozanne’s Private Member’s Motion on Conversion Therapy, supported by GS 2070A.

Jayne’s motion asks for Synod to endorse a statement from January this year, signed by a number of significant professional medical bodies, as well as some advocacy groups, describing so-called Conversion Therapy “unethical and harmful”, and proscribing its use by their members. Jayne’s motion also asks for the Archbishops’ Council to become a co-signatory to the statement.

The Blackburn motion, which has been long-delayed, says this:

“That this Synod, recognizing the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, call on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.”  

It is the first time trans people’s concerns have ever been debated by General Synod. Interestingly, its focus is on liturgical provision around transition. A most useful background paper by Dr Tina Beardsley, resourcing this debate, can be found here.

The House of Bishops, rocked by the rejection of their previous proposals, found the way ahead was sketched out by the letter of the two Archbishops published on 16th February 2017. In it the Archbishops stated: we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”

GS Misc 1158 is their attempt to put flesh on the bones of that.

Sometimes the Church of England does some good things, some very good things, in relation to restoring dignity to people. It is not afraid of supporting refugees, both practically and politically. Its best work is seen in the way it responds to a disaster like Grenfell Tower – the local Church of England churches quickly became a centre of support, action, and care for the homeless, bereaved and traumatised people of North Kensington. It works well ecumenically and across all faiths and none, and there is no sense of this help being given conditionally or with strings attached. Among many churches and faith groups it is also Church of England churches that have enthusiastically set up and maintained food banks for those for whom austerity has had a very real practical impact.

These General Synod motions talk, variously, about the restoration of human dignity principally to people who are on the inside. Of course, the Church of England doesn’t have an inside and an outside quite like other churches. It is the established church of the land, and therefore all English citizens have a proper interest in its actions and policies, even in its theologies, however inexplicable they may seem to many. Nevertheless, these motions are really for internal consumption. They deal, as so much Church of England business has over the years, with one of the really intractable difficulties the Church has made for itself, how it is to treat people in their sexual and gendered variety in the Church.

UK society has answered that question. Drawing on the traditions of human rights thinking that arise from very diverse sources, but which find their summation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, our society has worked its way around, over the last fifty years or so, to thinking that no group should be discriminated against by virtue of its difference. (It is not insignificant that the principal author of that Declaration, John Peters Humphrey, was a Canadian, who, as a disabled and parentless boy, was relentlessly bullied when he was at school.) It has legislated to this effect, and so, while people can be racist or sexist or homophobic at home or in their heads, they can’t behave that way in public.

The Church of England has gone some way towards accepting this social change. And some way to resisting it. There was never any question of the Church of England seeking opt-outs from race discrimination legislation. Why so? Perhaps, because a significant number of prominent English clergy were working in South Africa and were implacably opposed to the doctrine of separate development of the races. They saw and understood the injustice, cruelty and oppression that was the consequence of that doctrine, and had worked with the majority black populations. So, while racism was a danger in the 1960s in England, church leaders supported efforts to end race discrimination here. Its own internal record on supporting and developing ethnic minority leaders has been very poor in the past, but it has the theoretical tools and is making some effort to support doing a better job on that.

It has been less successful with its attitude to women. Resistance to equality between men and women in society is very deep-rooted. There is still a gender pay gap, and women still don’t get paid the same as men for equal work. In the Church of England moves to equalise opportunities for women to offer their gifts and talents in God’s service have come very slowly and rather incompletely. Theological justifications and ecclesiastical arrangements for unequal treatment have been enshrined and solidified rather than being discouraged.

But it is with its attitudes to gender variance and differences of sexual orientation that the Church of England has drifted away dangerously from the ethical moorings of the country as a whole. It isn’t simply that it wishes to act differently. It is that the country now understands the equal treatment of all its citizens to be a foundational moral principle. Doing anything less than this is understood by the vast majority of citizens not simply to be undesirable, but at a profound level, immoral and unethical.

But this ethical thinking does not cut any ice with those who consider homosexual relations to be against the Word of God, or who think that gender dysmorphia is a wicked temptation to be fought against. How then can we frame the debates that are coming in Synod in such a way that they might start to make some sense to that minority of people who are so implacably opposed to change?

I want to suggest that there is in our tradition, and in the Scriptures, an enormously powerful recognition of the significance of the encounter of the individual with the divine. This encounter, from the beginnings of the human story as we have been told it, shapes the sense of self by that encounter. I become who I am through the I-Thou encounter (as Martin Buber put it). Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Mary. But also the unknown and the nameless – the woman who touches Jesus in the crowd, the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Among the great names of Biblical history there is an over-riding sense of the story of God’s action through these encounters, working and changing lives for greater purposes, but there are also two other things worthy of note.

First, it is not always about a great call. It is always first of all a recognition of people’s unique and wonderful personhood. That they are themselves before God, and in that meeting know themselves to be themselves. Sometimes fearful, they are always reassured, but they often simply encounter love, and they know themselves to be loved.

Secondly, no one but God tells them who they are. They find out for themselves what it means to be who they are. Indeed, the attempts by others to shape the identity of individuals is often a disaster for people who think they know best who someone else is. As GS Misc 1158 puts it:

If we would presume to say anything on this subject, we must know that we are talking about and talking to people, with their immense capacities for joy and for pain, created in the divine image and precious in God’s sight in ways we can barely begin to fathom.(my emphasis)

There is an unalienable dignity about being who you are before God. It is deeply rooted in Scripture, and it has been worked out by followers of Christ in human history time and time again. It has not been an uncomplicated matter – and for pioneers it has often been painful and costly, and sometimes lonely. It has been through this process that so many people’s gifts and talents have been liberated for the service of others.

Here is a new way to look at these matters. It is biblical, it is rooted in the Christian tradition, and its ethical foundations arise directly from the value that is in everyone because of their status as a child of God. Out of this essential vocation come all the other possibilities of human becoming.

So, of course we should make provision for trans people to find a way of marking their new identities. They know who they are – they certainly don’t need us to tell them if they are allowed to be themselves. What they need us to do is to support them. They and God know the truth of their personhood – and loving communities around them, marking important moments of transition will start to liberate the potential within them for their own wellbeing, and for the good of their families and communities.

Conversion therapies wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for religious people keen to tell others who they can and can’t be. But that is not their job. They are the most dangerous and damaging example of religious pressure imaginable. Evidence of the harm they do is well-documented. In the matter of human dignity, any solution to a human conundrum that pretends to know the end from the beginning attempts to bypass the relationship of individuals with God, and should be resisted by all those who know the foundational importance of that encounter.

GS Misc 1158 is not a document to make the heart beat faster. It outlines a lengthy process towards a teaching document by 2020. That makes nine years since the establishment of the Group that produced the Pilling Review. This latest document is clear that it wants to be working towards “radical inclusion”. Yet the membership of the group tasked with producing the report has only one person on it who is confidently and openly homosexual. And no one who is transgendered. The Pastoral Advisory Group is hardly better. Notably absent is anyone from the main campaigning groups in this field – OneBodyOneFaith, Inclusive Church, LGBTI Mission. The only person identifiable with a particular perspective is Sam Allberry (who would describe himself as Same-Sex Attracted) from Living Out, – a very small group, who think they know what God wants for all LGBTI people.

It is all very pedestrian, and still very exclusive. Voices that might upset the apple cart are carefully left out of the inner circle. It is still trying to manage a ‘problem’, for all that it says it isn’t. But what it fails to do is to accord to people the dignity that is theirs in Christ, and then to work outwards from that. It feels like an exercise in treading water in the hope that something might come along and save us, but with little expectation. It still reeks of fear and anxiety.

But our faith has told us the way forward. It is to stop trying to tell people who they can and should be, and instead to embrace the dignity that God has already given them. It is to stop boxing them and reducing them and telling them that they cannot exercise their gifts because they don’t come in an acceptable package, and instead to welcome them in all their complexity and beauty, and to accompany them in their discipleship as they respond to the call of God. It is to listen to the divine voice that says, as it always does, “Fear not.”

I shall pray for Synod members. I shall pray for them to welcome and pass The Blackburn and Ozanne motions. And I shall hope that they will try and amend GS Misc 1158, so that it can truly do what it says it wants to do and make a real contribution to the “radical inclusion” our Archbishops set as the goal of our transformation in this area.

I talked this weekend to a young woman who is a member of the Church of England. She is a Millennial – a grouping beloved of our leaders. She is a regular worshipper, someone who is serious about her faith. She has thought about whether or not she might have a vocation to ordained ministry. She talked about the possibility of getting married. What she said was that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to get married in church, because she didn’t want to be married using rites that implied that same-sex couples couldn’t be married as well. I was a little saddened to hear that – but then again, I thought she understood what radical inclusion really means. What it has always meant through the centuries. That human dignity in all its variety comes from God, and we should be fighting to honour it, not to diminish and demean it.





A Prayer for the General Election

I know that the Church of England will put something out. Official C of E prayers are usually wordy, flowery, pious and rather cringe-worthy. I thought I would get ahead of the curve, and offer this effort. It is not elaborate, nor literary, but it maybe has the merit of being honest. Anyway, I shall try praying it over the next few weeks.

A Prayer for the Church of England for an Unexpected General Election

Dear Loving God,
You chose us, we didn’t choose you.
Now we have to choose.
Help us be nice to the canvassers,
Understand the issues,
Care for the poor and oppressed and
Cast our votes wisely and well.
And forgive all those who vote the wrong way.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

On infidelity, broken promises and hounding: why Elaine Storkey is wrong.

In her comment on Fulcrum on the events in Sheffield diocese, Elaine Storkey writes:

Five principles were drawn up to help the church move forward in our call to unity on women bishops. The first principle states that the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally and legally, without reference to gender; the second made it clear that those coming for ordination must accept this.  The clarity of this is indisputable. This measure could not be interpreted as endorsing two integrities, two sorts of calling, two doctrines, two positions pulling against each other.  The church recognized, without ambiguity, that women are called to episcopal office.

I have to say that she is wrong in what she asserts. A plain reading of the text of the Five Guiding Principles makes it entirely possible for an individual to accept that the Church of England as a whole is committed to all orders of ministry being open equally and legally to men and women, and yet not personally to accept that women can be priests or bishops. The logic for this is that the church has decided that this is an acceptable minority position that deserves to be honoured. It decided this in the Act of Synod of 1993. While that Act is no longer in force the principles behind it have, I would suggest, not been abrogated. So it would be extraordinary if the Five Guiding Principles were meant to be read as an attempt to disrupt that settlement.

The evidence for this is in Elaine’s next error. She writes of those who personally do not believe in the possibility of women being priests and bishops being given “no straw to clutch”. Again, she is wrong. There is now a bishop for “headship evangelicals”, and the bishops of the Society are expressly there to provide for those who do not believe in the possibility of women sharing in priestly and episcopal ministry, in exactly the same way as “flying bishops” did from 1992 to 2014. For people in either of those categories, it is possible practically to flourish inside the Church of England without ever being obliged to face the reality of the general truth to which the Church of England as a whole has unequivocally committed itself. The expansion of the episcopate in the direction of “headship evangelicals” makes this clear. Calling this provision ‘pastoral and sacramental’ changes it not a whit. Those evangelicals and anglo-catholics are still being given a protected space within the church, and by exactly the same means as before, ensuring that “no women” areas in both these directions are preserved.

Let us look a bit more closely at this. The third reason for the existence of the Society isto

to guarantee a ministry in the historic apostolic succession in which they can have confidence

If members of the Society accepted ex animo what Elaine Storkey says they have to accept, then there would be no reason for its existence. But the word ‘confidence’ gives the game away. The Church of England may, as a whole, have decided that it will have women priests and bishops, and it has, as a whole, confidence that their ministry is truly and sacramentally priestly and episcopal. But there are still many in the church of England who do not accept this. They do not have confidence that a woman’s blessing is a blessing, that a woman’s absolution is an absolution, that a Eucharist presided over by a woman is a Eucharist, and that a person ordained by a woman is truly ordained to the order of priest or bishop. As a church, I would maintain, contra Storkey, that we have given them this right. We have talked of mutual flourishing and have tried to make spaces so that people can feel that they and their ministries can flourish.

Elaine Storkey accuses people of hounding, vilifying and name-calling Philip North until he felt he had no option but to withdraw his acceptance of the See of Sheffield. Like everyone else I a not prepared to countenance that. But I don’t believe that identifying serious theological problems and the concomitant pastoral difficulties that this appointment would have brought about deserves those epithets.

If things were as Elaine describes them, then the charge of infidelity might be justified. But they are not. She claims, “He would have put all the structures in place necessary for him to be a focus of unity.” How would he have done that when he himself does not believe that women can be priests? This is the fundamental issue that will not go away and which has not been answered satisfactorily (or at all, to be honest) by those who supported his appointment. The second half of the first Guiding Principle says that the Church of England:

holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience

There is clearly some important wriggle room in this phrase. It must be possible to believe that women are truly and lawfully holders of their offices, but not to believe that they are sacramentally ordained. Otherwise, Society members and their churches could have confidence. And they don’t.

A whole series of very worrying questions follow from this disconnect. How can a bishop who does not believe women can be priests or bishops claim to be in communion with the third or more of his clergy who are women? They might be able to share a communion at which he presided, but not the reverse. This is a strange kind of communion. How can he sponsor people for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he does not actually think is ordination to a ministry of sacrament? He can, I guess, see women as ministers of the word – but that kind of separation of word and sacrament is not Anglican, and certainly not catholic. How can he be a pastor to his whole diocese, when he is going to be instituting vicars and rectors to parishes to dispense to the people in those parishes sacraments that as a member of the Council of Bishops of the Society he has no confidence are real sacraments? The implications of this last question are shocking.

It is questions like these that have not received the answers they deserved. If Elaine Storkey’s interpretation of what happened in 2014 was correct, then so too would be her accusation of infidelity. Much has been made of a “broken promise” to those evangelicals and anglo-catholics who do not receive the ministry of women bishops and priests. The fourth Guiding Principle says this:

the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures

It is not clear to me that this is a promise to provide a diocesan bishop from those quarters. If mutual flourishing means anything, it must mean that all parties feel secure that the ministry and sacraments in which they have confidence are affirmed and supported. For those who do not accept that women can be priests and bishops there are bishops who think as they do, and whose episcopal ministry they can receive. But it is hard to see how a bishop from that quarter can convincingly be a bishop for a whole diocese with men and women among its priests. That is not a broken promise. It is putting a system under stresses that it cannot bear.

Much has been made, negatively, of the public and organised opposition to Philip North’s appointment. I think it is worth recognising that while this will have been intensely unpleasant for Bishop Philip, the appointment as a whole is something in which the public has a proper interest. The Church of England is not yet a private religious society. It is the established church of the land. And the disconnect between a society in which discrimination on the grounds of gender is illegal and a church which somehow manages its affairs so that this is permitted is becoming harder and harder to explain convincingly. A public letter from a woman MP from Sheffield is an example of this awkwardness. It should not be criticised – those voices have every right to be heard while we are a church by law established. They are not a sign of infidelity or hounding, they are the point of engagement between church and society over a matter in which they too have a stake.

I understand what it is to have one’s life pulled apart in public, and therefore some small insight into how painful this latest business must have been for Bishop Philip. And it is not as if he hasn’t experienced this before. I do not know Bishop Philip. Everything I have read about him tells me that he is a fine priest – but I refrain even from affirming that, first, because, as I don’t know him, that sounds patronising, and secondly, because, in the end, this is not about the man. Elaine Storkey writes:

May we resist the canonisation of illiberalism, the creation of new orthodoxies based on intolerance of tradition, and the tyranny of mouthing acceptable slogans. The call of the church today is, surely, to sound a prophetic note of hope to the struggles of a divided and hurting culture. It is not to sink into its mud.

I cannot claim to have sounded a new note of hope. Bishop Philip’s withdrawal of his acceptance of the See of Sheffield is a very painful and shocking moment in our church. What it means will need to be teased out carefully in the coming months. But I hope I have identified some clear reasons why Elaine is not correct in the interpretation she puts on events, nor is she just in the motives she ascribes to some of those who have questioned the wisdom of this appointment. There are proper and principled reasons to have done so. The mud of a divided and hurting culture includes name-calling. And she ought not to have joined in doing it.

What is also muddy is the capacity of the Church of England not to be clear about what its compromises mean and do not mean. The ambiguity of the Five Guiding Principles may have been deliberate. It may have been the best that could be managed in 2014 while the Synod, under pressure from Parliament as it undoubtedly was, made some kind of a deal to get women bishops. But if that was the case, then not having done any work to have elucidated the meaning of what those principles did and did not comprise in the intervening two and bit years has done us all no favours.

Anglican Alternative Facts

The Archbishop of Canterbury has published a message about the forthcoming Primates meeting in Canterbury in October 2017. His comments, and those of the Secretary General of the Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, talk not only about the forthcoming meeting, but also about the Report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Marriage and Same-sex  Relationships.

Archbishop Justin describes as a “key outcome” of the Report, which is coming before Synod in a couple of weeks, that “the Church of England’s teaching on marriage should remain unchanged, meaning there can be no same-sex weddings in the Church of England.”

This is compressed shorthand to say the least. The Report spends pages torturing itself over saying that it is not providing solutions or outcomes – and here is the Archbishop deciding that there is a key one. The Report writers say:

“It is the responsibility of the bishops to help the Church to identify the next steps – not necessarily toward a “solution” but towards greater clarity about what is at stake…That is why we do not offer “resolution” in ways that will please some and dismay others but seek to make steps together…”

This is not the announcement of any outcome. It is tentative and provisional. It is a long way from what the Archbishop does. He is attempting to establish the idea of an outcome as an alternative fact.

In a world of spin and media messages, for those who want to get their view over, however much it is based on nothing but their prejudices, the technique of making alternative facts is that one repeats lies so often that they become the desired ‘facts’. You repeat the most egregious lies. You keep repeating them, as loudly and widely as you can, with as much publicity as possible. You ignore all the evidence that is offered you that would indicate that you have lied. You accuse your opponents of fabricating evidence and doctoring photographs. You do it so loud and so long that your opponents have to spend valuable time countering these lies. Because you have now established them as ‘alternative facts’ that must be taken seriously.

In the Church of England, LGBTI people have been told alternative facts from the start of the Pilling process five long years ago. We were told that the Shared conversations were meant to lead to Good Disagreement – they have done nothing of the sort. No space has been given to divergent readings of the Bible or alternative pastoral provisions. We were told that the Bishops could be trusted to lead the process after the conversations – and they have betrayed us by offering nothing at all beyond soft words for LGBTI+ Anglicans. We were told by the Working Party that their Report was a staging point on a long journey – and now it is an outcome, a terminus. All of these things we were told as facts were alternative facts.

Offers to improve the “tone” of how they talk to us and about us are absolutely hollow and meaningless. There is no substantive change envisaged, and the architect of this deception, Archbishop Justin, is happy to announce this to the world before even the General Synod has had a chance to take note of the report. He will not be surprised to hear that the loyal and long-suffering LGBTI members of the Church of England are disgusted, angered and energised by this web of deceptively packaged alternative facts, and are determined to resist this sleight of hand.

Archbishop Josiah also indulges in Anglican alternative facts himself, in the comments that he adds. First, he says “I support the Bishops’ declaration that doctrine on marriage should not change – that marriage should be a lifelong commitment between a man and woman”. There are two ways in which this parts from truthfulness. First the Report of the Working Party is not a declaration by the bishops – as if by fiat they can decide what the answer to anything is (we are not the Church of Rome). The centralising and controlling world of Lambeth might like it to be like that, but it is not so.

Secondly, he describes the doctrine as saying that marriage “should be a lifelong commitment”. Canon B30 says, “marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong”. It says nothing about “should”, which makes it a desired ideal. It says it is so, in its nature. The Church of England’s acceptance some twenty-five years ago that marriages do not always last for life is an uncomfortable fact in this context. So is the fact that it has divorced bishops and clergy and lay people a-plenty in leadership in this church.  The plain meaning of the Canon has been bypassed by decisions taken (rightly in my view) in the 1990s, and it is always glossed, so that we are told it means that lifelong is the ideal. Idowu-Fearon is doing no more than most contemporary Church of England clergy do. But if you can set aside the meaning of the Canon on heterosexual marriage, then why can’t you change it for other reasons? Rather than face this uncomfortable hypocrisy, he dissembles.

Thirdly, he describes Resolution 1:10 of the Lambeth Conference of 1998 as “our lodestar”. It may be his, but it is not the lodestar of the Communion, and certainly not of the Church of England, where it has never been debated or adopted. Again, sleight of hand is trying to boost the significance of one resolution above all others so that LGBTI+ people can continue to be oppressed.

Lastly, he adopts the Anglican “phrase of the year”. I mean, of course, “same-sex attraction”. It is, apparently, what some of us experience. But he must be extraordinarily naïve if he thinks that this politically-loaded phrase can be used in this way without comment. And he is not naïve. So it is a device, a way of talking that he wishes to make normal. He wishes to establish it as an alternative fact.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people who are happy with their sexuality, almost to a man and woman do not, and will not, use that description. It is used almost exclusively by those who are not happy with their sexuality, who think that in experiencing, or sometimes worse, suffering same-sex attraction, they are bound, in order to live a godly life, to struggle endlessly against their natural desire for sexual intimacy and communion with another person. LGCM and Changing Attitude and other Christian organisations reject absolutely this characterisation of what is needed to live a godly life.

With it we also reject this language. It reduces questions of gender-identity to questions of sex and sexual attraction thereby ignoring completely the lives and experiences of trans, queer and intersex people. Bisexual people too, find that there is a binary understanding in this way of speaking that erases their experience. Gay and lesbian people and those of other sexualities are glad to be who we are, and we do not believe that we struggle or experience same-sex attraction.

I know why he does it. The people who are happy to be described in this way are the ones who try and live their life within the negative, demeaning and spiritually and psychologically damaging theology of the Church of England, which tells them that LGBTI people are somehow rather less than their heterosexual counterparts, that their desires and affections are “less than the ideal”, and that the only option before them is a life of compulsory celibacy. There is no pressure for change from this quarter, who remain grateful for the crumbs of pastoral care that drop from the table. They cause no trouble for Archbishop Justin and the other bishops.

Beyond this brief message from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the world of the Church of England, where its LGBTI+ faithful acceded to the request to participate, often at real personal cost, to the Shared Conversations, we see something similar going on. There is an attempt to establish alternative facts. What we are getting told is, I believe, far from the truth. There is an alternative fact about our experience – all that we shared in the Conversations appears to have been ignored, and we find the predominant language used about us is not language we find acceptable. There is an alternative fact about our church’s position over marriage and same-sex relationships – the Bishop’s Working Party did not come to any outcome, though it is notable that some conservative commentators are now saying that we have come to the end of the road and should “move on”, whatever that means. The Archbishop’s words suggest he too is looking to ‘move on’, as they say on daytime television. And there is an alternative fact about the discipline and doctrine of our church – elevating Lambeth 1:10 above the position it actually has, and pretending that marriage for life is only an ideal, when the Canon says it is of the nature of the institution. Meanwhile LGBTI Anglicans are told that ‘tone’ will change, and that the Church will rebuke homophobia more vigorously – while denying that it is a structurally homophobic institution.

If this is not an accident and is part of a deliberate project, it may fool some people – it may even fool the Primates, to whom this alternative fact-packed message was delivered. But it does not fool us. And we will resist those who create the world of Anglican alternative facts.