Mood Music – A Letter from Lichfield

There have been a variety of reactions to the letter from the bishops of Lichfield diocese to all clergy and licensed lay ministers entitled Welcoming and Honouring LGBT+ people. The  letter can be read here. It is clearly intended to be a strongly positive statement affirming the place and role of LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of that diocese. It has received an unequivocal welcome from OneBodyOneFaith, whose chair, Peter Leonard, says “Our Archbishops have called for radical Christian inclusion and this is the beginning of what it needs to look like in practice.” Others have been less enthusiastic. Colin Coward writes: “What it manages to say is unexceptional. That it is the first of its kind as a letter from bishops to clergy is salutary. This letter does not argue for or commend an unequivocal welcome for lesbian and gay people. This is not radical Christian inclusion.”

How far, then, does the letter represent a step towards “radical Christian inclusion”? No one knows, at present, what the Archbishops meant by that slogan. It was dreamt up, hurriedly, in the aftermath of General Synod’s declining to take note of the House of Bishops report following the end of the Shared Conversations (GS2055) in February 2017. Church House staff were visibly surprised by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he uttered the phrase in Church House the next day. There had been no time to work it through the normal processes of policy formation. But, once said, it was on record.

Different groups have interpreted it according to their own perspectives. Those who defend the current position of the church on sexuality and relationships take it to mean that we must be radically inclusive within the current guidelines and not change them at all. Campaigners for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice think it means something entirely different.

The Lichfield bishops are careful to frame their remarks in the context of the work that is going on to produce a “teaching document”. Quite what this will be, or when it will appear, or what status it will have is all still unknown. But it is true to say that it may  possibly help us understand better what the Archbishops meant by “radical Christian inclusion”.

A great deal of work has been done in the last fifty years on the Biblical texts that appear to disapprobate same-sex relationships. Some of that has defended time-honoured stances that prohibit any same-sex sexual activity, or any relationship that goes beyond a chaste friendship; much has been produced to argue that the texts either do not apply, or that they do not have to be read in that way. There is probably no conclusion to be drawn from the outpouring of material in this area – what you think will depend fairly much on what you think counts as an argument for or against.

There has also been a lot of writing about the theology of relationships, some of it very creative and interesting. But official thinking has been almost entirely static since 1991 and Issues in Human Sexuality. That document, intended to open up discussion, achieved almost the exact opposite. It froze the discussion, and became an official position. Those wishing to be ordained in the Church of England will certainly be asked specifically about whether they assent to the position outlined by this document, indeed they have to sign on the dotted line that they do, which is that while LGBT lay people may conscientiously decide to enter into a sexually active same-sex relationship, those to be ordained must remain chaste. They are very unlikely to be questioned as closely about their personal assent to every article of the Nicene Creed.

In a way, Issues tried to soften the position voted for by the General Synod in the Higton/Baughen motion of 1987, which robustly defended the notion that the only place for human sexual expression of any kind was inside a heterosexual marriage, and anything else was sin. Nothing in the intervening thirty or more years has fundamentally changed the terms of this debate within the Church of England.

Many people feel that to attempt to do so would be unlikely to succeed and would only open even wider the chasm between the defenders of the past and the champions of reform. But unless and until we do face the fundamental theological problems caused by an inadequate theology of sexuality and the Canons and various forms of pastoral guidance that derive from it, then we will not have a clear sense of what we are aiming for in urging the church towards “radical Christian inclusion”.

It may be that the “Teaching Document” will provide this. It is more likely that it will be a highly defensive creation, designed to manage competing demands from institutional players of various kinds here and abroad. If it is this kind of a document, it will fail, and we will be no further forward. Martyn Percy and Andrew Lightbown have written about the tendency of the present church leadership to see problems as opportunities for better management. The introduction of all kinds of management practices, the adoption of vision statements, line management, targets, audits, all accompanied by endless upbeat messages from the diocesan or national church centre do not disguise the fact that the church is still in sharp decline. The disconnect from the nation is becoming so severe that even the Archbishop of Canterbury has to face questions about the viability of establishment.

Over the last generation the nation has grown used to being a place in which it is no longer acceptable or, indeed, legal to discriminate against people on the grounds of the sex or their gender identity or their marital status or their sexuality, or a number of other grounds. The churches are some of the only places left where that is still possible. That is not to say that the nation as whole has been cured of homophobia, or misogyny, or racism. Homophobes, misogynists and racists are still there, and they have all kinds of reasons, including reasons of conscience, for holding the views that they do. And they have every right to hold those views in private. But they can’t espouse them in public, however conscientiously they hold them. The only kind of conscience that seems to get a special category of protection is a collective religious conscience. The Church of England, in particular, has won for itself the right to discriminate where others no longer can.

Set against its official teaching in the area of sexuality and gender minorities, I can see why those protections are important. I can’t see that they are important for real people, but I can see that they are a defence of the institution and its current impasse. There is clear evidence that the official teaching of the church is significantly out of line with her theologians and a majority of her clergy and laity. But still nothing is done to address what we might call the doctrinal deficit in this area. Theology is dangerous, and it produces unintended consequences. It is not susceptible to tidy managerialism. It changes things. It is not spin.

I want to see a change in the teaching of the church in relation to sex and relationships and marriage. I want to see it principally because I do not think that the present position is true. Higton and Issues should be consigned to history not because they are out of fashion, nor because they are a missional liability (though they are) but because they are not true. Canon B30 should change not because it is out of kilter with society (though it is) but because it is not true. The Church of England’s sleight of hand over marriage after divorce simply shows that it no longer believes that marriage is necessarily indissoluble, as the Canon states. Its Canon no longer tells the truth as the Church understands it. It should have changed the Canon to reflect what it actually believes.

Whatever happens in relation to LGBT+ people in the church, it will not be settled until we have a better theology of personhood and sexuality and relationships. The truth is that people can see what Bishop Michael Curry preached about this afternoon – the power of love – at work changing lives and relationships in all kinds of places that a generation or two ago were thought incapable of holding, sustaining and developing loving human relationships. Our theology, whatever else it says, must take account of these truths and these realities. So must our Canons. If we got those right there would be no need of complex, occluded, unkind and unjust pastoral guidance about this and that.

In the meantime, a letter like that from the bishops of Lichfield is mood music. Changing the mood isn’t bad. But it needs to be understood that anyone in Lichfield who decides that they don’t like the mood of their bishops, and who wants to preach that the official position of the church is that of Higton and Issues has every right to do so. If they feel that partnered LGBT+ people are unrepentant sinners not fit to participate in leading worship or holding office in their church I can’t see any reason that they can’t hold that view. It is unpleasant, it is homophobic, it is offensive to possibly the majority of people in the church these days, their bishops may not approve of it, but it is entirely congruent with the official position of the Church of England. Refusing baptism to the child of a lesbian couple or denying gay people communion is another matter – that is not legal or permitted. But moods are moods, and those who want to create a mood of rejection still have lots of space within which they can do that.

I’m a musician. I know the power of music to create moods. But I know that music that is simply there for mood modification is not really music at its best. The best music, in whatever genre you enjoy, is music that has something true to say. Soft or loud, intimate or gigantic, played by a soloist or by a huge orchestra or band, music that changes the world is music that blazes with truth. That blazing truth can take the shape of something incredibly intimate and tender – but it is that quality of truth that makes music that changes people. Mood music is calculated; it doesn’t speak truth, it tries to manipulate emotions for effect. It is not bad for doing that – it is just limited. Truthful music changes people in ways the composer cannot control.

I am writing on the eve of Pentecost, and I am aware that to speak of the power of music like this is not dissimilar to speaking of the freedom and power of the Spirit to meet and change people.  I don’t criticise the Lichfield bishops for trying to make something better out of the present situation. I just wish they, and their brother and sister bishops would stop managing and started to tell us rather more profound and important truths about what they believe about people and sex and God.

 

 

 

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Indivisible Freedom and a Homophobic Church

Moving to Zaïre in 1987, among many cultural shocks encountered was the fact that a visa to travel there was a one-way ticket. There was no automatic freedom of movement out of the country once you had entered. You had to apply for an exit/re-entry visa when in situ. For someone used to their passport facilitating transit across borders fairly simply, this was a sharp reminder of the fragility of that particular freedom.

In the run up to the meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth in London this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a meeting of parliamentarians and religious leaders from eleven countries for two days of conversations regarding the freedom of religion and belief. This is not a right enshrined in the constitutions of most Commonwealth countries, and even where it is, as in the case of Nigeria, the exercise of sharia law in northern provinces makes conversion from Islam illegal and punishable. Which is hardly freedom of religion and belief.

One unnamed participant said, after the meeting, that the Commonwealth nations’ tradition of tolerance and liberty is “a Common Wealth that needs to be cherished, celebrated and continuously cultivated”.

If only this were true. The Commonwealth of Nations represents one of the largest blocks of nations where LGBTI people are persecuted for the expression of their gender identity and sexuality.  Of the thirty-six nations who have statutes still criminalising LGBTI people, these range from the right for employers to discriminate against employees for their sexuality (Botswana, Mauritius, the Cook Islands and Samoa) right through to the death penalty (Northern Nigeria and Brunei). The largest group are those nations that still have and use imprisonment for same-sex relations on their statute book. They are:

Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Southern Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

No matter that there is a direct link between the colonial heritage of the “buggery laws”, which imposed the penalties of sixteenth Century England on former colonies in the nineteenth century. If the Commonwealth is truly to live up to its claimed tradition of tolerance and liberty then this horrendous stain on freedom must be corrected. Many LGBTI and other campaign groups including Stonewall, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, the Kaleidoscope Trust, Amnesty International, ILGA and others have been calling for this for years. Many UK parliamentarians find this aspect of the life of the Commonwealth of Nations profoundly shaming. Our present government is, however, rather coy about pushing this agenda.

It would be good to hear those parliamentarians and religious leaders who met at Lambeth Palace this week speak up to defend the freedoms of their LGBTI co-citizens. For freedom cannot be divided. If freedom of religion and belief is important, including the freedom not to have a religion or hold particular beliefs, yet is something voluntarily undertaken, then how much more is the freedom to be oneself and to express that freely in the bodies we inhabit, a reality that is often not consciously chosen, but is discovered.

I presently work as a civil celebrant. With my clients I create ceremonies to help them express what they need around significant moments in their lives. Most of my work is to do with funerals, but I also take wedding celebrations and other ceremonies. What I create is shaped and determined by the wishes of my clients. For some they want no religious content, others do want prayers or readings. I give them what they want, so that the ceremony created respects their convictions and their freedom at a most important and significant moment in their lives.

I remain a priest of the Church of England, but, because I am married to my husband, I am not able to officiate in any way as I have no licence nor permission to officiate. Celebrancy is a way of using some of my gifts and of making a living.

For the third time in six months I was contacted last week by a clergyperson who wanted to talk about the work I do. It transpired in our conversation that they were thinking of leaving the ministry, and wondering whether celebrancy was something for them. For the third time in six months, the person I was talking to was planning to leave because of the homophobia they had encountered in the Church of England.

Seeking a change of ministry, they had applied to parishes and had been offered interviews. Open about their sexuality and that they were in a civil partnership, they experienced “the worst homophobia I have ever encountered in my whole life”. They were not offered either post. Enquiries with diocesan officials about three other posts led to it being made clear that they would be wasting their time putting in an application.

I could hear the frustration, anger, sadness and resignation in the voice of the person I was talking to. “What do we have to do? I have done everything the Church asks – I have a civil partnership not a marriage, and still I can’t get a job.” They were thinking that they would resign their orders.

As a result of the end of my own case against the then acting bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, we now know that the Church of England has the legal right to discriminate against LGBTI clergy even in jobs in that are not directly under the Church’s control, like NHS chaplaincies.

Put against calls in the Commonwealth for religious freedom and tolerance, the situation of LGBTI people around the Commonwealth is shockingly jarring, particularly as it is often the religious bodies in those countries that campaign against LGBTI rights and freedoms.

And here, in a particular way, in the case of one clergyperson, the homophobia of the Church of England was brought home to me again this week.

In Luke 4, Jesus reads the lesson in his home synagogue. He then speaks about what he has read. His sermon is so infuriating to his audience that we are told they try and kill him. Why? Because he tells them that until everyone is free, no one is free. You can’t have freedom when fellow humans remain bound. And you certainly cannot have it when whole categories of people are persecuted and discriminated against. You can’t have a homophobic Church, no matter how polite and English, which works for the freedom of religion and belief while it discriminates against its LGBTI faithful.

 

Pemberton v Inwood: the end of the matter

This is a press release I have put out this morning as the Court of Appeal handed down judgment:

The Court of Appeal has examined the issues in my claim against Bishop Richard Inwood and has dismissed them. I am grateful for the expertise of the Court, though naturally disappointed in the judgment.

I have reached a settlement agreement with the Church of England that I will not pursue this claim any further. They, on their part, will not apply for costs against me.

I am more grateful than I can say to Sean Jones QC, Helen Trotter, The Worshipful Justin Gau, and Susanna Reynhart of Thompson Snell & Passmore. Since the end of the original tribunal hearing they have all represented me pro bono with great skill and commitment. We have worked together for three and a half years on this case, and I count myself very blessed to have had them alongside me every step of the way. I am also very grateful to Bishop Alan Wilson, my expert witness; for the support of my family; and to the countless people who have written, messaged, telephoned and spoken to me expressing their solidarity.

The Church of England has established through this process that it can continue to discriminate legally against LGBT people in relation to their employment, even where that employment is not within the boundaries of the church’s jurisdiction. This will seem to most people in the UK today an extraordinary result, and not one that will help commend the claims of Christ to the nation. An official position that regards the loves and commitments of LGBT people, including clergy, as sinful is years overdue for thorough-going revision. The need for a revolution in attitudes and practices in the Church towards this minority is still acute – we continue to wait for real change.

I hope that I shall be permitted to return to active ministry at some point. Had I committed an infraction that was dealt with under the Clergy Discipline Measure, then I might have been told I was being suspended for a definite period, with the hope and expectation of restoration after that. Because I was never dealt with under any process, I have no permission to officiate at all, and no indication of when I might hope to have that restored. Everything is in the hands of, and at the will of individual bishops.

Finally, I owe most to Laurence Cunnington. He has been rock-like and constant in his support and love in this, as in all things. We look forward to celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary soon. I cannot thank him enough for the honour he does me in being my husband.

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.