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.