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.





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.


Shared Conversations come to an end

Apart from the attenuated version which General Synod members are going to be put through in July, the Shared Conversations are over. This £300K exercise has brought together groups of dioceses and their representatives for three-day residential meetings to allow people from all sides of the church to talk, and more importantly to listen to those who hold differing views about matters relating to human sexuality (code in the C of E for same-sex relationships).

The Conversations were never intended to be part of a structured process moving towards change. No conversation reported into anything else. The views expressed were never gathered, the preponderance of views this way or that were not measured, even anonymously. While I am sure that there will be a generalised report of the whole exercise given to the Archbishops, and possibly to their Council, that report will not include any attempt to assess the content of the conversations.

So, for policy makers in the Church of England, by which I mean members of the General Synod, the exercise will have given them no help at all in understanding where the views of the active members of our church are in relation to the controversial question in hand. Of course, pastoral theology, doctrinal decisions and choices about the limits of eccleiological divergence compatible with unity are not made by polling the membership, but it does seem extraordinary to me that at no point in this whole extended attempt by the Church of England to “manage” the gay question has anyone thought it would be helpful to ask members of the Church to give their views.

Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University has done some polling and then repeated it. The results were greeted with howls of protest by those who don’t like what they show (Linda herself is a bete noir of conservative commentators). Which was that, however you may pick at the methodology or the framing of the questions, the same enquiries, repeated at a distance of some years, reveal that the percentage of church members who are now supportive of gay relationships, and indeed, same-sex marriage has increased rapidly.   I think it would have been good if some of the £300K of the Conversations budget had been put into some polling or focus group work – with the results published openly.

The Shared Conversations were not intended to be all that happened in trying to get the Church to have grown up conversations about sexuality. It was hoped that dioceses would do things on their own account. Some have – Norwich has produced its own resources for parish consumption. From the LGBT side of the church, it is a disappointment that those resources did not include a contribution from an LGBT Christian, but they did have a conservative evangelical who is opposed to accommodating LGBT people and their relationships within the teaching and practice of our church.

That complaint, by the way, could be repeated about the preparatory matter for the Shared Conversations themselves. The LGBT Anglican Coalition, an umbrella group of all the LGBT organisations in our church, had asked if they could be involved in the preparation of the materials; they were told that they would be, and then they weren’t.

Initiatives like those in Norwich have, as far as I have been able to tell, been the exception rather than the rule. Many dioceses do not appear to have followed up the whole experience which was only available to a small number of people in each diocese. Certainly the diocese in which I live, Southwell and Nottingham, has not even sustained the life of the previous group that was talking locally. This means that since May of last year, when the diocesan representatives went to their Shared Conversation, nothing has been done in the way of a diocesan initiative to sustain interest and engagement in this matter.

Anecdotal evidence through published reports of those attending the Conversations have, without breaking the rules of confidentiality established for those conferences, consistently reported that participants favouring a more inclusive church, which would permit laity and clergy to be in same-sex relationships without making intrusive enquiries or requirements about their being celibate were clearly in the majority. Many supported finding a way to make a diversity of opinion and practice to be held at parish level. No one has reported any pro-gay delegates wanting to see those opposed to supporting gay relationships being forced to celebrate same-sex marriages or preside at services of blessing after civil marriages or civil partnership ceremonies.

Everyone also reported a clear and vocal minority of those strongly opposed to any relaxation of the church’s present teaching as expressed in the Higton motion 1987, Issues in Human Sexuality 1991, and subsequent teaching and guidance (Men and Women in Marriage 2013, the Bishop’s Pastoral Guidance 2014 etc). These were almost without exception conservative evangelicals. What they also seemed to display was a kind of zero sum game attitude over this matter. The message that many report was that for these people, the matter is so important that any relaxation of the church’s teaching or discipline would result in them feeling that they had to leave. Reform advised its members not to take part in the Conversations precisely because it felt that in even countenancing Conversations that could envisage a different future to adherence to the present teaching the Church of England had gone a concessionary step too far.

Forcing people to leave is not very Anglican. We haven’t done it since 1662. Claiming that you are being forced to leave is a powerful weapon for any group in our church to deploy. But we have acted to move over matters that we thought it was right to proceed with and people have left – the ordination of women is the most recent and significant example. What was different in the whole period leading up to decisions being taken to proceed with the ordination of women was that there was a free and open debate in the church, with bishops who did not agree with the then polity of the church declaring openly their desire to see a change.

Currently, with the exception of the Bishop of Buckingham, no bishop has expressed any substantial view over the question of same-sex relationships at all in the last two years. Questions about same sex marriage have been studiously avoided. There are two reasons usually given for this rather bizarre collective elective mutism. The first is that the bishops didn’t want to influence unhelpfully the Shared Conversations. This assumes that just because they tell us what they think, one way or the other, a lot of people are going to agree automatically with them. This is a mistake.

Bishops haven’t perhaps fully grasped the impact of social media upon opinion forming and sharing. Their authority has undoubtedly been diluted by the internet, and social media have only weakened it further. Anything they say can be examined and commented upon by anybody. Those who take an interest in the things they say can all communicate with each other and can debate and discuss episcopal pronouncements with anyone else who interested to do so. Bishops who engage with this world are fairly rare – Alan Wilson, Pete Broadbent, Nick Baines are three who spring to mind. I would contend that now that the Shared Conversations have come to an end it is high time that the bishops stopped their artificial purdah, and also agreed among themselves that they should give a lead in engaging in the conversations that are going on all around them, and that in this engagement they should represent their true views, with their uncertainties and concerns.

Which brings me to the second reason for episcopal silence: bishops say that they are unwilling to speak openly about these things because they are called to be a focus of unity. But this presupposes that there is a united church which they are leading. And there isn’t. If bishops simply say nothing and appear to support a status quo based on a 1987 motion and a series of discussion and guidance documents that have come out since then it is now very clear that they are not where a significant minority or even, possibly, a majority of their faithful are on this issue. Certainly, for the LGBT minority in the church, who are living with the impact of an institutionally homophobic organisation (by which I mean one that actually harms LGBT people) they are, in their silence, and in the way that they ignore us, about as far from being a focus of unity as they could be. Now, they may not care about this. But my point is simply this – that to pretend that they are a focus of unity when they say nothing is simply nonsense. So they might as well start talking – and preferably talking to us and with us all.

The last thing I want to say about these Conversations is this. There were a refreshing number of people at my conversation who were completely open about their sexuality – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. From the reports I have read it was the same elsewhere. We live in a world where, for the most part, it is safe to be yourself, and where your sexuality is simply not an issue. In work, in obtaining services, in travelling, in getting representation, it is not only not a matter of significance, but we are also protected by the law from people discriminating against us. So when some of us go to a church event we don’t think about not being open about who we are. We just aren’t afraid about being ourselves. Sadly, there are too many who still are.

In the Conversations the early sessions were rather a lot about how we could make the event a safe space. So there clearly is a sense in which sexuality and being open about your sexuality in church is still for some people a very worrying thing. Two thoughts about that. First of all, it is worrying because you can still, legally, be discriminated against.  So in the world of church there are still a lot of closeted people. None more so than bishops. It is understood that there are a not insignificant number of gay and now, perhaps, lesbian bishops. Not one of them is open about their sexuality. And that is the case whether or not they are in favour of changing the church’s doctrine and policy or, indeed, if they want to retain the policy as it stands. This matters because it is hard to think that progress can be made on this matter when fear and secrecy loom so large. How can love prevail?

Secondly, we need to let the light in on this matter because everyone has things to contribute as themselves.  If some bishops have a story to tell of a celibacy they have felt obliged to embrace because of their sexuality and how they have managed dealing with loneliness, then we all need to hear it. Conversely, if some have had (or have) partners then it is only going to help us all if they tell us why they have decided for themselves that this is a godly way to order their lives. Again, if some have denied themselves the expression of their sexuality to the extent that they have pushed themselves to marry someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to be faithful, and have sought happiness that way; then if that has worked for them and they propose that it is what everyone should do we need to hear about it.

My contention is that the business of theologising over a matter as intimate and as significant to people as this cannot be done bloodlessly. Who we are and what we are makes a huge difference. The bishops understand this enough to have set up the Conversations so that theologising could be embodied by real people owning their own realities. Surely they understand that what is true for the laos includes them as well? It is the privilege of all the baptised to be themselves before God – bishops included. And it is the business of all of us to receive one another as Christ has received us.

Now it is their turn. The politics of fear and silence are sterile. We need to hear from those who thought up the Shared Conversations. They need to start sharing themselves. The Shared Conversations are over – there is not longer any excuse for avoiding engagement. The business of real conversing is only just about to begin.