Sex, hypocrisy and the body.

This is a reply to Neil Patterson’s blog on Via Media News:

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your Via Media contribution. You rightly identify some dishonesties amongst gay men that greatly hinder a grown-up discussion about sex and sexuality. But it is not a gay male problem only, as you rightly hint. I want to set our part of the problem in a context which unearths some of the other as yet unspoken issues.

It may be that there is more of a problem with gay men in the church with behaviours that fall short of covenanted monogamy than with other people. The church needs to work out if its attitude to this group is going to encourage them towards fidelity and monogamy or not. If not, then it is hardly a surprise that those who do not have the gift of continence will seek other solutions. Social acceptance of homosexuality has made gay sex less dangerous and more easily available. There are now two generations of gay men who have experienced a world without criminal sanctions for loving. What started out as being presented as liberation and celebration we now know is prone to be a dangerous and self-harming world. Chemsex, body image problems, poor mental health and suicide are all big issues in the rackety end of gay male behaviour. Lots of gay male clergy have had, as part of their social world over the last forty years, a lot of contact with people whose lives are shaped around these kinds of behaviours. For some it has become part of their lives too. But we can’t talk about it.

The trouble is that I have never heard in the church a grown-up conversation about heterosexual clergy who cross-dress, or who are serial adulterers, or who swing or who have an extensive reliance on porn. But I have known all of them. It may be more unusual among heterosexual clergy, but it is far from unknown. And, in a heterosexual world where sexual mores have become much more fluid and where relationships between the sexes are informal and where first names and casual contact is perfectly ordinary, it is no surprise that in the course of long clergy marriages there are lots of examples of infidelity, some leading to divorce and some not.

Moreover, there are three other aspects of male heterosexual behaviour that need to be remembered. The first is sexual harassment. I am not sure that the Church of England has had its Me Too moment yet. Of course, it can operate from female to male and in same sex relationships, but it is clear that this is predominantly a male to female problem in society. Secondly, the huge industry of sex workers feeding male demand. This itself masks problems of human trafficking, slavery and so forth. Clergy are not exempt from being among those who have resorted to prostitutes. And lastly, domestic violence. Men who are frustrated about all kinds of things often take it out on the woman nearest them, and sexual components to domestic violence are not unusual. I am not saying that these are significant problems among heterosexual male clergy in terms of numbers, but even as I write them I am aware of clergy and those around them for whom they have been a very significant and very damaging problem.

Then again, there are also the significant numbers of male clergy who present as heterosexual, but who either want or have sex with men, for all of whom any move to satisfy their curiosity or their known longings will necessitate secrecy and deception. When, in the days when I presented as a heterosexual man, I came out to the chaplain on a clergy conference, he surprised me by saying “you are the sixth married man to tell me this during this conference”. It is not an insignificant group of clergy.

The aesthetics of sex and desire are such that for everything that I might think beautiful and desirable others will think “Yuck!” and vice versa. But these matters cannot be judged rightly when our personal aesthetics are allowed to intrude. For example, there is significant anxiety in church circles about gay men and their sex lives because of a masculine aversion towards anal intercourse. Just read the literature to see this popping up time and again. Gay men don’t all practice that kind of intercourse by any means, a significant percentage never have and have no interest in it. And more heterosexual couples than many church people would be comfortable with do practice it for a variety of reasons. So we do have to interrogate our aesthetic preferences before starting this conversation.

A chaste heterosexual monogamy as the ideal of sexual relationships is unchallenged in church conversations. It is a claimed Biblical standard despite the myriad examples of Bible figures whose lives were far from conforming to this ideal, and who were yet blessed by God and the instrument of God.

The problem is that all this standard does is mask all other sexual behaviour under a cloud of judgemental tutting or tittering. It doesn’t and won’t ever eliminate it. And it makes no effort to weigh or consider the moral value or otherwise of experiences that may be important in helping people grow up as full human beings. Doesn’t almost everyone have adolescent fumblings of some kind or another? Are they wrong or just normal? Who was involved? How were they involved? Was consent given? Was joy shared? What was learnt?

We never seem to be able to get to these questions because everything apart from missionary position sex within a marriage is suspect if not downright sinful. The ethical standard stands quite alone on an enormous pillar (I am aware of the symbolism, but the image does suggest distance and unapproachability, so we’ll go with it). It is the summit of sexual godliness. The problem is that there are no foothills, there is no approach, no ascent. You are either there or you are nowhere. I don’t believe this reflects the realities of most people’s lives. It probably never has.  It is overdue for reform.

If that is how things are, then I would welcome the kind of exploration you propose. But not for gay men alone. It has been far too easy for conservative critics of LGBTI Christians to point to the most permissive gay sexual behaviours and judge us by those standards, while never giving their heterosexual peers the same treatment. If heterosexuality and marriage were such panaceas why do we see so much unhappiness, domestic violence and divorce? Uncomfortable candour is almost certainly needed, but it is needed on all sides. I am all in favour of gay people coming out of the closet – from bishops downwards, but that isn’t going to happen unless they feel that there is a context in which heterosexual peers can tell of their sexual struggles. And those most certainly exist. There is a question raised here about secrecy versus privacy. That too needs to be discussed in depth. But one thing is sure; in these matters, hypocrisy and dishonesty afflict us all and the body corporate is very sick.

Best wishes




Honest to God: responding to James Alison and Richard Peers

James Alison:
Richard Peers:

I don’t think that a single day goes by when I am not genuinely thankful for the way God has led, guided and kept me in my life. Being very much on the downward slope I hope that I can continue to offer myself as I am for God’s use, and that I can continue to be changed and forgiven and transformed until the end of the road. And that is not without acknowledging that I have experienced some real challenges to faith, to sanity, and to health across the years.  It is with that all in view, not despite it, that I offer my daily Te Deum.

So it was with a great deal of discomfort that I read Richard Peers’s blog last night, and found it kept me awake. Then I read James Alison, whose writing I much admire, and found myself doubly disturbed. For both of them record the twists and complexities of institutional dishonesties so labyrinthine that it is no wonder that even a man of James Alison’s exceptional courage and candour can still only say of himself :

I am a priest who aspires to be a theologian, one who is entirely complicit with the realities involved. I realised, over twenty years ago, that the only thing stronger than the systemic trap in which I found myself, as it tried to spit me out, was forgiveness.

Richard Peers describes an agonizing dinner party conversation which unearths the impact of the Church of England’s systemic dishonesty on clergy couples of all kinds:

One male gay couple present initiated the conversation when the non-ordained partner referred angrily to the requirement of him and his partner to refrain from sex. Their relationship had begun as a sexual one, and still was, but now, for reasons of obedience to IHS, they refrained from sex.
Of the other same sex couples present one had tried to refrain from sex, sometimes succeeding for several months at a time. One (lay) partner had suffered mental health issues and been offered medication as a result, as well as advice from his doctor to either “stop being so ridiculous” or get out of the relationship. The other same-sex couples regarded the requirement of IHS to be beyond ‘what is lawful and just’ and therefore not requiring obedience. There was general recognition of the collusion and obfuscation of this. The married, heterosexual couple present expressed their horror at being in such a church but also their own collusion by having to agree, at ordination, that they “understood” the church’s current teaching.

What Alison describes as a clerical closet, a cabinet of lies that no member of the clergy, no matter how self-conscious they are of their own sexuality and behaviour, can escape, Peers describes in the context of the Church of England as something that makes bishops “impotent”, and that is part of a “toxic culture” of systemic dishonesty with a discussion about sexuality that festers in a “sterile, rotten state”.

Meanwhile, they both know and acknowledge that people outside the clerical bubble, both within the church and beyond it, are learning to incorporate LGBT people into the mainstream of life. Their sexuality and its expression and or their own gender expression is the reality for a minority. It is not sinful or perverted, but normal. Sexual behaviour and sexual relationships for LGBT people is a complex and as straightfoward as it is for heterosexual people; there is just as much potential for joy and cruelty, warmth and horror in the ways that LGBT people use their sexuality as there is for anyone else. For every sexually active adult, which is almost everyone, regardless of their sexuality, we may hope for sex to be sacramentally blessing and nourishing, and we know that there is redemption from the times that sex and relationships go wrong. But it is all ordinary.

Which is what makes the churches’ present teaching and discipline, particularly for its LGBT clergy, so dreadful. It more or less obliges them to hide and lie, or to submit and suffer.  As Peers puts it:

I see, over and over again, the damaging psychological and spiritual effects of the current practice of the church. Real people’s lives and those of their wives, husbands, partners, children and colleagues are paying the highest possible price – to the point of suicide, for our current practice as described in IHS [Issues in Human Sexuality].

So what I sense we have here is not a crisis of people, but a crisis of ecclesiology. It is not LGBT people who are the problem – as society knows, as lay people in our churches know – but the structures of our churches. What operated as a tolerant “Don’t ask, Don’t tell ” solution to the sexual difficulties of the clergy, when society was punitive, no longer works. James Alison draws a comparison:

Think of the politically inspired imposition of an already socially moribund “don’t ask don’t tell” on our militaries in the 1990’s. The result was an increase in persecution, dismissals, fearfulness, vindictiveness, loss of talent, and power to the zealots.

This is precisely how the church has been operating in the last ten years. The sterility and fixity of its “teaching” is exemplified in the way that Issues in Human Sexuality, despite being intended as a “contribution to a discussion” became elevated to the position of an unchallengeable dogma, acceptance of which became the necessary hurdle to ordination. Now the “teaching document” of the House of Bishops, whose very production has been severely criticised for not engaging sufficiently with LGBT people, or including enough of them in the process, has been transmuted into being a “mapping exercise”. Mapping what? Certainly not the views of the members of the Church of England as a whole. Were that to happen it would reveal the chasm that has been opening between English society and its established church over these matters.

I have not been a compliant clerical member of my church. I got married to my husband, though it was obvious that bishops did not think this was a good idea, because they had issued Pastoral Guidance that said, in a slightly unclear passive-aggressive Anglican way that to do this might be a disciplinary offence. The consequence of this, long-term, has been that I am a priest without portfolio of any kind. I get asked to take the weddings of young friends – I cannot. I cannot baptise their children when they ask me. I have not been able to celebrate a eucharist for over two years. Unlike a clergy person who had commited some recognizeable offence and who receive a penalty, my status will continue at the moment sine die .

I tell you this not because I want your sympathy, but because it illustrates what happens when you decide to be as honest as you can, and refuse to play games that draw you back into the labyrinth of lies. I am not complaining. Though the consequences were not at all clear at the time I took my decision, they at least have a congruence with the state of the debate.

The negative impact of this huge and systemic dishonesty upon the work and life and mission of churches is now evident. It is acknowledged even by those who would be opposed to a revisiting of the churches’ teaching on sexual matters. It explains the stagnation, the desperation, even the hysteria with which the Church of England tries to turn around its decline.

Is it possible to be a faithful member of the church and yet conscientiously decide to stand against part of its teaching? If the rottenness of the church has been exposed, then is there not a duty on the conscience of the Christian no longer to collude? The most horrifying part of Peers’s blog was reading what hoops, and at what cost, all these clergy were prepared to jump through in order still to remain aligned with the practice of a church whose teaching they did not respect or believe. The activity of the Holy Spirit is not constrained to the mechanics of the Church of England or of any other church. There is, in personal honesty, a costly discipleship to be discovered.

Clergy, as a whole, are hugely invested in the institution. It is their life. It is their livelihood and the provider of stipends and homes. It has its own internal greasy poles and all the politicking of any human institution. None of that will entirely disappear. But the rotten stagnant situation of the debates about sex can only be overcome by what those in Twelve Step Programmes describe as “rigorous honesty”. As Alison puts it,

It looks to me as though the Lord’s mercy, already reaching lay people as relief and as joy, is beginning to pierce the clerical closet in the shape of a firm, but gently upheld, demand for penitential first-person truthfulness as we are painfully let go from the systemic trap.

Pentitential first-person truthfulness? Or pragmatism? Emily Dickinson says

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Much of the time I feel, humanly speaking, laid aside, through no choice of my own – but I am daily grateful for the grace that freed me from fear and shame and allows me to live as honest a life as I can. As anyone who has come out knows, coming out is not something done once. It is a process of telling and retelling, of testifying to a liberation to many different audiences. So the church need not fear that starting to do it will be dazzling or blinding. Led by the Spirit and lit by the Light of the World, the church’s truth-telling escape from the labyrinth of lies can only be done by those who are most closely enmeshed – by bishops and clergy. Who knows? – it may even help us in finding God’s mercy to rediscover the direction and purpose of the church.


Drinking deep

When I was a young man, some forty plus years ago now, the evangelicals of the Church of England were, as a tribe, rather abstemious when it came to alcohol. My training incumbent was teetotal. He wasn’t unusual. Lots of evangelicals might have had a half pint of shandy on a very hot day, or a small sweet sherry at Christmas. But that was about it. There was a general cultural disapprobation of many things that other people took for granted: drinking, smoking, the cinema, sport on Sunday, friendship between the sexes in the young. Pleasure, in general, was suspect. And alcohol fell into the pleasure category.

This was not simply a throwback to puritanism, though those cultural roots were long and strong, but had, mixed in, the desire not to engage in activities that would diminish one’s spiritual aliveness and alertness. Not a bad motive. It was, however, developed into a very powerful set of cultural assumptions. If you came to faith in that tribe, then you didn’t ignore its assumptions without people making their disapproval clear very quickly.

That world of cultural assumptions has shrunk almost to nothing. Evangelical Christians, like other Christians, think nothing of drinking alcohol. They may have better brakes on their consumption than some others, but they imbibe. And their social media postings reveal that this is a normal part of their lives. Preparations for trips to festivals or conferences are often advertised with comments about packing a bottle of something for the event. The Jesus Arms at Greenbelt is a highlight of that festival (though I am not trying to align that place with evangelicalism!). This change took place when the movement decided to emerge from its ghetto in the late 70s and 80s and took over the Church of England. I think it almost happened unnoticed.

I have drunk alcohol most of my adult life. I was raised in a home where my parents drank wine and spirits and beer – but all rather sparingly. Drink was something for weekends and special days, not for every day. I had sips of my mother’s gin and tonic. I had wine with water on French holidays. I learnt to like beer in my early teens. I was very tall for a fifteen year old and had no trouble getting served in pubs from that age. I drank with my friends. I never drank alone, and I have never had any difficulty with feeling that I needed to drink alcohol. For the last eleven years I have been a cathedral lay clerk, part of a notoriously boozy culture. I have often been tipsy and occasionally drunk. I hate the feeling of being drunk and have tried to avoid it. I am not sanctimonious about drink and drinking – there is a lot of pleasure to be had in it. I enjoyed it at weddings and parties. I loved a pint or several after a big sing. Gin and tonic after a stressful day in chaplaincy was very welcome.

But around the beginning of the year I started to think again about it all. I was reading more and more that suggested that the health benefits of moderate drinking were equivocal to say the least. There was clear evidence that drinking up to the recommended limit – even the newly reduced one of fourteen units a week for a man – increased the risks of contracting seven different types of cancer significantly.

So I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether. I am nearly seven months into this choice. A number of things stand out for me. I am very lucky in that I feel no need to drink alcohol. I am by nature a very non-addictive personality. This is simply good fortune. So I can take things or leave them. And the effect of leaving alcohol has been that I have lost a significant amount of weight. I realised I was drinking the equivalent of an extra day’s calories each week. I feel better. I have been on pub crawls with drinking friends and had a great time. People get boring when they get drunk, so I probably go home earlier than I would if I was aiming to be the last man standing, but in other respects my socialising has not been affected. I have been to weddings and special birthdays – occasions when I thought I might want to drink, but I haven’t, and they have been just as much fun as ever.

I am not saying to myself I will never drink again. I have not taken any public or private pledge. But I like being sober. My decision co-incided with discovering that my cholesterol levels were raised slightly and thinking that I needed to take more active steps to stay healthy for the sake of my children and grandchildren as well as myself. I wondered what they would say about it. But my decision has been strongly welcomed by my nearest and dearest.

And today I read in the Lancet that: “The level of alcohol consumption that minimised harm across health outcomes was zero (95% UI 0·0–0·8) standard drinks per week.” The report from which this quote is drawn is a massive study that crosses continents and weighs mountains of evidence and data. I notice pushback already on social media. I have not even begun to reflect here on the danger and the damage to a society which is alcohol friendly to say the least. That evidence is all around us – but if we aren’t falling-over drinkers, or addicted, or facing premature liver failure, or working in hospital A&E departments, then we can easily turn a blind eye.

It is time the church in all its forms started to think again about attitudes to alcohol. I wouldn’t want to see a return to the cultural apartheid of evangelicalism from the 20s to the 60s, nor to the social pressures of the temperance movement, nor to the self-regarding piousness of both. But church culture is more likely these days to accept drinking alcohol cheerfully and rather unthinkingly. I hope the recent medical evidence changes this. Alcohol is a very dangerous drug. Most people can use it in moderation. Some can’t. The science now suggests that, overall, drinking it does you no good. You might expect churches to be, at least, rather cautious and equivocal about its use. But that will only happen if there is an open and extended conversation about drinking. That has yet to begin.

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.


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.