You know who you are

Even from the back of the class you can see the assignment is covered in red pen. The teacher holds it disdainfully by the corner and then lets it fall fluttering to the floor. She scans the room with a baleful glance before focusing on the offending student: “You know who you are”. 

If I were a GAFCON primate I would be less than pleased by the slipshod work of the anonymous writer of the briefing paper offered to their graces. The paper is something that looks hastily and lazily cobbled together. Homework done in a hurry. Cut and paste sections of Lambeth documentation are followed by a hitlist assembled from an evening’s half-hearted Googling. We are offered a new crime of “violating” Lambeth 1:10 (sic). The style is journalistic, the commentary sloppy and inaccurate.

The writer says that the briefing is just a “partial list” of the Church of England’s Lambeth 1:10 “violations”. So he (just a guess) couldn’t even be bothered to do a thorough job for the Archbishops.

The reaction has been extraordinary. Publishing this hitlist is an open invitation for people to harass those named in it. It is a blatant attempt to “name and shame”. Yet the targets are proud to be named there, having nothing of which to be ashamed. And the clamour upon publication was all from people in the Church of England who are clear, open and public in their support for LGBTI people and a change in the church’s teaching and practice. Violators by the score have been coming out of the woodwork and are demanding to be put on the list.

This was not what the writer imagined would happen. But their lazy, inaccurate and vindictive little essay has proved a rallying point for the forces of love, inclusion and change. The GAFCON primates must be sorely disappointed in their interlocutor. They know who he is. Let’s have a bit of reverse naming and shaming – you know who you are; why don’t you tell us your name?

The Past, Present and Future of Christian Marriage.

This is my panel contribution to the Open Conversation in Chester Cathedral on Saturday 22nd October 2016 as part of the Sexuality and Anglican Identities project of the University of Chester:

We are in 1988. In Zaire. It is Sunday morning. It is very hot and there is no air-con. Church is full – there is no other entertainment in Zaire on a Sunday. Besides which, church is a very important community activity and a place where boys can meet girls and vice versa, so there are social and sexual reasons for being there as well.

The congregation sits on low benches, roughly segregated by gender, there is all the usual coming and going. Church takes hours and so people are always moving in and out. But on the back row of the men’s side are a group of middle-aged men who are both part of the assembly but have an air of distance from it.  They are the men who have never “completed” their traditional marriages by having a marriage ceremony in church. This may be because their wife’s family refused to allow such a ceremony until all the agreed dowry was paid, and these men couldn’t afford the cattle or the goats or whatever the normal form of dowry transaction was for that people group, or it might be because they were not sure about their wife’s fertility and put off making what everyone knows is the ultimate commitment of vows in church. A traditional marriage can be more easily broken and she can be sent back to her family if the children are not forthcoming.

The consequence of their not having completed their “marriage” by wedding in church is that they are not regarded as having Christian marriages, and therefore all of them are excommunicate. They are looked down on by the people who have had the “proper” church wedding. Their wives are not allowed to join the Mothers’ Union. In some poorer parishes the “not properly married” vastly outnumber the “properly married”. Some of these men are fine Christian men, faithful in every way – but with a marriage that is, in the eyes of the Anglican Church of what is now the D R Congo, defective in form. Some of their “marriages” are partnerships of deep and committed loving. But they aren’t parcelled up in the right way for the church. And for this they are denied the means of grace. This explains why there is a slightly wistful and detached air to this group of men on the back row.

This is certainly one very sad and angering Past and Present of Christian marriage. The most powerful critic of this system – and it was and I believe still is a system that prevailed in a number of mainstream African churches – was the late great Adrian Hastings, formerly Professor of Theology of Leeds, in his book Christian Marriage in Africa, 1973. He was my MA supervisor in Leeds, and an utterly inspiring teacher. Adrian brought down the wrath of the RC church upon his own head by choosing to marry Anne Spence, a former Anglican religious, in 1979. He was never removed from the priesthood, and to the end of his life infuriated his ecclesiastical superiors by insisting on celebrating Mass in homes in Leeds. His marriage was another ‘irregular’ marriage.

I was the first Anglican priest to marry his same-sex partner when it became legal in England and Wales to do so in March 2014. Our marriage was a civil marriage for a number of reasons. My husband is an atheist and he might not have wanted a wedding in church under any circumstances. I say, might not have, advisedly. If the Church of England wasn’t such an institutionally homophobic institution then I think there were circumstances under which we might have had a church wedding, and under which he might have been happy to do that. But that is hypothetical – a hypothetical Future, perhaps.

But I believe I currently hold one other unique marital record for Church of England clergy – I am the only clergy person in England, as far as I know, to have been married to both a woman and a man. I was married first in 1979 and remained married to my wife for a couple of weeks shy of thirty years. Our church marriage service was a fairly standard Series Three eucharistic/marriage liturgy (Series Three was the experimental liturgy that predated the Alternative Service Book 1980), we were an apparently ordinary cisgendered heterosexual couple. Unusually, the marriage was in South India, and was registered in the Registers of the Diocese of South Karnataka. The marriage service included vows and intentions that buttressed what was for a long time a very creative partnership in all kinds of ways; emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and socially in the raising of a large family. It foundered on realities that we had been too young and too fearful to address years before.

And now is now. I have brought to read to you the card that sits in our bedroom and which we look at frequently. It is the card that records the vows that my husband and I made to each other the day we married. It took some persuading to get the civil registrar to allow us to use them. But we were able to assure her that in the form that we wanted to use them they would be completely unacceptable in a Church of England liturgy, and therefore were not religious texts. When I read them to you, you will see why:

I promise:
To have and to hold you
From this day forward.
For better, for worse,
For richer, for poorer,
In sickness and in health,
To love and to cherish,
Till death us do part,
And this is my sloemn vow.

Are vows like these what goes to make a marriage Christian? Is this the Future? Of course in some ways, it is the Past. We have not done anything very novel. We have simply done what couples have been doing since time immemorial – committing ourselves to each other unreservedly. We have taken vows and made a very open-ended covenant with each other – frankly, in the full knowledge that much of our lives are already past. We have plighted our troth. For those who have never lived through the pain of divorce, the vows of second marriages may be looked at with some disdain – or they can be seen as a determination to try again to live up to a high calling.

Then again, our marriage is not just a gay dream of coupledom. It is not a selfish, privatised affair, the fruit of a pick-and-mix secular society, just between the two of us. We have adult children and responsibilities connected with them, and we support one another in living up to these. We take seriously our affinity, the relations from our own families to whom we are both now connected by this marriage. We are not going to have more children, so we are no different in that sense from a late middle-aged heterosexual couple who marry. We contribute to our community, and I dare say, are strengthened to do that by the support we offer to each other.

But we have done it in a very specific late-modern context. It is that context that allows us, thank God, as a gay couple, to be married. And it is that context that has churches struggling to decide how to treat people like me. At the moment they treat me badly. I now understand how the African back row felt – that wistful sense of being there but not being there as well. I am not denied the sacraments – but I am denied a ministry, possibly for the rest of my life.

As someone who, very unusually, has seen marriage from two sides, I want to say to you that it is ever old and ever new. What I have now is just as much a marriage as ever was my first marriage. It is not the union of sameness. Complementarians simply don’t understand the fundamental difference that there is between any one human being and all others, whatever their gender. The mystery of two becoming one is not effaced or obscured by gender similarity.

I am as deeply committed to marriage as I ever have been. I think that good marriages add much to the richness of social capital for us all. In thinking about the present and the future, what I hope for is simple. It is to be treated the same as any other married person by the church.

My marriage is treated under the law the same as anyone else’s. But not by the church. When it is treated the same by the church, then we Christians will be able to find out together, in an exploration and a journey that the Spirit of God will lead, what the richness of the future of Christian marriage will look like. Manipulating a future for Christian marriage is probably something we shouldn’t try to do. What we can do is create the conditions for it to become something good for all.

Until then, we do two rather tragic and unnecessary things. We astonish and disgust our fellow-citizens by our discriminatory behaviour. We are not the DRC where treating people unequally is not unusual. There, the church’s action does not jar by comparison with other more general social attitudes. Here, we repel. If we want the goods of Christian marriage to be something accessed by the widest possible range of people then we do have to think how we get over that problem. And, as an established church, we have an obligation in this regard to the society in which we are set. Developments in the inculturation of Christianity in England cannot be avoided or delayed by appeals to a wider Communion if we are to hope for its survival.

But secondly, we hurt ourselves internally. We impair our communion, in every church where LGBTI people feel that they cannot be themselves, or where they know that if they married they would be disapproved of or pushed out. We impair our communion in just the same way as the Congolese church did by its attitude to the unmarried “marrieds”. That is why we LGBTI people have to keep asking for more, asking for change, asking for justice – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the health of the Body of Christ. We have to keep reminding ourselves that, in the grace and the economy of God,  we are G.A.Y. – we are Good As You – and so, I dare to say, are our marriages.

Embodying Love and Hope – The Chaplain’s Calling

Today is the last day of eight and a half years working as an NHS chaplain. I began what you might call my career at the age of twenty-five when I was ordained deacon in the Church of England’s Durham diocese, and, with short breaks for study or illness, I have been doing a variety of jobs as a priest since then. Much of that was as a parish priest in a variety of settings, but I have also had a number of roles which have involved being an educator, a community activist, a development worker, a chaplain, and a manager. This last period has been an intense exposure to people at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives. Indeed, a good deal of it has been about accompanying people who are saying goodbye to life, or are watching someone they love die, or supporting people who are just coping with the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death.

The unique aspect of a chaplain’s role is that they are called and paid to be present for people, in whatever way those people find most helpful, as they process whatever it is they are living through now. Unlike clergy in other contexts, NHS chaplains, whatever their faith background, take a self-denying ordinance of non-proselytisation. We never seek to convert or convince or even influence others into seeing the world the way we do. We try to stand alongside the person we are with and let them disclose to us what it feels like to be where they are. We support them as they articulate the questions that their present condition raises for them. What we offer them is unconditional loving human regard and attention, what some might call compassionate concern.

In its best form, this is a regard that helps others open up about what is happening to them, or to the person they are concerned for. It can help bring into the light of day questions that may seem to hard to name, or long-buried regrets or anxieties. Those explorations are often accompanied by tears – of regret, of relief, of sorrow, and sometimes of joy and acceptance too. It may, in the form in which NHS chaplains exercise it, be an encounter that happens just once, or it may be part of a series of visits over the course of a period of treatment. Shorter hospital stays and fewer inpatient visits mean that chaplaincy is challenged to think creatively about how this care can continue to be available in an ever-changing health service.  The future is going to be configured very differently to the service that is there today, let alone that of yesteryear’s models.

In a changed society chaplaincy is also there for people whatever their background of affiliation, belief or non-belief. Amongst all the fluctuations of our world, the fluctuations in religious or spiritual commitment are enormous, and hard to quantify. Some have never found any need for or attraction in religion. Some have left religion for atheism, as a conscious ideological choice, but many more have left religion for other less clearly defined reasons. For some people their spiritual assumptions form part of a background to their lives that is rarely used and never tested until a crisis strikes. Other people experiment with an eclectic mix of beliefs and practices that focus around a this life spirituality. Faiths and philosophies are present through migration on our doorsteps as they never were a generation ago, with their adherents across generations finding that their relationship with their faith background are as complex as that of the formerly Christian population. Chaplains never know what they may find when asked to see someone – we wait for them to tell us what are their concerns, and how they are thinking about them.

Nevertheless, one of the things that forms part of the code of practice of the profession is that chaplains should attend to their own spiritual life and health, from whatever tradition and faith they come. There is something that chaplains carry, and it is understood to be something they gain from their participation in whatever faith they profess, that gives them the strength to do what is not easy work. It is not at all unusual to be told by people you meet, when you have explained something of what you do, that they think they could never do that. I know that it does sometimes require considerable courage to stay in the presence of suffering; it is not at all easy to watch and wait with people who are nearing the end of their lives. The clinicians have the task of doing things to try and make the situation easier; but when the medicine has been administered, the dressings changed, the patient turned and all is done – then the chaplain’s work begins.

I believe that what we bring, though it may never be named, is love and hope. Our humanity is stripped bare by our mortality. Who we were, good or bad, lies in the past. We are now just ourselves, facing our end. Who will love us? All of us, I guess, hope that when our end comes there will be people from our past, our relations, children, friends, who will love us through to the end. But what if there aren’t? I have sat by the bed of those who apparently have no one in the world to love them as they come to their end. I know that my muddled life is no justification for love – I have my regrets and missteps and follies. It is not about what people deserve. But I know I will always need love, and sat by someone else’s death bed, I know they do too. So that is what I try and do as I look at their face and give them my attention.

I also carry with me hope. Whatever faith I represent, I suspect that chaplains may be more important for this quality than almost any other. It may not be vocalised at all . But I know I believe that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. I know why I believe that too. I don’t have to explain it, or defend it, or promote it. I just have to embody it for the people I am with when I act as a chaplain. I hold it for myself and for them when the hand I am holding lets go its hold on this life.

Now I am going to stop doing this in the form I have been doing it. I am stopping because I don’t have the strength to continue to do it. I look forward to going to say farewell to some of my esteemed colleagues who will carry on the work. I don’t think I will stop doing the things that chaplains and priests do, though I am stepping out into a future where I have no official role in that sense. I will continue to stir up the gift that is in me as far as I am able, and we will see what opens up.

Managing Pain

This is not about the usual subject. It is about real pain. I have had trouble with my spine since I was a teenager. Since the age of twenty or so, I have self-managed, with GP support, what I suppose is best described as moderate to severe chronic lower back pain. This was joined by neck pain, mild at first, then much more serious after an accident on holiday in 2011. Most of the time I just get on with life. I know what I can do, and what I can not do. When things are bad I have a raft of medications at my disposal, most of which would reduce people who were not used to them to sedated stupefaction. But as I am getting older and things are getting noticeably worse, I thought I needed to know what was the state of play. In other words, I was starting to feel that this was all getting beyond my own capacity to manage by myself. I needed some help.
So this morning I went to a local clinic for an appointment with a Pain Management specialist. It was, without question, the best NHS referral consultation I can ever remember. I saw Dr Thomas Keane, a Pain Specialist from Sherwood Forest Hospitals. Remember that name. Dr Keane was brilliant.
He couldn’t have been better. I was treated with dignity, like an intelligent human being. He understood my history (long and boring except to me) and seemed to appreciate what the things I cope with do to me. He checked me over, and talked about a management plan. I nearly swooned – no one has EVER talked like that to me. He was cheerful and clear and pleasant, and did not sugarcoat the reality that some treatments may have considerable risk factors Now I will go for an MRI scan for the lower back (the neck had one not that long ago) and then we will see where we go next.
It wasn’t wizzy new medicine that made it so good. Apart from his eyes and hands and one of those mallet thingys that test your reflexes, Dr Keane used no equipment. He had summaries of previous investigations to go on – but not the full reports. He is now sending for those. With his history-taking and his observations and the relatively modest proposals for the way forward, he gave me new hope that I can find some support in managing this side of my life.
The things that made this such a first-class experience were things that cost nothing. It was his demeanour. It was the fact that he seemed to be on my wavelength as far as what this does to me. It was that he indicated that there were things that can be done to try and help. No guarantees, of course, but I understand that. It was that I left his consulting room feeling supported, heard, encouraged, and knowing that this person was going to work with me in the future. It was that I didn’t leave feeling like a case, but like a person.
You can’t ask for more. And because it was in a local clinic it was nearer to home, the wait was shorter, and the follow up and first-line treatments can also be done in similar clinic settings. Not one hospital appointment, except for the scan. This is the way of the future. Thank you, Sherwood Forest Hospitals and thank you, Dr Keane.

Why I am voting Remain

I count among the people who have given me so much in my life’s journey so far French, Swiss, Belgians, Congolese, Iraqis, Austrians, Germans, Spanish, Hungarians, Greeks, Irish, Kenyans, Burundians, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Zambians, Finns, Armenians, Americans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Canadians. And that is just off the top of my head – I am sure there are more. I owe them all so much.

I have lived and worked in two other countries besides the UK. Every time I go away I am moved on return by the sight of Blighty, of the white cliffs, of this green and pleasant land. I feel grateful to be British. I know what it is to have lived in a place where there was no security, no justice, rampant corruption and no education or health service worth mentioning. What we have here is astonishing, and most of us don’t know how lucky we are.

But I want a world of peace and hope for my children and grandchildren, and I know it can only be achieved by co-operation. The EU is an amazing project that has given us more than we have ever had to give, and has changed our lives in the UK for the better in all kinds of ways that have not been spelt out in this referendum campaign. The economic case is overwhelming. Jobs, structural and cultural renewal, business; all have benefitted hugely from the co-operative project that has kept us out of a European war all my life. Its failings are obvious and many – but then so are those of our national political system. It can change and has changed a lot in the last forty years. The rise of right-wing nationalisms with their huge attendant dangers will only be encouraged by a vote to leave.

For peace, for co-operation, for the future, because being inside influencing is better than pretending we can go it alone, for people who don’t have much, for jobs and prosperity, against the tides of suspicion and hatred that divide, looking for common solutions to our problems, proud of human diversity and cultural richness, and grateful to be part of Europe throughout our history, I vote remain.

Hope and her daughters

On the Changing Attitude Facebook page, a recent post has pointed to a Guardian article about the guidance given to Synod members in their forthcoming Shared Conversations. Comments on this have revealed quite a sharp disagreement between those who are feeling optimistic about change coming in the church, and those who suspect the whole exercise is window-dressing and delaying tactics. A particular concern has been about whether people would encourage young LGBT+ people to offer for ordained ministry in the present climate. Reflecting on the disagreement, I remembered this quotation from St Augustine:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to make sure they don’t stay that way.”
Much of the disagreement is about history and experience. The angrier comments have behind them a background of mistreatment, experienced discrimination, rejection, disappointment and sometimes, disillusionment with the church and its way of treating LGBT+ people. The optimists are either younger and have less experience of what the church can do to you, or they are allies who have not had direct experience of discrimination.
I don’t think that Christians in either group (not all the comments are from Christians) have a monopoly on faith or hope. I can understand why some of us would not encourage any young LGBT+ people to offer for ordination at the present time. I don’t think I would. But I can remember the power of knowing I have to respond to this call way back in the 1970s, and I don’t think anything, at that point, would have put me off, though, as I was not out to myself at that point let alone anyone else, it is hard to know whether that would have made any difference.
I want to hold on to hope (which perhaps holds on to me more than the other way round). I would love to spare others some of the pain they are going to experience if they go further down that road. But I can’t. All I can do is everything I can to to help move our church towards full inclusion. Some people leave, and I don’t blame them. I can’t deny the unpleasantness, the wrongness or the cruelty of much of what is done to LGBT+people by those who hold power in our church at the moment – but I want all of us who want a better church to hold together, to combine our anger and our courage to bring a new future to birth.

Lamenting Orlando

Sometimes place names get meanings they would rather not. From now on, Orlando will always mean the Pulse massacre – the biggest loss of life in any American mass shooting in modern times. It will live like Sandy Hook, or Dunblane, or Hungerford in our consciousness of horror and terror.

But it will not be as puzzling as those terrible events and the places marked by them. The motivations of the killers in Sandy Hook and Dunblane and Hungerford remain something of a mystery. Not so in Orlando. This was homophobically motivated violence. It was killing LGBT people just because they are who they are. This bad enough in itself. But there is more.

For the homophobia of Omar Mateen, who got so angry when he saw two men kissing, and then plotted and carried out this heinous attack, was likely nourished by his religion. It was supported by a reading of Islam to which so-called IS subscribes. This reading says that gay people are worse than animals and should be put to death. This reading accompanies every poor young gay man thrown to their death from buildings in Syria, or mown down in Orlando. If this were not so then we could perhaps ascribe this act solely to the will of an unbalanced and dangerous man (according to his ex-wife).

But while homophobic readings of religion continue then ordinary, suggestible, and, yes, unbalanced members of all faiths will draw from them the encouragement they need to continue to attack the LGBT community and its innocent members.

This is not a Muslim problem. It is a Christian one just as much. In Hinduism disapproval of homosexuality is cultural rather than having a doctrinal basis. In Buddhism the picture is mixed, but the Dalai Lama has called homosexual orientation “unnatural”, and to be gay is often regarded as a karmic punishment.

It is readings of religion like this that make Uganda and Nigeria so dangerous. The punitive attitudes which are supported, more or less, by leading churchmen, along with the whipping up of anti-gay rhetoric has cost the lives of unknown numbers of LGBT people – David Kato in Uganda being the best known. LGBT people’s lives are circumscribed, shadowy, risky, fearful – never knowing if or when they will be exposed, ridiculed, beaten, arrested, driven from homes and jobs or worse. There is an insistent conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia, which, when combined with anti-Western sentiment makes for a toxic and potent mix for populist politicians, with LGBT people as the scapegoats and targets.

In England, social attitudes have been transformed, though homophobic violence is far from eradicated. But at least society and the law are on the side of the victims. Where much much more remains to be done is inside the religious domain. The Church of England’s leadership will deplore the massacre in Orlando and regularly calls for an end to homophobia. But inside the church discrimination against LGBT people remains firmly in place. What we are not supposed to do is call it homophobic.

I maintain it is impossible to use language that calls for an end to homophobic violence, but holds on to the notion that you can discriminate against LGBT people. The violence exists because LGBT people are in some theological way seen to be lesser forms of human life, or rebellious or corrupt forms of human life, or people who have chosen an immoral way of living. LGBT people are still, in this reading of a theological anthropology, second-class people. If you don’t believe that to be the case, then there is no longer any justification for any kind of discrimination against LGBT people anywhere. And if you do believe it, then, however loud your cries of sorrow at killings or violence, your theology will only continue to sustain the possibility of more actions like this one. It will offer the excuse some will need to fuel their hatred and fan it into destructive violence.

I hope Orlando will help those who hold on to discriminatory and, yes, homophobic attitudes inside my church to think again. When the campaign to end the slave trade was under way in the late eighteenth century, one of the most powerful tokens of the new thinking was Josiah Wedgewood’s anti-slavery medallion “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Am I not

It is time for our church’s leaders to think again – and to hear the cry of their LGBT brothers and sisters whose lives are blighted by the homophobia that gets oxygen from a performance of faith that still thinks of them as not quite worthy of equal treatment. Those leaders need to enact a different way of living the Christian life that embodies equality, not just talks about it.

Lamenting Orlando is not enough – are we not people and brothers and sisters?