Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality – what can we do?

The College of Bishops of the Church of England issued a statement on Thursday at the conclusion of their meeting in Oxford. The statement said: “Discussions on issues of sexuality took place as part of a new process of episcopal discernment which will continue during the meetings of the House of Bishops in November and December of this year and in January next year at the next meeting of the College of Bishops.” The statement added that: “Following the conclusion of the shared conversations process the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have invited some bishops to take forward work on sexuality to assist the episcopal discernment process.”

I wonder what is new about this process of episcopal discernment and note that it will continue at three meetings of the House of Bishops. The formation of a group of bishops to take work forward is related to the conclusion of the shared conversations.

A press release issued on Friday gave details of the terms of reference of the group, now named the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Human Sexuality and the membership of the group.

The terms of reference and the membership of the group give no reason for hope that this next step will result in any proposals for positive change, let alone anything radical in response to the Anglican LGBTI networks’ expectation of change.

Terms of Reference

The Bishops’ Reflection Group has been asked:

“To assist the Bishops of the Church of England in their reflection on issues relating to human sexuality, in the light of theological, biblical, ecumenical, Anglican Communion, pastoral, missiological, historical and societal considerations bearing on these issues”.

The most important consideration for LGBTI people and groups is ‘how will it affect us?’. Our experience seems to fall into the general category of societal considerations. Will the abuse of LGBTI people and the homophobia tolerated in other Provinces be considered? Will the repeal of legislation criminalizing LGBTI people be considered?

“To assist the House of Bishops in identifying questions in relation to human sexuality, with particular reference to same sex relationships. It will also develop possible answers to those questions for the House to consider, as a contribution to the leadership which the House provides to the Church on such issues.”

We have very specific considerations. Will practice relating to LGBTI clergy and authorised lay ministers be considered? Will the blessing of relationships in church be considered? Will allowing clergy to marry and the removal of the quadruple lock be considered? Will the House provide leadership which respects and responds to the expectations of LGBTI members of the church?

“To provide material to assist the House of Bishops in its reflections in November 2016, and subsequently as requested, and to assist the House in its development of any statements on these matters which it may provide to the wider Church.”

Will the Bishops’ Reflection Group consult the LGBTI groups and networks and ask us to contribute material which we believe will be of importance to the House of Bishops’ reflections in November? Will we be allowed input to the development of any statements? Indeed, is there any guarantee at all that there will be statements?

“To consider any matter which the Archbishops request that the group should have on its agenda.”

The Archbishops are able to request that matters for the group to add to its agenda, but no space is allowed for those about whom this Group is conducting its reflections, LGBTI people, to add matters to the agenda.

Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical lesbian member of the General Synod and a past member of the Archbishops’ Council reacted by saying she was “shocked but sadly not surprised.” “Frankly”, she said, “it's so demeaning to be 'talked about' not 'with' and I for one am appalled. It appears to be a politically nuanced group, with a focus of balancing theological views - would that they had considered the pastoral implications on a marginalised community that is bewildered and bruised.”

No LGBTI members

Jayne notes that unless she is very mistaken there are no LGBTI voices on this group. There are not. The only openly gay member of the College of Bishops has not been included and nor has any of the other ten bishops who are gay. The group has not a single lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex member. As we have stated many times before, there should be no conversations about us without us. LGBTI people in the church are weak, politically. If the church was discussing women or black ethnic concerns, there would be outrage were no women or black people included. The House of Bishops recognised this in relation to women when it allowed 8 senior women to be elected to join the House prior to the first women being appointed as bishops.

Composition of the group

The membership of the group looks as if it has been selected to represent a cross-section of traditions and opinions within the College and Church, traditions and opinions that have proved to be irreconcilable so far. The groups seems destined to revisit old ground, ground that has already been well turned-over by every previous group, including most recently, Pilliing, and in the past, the House of Bishops’ Working Party which produced Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991.

Following the shared conversations

The shared conversations achieved something within the limited framework of good disagreement which was their prime task. From an LGBTI perspective they were dishonest conversations. Our identity as LGBTI people was presented as one variant among other identities given legitimacy by the process, including those who are ‘same-sex attracted’, repentant of sinful behaviour, recovering from gay as a false, sinful identity, and those who believe in conversion therapy, reparative therapy or a ‘gay cure’.

Revisionists – dealing with fundamentalism and biblical literalism

The shared conversations, and all conversations about human sexuality in the Church of England, are conducted as if the radical reconstruction of the Christian faith implicit in the work of bishops and theologians in the 60s and 70s, building on two centuries of theological development, had never happened.

The questioning of core orthodoxy, Christology, dogma, doctrine, tradition and Biblical exegesis which informs the construction of many people’s faith today is not allowed to inform church discussions about human sexuality. LGBTI people of faith have had to engage with the authority of scripture and the results of demythologization as we have come to terms with the reality of our sexuality and/or gender and the teaching of the church. We are inevitably revisionists and I willingly accept the label. The revision of teachings about incarnation, resurrection, sin, heaven hell, and miracles which has occurred is, so far as I can tell, ignored when bishops discuss human sexuality. Real lives and real experience is not allowed to intrude. We LGBTI people have tolerated endless meetings at which our identity has been questioned and the seven ‘proof texts’ have been argued over endlessly. We have allowed ourselves to be trapped in the obsessive addiction to scriptural fundamentalism of the conservatives.

I fear that when the College and House of Bishops gather as part of the ‘new process of episcopal discernment, the bishops will be stuck in an outdated historical perspective, theological and sexual, in which magical and binary thinking and an anthropomorphic understanding of God will dominate the discussion.

Magical thinking continues because the bishops are intimidated by dogmatic bullies and fundamentalists whose literal reading of scripture is holding the church and LGBTI people to ransom. They threaten and blackmail bishops by withholding or threatening to withhold quota and by setting up alternative synods and threatening schism by planning for alternative episcopal oversight.

We LGBTI people and those who support us are also affected by magical thinking, the fantasy of a God who controls, intervenes, rescues and punishes and the unquestioned ‘orthodoxies’ which infect the church. We get trapped with the bishops, too immersed in the familiar fabric of the church to offer a radical critique and vision. We have to develop a critical perspective if we are to move beyond disagreements based on taking individual Biblical ‘proof texts’ as having ultimate and unquestionable authority.

What can we do?

Since the publication of the membership and terms of reference for the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality yesterday, people have been asking ‘What can we do?’ Is there anything the LGBTI Anglican and Christian groups can do in this context? To be honest, I think the truth is that very little can be done.

Kelvin Holdsworth has written a very helpful guide identifying 9 pointers towards how LGBTI inclusion will be won in the Church of England. In brief, Kelvin says: This can only be won in the General Synod which means building up a formidable synodical operation that works vote by vote for inclusive policies. The key here is that getting permission to marry gay couples in church. There are other places in which pressure can be brought to bear or help enlisted: the House of Lords; the House of Commons, every political party; the whole English nation; Stonewall; the silent who agree; formation of an official international Anglican Communion LGBT Network. All these ideas are worth exploring and some should be actively pursued now.

God’s infinite, unconditional, intimate love

We LGBTI people have to live into the transformative freedom which comes from being immersed in God’s infinite, unconditional, intimate love. I keep banging on about this, but we are not going to transform ourselves or the church unless we embody this divine reality. Either God’s love is unconditional or God is a tyrant. The tyrannical, abusive God who many still worship has to be condemned to history as the source of prejudiced, toxic opinions and practice. Until we release ourselves from the tyranny of magical thinking, fundamentalism, co-dependence on abusive authority, we are not going to find the freedom, confidence and vision that will release energies to transform the place of LGBTI people in the Church of England and the parts of the Anglican Communion where tyranny reigns.