Stormy times ahead

A stormy conversation has been raging on Facebook for the past three days (maybe that’s over-dramatising it). Initially the storm was provoked by a comment posted about Archbishop Justin Welby’s interview at Greenbelt last weekend.

In part, the argument has been about people’s attitudes to the Archbishop, between those defending him because they think he was unfairly maligned, and others who were critical because they don’t think he yet understands the anger and frustration felt by so many LGBTI members of the C of E. I became involved because I identified the contributions of a small number of people as being abusive and manipulative.

When a storm like this erupts in a campaigning organisation, attention is deflected from a focus on the campaign goals which are core to the various LGBTI Christian campaign and support groups. Chaos ensues. The basics get lost when things get hot.

I think things are getting heated online now because we are approaching the moment when there is the potential for a significant adjustment in the Church of England’s official attitude towards and teaching about the place of LGBTI people and our relationships in Christian life.

I believe the LGBTI campaign in the Church of England is integral to the outworking of God’s unconditional love in and for creation and for the living into justice of the whole human community and the entirety of creation. God’s agenda is universal in scope.

What has been going on this week?

Some people have been disturbed by the intensity of the argument and the conflicts and disagreements that have been exposed. Others, including me, have been disturbed by the way in which a number of people have abused their power and position as members of key bodies within the structure of the church. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, people have been manipulative. They have ostentatiously announced their intention to leave the group in question or ceased responding to comments while continuing to post criticism elsewhere. An image came to mind of a caricature gay man flouncing out of the room with an extravagant camp flourish. Such behaviour isn’t mature and is destructive of good conversation and relationships.

How do we redeem the chaos?

I recognise that the institution to which we are all connected and which we are trying to change is itself chaotic and unbalanced. The Church of England exhibits systemically abusive, controlling and manipulative patterns of behaviour. We are all, in part, victims of the institution.

The institution instinctively sets out defensively to protect itself from criticism. This includes all those who are involved in the leadership of the church, whether bishops, members of General Synod, or the Archbishops’ Council. Like any institution, the church is a corrupted version of the ideal it exists to embody and we are all infected by the shadow of corruption and the outworking of sin – missing the mark.

The Changing Attitude Facebook group has become a really valuable forum where nearly 3,000 members engage with conversations, information sharing, and arguments. Sometimes there is an eruption of dissent about the direction and conduct of the LGBTI campaign for equality and justice. The CA Facebook group is the only available open, public forum for such conversations in the Church of England. It is effectively hosting this for members of all the groups belonging to the no longer extant LGBTI Coalition and to the LGBTI Anglican Mission. It also provides space for those belonging to no particular group and for others who wish to observe our conversation.

Some claim that this week’s public spat has damaged Changing Attitude’s reputation. I believe that on the contrary, this is exactly what Changing Attitude should be hosting and has been doing so for some years as a significant contribution to the campaign all of us have an investment in. The group facilitates essential conversation and argument and allows conflicts and disagreements to be aired and sometimes fought over in a way that is ultimately healthy, cleansing and creative.

It’s going to become more intense

This dynamic, which some are understandably distressed by, is going to become even more intense in the coming months. Be prepared. It will intensify as first the College of Bishops discuss and then the House of Bishops formulate proposals in response to the Shared Conversations, proposals which will be presented at the meeting of the General Synod in February 2017 for debate and, I sincerely hope, from which positive action will result.

There will be furious, angry, bitter opposition to whatever is proposed and agreed from conservative forces here in England and from conservative groupings in the Anglican Communion. Things will be said about LGBTI people which will hurt and distress and make many of us angry.

As has happened this week, the conflict enacted across the Communion will be reflected in disagreements between pro-LGBTI forces. There will be disagreement because our goals and methods of campaigning are different; because our Christian formation has been different; because our Christian roots and tribal loyalties vary.

How are the Christian LGBTI networks and organisations going to communicate with each other and maintain a coherent strategy during what is going to be a very turbulent period? There is at present no coherent structure in place. If the desire is there to make something work, it can and will work. If we are unable to create a structure, it won’t be the end of the world. People will react, voices will be heard, arguments will be pursued and criticism and judgement will be made. But if we, pro-LGBTI individuals and groups, can communicate well and act coherently, so much the better.

I want end with another reminder: that Changing Attitude’s campaign vision is inspired by our belief that God’s unconditional love for all and the outworking of justice for all is at the heart of God’s creation and of our Christian mission and witness. Love melts and heals and transforms. We are called not to be fearless but to be courageous. Be of good courage in the stormy times that lie ahead.