Bishops announce Next Steps on Human Sexuality

At the February meeting of Synod the paper presented by the House of Bishops in a take note debate was rejected by the House of Clergy. A paper has been published today in advance of the July meeting of General Synod outlining progress towards the creation of a Pastoral Advisory Group and the development of a ‘substantial’ teaching document on the subject of human sexuality.

Today’s paper begins by noting that responses in February underlined the point that the ‘subject’ of human sexuality can never simply be an ‘object’ of consideration for us because it is about persons in relationship.

Subject or object?

The paper proceeds to do exactly that – to make me feel like an ‘object’ under repeated consideration in the church, a ‘subject’ of interest to be discussed and analysed in a variety of modes because my freedom to be myself is questioned and challenged by others in the church who think I have no right or freedom to live in a sexual relationship (this being the chief among a number of objections). A prime concern of the proposals is to explore this division. The concern is not to address me, as an integrated, adult human being with six decades of lived experience as a gay man in a Christian context but to subject me and my pattern of life to scrutiny and investigation.

The paper notes that:

“there are critical theological issues here that need to be addressed with intellectual rigour and a passion for God’s truth, with a recognition that in addressing them we will touch on deeply held beliefs that it can be painful to call into question.”

I became aware of my sexual identity, my emotional and physical desire for other boys, at the age of twelve in 1957. Homosexuality acts were illegal in the UK then, and being gay was taboo, a shameful reality to be hidden from family, friends at church and most especially hidden at school, where any indication that a boy was gay was an opportunity to humiliate and abuse. And yet, at church, I knew that God had to love me just as I was and am, if God was to be a god worth having, whatever the Bible said and whatever the church and her bishops said about Leviticus, Sodom and Gomorrah and Romans.

I do NOT have a deeply held belief about myself that I wish to be subjected to examination as a critical theological issue, addressed with intellectual rigour. I am NOT an object subject to consideration because of my sexuality. And yet here are the bishops, once again writing the same stuff, as if I am a different category of human being, and this despite the fact that a dozen or more of them are gay, and all but one in the closet. That is, of course, a huge contributory factor in their inability to write appropriately about me.

The report continues:

“If we would presume to say anything on this subject, we must know that we are talking about and talking to people, with their immense capacities for joy and pain, created in the divine image and precious in God’s sight in ways we can barely begin to fathom.”

Okay, House of Bishops of 2017 – in House of Bishops 1980s and 1990s there were bishops, gay and straight (and easier for those who were straight) who communicated absolute empathy with me and my sexuality with no trace of the distancing, discomfort and judgement that is present throughout today’s report. In the eighties and nineties I was open to and had enriching pastoral support from and conversations with Peter Selby, Richard Harries, Martin Wharton, Ronnie Bowlby, Robert Williamson, David Stancliffe, Christopher Herbert, Jim Thompson and others.

Why are today’s members of the House of Bishops so inadequate that they can “barely fathom” the immense capacity of LGBTI people for joy and pain, created in the divine image. Why has it become so difficult for Nicholas Holtam and Robert Atwell, both of whom were in training at Westcott House in the seventies with me?

Pastoral Advisory Group

In response to the General Synod’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ paper in February, the bishops proposed two actions. The first was to create a group to “advise dioceses on pastoral issues concerning human sexuality so that we can make explicit our commitment to show the love of Christ to all people, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

In 1991 at the Southwark Diocesan Conference in Caister, a group of LGBTI people met and formed what became the Southwark Diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network, commonly known as SLAGS. We LGBTI members of the diocese took the initiative, we organised regular meetings, invited bishops to engage with us, helped research and write a teaching document, organised barbecues and parties. Some of us were involved with the Clergy Consultation and LGCM. In 1991 we had the competence and wisdom to organise ourselves, care for each other, teach the church about our experience, and represent ourselves to the hierarchy. Have we regressed so much in the twenty-six years since then that we now dependent on the bishops to create a group to advise the dioceses on pastoral issues concerning human sexuality?

This is to me unbelievable patronising and regressive. It is happening because the bishops want to exert total control over the process. They are victims of the church’s culture and clan wars, and we LGBTI people are collateral damage.

Episcopal Teaching Document Group

Today’s paper is honest in recognising that the need for yet another teaching document is the result of human sexuality remaining so problematic within the church because of “deep disagreements regarding the understanding of scripture, Christian doctrine Christian ethics, and the nature of the church.”

The presence of LGBTI people in the church has become more problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Homosexuality has become the focus of dissent within the Church of England since 1987 when, instead of publishing the Osborne report in England and instead of acting on Resolution 1 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference, Synod debated an anti-gay motion proposed by Tony Higton
  • The dissent became an Anglican Communion-wide issue in 1997 when the Kuala Lumpur Conference organised to oppose any liberating move towards the inclusion of LGBTI people at the following year’s Lambeth Conference
  • Since 1997, the place of LGBTI people in most of the UK has been transformed by legislation and the introduction of Civil Partnerships and equal marriage, making LGBTI visible, respected and integrated

The paper says many minds, many voices, many areas of expertise and many different skills will be brought together to produce an Episcopal teaching document on human sexuality reflecting a “radical new Christian inclusion.

So, contrary to the claim that my sexuality cannot be an ‘object’ undergoing consideration, a raft of experts is to be drawn in to produce the new document. As is clear from the appointments already announced, the range of experts includes people who dispute the way I identify my sexuality and my integrity as a Christian who is gay and partnered.

We LGBTI people in the church, an incredibly diverse group in every dimension – we, to my mind, and the people who are experts on our sexual, gender, and faith identity. We have repeatedly said there should be “no more talking about us without us.” It should have been time for the bishops to implement this and at the very least ensure that our diverse experience is well represented on every Thematic Working Group convened to produce the Teaching Document. The bishops have decided not to do this. We have, as usual, people selected to represent the variety of given opinion in the Church of England, people there to defend the position of their sub-set.

There are to be seven Thematic Working Groups:

  • Social and biological sciences
  • Biblical
  • Theological/ecclesiological
  • Patristic/historical
  • Liturgical
  • Legal
  • Missiological

Today’s report has more detail about the aims, timescale, role and structure, wide consultation needed with ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, and the need to seek the widest possible advice from the wider community. The Teaching Document will be substantial, the paper says. Indeed it will, if the bishops achieve their aims.

At this point, Brexit came to mind. The members of the House of Bishops are attempting to do something which looks as complex as the Brexit negotiations, within an outfit, the church, possibly more fractured and divisive than the EU or the UK, and with utterly inadequate resources. The church’s version of Brexit talks has no obvious hope of achieving its goals, the Holy Spirit notwithstanding, and no electorate to hold it to account.

It’s not that I don’t hope for the best nor that I don’t wish those participating in the exercise well – I do. Miracles are possible and I pray for them. But the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who have integrated their sexual and gender identity with their deep Christian faith should, in 2017, be at the centre of the exercise – and we are most certainly not.