The Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri wrote an article for Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper about citizenship, arguing that the failure of a nation begins with the abdication of responsibility to political leaders. Citizenship, he says, is one of the most vexed issues in the human story.
Who is deemed a citizen of this or that city or state has been at the core of what constitutes a human being with rights in this world, says Ben Okri. “The first thing that is done in any colonial or imperial enterprise is to redefine the idea of the citizen. Usually the colonising power revises downward the citizenship content of the indigenous peoples, and revises upward their own status.”
Reaction to the Trans liturgy
Okri is writing about the citizen as a member of the state but he provoked me to turn my thoughts to the intense anger and resentment that erupted following the House of Bishops utterly inadequate response to the debate and vote at the July Synod requesting them to produce a liturgy specifically for trans people.
I think the bishops made a disastrously bad decision. They were slow to respond to the negative reaction and have done nothing to demonstrate understanding of why LGBTQI Anglicans are so angry. We are effectively disenfranchised. We almost never have a voice at the table. One Trans woman and one gay man have been appointed as members of the House of Bishops steering group to advise the bishops as they prepare a new teaching document. These two representatives will not be at the table when the document itself is written and approved – the bishops retain sole rights over the final aspect of the process – and none of the Episcopal members of the group is (at least openly) lesbian or gay.
Representation in the Church of England
One dimension of the campaign for LGBTIQ equality in the Church of England has been the repeated demand to the ‘state’ (Church House and Lambeth Palace) and the ‘colonising power’ (the House of Bishops) that no decisions should be made about us without us being fully represented at the table.
During the colonial enterprise, says Okri, indigenous peoples were deemed to be living on the periphery of power, outsiders in their own land. Citizenship is an idea, not an actuality. You can be born in a land and still not be a citizen of that land. When the Europeans sailed to North America and made themselves at home there, the very citizenship of the native American peoples was immediately contested. There is a sense in which citizenship is related to power, or powerlessness. The Brexit referendum was about citizenship, or a perceived absence of citizenship; about immigration, which is a challenge to the idea of citizenship.
The Church of England grants a very partial degree of enfranchisement to its members through the system of Synodical Government. It is very indirect. Members on a church electoral roll elect people to the PCC (Parochial Church Council) who elect members to the Deanery Synod who elect members to the General Synod. Members of the Church of England do not get a vote to directly elect members of the General Synod. I’m not about argue for reform of the electoral system (though the thought comes that this might not be a bad idea, given the number of time people ask me how Synod members get to be there). I’m simply noting that the church system works very inadequately in ensuring that LGBTQI people have a voice at the table, and that’s because the only people at the table are the bishops who are members of the House of Bishops. Until recently they were all men. Also until recently, not one of them was openly gay. As a gay man, I resent decisions being made about my status in the Church of England in the absence of openly LGBTIQ people, and so, thanks to the recent furore about Trans liturgies, do a large number of my friends. Our demand for proper representation isn’t going to stop here.
Back to Ben Okri
Okri says that “being a citizen is a high political and spiritual responsibility. It means holding the nation to the highest ethical and moral standards. It also means being constantly vigilant on freedom, liberty and the moral rights of ourselves and our fellow citizens, no matter who they might be.” “It is a commitment of our souls to the enrichment of the human race.”
I was struck by Okri’s use of what I would identify as religious language. He sees citizenship in spiritual and dynamic terms.
“A citizen is a living unit of democracy, a living force for the possibilities of this world. Of all the qualities, the one I most value in the citizen is awareness. Awareness asks questions of the world. Awareness sees the conditions of the world as they are. Then they ask questions. They ask why. Sometimes they ask why not.”
Okri argues that there is a dangerous mood of recidivism running through the west. There is a fake nostalgia for a time when there were no immigrants, and when the west was white and “pure”. One of the causes is a staggering ignorance that people have about their own history. It means we have to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.
This critique can be applied to Christianity in general and the Anglican Churches in particular. GAFCON is our manifestation of a dangerous recidivism, manifest in England as well as in other, more extreme Provinces. We have our share of a powerful fake nostalgia, and because of the disenfranchisement of members of the Church of England, there is a staggering ignorance, not only of history, but of theology and exegesis, allowing people to hold what are fundamentally heretical ideas about and images of God. We are fighting the battle over human sexuality again and again. I see little hope that the bishops’ new teaching document will end the battle.
Okri notes that the history of nations is the history of immigration. If you go back far enough, we are all immigrants. Everyone comes from somewhere else. This is as true of the Christian churches as of nation states. We are a mixed race of people and teachings, and those who argue for teaching based on the clear Word of God as written in the Bible are living in a fantasy land. The rich dialogue of souls that Okri describes - the result of history thriving on combinations as the rivers and seas flow into one another, air currents circle the globe - saves us from spiritual stagnation and cultural incest. Over the past two decades, those who value a rich dialogue that could be so creative for the Anglican Communion have been thwarted by the bully-boys (and they are mostly boys) from the GAFCON-dominated Global South. The result is paralysis in decision-making in the Church of England in response to the growing expectations of LGBTIQ members coupled with what I identify as spiritual stagnation.
In the political realm, says Okri, the more unaware and ignorant citizens are, the easier is it for them to be led in false directions. There is widespread ignorance at the local, congregational level in the Church of England about the most basic details of teaching, authority and church governance.
It is not the visible crisis that determines the true health of nations in the long term, says Okri. A nation is shaped during the stretches of invisible crisis: those periods when nothing seems to be happening, when our decisions do not seem to be momentous. He believes we have been in such an invisible crisis for some time. I think the Christian churches have also been living through a relatively invisible crisis for two centuries, a crisis which became far more acute as the second half of the twentieth century progressed.
Okri believes it is absurd to think that somehow great leaders made their nation great. That is the worst kind of magical thinking, he says. It is we the citizens whose active participation at a local, national and international level helps to create the possibilities of our world. I believe that the citizens of the Christian churches at the local level are an untapped resource for change, their energy suppressed by the hierarchy. That was the effect of the bishops’ failure to listen to last July’s Synod debate and act with courage. To quote Okri: “A new force, an unstoppable force, is unleashed in the world when the citizen, the individual, becomes aware that they are the power that makes it all happen, that their solidarity can alter the course of history, that their “yes” can transcend obstacles and create new futures, that their “no” can stop future disasters and correct injustices.”
The Christian church is not a democracy, let alone a democratic institution, but it would make a huge difference to the progress towards the full recognition of the dignity and equality of LGBTIQ people were there to be a far greater degree of representation of our identities in the places where decisions are made in the church.
Citizens of the Christian Churches, wake up; unveil your eyes, ask questions, use your power!