On leaving in Love and Faith

The Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, a retired healthcare chaplain, has written an article for the Church Times, published today, explaining why she recently resigned as one of the five consultants on the Coordinating Group (COG) of the Living in Love and Faith process. In the first section of this post I have summarised and highlighted Tina’s words in that article. Tina argues that not enough attention is being paid to the experiences of LGBTI+ and questions the neutral stance that the LLF process has been taking. Eight bishops are full members of COG, with five non-episcopal consultants and four staff members.

At the very first meeting Tina felt disquiet – she was the only woman present – and experienced a sense of powerlessness and oppression. The gender imbalance has improved only marginally since then. The COG continues to be dominated by male clergy and gave Tina an overwhelming impression of privilege towards those who are male, heterosexual, and cisgender. The power imbalance privileges heterosexuality and gender conformity; this imbalance is bound to affect the outcome of the process.

LLF left Tina feeling marginalised and de-skilled. She frequently felt peripheral to a process that appeared to be tightly managed elsewhere and began to realise that what she stood for was unlikely to be properly represented. There is a lack of awareness of how difficult this inequality might be for LGBTI+ participants, making the process itself unsafe.

Very few people within the process are publicly open about being lesbian, gay or, trans. Two members of the COG are out. There is no one who is openly bisexual. The only member of the College of Bishops to be publicly open about his sexual orientation is a member of the Pastoral A Group. His singularity highlights the risk of coming out within current church culture. There are not enough openly self-accepting LGBTI+ Christian people within the LLF process. LGBTI+ people face difficulties in trying to articulate our position because we are a minority in a heteronormative culture.

The principle of ‘no more talking about us without us’ was diluted and less than whole-heartedly endorsed within LLF. Instead, academic expertise is being privileged over the idea that we LGBTI+ people are the experts on our own lives. The LLF process assumes that the Church’s difficulties with sexuality and marriage can be mainly resolved intellectually. This approach constantly risks ‘othering’ people, especially those who do not conform to gender or sexual norms.

LLF was intended to produce a document in which the bishops taught us, the people, about sexuality and marriage. Tina’s experience of her own parish’s commitment to equality (and my experience of the ignorance displayed by some bishops) suggests it should be the other way round. The process is proving to be educational for the bishops.

At the last COG meeting she attended an LGBTI+ person known to Tina, an interviewee in the wider participation, was demonised. This proved to be the final straw for her.

The present culture of the Church of England

The presumption of LLF is that the Church of England’s extremely protracted discussion of sex and gender is neutral, handling a spectrum of about sex and gender as if they are equally valid, views on which we can, in the end, agree to disagree. They are not equally valid. This stance can be deeply undermining for LGBTI+ people.

  • The Church of England refuses to allow the blessing of lesbian and gay relationships, civil partnerships or marriage

  • The Church of England refuses to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry in church

  • The Church of England seeks to balance those who abuse and discriminate against LGBTI+ people with those who advocate equality and full inclusion

  • The culture of the Church of England oppresses LGBTI+ people with the result that only one of thirteen lesbian and gay bishops is out of the closet

  • The Church of England dissembles, with some bishops acknowledging partnered lesbian and gay clergy at ordinations, inductions and social events

Tina has identified that the Living in Love and Faith process has a gender imbalance, a lack of open, self-accepting LGBTI+ people, “others” us by talking about us without our full and open representation, sets out to teach when the bishops need first to learn, demonises individuals, and validates pro- and anti-gay views equally. Tina felt deskilled, marginalised, and oppressed by the process.

Dr Eeva John has responded to the criticism in a comment to the Church Times, disputing Tina’s contention that not enough weight was being given to LGBTI+ voices. Dr John says that as part of the wider participation she had held interviews with fifteen LGBTIA+ people including five trans people, plus there were eight openly LGBTI+ people in the LLF working groups, twelve if the Pastoral Advisory Group was included. The eight and the twelve include members of Living Out who identify as same-sex attracted, not lesbian or gay.

The Bishop of Coventry, who chairs the COG, hopes for a greater level of respect between those who hold differing views and a greater possibility of assessing the validity of those views and whether they fall into the Christian spectrum. I find this remark deeply offensive. I knew I was gay in 1957 at the age of twelve. I knew my feelings for other boys of my age was integral to my identity. I also knew that God had created me this way and loved me this way. Sixty years later, Bishop Christopher thinks I my gay Christian identity might be invalid, might not fall into the Christian spectrum?

The failure of the hierarchy and the system

Living in Love and Faith is failing and will ultimately fail to address the expectations of LGBTI+ Christians because of systemic failures within the Church of England’s hierarchy and bureaucracy; the House of Bishops, the staff at Church House and Lambeth Palace, and the General Synod. The corporate mindset fails to understand that they operate within a construct of Christianity that is unable to learn from the historical failures of Christianity when dealing with power and abuse as manifest in attitudes to women, slavery, and empire. This systemic failure renders the Church unable to see what is shockingly wrong today. “The Church of England” is thus easily distracted by the demands of groups promoting prejudice and discrimination, infecting the minds of those bear the responsibility of living and teaching the unconditionally loving pattern of Jesus the Christ.

In contrast to the systemic mindset of those at the top, the gatekeepers, another pattern of Christian life is to be found rooted in the parishes of the Church of England, where many clergy and congregations model best Christian practice, open to all, freer from prejudice and abuse, creating local, loving cells of goodness, truth and justice.

The Pastoral Guidance

On Tuesday, 11 December 2018 the House of Bishops of the published Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition. This is in theory part of the LLF process, being part of the Pastoral Advisory Group’s brief. Tina was one of the trans people consulted when the guidance was being drafted. She notes that the guidance has produced an outcry among conservatives who question the therapeutic consensus on which many trans people depend. There were strong conservative responses to the guidance from Christian Concern, the Church Society, Ian Paul, Anglican Mainstream, Andrew Symes, GAFCON UK, the Church of England Evangelical Council culminating in an open letter signed by over 2,500 people urging the House of Bishops to “revise, postpone or withdraw” the guidance in the light of their significant concerns. Two members of the LLF process signed the letter. The conservative responses and the open letter are universally hostile to the experience and identity of trans people.

The ability of the Living in Love and Faith process to gain the trust of LGBTI+ members of the Church of England will be strongly influenced by the ability of the House of Bishops at the meeting of General Synod in three weeks’ time to resist the demands of the powerful conservative lobby.

When the Archbishops launched Living in Love and Faith, they assured LGBTI+ people that no one is an issue or a problem. Tina’s experience demonstrates how impossibly difficult it is for the church implement the Archbishops’ vision; to de-problematise us when the process is so inadequate and loud voices are raised repeatedly that demonise us on Biblical grounds.