Holding the House of Bishops to account - Sara Gillingham’s challenge

In a comment posted recently on Facebook Sara Gillingham said she is going to be far more critical in how LGBTI+ groups and networks have engaged collectively with Living in Love and Faith (LLF) and the Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG). She continued: “There are a number of things we need to revisit and question. I believe we are blindly following a Process set out by the House of Bishops, and are failing to hold the House of Bishops to account.”

Sara wrote about herself and her experience of the Living in Love and Faith process in an article published by the Church Times on 22 February 2019. In particular she described the difficulty of being heard while others are talking about you.

Sara was born with variations in sex characteristics (VSC). She does not fit into the typical understanding of what it is to be male or female. This is about biological characteristics, not gender identity. She has faced discrimination in church; she has been called “possessed” and “an abomination”; rumours were spread about her gender and embodiment; she has been called “disordered”. The Church sees her as problematic, as someone in need of being corrected or in need of surgeries.

She wrote about specific concerns with the LLF process.

  • There is no one on the thematic groups who has intersex lived experience.

  • It is immoral to talk about people without them.

  • Of even greater concern is that theological reflections are being written about intersex people by those who have not spoken to anyone intersex about their experiences.

  • The lack of stakeholder involvement means that simple mistakes are being made.

  • She is not convinced that the bishops producing the teaching document have a basic understanding of biological sex, gender, and sexuality.

  • While the documents being produced by LLF exhibit a high level of theological scholarship, they lack a basic understanding of the subjects that they are seeking to examine.

  • The bishops ask her what resources she would like to help her think and learn more deeply about her own human identity as someone born intersex. She reversed the question and asked them what resources they would like.

  • The bishops should be inviting her to speak of her lived experience, and allow her to be present during their conversations about intersex people.

Subsequently Sara was invited to participate in an LLF meeting but left half way though, feeling abused and angry. Sara was not the first person to leave an LLF meeting feeling abused and angry. Tina Beardsley wrote of her experience in the Church Times.

Sara’s challenge

In her recent comment, Sara wrote that the challenge now is to find ways to create a Church in which people can find their voices and flourish. We need, she said, to hold each other accountable, as we are failing currently to set-out a roadmap against which we can measure our own successes or failures in bringing about change.

My initial response was to ask the question, who are “we”? I have been attempting to set out a critique of the LLF process and flagged up at the start my concerns about the proposal when the bishops announced LLF because it sounded like exactly the same initiative under another name that the bishops lost in the Synod vote on GS Misc 1158, Next Steps on Human Sexuality.

Sara’s questions

Sara posted six questions to which she invited people to respond. Below are the questions with my responses.

1) Can we articulate the benefits from engaging with the LLF/PAG Process? From an 'intersex' perspective it was easy, in that the CofE has not yet acknowledged that people with intersex traits are part of the communion. Something is better than nothing. This is not the case with LGBT, so what do we see the benefits are?

So from the ‘intersex’ perspective we have learnt a negative – that the CofE does not acknowledge intersex people. I remain deeply suspicious that the outcome of the process will produce any significant benefits. The Church Times published a road map of the process on 4 January 2019. Dr Eeva John said neither she nor Dr Cocksworth is under any illusion about how hard it will be to sell this project to those on both the liberal and conservative wings, many of whom would be unhappy to see opposing views represented in an official document. Dr Cocksworth added: “I would hope that, as we articulate and explain different views, that they would be framed in such a way that people can see the Christian reasoning behind them, so that they can be seen in their truest Christian light [but] there’s still a judgement to be made on validity.” The seven “learning outcomes” listed by the Church Times are all reflective – there is nothing that indicates anything will change for LGBTI+ people.

2) Do we see that the LLF/PAG Process will move us towards the Church opening the opportunity for Clergy to follow their own beliefs in fully affirming LGBTI+ people (including allowing to conduct Marriages). If yes, how do we think this process achieves this? Are there better alternatives?

From what has been reported about the LLF/PAG process, I doubt that the outcome will be a proposal to allow clergy to conduct equal marriages nor will clergy themselves be allowed to marry without forfeiting licences or PTOs. The process will not achieve this. The only alternative available in the medium term is to be forced to, or voluntarily decide to, leave the Church of England for the freedom of pastures where we can live with greater integrity.

3) Looking at the LLF Process itself, are we able to identify the objectives set, the expected outputs, and the perceived audience? If not, why are we not challenging this?

I have been writing about the PAG/LLF process since the bishops first announced their proposals. I’ve checked my website and I’ve blogged about it analytically and critically at least sixteen times in the last eighteen months, challenging elements of the process all the way.

‘We’ are a fragmented network of people. I am retired and have no group context in which to strategise and organise. Changing Attitude was absorbed into OneBodyOneFaith and in the process, CA’s radical campaigning strategic focus was lost. No other group seeks to analyse and challenge in the same way. Other groups do good things, but not what I identify is needed.

‘We’ are challenging this, but ‘we’ are no longer coordinated and we do not have set objectives. How to remedy this is what in part I set out to do in Autumn 2018 by trying to create a new version of the LGBTI Anglican Mission. The outcome was that following the first meeting I was required to leave the group. Whether or not it still meets I know not, but Sara’s comment indicates that it is ineffective.

4) What outputs do we expect/want? i.e. does it include changes to safeguarding policies/processes, does it include diversity training of staff/clergy?

The current safeguarding policies and processes are inadequate in themselves but there seems to be no awareness of this, let alone a move to revise and improve them in relation to LGBTI+ people. Whether they need specific changes to make them effective for LGBTI+ people I’m not sure.

A whole range of additional diversity training for staff and clergy is clearly very necessary. It should be an integral part of the curriculum for every residential and non-residential training institution.

5) What are our goals and timelines?

Changing Attitude England developed a concise goal over four years ago: “Full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in relationships and ministry.” This embraced equality in marriage and equality for clergy and readers who experience further levels of discrimination. Our timeline was ASAP. The expectation was that after the Shared Conversations the House of Bishops would propose specific changes. Instead they proposed a further delay of three years at the end of which there will be a further delay – Dr Eeva John hopes there will be a six-to-nine-month period when parishes are encouraged to engage with the materials produced. CA would have challenged the failure to commit to practical outcomes vigorously every step of the way.

6) Where LGBTI+ people have reported abuse from engagement with the process, what are our agreed responses? Currently, following my own withdrawal and Tina’s earlier there has been no mitigating action taken or future safeguards put in place. The Project continues as before and [the abuse is] something that is accepted – is this right?

The failure to take action in response to Sara’s and Tina’s withdrawal is most certainly not right – it’s negligent and abusive. I have been commenting and blogging about this, but so far as I know, no action has been taken. What does it require? A high level delegation of leaders and elders to meet with key bishops is one way of confronting those responsible for the process with their failure to address the need for additional safeguards.

Sara began by saying that we are blindly following a Process set out by the House of Bishops, and are failing to hold the House of Bishops to account. We need, she said, to hold each other accountable, as we are failing currently to set-out a roadmap against which we can measure our own successes or failures in bringing about change. Her challenge is to the current LGBTI+ groups and networks that are active in the Church of England, a challenge that they are blindly following and failing to hold the bishops to account. I hope every group will accept the challenge and respond to Sara.