Fifty years ago, in September 1967, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England set up a Working Party on Homosexuality “to review the situation of both male and female homosexuality”. This was the first time the Church of England had formally set up a group to address homosexuality. Nearly fifty years later the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter in February outlining their proposals for continuing to address questions concerning human sexuality. The Archbishops committed themselves and the House of Bishops to . . . the development of a substantial Teaching Document on the subject. If the Teaching Document can’t articulate a belief in the absolute equality of all permanent, faithful, stable, loving, marital relationships, then the Group will have wasted three more years and fifty years on from the non-publication of the first report, we will not have achieved the goal to which Changing Attitude campaigned for twenty-two years.
Classical Anglican teaching is held to be rooted in the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason based on Richard Hooker’s teaching in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. More recently, some have argued for the addition of a fourth leg, that of experience. Conservatives opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church rely primarily on Scripture, arguing that the other two legs are utterly dependent on this. They deny that experience can be legitimately added as a fourth leg. We live in a society where experience is accepted as a given, an essential component of life. Conservative Christians argue against this cultural change.
I’ve been helped in my assessment of what changed at last weekend’s meeting of General Synod by reading the reflection of Rob Munro, a Synod member and a member of EGGS, the Evangelical Group on General Synod. Rob describes the outcome of the debates as a watershed moment when the radical held sway over the Christian. I spent Synod weekend re-reading books written forty years ago by Bishops John Robinson and Stephen Verney. I was somewhat astonished to discover how wonderfully honest, open, visionary and prophetic both men were, and amazed to discover that theological ideas and teachings that were commonplace then are thought to be dangerous today.
The Church of England is unfit for the purpose for which it primarily exists – to witness to the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God and embody the teaching of Jesus that all are called to life, life in all its fullness, and to be open to grace, to the presence of spirit in all creation. Because the church has such an inadequate and often flawed understanding of its core purpose, it is that at the moment, it has become systemically abusive, and I mean the whole institution, from bishops and archbishops, the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, to suffragan bishops and archdeacons and rural deans, to dioceses and deaneries and parishes and parish clergy and lay leaders and volunteers. The church is unfit for purpose because it fails to place witness to the unconditional love of God at the front and centre of teaching and mission.
A paper has been published 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. The paper notes that responses in February underlined the point that the ‘subject’ of human sexuality can never simply be an ‘object’ of consideration because it is about persons in relationship. This paper proceeds to do exactly that, making 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 who think I have no right or freedom to live in a sexual relationship. 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.
Today I return to two themes which are fundamental to my vision. The first is the centrality of the contemplative/apophatic tradition and the second is the how question – how does transformation take place in the Church of England (or perhaps better put in the negative – why has the church lost the gift of radical transformation?). In three Church Times articles, the authors offer an interpretation of past events and current times, seeing the potential for a transformation of Christian life and witness. Each of them gets so far, but fails to communicate how this might become a reality in practical terms. Very few have the conviction necessary to turn such ideas into reality. Voices crying in the wilderness and grain falling on stony ground are the images that come to mind.
My musings raise fundamental questions about the nature of faith and spirituality and the core of being human, about the quality and purpose of buildings, and the effect we have on people when they walk through our church doors, both the effect of the building environment and the effect of the worship and prayer culture.
All buildings have the potential either to enhance or diminish the way we experience God, the holy, sacred, divine, numinous, unconditional, infinite, intimate, ever-present other.
The Church of England, despite the positive, optimistic changes that bring hope, is still deeply, systemically homophobic, and changing this culture requires us to be honest and identify repeatedly what homophobia looks like and how it manifests and affects people in the church. We need to be really focused on this because often WE can’t see it for what it is. And if we can’t see it, those holding positions of authority and power in the church have the very greatest difficulty in seeing it.
The Church of England is failing to provide an appropriate and professional service to lay and ordained lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Those alert to inappropriate systemic practice will be able to identity multiple examples of “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and homophobic stereotyping which disadvantage LGBTI people.” It is routine because those in senior positions are compromised in their understanding by the culture they inhabit and by the theology, teaching and practice which is normative in the Church of England.
It’s time to write as honestly and openly as I can about my prayer life as I promised in a recent blog. In the blog I mentioned that I have ideas about how to begin worship in ways that can take people into their bodies, help them ground themselves and connect with their feelings. The ability to become more aware of our bodies, to be grounded and connected with our feelings is for me equally essential when it comes to my personal prayer life. Nurturing interior body awareness has helped me to deepen my confidence that I really am created in the image of God and that God dwells in the core of my being as much as I dwell in the beauty of God’s creation.