We have learnt this week, thanks to the open letter sent by the Bishop of Maidstone to the Bishop of Lichfield, that the Church of England also unwittingly created a bishop to enshrine prejudice against LGBTI people in the Church of England. Writing about Bishop Thomas requires the use of words that have been taboo when used in the context of equality for women in the church: prejudice and discrimination. The prejudice enshrined in the authority and teaching of the Bishop of Maidstone raises great concerns about the lengthy, complex process now being undertaken to produce what the House of Bishops clearly intend to be a new, definitive Teaching Document.
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.
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.
The debate on Wednesday was utterly wonderful and transformative and the Archbishops’ letter is very responsive to the vote and the energy of the debate. The Archbishops recognise the need for “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church . . . based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.” Fabulous! But I have some words of caution, echoing the caution already expressed by some on the OneBodyOneFaith Facebook group.
I am wondering what the outcome of Wednesday’s take note debate on the House of Bishops’ report is going to be. I’m not thinking so much about the result of the vote and whether or not a majority in at least one of the other two houses vote to refuse to take note. I’m wondering whether a change of direction is possible. I’m going to be present outside Church House on Wednesday. I hope I am going to be amongst a host of friends. Together we can make this a day of transformation, both those on General Synod who will speak in the debate and vote at the end, holding an open, positive, creative energy of the deepest hope and trust, and we who will gather outside, bringing our energy into alignment with theirs.
I woke this morning from a dream, feeling deep grief, my heart heaving with sadness. I had gone to sleep having read the letter from fourteen retired bishops who have broken with convention to write an open letter to all bishops in the Church of England because of their concern that the report to be debated on Wednesday “does not allow the authentic voice of LGBT people to be heard or the real theological argument to be advanced [and] will not enable the church to engage credibly with wider society.” As I made notes for this blog, three questions haunted me. Where is the love? Where is God? Where is Jesus? Archbishop Justin repeatedly speaks about the need to talk to the public about Jesus. Which Jesus?, I always want to know. The Jesus that encourages bishops to dissemble, to opt for unity rather than truth and love, the Jesus who prefers bishops to be gatekeepers than windows of light, the Jesus who opts for law rather than grace.
The media has reported allegations of abuse by evangelical Christian leader John Smyth who is accused of violent sado-masochistic beatings of teenage boys and young men. The Iwerne camps with which he was involved in the late 70s were designed to bring a Christian influence to this country, a very specific brand of conservative evangelical influence exemplified by Holy Trinity Brompton and marking the impact of Archbishop Justin on the changing culture of the Church of England. Ingredients of this unhealthy and abusive culture are to be found in the present House of Bishops. The “wholesome muscular Christianity” ethos in part explains the addictive conservative evangelical fascination with homosexuality.
Why are LGBTI Anglicans so angry about the report from the House of Bishops: Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations? A comment made four years ago by someone involved in the development of Pilling’s work struck me. “The Pilling group was an ill-conceived exercise in the first place, ill-conceived in part because formulated by a male only group initially. It was marked by a lack of coherence and incompetence in the Church.” If that was a considered assessment of the value of the Pilling group prior to the Shared Conversations, we should not be surprised that the final outcome has the marks of ill-conceived incompetence. The anger felt by LGBGTI Anglicans about the latest report should come as no surprise. The report comes from the same stable of bishops.
The House of Bishops report, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations is in serious danger of drawing us back into the unhealthy, addictive world of conservative evangelicals, the HTB-modelled, Renewal and Reform packaged, ignorant-of-the-God-of-unconditional-love mentality now embedded in the minds of the hierarchy. We HAVE to live from a healthier, more holistic, integrated, holy, deeply authentic place of love, justice, creativity, imagination, depth and truth, in our selves, our hearts and souls and bodies, our relationships, our spirituality, our praying - and our engagement with the church.
We LGBTI people have to live into the transformative freedom which comes from being immersed in God’s infinite, unconditional, intimate love. We are not going to transform ourselves or the church unless we embody this divine reality. The tyrannical, abusive God who many still worship has to be condemned to history as the source of prejudiced, toxic opinions and practice. Until we release ourselves from the tyranny of magical thinking, fundamentalism, co-dependence on abusive authority, we are not going to find the freedom, confidence and vision that will release energies to transform the place of LGBTI people in the Church of England and the parts of the Anglican Communion where tyranny reigns.