The episcopal domination of the co-ordinating group on human sexuality is staggering and unprecedented. This extent to which the group is weighted towards bishops stands in contrast with virtually every other report produced in the Church of England in recent history. The lack of lay people is also striking and without precedent. There is not a single gender theorist, sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, politician, campaigner, voluntary sector worker, or any other lay person bringing relevant specialist knowledge or expertise. This absence is astonishing. The usual Anglican assumptions and ways of working have been set aside. It is a further example of the deliberate move toward centralization and episcopal control in the Church of England, in ignorance of Anglican history and theology.
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.
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.
Three weeks ago a minor anniversary passed. On 20 January 2012 the Church Times finally published the Osborne Report on its web site. The report was written in 1989 but suppressed by the House of Bishops. Here are a few excerpts from the Osborne Report which are still apposite, interwoven with some comments on and comparisons with the report from the House of Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. Osborne noted in 1989 the “considerable contrast between the attitudes which prevailed” in their youth sixty years ago compared with younger clergy. That considerable contrast has grown into a chasm, a chasm between generations and between tribes in the Church of England.
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.
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.
When I sit deep in the presence of God every morning for 30 minutes, sometimes contemplating a crucifix of the self-emptying Christ, I experience the presence of God as caring about and affirming my love, my fulfilment in relationship and my openness to and love for my partner. God cares that my self-giving mirrors the self-emptying of Jesus the Christ. This morning my mind roamed over the Gospels and the narratives of Jesus’ ministry, actions and encounters. Crowds clamoured after Jesus, pursuing him across lakes and up hills and mountains. They clamoured because they knew they were in the presence of someone who held the key to the transformation of life. The crowds I encounter in congregations and at wedding breakfasts and the blessing of same-sex relationships are wholeheartedly supportive of equal marriage.