On December 26 1986 I set off on sabbatical, flying round the world for three and a half months. The one condition given was that I should keep a journal. Recently I’ve been rereading the journal. Yesterday I reached the entry for Friday 26 May 1988, written to remind myself of the ideas and ideals that were paramount in my philosophy of life and ministry. Nothing that I encounter now in church on a Sunday morning comes remotely close to what as a parish priest I was seeking to create in 1988.
Bishop Peter Ball is gay, closeted, repressed sexuality, secretive, spiritual, and sexually, emotionally, and relationally deeply damaged, damaged, I will argue, by his Christian environment, as the IICSA Hearings laid bare.
Vicky Beeching has been and is being damaged by Christians in her environment as recounted in Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame. Her body system and health have been acutely damaged, emotionally and physically. So were many of the victims of Peter Ball.
Lizzie Lowe committed suicide aged 14 in September 2014. She thought she may be a lesbian, was scared of telling her parents and had struggled to reconcile her feelings with the family's strong Christian faith.
What is the first cause of the damage which so deeply affected Peter Ball, Vicky Beeching, and Lizzie Lowe? It is misguided Christian teaching and practice; abusive use of the Bible, of authority, and a seriously inadequate understanding of Jesus and his teaching.
The evidence of the effects of Christian teaching that is hostile to the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in the life and ministry of the Church of England is mounting. The evidence reveals a toxic environment in the Church of England leading to examples of extreme prejudice, abuse and homophobia. The evidence can be found in the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe, Jayne Ozanne’s and Vikky Beeching’s memoirs, the IICSA hearings into the Diocese of Chichester and the recent IICSA hearings into the way church leaders, most notably Archbishop George Carey, dealt with the survivors of abuse by Bishop Peter Ball. With one or two exceptions the bishops of the Church of England still do not get how shocking is the level of abuse against LGBTI people in church.
I have written a letter to Graham Tilby, the National Safeguarding Adviser, asking the Safeguarding Team to investigate the Bishop of Maidstone, Reform, the Church Society, and Christian Concern as key instigators of abusive and homophobic teaching and practice in the Church of England. Spiritual abuse is now recognised as one of the most serious manifestations of homophobia and prejudice against LGBTI people. The letter is copied to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the bishops of Newcastle (Pastoral Advisory Group) and Bath and Wells (the lead bishop for safeguarding).
On Wednesday I wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York putting a question to them arising from the blogs exchanged by a number of bishops’ chaplains: “How are you going to ensure good practice in the future, practice that at least meets the legal requirements, to avoid a repeat of the concealment that led to the shameful abuse of children in the Church of England?” This is but one example of the bad practice within the Church of England that has been the subject of recent reports. Below the letter, I comment on the Archbishop of York’s failures, the incompetence of the Clergy Discipline Commission and the disregard for proper process exhibited by William Nye, Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council.
Last Friday the Church Times published a number of articles reflecting on the three weeks of hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which focused on the Church of England in general and the diocese of Chichester in particular. Linda Woodhead named inadequate theologies as being part of the problem. She noted that everyone who spoke at the hearings agreed that procedural and structural change was insufficient without a change of culture, but none of them drew the obvious conclusion that this must include theology. There is a second critical element that is part of the problem, which again, no one seems to have identified at the hearings. The lack of interior awareness, a failure by the abuser to be conscious that what they are doing is abusive, is a fundamental reason for abusive activity.
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.