Church of England – Please Mind the Gap!

by Anne Foreman, Member of General Synod, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and former National Youth Adviser for the Church of England

If elected I will serve with the interested of parishes always in mind….”  So said my election address for the Church of England’s General Synod in 1999.  Now, as I approach my final few months on General Synod, having served on it for two very different Dioceses I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Synodical Structures and Pastoral Parishes is wider still.  The central structures have come up with a plethora of initiatives, such as Renewal and Reform, Simplification, Mission Shaped Church, Strategic funding for Resourcing and Planting new church communities, Estates Ministry, Everyday Faith.   However, questions need to be asked about how these fine sounding initiatives actually connect with existing neighbourhood schemes of care, advocacy and support? What is more, it often seems to be forgotten that parishes run on shoestring budgets, unlike the eye watering budgets behind these national projects!  The relevance of such initiatives to parishes is questionable and so the gap remains.  A gap brought sharply into focus by the response of the Institutional Church to Covid-19. 

In parishes you do what you can, where you are.  So, for the thousands of people going about their business of loving God and their neighbour there appeared to be little understanding at a national level of the impact of closing churches.  The physical building of the church, whether in a rural or urban setting, is often the focus from which service to the community springs and sustenance for its worshipping community sought. Suddenly it was not to be available. Despite lockdown first appearing on the scene in mid-March, it was not until the 9th September that anything like an empathetic recognition of the impact on community life by church closures came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he said…”worship is the work of God – not a social gathering – and gives the strength to love and serve.”  At last we had something that was more than a set of bureaucratic responses to matters of heart and soul.  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that the many imaginative and creative ways of being church locally during this Pandemic has been in spite of national directives, (sorry guidelines), rather than in response to them.

Though General Synod representatives in our diocese work hard to communicate to parishes through contact with their deaneries, it’s a bit of an uphill task to enthuse people about stuff that does not appear relevant to the day to day concerns of their own parish life.  Concerns that have increased rather than diminished during this Pandemic.  Parish share still has to be found, Annual Meetings  still need to happen, faculties still have to be applied for.  Small wonder that the General Synod Report isn’t high on the Deanery Synod Agenda! 

In the main I think it’s due to time scale.  Although the internal workings and time scale of the Church may make sense to us in our synodical, gathered state, when we scatter…..when we go back to our parishes and out into the real world…..”to live and work to His praise and glory….” then the snails pace of action simply baffles people.  People, whether they be people in the pews or people on the fringe of church life, they simply don’t understand why things take so long. Structural  requirements render the gap too wide to be able to capture imaginations, let alone hearts, for Christ.

Measures at General Synod may have to be debated, supported by voting and enacted nationally, but they are lived out and implemented locally, through local relationships whose foundation is trust and loving God and neighbour.

Of course some General Synod stuff is actually highly relevant, in particular for example that arising from the Simplification Agenda, designed to make Parochial Church life easier. For instance the enabling of joint Councils for small Parochial Church Councils – sounds great and will be welcomed, but the legal rigmarole involved in making it happen is far from simple!  If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had been given some structural synodical stuff to read I don’t think for a moment that their hearts would have burned within them.!

Or take the long awaited publication of the Living in Love and Faith, LLF, materials.  Good people have worked long and hard, consulted widely and produced high quality materials.  And yet….and yet….it’s going to be another couple of years of conversations before any conclusions are reached, or not.  Dr Eeva John spoke of the need for scholarly work to connect with lived experience.  Speaking now as a former youth worker, for many (not all) young people, their lived experience includes sex.  While LLF conversations carry on we have a generation of young people who think the church just doesn’t get it as far as sex is concerned. We have a generation of young people for whom sex has become an alternative leisure activity.  So how then is the church to connect with them to model relationships, including same sex relationships, of fidelity, loyalty, kindness, delight and respect if it continues to say that marriage between a man and a woman is the only place that any physical expression of love or desire can happen, or indeed that sex is purely for procreation?

When I was still supervising full time Youth Workers and they were faced with a difficult issue  I would ask….”how and in what way will your decision enhance the lives of the young people you work with and for…”.? But that was then, and now for me the question is…..”How and in what way will the mission of the church be enhanced by the existing structures of the Church of England?”  The heart of the church beats in local communities and synodical structures need to uphold and strengthen the local.  More attention needs to be paid to minimising the gap between those structures and life as it is lived locally.

Posted in Anne Foreman, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 8 Comments

World Without End…?

by the Bishop of Buckingham, Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson

On 13 August 2012 ministry took a new path for me. A journalist had alerted me to untoward goings on in Sussex. Young peoples’ lives had been damaged. The Church shied away from taking proper responsibility. Survivors felt they were being treated as an embarrassment, sidelined then blocked.

As a result, my colleague Revd Rosie Harper and I were invited to meet some of the people concerned and listen to their stories. When all is said and done the Church is a pastoral organisation. It exists to bring the grace and truth of Christ to a generation within its care. This calling had been massively betrayed, and I felt ashamed of the Church I represent.  Things had to change.

More and more people were getting in touch. Very often what they craved was someone to listen to their story and take it seriously. I realised that very often the most healing thing was truth about what had actually happened and, above all, honesty.

One emerging common theme shocked us. Male or female, high or low, recent or not, every person we listened to told us things had got worse for them after they reported.

In 2013 Pope Francis saw the Church as a field hospital. Imagine a field hospital in which all the wounded soldiers leave more shot up than they were when brought in. That couldn’t be entirely their fault.

I was comforted in July 2013, though, by our new archbishop’s recognition of the problem. He apologised and seemed to understand the systemic dimension of our failings as he articulated for General Synod “a profound theological point. We are not doing all this – we are not seeking to say how devastatingly, appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failures there have been, for our own sakes, for our own flourishing, for the protection of the Church. We are doing this because we are called to live in the justice of God and we will each answer to him for our failures in this area”.

Time passed by. Budgets for training and advisers began to grow. I was encouraged.

In 2015 our archbishop told us “We failed big time, we can do nothing other than confess our sin, repent and commit ourselves to being different in the years ahead.”

Time passed by. A new project was in the air, collaboratively developed with survivors — “Safe Spaces”

2017 seemed less hopeful. News broke of John Smyth’s sadistic abuse of teenage boys whose trust he had betrayed as he blighted their lives. But at any rate the Archbishop was still sorry. We were told he “apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”

January 2018 saw preliminary hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Rightly, our Archbishop had lined up the Church for early examination, a brave and honourable act.

And when the atrocious Chichester tale was revealed, giving substance to what we had heard on 13 August 2012, we were as sorry as he:

“You can apologise and apologise to survivors, and I would want to put on record again — I don’t know how to express it adequately — how appalled I am and ashamed I am of the Church for what it did.”

Time Passed by.

More money was spent, training improved and Safe Spaces underwent a reboot and would soon start for real. That was the good story. We continued to hear not so good stories from survivors, all of whom wished they never had reported to Church authorities.

We wrote a book, taking survivor experience seriously across a very broad spectrum of church abuse. We tried to understand the roots and cultural context of our failures, and proposed a fresh approach. It was mentioned by enough survivors for IICSA to call for material from it as evidence in 2019.

When our archbishop read the latest IICSA report last week, he was still sorry not only for what had happened but for the Church’s failure to respond pastorally.  “We cannot and will not make excuses, and I must again offer my sincere apologies to those who have been abused.”

After 8 years of sorry, then, from our Archbishop at least if not others, how do I feel about the post-IICSA future?

I am encouraged to see that our new Archbishop of York whom I like and respect very much as a former close colleague, is sorry too. He said on national radio how shocked he was by the report. Rosie pointed out he’d known about what was in it for years.

He replied personally “Shocked to read it again, Rosie. I suppose what I’m saying is I hope I’ll never stop being shocked and distressed until we have changed. I am in a position to really help make that change. I am determined to do so. And quickly.”

I am sure he will be supported, as will survivors, by Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, the Church’s new safeguarding bishop. Not only in General synod, but in a really helpful Religion Media Centre IICSA report briefing with survivors and advocates, Jonathan clearly demonstrates fresh commitment to drive change at every level.

Oh, and Safe Spaces actually started, albeit with a few learner driver’s kangaroo jumps, on 29 September 2020.

I return to Archbishop Justin’s words in 2012. But… How long O Lord?

Jesus said “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Martin Luther King said “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”

Rosie and I have met many survivors, courageous and wise people, who have often tolerated years of being ignored, patronised, lied to and blamed. They feel they have been going round and round in circles for ever.

After multiple forced apologies from a surprisingly small selection of bishops, a few training and cosmetic changes have happened at vast cost. Dr Josephine Stein reminds us this all dwarfs provision for survivors. Then somehow all the regret ends up back the too-difficult box…  until the next shameful revelation.

As it was in 2012, is now…. and ever shall be? world without end? Really?

Posted in Bishop Alan Wilson, Disability, IICSA, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 5 Comments

Why the Church of England Must ‘Connect the Dots’ – IICSA and LLF

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford

Life in 2020 has been very much about uncertainty. I’m not just thinking about the pandemic.

In narrower Church of England terms, in 2020 we’ve waited for two very important documents to be released: last week, the IICSA final report on sexual abuse of children in the Anglican Church, and in early November Living in Love and Faith (LLF), delayed from spring 2020. This delay changes the original sequence of events. Now it’s October: IICSA, then November: LLF.

What’s the connection?

While a member of LLF, I was one of those who asked over and over again for IICSA to be taken into account in the documents being produced. Yet the last LLF draft I saw still gave the impression that the questions such abuse raises were not really LLF’s concern. Yet you’d think some sort of liaison would be useful between these two large and costly processes – costly in terms of both money and emotional pain.

The extensive IICSA transcripts mentioned LLF twice on 1 July 2019, but only in passing. “The church has also been confronting issues concerning its teaching on human sexuality” said Nigel Giffin QC, representing the Archbishops’ Council. In his second witness statement to IICSA, the Archbishop of Canterbury had stated “I am informed by Mr Tilby that these [LLF] resources will be reviewed by the NST before they are finalised to ensure that they sufficiently address safeguarding related issues”.[1] I have no idea whether that review happened. Did anyone join the dots? The error in the IICSA final document, the claim that LLF – described as a “large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality” had been published in 2019 – suggests not.

I think the two documents are more closely related than the failure of an internal Church process to join forces with IICSA would suggest, and that the links need to be better understood.

In the Executive Summary of the IICSA final report, we read that: “Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome.”

What were, or are, these ‘taboos’?

Let’s go back to Fiona Scolding at the IICSA inquiry into Chichester Diocese, on 5 March 2018. She asked, “How far did the reaction of some within the church to homosexuality possibly inhibit the reporting of child sexual abuse?” DI Wayne Murdock, involved in the Peter Ball case, made it clear that “one of the factors that influenced his view of the public interest in bringing a prosecution was the risk that some church witnesses would be exposed as homosexuals in court. That would, in his words, have seen their roles within the church effectively finished.” As Murdock put it: “I believe that the issue of homosexuality had a detrimental effect in encouraging witnesses and potential complainants within the church to come forward” (IICSA, 23 July 2018).

So homophobia within the church deterred the reporting of sexual abuse.

When Fiona Scolding was interviewing the Bishop of Chichester, Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner, on 14 March 2018, she asked: “Do you not think that the Church’s difficulty in coming to terms with the complexity of self-identity when it comes to sexual orientation may have contributed to the misapprehensions you have identified because, you know, certainly amongst conservative individuals, homosexuality is seen as sinful?”

He answered “Yes.” She then asked, “The idea of civil partnerships is seen as anathema and the idea of getting married within the church is anathema. Do you think the church may have, albeit unwittingly, contributed to that by its approach to sexual orientation in the past?” Bishop Warner replied: “I think there has been contribution from the church on this”. He went on to talk about how covering up homosexuality contributed to a culture in which sexual abuse was also kept secret.

On 24 July 2018 Fiona Scolding, interviewing the former Archbishop, Lord Carey of Clifton, proposed that: “The church was so uncomfortable in dealing with and managing same-sex relationships that it didn’t really have an understanding of what was an appropriate same-sex relationship and what was an inappropriate same-sex relationship.”

Finally, at the 11 July 2019 IICSA hearing, Archbishop Justin Welby was asked whether “there is sufficient openness about  human sexuality in the church now so that there is, and can be, proper debate and discussion with victims and survivors and proper work on minimising risk within the church?”

He responded, “Yes. I think there is far more openness than there was. I think the Living in Love and Faith Project has enabled a culture of transparency in ways that didn’t exist before.”

When I re-read that, I was taken aback. Openness? A culture of transparency? Really?

I don’t get the impression that there’s any less fear now of being ‘exposed’ as gay. Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham,[2] remains the only out, gay, partnered bishop. If people still think their roles within the church would be “effectively finished” if their sexuality were known, that shows that the church is still not a safe place.

That has implications for safeguarding as well as for LGBTI+ people in all roles in the church. Despite the impression given in the key cases explored by IICSA, sexual abuse is certainly not only about men abusing boys: far more such abuse involves men and girls, or men taking advantage of their power to abuse women who know that nobody will believe them. The church’s history of secrecy, pretence and denial is one of the reasons why the terrible harm revealed by IICSA happened.

We need to join up the IICSA evidence of why sexual abuse was not reported, and the opportunity LLF offers to understand how the church continues to fail those who are not ‘pale, male, stale’ – and straight.

Refusing to acknowledge that, in the words of Stonewall, “Some people are gay. Get over it” has contributed to the shameful history of abuse in the Church of England.

[1] Graham Tilby: former National Safeguarding Adviser. NST: National Safeguarding Team.

[2] On the reactions to his coming out, I recommend Grace Davie and Caroline Starkey, ‘The Lincoln letters: a study in institutional change’, Ecclesial Practices, 9 (2019), 44-64.

Posted in Helen King, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Safeguarding, ‘Reabuse’ and LGBT People

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and member of the Archbishops’ Council

Last Tuesday was perhaps the most shameful day in the history of the Church of England for hundreds of years. Forensically, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) catalogued the personal and institutional generational failures which led to the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by people in trusted positions in the Church. Whilst many say that the failure to address this issue over decades amounts to ‘reabuse’, some even saying that it is worse than the sexual offences once committed, none of us can escape the responsibility that this has taken place on our watch and that we have the duty to put it right. Some are even calling for a Truth and Reconciliation process like that of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s an idea worth exploring.

I was struck therefore by a forceful response to what seemed to me to be sincere statement of sympathy for survivors and victims of sexual abuse by Bishop Sarah Mullally from one of her priests in the Diocese of London. Father Robert Thompson described Sarah’s words on Twitter as ‘virtue signalling vacuousness’, pointing out that he has raised 4 safeguarding concerns with the Diocese of London concerning the treatment of LGBTI+ church members in some evangelical and charismatic congregations and has not had a proper response to any one of them. Lest this should seem like special pleading from him (or me) for a particular group within the life of the Church of which we are part, we should note that the IICSA report makes specific what we have known for a long time: that our hypocrisy and dishonesty about sexuality has without doubt contributed to the culture in which sexual (and I would say) emotional and spiritual abuse has been allowed to exist.

To be fair, however, we must not assume that being LGBTI+ in and of itself makes one a vulnerable adult in safeguarding terms. Still, for as long as I can remember I have had to listen to simply dreadful stories emerging from certain evangelical and charismatic churches, usually when a church member comes out or refuses to toe the line taken by ‘the leadership’ (which usually means the clergy). They find themselves silenced, removed from every ministry and leadership role, and generally treated like pariahs. The failure of many of these congregations to be able to discuss matters of sexuality or to live with diverse opinions has wreaked a dreadful emotional toll on many LGBTI+ church members and has contributed to what can only be described as a culture of fear, the subtle and overt withholding of love or placing conditions on it, and silencing of dissent. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of abuse. 

Some within the tradition have felt uncomfortable about this for a long time. David Runcorn, a long-standing and respected Evangelical theological educator and spiritual director, has attempted to provide an Evangelical theological narrative based on openness, generosity (including to those who take a conservative view) and pastoral care. His recently-published Love Means Love addresses these concerns with an eirenic spirit that is admirable and biblical, although as a straight man he cannot necessarily summon the sense of righteous anger that those of us who see the damaged lives that have resulted do. Other evangelicals within General Synod, effectively kicked out of the Evangelical Group in General Synod (EGGS) for simply wanting to explore a line similar to Runcorn’s, have coalesced into a new group in which a different, honest expression of dissent can be aired, within a caring atmosphere far different from the stifling atmosphere of EGGS which, over my twelve years as a member, became increasingly reminiscent of a Soviet-style party meeting. It gives me no pleasure to admit I often felt afraid. Father Thompson notes the way in which especially some large churches in this tradition use their financial clout to exert leverage over dioceses: do what we want, or else, is the message.

The tragedy for the Church of England is that there is much within evangelical and charismatic traditions that the rest of the Church of England desperately needs. Missional zeal, social justice and deep personal faith were once the hallmarks of Evangelicalism, things that attracted me to Christian faith, even if these days I feel excluded from the evangelical tradition. Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that the tradition most committed to the theological concepts of personal sin and repentance can see the beam in its own eye instead of projecting it onto its LGBTI+ members and their friends. Some of those most urging change in the Church’s traditional position are senior evangelical bishops who have come to see that for themselves.

In the meantime, we await the publication of Living in Love and Faith. I am committed to the process, more perhaps than many sceptics among the LGBTI+ community in the Church. But even I want to sound a word of warning. As we engage with scripture, science, theology and much more in the months ahead, we must not forget that, within parts of the evangelical and charismatic wings of our church, brothers and sisters face emotional and spiritual abuse. Conservatives and hard-liners within these traditions will want to focus on the intellectual issues – many will immediately want to rebut anything that smacks of a chink in the wall. But we must hold them and the wider church to account for this often unacknowledged abuse that is being inflicted in the name of “truth” and “sound doctrine” – including persuading those like Bishop Sarah who are I think very sensitive to issues of abuse that this is unfinished safeguarding business. I urge her and other bishops to take seriously the sort of allegations and concerns that Father Thompson has raised. There are plenty more where they came from.

We must not forget those who are most vulnerable to bad religion and who remain at risk of the ongoing abuse that has shamed the church so obviously in recent days, and continues to do so where so-called ‘truth’ silences love. As I said at Archbishops’ Council recently, any defence of the gospel or the church that sees that as more important than protecting the vulnerable will lead us back to the place we are being shamed into leaving hopefully once and for all. Ironically, the evidence of such abuse is the clearest example of why the theological position held by conservatives is biblically untenable. 

By your fruits you shall know them.

Posted in Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 13 Comments

Resignations, Dysfunctionality and the House of Bishops

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia, Director of the Ozanne Foundation and Member of General Synod

I resigned from my Bishop’s Council this week.

The decision has been a long time coming – I’ve felt I’ve been hitting my head against a brick wall over our failure to prioritise the poor and disadvantaged, especially given we are such a rich diocese, for years. In fact, I’ve been banging the drum since I got onto Council five years ago. Interestingly, even though we constantly rated serving the poor in our diocese as a “the top priority” during our discussions, it rarely seemed to make the cut into any paperwork . In virtually every meeting I can remember I have had to remind those in authority of the commitments we had agreed as a Council.

I realised things would never change when after one Diocesan Synod meeting I was told, when the priority yet again failed to be mentioned to those gathered, that it was because it was too long to fit on the slide! All rather ironic given that we’d just had a report that emphasised the real issue in our diocese was that of “hidden poverty”!

In truth, I know I was as tired of banging my drum as Council members were of hearing it.

So, eventually, it got to the point where I felt that the best way for them to hear me was by my absence. You see, sometimes leaving is the only way left for people to be heard….

Since I resigned, I’ve been reflecting on why it is so difficult for those in the central Church or Diocesan structures to hear what those outside or on the fringes of the Church see as completely obvious. It came into sharp focus again this week with the IICSA report which stated what so many of us have been saying for some time now – that we need a completely independent safeguarding system in the Church in order for it to be fully functional.

I have decided that the real problem is that our boards and councils are populated by mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle class and mostly middle aged (and that’s being kind) people who all hold virtually the same world view – and who are incapable of recognising that there is legitimacy to any other view other than their own. Because they all end up endorsing each other, they confirm their own legitimacy, and nothing therefore ever changes.

That’s why we find it difficult to embrace those from other backgrounds – those that are different to the monochrome “norm” that the Church of England has built into the warp and weft of its very foundations. You just have to look at the make up of General Synod to see what I mean.

It is why we’ve an appalling record on nearly every measure of diversity – we are seen by those “on the outside and margins” as racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic. We are outrageously bad at dealing with people with differing abilities too. Although it’s “not good show” of course for us to admit this in public.

And what does this “monochrome” system result in? Well, I won’t be popular in saying this, but I believe this ultimately results in the single most critical problem for us as a Church. It’s the real root of most of our problems, which few are prepared to admit let alone publicly name – it is that we have a leadership structure that is, I’m afraid to say, deeply dysfunctional. It seems our House of Bishops operates like a boys public school, with prefects and head boys who whip the younger boys (and they are of course mostly boys!) into line. It may seem like the body that so many aspire to, but once you’re there you get sucked into colluding with a system that few feel able to break free from. Although thankfully, there are some brave individuals who do.

It is interesting to question why so few have called this out publicly over all these years?

Especially given that to many of us on the outside and fringes this dysfunction is plain to see. We have bishops leading double lives, which no one seems to bother about or challenge. We have bishops preaching one thing and practicing another, particularly when it comes to the way in which they treat LGBT+ clergy in their midst. We have bishops who lament safeguarding failures, but whose own record is pretty poor. It all leads to a postcode lottery, which everyone knows about but no one does anything about because they (we?) have all got too much to lose…or worse, that they don’t think that somehow anyone will notice.

But we do, and we all know. The charade was up a long time ago.

It’s just like my own experience with Bishop’s Council – no one can be bothered to bang the drum any more. We are resigned to letting it all continue, with no one rocking the boat.

But time is running out. Many are tiring of this game. And they’re leaving.

So much so that soon the primary problem won’t be the fear of people rocking the boat, but rather the fear of ensuring that there are still people who are prepared to sail in it!

So reform is needed – and it needs to start at the top.

The House of Bishops is about to release resources for the Church of England to engage with over sexuality. What they seem to have failed to see (again!) is that the vast majority of people in the pews made up their minds about LGBT issues long ago….what they’re waiting for is for the House of Bishops to finally do so themselves. And to do so in a way that has some credibility.

So it’s time the House of Bishops had an OFSTED inspection. They need to turn the mirror on themselves and take a long hard look at what they see. They need to be honest about their dysfunctionality, their divisions and their double standards.

Miracles can happen – and with God’s grace this might just be one of them. Goodness knows we need it!

Posted in Disability, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Jayne Ozanne, Racism, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse, Transgender | 13 Comments

Living in Love and Faith – Is There Really Hope for Change?

by Christina Baron, Chair of the General Synod Gender and Sexuality Group and Elected Member of General Synod for the Diocese of Bath and Wells

At the beginning of November, we are promised, the product of the Church of England’s exercise now known as ‘Living in Love and Faith’ will, finally, be published. This has involved hundreds of people and, almost certainly, hundreds of thousands of pounds in the three years since it was set up in response to the highly unusual defeat in General Synod of a paper on same-sex relationships from the bishops.

‘Living in Love and Faith’ was originally to be called ‘The Bishops’ Teaching Document’. The change of title confirms something which is already evident and well-known: teaching about sexuality, gender and relationships is something on which not all bishops can agree. So, in changing the document’s name, there is a tacit acknowledgement of that disagreement, but it is a continuing puzzle why this disagreement may not be publicly admitted. In contrast, on the subject of the ordination of women as priests and, later, bishops there was, and continues to be, public acceptance that not all bishops are in agreement.

So, the key question is, what is it about sexuality that makes the “good disagreement” to which the church aspires, so unwelcome?

Interestingly, there is a history of some in the Church of England leading public opinion on sexuality. In the 1950s an adviser to the Church of England Moral Welfare Council, the Rev. Dr. Sherwin Bailey, gave evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, advocating the decriminalisation of male homosexual activity. And when decriminalisation finally came to parliament ten years later, it was supported by Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Senior churchmen were not afraid to give a moral lead then it seems.

Over the past fifty years, as society has become more accepting of same sex relationships and the shadow of criminalisation has cleared, the Church of England has been endlessly rewriting its liturgy and discussing whether women could be ordained. Meanwhile, first civil partnerships and then same sex marriage became legal in England. That would indicate that the country, and attitudes to same sex relationships in general, have changed since Wolfenden. And if we look over the borders to the countries which share this island, we see that same sex couples may now marry in the Scottish Episcopal Church and that the Church in Wales has voted in favour to do so too, although not quite yet by the required majority.

A local councillor once said to me about gays and lesbians “I don’t know any.” Since the 2017 debate, no member of General Synod can say that. And with the increasing public acknowledgement and acceptance of same sex couples, nor can most Church of England worshippers – the people in our pews.

Before the 2017 debate, I put a note in the pewsheet of my parish church, asking for comments. This was in a small town (all right, we have a cathedral and a royal charter – so officially it’s a city, but a very small one) with a local, not a gathered, congregation. At coffee time there was a queue to speak to me and my heart sank. I should have had more faith, however. There was a procession of “we had a wonderful gay vicar in our last parish,” my godson should be able to get married in his parish church,” “my niece had a lovely Quaker wedding.”

Sadly, some Christians, including some members of the Church of England, see same sex relationships as what used to be called a “first order issue” – that is “fundamental to the faith”, like the divinity of Christ. That means that some members of the Church of England would find it impossible to remain in a church which allowed any endorsement of same sex relationships.

I don’t want to see anyone leave the Church of England over this issue. But we must acknowledge that current teaching means that the Church of England has already lost untold numbers of people, particularly partnered clergy and potential ordinands.  They have gone over the borders to Scotland or Wales, or left for another church or, in some cases, for no church. Great personal anguish has been caused and the Church has lost people it could ill-afford to lose. Those of us who want the Church to accept and affirm same sex couples could cohabit (although not literally) in one church with those who disagree, with provision to protect their conscientious objection. It is unfortunate that such cohabitation seems not to be acceptable to those who want no change.

‘Living in Love and Faith’ will, we are told, include study materials for discussion at PCCs and synods. However, as one bishop has said “it will land extraordinarily badly.” Not only are all churches and dioceses now coping with the pastoral, practical and financial consequences of Covid-19, but most worshippers accept same sex relationships and don’t know what all the fuss is about! For them the issue is no longer an issue.

If the Church of England had embarked upon ‘Living in Love and Faith’ forty or fifty years ago, it would have been leading the way for secular society. In 2020, the Church seems to many, both members and non-members and particularly the young, to be spending endless time talking about sex. At the same time, the environment is being trashed and poverty and injustice increase.

Sex is not the most important element of Christ’s teaching and I for one would really like never to have to write an article, make a speech, table a motion about sexuality and gender ever again. But the Church’s disregard, and worse, of faithful lesbian and gay Christians does not demonstrate the eternal truths – that we are all made in the image of God and loved by God. For the sake of the mission of the Church to all people, we must take the opportunity offered by ‘Living in Love and Faith’ to deal with this question once and for good. 

Many of us in the Church of England believe it is right to affirm same sex relationships. Other Church members cannot accept this. The critical question is – can we find a way to live with that difference and demonstrate that the Church of England truly is “here for all the people of England?

Posted in Christina Baron, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 2 Comments

Walking in Beauty – Contemplation in times of Struggle, Suffering and Exclusion

by the Very Revd Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester

It is an accepted fact that we are currently living in extremely challenging times, especially made more so by Covid-19. We have always had the challenges of human sexuality, poverty, racism and injustice to deal with. What Cov-19 has done is to expose all these issues more starkly. Perhaps because we are more tuned into social media and world news we are experiencing more awareness? The murder of George Floyd hit the news very quickly – I remember following the street protests on a live Facebook feed as it was happening. I was able to post my disgust and anger in seconds.

During the recent Pride season, I decided to fly the Rainbow Flag on the tower of my Cathedral. It was well received apart from a letter of complaint from a group of clergy. My initial reaction was that it would have been good to receive such a letter when I was speaking prophetically at services and on the news media on the racism being exposed by Black Lives Matter! No such support against racism was offered to me by these clergy colleagues. However, when the issue of human sexuality emerges I suddenly receive a letter of complaint! Is this the Church that I am part of, a Church that wants to grow God’s Kingdom? I think our Lord must weep over his Church and the exclusion and injustice that we often collude with.

It is a great temptation to become bitter and angry at one another and the world because of the lack of compassion and injustice that we witness on a daily basis, often in the Church of God. And I have only touched on two major issues in our society! As Christians and especially as Christian priests we are called to a life of love and compassionate service. If we are to serve the people of God then it is our life of prayer and contemplation that we need to be immersed in. Without a regular routine of prayer and the practise of a contemplative heart we can easily lose the vision of something greater than our prejudices and our sadness that accompanies it. We can easily lose our vision of Jesus and God’s kingdom.

So, I want to turn our attention to the writings of Fr Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest in New Mexico and one of my spiritual mentors.

He once wrote an article ‘Walk in Beauty’ in which he encourages us to recognize the beauty of the world despite its many disfigurations.  In his article he cites a prayer of the Navajo people in New Mexico from decades ago, which I particularly love. I mention it here as I want to suggest that we too need to be anchored to God in the midst of the huge challenges we face by ‘contemplating beauty’.

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty around me I walk

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

There is much beauty in our towns, cities, villages and rural areas. There is much beauty in one another. We simply need to be more aware of the beauty of our surroundings and recognize it in the sounds around us, in drumming, in the voices of people, etc. as we open our hearts and minds to our surroundings. This is how we recognize the divine in all things.

Michael Cassidy the great South African Evangelist in his book ‘The Politics of Love’ (p.253) cites Job who ‘in the depths of his problems and agonies began to question God and received back a shattering questionnaire from the God in whom all power resides’. The power we need to navigate the challenges of prophetic witness is found in God – cf Job 38:4, 8–11. It is only when we lose our life in and for Christ, that we will find it says Jesus in Matthew 16:25. So the ability to recognise the beauty around us in the midst of so many challenges and crises (not least in Covid-19) is found in the incredible life of Jesus who saw possibilities of healing and wholeness in broken human beings and in a broken and bruised world.  

Quoting Fr Richard Rohr again:

‘’I invite you to return to the Navajo prayer above when you have the space and time to literally move or walk with it. If you’re able to walk, you might take off your shoes and walk barefoot. Move slowly, noticing the sensations in your body—discomfort, surprise, challenge, pleasure, ease. Take in your surroundings with a soft, receptive gaze. What do you see? Listen to whatever there is to hear—your own breathing, birds, traffic. You may choose to pay attention to one sense at a time or try to hold two simultaneously. Be present to what is. Walk or move in this way for several minutes or even half an hour. When you have ended, bow in gratitude for your body, for the beauty surrounding you, and for the beauty that will continue to follow you everywhere you go’’ – Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk, February 2018, St. John XXIII Catholic Community, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This he says is a form of contemplation! I want to suggest, in the great tradition of our numerous contemplative spiritual writers, scholars, brothers and sisters of old that contemplating the beauty around us will keep us hopeful as fellow pilgrims who strive for the way of God’s Kingdom. For this is the way of Jesus.

Posted in Dean of Manchester, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Justice, Bias, Love and Loyalty in the Church of England

by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist

Churches can be full of contradictions. This includes the Church of England, to which I have belonged most of my life. They are frequently warm and compassionate communities, especially at local level, where love of God and neighbour is evident. Yet often they fail the people who are most marginalised, hurt or exploited.

This is sometimes because leaders are uncaring or unwilling to listen to those outside their narrow circle. But even people of deep faith who are personally kind and thoughtful have sometimes, when in authority, let down those who should have been able to turn to them. Failure to act justly to victims of abuse, women facing sexism, black and minority ethnic communities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has caused huge damage.

The problem in such cases may not be callousness or deliberate cruelty but misplaced love and loyalty which get in the way of calling the powerful to account. It may be helpful to look at the biblical story of Eli the priest.

A pious and caring priest with a weakness

At the beginning of the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Eli, who is in charge of the ancient shrine at Shiloh, sits near the door. He sees a woman praying silently and, at first, unfairly thinks that she is drunk. But when she explains the cause of her distress, that she is childless (also a source of deep stigma in her culture), he responds with pastoral concern.

God hears her plea and she becomes pregnant, giving birth to a son, Samuel. She pledges him to God’s service. He arrives at the place of worship and is brought up by Eli, who seems to be a caring, devout father-figure. When Samuel hears the Divine for the first time one night, tellingly he mistakes the voice for Eli’s and finds and wakes the priest, who eventually realises what is happening and explains how to respond. In time, presumably largely thanks to Eli’s mentoring, Samuel will grow into an outstanding religious and national leader.

Yet the priest has a weakness: his two adult sons. They are “scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people,” for instance corruptly seizing meat being sacrificed to God, in the midst of the ritual, threatening force against worshippers who objected. Also “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting,” who presumably had no choice in the matter: this was abuse by men in positions of trust.

Eli tries to stop them, urging them to give up their evil ways. But they do not heed him; and he does not use his authority to stop them. In the end, they accompany the ark of the covenant, a gilded chest held to be especially holy, into battle with the nation’s enemies. The rival army triumphs, killing the two men and seizing the ark – though in time this is returned. When Eli hears the news, he falls down and dies.

One might guess at two reasons for Eli’s inaction, which sadly ends in tragedy for his family. It would ultimately have been better for his sons if he had challenged them more firmly. Wise love enables everyone to be the best they can.

The first reason is that, understandably, he has an especially deep bond with his sons, who have also been sharing his work. His pastoral care is genuine. But bias leads him astray.  He has probably also learnt to shy away from confrontation with two characters who he knows can be thoroughly unpleasant if they do not get their way.

The words of a visiting prophet (1 Samuel 2.27-36) indicate a second reason: that he has been seen to benefit, at least indirectly, from the corruption. Eli is accused by God, through the prophet, of looking “with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded” and sharing what his sons have unjustly taken.

There may also be an element of inertia – not wanting to disrupt a system that is working, however imperfectly, and offers some semblance of what is proper and orderly.

Sidestepping injustice today

Perhaps these are lessons for the Church today too? Love for, and empathy with, those acting unjustly can make it harder to take action on behalf of the oppressed.

The Church of England perhaps faces particular problems because of its institutional closeness to those wielding political and commercial power in the UK. However, church leaders, in general, may find it easier to bond and identify with people of their own gender, race and class. Such bias may be unconscious or intentional, for instance thinking people like them are better suited to leadership  They may also be drawn to those who, in their society,  are seen as “worthier” or “more important”.

So, even if leaders feel compassion for abuse victims, this may be outweighed by concern for alleged perpetrators to whom they feel more closely connected. Such leaders may be in denial about what happened or its seriousness, even to themselves. This may be reinforced by financial and reputational considerations: organisational as well as individual self-interest can make it harder to see and act on the truth.

To Christians in authority, the distress of men struggling to recognise women’s priestly calling, or white people challenged to treat black fellow-worshippers as equal, may seem more vivid than that of people suffering discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity. Fear of upsetting churchgoers opposed to LGBT affirmation, especially if they are also generous donors or willing volunteers, may overshadow harm to those who are excluded.

Yet failure to seek justice is contrary to the good news of Christ, who repeatedly upset the status quo and, through his act of sacrificial love, has offered the gift of life renewed. True reconciliation involves transforming old systems of domination and exploitation (2 Corinthians 5.14-19, Colossians 1.15-22).

This is not to suggest that people who resist greater equality should be treated harshly or ostracised. All of us fall short and have much to learn. Indeed, one way is for space to be generously set aside for people whose understanding of Scripture or tradition leads them to understand gender and sexuality differently.

However local and national leaders should be upfront about the emotional and spiritual costs of inequality and not adopt a pretence of neutrality which, in reality, favours oppression.

In response to injustice in Church and society, it is time to be bold!

Posted in Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

What Schitt’s Creek Can Teach the Church of England

by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Member of General Synod and Chair of One Body One Faith

ViaMedia.News ·

What was your ‘lockdown box set binge’? The answer to that question depends on whether you worked throughout it or found yourself with time on your hands. One show which many of my friends watched and is on my list to catch up with is Schitt’s Creek.

This Canadian comedy show has recently scooped nine prizes at the 2020 Emmy Awards, a record for the most wins in a single season for a comedy show. I won’t provide any spoilers, especially as I have yet to see the show myself, but I did recently discover something fascinating about the show. It is something quite revolutionary for a TV show and is rarely, if ever, mentioned. The show’s creators decided not to depict homophobia at all. The gay couple in the show are set up as the most normal thing in the world where everyone clearly wants them to succeed as a couple. This is not just about being inclusive, it is starving the darkness of homophobia of oxygen and focusing instead on a loving relationship, irrespective of gender. Those who would seek to attack LGBT+ people want attention and the creators of the show denied them that. How refreshing, how loving, how Christ like.

As a parent and a teacher, I know that you get the behaviour you give the attention to. If I spent all my time telling children off for bad behaviour, then they were getting attention and so the bad behaviour continued and even escalated. If my attention was focused on the good behaviour, then invariably I got more of that. I expected good behaviour and for most of the time I got it. There is something very powerful about where we put our attention.

As a Christian minister I am not surprised by that – it is there in the baptism service which I am so familiar with. Parents and Godparents are asked the following set of questions:

In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light.  To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him. Therefore I ask:

Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?

Answer            I reject them.

Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?

Answer            I renounce them.

Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?

Answer            I repent of them.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

Answer            I turn to Christ.

Do you submit to Christ as Lord?

Answer            I submit to Christ.

Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

Answer            I come to Christ.

It is essentially about where you put your focus. It is about turning away from darkness and evil and turning to Christ the light of the world and source of love. It is about turning away from homophobia, transphobia and all hatred and fear and turning towards the unconditional love of the God who created, affirms, and calls all people.

As Chair of OneBodyOneFaith I am proud that as an organisation we have resolved to campaign positively. We will call out the church where it is needed but we refuse to be trapped as victims of this hatred. We will not wait passively as we hear the endless stream of hand wringing empty apologies and delaying tactics, but we will get on with being the people of God in the world.

The Church of England is embarking on a ‘Living in Love and Faith’ project. I want it to bring about lasting change and I was encouraged by the Pastoral Principles which were published fairly early on. However, if I am honest I have very little, if any, hope that it will change anything. I will engage with it because it is the only option for members of the Church of England like myself, but my trust that there is any serious intention behind it is gone. If I am really honest I am really rather embarrassed that we are even having to do it when most of those outside of the church have done this thinking and moved on in an inclusive and affirming direction.

My focus is not on another time consuming exercise which continues to deny LGBT+ people a place, my focus is the many churches around the country where I see light and love, where Christian communities are living out their faith in a loving God and including LGBT+ people. The places where gifted and skilled LGBT+ ministers live out their vocation. The places where LGBT+ Christians are creating new ways to be a community and to worship God. Groups such as Open Table, Space to Be, Two:23 and Sacred to name but a few of these fresh expressions of the church serving a range of people interested in finding out about and expressing their faith in the God of love they encounter in the person of Jesus Christ. People who are no longer living in fear of the church or waiting for scraps from the table. People who recognise they are not disordered or sick or sinners but wonderful children of God, created in God’s image and called to live out their faith in new and exciting ways – engaging with people who have given up on the church and those who have never given it any credence before.

We are no longer asking for permission to join, no longer cowering in the shadows scared of revealing our true selves for fear of church condemnation. We are already part of the church, we are in churches faithfully serving and being included, we are changing hearts and minds, we are establishing new ways of being Christian communities which more accurately reflect the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The Church has fallen way behind, and I fear that ‘Living in Love and Faith’ will only drag it yet further back. There is a revolution happening already as faithful followers of Christ focus on the light and not the dark, on love and not hate. That is where my focus will be.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Peter Leonard | 4 Comments

One for All and All for One?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

The words which bind together Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers are also the unofficial motto of Switzerland, and date back at least to Shakespeare. It might well be a Christian motto too, echoing Paul’s reference to Jesus’ cross and resurrection (‘one has died for all’, 2 Corinthians 5.14) and affirming our loyalty to him, and to one another as members of Christ’s body.

But it’s not a motto which the Church is or has been good at living out. The COVID-19 pandemic, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Living in Love and Faith together open a window of opportunity – of necessity – for the Church to do things differently. We are offered the chance to live radically with difference. But will we take it?

In his September 15th blog on Via Media, Charlie Bell highlighted the importance of ‘intersectionality’ and that the Church has largely ignored it. Most people, including many Christians, will be unaware of the word (I had to look it up!). But nearly all of us, whether Christian or not, are caught up in what it refers to. Formally, it means the interconnection of various forms of oppression. That’s often what people experience: for example, an older black trans working-class person living in poverty suffers in themselves the intersection of multiple discriminations and oppression.

But as Charlie Bell noted, this also applies to struggles for justice. Solidarity together by those oppressed in different ways is a powerful response, affirming intersectionality. Think of Desmond Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the welcome given to gay people as well as people of all colours – though this isn’t a welcome affirmed by the whole Church. Which is why the Church is perceived as oppressive: because it divides people and makes different rules to apply to them. On ‘theological’ or ‘practical’ grounds we split up those who are discriminated against – by the Church and by others – into different categories. We encourage them to remain in their boxes as individual problems to be solved, rather than taking the risk of helping them come together to work for shared love and justice for all God’s people, of whatever age, sex, gender, race, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, marital status or belief.

There’s nothing new in this. The New Testament offers the picture of a Church called to live in radical love and justice, preaching the gospel of God’s loving salvation for all equally, living together in mutual love; and at the same time the picture of a Church struggling to make this real in practice. Whether it’s the book of Acts describing Palestinian and Hellenist Jewish believers squabbling over money in Jerusalem, or tensions between Gentiles and Jews in the early churches; or Paul addressing disunity in Corinth and elsewhere; or John writing about God’s love while excluding others from that love – the Church has had to work hard, and often failed, to transcend the social divisions and prejudices of the world around it, and has too often aided and abetted oppression rather than brought justice and love.

Ask black people about the churches’ role in profiting from slavery and its support for the injustices of the British Empire in the past, and their experiences of racism in churches in the present. Ask working-class people of any colour about how welcome they feel their ministry is to the church. Ask women, gay and trans people how they feel about churches continuing to exercise institutional discrimination against them. Ask the survivors of abuse in the churches how they have been treated by the systems meant to protect them.

How do we do it differently and together: ‘One for all and all for one’? The Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process in the Church of England is an opportunity to work in an intersectional way, and open up the conversation to include people of disability, people of non-white colour and non-middle class background, women in ministry and those who don’t believe they should be there – and of course LGBTI+ people who have often felt marginalised and excluded. But that requires local churches to not only own and take part in the LLF process, but to use it to listen and respond positively to all who have experienced structural oppression in church life, and look at how to work for justice not only within the church but also in the structures of society.

In a recent newspaper article the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London wrote of the need for local decision-making, with central authority doing only what it has to do. It was written against the background of disquiet about central Church of England guidance about responding to the coronavirus, to reaffirm the importance of parishes and local Christian communities in living out the Gospel of Christ locally in practical as well as spiritual ways. And if local churches don’t take seriously the issues of oppression and social justice, then whatever archbishops may say, the Church of England as a whole will continue to relinquish its role and mar its commendation of the Christian gospel to the nation.

The point of being local, and maintaining thriving local churches, isn’t to perpetuate the existence of the church; it’s to transform people’s lives and the life of society – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord. Together. One for all and all for one.

Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Disability, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse, Transgender | 3 Comments