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

Secrecy and an Unaccountable Church of England

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Author, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and member of General Synod

Honestly, it drives me mad!

When I first became a member of General Synod over ten years ago I was very taken with the idea that anyone could ask a question and the person responsible for that area of church life would be required to reply both to the question and the supplementary. It looked to me like a way of ensuring accountability. 

What I quickly discovered is that it’s actually a game of manners in which carefully briefed bishops very effectively shut down any probing or awkward questions. There are basically variants of three answers: ‘This is work in progress’; ‘We don’t collect that data’; ‘It’s confidential.’

It mirrors the whole world of General Synod which, apart from the odd little rush of blood to the head, is very carefully managed to create the illusion of accountability without the reality.

So yes!  It makes me mad. So much so that I’m not going to stand again. It has, however, got me thinking about accountability as a Christian concept.

In February 2020 I asked the following question: “In the light of a figure of £200 million mentioned by Bishop Peter Hancock to survivors, how much money has actually been allocated in the AC or CC budget this year and next, specifically for the care and restorative justice of survivors of clergy abuse?” 

The reply was that they were working on it and waiting for the IICSA report to tell them what to do! Not even a hint of any figures and zero accountability.


John Spence, the chair of the finance committee was clearly deeply moved and memorably spoke from the floor promising that funds would be found for compensation payments, saying: “This is not about affordability, it is about justice. Justice cannot have a different value depending on the finances of this or that diocese. Whatever we are told is required … for redress, then those funds will be found,”

So, is this actually happening? Can we hold even the revered John Spence to account?

In the absence of any figures whatsoever Dr Josephine Stein used her research skills to put together an educated estimate. The opening sentence of the Church Times article about her work says it all: ‘Survivors of abuse in a church context receive about £55,000 in redress in from the Church of England out of an estimated £20 million spent on safeguarding annually.’ (CT 19.08.2020)

It would seem that John Spence’s pockets were not that deep after all. Survivors are still on the bread line. They are unable to work, have exhausted their life savings and are still given a poxy £500 upper limit for counselling after life changing trauma.

There are no other ways we lesser mortals can ask the Church of England to follow through with its promises – that’s why it drives me mad.

The really interesting thing, once you start thinking about it, is that accountability should be an attitude of life – a cast of the heart. There are all sorts of legal backstops to ensure financial accountability. People make it their life’s work and call themselves “accountants” after all! Genuine accountability is far more to do with the nature of the relationship you think you have with others. I hold myself accountable to my husband, to my family, because I love them. We consider one another equal and would not abuse power or money. If one of us messed up we’d try and fix it and be genuinely sorry. This requires truth telling and openness and transparency not secrecy and silence.

Whilst writing this blog a rather excellent MA thesis landed on my desk. It’s about the use of Non Disclosure Agreements in Religious Institutions. Ben Nicholson successfully demonstrates that: ‘NDAs actively prevent transparency, truthfulness, accountability, reconciliation and restored relationships through a combination of intimidation and enforced silence.’ They also, he continues: ‘discriminate in favour of the powerful, enabling them to avoid being held accountable for wrongdoing and require the complicity of other powerful people.’

I recognise that. When I asked about the Church of England’s use of NDAs the reply was: “We can’t tell you that – it’s secret!”

So yes!  It drives me mad!

It doesn’t need to be like that! As Bishop’s chaplain I have been to more licensing services than I care to remember, when a new person is legally made the vicar of a parish. To this day I am struck afresh by a particular moment, after the bishop has read out the terms of the license, when the piece of paper is handed over from the bishop to the priest with the words ‘receive the cure of souls which is both yours and mine….’ And Bishop Alan always says: ‘I hold myself as accountable to you as you are to me. The scripture teaches mutual accountability…….’ 

Experience tell me that is not a common attitude.

What’s more Scripture  teaches us that we are accountable to God through one another. The way we treat one another is the litmus test of the authenticity of our faith.

As we hold our breath for the “Living in Love and Faith” document whose genesis has also been shrouded in secrecy, can we expect something different? Will the authors hold themselves as accountable to the LGBTI+ members of our Church as they do the powerful conservative lobby!?

Unaccountable power is dangerous. To sustain it there needs to be secrecy. However, it won’t last forever for: ‘Things hidden will become clear and every secret thing will be made known.’ (Luke 8.17)  

Secrecy and accountability can’t co-exist.

Posted in Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Rosie Harper, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 13 Comments

Solidarity, Oppression and the Church of England

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow in Medicine at Girton College Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24)

Justice is a fundamental facet of the Christian life, and the past summer has once again brought injustice into the light of day. As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the globe, the Church of England did, indeed, make its voice heard – recognising not only the chronic injustice done by white people to black people for generations, including in our churches, but also calling for real change within society and within institutions. Whilst it is shameful that it took these protests to call too many white people to action, this is a narrative that neither will nor should go away, and one that is not optional for Christians to engage in. On the surface, then, it is quite right for our bishops and other leaders to highlight the BLM campaign – yet something doesn’t quite feel right.

A key thing about Black Lives Matter, and many other organisations that stand up for the oppressed, is that they understand not only the role of structural oppression, but also the importance of intersectionality. These two concepts should sit at the heart of what we as Christians believe – the former well studied and lived out in liberation theologies, and the latter a key example of living the Christian life in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Yet intersectionality barely gets a mention in church discourse, and likewise the Church of England routinely misrepresents structural oppression in its own dialogues.

The Church, of course, is exempt from the Equality Act. Yet this very simple fact seems to be overlooked by many church leaders who constantly complain that nobody is taking them, or the church, seriously. Black Lives Matter is unashamedly pro-women, pro-queer, pro-disabled, pro-black. Organisations like it understand the reason that the protected characteristics in the Equality Act exist, and rather than pitting one group against another, recognise the complex interplay between them and the interconnectedness of privileged oppression.  The substantial moral strength of BLM as opposed to the Church is that there is no ‘but’ involved in their struggle for justice. Oppressed groups work together to liberate each other – it is a struggle together, not a struggle in opposition.

This is where the Church of England falls very short indeed.  A good example of this would be the dialogue on LGBT inclusion. Countless times, when pushing for equality in the Church, I have been told ‘but Africa’ – a blithe, yet despicable remark, which suggests that Church hierarchs would delight to have more LGBT inclusion but can’t because it would upset ‘the communion’ (or sometimes, more crassly and revealingly, ‘the Africans’). Not only is this offensive and simplistic, but it is an insidious attempt to silence one oppressed group by reference to another. We might seriously reconsider the imperial origins and character of the Anglican Communion and review its effective working in the twenty-first century. We most certainly should not sanction a narrative of blaming black people for white laws imposed during imperial conquest (and encouraged to this day by white conservatives) and consequently point the finger of blame for LGBT exclusion at ‘Africans’, as though that is a homogenous group of people. Yet ‘but Africa’ is the go-to response by far too many bishops.  Putting it bluntly, black Africans should not be the bishops’ shields.

Yet when church leaders promote Black Lives Matter, they either don’t bother to find out what they are supporting, or they are hypocritical. As Christians, we are called to stand up against oppression, not against some types of oppression. We are most certainly not called to oppress. When Church leaders spoke up against the Orlando killings in an LGBT nightclub, they appeared surprised when very few people bothered to listen, particularly within the LGBT community. That might just be because LGBT people don’t want pity – they want solidarity. A Church with an ambivalence on equality is not a church of solidarity.

Similarly, the furore over the recent participation of  Church Society in the Church of England’s Sunday worship shows quite how deep the problem is. Much was made of how difficult it is for those of ‘conservative’ mindset to find their place in the church. Likewise, in a theological college discussion on equal marriage, we were told that ‘both sides’ needed a safe space – these ‘sides’ being LGBT people and those with a theological opposition to LGBT rights. This is absolute nonsense – these two are not equivalent! For someone to disagree with your theological position is, of course, difficult – but if you truly believe it, then you should be able to defend it. This is self-evidently not the same as being attacked for simply being who you are – for expressing love towards another individual of the same sex, being told that ‘pride comes before destruction’ and that those who merely support LGBT people are ‘surrendering Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive…and endangering to the soul’ (as the Director of Church Society stated). This is not theological disagreement – this is a direct attack, prejudice against and persecution of LGBT people. Not to see this is to show a wilful disregard for the reality of power dynamics.

The scary reality is that victim-blaming forms a fundamental part of church dialogue, including ‘good disagreement’. In the facilitated conversations a few years ago, even mention of the word ‘homophobic’ to describe actual oppression was considered ‘hurtful’ – quite literally silencing the voice and experience of the oppressed. The word ‘painful’ has been grossly overused by those in positions of power when their theology is challenged, yet all the while, LGBT people are expected to just take their vilification as part of ‘theological discourse’. It smells of the same attitude that led the British state to pay compensation to slave owners and not slaves. It is the height of hypocrisy and the apogee of privilege used for repression.

This is why the Church of England is structurally oppressive.

Bishops and clergy who cannot see this do not need more air-time – they need education. Our theological colleges should be giving voice to the oppressed, not the oppressor – yet how many of our colleges take liberation theology, black theology or queer theology seriously? Our entire religion is based on solidarity with the people on the margins, yet our entire institution is prejudiced, structurally, against those who remain on these very margins.

Those of us in oppressed groups need to model this solidarity. Those of us who have privilege need to acknowledge it. We must call out lazy and false thinking, and we must change. The secular world is leagues ahead of us already, once again. Until we recognise our institutional prejudice, we would do better not to bother with the warm words, thoughts and prayers far too easily sprinkled.

Acts of omission of solidarity are acts nonetheless – and until our actions reflect out words, we will remain a church all too silent in mission, silent in ministry and silent in letting the oppressed go free.

Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Social Justice | 9 Comments

Sexuality & Christianity – Does One Size Fit All?

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Vicar of St John’s Waterloo and Member of the Co-Ordinating Group for the  “Living in Love and Faith” Project

In the midst of trying to work out in this COVID world what is permitted, when, by whom, and where, I’m getting light relief by reading a book. It’s called ‘A Secular Age,’ – by Charles Taylor. It surveys the path to the current marginalisation of organised religion from the late Middle Ages to the 21st century. Some readers of this blog may know it. It’s a magisterial work.

Taylor is one of the world’s major philosophers, winning the Templeton Prize and the Berggruen Prize, and “A Secular Age” is one of his most important books. He has been criticised for focusing too much on Europe and North America – a criticism he acknowledges – but for me, the resonances are manifold. He offers a detailed and nuanced explanation for why the denial of religious faith was virtually unthinkable at the end of the fifteenth century, whereas now to embrace religious faith is rarely intellectually respectable and often considered irrational. So what has changed, and why?

You’ll need to read the book to find out. Here, I want to try to outline how Taylor argues that the sexual liberation of the 1960’s onwards drove a further nail into the coffin of popular religion.

I obviously can’t precis 750 pages into five hundred words. But in brief, he charts the path towards the sexual liberation movement within both Catholic and Reformed traditions, identifying a disproportionate focus on sexual sin as the means of imposing conformity amongst both Catholics and Protestants.

“In the mediaeval understanding of seven deadly sins, the sins of the spirit (pride, envy, anger) were seen as more grievous than those of the flesh (gluttony, lechery, sloth: avarice could be put in either column).”  (p496). There was, in the middle ages, a greater tolerance for diversity of sexual expression (evidenced, for example, in the Canterbury Tales). But, ‘during the Catholic Reformation, emphasis came to be more and more on concupiscence[1] as the crucial obstacle to sanctity.’ In other words, in the early modern age personal purity took on a greater importance as a pre-requisite for salvation – and the most clearly measurable criterion for purity was either celibacy, or sexual continence within the bonds of holy matrimony.

The Reformation process was happening in parallel and led to a similar outcome. The dethroning of monks, nuns and celibate clergy from their status at the top of the religious hierarchy left a vacuum, and a notion of the Christian family, headed by father and mother in monogamous relationship, filled that space. So, again, a particular form of sexual expression became intrinsic to a grace-filled religious life.

I’m not saying that sexual sins were unimportant in the pre-modern age: we know that the act of sodomy bore severe penalties, and the lists of days on which sexual intercourse was forbidden (Feast days, Fridays, Wednesdays, Saint’s Days, Lent, Advent…) meant that days on which congress could virtuously take place were vanishingly few.

But ‘what emerges from all this,’ says Taylor, ‘is what we might call ‘moralism’, that is, the crucial importance given to a certain code in our spiritual lives. We should all come closer to God; but a crucial stage on this road has to be the minimal conformity to the code.’ (p. 497).

Taylor argues that ‘the dominant spiritual fashion of recent centuries is not normative …. The deviation was to make this take on sexuality mandatory for everyone.’ (p504, my italics). The prevalent view within Western Christianity that one size fits all – that the only acceptable form of sexual expression is within a heterosexual marriage – is a relatively recent phenomenon.

So, the sexual liberation movement which began in the 1960’s was not just about the importance of individual self-expression. It was also about challenging a historic religious structure of power and influence which confined women and LGBTI+ people – as well as people who weren’t white, but that’s another subject – to the margins.

That, for me, is the rub. It’s one of the principal sources of our current arguments and it’s what, I hope, the Living in Love and Faith project will begin to unpack. Perhaps with the support of Pope Francis, who recently affirmed that ‘“The pleasure of eating and sexual pleasure come from God.’

Now of course Christianity derives its being from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our faith is rooted in the Gospels. The problem, as we all know, is that the message and the meaning of Christ’s saving act is contested, by good and faithful people of sincerely different convictions.

Understanding our history is important if we are to be able to understand one another. So I welcome Taylor’s analysis, and encourage you, if you have a spare few weeks and want to take your mind off the US Elections and the pandemic, to read A Secular Age.

[1] Sexual desire or lust

A response to this blog has been posted on the Modern Church website by Jonathan Clatworthy

Posted in Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 5 Comments

A Tribute to Colin Blakely, Co-Founder of Via Media

RIP Colin Blakely (Jan 7th 1960 – Sept 7th 2020)

Words mattered to Colin.  Words said in the right way, to the right people, with the right tone could, he believed, change the world.  That is why he was so committed to accurate and sensitive reporting, sharing people’s stories and giving people a voice.  He dedicated his life to doing this, and inspired others to do the same.  What is more, he was one of the most respected and longest serving journalists in the Christian world.  He was fiercely loyal, totally confidential, and utterly dependable. 

He was also one of my best friends, who I am proud to have known for over 20 years.

Colin believed passionately that it was always better to be part of a conversation rather than on the outside shouting in.  That is why he encouraged me to get back involved with the discussions in the church on sexuality and stood with me every step of the way – at some cost to himself.  Together we launched Via Media, a blog now read by thousands with contributors from across the full spectrum of the Church.  Together we set-up my Foundation, for which he kindly agreed to be an office holder.  Together we worked on every speech, press release, blog and article – hoping that it would win hearts and challenge minds, and always, always allow the love of God to shine through.

For truth and justice were critical foundation stones for Colin.  He felt the pain keenly of those who were outcast and sought to give them a voice.  In our catch-up sessions he would often reach out and take my hand, in tears, asking why people were so cruel and full of such hate.  This would often be after reading his postbag – there were no words, so we would just sit and silently weep.

Colin bore the pain of being right at the sharp end of wanting to champion LGBT+ matters, which he did magnificently, and yet working in a world that he thought often caused the trauma he felt compelled to report on.  It was not an easy place to be, and he did not do it for money – but love.

For above all, Colin’s most remarkable quality was his ability to love.  He embodied unconditional love of all – as his friends and family will testify.  His loving kindness touched everyone around him, as did his infectious laugh, which emanated in his eyes.  His soft Scottish long drawn out “yeeees” was the answer to most things, always positive – always keen to encourage and spur people on. 

Colin will be missed by so many, across the full breadth of the Church of England and far beyond.  As Bishop Paul Bayes, a mutual friend, has said: “Colin was a really significant influencer in the Christian community over many years, and that he combined this with a quiet and self-effacing personal style.”

His proudest achievement though was his family.  He was a deeply private man, utterly devoted to his wife, Libby, and their children, Mikey and Naomi.  They were his life and his rock.  He lived for them, and will I know continue through them – for the love they shared is unquenchable.

Posted in Colin Blakely, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Social Justice | 5 Comments

Worldly Weddings – To Bless or Not to Bless?

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

On 14 February a former Bishop of Jarrow used to stand at the feet of the Angel of the North in Gateshead, and bless any couples who came along. Kitsch and worldly certainly. But it might tell us something important about marriage and the church as we seek to respond to Government proposals to change the rules on where people can get married and who can officiate at weddings.

The history of marriage and the church is clear enough. For almost the whole of the first 1,000 years of Christian history there is simply no such thing as ‘Christian’ marriage. Christians get married, certainly. But they get married according to the laws and traditions of ‘secular’ culture. Christian clergy play no role. Indeed, there is nothing resembling a Christian marriage service, a liturgy, until at least the 8th century.

Even then weddings remain firmly under civil jurisdiction for another 400 years. It is only in the post-Reformation period that, by canon law and custom, it becomes a requirement in both Catholic and Anglican traditions that a priest officiates at a wedding. Always of course the actual ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves and not the priest.

Marriage does not fit easily into Aquinas’ Aristotelian sacramental system. But the sacramentaliisation of marriage in the Middle Ages – rather like the monasticisation of the clergy – is a fascinating power grab by the medieval church, more to do with control than blessing.

Marriage is robustly secular. Though often missed, this is precisely what informs Paul’s teaching on marriage. Getting married is what people do, and that is part of its ‘worldly’ nature. In the teaching of both Jesus and Paul, marriage is part of the “the present form of this world which is passing away (1 Corinthians 7.31) and Jesus is specific that in the resurrection “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22.30). These would not be comfortable texts to us at the funeral of a deeply loved spouse but this is not intended as a moral condemnation. Rather it reflects the eschatology of the New Testament writers.

Christians have had to recognise for most of the last 2,000 years that marriage has taken a variety of forms and that these have largely been dictated and developed by ‘secular’ culture rather than by the church. Christopher Brooke’s classic, The Medieval Idea of Marriage, is hugely enjoyable in its own right, but leaves the reader in no doubt.

The history of marriage and the church has not been helped by a deeply unbiblical  pessimism about sex. Rowan Williams notes that Gregory the Great had to reassure Augustine of Canterbury that someone who had had sex on a Saturday could still receive communion on Sunday. By contrast, in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is a specially favoured day for making love. Whilst the very positive statements of modern church leaders about marriage and the family are welcome, these have little resonance in the tradition, and often unintentionally echo the church’s earlier attempts to control marriage rather than demonstrating a desire to bless human relationships.

When I was a vicar in North Yorkshire, I officiated at a minimum of at least 30 a year. It was a pretty church in a stunning location, and with a huge parish centre where we could even offer wedding receptions. This was a place where people still got married in large numbers, even though the registry office was just stone’s throw away. Wedding preparation in large groups on Saturday mornings was an excellent opportunity to get to know couples well and do some straight teaching and reflection. But although I was completely confident that we had wonderful good news to share – that we knew about love, sacrifice, life intention, vows, for better for worse – I also realised in those precious encounters that they were inviting me onto their sacred ground, not the other way round.

And I think that’s why over recent years, I have learnt most from non-church weddings, especially a family wedding in a youth hostel in Derbyshire. Some non-church weddings have left me feeling empty and frustrated, to be sure. But so have some church weddings. This Derbyshire youth hostel wedding genuinely engaged and excited me. Location was determined by the bride and groom’s passion for rock climbing, and the ceremony itself – not just the party afterwards in a tent where the heating had failed – was a genuine opportunity for people to speak serious words about love and commitment, and make unique personal contributions. It seemed extraordinary to all of us that although there were several ordained ministers present, and the bride and groom would have loved to have their participation, the legalities prohibited any such religious content. But I realised through that day that I was learning at a ‘secular’ wedding things I thought I already knew.

This is important. For many of us as Christian parents our children may well not make the same choices as us about marriage. Even devout Christians are sometimes opting for non-church weddings, because the rules we make exclude them or because what we offer seems to restrain rather than to bless.

The experience of going to civil weddings has raised my game. If I were getting married now, it certainly would still be in a church, with full Nuptial Mass and all the trimmings. But we would seek to learn from non-church weddings, where the personal is often better honoured, the world better understood and the context better embraced. If Aquinas is right, these civil events are (at least in part) still sacraments, and the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Christ is there, just as he was at the similarly non-church wedding at Canaan in Galilee.

The incarnation invites us to a recognise that it is the world in all its glorious variety that is the arena of God’s activity, the arena into which God sends us to serve, the context to which God invites us to pay attention.

So, alongside welcoming the government’s long-overdue consultation on opening up the conversation about where people can get married and who can officiate at a wedding, let’s be bold enough – as confident missionary-minded churches have always been – to engage with the kitsch and the worldly next Valentine’s Day and do some serious blessing.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Nicholas Henshall, Politics, Social Justice | 3 Comments

We Can’t Go Back….But We Will, Unless…

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media, Director of the Ozanne Foundation and a Member of General Synod

Jayne Ozanne new

“Real power lies in the people!”

Earlier this week I was privileged to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu say these powerful words during a characteristically direct address ahead of a private screening of an epic new film about Africa, climate change and migration, The Great Green Wall.

He was keen to draw on the words of Thomas Sankara, that set the tone of the film:

“We must dare to invent the future – everything humanity can imagine we can create”

For the last three months on Via Media we have had 24 vastly different and yet uniquely personal blogs from a range of contributors addressing the subject “We Can’t Go Back…” They have touched on a truly diverse set of topics from power and inequality to social care and justice, and from topics relating to our buildings to those relating to our well-being and mental health.

For all their differences, they have each dared to invent a new future, to imagine things as they could be.  Indeed, the series itself found its genesis in words spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury during his Easter Day sermon, televised to the nation from his kitchen at the start of the lockdown, where he shared his own vision of a future filled with resurrection hope, saying:

“After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS, so much effort, once this epidemic is conquered here and round the world, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal.  There needs to be a resurrection of our common life, something that links to the old, but is different and more beautiful.  We must dream it because it is the gift of God. Then we must build it in partnership with God.”

But the million-dollar question of course is – will things actually really change?

Or perhaps more importantly – what will it take to bring about the change so many long for, write for, march for and in some cases, even die for?

I suggest that there are three things that we can each do to help bring about the change we seek.  For power truly does “rest with the people” – we just need to understand how much power we have and how it can be harnessed, released and used to transform our Church, and our world.

The first is, we need to pledge to always “call things out”.  We need to name the elephants in the room.  We need to stop admiring the “emperor’s new clothes”, and instead have the humanity and the decency to tell the emperors that they are in fact naked, that we will not go along with their charades any longer.  It takes courage and wisdom, and it requires a tone that is full of love rather than accusation – a balance that is not easy to strike.  In essence we need to stop colluding.  We need to stop colluding with the lies that have kept us all bound and which have often left us feeling that we have no option but to conform.

What sort of lies?

Well those that say our Church is not rich.  We are rich.  It is just that the money is locked up in ways few can access, and it is this that needs challenging.  It is the lies that say we, the Church, are united, when we all know that we are deeply divided and that it is those without power and influence who end up leaving by the back door, with few seeming to notice or care.  It is the lies that say we, the Church, have a respected voice in our nation, when in fact few are listening and frankly many no longer care as we lost their respect the moment we started preaching love to them and abjectly failing to show it to some of the most vulnerable in our midst.

The second, which is closely related to the first, is that we need to stop being so deferential.  This does not mean that we stop showing respect to people, that is quite a different matter – mutual respect is healthy and essential.  However, there is an unhealthy level of deference in our Church that seems to put senior religious leaders on pedestals from which they can only fall.  They are human beings just like the rest of us.  They bleed, just like the rest of us.  They make mistakes, just like the rest of us.

If we are honest, deference can act both ways – it can be as much about people in power expecting it as well as those “in the pews” kowtowing to it.  It may well have been an unspoken norm from our past, but it is not the model that Jesus shows us as he interacts with people around him – in fact quite the opposite.  The religious leaders of the day may have expected it, but He modelled something quite different – much to their frustration – and the people loved Him for it!

Thirdly, we have to believe in ourselves. “There can be miracles, when you believe..” is not just a song sung by Mariah Carey.  It is something we each have to embrace and hold on to.  Right now there is so much that could happen, if only there were people willing to step forward and lead change.  We are in the midst of a major “reset” – there is a “reboot” that is happening not just in our Church, but in our nation and in the world itself.

Never has there been such an opportune time for people to stand up and say “enough, I want to do things differently!”  What is stopping them?  Mostly, although I appreciate not always, it is their own levels of self-confidence and sense of self-worth.

We are the key – we are also the barrier.  Change lies with us!

So, in the words of Archbishop Tutu, who closed his address to us with the following challenge:

“Let us not forget the transformative power of hope and imagination – we must dare to invent the future!”

We must “dare”, and we must “do” – for real power lies with us!

Posted in Coronavirus, Jayne Ozanne, Politics, Social Justice, We Can't Go Back... | 4 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…So We Need to Take Care of Our Mental Health

by the Rt Revd Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London and former Chief Nursing Officer

Sarah Mullally

‘Coronavirus has our brains pinging on “future threat,” driving global anxiety and shared fear, as we all live in this extreme state of uncertainty.’ So wrote Jan Bruce in Forbes magazine on March 5th. And if shared fear was a reality then, how much more so now? After three months of daily death tolls, R values and government appeals to stay at home, it is not surprising that a certain amount of anxiety might hang over the public’s heads.

This week, the mental health charity Mind quantified the impact. In a survey of 16,000 people, they discovered that 65% of adults and 75% of 13-24 year olds with pre-existing mental health conditions said that their situations had worsened. More than a fifth of those aged 13 or older without prior mental health difficulties described their mental health as poor or very poor.[1]

We needed the stats, the briefings and the message to stay at home. Coronavirus was and is a killer. Understanding the risks helped us to stay alert in a time of real danger. And I’m also acutely aware that many people have faced fearful burdens on top of the virus itself.  Those who have lost their jobs or have been put under severe financial pressures. The elderly who were shielding and less able to socialise online. Those who struggle with loneliness at the best of times, finding their feelings exacerbated by circumstances. Others found themselves suddenly trapped at home with abusers. They faced fears not just from an unseen killer but from a visible threat.

But the general climate of fear that has been so successfully inculcated in us, leaves us with a conundrum. How do we encourage one another to wisely emerge from lockdown? How do we begin to navigate this brave new world of face masks and social distancing? A world in which we can meet with six others but cannot sing in church. Some can have a picnic in the park while others remain shut up at home. We have permission to roam but the newspapers warn of a second wave. We want to support the economy but can feel, more than anything, emotionally shattered.

Thankfully, before COVID-19 hit, we had been moving towards a greater awareness of the need to attend to our mental health. Notably the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spoke out last year. I was grateful to be able to speak on these issues at Lambeth Palace alongside Dr Jacqui Dyer, President of the Mental Health Foundation and the Archbishop of Canterbury last year. The increased engagement with mental health awareness day is evidence of what Justin Welby wrote then: “it feels like something is beginning to shift.”[2] It is becoming okay to not be okay. And in this regard, the Christian story has an important contribution to make.

In the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says:

“We have this treasure,” [the treasure being the glory of God] “in jars of clay” [the jars being us] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Paula Gooder, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, tells me that there were two types of jar in the first century. One was dark and thick used for display. The other used the thinnest material possible so that it would crack in the kiln. The cracks enabled light to diffuse out from within when a lamp was placed inside. The jar was purposely created to be vulnerable, so that the light would shine through it. This, says Paul is God’s design. Our fragility, vulnerability and brokenness is by design, so that the light of the glory of Christ might shine brightly as we persevere in living for Jesus through it.

All of this means that as we emerge from lockdown, we do well to talk about our mental health. To talk to each other, to make it integral to our ministry life whatever context we find ourselves in, for mental health to be a subject for prayer in public as well as in private. In this way we can each find the comfort and support that we need.

I’m doing all I can to ensure that the NHS provides the mental health services that our nation will need through my role in the House of Lords. But in the first instance, Paul doesn’t point us to specialised support groups but the shoulders to cry on that he provides in the church. The brothers and sisters that should be available to us all. The challenge to us as churches, is to continue to have a culture in which everyone feels safe to share their struggles and feel able to speak openly.

Our fear is not something that we need to hide. It is something that can be harnessed in our walk with God. So often it is when we are at our wit’s end that we recognise our need to cry out to the Lord for help (Psalm 107:27). So often, in God’s peculiar plan for this world, it is when we have received comfort from Him and his people, that we are best equipped to comfort others in return (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

[1] https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/uk-government-must-urgently-plan-for-recovery-from-coronavirus-mental-health-crisis-says-mind/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/18/children-alone-uk-mental-health-problems-listening-stigma


Posted in Coronavirus, Guest Contributors, Mental Health, We Can't Go Back... | 4 Comments