By the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
In the most moving session of the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England (York, 7-11 July) a survivor of church-related sexual abuse spoke about her experience of reporting the abuse, about the support organisation to which she had turned for care and advice (see details below), and about her more recent work with that same support organisation, helping others who have been sexually abused by clergy. Her presentation was engaging, challenging, and harrowing.
In his introduction to the debate that followed the Bishop of Bath of Wells noted that the final report of IICSA on the handling of sexual abuse claims in a number of institutions including the Church of England was not due to be delivered until 2020. Nevertheless, he said, improving the experience of those survivors of church-related sexual abuse who were brave enough to report their abuse was so urgent that synod ought not to wait, but should begin to take action immediately.
The synod went on to vote overwhelmingly in favour of the motion before it, endorsing priorities for action and calling on the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council ‘to ensure that the plan of action is implemented as a matter of priority’.
Here was a good example of synod in action. The bishops and the business committee brought a matter before synod, synod listened and voted.
This debate, however, and particularly the Bishop of Bath Wells’ comments about the 2020 IICSA report, threw into sharp relief the decision of Business Committee (no doubt supported by the House of Bishops) that the topic of human sexuality will not be included in the agenda of synod before the Episcopal Teaching Document (recently titled ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’) is published in – wait for it – 2020.
This decision was made despite the fact that more than one Private Members Motion on the subject has attracted the requisite number of signatures to be presented to the synod for debate. It was made despite the fact that provisional synod dates for November that have been in synod members’ diaries for months have been declared unnecessary. It was made despite the fact that the House of Bishops has decided to take no action on the clear request of synod in July 2017 that they sponsor the development of liturgy for welcoming trans people. It was also made despite the fact that this current synod will be prorogued following the July 2020 synod and a new synod, many members of which will not have participated in this synod’s shared conversations, will be formed in November.
LGBTI+ Christians are hurting, and the response of the church has often, if anything, added to their injury. It is absolutely the case that the need of survivors of clergy sexual abuse is urgent, but the need of LGBTI+ Christians is urgent too. By 2020 many more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and otherwise queer Christians, many of them young, will have left the Church of England. Some of them will have self-harmed or committed suicide because their church tells them that their identity is unacceptable to God.
Nevertheless, the business committee will not bring this matter before synod before 2020. The synod will have no further opportunity to listen, and nor will it be seen to be listening.
The House of Bishops and the business committee have either not learned the lesson of the synod’s snub of the House of Bishops in its rejection of February 2017’s take-note debate, or they have learned it only too well, and reasoned that it is not safe to allow the synod to get its hand on this particular subject.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that synod is being very, very carefully managed, so as not to allow it to get too close to controversial issues. These are being deftly kicked into the long grass or, as one synod member put it during the business agenda debate at the beginning of synod, kicked like a can along a road. Either way, synod is not being let loose on them.
General Synod, at its best, is a dynamic and responsible decision maker. We saw that in this synod with a spirited debate on the relative merits of engagement with and disinvestment from energy companies. The Diocese of Oxford had campaigned widely prior to synod, and won much support for its proposed amendment in favour of disinvestment. Synod, however, heard an extraordinary and compelling account of the success of the NIBs and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group in their engagement strategy, so that even before the conclusion of the unusually strong speeches it became apparent to most that many synod members had changed their minds and that the amendment would fail, as it did decisively.
In the investment debate, and even more so in the safeguarding debate, we saw the power of stories to change hearts and minds, especially where the lives of vulnerable people are at stake. The stories of LGBTI+ people will not be heard again by this synod. More’s the pity.
‘Once bitten, twice shy’ or so the old saying goes.
Typically, it means that when someone has let you down once you’re rightly wary of trusting them again.
And yet of course, that’s precisely what we in the Church of England are being asked to do – trust that the House of Bishops will this time really hear what is being said about the impact of its teaching on the LGBTI community, trust that this time they will actually act, trust that this time they will come off the razor wire fence that they have become so adapt at balancing on. In a nutshell, trust that this time they will actually decide whether someone like me can love and be loved, can have that love blessed and can use the gifts that God has gifted me with in ordained service to His Church.
After having tangible proof that the bishops have consistently failed to do any of this with their last, now discredited, report – which the General Synod voted down in February 2017 – we are now being asked to put all future debates on hold until they have had a second attempt at another document.
Of course this is the same group of mostly straight men that talk about being Christ-like and yet so many have a less than honest approach of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, who talk about being courageous and confident yet most cannot be brave enough to state what they really think in public, and who pretend that they are upholding the “precious gift of unity” yet know full well that we are far from being one and that it is LGBTI Christians who bear the brunt of their indecision, and have to leave.
No matter that so many of us suffer mental anguish and trauma, that many of us still struggle with suicidal thoughts and feelings of self-hate. We are just a few – and we therefore don’t really matter. Our presence is not that missed.
Even when some of us pay the ultimate price, the Church just looks away and continues to stumble proudly on. There seems no real desire to stop, listen and learn – it’s just all too inconvenient.
Shame on us all.
No wonder the nation looks at the Church with horror and sees a hypocritical edifice of hollow words and false smiles. People constantly wringing their hands and offering meaningless platitudes.
And whilst those in authority pontificate and procrastinate real people’s lives continue to be ruined.
More worryingly, young peoples’ lives continue to be put at risk. This is a safeguarding issue of immediate importance, as they are exposed to teachings that will scar them for life. But few want to see it as such, and many instead accuse us of emotional blackmail.
You think I exaggerate?
Well you try living with the fact that you are constantly told that God does not bless your yearning for love. That we must pay a sacrificial price for the way we have been created – a price not of our choosing but mandated to us by an institution who has stubbornly chosen to interpret scripture in a way that shows no love or mercy but places burdens on us we cannot carry.
Some of us are told we are abominations, that it would have been better if we had in fact died than choose the path we are now on. They tell us we must repent and be transformed or face the heavy hand of discipline – which for many of us results in us being removed from any form of service or use of our gifts and talents, and for some bars us from the sacraments and even from church membership. I know of one lady who was barred from even making coffee in her church, another who was told that the only thing she could do was clean the toilets – which she obediently did.
Who then is being Christ-like?
In order to find happiness, love and acceptance – many of us will try to seek ever more desperate ways of securing our healing. We will put ourselves through all forms of prayer ministry, deliverance ministry, fasting and penances. We will bare our souls to strangers, some will even bare their bodies and suffer physical degradation and pain – each attempt becoming ever more desperate.
Of course, when each course of action fails – which it nearly always does – we are left to carry the shame and frustration of wondering why God is not answering our heartfelt prayers. What have we done wrong? What hidden sin have we not confessed? Why didn’t we have enough faith? The blame is always left at our door, and we are the ones who are left to carry alone our shame and self-hate.
It is demeaning, humiliating and utterly exhausting.
I should know, I’ve been through it all – as I recount in my memoir, “Just Love“.
Countless others have too – if you’re in any doubt, read Vicky Beeching’s “Undivided”.
Many are still going through it, right now – today, tomorrow and each day up to the time in which the powers that be finally decide to act.
Indeed, since the publication of my memoir, Just Love, I have been inundated with many heart-breaking stories from LGBTI Christians about the way they too have been treated by their churches. Their pain is raw, their experiences real, their anger palpable.
Of course, many will eventually give up and find their only option is to leave. But be under no disillusionment – they will more often than not have to leave not just their church, but their family, their closest friends, their support group and their peers.
Their act of bravery, a step into freedom, will come at an extremely heavy cost – which for many will then prove too much. They will be cast out and berated by their church elders, their family and friends. There is no return. It is a one-way step.
Others will try to settle down and conform. They will marry “in faith” and live a life that is a lie, which will build an inner scream that inevitably – one day – will become so loud that it will find a way of being heard, be it through physical or mental breakdown.
Indeed, one such lady has just written to me about the trauma she is going through:
“I still experience repeated sexual trauma as I try and do what I believe the Church would have me do and stay committed and giving in my marriage. In coming out there is a sense very much I’ve been wrong and have betrayed my husband in it all, but no recognition that being gay in this context can be a deeply painful situation itself. I face suicidal feelings daily as I try and fit the straight mould I feel I owe to my husband who I love dearly.”
The horror and cruelty we put young (and not so young) LGBTI Christians through is one of the greatest evils of our generation. I say this advisedly, as it is done in the name of love by those we love yet it leads to destruction and hate.
So I make a plea – please church leaders, wherever you are, look at your fruit! Are you seeing lives that are flourishing? Does your teaching lead to life or death? Is your theology placing burdens on people they cannot carry?
Many of course will refuse to admit what is plain and true for everyone else to see.
So, I ask, again, who is it who needs teaching? Who is it who needs to learn? Who is the subject and who the object?
For those who have ears to hear – please hear the cries of a community in deep and ongoing pain. And once you have heard, please act immediately – do not wait for more lives to be ruined.
You do not need a teaching document to tell you how to respond.