‘Dirty Bodies’, Dust and Ashes…

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage”

Mandy Ford

This week, ashes were smeared on my forehead as the following words were spoken: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

They are words from the book of Genesis, spoken by God to Adam and Eve as he exiles them from the Garden of Eden and curses them with mortality.

Each year, as members of my congregation have knelt in front of me to receive this same smear of ashes, I have found this to be a moment of recognition, of accepting their frailty and mine. As I touched the skin of the woman whose bones and veins could be seen through her paper thin skin, noticed the fresh scars on the wrists of the young girl who couldn’t look me in the eye, remembered the cancer sulking in the young father’s blood stream, I would find myself wondering, “Will you be ash by this time next year?”

Ash Wednesday is a powerful symbolic reminder of our mortality and frailty. Our attention is drawn to our bodies, with all their vulnerability to weariness, to pain and to suffering.

Our society prefers to hide away this view of bodies.

In the so called “developed” world we spend a fortune keeping our bodies clean, removing the hair from them, scenting them, painting them. We mask the signs of ageing with hair dye and Botox. If bodies don’t conform to the socially constructed ideal they are punished, with diets, exercise, surgery. And when the people who spend all their time making their bodies look lovely for our consumption take their eye off the project, the paparazzi snap at them with their long lenses and we mock their less than groomed, toned or perfect bodies as we click the Facebook bait, or take a sneaky look at the Daily Mail sidebar of shame.

Anxiety about cleanliness and beauty has its roots in a real recognition of our vulnerability.

In the days before hand gel and antibiotics, there was little protection against the germs lurking in the dirt that made people sick. Dust around the house was not just a sign of slovenliness, but a danger to health. Dirty children carried lice and nits, scabies and worms.

But our healthy fear of illness and contagion spread to anxiety about other things of the body, things that do not make us ill but do make us squirm. The taboo over menstrual blood for example, tellingly referred to by my mother as “the curse”, is not related to the fear of infection but to deeply internalised feelings of shame about something that is “dirty”.

The proximity of our sexual organs and our excretory system also seems to lead to anxiety and avoidance, to the use of euphemisms and squeamishness. People whose bodies and desires do not conform to the normative have to endure the squeamishness or prurience of others who are responding from primitive anxieties rooted in fear of contagion, and have often internalised a sense of shame for this reason.

The movement that offers to mark people with glitter and ash on Ash Wednesday is attempting to make this connection visible.  It’s not for me, I’m more likely to associate glitter with childhood craft projects than gay identity, but I get it. The dust is personal, it is the stuff we are made of, and how lovely if that is glittery as well!

The purity laws of the Jews were an attempt to banish every kind of pollution, not just from the dangers of dirt, but from the dangers of contagion by false religion. All the those rules in the book of Leviticus are about separating the pure from the impure, the holy from the unholy. The things of God were so holy that no-one could touch them.

Until God became dust, not only inhabiting the world of dust, but inhabiting a material body, made of the same dust. God became vulnerable just like us. I dare to imagine that his mother had to wipe the snot from his nose, that there were days when his muscles ached in the carpentry shop, when his feet were sore from walking, when he was tired and hungry. The gospels tell us that he cried, and sweated and bled.

But Jesus was not afraid of contagion, particularly not of the religious kind.

The clearest example of this, though there are many, is the incident when he is touched in the crowd by the woman who has been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. As a result, she has been ritually unclean, avoided by her pious neighbours. In desperation, she reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. This action does not contaminate him, but heals her. She is not only healed in her body, but we might hope, healed from the effects of social isolation and shame.

God transforms our materiality, by becoming dust He hallows it, and then finally He transforms it. The quality of risen dust, the resurrected body of Jesus, is beyond our imagining. Yet, we are assured that this is the future for us too. As the funeral service says, our frail bodies will be transformed that they may be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus.

Or as Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” (Woodstock, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)


Posted in Human Sexuality, Mandy Ford | 1 Comment

The Darkness Within…

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

Simon Butler

Some years ago I had the unenviable task of preaching a sermon to a congregation shortly after a member of the church had been arrested for alleged offences against a teenager in that congregation. The sermon would have been tough enough to preach had it not been for the fact that, after being released from prison where he had been remanded, the alleged abuser took his own life.

He was a lovely man and he lived in many ways an exemplary Christian life. He was kind, thoughtful and with real gifts. He was a natural evangelist. And yet, as I had to acknowledge in the sermon, that there was also a darkness that was part of his make-up, something that perhaps he didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge or face until matters we brought to a head by his arrest. You can imagine the complexity of the feelings of those gathered at his Requiem, myself included: horror at what it was alleged he had done, anger at what he had done by virtue of his suicide and the further abuse perpetrated on those he had already harmed once, deep sadness that a much-loved person had died in such a way, guilt that we had let him down and not been there. It was one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever preached, and I think, one of the most important.

I recalled this as I listened to a tearful member of General Synod express her feelings about what Reverend Jonathan Fletcher is said to have done to those in his care in and around his congregation at Emmanuel, Wimbledon in my own diocese. The speaker is someone who I disagree with profoundly on many issues, including the place of LGBT+ members of the Church, but in this moment I felt a deep empathy, as she spoke so movingly about what she had learned from this dreadful experience. And I felt it again myself, as the news broke over the weekend about the report prepared about the abuse committed by the late Jean Vanier against women with whom he was in a pastoral relationship.

These three men were very different, but it would appear that they shared a common fault, which could be characterised as a dark blind-spot in their psyches, which allowed them to act as they did, turning a blind eye to the imbalance of power in the relationships they had with their victims, which allowed them to justify – mostly to themselves – their abusive actions. When a person is a respected or even revered leader – whether in a local church, or across a tradition – it is vital to hold yourself accountable, never to be above challenge or contradiction, above all to be self-aware of the potential in yourself for your own blind spots to be the source of harm and hurt to others.

About ten days ago, I received an email from someone who was very angry with me. He spoke of me (because I advocate a progressive view on human sexuality) as someone who was “prepared to see the Church split and destroyed” (his words, not mine) and of someone else “providing fuel for those who hate the Church and the Christian faith.” Reading these words in the cold light of an email made them seem particularly dark, harmful and revealing. They were the sort of words I don’t think I could ever speak to another Christian.

But, I ask myself, what is the darkness in me that I cannot see that he can? Am I really that different to Jonathan Fletcher, Jean Vanier and my anonymous late friend?

To be sure, I cannot imagine myself taking the sort of advantage of another in the way they reportedly did, but that is not the only potential to harm we possess. How do those of us who take strong positions on LGBT+ matters – and on other matters that divide opinion in the Church – how do we ensure that we hold our views with conviction, integrity and passion, without ever allowing the unacknowledged, unseen darkness in us to leach out into our conduct or behaviour towards others? Is it even possible? Or are we condemned to inflict this sort of harm on one another, whether for the sake of advocating for LGBT+ people, or for the sake of biblical truth? Does it have to be a zero sum game?

On Wednesday morning I shall be in church with others receiving the sign of ashes. I shall – with abusers and victims, with angry correspondents, with those who long for a more truly biblical approach to human sexuality, and with those who fear that we are about to throw the bible out of the window – I shall stand before the judgement seat of God in prayer, and connect with a proper assessment of the darkness within, and with a merciful, long-suffering, forgiving God. I shall hear the words of forgiveness, and I shall resolve to try and live that forgiveness more fully. And so will many of you.

We all carry unacknowledged darkness. We wound one another, usually ignorantly, sometimes deliberately, occasionally criminally.

God give us strength and courage to see the darkness within, to face it in all its awful reality, to allow ourselves to be accountable and to do all that we can to avoid the harm that it can so easily cause.


Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler | 2 Comments

Church and State – The State We’re In!

by Anthony Archer, Central Member of the Crown Nominations Commission, member of General Synod and trustee of the Ozanne Foundation


To be established or not to be established, is that the question?

The Church of England is having a torrid time, for reasons most will understand and regret. Certainly, at the level of the National Church, including General Synod, few are proud of what is going on.  A Church that increasingly defines itself by those it excludes is hardly a potent missionary symbol.  For all that, at the parish level much good is evident, even without the “missing generations”.  It will be left to church historians to make something of this confused picture.

Against the background of the issues, including the unmet needs of victims and survivors of non-recent sexual abuse, the injustices towards those who identify as LGBT+ and ongoing discrimination against women in ministry (masked in the name of mutual flourishing), there are calls for the Church of England to justify its privileges and precedence.

Since the Reformation, the Church of England has been described as ‘the church by law established’, a phrase not as precise as it sounds.  The Queen is its Supreme Governor; bishops (and some deans and others) are appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister; General Synod approves Measures (which, on receiving the Royal Assent, have the force and effect of Acts of Parliament), they first having been declared expedient by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament.  Synod legislates itself by making Canons on such issues as worship and doctrine, largely unfettered, save for example by not being able to dispense with the Book of Common Prayer.  In terms of rights and duties, apart from the Church crucially being a visible presence in every parish, a primary duty is that the Archbishop crowns the Sovereign, and that there are prayers in Parliament before every session.

Significantly and more publicly, 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords, with five places reserved for the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester.  The other 21 go to the remaining diocesan bishops who have served the longest time in office, with recent provision for women bishops to jump the queue for a transitional period of ten years.  Constitutional reform watchers might be forgiven for wondering why there are still so many Lords Spiritual given the efforts of successive Governments to reform the House of Lords, but that is not the subject of this blog post.

Those who take aim at establishment usually go for the Lords Spiritual and there have been two recent examples in Parliament.  Lord Taverne introduced his House of Lords (Removal of Bishops) Bill in January.  It remains to be seen what progress it might make.  It does not seem to be a swipe at the Church of England per se, but part of the broader agenda of the National Secular Society and its adherents.  The views of peers will become apparent when it receives its second reading.  More pointedly, Ben Bradshaw MP recently engaged with the new Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, over the House of Bishops’ ill-advised Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships.  He said:

“It is bad enough that the Church still treats its LGBT+ members as second-class Christians, but to say to the child of a heterosexual couple in a civil partnership that they should not exist because their parents should not have had or be having sex is so hurtful.  Will he tell the bishops that unless this nonsense stops serious questions will be asked in this place about the legitimacy of the established status of the Church of England?” 

The removal of the bishops from the House of Lords would represent an Exocet strike at establishment.  A less direct strike, but potentially more controversial, would be an attempt by Parliament to remove the right of clergy to solemnize a marriage, until such time as the Church permitted marriage of same-sex couples.  That would create a level playing field, with all couples being required to have a civil marriage and obviate the need for the quadruple lock in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

For all the chatter about establishment over the years, there has been no focused work on the Church/State relationship since the Chadwick Commission, which reported in 1970.  It came at a time when the Church was frustrated at the continued role of Downing Street in appointments to bishoprics, and the fact that matters of worship and doctrine were yet to be reserved to the new General Synod.  The Commission agreed on little, other than that greater distance should be set between Church and State.  There were a wide variety of views, and some dissent from the main report – views which might well be held today.  Is the Church of England’s established status a handicap to mission?  Does it invest the Church with an aura of privilege which impedes missionary work among those who resent privilege on principle or because they lack it?

Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, regarded the debate at the time as being empty:

“Perhaps the next commission on Church and state will produce more helpful recommendations if it bears in mind some deeply disturbing comments of its predecessor. There is talk of “the Church” and of “the rights of the laity” but what is “the Church” and who are “the laity”?  According to the report: “The figure for Easter communicants are a little over four per cent of the population.” As for the laity: “We do not know the present social composition of the House of Laity, but it is a fair guess that it does not, even today, contain the five per cent working class members recommended by the Selbourne Committee in 1918.”  If this is true, then the Church of England might be better employed in finding ways and means of making the Church a reality in the life of the state rather than concerning itself with constitutional proprieties.  Should this happen, the next commission may attract members and testifiers better qualified to represent the interests and outlooks in our national life.”

Stockwood went on to note that the report gave the list of the members of the commission and those who gave evidence. “Neither list includes a carpenter, a fisherman or even a secretary of a trades union!”

Chadwick eventually led to the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 and more significantly the creation of the Crown Appointments Commission (now CNC) in 1975. Not much developed thereafter, save for Gordon Brown’s Green Paper The Governance of Britain published in 2007 which inter alia included the decision that going forward Downing Street would only request one name for a diocesan bishopric, thereby leaving the decision entirely with the Church – the same convention that has applied for suffragan bishops for ages.

Where does that history leave the Church of England today?

When I suggested putting down a Private Member’s Motion in General Synod on establishment some 10 years ago, those I consulted took the view that is was not for the Church to initiate a debate.  Should Parliament wish to do that, that was its clear right.  Given the state of the Church today, despite the recent shots across the bows, it seems that few think a debate on establishment would represent time well spent.

The Church needs to sort itself out.

The problem with that thesis is that many are doubtful that it has the capacity to do that, whether in the context of safeguarding or same sex marriage.

Expect more discussion in the very near future.  Might disestablishment be part of a much needed “pruning of the vine”?


Posted in Anthony Archer, Establishment, Human Sexuality, Politics | 2 Comments

If You Can Be Anything – Be Kind!

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

peter leonard

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

The death of the TV presenter Caroline Flack has once again turned the spotlight on mental health, the pressure put on celebrities particularly from some areas of the media and the way that media can be a force for good or ill.

A lawyer for her family has confirmed that the ex-presenter of ‘Love Island’ took her own life after her body was found at her home on Saturday 15th February. Caroline was in a relationship with Lewis Burton and there was an outstanding domestic abuse court case hanging over her, but on reading Twitter it seems much of the blame for her untimely death is being placed firmly at the feet of the tabloid press – The Sun and The Daily Mail in particular.

Celebrities are not superhuman. They are human beings like you or I and so any post which criticises, accuses or dehumanises them is painful. A continual barrage of this kind of abuse will have a significant impact on a person and mental health issues can occur together, tragically, with a person reaching breaking point.

Questions are being asked about the programme ‘Love Island’ itself. Two of the previous contestants have also taken their own lives, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019.

I have never watched ‘Love Island’ and to be honest I was not even aware of who these three people were until the death of Caroline Flack this weekend and yet I am both saddened and connected to their deaths but more importantly bear some of the responsibility. We all do.

Saddened and connected because I am both a member of the society and of humanity of which they were part of. Their death in such tragic circumstances diminishes society and requires us to ask questions of ourselves. Responsible because perhaps there is a greater disease amongst us humans which makes us all responsible not just the tabloid press.

It is too easy to simply point the finger at The Sun and The Daily Mail and blame them. Yes, they are odious publications who seem intent on making those in the public eye as miserable as possible. Intent on stopping them from having even a semblance of a normal life. Yet huge numbers of people persist in buying and reading them and those people bear some responsibility too.

Millions of people tune into reality shows such as ‘Love Island’ and pass judgement on the presenters and participants. They are too fat or too skinny, they aren’t muscly enough, they are ugly or not as fit as people want and expect them to be. Viewers love the drama of infidelity and seeing someone who has been hurt by someone lash out at another.

Every one of us who watches a programme like that bears some responsibility.

It isn’t just TV programmes – we devour Instagram feeds passing comment from behind the anonymity of our smart phones, safe in the protection of our sofas and oblivious to the very real wounds that our comments can cause. We build people up to maintaining false lifestyles which we know in our hearts don’t really exist and which are both exhausting and deeply damaging to the self, only to knock them down when they fail to match our unrealistic expectations.

Every one of us who passes comment on another on social media bears some responsibility.

We may criticise the monsters of tabloid journalism, reality television and social media but we created them, and we continue to feed them until they grow to such a size that we can no longer control them. We bear some of the responsibility for the consequences of these monsters very existence.

So, what can we do? How do we even begin to go about defeating these monsters?

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It really is that simple.

Be kind.

Stop judging. Stop posting comments on another person’s appearance, on their height or weight or hair or face or clothes, either online or in reality. We have no idea what else is going on in their lives and our single comment might be the thing which pushes them too far.

Stopping doing it ourselves isn’t enough of course.

If we continue to purchase publications or fund websites that cruelly judge and comment, then it is as if we were still doing it ourselves. So do not go on blindly buying tabloid press that write things about people that you would not want written about yourself. Just don’t buy them. Buy another one, pay for a different website, fund a better way of being.

Stop watching programmes whose sole aim is to ridicule, make fun of or in any other way torment a fellow human being. If we don’t then we haven’t developed very far from the Romans throwing Christians to the lions or watching gladiators fight to the death.

It isn’t just in the virtual world that we need to do this either. Be kind in reality! Do it to the people you work alongside, your friends and families, the person who serves you in the supermarket, your fellow passenger on the train and bus and indeed everyone you meet.

Having just returned from General Synod it strikes me that the Church of England needs to do this as much as anyone else.

I need to do this.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:31-32

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Peter Leonard, Social Justice | 1 Comment

General Synod: The Highs & Lows

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


The General Synod of the Church of England, which I’ve been attending most of this last week, is a body that attracts its fair share of criticism. Its internal debates can seem far away from the reality of normal church life, let alone the lives we live in our neighbourhoods and communities. And when it turns its hand to commenting on matters of public concern, the queue of members lining up to repeat exactly the same points that several previous speakers have made, but simply with their own personal anecdotes, soon becomes woefully tedious. However, it can also be a place where decisions are made that provide both a moral underpinning and a structured framework for the mission and ministry to which we believe God has called us.

 In those respects, this Synod was like most synods.

The draft Cathedrals Measure may not sound the most exciting piece of business ever thought of, and the details of what we agreed at its Revision Stage need not detain us, rather it was an example of what a good legislative process looks like. A complex and interconnected series of recommendations, given a fair wind by Synod last year, had been subject to thorough scrutiny, involving all the major stakeholder groups, and only then brought back for us to revise. The care with which the work had been done outside the chamber, and not only in the formal meetings of the Revision Committee, made our task far more straightforward. Voices had clearly been heard, and there had been none of the preciousness that can lead to a proposed change being rejected simply because it stands at variance with the original proposals. Cathedrals are a vital part of our life, showcasing what the Church of England can do, and working closely with the cities in which they stand. A good legal framework will help then to flourish and serve us in the years ahead.

We also had a good and important debate about Safeguarding. Not only were we able to show the progress being made against the five specific recommendations put to us so far by IICSA, we also got to see the incoming lead bishop in action, presenting an overwhelmingly supported amendment that commits us to a deeper engagement with survivors, and to backing up our words with action. As with cathedrals, the key to doing well will be working together, with all parties fully involved both within and beyond formal meetings. I look forward to taking part in something that won’t be without pain and struggle but which can get us all to a better place. We will do the work before deciding the results.

And then the careful work, led and presented by the former Bishop of London, into where exactly the Channel Islands fitinto our structures, showed equal diligence in spending time and effort, over several years, in bringing all the interested parties to a common and agreed mind. What could have been a messy piece of legislation, with all its stages required over four consecutive days, passed smoothly on its way.

My hopes for the Living in Love and Faith process, for which we received a short update on progress and a slightly oddly structured Q&A session, lie chiefly in that unlike previous expeditions into the territory of relationships, identity and sexuality, there has been a deep involvement, both formally and informally, with the rich diversity of scholarship, science and human experience contained within our Church. However, the nature of the exercise has meant that whilst consultation has ranged very widely, draft texts have not been circulated for comment beyond the group itself and the bishops. That inevitably means that there are levels of both fear and suspicion among Synod members, lest the published document be judged slanted in either a conservative or liberal direction. Hence, I believe that the big challenge, for both the team writing the LLF document and those of us in the House of Bishops who will see the next draft in March, is to affirm our diversity in words that will allow all us in the Church to see that we are being offered space to live and flourish, alongside those with whom we disagree deeply, in one body. The book won’t mandate a particular change programme, but it must resource and support us in forming the change proposals we will need, within a fixed time frame. And that process will need to be open and transparent.

The less satisfactory aspects of Synod were where we departed from that methodology of doing careful and inclusive work beforehand, seeking to find and build the best consensus, before then presenting matters to Synod.

I’d hoped theEnvironment debatewould be a highlight, and in some ways it was. We heard passionate pleas for the Church to work to eliminate its carbon footprint. My one speech in the chamber this time was to support an amendment from the chair of the Finance Committee to set up the structures we will need to produce robust intermediate targets, identify specific solutions and oversee the work well. The crucial issue of selecting the year by which all this will be achieved was moved from a perhaps under-ambitious 2045 to a date of 2030. Whatever ones views on the urgency of the climate crisis, it felt unsatisfactory that this was achieved through an amendment which was decided after less than ten minutes debate, by a majority of 15, with a turnout that meant fewer than a third of Synod members voted in favour of it. Many, I suspect, were caught in the tea room, not having expected a close vote. 2030 maybe the right year, but the process felt flawed. Something that is too often the case with matters we decide at a single sitting.

Finally, to Question Time. At its best this is a highlight of Synod, and the move to having initial answers written has given space for more questions to be asked and more supplementaries to be put. It should be where chairs of committees and councils, who are often senior bishops, are held to account for the work the bodies they lead are doing. Sadly (indeed, I’d go further and say shamefully) it seems of late to be evolving into more of a blood sport. The aim of some questioners is at best to score partisan points and at worst to inflict maximum damage on the person put up to answer. We need accountability from our leaders, but we need to hold ourselves accountable for the way in which we exercise that accountability. Unless the minority who are presently abusing Question Time can curb their behaviour, it must be in doubt as to whether it can survive in its current form. That will be a pity, but better to have a pity than to let it degenerate into an unedifying and embarrassing circus.

I fear I’ve laboured the theme, but it matters.

What makes for a good Synod item is not simply the force of the arguments, the passion in the room, or the eloquence of the speakers on the day. It’s that whatever is brought to us has been properly discussed, and even better co-designed and co-produced, with all those who hold a significant stake in its outcome, so that everyone can fully own and exercise their part in the process.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Climate Change, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Sexual abuse | 3 Comments

Living in Love & Faith – a View from the Pew

by Erika Baker, Convener of the Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook Group

Erika Baker

The recent shockingly unpastoral ‘Pastoral Statement’ on opposite sex Civil Partnerships has again focused attention on the +2-year long Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process that is to conclude this summer. Having morphed from a teaching document to a project producing a set of learning resources, LLF is to be presented at the end of June with the express intention that these should be used  to inform subsequent conversations about gender and sexuality in the Dioceses and parishes.

There are some who insist that LLF was not set up in order to bring in any change.  While it does not explicitly have that aim, the history of LLF tells a different story.

In February 2017, after a public outcry and a passionate debate, General Synod refused to “take note” of “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: a report from the House of Bishops”. This was for a variety of reasons, including that the report offered something called “maximum pastoral freedom” but without recommending any change at all to the Church’s official teaching.

The following day, the Archbishops wrote in a letter stating that:To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”

What will happen next is rather vague and not much has been heard from the Bishops about just what shape the anticipated use of the LLF resources in the dioceses and parishes will take.

As a regional ambassador for Inclusive Church I know how difficult it is to generate interest in conversations about gender and sexuality within congregations. There are some very positive examples, but the reality in most of the churches I am aware of is that there is very little appetite for these kinds of discussions.

One church I visited last autumn had come to the end of a two-year long careful exploration of all aspects of inclusion. I had already  spoken to them at the beginning of the process. This time I had been asked to come back and talk to the whole congregation about sexuality. Thinking that they had probably spent enough time looking at the theology of same sex relationships, I decided not to cover that ground again and instead chose to focus on the different types of welcome gay Christians can face in different churches. I was told afterwards that no more than 5-6 members of the congregation had ever attended any of the discussion groups during the last two years, and that of these not all had attended all of them.

Prior to that, in 2016, at the end of the Shared Conversations, I had been invited to a number of Deanery Synods to talk about the sexuality debate in the Church of England. The response in all the synods was similar: The majority of people saw the need for change and just wanted to get on with it. A sizeable group of people wanted to hold on to traditional teaching. Both were frustrated by the amount of talking that was happening in the Church – one group because they saw it as obstructing change, the other group because they feared it would be a precursor to change. Neither group saw any need at all for any further discussions.

With this background, how will the LLF resources be used?

If it is left to the individual Dioceses – can we really expect a conservative Bishop to resource a structured discussion in his  or her diocese?

Can we really expect conservative priests or church leadership teams to engage with all the resources together with their congregations?

Can we really expect those progressive churches, who have spent years becoming fully inclusive, to spend much time engaging with traditional theology, upsetting their LGBT+ families in the process?

Can we really expect parishes that have never spent much time thinking about inclusion to spend much time on a topic that they think doesn’t matter that much to them?

Assuming churches do engage with the resources, by what process will they feed their conclusion back to their Bishops?

It’s all very well to say that LLF will provide the resources for a subsequent conversation. The real question is how structured this next phase will be – how well-resourced; who is responsible for the process; its purpose; its time scale and what will come at the end of it?

These questions need to be formally asked and answered.

One way or the other, something will eventually have to be brought before General Synod before it can be said that the Church of England has concluded its process of looking at its teaching on gender and same sex relationships.

In other words – what is the road map to get from where we are now to General Synod?





Posted in Erika Baker, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 1 Comment

Church & Sexuality: Like a Mighty Tortoise…

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


In ‘appearance, talents, intelligence, social and cultural traits’, lesbians and gays ‘do not differ as a group from their heterosexual fellow human beings,’ according to an official Church of England working party report. Some are ‘brothers and sisters in Christ.’ Views differed on whether same-sex sexual relationships are necessarily sinful. Either way, the Church was urged to offer acceptance and practical support and help people move towards ‘the degree of wholeness of relationships of which they are capable.’

This is not a sneak preview of the long-awaited findings from Living in Love and Faith. Instead it refers to the first report, written half a century ago, from the C of E’s formal process of study and dialogue which began just after sex between men was decriminalised, in 1967. Even by that time, theological debate on same-sex love had been going on for many decades!

From the early twentieth century to the present, opinion among Christians in Britain about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI)+ inclusion has shifted radically. Many denominations’ official stance on sexuality and gender overall has altered. Yet senior clergy have been reluctant to admit the weight of evidence for further change, even when work they have set in train has made the case.

This is the backdrop to the strong reaction against a spectacularly ill-judged ‘Pastoral Statement’ by the House of Bishops in early 2020, which as it is written closes the door to full acceptance of same-gender couples and even unmarried long-term heterosexual partners and led to an apology by archbishops.

Whether they are willing to follow this through in practice is uncertain. However, if senior Church leaders dash people’s hopes yet again, it will deal a further blow to the Church’s credibility, in addition to the inevitable human cost. Longstanding loving couples will once more feel devalued, and young people seeking to make sense of the complexities of relationships will be badly let down.

Biblical, Traditional and Reasoned

The early to mid-twentieth century was an era of major social and technological change, to which churches of all denominations had to respond. At the same time there was a fresh interest in the Bible and tradition, with attempts to find a way through the layers of power and prejudice which distorted the truth and got in the way of the Good News. The emphasis on equality and justice for all in early Christian teaching, and value of putting love for those on society’s margins above hollow piety, was rediscovered.

The horrors of large-scale warfare and human rights abuses, and the risks of distorting religion to cover up cruelty, were also more widely recognised. Many sought to challenge oppression and explore responsible use of humankind’s powers. These included Christians, led by their faith to work with people of other religions and none for a more free, just and compassionate world. Trends in ‘secular’ society as well as Church circles were influenced by  prayerful reflection and spiritual values, amidst other factors

Against this background, the C of E’s 1928 Prayer Book (though not officially accepted by all) allowed marriage based on gender equality and more positivity about sex, echoed in later liturgies. The 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops gave the go-ahead to contraception. In other churches there were similar trends, despite resistance. Even back in 1914 the theological case for celebrating committed same-sex partnerships was already being made.

Increasingly, scholars pointed out that the Hebrew Bible condemnations of inhospitality and the customs of surrounding nations could not simply be applied to same-sex relationships today. Nor could New Testament authors’ dislike of sexual excess and exploitation, especially of youth and slaves, be used to argue against equal partnerships.

Scripture and tradition had much to offer the modern world. But this was not through wielding passages out of context as weapons against people in vulnerable positions.

Stuck in a Rut

Theological thinking on sexuality and gender continued to develop within and outside ‘mainstream’ denominations, though those at the top did not always approve.

Meanwhile greater visibility of LGBTI+ people made it harder to dismiss our concerns and downgrade the value of loving partnerships or self-acceptance. It also became clear that patterns of marriage and gender identity, especially outside the West, varied across history and there were different ways of being ‘family’.

The 1970 report to the C of E’s Board of Social Responsibility by a working party on homosexuality, quoted at the beginning of this article, was the first of several to explore such issues. It is in some ways dated but reflected a willingness to bring together theological, scientific and legal insights. Sadly, senior church leaders kept it secret, afraid of a backlash.

The next report, in 1979, went further.

It found that there were ‘circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage.’ This time it was published. Yet even bishops who were inclusive in private mostly shied away from making a public case for change. This set the pattern for the next few decades.

In the early 2000s, rules on remarriage of divorced persons were relaxed (and marriage of couples where one was transgender). Grassroots inclusivity grew. Yet C of E leaders put so much effort into not offending a minority strongly against affirmation that theological rigour and pastoral sensitivity were set aside at national level.

The torrent of criticism of the ‘Pastoral Statement’ might just lift this Church out of the rut in which it has been stuck. For the House of Bishops’ document was woeful.

For example, a narrow definition rules out even forms of marriage legally recognised in neighbouring Scotland until quite recently, in line with medieval canon law. If marriage only covers ‘lifelong union’ (and intention of permanence is not enough), remarriage would seem impossible, nor can anyone be sure they have been married until widowed. If it must be ‘legally sanctioned’, does this mean that sex between black-white couples in apartheid South Africa was necessarily immoral? What about women who connect the term ‘marriage’ with coercive control, often resulting from church failings?

To recover credibility, after decades of reports from this and other churches, it is high time for meaningful change.

This includes recognising the overwhelming case for letting clergy and congregations celebrate marriages of same-gender couples and making it easier for LGBTI+ Christians to use their gifts, whether lay or ordained.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Savi Hensman | 1 Comment