The following is written by a serving gay Church of England clergyman, who has asked for his identity to be kept anonymous.
I read the anonymous piece, titled, “A Zero Tolerance Approach to the Weinsteins in the Church?” sadly with very little surprise. Any institution is going to have those who don’t respect the space, bodies, emotions or lives of others, who use or abuse others for their own pleasure, entertainment or career progression. The Church won’t be immune to it, and the sooner it is acknowledged and dealt with, the sooner we can continue.
I recognise that the #MeToo campaign is principally about giving women a voice to share their experiences of abuse, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. This is their campaign, not mine, and it is an important one, if we’re to truly face up to the misogyny, inequality, physical-, emotional- and spiritual abuse that goes on in the Church today.
However, I did want to mention some of my own experiences as a gay man in the Church of England. I recognise that these will pale in comparison … mine aren’t tales of physical or sexual abuse, but hopefully it helps shed more light on what occurs, and may encourage others to share their experiences. When the power structures are patriarchal and geared towards preserving patriarchy, there is an imbalance of power against all those who don’t identify as heterosexual, cisgendered men.
As a gay curate, I had experience of this imbalance of power on a number of occasions. I had a straight male colleague constantly making inappropriate and overtly sexual comments and jokes in my presence. At the time, I was still in the closet. Whether the comments were to make me feel uncomfortable, or just exert his power over me as a straight, cisgendered man, I may never know, but I do remember thinking how inappropriate they were. He used to tell explicit sexual jokes in the presence of confirmation candidates under the age of 18 as well, and I think he believed it made him look cool.
In one parish I worked in, a gay male colleague decided it was entirely appropriate to make highly inappropriate and overtly sexual comments to me … sometimes these comments were even about sex with me. These comments were on occasion even made in the vestry before or after a Sunday service, and went on for years.
I have been winked at in the sanctuary, had other men comment on parts of my body, or how much they love that type of male body. I have had lewd or crude comments on social media.
On too many occasions when a male colleague finds out that you’re gay, it seems to give them permission to speak openly about gay sex, or to ask really explicit and invasive questions. It may be that they feel empowered by the permission that they feel a document like “Issues in Human Sexuality” has given them to probe into one’s personal lives … a probing they would be appalled at if it were directed towards them.
Some of the behaviour and comments would be considered sexual harassment at worst, highly inappropriate at best. None of this behaviour should be permissible in any workplace, least of all the Church.
I have only once felt able to challenge the clergy person who made such comments. In many years of ministry, I’ve just found it really uncomfortable and found ways to not work with that colleague again or to work with them as little as possible. I’m not sure what would happen – if anything – if these comments were brought to light. Can an organisation without Equal Opportunities policies for it’s clergy ever effectively address matters such as these?
It seems that the Church (capital “C”) is so obsessed with the sexual lives of LGBT people – to the point where it is incapable of acknowledging any other aspects of our lives, such as our hopes, dreams, loves, gifts or calling. Sadly, it has successfully reduced us in the eyes of some people to sexual objects, with whom you can be explicit and inappropriate without any fear of consequences.
It seems particularly that many cisgendered heterosexual men feel they have a freedom to discuss or rule over the bodies and private lives of anyone that doesn’t identify as they do, and that if you’re not a cisgendered heterosexual man, you’re expected to be pure and subservient and comfortable with your biology and sexuality being the object of scrutiny, fascination, humour, advances and inappropriate remarks and behaviour.
It is this power imbalance, and the dishonesty behind it, that I believe fuels misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and creates an environment where people feel empowered to abuse that sense of power and privilege.
Only by naming it and recognising it can we ever have any hope of addressing it, and that’s why I’m sharing my experiences now – in the hope that as a Church, we can change and become a place of true holiness and grace.