by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod
A windswept, autumnal holiday camp on the east coast. Three hundred clergy and as many lay people are gathered, from the Diocese of Southwark, to reflect on their mission and the love of God. Bishop Jack Spong has been invited to give a keynote address. As a result, vitriol flows through the conference like the incoming tide on the beach outside the camp.
It was 1991: I was there in my role as Director of the Diocesan Housing Association and just beginning to think about ordination. I was still naïve enough to be shocked at the level of nastiness in a supposedly Christian setting. I was therefore present at my very first meeting of Anglicans who believed that the Gospel teaches that all should be fully welcome in the church, regardless of sexual orientation.
We set up the Southwark Lesbian and Gay Support Network. How different the world was, then. Secretive meetings at private locations. Names gathered by word of mouth, passed on from one to another. A level of anguish and fear which pervaded our meetings, despite their superficial jollity. Apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion within the movement. And extraordinary manoeuvres to engage with us by the then Bishop of Southwark – privately and publicly supportive but trammelled and trapped, like the rest of us, by the church’s public position.
Twenty five years on, what has changed?
On the surface, everything. I would never have imagined, then, openly partnered Bishops and Deans, or an out gay Prolocutor of the Canterbury House of Clergy. I would never have imagined, then, being asked by the Archbishops to serve, as an LGBTI clergyperson in a relationship, on the coordinating body for the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document. Or the clear and open engagement of members of the House of Bishops in the attempts to ensure that the church can, at last, become properly inclusive.
And yet, on another level, nothing has changed. My frustration over the Secretary General’s letter to the Episcopal Church of the USA isn’t so much over the means and authority for its production – although of course that’s serious – but much more because of what the letter seems to be trying to do.
There are many points which I would query within the letter. For example, the focus on the word ‘procreation’ rather than ‘gift’ which seems, at best, odd, given that the Church of England have already moved away from using that word in our own service, where we affirm that marriage is:
given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,
in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.
The focus on procreation feels reminiscent of the focus on ‘complementarity’ which emanated regularly out of Church House during the church’s opposition to the Equal Marriage Act.
And also the assertion of the majority view of the Church of England on sexual behaviour which is, as many have said, at best questionable and probably (but we don’t know because no one has done the work) simply incorrect.
But above all my disquiet with the letter is that it seems to be attempting to close down, once again, the recognition that there are a range of views on these issues which can properly be held by loyal Anglicans. While it acknowledges that the Episcopal Church’s processes have been properly followed, there is no sense in which the letter recognises even the possibility that TEC may have something to bring to the table in this conversation.
It proposes an outcome for the Bishops’ Teaching Document, saying that it is intended ‘to express the Church’s teaching clearly, demonstrate the areas where we can count on wide agreement and expose those areas where our disagreements run deepest’. This is certainly not my understanding of the purpose of the document. If it does not express clearly the ways in which proper Christian understandings of human relationships have opened up over the last fifty years, then I will view my participation in the process to have failed.
In the end it’s about a grown-up conversation. I and many others are trying to have a sensible and mature debate, across the divides, about all of this. Very few of us want the vitriol and rage to continue, whether we’re conservative evangelical, traditionalist, revisionist or inclusive. I thought that that was what the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted; otherwise, why talk about ‘radical Christian inclusion’?
But the signals from the centre are deeply unhelpful. The riding roughshod over the expressed desire of Synod for a liturgy for trans people; the warning of a strong slap on the wrist to the Episcopal Church; the apparent intention to supress any debate at Synod until after the Teaching Document has been produced in 2020 – all this seems to me to infantilise the church and demean its members.
That’s why I’m cross. I’ve been having these conversations for over 25 years. When will I, when will we all, be able to move on? When will we be able, as a mature and wise denomination, to acknowledge with joy that God created humankind in God’s image, diverse and wonderful?