by Erika Baker, Convener of the Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook Group
It is four years since 14-year old Lizzie Lowe took her own life because she could not reconcile her sexuality with her Christian faith and because she did not know that her church could have guided her through this turmoil. The Coroner’s stated that the “church conspiracy of silence around the issue of sexuality… had been the crucible in which she existed”. The anniversary was marked by comprehensive media coverage and many priests across the country took the opportunity to talk about inclusion and the need for “signposting”.
As the BBC has explained Lizzie’s own church signed up to Inclusive Church after her death and her priest, Nicholas Bundock, has since become a strong campaigner for the inclusion of LGBTI+ people in our churches.
Inclusive Church is seen by many as the gold standard that signals that a church has spent time to think through all six inclusion topics and is committed to actively working towards being “a church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality”. The first step is to make a public commitment to honour that intention.
Not all churches are able to do this yet. As we know, many churches do not want to make this commitment, because they fundamentally disagree about same sex relationships, and do not see it as an unjust exclusion. Indeed, some churches believe that same sex relationships are a first order issue and a matter of salvation.
It would be fair to say that the Church has been talking about the theology of LGBTI+ inclusion for many many years, and we will doubtlessly be talking about it for many more to come. In the meantime, however, it is imperative that all churches take a careful look at their pastoral provisions for the young LGBTI+ people in their care and consider increasing their signposting.
No church, however conservative, wants a member of their congregation to be so desperate that they self-harm or take their own life. In this, I am sure, we are united across our differences.
I would suggest that it is not just conservative churches that need to think about their signposting. Many many Church of England churches pride themselves on being welcoming and, at the very least, tolerant of all. Most of them don’t see any special need to make that explicit. Many have openly gay couples in their congregation, often fully included in all aspects of worship. Or they have a partnered priest “everyone” knows about.
But sadly nothing is ever said openly. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” still reigns supreme.
The most unequivocal ways of signposting are signing up to Inclusive Church, with a poster in the porch and the Inclusive Church statement on your website, or to the OneBodyOneFaith register of Visible Congregations, or having any other explicit messages of welcome on your website and in your porch.
I would like to ask you to take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a young person in your congregation and to take a walk around your church. Take a look at your website, your notices and your activities. Don’t assume that the young person knows the gay couple in your church you had dinner with only last night. Most couples, gay or straight, don’t hold hands in churches or send out any other easily visible signal that they are a couple.
And if your church is conservative, don’t assume that the young person knows that while your theology prevents you from accepting same sex relationships or gender transitioning, you will do what you can to help them feel a valued and loved member of your congregation.
I regularly meet priests and lay people who are very keen to make sure that everyone knows that their church is pastorally supportive of LGBTI+ people, but who are not sure how to make this clear within the framework of their specific church and its theology.
Where would a person find any signposting that your church is a welcoming space for them? Or that it is safe space for them to talk about their concerns concerning their gender or sexuality? Or that there is at least one designated pastoral support they could approach in confidence? The answers will be different depending on the theology your church holds and not all approaches will work for every church. Each church must find its own way of keeping its LGBTl+ people safe.
Possible ways of signposting suggested in a group of clergy and lay people were:
- A welcome statement on the church website that explicitly mentions gender and sexuality
- The same statement displayed in the porch or inside the church
- Having someone designated (and trained) who publicises that they are a safe person to talk to
- Training for the pastoral teams and chaplaincy teams
- Using inclusive language in all services and in prayers
- Having information in church that shows you are aware and supportive of people needing extra support, including information on Diverse Church; the support group for trans children, Mermaids; and other external organisations offering support to LGBTI+ people
- Keeping up the signposting so that new people and children growing up in your churches also become aware of it
There must be many other approaches churches have taken, and I would love readers to let me know about them, perhaps in the comments section below.
There is a potential Lizzie Lowe in almost every congregation. Signposting and pastoral support are not about our theology and about how we expect people to live, real people. They are not about theory but about safeguarding, lived practice and visibly walking alongside people.
As Kevin Lowe, Lizzie’s father has admitted, it can be scary to address this issue and start this conversation in our churches. But it really matters.
Jesus teaches us that we should not be afraid. A quick turn to Google suggests that there are 365 variations of “do not be afraid” in the Bible, one for every day of the year. Whether that’s true or not – it’s a lovely thought. Be encouraged. Do not fear. And begin that conversation about signposting in your church.
In the moving words of Kevin Lowe: “It does take courage, but it is the ability to do what’s right – even when you are afraid.”