by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley, retired healthcare Chaplain, researcher and co-author of “This is My Body” and “Transfaith”
On the 27th March 2020 the Guardian newspaper published ‘A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future’.
It was written by the Italian novelist, Francesca Melandri.’ At that point the UK had been in lockdown a mere three days, while Italy was already three weeks into theirs.
We’d watched on our television screens shocking scenes from Italy of make-shift field-hospital wards, medical staff barely able to cope with the rising numbers of Covid-19 patients, and rows of coffins lined up in churches waiting to be buried. ‘We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time’, wrote Melandri, ‘just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us.’ Her letter warned us what to expect next as we tried to abide by the government’s warning that we should ‘stay at home.’
Amongst the experiences that she thought still awaited us, some – like not sleeping well and an unstoppable online social life – had already begun for many of us. So too, for me, had this particular one, which leapt out at me from the page of her article: ‘Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them, “How are you doing?”’
As it happened, on the very day that we had gone into lockdown I’d emailed two friends to say how sorry I was about a recent rift over certain business protocols within the organisation to which we had all belonged, and which had led to my resignation. I wasn’t apologising for resigning, which I still consider the most prudent thing to have done in the circumstances. I was sorry though that I’d been motivated largely by fear of the possibility of personal financial liability. I’d acted responsibly but also fearfully. Yet what had seemed important then looked fairly trivial now compared to the fear of dying that many of us are feeling and I needed to say sorry. Unspoken, of course, was the thought ‘I’m telling you this in case I or you don’t survive this pandemic.’
Being in lockdown I’ve found that past and present can telescope. Maybe social media plays a part. On Facebook, old friends and colleagues mingle with your current social circle and everyone shares in the same conversation. Which is why, I suppose, my 2020 resignation began to blur a little in my mind with my exit the previous year from the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project. I set out my reasons for that at the time in the Church Times and they haven’t changed.
I don’t regret that resignation either, but I do feel extremely sorry that it happened and the circumstances that led to it. No doubt fear played a part on that occasion too. Well, I’m sure it did.
The Church of England’s conversations, processes and guidance about sexuality and gender identity have gone on for decades. Maybe this was partly intended to induce fatigue and to numb us with boredom! Recently, though, the pace has become more frantic and debate frenzied and shrill. It all feels very fearful, with things said online that can’t be unsaid, and that people might want to say sorry for now. I hope so, as apology along with mutual recognition of the sorry state we’re in seem necessary steps towards the reconciliation we all claim to want and to live by.
It’s often said that apology by itself is not enough: that saying ‘sorry’ for the way the Church has treated LGBTI+ people in the past should lead to structural changes that will enable everyone to feel safe in our churches. This may well be true, but saying sorry, and meaning it – because you acknowledge the sorry state of things – seem essential preliminaries to organisational change.
Thethree books I’ve shared in writing over the last five years or so all demonstrate that, while some churches are brilliant at supporting trans people and their loved ones, others have failed miserably. That’s just one example. There’s so much more we all need to say sorry for – and mean it.
Melandri’s letter to the UK, written in love to prepare us for what was to come, only confirmed what many of us were already experiencing – given the scenes of suffering that we’d seen in other countries, images of people’s lives suddenly cut short. I was especially touched by her paragraph about addressing past disagreements, but by the time I read it I’d already said sorry to my friends. Remarkable that it should take a pandemic, life in the shadow of death, to make us do this kind of thing. Or perhaps not. It would be sad to lose this sense of urgency when things ‘return to normal’.
We cannot go back – to change what happened in the past – but we can say sorry for our part in creating the state we are in; and then try to do something about it.