Solidarity, Oppression and the Church of England

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow in Medicine at Girton College Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology


‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24)

Justice is a fundamental facet of the Christian life, and the past summer has once again brought injustice into the light of day. As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the globe, the Church of England did, indeed, make its voice heard – recognising not only the chronic injustice done by white people to black people for generations, including in our churches, but also calling for real change within society and within institutions. Whilst it is shameful that it took these protests to call too many white people to action, this is a narrative that neither will nor should go away, and one that is not optional for Christians to engage in. On the surface, then, it is quite right for our bishops and other leaders to highlight the BLM campaign – yet something doesn’t quite feel right.

A key thing about Black Lives Matter, and many other organisations that stand up for the oppressed, is that they understand not only the role of structural oppression, but also the importance of intersectionality. These two concepts should sit at the heart of what we as Christians believe – the former well studied and lived out in liberation theologies, and the latter a key example of living the Christian life in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Yet intersectionality barely gets a mention in church discourse, and likewise the Church of England routinely misrepresents structural oppression in its own dialogues.

The Church, of course, is exempt from the Equality Act. Yet this very simple fact seems to be overlooked by many church leaders who constantly complain that nobody is taking them, or the church, seriously. Black Lives Matter is unashamedly pro-women, pro-queer, pro-disabled, pro-black. Organisations like it understand the reason that the protected characteristics in the Equality Act exist, and rather than pitting one group against another, recognise the complex interplay between them and the interconnectedness of privileged oppression.  The substantial moral strength of BLM as opposed to the Church is that there is no ‘but’ involved in their struggle for justice. Oppressed groups work together to liberate each other – it is a struggle together, not a struggle in opposition.

This is where the Church of England falls very short indeed.  A good example of this would be the dialogue on LGBT inclusion. Countless times, when pushing for equality in the Church, I have been told ‘but Africa’ – a blithe, yet despicable remark, which suggests that Church hierarchs would delight to have more LGBT inclusion but can’t because it would upset ‘the communion’ (or sometimes, more crassly and revealingly, ‘the Africans’). Not only is this offensive and simplistic, but it is an insidious attempt to silence one oppressed group by reference to another. We might seriously reconsider the imperial origins and character of the Anglican Communion and review its effective working in the twenty-first century. We most certainly should not sanction a narrative of blaming black people for white laws imposed during imperial conquest (and encouraged to this day by white conservatives) and consequently point the finger of blame for LGBT exclusion at ‘Africans’, as though that is a homogenous group of people. Yet ‘but Africa’ is the go-to response by far too many bishops.  Putting it bluntly, black Africans should not be the bishops’ shields.

Yet when church leaders promote Black Lives Matter, they either don’t bother to find out what they are supporting, or they are hypocritical. As Christians, we are called to stand up against oppression, not against some types of oppression. We are most certainly not called to oppress. When Church leaders spoke up against the Orlando killings in an LGBT nightclub, they appeared surprised when very few people bothered to listen, particularly within the LGBT community. That might just be because LGBT people don’t want pity – they want solidarity. A Church with an ambivalence on equality is not a church of solidarity.

Similarly, the furore over the recent participation of  Church Society in the Church of England’s Sunday worship shows quite how deep the problem is. Much was made of how difficult it is for those of ‘conservative’ mindset to find their place in the church. Likewise, in a theological college discussion on equal marriage, we were told that ‘both sides’ needed a safe space – these ‘sides’ being LGBT people and those with a theological opposition to LGBT rights. This is absolute nonsense – these two are not equivalent! For someone to disagree with your theological position is, of course, difficult – but if you truly believe it, then you should be able to defend it. This is self-evidently not the same as being attacked for simply being who you are – for expressing love towards another individual of the same sex, being told that ‘pride comes before destruction’ and that those who merely support LGBT people are ‘surrendering Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive…and endangering to the soul’ (as the Director of Church Society stated). This is not theological disagreement – this is a direct attack, prejudice against and persecution of LGBT people. Not to see this is to show a wilful disregard for the reality of power dynamics.

The scary reality is that victim-blaming forms a fundamental part of church dialogue, including ‘good disagreement’. In the facilitated conversations a few years ago, even mention of the word ‘homophobic’ to describe actual oppression was considered ‘hurtful’ – quite literally silencing the voice and experience of the oppressed. The word ‘painful’ has been grossly overused by those in positions of power when their theology is challenged, yet all the while, LGBT people are expected to just take their vilification as part of ‘theological discourse’. It smells of the same attitude that led the British state to pay compensation to slave owners and not slaves. It is the height of hypocrisy and the apogee of privilege used for repression.

This is why the Church of England is structurally oppressive.

Bishops and clergy who cannot see this do not need more air-time – they need education. Our theological colleges should be giving voice to the oppressed, not the oppressor – yet how many of our colleges take liberation theology, black theology or queer theology seriously? Our entire religion is based on solidarity with the people on the margins, yet our entire institution is prejudiced, structurally, against those who remain on these very margins.

Those of us in oppressed groups need to model this solidarity. Those of us who have privilege need to acknowledge it. We must call out lazy and false thinking, and we must change. The secular world is leagues ahead of us already, once again. Until we recognise our institutional prejudice, we would do better not to bother with the warm words, thoughts and prayers far too easily sprinkled.

Acts of omission of solidarity are acts nonetheless – and until our actions reflect out words, we will remain a church all too silent in mission, silent in ministry and silent in letting the oppressed go free.

This entry was posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Solidarity, Oppression and the Church of England

  1. Yvonne Taylor says:

    This is an absolutely brilliant, balanced and honest examination of the state of the CofE at this time. It gives me just a glimmer more of my currently fragile hope as one representative of the Christian LGBTIAQ+ community in the UK who’s been through a lot at the hands of the CofE. Thank you so much Charlie.

    Like

  2. So clearly expressed. Oh that we would all be able to hear this message and not hide behind our privilege as we mouth the excuse of ‘balance’

    Like

  3. Graham Michoel says:

    Dr Bell’s very clear and reasoned approach resonated far beyond the hallowed chambers of the Church of England. There are bishops and clergy, Anglican and Roman, who, as another puts it, hide behind their privilege of rank and authority to oppress. There is no other word that blankets their behaviour but oppression.

    Like

  4. atwilson says:

    Many thanks for a clear and honest account of the matter. Until Church of England Churches come within the common moral framework provided in the Equality Act in the same way as C of E schools do, the problem will continue to fester and hobble our mission

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Trevor says:

    As an outsider to this ‘internal’ discussion in the Anglican church, I feel that whilst the article may be entirely reasonable in its argument, it is nonetheless a little over the top in its condemnation of contrary views. If the Director of the Church Society cited is not allowed to express his view that some are ‘surrendering Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive…and endangering to the soul’, then that is saying that he does not have the right to think what he thinks, to have that belief or to express it. Only ‘acceptable’ beliefs can be held or expressed. I think that is exactly the same as what is being criticised.
    Beliefs may be ‘wrong’ (factually or morally, in the opinion of another) but they are still beliefs and to deny any expression of them is also wrong – no matter how painful or offensive some may find that expression.
    So whilst my sympathies might be with the LGBT+ identities and other groups referenced in the article, rather than the Church Society or the Anglican hierarchy, the denial of the right to express contrary views puts me in mind of ‘1984’.
    (The view I express here is a personal one and I do not speak for the NFN – see weblink given)

    Like

  6. Trevor says:

    I have a little technical difficulty with multiple sites on my wordpress account. Hopefully this post will come up with the weblink to NFN (for interest) that I referred to. Sorry for the confusion.

    Like

  7. Kath, Worcestershire says:

    Like this but feel, sadly, not enough of those who SHOULD read it WILL!

    Like

  8. MariHoward says:

    Good to see this obsession (if that is what it is, rather than, This way of halting progress) being called out: it has dogged the C of E far too long, and driven me to frustrated anger often. As the writer implies, if an objection or counter-argument is raised, then the two should honestly and openly debate, as equals. As in the excuse ‘but Africa’ many other subjects are hidden by invoking the alternative view (usually the more ‘traditional’) to ensure that the status quo remains, and nothing moves forward.The C of E, at this time, is shrinking. How long until it disappears, due to not following Christ who was on the side of the marginalised and the oppressed, the ones his contemporaries wanted to keep out of God’s people (Gentiles, sinners of various kinds, the disabled, even women who were regarded as lesser beings). The LBGT+, etc, are our oppressed and marginalised, among others… Oh that today’s ‘Peter’s might have a vision!

    Like

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