Living in Love & Faith – What the Bishops Need to Learn…

by Prof Helen King and the Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby, both Academic Historians involved with the Living in Love and Faith report

Judith and Helen 2

Where is the project Living in Love and Faith (LLF) going now, after the ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships? That Statement which not only insisted that ‘Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings’ but also belittled situations in which children aren’t brought up by a married, straight couple? That Statement which mentioned the LLF project and its aim to ‘help the Church to learn how questions about human identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of what it means to embody a Christian vision of living holy lives in love and faith in our culture’ – but which did not show any engagement or awareness of the contents of the resources LLF is producing at this very moment?

As with so many other areas of Church life, it’s hard to know how the bishops work. Perhaps the Pastoral Statement was written by a small committee of the House of Bishops (the Delegation Committee), or perhaps it was drafted elsewhere and then approved by the chair of that committee. As is always the case when bishops meet, the rest of us are not let into the process. Apparently, the entire House then approved the Statement as ‘deemed business’, ‘on the nod’, without all the bishops having read it. At the recent meeting of all the bishops, the College, it was discussed, but again very little information exists about what happened. A vote apparently took place on whether or not to withdraw the Pastoral Statement but this vote was lost. Instead, the archbishops issued a very short statement in which they ‘took responsibility for releasing’ the Statement and acknowledged it ‘has jeopardised trust’. This text from the archbishops was so short that many people wondered if a paragraph had gone missing. It all seems very odd; there are a number of bishops who are actually on LLF, both in the House and the College,  yet none of them seems to have noticed that the cold, un-pastoral prose of the Pastoral Statement was inappropriate when LLF is in its final stages.

How does all this feel to us? Some context here. We’ve both been on the ‘History’ sub-group from the very start of the LLF process. At first, it felt like a small seminar group, as the ‘History’ people wrote papers for each other and discussed them. We were interested in what history can add to the process, and in previous cases where the Church of England has changed its teaching and practice. We’ve all learned from each other, regardless of our gender, sexuality or theological tradition. Then the process entered its interdisciplinary phase. While we found much common ground with others from Science, Biblical Studies and Theology, it became far more difficult to navigate all the individual papers being written, and the various drafts of the book which is to be part of the output and which were sent to us for rapid comment. The imposed deadline – having the book out before the Lambeth Conference meets this summer – takes no hostages and has not helped the process.

While we’re not alone in being appalled by the tone of the Pastoral Statement, we’re also angry about its content. We noted that the Statement presents the Church’s past as static, rather than dynamic, and uses phrases like ‘It has always been the position of the Church of England’. Yet, as historians, we are well aware of many significant changes in that position, from accepting, reluctantly, clerical heterosexual marriage to accepting contraception, to allowing the marriage in church of couples where one is divorced with a former partner still living. Some of these changes happened within our lifetimes: others go back to the Reformation. The Statement uses only the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to define what marriage is: a list which starts with ‘for the procreation of children’, rather than the emphasis on companionship of the modern rite (though the introduction of the idea that marriage might even be about companionship is one of Cranmer’s innovations in the Prayer Book marriage service).  In Common Worship, for example, the wife no longer has to promise to ‘obey’ her husband.  And, if the bishops are naming relationships which ‘fall short’, then so do abusive sexual relationships inside heterosexual marriage; in 2017 the Church of England produced Responding Well to Domestic Abuse which advises ‘Do emphasize that the marriage covenant is broken by the violence from their partner’.

History matters and, like everything else, the LLF process itself has a history. During 2014-2016, the Church of England engaged in a process called the Shared Conversations. Helen was one of the many hundreds of Anglicans who participated in this process in good faith; for some, this was at considerable personal risk. For all participants the process was costly in time, but there was also a huge financial cost to the Church: £384,525. This investment was felt to be worth it as Shared Conversations was supposed to express and acknowledge the diversity of views within the Church on human sexuality.

In February 2017, the House of Bishops presented a report to General Synod (GS2055) which stated that the bishops had ‘listened to’ the Shared Conversations process, offered ‘a fresh tone and culture’, but evidenced absolutely no engagement or learning from the Shared Conversations. In fact, it was such a poor piece of work that one could read the report and conclude that the Church of England did not remarry divorced people in Church, which every bishop patently knows not to be the case (see GS2055 para.42).

Judith, as a member of Synod, was there for the debate; Helen, a former member, felt sufficiently strongly that she came and sat in the public gallery, later blogging about it here. Synod failed to ‘take note’ of the report – in more normal English, it was rejected. In response to that rejection (which appeared to take the bishops by surprise), a proposal for a ‘substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships’ was implemented, following a statement immediately after the defeat of GS2055 by the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he announced the need for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’.

This ‘teaching’ document soon evolved into a ‘learning’ document, and then a set of ‘learning resources’, re-branded as Living in Love and Faith (LLF). The whole process began in earnest in the summer of 2017 and draws on the academic expertise and personal experience of many dozens of individuals. It too has been costly in terms of money, time and personal risk but many of us stuck with it in the hope that some learning by the bishops had actually occurred about the failure to engage with the learning from the Shared Conversations resulting in the rejection of GS2055 by General Synod.

Alas, we have to conclude that any learning from experience has not happened – or at least there is no evidence to suggest that it has.  The archbishops’ minimalist apology and the failure of the College of Bishops to withdraw the Pastoral Statement have severely undermined our confidence in the collective ability of our Christian leaders to learn from LLF. We are left wondering if, like the Shared Conversations, LLF will come to be seen as another very costly ‘smoke and mirrors’ project, taking up the time and goodwill of many individuals (in which we would include the Enabling Officer, Dr Eeva John, who we increasingly feel has been given an impossible remit undermined by the very people authorizing the work, and who have to ‘own’ its outputs: the House of Bishops). The bishops have to approve the resources formally, and then are charged with taking the LLF process forwards after these are published; are we confident that they understand this process? Has the whole LLF enterprise been yet another delaying tactic, kicking any actual movement towards LGBT+ equality in the Church further into the long grass before it lands in the in-tray of the next generation of bishops?

Like many other colleagues and friends on LLF, we have persevered with and given considerable time to the project over several years. However, we’re no longer convinced that the House and College of Bishops are capable of breaking the repeated, destructive pattern of behaviour we saw over the production of GS2055 despite the costly investment in the Shared Conversations. History never precisely ‘repeats itself’ but we regretfully conclude that our bishops have shown a collective inability to learn from it.

Helen King is Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at The Open University, and an authorized preacher in the Oxford Diocese.  She served on General Synod for seven years.

Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford as well as a member of General Synod.


Posted in Helen King, Human Sexuality, Judith Maltby, Living in Love & Faith | 4 Comments

After the Apology – Surely the Centre Cannot Hold?

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Ozanne Foundation Trustee

Rosie Haarper

There has been an apology. I confess I don’t get it.

The apology from the Archbishops was about the tone and the timing of their Pastoral Letter, and it totally missed the point. Yes, the timing could have been better. It cut right across the Living in Love and Faith process, a very lengthy process during which we have been told to hold fire. Yes, the tone was appalling. It was patronising and churchy and excluding. People rightly objected to both those problems, but it was the content that gave deep offence and for that there was no apology.

A lot has now been written about this but surely we have yet to experience the longer term effects?

I have heard explanations about how this document got into the public domain. It was basically “cock-up” rather than conspiracy. In an institution which does “high control” rather than “high trust” that is actually quite funny. As someone who knows their Facebook posts and tweets are carefully observed there is a childish delight in the banana skin moment!

It would be easy to think this is an in-house matter and it will blow over. Living in Love and Faith will be published and the usual motherhood and apple pie response will kick the deeper issues into the long grass.

However, I suspect that this is more than a domestic matter.

We have now declared in a very public way that the relationships of many of the people we love and care about are sub-optimal. Anyone who has sex outside a heterosexual marriage is falling short.  So that’s your own relationship, your sons and daughters, your friends and colleagues, in fact a large proportion of the whole nation.

How does that play?

How sustainable is it to pretend to be the national church when you write off the deepest and most meaningful part of most people’s life in a careless and patronising press release? The document is all about sex in a most lightweight and mechanistic way and completely misses the really profound dimension of people’s lives, which is about love.

To be an established church in any worthwhile way involves a synchronicity, a recognition of the realities of people’s lives. It involves living in the same space and speaking the same language.

Archbishop John recognised this way back. In Jamaica in Feb 2012 he said: ‘The only thing the Church of England needs to do is to ensure that its worship, its life, begins to reflect the community it serves. Its leadership needs to do that as well.’

He was talking about needing more black people in the CofE, but of course the same principle applies across the board.

Let’s not kid ourselves that we can get away with this or that we can pretend it never happened. The National Secular Society are all over it.

There is now a bill (House of Lords (Removal of Bishops) Bill’ to end the automatic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords, which the National Secular Society helped to draft, and has been introduced to parliament by the Liberal Democrat peer and NSS honorary associate, Dick Taverne.

This private member’s bill would mean that the 26 places in the House of Lords which are reserved for the Church of England’s bishops and archbishops would end .

The Pastoral Letter sadly demonstrated that they are indeed so utterly out of touch with our society that it is hard to see how they can legislate effectively in a relevant way.

This gulf between the pronouncements of the Church and the ethical temperature of the country is mirrored by a gulf between the leadership and the parish. I find myself apologising all the time. ‘Yes I’m a Christian, but not that kind of a Christian.’ ‘ Despite the Pastoral Statement here in this parish all are welcome and all are blessed by God.’

Maybe the reason is that our faith is not at core propositional, but the Church has become increasingly so.  As some parts of the Church look for high definition we are losing the blurred edges.  There is a desire to prescribe ‘the true’ believer. It seems possible to be on the right side of the righteousness line even though your faith makes you a nasty person.  You can be someone who genuinely thinks that you can follow Jesus and at the same time exclude people. The opposite should be true. At funeral visits, people tell me: He wasn’t much of a church person, but he was a good Christian. Most people feel that Christian is how you behave not what you believe. The Pastoral Letter got that completely the wrong way round.

Perhaps we can learn from our Catholic sisters and brothers? Yes, there are those who are aligned to the full scope of Catholic teaching, but the vast majority don’t sweat that stuff at all. In conversation with a Catholic family in Germany a couple of years ago I asked, ‘But how can you go along with the whole contraception thing?’ ‘ Ah Rosie, we know they have to say it, but we don’t take any notice.’

When I stood for General Synod 10 years ago I honestly thought that the gulf between the Church of Lambeth Palace & Church House, and the local Parish, could be bridged.

I have reluctantly concluded that its probably impossible.

The Pastoral Letter cemented my resolve. I won’t be standing again.

Posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Rosie Harper | 13 Comments

After the Apology – What Next?

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, an LGBT member of the co-ordinating group for the Living in Love and Faith project

Giles Goddard

It’s been a pretty tumultuous and painful week. All sorts of people have been affected. A friend of mine was deeply upset by the Statement (I won’t call it ‘Pastoral’), both because of the way it seemed to speak to heterosexual couples outside marriage – she had never heard the Church’s current position expressed with such coldness – and because of its calamitous effect on the Church’s mission.

My own feelings were of betrayal – betrayal of process and of  my personal position as an LGBTI+ member of the Church who is deeply committed to preaching a gospel of welcome, not fear, and who wants the Church to speak from a position where nobody is treated as an outsider.

I have heard a great deal of contrition from the College of Bishops and from the Archbishops and I am grateful for that. I hope it will help us to move on. But I also have a strong sense that the underlying causes for the publication of the Statement have only just begun to be addressed. I have had very recent conversations with bishops who remain dismayed by the Church’s way of being: still, deep down, dominated by a world-view which feels white, male and patriarchal in its teaching on sexuality and relationships. Women still find it hard to be heard. There is still a huge problem with BAME representation. There is only one out LGBTI+ bishop.

The deep regret about the publication of the Statement, and the acceptance of responsibility by the Archbishops, is welcome.

But I wish the apology had said more to truly acknowledge the effect of the tone and content. I wish the Statement could have been withdrawn. I fully understand that it simply expresses the Church’s current position, but it does so in such a horrible way. Perhaps the fact that it is still there points up even more urgently the huge task ahead of us: it’s like a heap of manure in the middle of the road that we will have to continue to walk past until we can find a way of removing it.

I am very concerned about the way this will impact on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process. I am anxious about the hopes placed in it, almost as though LLF is a panacea that will get us out of jail free. It ain’t gonna happen like that! LLF is hard work, demanding real commitment and real openness across the board. It’s about relationships, and love, and joy, and gift, and all the things so conspicuously absent from the Statement.

So, what now?

I think there are at least four things that need to happen.

  1. We need to know what the Bishops’ commitment to the LLF process actually means. On Wednesday the College of Bishops was divided into small groups, and in those groups people were encouraged to speak openly and truly about their feelings and about where they are on these issues. I understand that many groups produced good and honest conversations. Will they enable and encourage that to be replicated across Synod and the Dioceses in the coming year?
  2. To do that, we need a substantive debate at the July Synod. One of the reasons for the rejection of GS2055 was the perception that it was completely top down. The House needs to trust Synod to have a constructive conversation, having used the LLF materials in small groups, so that the process can be commended to the whole Church by the House of Bishops and the General Synod. If that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to see how it can bring about any meaningful change.

  3. LLF needs to be owned by the whole Church, conservative and progressive. I have been linked with the process since the start, and through it I have developed a better and deeper understanding of 1 Corinthians 12.21: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I do not need you.’  I am working again with Andrew Goddard, with whom some readers of this blog will remember I had a correspondence many years ago. We are friends. We want to find ways for each other to flourish in the Church, in accordance with the Pastoral Principles. We need to hear that from conservatives and progressives: it is better to walk together than apart. What will the cost of that be, to both sides? And how do we acknowledge honestly the pain and damage which the current situation is causing?

  4. When LLF is launched, in June, it needs to be launched with generosity and humility from those in leadership. The resources which are on their way are, in many ways, remarkable. Many people have been extraordinarily generous with their time and their selves, being willing to participate in films about their lives and faith, writing and speaking honestly in an attempt to help the Church move on. They deserve our thanks and our honouring.

LLF is about relationships and about how we try to live in love and faith. As I write this I am on my way to media training in preparation for its launch. My earnest prayer is that, when it finally does emerge into the light of day, the Church’s message is along these lines:

We commit to listen, and to learn, and to share with one another. We know that we cannot continue as we are. The Gospel is too precious for us to keep hurting it as we have. We are, as a Church and as faithful Christians, on a journey. We aren’t sure where we will end up: but we trust God and ask for the Spirit’s help in travelling together.

Then, perhaps, we will begin to discover what ‘radical, new, Christian inclusion’ looks like. Perhaps we will begin to be able to speak with as much integrity about gender, marriage, sexuality and relationships as we are beginning to be able to speak about the other huge issue of the day, climate change.

I know that many readers of this blog are hoping for much more, much more quickly, from the Church. I share those hopes and, having been working on this for 25 years, I have many times nearly reached the point of opting out. I wish we could have had these conversations twenty years ago.

Many have asked me why I continue with LLF.

My answer is simple: because I really don’t see another way forward, other than the endless back and forth that we have been stuck with for so long, or a deep and hurtful split.

This feels like our last, best hope for a better Church and so I am doing all I can to try to help that to happen. I am grateful for all the prayers for those of us directly in the process: and pray that, as LLF is rolled out, we will all begin to learn and speak better of Jesus, of God’s love, and of the Spirit.






Posted in Giles Goddard, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 2 Comments

What the Bishops Could Have Said…

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage

Mandy Ford

Readers of Via Media, I confess…I am a woman priest in a civil partnership and I love the Church of England!

This does not mean that I am not hurt and frustrated with the institution which I serve in the light of the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships. Institutions can be abusive, and we have seen evidence of that in the Peter Ball case. But at their best, institutions can provide a measure of stability and tell stories that last longer than individual lifetimes.

I suppose that all I can say is that I am not yet convinced that the Church of England, as an institution, is a lost cause.

There was a time when the institutional character of the Church of England meant that it shared and shaped the moral and ethical life of the nation. The Church was there to bless, to celebrate and to mourn at key events in the lives of individuals and the nation. Liturgies, ceremonies, prayers and ritual provide space for people to ponder the mysteries of life and love at such important times.

Parish clergy know this and welcome couples of all manner and conditions of life who want to get married in church. Something in the symbolism of the liturgy speaks to them; the joining of hands, the giving of rings, the language of feasts, sacrifice, hospitality, generosity…And like every symbolic event, all its parts combine to make up a whole which is greater than the parts.

Our liturgy tells us that marriage has a threefold purpose for the couple who share in God’s generous gift of life-creation; are shaped in holiness by the joys and challenges of sharing their spouse’s daily life; and enter a relationship of mutual sacrifice that offers care and protection in times of vulnerability. This is love in all its aspects; charity, agape and eros.

The Church understands marriage as both a social and spiritual event. It is a legal and social contract, a covenant, a sacrament. It is a contract made between the couple that the State and the Church recognise (and give equal status to, whether that contract is enacted in a church or a registry office).

Trying to unpick the strands might seem like a sensible theological exercise, but only serves to pull the whole thing apart. Reductionism is not serving the institution well, nor does it reflect the rich diversity of human identity and experience. The Living in Love and Faith process properly engages with the complexity of the issues within a rapidly changing context, in a way which, regrettably, the recent Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships does not.

More has been revealed in the past couple of days about the poor process that resulted in the publication of the Statement, which were handled by the wrong people and agreed, under the usual pressure of time, by the House of Bishops. A statement of this kind was never going to address the real issues facing the Church, and the bishops in their teaching and pastoral roles.

The problem, which many of us might argue is of their own making, has its roots is the House of Bishops decision to approve the legislation that introduced Civil Partnerships instead of equal marriage back in 2004. The pace of change was such that compromise was inevitable and so bishops offered limited support to civil partnerships for same sex couples because civil partnership looked different from marriage, on the spurious argument that since penetrative sexual intercourse was not a condition of fulfilment  of the contract of civil partnership, a civil partnership could be a celibate relationship.

The Church has chosen to imagine that the defining difference between a Civil Partnership and Marriage is the place of sexual activity within them. There was a bit of bluster over the weekend about the place of vows, but this simply doesn’t hold in the case of civil marriage. But this is not the way the world beyond the Church understands what is going on here, and as a result we are losing the opportunity to offer purpose and meaning to both marriage and civil partnerships.

If the purpose of marriage is reduced to that of sexual intercourse which is open to the procreation of children, we loose the beauty of marriage in later life,  as well as the marriage that embraces people with disabilities or infertility as the result of illness, never mind the possibility of marriage between people whose sexual activity is not procreative because of their gender or gender realignment.

If the House of Bishops persists in the illusion that civil partnerships are a legal mechanism for protecting inheritance rights in celibate friendships, they are losing the opportunity to support a step that could  provide much needed stability and protection for the millions of children living in households with parents who are not married.

Those who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership were generally thoughtful middle class people with a healthy scepticism of the historic legacy of patriarchal marriage. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership spoke about their desire to “formalise their relationship in a more modern way, focused on equality and respect.”  The tragedy is that the church could have expanded its framing of marriage in this way decades ago, emphasising the importance of marriage as a soul-making, hospitable institution which serves the whole community and enables the flourishing of all who participate.

The greatest benefit of the new legislation may well be to co-habiting couples who cannot afford the cost of a “traditional” wedding, or who do not see their relationship as having a religious dimension. How sad that the House of Bishops could not have used the opportunity to welcome this new way of being married – blessing and encouraging all that is good, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

We may yet come to the point where we can do this  (and I for one heartily pray for that day) but in the meantime, I do wonder if the House of Bishops might have recognised that they have plenty of listening, discerning and learning yet to do, and have taken the advice from Wittengenstein, “that whereof we cannot speak we should keep silent”?

Posted in Living in Love & Faith, Mandy Ford | 18 Comments

As a Vicar I know it’s Time the Church Stopped telling People to be Abstinent

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

Simon Butler

(This article was first published in The Metro on January 26th 2020, and is reproduced with Canon Butler’s permission)

Last week, bishops of the Church of England, issued a statement on the new opposite-sex civil partnerships.

All they could say, when it boiled down to it, was: ‘no sex before or outside marriage.’ They added that those in same or opposite sex civil partnerships should live their lives as ‘sexually abstinent friends’ and those in same sex marriages should not be having sex.

The bishops of the Church are, in my experience, thoughtful, wise and compassionate women and men. But many of us are embarrassed and angered by the tone of what we read. The response of many clergy in the Church was to, metaphorically, shout at the telly.

I think it’s wrong and naive to ask for and to expect abstinence from couples.

It’s wrong because there is no evidence that sex in other forms of committed relationship are harmful: the texts of the Bible assume a very different meaning to sex than it currently possesses. It’s naive because, as the Catholic Church discovered over contraception, what’s the point of teaching something that most of the faithful ignore?

Wake-up call bishops: people no longer listen to you for teaching on sexual ethics.

Since I became a vicar in 1997, I have married over 200 couples. Of these, I can recall just one who had decided to refrain from sex before marriage. And that is because marriage is about much more than sex.

I like to ask a provocative question of wedding couples when I prepare them: ‘Why on earth do you want to get married? You’re committed, in love, have lived together for some time. Why get married?’ Once they’ve got over the shock, most of them talk not about sex, which is already part of their reality, but about children. They want to provide the strongest relationship in which to raise children. They see marriage as the best place to do that.

I then invite them to think about other reasons for moving into marriage, among which is the fact that, to quote a theologian, ‘it is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love.’

Even in our age when we often rightly suspect institutions, the institution of marriage can offer a place to hold people together when the first love of marriage begins to change.

But not everyone chooses marriage. Many couples see the disasters of their parents’ marriage and resolve not to make the same mistake. Others have been hurt by a previous marriage and don’t want to go there again. My church has such people within it and, like most Church of England churches, we welcome those people the same as everyone else, because we follow Jesus who welcomes us as we are.

It’s why this statement by the bishops of the Church of England felt so alien to me.

My priority as a priest is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. What on earth would a couple – be that same or opposite-sex – hear of the love of God if they approach us about blessing a relationship and we based our response on whether they are sexually active?

So we need a different sexual ethic, for all couples, rather than encouraging abstinence for the vast majority. There’s so much more that Christianity can offer to contemporary challenges around sex and relationships.

It’s not as if sexual liberation has been a nirvana; it has just brought a new set of issues and challenges.

But we won’t be heard if we continue simply to say only married, heterosexual sex is good, and we ignore countless lived experiences. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed the ‘stunning’ nature of some same-sex relationships.

There’s a Bible story about Jesus healing a man who is deaf and mute. Whatever you think that, the reaction recorded is of amazement: ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak!’ The story of Jesus healing a man who couldn’t hear and so couldn’t speak is a parable for this sort of tone-deaf communication. I pray that the Jesus who heals us of our inability to hear and speak might work among our bishops.


Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Simon Butler | 6 Comments

Restoring Trust….In Church and State

by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight and Chair of One Body One Faith

peter leonard

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been reflecting a lot on trust recently after being let down by someone rather badly. It hurts doesn’t it? It is not just the immediate betrayal which stings but the ongoing ripples and impact of what has been done to you.

The fact that you don’t feel you can believe or trust this person again.

The issue of trust was a big one in the recent General Election and despite the very clear result I don’t think that the issue has been addressed at all – by any of the political parties.  Neither has anyone addressed why it has been lost within Parliament and between the people and Parliament. A large majority win by one party may cover it up but it doesn’t deal with it and so it rumbles on just not as loudly as it did before the General Election, but it is still clearly there.

As the recent revelations about sexual abuse in the Church and the Peter Ball case in particular remind us the Church is place where trust should exist in abundance but sadly many victims of abuse have found it to be lacking and indeed to be a place where no one can be trusted to keep them safe.

Many LGBT+ people have lost trust in the Church having heard time and time again how sorry the Church is for the way they have been treated and yet then to be treated exactly the same again. Too many times they have been greeted by a smile and a warm welcome to a Church ‘which welcomes all’ only to be stung by finding themselves at worst the victims of damaging conversion therapy thinly disguised as ‘prayer ministry’ or at best tolerated but not being allowed to have any significant role in the Church community.

When my appointment as Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight was announced a number of people who were unhappy about it sought to see what they could find out about me and use against me, others took pictures of my partner and I on the day of our Civil Partnership and used them in a negative way. It has made me jumpy and I am now much more conscious of anything I write or say or do or indeed anything I post on social media. That might not be a bad thing and I am sure there is plenty I could have expressed in a better way or not at all over the years but the negative effect of this is that when someone contacts me or sends me a friend request I am no longer happy to accept it but always assume the worst. What do they want? What are they trying to find out about me? I do not like the fact that my lack of trust has made me a suspicious person.

So how do you restore trust?

How do you once again achieve some sort of equilibrium in any institution, organisation or indeed between individuals when trust has been damaged or lost entirely. I wish I had the answer! It does strike me however that restoring trust requires the same steps as establishing it in the first place.

Relationship. This is fundamental to trust. You have to know someone to trust them. There are of course some obvious exceptions. People tend to trust police officers or nurses or vicars (although this may well no longer be true) but this is because there is some innate relationship with the role formed over many years and indeed generations. When trust is gone so is the relationship and we saw that only too clearly towards the end of the last Parliament. Attention must be given to how those relationships can be restored. Shouting across a chamber, sending angry emails or ignoring someone will never do that. Only dialogue and understanding and hard work will do it.

Risk. To know if you can trust someone you have to trust them. At some point there is the leap of faith that you have to take.

Evidence. For trust to build that risk has to result in hard evidence that the person of organisation or institution can indeed be trusted.

The one area which is perhaps different when rebuilding lost trust to establishing it in the first place is a genuine and authentic sense of remorse that an action has led to anyone being hurt or to trust being destroyed. Remorse which isn’t a series of ‘hand-wringing’ statements but a genuine wish it had not happened and a clear attempt to ensure it doesn’t happen again. So far I have not seen that from the person who let me down, from anyone in politics or indeed from the Church.

So why do I still vote and engage in politics as an interested citizen? Why do I still not only worship within the Church of England but indeed work within it as an ordained minister?

Because my faith has led me to a God who can be trusted. That doesn’t mean I always get what I want and it certainly doesn’t mean that life is all rainbows and butterflies. But having started with a somewhat negative quote perhaps I could finish with a more positive one:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Corrie ten Boom

I don’t know what the future of the UK is outside of the EU. I don’t know whether we will remain as the United Kingdom or break down into a series of smaller independent states. I don’t know whether my relationship with the person I alluded to earlier will be restored or not and I certainly don’t know if as a partnered gay man I will ever be truly accepted and affirmed by the Church.

But I hope and that hope is based on my experience of a God who I firmly believe can be trusted.


Posted in Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Peter Leonard, Politics, Sexual abuse, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Abusers of Faith

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

In June 2017 the Church of England published the Gibb Report An Abuse of Faith, an independent enquiry into the Church’s handling of the Bishop Peter Ball case, a damning exposure of how the Church had responded poorly to Ball’s abuse victims and had colluded to cover up the seriousness of his manipulative conduct.

Two and a half years later, on 13th and 14th January 2020, came the screening of two hour-long programmes on BBC2 called Exposed: The Church’s dark secret, which used survivor and witness testimony and dramatic reconstructions to bring home the emotional impact of Ball’s betrayal of trust set out in the Gibb Report. The bravery of the survivors of abuse was remarkable; and so was the incompetence and lack of care shown by some senior Church and establishment figures in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Exposed programme made links between Peter Ball and other paedophile priests, and hinted at a wider public school culture where physical punishment, humiliation, emotional and sexual abuse in the name of ‘manliness’ or even ‘godliness’ facilitated abusive behaviour. Peter Ball’s abuse was on the basis of anglo-catholic monasticism. But it has strong resonances with similar behaviour uncovered in the last few years in relation to John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, two evangelical Christian leaders who were involved in manipulating young men into stripping and being beaten. In Smyth’s case his abuse was known but dealt with covertly, allowing him to go on abusing in another country.

Why do men act in such ways? Why does the church establishment not respond with compassion towards their victims and survivors? Two starters for ten.

The perversion of sexuality.

Healthy personal identity includes coming to terms with our sexuality, whatever it is, and living it appropriately (whether in relationship or in abstinence). Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a perversion if it’s who you are. Denying your sexuality, without integrating it into your life and putting appropriate boundaries around it, is what leads to perversion. Whether it’s a poor public school boarding system or a dysfunctional family which takes away from children the opportunity to learn healthy intimacy and relationships, the repression of emotional warmth and the dis-integration of the self makes people vulnerable to finding their missing intimacy in perverse ways. Sexuality becomes covert, shameful, hidden, and leaks out in ways that can damage other people as well as the person themselves.

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8.31-2). We need to be truthful and open, rather than dogmatic and hidden. Ball, Smyth and Fletcher were orthodox and exemplary Christians on the surface, but were not truthful about their impulses and who they were, and used others for their gratification rather than admit their problems and find help. They preferred to exercise power and control over other people than be vulnerable themselves. The healthy response is for people to acknowledge their sexuality and seek to integrate it into their lives; and the Living in Love and Faith process in the Church of England offers a further opportunity for all of us Christians from across the spectrum of sexuality and church tradition to face up to our own insecurities and temptations, and build healthy, compassionate and equal relationships with others.

Beliefs that reinforce separation and authority.

Common to Ball, Smyth and Fletcher was the use of selective Christian teaching combined with overt and covert appeals to the spiritual authority of the person doing the controlling. They groomed their victims in a spiritual context which validated what they were doing. They also groomed the organisations they worked for into believing that they were great leaders and that what they were doing was normal and right. Ball in particular was spectacularly successful in getting both Church and Establishment to see things from his perspective, treating his victims as being to blame for the problems that he had created, and perpetuating a culture where people with power could not be held to account.

Any ‘charismatic leader’ runs the risk of allowing pride and control over others to overcome compassion and Christ-like service to them. But that risk is greatly magnified in faith settings where there is a view or expectation that the leader is a saint, or closer to God than others; and also where there are rigid beliefs that keep people from thinking ‘outside the box’ and questioning their leaders, views which stop them hearing the beliefs and experiences of others. The recent book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys (SPCK, 2019) gives many examples of how ‘groupthink’ can happen in a church closed off from Christians and others who are different and could challenge the leadership. Such churches can be fertile breeding grounds for abusive behaviour. Whether it’s evangelical or catholic or liberal, any church or group which doesn’t accept difference is more vulnerable to hosting abuse. One reason why Peter Ball didn’t come to justice for so long was that few people wanted to believe that a bishop could be like that, and bishops who knew otherwise weren’t prepared to acknowledge it: protection of their position was more important than caring for others and telling the truth.

There are catholic cultures and institutions which shelter perverse sexuality, the divide between the aspiration to celibacy and the reality. There are evangelical churches which deny the reality of gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender Christians, in the context of a Church which denies acceptance to gay people wanting Christian and faithful relationships on the pattern of marriage. That’s part of what needs to change in order to be healthy, so that ‘if we walk in the light as [God] himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ Until we tell the truth and live in the light – together – we will continue to make it easier for there to be victims of abuse.

After watching the second programme on Peter Ball, I changed channel to see the news. The second item was the report on child sexual abuse in Rochdale, where Manchester police and social services had written off vulnerable young girls in care and allowed wholesale abuse by men to take place against them. It’s not only the Church that has refused to listen to victims of abuse –  it’s a massive social problem of how men can turn to abusing others instead of taking responsibility for managing their own sexual desires and conflicts in a healthy way. The Church should not collude with it, but be leading the way out of hypocrisy and dis-integration into the light and truth of Jesus Christ.


Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 1 Comment