The Trouble With Fish….

by the Revd Janet Fife, a retired priest and a survivor of abuse

IICSA - hearings

As a survivor of abuse and a spokesperson for others who have been abused, the Revd Janet Fife has been given a right of reply to the Revd Canon Simon Butler’s piece “A Via Media in Safeguarding

Imagine a chain of fish restaurants, the Good Fish Co., with an unreliable supply of shellfish. Now and again customers become ill from eating them – and the branch managers respond in various ways. Some respond immediately to complaints, investigating and then discarding the suspect batch. The sick customers are kept informed, and compensated for their bad meal. Other branch managers react differently. They refuse to respond to complaints or investigate, so more customers get poisoned. Environmental Health officers visit and make recommendations, but the managers fail to implement them. Complaining customers find their phone calls and letters are unanswered, and they’re out of pocket for their meal and any missed wages from being off sick.

Some disgruntled customers complain to head office. Good Fish Co. could listen to those customers, learn from what they say, and correct the problem. The issue would then be done with, and the company better for it. Instead, it too refuses to answer letters and phone calls from the customers who have been poisoned by their food. Far from offering compensation, it persistently loses files on these cases and is rude to the complainants.

The media and health authorities become interested in the Good Fish Co.’s problem, and the company adopts a new tactic. They classify their customers into 3 groups:  Group A, customers who have never had food poisoning; Group B, customers who have been made ill but are happy with the way their complaint was handled; and Group C, those whose complaint was not dealt with well and are still not happy about it. Groups A and B have the company’s approval, and the Good Fish Co. are happy to talk about their experience with the company’s seafood. Group C, however, are labelled as troublemakers. They are ‘not representative’, they are ‘persistent complainers’, their complaints are ‘not constructive’. Good Fish Co. refuse to meet with those from Group C or with their representatives, or to deal with the issues they raise; nothing changes. What’s the result? The whole company suffers, of course. The bad managers remain in post serving bad shellfish to customers who then get ill. The public lose confidence about the restaurants being safe places to eat. Sales decline and the Good Fish Company’s position becomes shaky. But it’s not their fault – the problem is with Group C.

The Good Fish Co. is rather like the Church of England; it doesn’t want to hear bad news and won’t engage with its critics. Worse, when there is a genuine matter of complaint which is dealt with badly by the local branch, there seems no way of putting the matter right or gaining redress. The situation goes from bad to worse, and the reputation of the whole suffers.

Simon Butler, in his recent blog, spoke of the ‘polarisation’ between some survivors and the institutional Church. I welcome Simon as an ally, and concur with his assertion that the anger some survivors feel is justified.  Some survivors of abuse within the Church have been treated shamefully – and despite attention being drawn to the issues there has been little or no effort to make things right.  In my own case, the written complaints I made in 1995 and in 2017 appear to have gone missing from the files. This is not, regrettably, an isolated instance.

There are others, thank God, who have been heard and cared for, and steps taken to see the abuser does not harm anyone again. I rejoice with and for them, and for those who take seriously their responsibility to care for survivors. It’s good to know the Church can get this right. However, it would be easy to comfort ourselves with that fact, and not go on to do the hard and necessary work of learning from the cases we have got so wrong. If we do so we make the same mistake as the Good Fish Co.. The result is that bad practice will continue to flourish and the number of disgruntled ‘customers’ will multiply.

Nor is this just a matter of some survivors ‘feeling’ they have been rebuffed – they actually have been rebuffed and turned away. That’s an objective fact we need to deal with. It isn’t right to expect those survivors to ‘find a better way to engage’, or to ‘make supportive and constructive criticism of the institutional church’ (I quote Simon’s blog here, with the original italics). The Church has done the damage, both in the original abuse and in the re-abuse of a damaging response or lack of response.  It’s entirely the Church’s responsibility to put this right – to apologise, make restitution, and offer genuine care and concern. That’s where the process begins, before we expect anything at all from those we have harmed.

I have written on the Church’s treatment of the abused on several occasions recently – and each time I have heard from more survivors who have thanked me for speaking up. They say that so far their voices have not been heard and their concerns not taken seriously.

Soon General Synod will debate Safeguarding; a debate in which it isn’t planned for survivors to be heard. I understand that there will be a fringe meeting, however, at which Synod members can meet survivors and hear something of what they have to say. I hope that meeting will be very well attended – and that, finally, those ‘difficult’ voices will be heard.

Picture – Archbishop Justin Welby at the IICSA hearings on March 21st 2018

Posted in Church of England, Guest Contributors, IICSA, Sexual abuse | 9 Comments

A Via Media in Safeguarding?

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


Via Media is billed as Rediscovering the Middle Ground. Among the polarisations within the church today is the one that exists between what we might not-quite-helpfully identify as the “institutional church” (which is of course is real people doing real jobs) and the survivors of sexual and physical abuse in a church context.

The temperature rose once more a week or so ago when the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England published a range of texts, prayers and readings for use in the context of Safeguarding. Although the resources issued were for use by many groups in the church, the publication of these texts prompted an unhappy, regretful letter in the Church Times from a group of survivors claiming that the consultation that was reported was not adequate and implying that the resources themselves were, potentially, harmful.

It was in this context that I received an email from a survivor which I offer as another perspective upon this polarisation. I reproduce it in full and with permission, although understandably the author wishes to remain anonymous.

Dear Simon (if I may),

Can I say how glad I am for the work you are doing on clergy well-being in the national church. Although we would disagree about some important issues facing the Body of Christ, I do want you to know of my appreciation for this work and assure you of my prayers as you continue.

The prompt to email, though, isn’t directly about well-being. It’s about safeguarding. I’m a clergy survivor of sexual abuse in the Church of England. This is something that has affected my ministry and my personal life for many years. I’m careful about who I talk to about it, and I’ve not thought that a survivors’ group would be a very healthy place for me, although I’m glad that they exist for others. My journey over the years has been difficult but, by God’s grace, I’m able to function and minister to my congregation and local community in what I hope is a faithful and reasonably effective way – you’ll have to ask them I suppose! I know how much I rely on the grace of God and His Church here in [name removed].

But I do feel I want someone to know among the ‘powers that be’ that I could not have been more supported by the Church than I have been. My bishops in….[name removed]… have been without fail sensitive and understanding, they have listened and provided me with prayer and practical support. I’ve confided to a few key people in my leadership team who are amazing prayer warriors for me in the moments when the memories return and it affects my ministry. I do believe God is slowly healing me.

I decided to get in touch because I’m aware that this isn’t the story that often gets told by survivors publicly – typically the Church comes in for criticism, and often rightly so – but my story is also part of the story of survivors of sexual abuse. The way the Church treats us is sometimes far better than some of the louder voices make out. I’m very reluctant to criticise fellow-survivors, who have been through enough already, so all I want to ask is that the Church authorities listen to as wide range of survivors’ stories as they can and not just the ones who often pop up? I keep seeing some names in angry letters and blogs I do wonder sometimes how representative they are.

If you can make any of this heard with those in General Synod, please do so, but I do not want to be identified. I sometimes get asked to see a survivor in my diocese to provide some support, but I think it would be unwise for me to stick my neck out beyond that: it would just bring a lot of the bad memories back and I try and move on rather than dwelling on the past too much.

In Him, John [name changed]

I was very touched by this honest letter.

Not long ago I was pleased to be described by Gilo – a much-respected survivor – as a ‘natural ally’ of survivors. I hope I am. I’m aware, as a member of Archbishops’ Council, just how much work and resource are being done and provided to address past failures and to make the church a safe place for all. Much more remains to be done until, as Archbishop Justin said recently, churches should be the safest places in our communities.

So I share this email as an ally of survivors both angry and content in the hope that some way can be found to de-polarise the current climate. If we are to avoid ‘othering’ – the making of one group not part of ‘us’ (and it seems to me that both the church and survivors risk doing that of the other party which is really not good for anyone) then we all need to find a better way of engaging. Without doubt, the Church must take the bigger step here so that, as far as possible, survivors’ are not rebuffed, as some, but as we can read above, not all clearly feel.

At the same time, while recognising that survivors’ groups that exist cannot speak for the whole body of survivors and that being consulted and involved does not necessarily always mean getting one’s own way, can a way be found for survivors themselves, both those with a rightful sense of anger and those who feel well-supported by the Church, to make supportive and constructive criticism of the institutional church, not chiefly as ‘survivors’ but as fellow, equal members of the Body?

Is it time for some proper mediation?

Posted in Church of England, IICSA, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler, Spiritual Abuse | 6 Comments

Who Speaks for Anglican Evangelicals?

by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past Member of General Synod

Anna Norman-Walker

Last week I found my prejudices deeply challenged. I had been rather surprised to be invited to lead a session for first year Ordinands at St Mellitus College in central London.

Surprised, because I would have imagined I might not be ‘their’ type.  It was well over ten years since I had enjoyed the strumming of guitars and raising of arms in worship and am now leading an inclusive, liturgical church in South London, having spent 6 ½ years previously in a Cathedral. These days I am more likely to sing the Exultat at Easter than ‘See what a morning!’.

And so, it was with both a measure of curiosity and anxiety, that I hopped on the bus from Streatham on Monday afternoon and made my way to Kensington. I fully expected that I was about to be ‘thrown to the evangelicals’ and then (God forbid) prayed for, by the charismatics!

I, like many of us who inhabit different spaces within the Church of England, have been following with interest the church planting strategies of HTB and it has felt from a distance that the establishment of St Mellitus, as an alternative route to Ordination, was a further bid to conquer the Church of England once and for all.

What I discovered could not have been further from the truth.

The student body was varied in age and experience, many were in placement churches which were Central, Liberal or Anglo Catholic. The age demographic was refreshingly young and yet the quality of questions and openness to fresh learning surprisingly mature and there was a strong resistance to ‘labelling’.

Yes, there was a ‘broadly evangelical’ feel to the place, but it was open, generous and I can confirm that evening prayer was straight from Common Worship.

This experience led me to ponder who the Bishop of Maidstone imagined he was speaking on behalf of last week when he wrote to the Bishops of Litchfield Diocese on matters concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of their churches?

The media has swept up the ‘evangelical wing’ of the Church of England as those who are cheering the Bishop on, but I believe they are wrong to do so in such general terms. It is true that many LGBTQI Christians have been subjected to appalling treatment in some evangelical churches and yet there are others who have found a warm and inclusive welcome.

Evangelicalism is a spectrum, not a tribal identity and there are many who find themselves at home in churches that would describe themselves as evangelical, yet who despair at the approach to homosexuality that Bishop Rod and his supporters hold.

Moreover, some may conclude that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is not God’s ideal, but this would not necessarily lead them to a demand for repentance, a withholding of the sacraments or a withdrawal from leadership. There are also those who have found ways of being entirely comfortable with a difference of opinion within the churches that they worship, because they have come to understand and practise grace. This would define them as ‘Anglican’ evangelicals in the truest sense of the word, because Anglicans have always held a range of views in matters of faith and the ethic that flows from it.

I say these things because the evangelical stable was somewhere I once dwelt, and I know it well. I understand the language and the culture and many of my dearest friends remain firmly a part of it. In recent years I have drunk countless cups of coffee with those who wanted a safe space to explore reconciling their conscience, experience and developing theology with what they perceived to be the evangelical ‘party line’ but about which they were growing increasingly uncomfortable.

Almost all these conversations have been about the acceptance of homosexual people and their relationships, the subtext being ‘if I change my mind on this subject, then where will I belong?’  The answer is simply ‘in the Church of England!’

One of the many wonderful things about the Anglican tradition and of the Church of England within it, is that we are all sitting on a ‘big old sofa’, where there is room to move about a bit, if you wish.

I recall Guardian columnist Peter Ormerod summing us up brilliantly some time ago when he wrote:

‘The Church of England is between Catholic and Protestant, between organ and drum kit, between robes and T-shirts, between conservatism and liberalism, between certainty and doubt, between silence and noise. All of those things can be found within it, but as a whole, as an idea, as an entity, it is a celebration of nuance, an avowedly flawed body of avowedly flawed people. In a culture that is increasingly polarised and awash with labels and identity politics, the C of E is a beacon of murkiness and is all the more beautiful for it’.

Which is why Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone has behaved very unwisely in writing as he has to his brother Bishops in Lichfield. Not because he holds the views that he does (he is perfectly entitled to them), but the fact that in doing so he is demonstrating an overt unwillingness to be an Anglican evangelical.

Perhaps a term at St Mellitus would help?

Posted in Anna Norman-Walker, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Welcome, Disorder & Hypocrisy in the Church of England

by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

DAvid Ison

On 9th May 2018, the four bishops of the Lichfield Diocese wrote a letter to all clergy and licensed lay ministers in their diocese headed “Welcoming and honouring LGBT+ people”, setting out how they thought their diocese should seek to live out the “radical inclusion” called for by the two archbishops within the existing structures of the Church of England.

The tone of the letter is careful yet welcoming, wanting to affirm “the great contribution that LGBT+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese”, and noting that “the perception that the Church is homophobic and transphobic is harming our mission, especially to young people.”

On 30th May, Bishop Rod Thomas of Maidstone published on his website his reply to this letter.  The tone of his letter is also careful, seeking to welcome and affirm: but it undermines that welcome as it notes the concerns on behalf of the clergy of the parishes in the tradition to which he ministers, with particular reference to repentance, participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion, and identity. He wants to welcome, while maintaining pastoral discipline: and this raises the question as to how far that’s possible, particularly over these three key issues.

1.  Repentance

Bishop Rod notes: “The 1987 General Synod motion, which remains the Church of England’s official position, speaks of the need for all sexual relationships outside marriage [between a man and a woman] to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion. I do therefore encourage clergy to be compassionate and sensitive in dealing with the issue of repentance, but nevertheless to see it as an important part of their pastoral care.”

The issue here is whether repentance for all sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is appropriate to the changed circumstances in which the Church of England finds itself.

The 1987 Synod motion was passed before the introduction by the state in 2004 of civil partnerships in the UK, and in 2014 same-sex marriage in England and Wales (and separately in Scotland). You could argue that before 2004 all sexual relationships outside marriage were objectively “dis-ordered,” in the sense that there was no legal regulation for them – even though subjectively there would be a huge difference between a committed heterosexual or homosexual couple who were not married, and promiscuity or casual sex. General Synod debates on cohabitation since 1992[1] have tended to be compassionate towards those who are in a heterosexual, committed but unmarried relationship because it’s so common in our current society (and has been at times in the past), while wanting to steer people in the direction of having a legally ordered relationship.

We now have two ways of ordering same-sex relationships within British society – though the Church of England tries to reserve one for not-sexually-active relationships; how do we respond to that? Do we continue to insist that what is ordered by society is nonetheless disordered and demands repentance? Or do we accept that this is an ordering which helps those who are unable to avail themselves of heterosexual marriage, whether inside or outside the Church, to find order and direction in their relationships, in accordance with the principles of marriage (permanent, stable, faithful, nurturing)? And, for Christians, to see this as part of their Christian discipleship – a possibility envisaged at least for lay people in 1991 in the church document Issues in Human Sexuality? It seems bizarre that the Church is spending so much of its energy on getting Christian LGBT people to repent when they are living ordered lives and are looking for the Church’s blessing, rather than promoting ordered relationships in a world deluged by disordered sexuality.

2.  Sacraments

Following on from repentance, Bishop Rod’s letter raises the concern that:  “the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation.”

This is a very concerning statement. Some of those concerns have been noted by the Revd Colin Coward in his open letter to the Archbishops about the Bishop of Maidstone’s response. He points out that Bishop Rod appears to support those who contravene the House of Bishops’ 2014 Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, which clearly states that same-sex couples in civil partnerships or marriage should be welcomed and not refused the sacraments or questioned about their lifestyle. And there are deeper issues here too.

It’s not only that appealing to Article 25 of the Book of Common Prayer begs the question as to whether that article correctly interprets ‘unworthy’ in 1 Corinthians 11 as being about a matter of individual conscience. In its scriptural context, Paul’s concern is about a religious and socially disordered matter – Christians eating separately and not recognising Christ in one another and the sacrament (which might sound familiar in other contexts today!).

It’s also that Bishop Rod’s letter assumes that LGBT people don’t trust in Christ’s atoning cross if they don’t agree with the view he sets out. This is itself an exclusive and unscriptural view insofar as it judges and condemns brothers and sisters in Christ who are very clear about their faith in Jesus Christ and their intention of living a holy life before God, if not holy enough in the eyes of those who share the Bishop’s view.

He goes on to say: “This approach is, I hope, one which avoids inappropriate ‘exclusion’ or intrusive questioning. However, there may be some private pastoral discussions where people bring issues to us which require very gentle probing in order to clarify what is involved.” There’s a practical problem here: what may be one person’s ‘gentle probing’ is intrusive questioning to others, and it’s the experience of many LGBT people that churches can be judgemental and unwelcoming in general statements from the pulpit and elsewhere. More concerning is his implication that there is an appropriate exclusion, whether this is sacramental (denying communion to an LGBT person) or, as some have experienced, telling people that they are not welcome in their church.

The Lichfield bishops’ letter notes: “We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Note that in all cases excommunication is reserved to the diocesan bishop (Canon B16).” Doubtless any exclusions that have taken place would be justified on the grounds, not of orientation or identity, but of perceived sinful practice: but can we be assured that no church with which the Bishop of Maidstone works excludes any LGBT person from communion on any grounds without referring the matter to the diocesan bishop?

3.  Identity

In referring to people with gender identity concerns, Bishop Rod states that “we know that a wide range of issues may be involved and in some cases the suggestion of counselling would be appropriate. I do hope that clergy would be supported in the help they try to give in this respect.” In spirit this is a reasonable comment: but the experience of some LGBT people – highlighted in last year’s debate at General Synod on conversion therapy – is that counselling can be offered with a particular agenda, i.e. to shape a person’s identity in accordance with others’ beliefs as to what it should be. Can we be assured that clergy recommending counselling for others will do so in a client-centred way, and genuinely look for support from the wider church in doing so, not expecting others to retrospectively endorse their decisions (something which of course applies to pastoral care across all church traditions)?

The final issue in the letter concerns the identity of those offering for ministry in the Church. Bishop Rod writes: “I would hope that those offering for ministry of any sort would see their primary identity as in Christ, rather than these aspects of their personhood [i.e. sexual orientation or gender identity]. Difficulty arises where potential candidates have active sexual relationships outside marriage which are seen as intrinsic to their identity. In these cases, a fuller exploration of the consequences of discipleship may be needed before a teaching ministry can be considered.”

There’s a general and a particular issue in this. Generally: what does ‘identity in Christ’ mean in this letter? We have to take care over this, as there’s a small extremist ‘Christian Identity’ movement which is racist, anti-Semitic, and heretical. For mainstream Christians, however, it means being the person who we are growing into, becoming more like Jesus, to be assured of being children of God, inhabited by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Entering into our Christian identity does not mean eradicating who we really are, in order to fit us into an idealised (heterosexual) humanity, like the story of the Procrustean bed; it means Christ being manifest in and through who we really are. Bishop Rod’s view that our identity in Christ is primary implies that our sexuality (being gay or, presumably, straight) is a secondary ‘aspect of personhood’, rather than, as we experience it, an intrinsic part of who we are before God. Being clear about the nature of each person’s identity is a vital part of being welcoming to all and helping each person grow appropriately into who we are in Christ, without presuming that one Christian identity is privileged above others.

The other issue here is what ‘the consequences of discipleship’ are: and this takes us back to the issue of repentance.  The confused state of the Church of England makes it harder for LGBT people exploring ministry to know what to do. The Church has clearly discriminated against clergy who are in a same-sex marriage, but has also been hypocritical in accepting the validity of clergy civil partnership without sexual activity while offering the opportunity to discriminate against any cleric in a civil partnership when recruiting for jobs.  Clergy who are in formal, informal or hidden partnerships (about which ‘intrusive questions’ are not supposed to be asked) live in fear of discrimination if they are open about their partnership, or exposure if they hide it, whether or not they “have active sexual relationships outside marriage which are seen as intrinsic to their identity”.  And the concerns of Bishop Rod apply equally to heterosexual candidates for ministry, many of whom will have issues with their own sexuality, practice and experience.

This institutionalised dishonesty is bad for people’s mental health and corrupting for the Church’s institutions. A simpler and more honest way forward would be to treat different orientations and identities equally, welcoming all and genuinely supporting the discipleship of those who live an ordered life.

That means requiring all ministers, in the words of the ordination service, to ‘endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people’ – to live without scandal by being in a recognised, ordered way of life whatever their sexual orientation or identity, whether single or in a civil partnership or marriage, and not to suffer discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or identity. That would help the Church as well as individuals to regain integrity and confidence.

At the end of his letter, the Bishop of Maidstone offers to keep Lichfield Diocese “informed about some of the approaches taken in the churches to which I offer ministry about the way they seek to welcome LGBT+ people.” It would be good for all of us to learn more about how they plan to do that in a radically inclusive way.

My hope is that the whole of the Church of England will be urged to follow the lead of the bishops in Lichfield in welcoming all to a place at the table of Christ.

[1]          e.g. July 1992 and debates in 2004 and 2006

Posted in Church of England | 6 Comments

Sex & the Single Girl

by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod

Meg Warner

In all of the excitement about that sermon, some of the striking aspects of the royal wedding were perhaps slightly overlooked. The world watched an American divorcée marry into the Royal Family, with its full approval. Yes, some of them looked decidedly uncomfortable, but that was more about the preaching of the first black Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church than about the bride. She herself entered Windsor Chapel alone, with no man to support her for most of the long walk down the aisle – just some winningly emotional children. It looked more like a coronation than a wedding. And Meghan’s mother, also alone, won more admiration for her composure than she did sympathy for her solitariness.

Even fifty years ago none of this would have been thinkable.

Prior to the wedding, Harry and Meghan lived together in Nottingham Cottage at Kensington Palace, and spoke openly about their camping holidays. That wouldn’t have been thinkable fifty years ago either. And that got me thinking about the Scriptures and sex before marriage.

It is clear in the Scriptures that sex before marriage is considered a Bad Thing. God, however, doesn’t have much to say on the matter, and it seems apparent that the antipathy toward sexual activity between unmarried people is essentially cultural. In other words, while it is taken for granted in most places in the Scriptures that women should not have sex before they are married (eg. Deut 22:20-21), this is less reflective of divine viewpoint than it is adoptive of prevalent community attitudes. I should add that there is nothing in the Old Testament, at least, prohibiting unmarried men from engaging in sexual activity with unmarried women. (The Old Testament just happens to be my field, but it also has far more discussion of sexuality than the New.)

In order to understand what the Scriptures have to say about sexual activity on the part of unmarried women, and what community views the Scriptures are adopting, you need to know a little about the status of women in biblical times. In order to function in society each woman needed to ‘belong’ to a man. A woman needed to be the daughter or wife or (in extremis) sister of a man in order to have any kind of life or security. And I say ‘belong’ advisedly. Women were in a very real sense the property of the men to whom they belonged. A vital part of any marriage negotiation was the ‘mohar’ or ‘bride price’ that a prospective groom would pay to the bride’s father (eg. 1 Sam 18:25). Each of the provisions in the Torah about sexual activity on the part of an unmarried woman is prompted, at least in part, by concerns about this mohar (or about the deal that a husband is getting in exchange). So, for example, Exodus says that if a man seduces an unmarried woman he must marry her (after giving her father the mohar). In other words, if a man has sex with an unmarried woman, thereby rendering her unmarriageable, he must pay the price that her father could have expected from a prospective suitor, and if her father refuses to give her to him in marriage he must pay the mohar regardless (Exod 21:16-17). Deuteronomy adds that if the seduction is violent the girl’s father has no choice in the matter – he must give his daughter in marriage to her abuser, but the abuser must pay the girl’s father 50 silver shekels and will never be permitted to divorce her (Deut 22:28). We can’t imagine this being great for the girl, but the girl’s father gets the mohar and the whole family – including the girl – is protected from the shame and burden of future divorce.

On the other side of the bargain, if a man alleges that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, and her family is unable to provide proof of her virginity, the woman is to be taken to the entrance of her father’s house and stoned to death (because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house, Deut 22:20-21). And if this sounds to you like pretty clear evidence that God isn’t in favour of sex before marriage, remember that the woman in question is now married, and that the problem is that her husband hasn’t got what he paid for.

Even Leviticus’ incest laws (Leviticus 18 and 20) appear to be predicated upon the issue of bride price. Where a man commits incest the problem is arguably not so much the closeness of the relationship as the fact that he has trespassed on the property rights of another man. Disturbing support for this is found in the fact that Leviticus has no prohibition on sexual activity between a man and his daughters.

If we, today, look to the Scriptures for guidance about ethics (and I’m convinced we should), then we need to be aware, too, of the cultural milieu that formed them, and also of how ethics changed and developed, even in biblical times, with the surrounding culture. Change is happening in our culture, too, as Meghan and Harry have amply demonstrated.

Perhaps our interpretation and application of Scriptures should change and develop with it? Of course, they already do. We no longer marry girls off to their rapists or stone them to death for ‘prostituting themselves in the fathers’ houses’. Imagine preaching either of those things post-#metoo!

We need to get more honest and intentional about the fact that we are all ‘revisionists’. Only then will we be able truly to be faithful to the Scriptures.


Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Meg Warner, Royal Wedding, Sexism, Sexual abuse | 1 Comment

Changes – Facing the Strange…

by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes

david bowie

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)… – David Bowie 1971

“Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert…” – Isaiah 43 (CEB)

In 1971/2 David Bowie’s song “Changes”, like David Bowie’s various personae, spoke to England of its changing life. In those years I went to University to read Drama and Theatre Arts, a course that (literally) involved hugging trees and exploring the world with your fingertips as well as undertaking close literary studies of Shakespearean texts and detailed theorising about Russian directors in the context of Russian revolution. In 1971/2 I was eighteen; Bowie was twenty-five. England, it seemed, was turning and facing the strange.

Turning, but only up to a point. In my generation Drama was a brand-new University subject, suspected by many as a typical example of the dumbing-down of academia and of intellectual vacuity, just as new subjects always are, and still are. In those years Bowie’s complex and androgynous personae drew hostile fire as well as adulation. In the words of one of his obituarists, he was “An Unapologetically Authentic Queer Icon”.

And yes, it seemed England was turning and facing the strange – but it also seemed England was wanting nothing to change at all. In short England was in cultural turmoil, just as it always is, and still is. Bowie’s song, like the popular songs of all ages, speaks of this too. It speaks of the conflict that turmoil brings as the culture of the nations moves, and the strange draws near, and the strange is resisted afresh: “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it…/ Where’s your shame / You’ve left us up to our necks in it…”

All that was forty-seven years ago.

Seventeen years after “Changes”, on May 24 1988, thirty years ago last week, Section 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted. It stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This was not the law of a nation turning and facing the strange. For those seeking a more open England, it seemed in those years that other parts of Bowie’s song spoke more loudly:  “Every time I thought I’d got it made / It seemed the  taste was not so sweet”, and “Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older”.

All that was thirty years ago.

Section 28 was repealed in England on 18 November 2003. It had therefore been part of English law for fifteen years. In those years the Church of England’s views on homosexuality had coalesced around “Issues in Human Sexuality” (1991), a document which still holds force in this Church. Six months before Section 28 was enacted the General Synod had passed, by 403 votes to 8, a motion which in the words of the Bishop of Norwich “stated that sexual intercourse properly belongs within marriage and that… homosexual genital acts [are sins against this ideal and] are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.” (Bishop Graham James, presentation prior to the Synod debate on GS2055, February 2017). In short, the Church and the law-makers were not far apart, in those years. Another part of David Bowie’s lyric seemed to be the words of the church to people of LGBTI orientation and identity: “There’s gonna have to be a different [man].” And the response of that community: “Time may change me / But I can’t trace time.”

All that was fifteen years ago.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which allows same-sex marriage in England and Wales, was passed by the UK Parliament in July 2013 and came into force on 13 March 2014. Bishop Graham in his presentation before the Synod debate in 2017 referred back to Section 28’s insistence that schools must not teach the value “of what it called ‘pretended family relationships’…”, and he went on, “… namely same sex partners having a normal family life”.

And in 2014 the normal family life of same-sex partners was not only seen as legal, and legally commendable, but the possibility of its recognition by the state as marriage had become equal in the eyes of the law. And the Church and the lawmakers were sundered by these changes. And in the Church we have had to engage with the work of trying, slowly, falteringly, to decide together what that sundering might mean for us and for our witness. What it might meanfor the commending of the Gospel in our policies and in our common life. What all this might mean, perhaps especially to people who cannot see what our problem is, and who see our struggling as a problem in itself.

All that was four years ago.

David Bowie died on January 10 2016. He did not live to see the election of Donald J Trump in the USA, nor the explosion of right-wing populist rebellion across the world in that year and in the years since. He did not live to see the world of today, which increasingly seems to struggle to turn and face the strange. But in 1971 he saw the future from afar, and he sang about it as a poet sings, that is as one of the family of people who can change the world by singing:

“I’Il watch the ripples change their size

But never leave the stream

Of warm impermanence and

So the days float through my eyes

But still the days seem the same

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)…”



© Paul Liverpool 2018

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Love, Fire and Brimstone Modelled!

by the Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, Author of “Waiting on the Word” and Blogger 

pope and michael

A survivor of sexual abuse has been told by Pope Francis that God made him gay and loves him as he is. The Pope does not simply say that God accepts him, but that he loves him.  We recently heard a passionate wedding sermon preached in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in which the preacher, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, spoke of the kind of fiery love that sustains a good marriage. Neither the wedding preacher, nor the Pope minced their words and both would seem to have had scant regard for their immediate surroundings or even perhaps for the size of their wider congregation, some 1.9 billion in the case of Bishop Michael and a figure which probably resembles it in the case of the Pope.

Sermons still count for something.  The same is true of ground breaking public pronouncements.

The first surprise to emerge from these two utterances is the fact that the institutional Church, for all its obsession with strategy and management, can still produce visionary leaders, leaders who connect with, and articulate, the deepest longing of the human heart which is to love and be loved. For a moment the 1.9 billion people watching the royal wedding could allow themselves to be caught unawares by the integrity and boldness of the sermon, a sermon which defied convention and appeared to make one or two of its august listeners squirm in their seats. Similarly, the brief column which appeared in the Guardian (May 21st, 2018) and which reports the Pope telling a gay man who was the victim of historic abuse that God loves him as he is, was heart lifting for many of us, irrespective of our sexual orientation.

In the case of the wedding sermon, it could be argued that the style did not suite the surroundings and that the content was rather more than was desired. But perhaps the mild embarrassment experienced by some was only a manifestation of a much deeper disturbance, the kind of disturbance we experience when we are in the presence of holiness.

I think it is safe to say that both Bishop Michael and Pope Francis radiate holiness. They do not emanate piety. They radiate the kind of holiness which transcends the boundaries set by institutionalised religion and which defies the conventions of piety. This is the holiness which dispenses with all the irrelevances of rank and power, whatever the context, at the risk of embarrassing some, so that all can momentarily know that they are loved unconditionally by God.

The art of preaching a good wedding sermon lies in dedicating it to the couple while at the same time embracing the wider congregation, so that every person hears this good news for themselves. Irrespective of text, or of any particular occasion, when gifted preachers speak they give all their listeners permission to love in a way which, until now, may have seemed impossible or even unimaginable. Such preaching is about a much more fiery kind of loving than that which we experience in mere ‘acceptance’, and for many of us both the preaching and the love of which it speaks takes some getting used to.  It can even be painful.

Perhaps, in also alluding to social media as a sign of our social dysfunctionality, Bishop Michael was suggesting that social media is not social at all. Only rarely on social media do we get a sense of society’s endemic loneliness, no matter how personal and explicit the remarks that are being posted. Rather, it is a convenient means for projecting ourselves in such a way as to hide our incapacity for the giving and receiving of love, even though, from time to time, as with this sermon, we are unexpectedly ‘burned’ by the love of God.

For those who cannot love such preaching is fire, and possibly brimstone, though not in the way these are commonly understood in the terms employed in medieval descriptions of damnation. Understood in the language of today, hell, or ‘fire and brimstone’, is more likely to be a painful burning away of everything that prevents human beings from loving and allowing themselves to be loved as they are. The fires of hell are the fires of love burning away all that is frightened and false in us, revealing us to ourselves and to one another in our full humanity. Perhaps Bishop Michael had something like this at the back of his mind when he was preaching.

Lorraine Cavanagh is the author of ‘Waiting on the Word: Preaching Sermons That Connect People to God’ (DLT) 



Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Lorraine Cavanagh, Royal Wedding | Leave a comment