Reflecting on “That” Report and Debate

by Anthony Archer, a Member of General Synod for the Diocese of St Albans

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Anthony Archer has written the following as part of his “report back” to his diocese on the recent General Synod Group of Sessions.  He inevitably focused on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops (GS 2055). 

Following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations in the summer, which General Synod engaged with in a broadly similar way to those in the dioceses who participated in the Regional Shared Conversations, the focus turned to the House of Bishops and how they proposed to take matters forward.  They had heard all the views, in particular those of LGBT Christians, many of whom had made themselves very vulnerable in sharing their story about their experience of the Church.  GS 2055 was published on 27 January and was a shock to many.

I recall occasions at school when teachers tried to offer some praise for a piece of work, but had to point out that I had answered the wrong question.  However you looked at it, few marks, if any, could be given.  It is instructive to explain what a ‘take note debate’ is.  It is a common procedure on Synod whereby a body, in this case the House of Bishops, brings a report for debate.  Usually it is part of a process.  It is, in effect, seeking approval to the general direction of travel of a proposed legislative or policy change, or updating Synod on any matter.  It is a neutral motion which allows Synod to discuss the content and recommendations contained in a report without committing the Synod to the formal acceptance of any matter.  Normally Synod votes to take note of reports of this kind, but on an issue as contested as same sex relationships it was always likely that some Synod members would want to vote not to take note, as being the only way to register their dissent at this stage.

What does GS 2055 say?  In its comparatively short 15 pages, it acknowledged that the bishops’ views covered a very wide spectrum.  No position or approach commanded complete unanimity.  First there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage as expressed by Canon B30.  Second there was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.  No proposals were made to make available a form of pastoral service in the context of same sex relationships, even though a commended form of service could be offered without Synodical approval.

There were in effect four recommendations, although these were not put to Synod in a separate following motion.  These are: (i) establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people; (ii) the issuance of a substantial new teaching document on marriage and relationships; (iii) guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and (iv) new guidance about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

In essence, this timid package of measures amounts to a restatement of the status quo and continues to regard lesbian and gay people as a ‘problem.’  One slightly extraordinary concept introduced into the report was that of ‘maximum freedom’, defined as ‘interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.’  The conservative evangelicals seized on this.

At one and the same time, the House of Bishops affirm that same sex relationships can ‘embody crucial social virtues’ of fidelity and mutuality (in a previous episcopal comment, ‘relationships of stunning quality’) while also stating that moral questions remain.  The House of Bishops seem naively to believe that they can continue to navigate this conundrum, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England.

How was GS 2055 developed?  Of course we don’t know, although it seems clear there was an earlier draft that was rejected.  The House of Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality would have had some key input.  What seems to have happened (having spoken to a good number of bishops from across the dioceses) is that the House of Bishops (and the wider College of Bishops) were so surprised perhaps that they could unite around a single document (or at least exercise collective responsibility for it) that no-one asked how it might be received.

I need to remind readers of this report that I am a LGBT ally and have been actively campaigning for change on this issue.  However, there is no pressure that I am aware of to change Canon B30, hence my pejorative comment that the bishops answered the wrong exam question.  I attended a private meeting on 30 January and a group of us set about deciding how best to confront the bishops for what we believed to be a seriously defective report.

While I expressed the personal view that I thought Synod might ‘take note’, it was clear from an early stage that it would be close and that if anything it would be better for Synod not to ‘take note’ rather than vote narrowly in favour.  As Synod approached the views of members and the wider press and social media comment led us to believe that, on a vote by houses, the clergy were likely to vote the report down.  We proceeded on that basis and actively campaigned for both clergy and laity seriously to consider voting not to take note.

As to the tactics for the debate itself, I agreed to put down what is termed a ‘following motion’.  This would appear on the agenda, but would only get debated if Synod voted to take note and if time allowed.  In case Synod did not take note, I also put down for possible debate at a later Group of Sessions a Private Member’s Motion (PMM) in almost identical terms.  The motion was:

‘That this Synod,

request the House of Bishops to bring for debate by July 2018 a set of forward looking proposals on same-sex relationships (such proposals to be developed by a broadly-based group representing the diversity of views on Synod and in the wider Church) that will command confidence by, 

  1. affirming the positive contribution that LGBTI Christians make in the life of the Church; and
  2. reflecting the differing interpretations of scripture, as demonstrated by the Shared Conversations.’

The PMM quickly attracted support and had received 111 signatures by the close of Synod.  It was a useful device to persuade the Synod business managers to agree that the following motion could be debated on the final morning, but as we now know all following motions (there was another one expressing the traditional view) lapsed.

And so to the debate itself.  Firstly more time was allocated to it.  It had been scheduled to be a 90 minute debate; wholly inadequate.  It was subsequently given 2¼ hours.  160 Synod members put in requests to speak.  In the event 33 spoke.  The debate was of the highest quality.  Members were persuasive and spoke with passion, pastoral sensitivity and, in the most part, with concern for LGBT Christians, both those who are Synod members and those in the wider Church.

One of the most moving speeches was the first one, by Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, and it is reproduced here:

I am grateful to the bishops for this report, which though flawed, captures the complexity of the journey we are still on. And I will take note.  I was, however, surprised it stopped short of recommending we consider a commended form of pastoral service for blessing gay and lesbian couples in committed partnerships.  And I was disappointed.  Not with the bishops.  With myself.  For I fear my silence may have contributed to their reticence to test the voice of synod on this aspect of our emerging understanding.

I am an evangelical, spiritually formed in a tradition which takes the Bible seriously, and nurtured in churches which had clear views about the only context for sexual intimacy being in a hetero-sexual marriage.  More recently, in my last parish in Islington, and in my current role, I have had the privilege of ministering alongside men and women, lay and ordained, in long term, committed gay relationships.  Gay Christians serving God faithfully and being used by Him powerfully.  This challenged me to wrestle with Scripture and understand certain passages differently in the light of the whole.  My understanding has changed.  The Shared Conversations in July crystallized for me that whilst I cannot at this stage support a change to the canons on marriage, I would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. But I have said nothing. And I am sorry.  It felt difficult.  I serve people of all traditions in my role as archdeacon, and life is simpler when you remain vague on controversial issues.  So I stayed in the silent middle.

I am now beginning to understand how much more difficult this issue is for those we spend so much time talking about as ‘a problem to be solved’.  By our actions, or inaction, we are continually undermining their identity, questioning their character and godliness, condemning them as somehow more sinful, limiting and restricting their flourishing, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Pastorally and missionally we are doing untold damage to individuals, and to the church. We are all responsible.

Amidst the many, many words on social media since the report was published, one comment by a gay member of synod particularly struck me. She wrote:

“I’m happy to ‘walk together’ to coin the phrase, but at the moment the way it’s swinging it’s the LGBT members that feel unwelcome.  A lot of us are happy to meet in the middle, and we’re stood here waiting, but many of the ‘other side’ won’t even start walking towards us.”

 I have walked towards those who I used to classify as ‘the other side’, and as I stand in the silent middle, I see many of my open evangelical friends similarly inhabiting this central space.  The problem is, that it has remained the silent middle.  Whilst privately I have assured my gay friends and colleagues that I have listened, will continue to listen, and have let this listening inform and change my theology, publically I have been silent, and that was wrong.  I lacked the courage of my convictions, and I apologise.

At this stage of the process, it is time for the silent middle to become vocal, and to be clear where we stand.  It is time to be clear that many of us who are still evangelicals, still seeking to be biblically orthodox, are now humbly acknowledging our previous reading of scripture was flawed.  Those of us in the silent middle must dare to vocalise our changed understanding, must take the risk of speaking out in support of blessing, and must work with those tasked with taking this process forward, ensuring all voices are heard, and we make changes so that all people are valued, welcomed, affirmed and freed to minister effectively in God’s church.[1]

It was a hugely important speech.  How many other ‘Groarkes’ are there out there, especially those who identify as evangelical?  Some bishops were of course called to speak, with starkly different perspectives.  The Bishop of Blackburn defended the criticism that the bishops had not listened.  The purpose of the report was not to please everyone.  Listening should not be conflated with agreement.  The Bishop of Liverpool honoured the anger and frustration of the LGBT community.  He focused on the concept of ‘maximum freedom’ for his diocese, saying ‘it will happen anyway.’  The Bishop of Gloucester took her share of responsibility for the report. It was not an end of the process.  She would have wanted to have gone further.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in making the final speech (which clearly he had prepared for the eventuality that the report would have a rough ride through Synod) said ‘we will have to try to do better whether we take note or not.  This needs to be about love, joy, celebration of belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s a good basis – it’s a road map.  We will move on.  We need to find a radical new inclusion, not careless of theology, not ignorant of the world around us.  Humans are made in the image of God.’  It set the themes for the statement that the two Archbishops made shortly after the end of the debate.

As to the voting, the House of Bishops voted 44 in favour and none against (one bishop accidentally voted against so the official record is different) and one, the Bishop of Southwark, abstained, but did not register his abstention formally.  The clergy voted 93 in favour, 100 against, with two abstentions (hence the vote being lost in the House of Clergy); and the laity voted 106 in favour, 83 against, with four abstentions.  The St Albans’ representatives (five clergy and five laity) voted collectively three in favour, six against and with one abstention.

So what happens next and what does all this imply for an issue that has been around Synod for more than 30 years, and on which the Church has made almost no discernible progress, unlike the secular State?  Something happened on 15 February, 2017.  It may have been a kairos moment.  The tone suddenly changed.  Synod members, for the first time, ‘got it.’  They more than glimpsed the pain and frustration of LGBT Christians being fed up with being ‘talked about.’  Comments have raged across social media.  ‘The toothpaste will not be going back in the tube!’  ‘Some of the fear which is in all of us will start to lift.’  The Daily Telegraph rather got ahead of itself in a headline, which it later retracted, ‘Synod takes first step towards gay marriage.’  But there is a direction of travel, and it is not backwards.  Those like me who have been arguing for a while now that the ‘status quo is not an option’ have a sense that these are no longer mere words.  ‘Good Disagreement’ that was buried by GS 2055 is back on the table.

[1] © Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley (Diocese of Worcester website)

Posted in Anthony Archer, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

Being Radical about Radical Inclusion

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

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Being a member of what the media persists in referring to as the “C of E’s parliament” has brought some difficult and demanding moments, especially in the years when we were struggling to shape legislation on the ordination of women as bishops. Recently Synod has again had to contend with another subject on which feelings run high, same sex relationships. It could have been dreadful, but in fact it was one of the best debates I have attended in nearly twelve years as a Synod member.

I think it helped that members had time and space to prepare themselves for the debate rather than rushing into it straight from other business. Many of us took part in small groups where we were able to look both at examples of situations where conflict over matters of sexuality arises in parishes and also to reflect on what we felt about the House of Bishops’ Report. Others, who did not feel it appropriate to participate in the groups, met in a nearby parish conference centre, where the Archbishop of Canterbury spent time with them. We were also helped by a variety of fringe meetings over the previous forty-eight hours.

Then, for something over two hours, and with around forty members speaking, Synod was passionate but courteous. Divergent views were listened to and speakers applauded. A sketch writer, released from his normal duties because Parliament was in recess, commented on how much higher was the standard of behaviour on the church side of Abingdon Street. Above all, the Synod managed to correct what had been so badly lacking in the report that I and my colleagues in the House of Bishops had laid before them. The debate set a new and positive tone and provided a much needed momentum for the task of revisiting the ways in which the Church affirms and celebrates the lives, loves and ministries of those among it who identify as LGBT+. Voting not to “take note” of the bishops’ document may be a somewhat arcane piece of procedure, but for many it served the task of projecting that desire for a new start beyond our Westminster debating chamber and into the world outside.

So how might we go forward from last week’s debate? I suspect that the clue lies in the term “radical inclusion” that was used so powerfully by Archbishop Justin in the final speech of the debate. But that on its own will not be enough. Alongside it we need a Church that is prepared to be “purposefully paradoxical”.

Few, if any, present at last week’s Synod expect that body to be voting through a change in the Church of England’s canon on marriage by two thirds majorities in all three houses any time soon. But what can be challenged without further delay is the argument that begins from that premise and then extrapolates it almost to infinity.  Such an argument asserts that until the law and the canons change, wider teaching is fixed. Once that is conceded the argument then runs that until teaching changes, the discipline cannot be modified. Accept that and we are pressed to agree that as long as the discipline remains untouched, the prayers of the church cannot change very much either. It may be a logical argument but it is the logic of logjam.

Times of change are by their nature times of paradox. To be purposefully paradoxical is to recognise that whilst consistency may be a feature of the endpoints of a journey it is rarely present all along the way. What nineteenth century physics found to be true for the trajectories of photons passing through a pair of narrow slits, twenty-first century theology must allow to be the case for a church traversing through a time of challenge and change. Some aspects of change will get ahead of others. Some parts of the church may move faster, further, or at a different angle than their neighbours. Messy Church won’t just describe a brand of work with children. In many ways we will be more like the pluriform Church of the New Testament, marvelously malleable under the hand of the Holy Spirit.

Such an embracing of paradox with a purpose provides the context for an exploration of the Archbishop’s radical inclusion that is much, much more than the maximum freedom which one Synod member tellingly remarked may mean little beyond “the prisoner being allowed to walk around their entire cell”. It opens up the possibility of exploring our prayers, our discipline, our outreach, our ministry and our teaching, and doing so with the expectation that things are going to look significantly different afterwards. Moreover, radical inclusion requires that we should no longer be reflecting about sexuality issues without LGBT+ members being present, nor doing so in a context where they feel marginalised or unsafe. “Talking about us, without us” must never again be a charge that can justifiably be levelled against us.

We are, after Synod, very much at the beginning of a journey, but it is both a better journey than we might have expected and a journey with God. That is what matters the most.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 11 Comments

The Anti-Testimony (on reading the House of Bishops’ Report)

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

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We tell stories in church – they’re called testimonies – we tell stories of those who in dark times turn to God. And we rejoice.

But this story is an anti-testimony. A testimony of being pushed away. Of losing faith if not (quite) my faith.

I cannot pray at the moment. I’m struggling to believe.

It’s anger. It’s being wounded. It’s feeling betrayed. By my church (well by our bishops at least and, therefore, in some cases by my friends). Again.

Why do others – often armed and so well-defended with doctrines and bibles, canons and lawyers – call into question who I am in Christ and how I follow him? “Your deepest identity is in Christ,” they cry, wagging their fingers, as then they happily describe themselves as “Husband, Wife, Parent, Child, Teacher, Minister, Leader, Bishop”, all with Capital Letters. God, do they realise how exhausting it is to hear this again and again?

And what of God? Have I been betrayed by God too? Was this call that the church gave me a deception? If so, whose?  Mine?? God’s? Was that enthusiastic encouragement which I heard as God’s call, was that a mistake? Did I hear correctly? Did the church somewhere change its mind about me? Could I do more good in some other walk of life (I could certainly be happier, it would certainly be easier)? That will take some working out.

I’ve never quite felt  this way before. I don’t know what it means. I recall Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ from my studies. That you need the basics of life before you get to anything more.  Well spiritually, right now, I’m back down needing just the basics. Just God in Jesus. Nothing else thank you very much. And just now, I don’t know if I can find this God in the Church of England. I really don’t. (Strangely, my superego wants to reject this statement. “Don’t write it,” it screams, “what will people think of you? God, you’re so self-indulgent!” But then I calm down and realise that’s the point. When you’re looking for the basics, all you can think about is yourself. Unless you’re a saint. And I’m so not.)

And I do know I cannot pray.

People have naturally asked me about prayer many times in the past. It’s never been my most comfortable ground if I’m honest. One beggar telling another and all that stuff…Being more at home in the Bible than in prayer I’ve always told people that when they can’t pray to remember that the church prays and that the Spirit prays within. Well I hope the church and the Spirit are both praying now. It’s time to take my own advice. Physician, heal thyself!

But if I could pray, this is the sort of prayer I would pray. So, if you can, will you pray it for me?  And for the many others in the Church of England at this time who feel like me? Not just LGBTI people (we’re not that self-indulgent). It’s bigger than that. The victims of John Smyth. The victims of cover-ups and abuse of all kinds. The victims of the dissembling culture that confuses “keeping the show on the road” with “unity”? The screw-ups, the misfits, including some wearing purple, and the ones we’ve always said were at the heart of our gospel: “The Last, the Least and the Lost.” And the many people who love the Church of England but who are wondering if it can ever truly be home for them again. Of your charity, pray for us.

All power, honour, glory be to you!

You…sometimes hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

We are so privileged that we seldom sense you

            Hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

But we know people who do,

            We think of places where you do not appear.

We imagine you defeated,

            Weak,

            Held captive.

And we wait a day,

            Two days,

            Until the third day.

And then, most often then,

            Quite reliably then,

            You appear then in your full glory.

This day we pray against your absence, silence, and hiddenness.

Come with full power into deathly places,

            And we will praise you deep and full. Amen.

Walter Brueggemann “On Reading I Samuel 5” from “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”. Louisville: John Knox, 1990

 

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Simon Butler | 20 Comments

Elders of the Tribe

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

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“The weak bishops.” “The lying bishops.” “The bastard bishops.” “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can spit.” “The only way they’ll give a straight-line response is if you ask them to design a corkscrew.”

A few months ago on this site I wrote a piece which spoke of the need for people to express their anger if they were angry. I have seen all the phrases above on social media in the past few days, and I am glad of them, though I am not a masochist and I do not enjoy them. I am particularly grateful to the people who have contacted me directly to express their emotion and to make their points about the recent bishops’ statement.

For some, the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when applied to people like me, who have spoken of the need for change in the Church. Where was I? What happened to my voice? How could I have been so weak as to stand with this document?

Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the same year that “Issues in Human Sexuality” was published, my friend and mentor Bishop Peter Selby wrote a book called “BeLonging” [1]. Its subtitle was “Challenge to a Tribal Church”. In this book Peter spoke of the kind of community the Church is called to be, and contrasted it with the Church as it is. It is a prophetic and an angry book. It locates its anger in three areas; race and racism, gender and sexism, and the treatment of LGBT people. Peter in writing about this last subject drew on his experience of the 1987 Synod debate on the motion proposed by Tony Higton.

And then in the book there comes a chapter called “The Elders of the Tribe”[2]. It speaks about bishops. It reflects that, when the ordination of women was discussed, “the report of the House of Bishops on the issue shows strong signs of having been diverted into accepting the agenda of those opposed to the change.” Peter went on to ask, “Do these responses reflect something of the demands and pressures on leadership when tribal responses are rife?”

This is a very good question. It speaks crisply and clearly over the intervening years.

Peter went on to speak of the risks and dangers inherent in the idea that the bishop is called to be a focus of unity in the Church. He said, “At the heart of that perception lies one of the most profoundly Christian of instincts, that we are called to bring together and not to divide, to seek and not to lose”. But beautiful and profoundly Christian as it is, Peter said, it is only a half-truth.

His point was that collegiality, the act of standing together and speaking as one, can endanger and indeed exclude the possibility of prophetic dissent. I believe that it is this point that lies behind the anger of the angry today. People believe that the bishops, the bastard bishops, have preferred unity to truth: “We asked for bread and they have given a stone”.

It is not my intention in this post to defend anyone or anything, least of all myself. In clear awareness of Peter Selby’s analysis, I nonetheless stand by the bishops’ report. I have chosen to act in this matter wholeheartedly as a member of the episcopal College. I have done so in good faith, because I believe that the suggestions in the report, insufficient as they are, are nonetheless necessary; that they will help LGBT people in the church, will make a church less toxic than the one we have now. But all that is, of course, debatable.

My own experience, since I began speaking out for the beginnings of change in the Church, is that I am profoundly suspected by many who disagree with me and that indeed some of them cannot in conscience remain in the same room as me, or work with me. This has not made me change my mind, but it does help me to understand still further what it is to be a bishop, a bastard bishop, in the Church today.

In October 1986, almost thirty years ago, Peter Selby wrote this in a newspaper:

Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is. Being a focus of disunity is not therefore in itself a sign of pastoral failure.[3]

I believe that this is so; but since I first read this a quarter of a century ago, long before I became a bishop, I have been most profoundly challenged by the response to Peter’s words from another Peter, Peter Walker, then Bishop of Ely, who said this:

It surely is not a sign of failure, but on one condition; that the disunity which is focused in the bishop is held in a Godward reference. We here touch the mystery, but the central and to a degree the public mystery, of a bishop’s prayers…[4]

The recent statement of the House of Bishops is offered to the Synod in the hope of prayer – not as a finished work but as a resource for dialogue, for further conversation in a context of sharing before God. And in a couple of weeks we shall see what the other Houses of the Synod make of it, what “the clergy” and “the laity” make of “the bishops”. And then the road will go on, and no one’s voice will be silenced, as I do not believe mine has been silenced, or will be. And we will continue to learn together what it is to listen, and to dissent, and to pray.

And in this season my prayers will include in particular my LGBT sisters and brothers, inside and outside the Church, whose real-life love has been marginal to our conversation as bishops and whose explicit voice so far has been absent there. And I will pray too for all the Church, and all the bishops, the other bastard bishops like me. And I will continue to seek the right way to be a bishop, in this season on this matter when those who disagree with me outnumber me. I will struggle for a church where the love of the loving will be honoured, whomever they love. I will reach for and advocate for and enable the maximum freedom now, and I’ll pray and work and hope for still greater freedom later.

But I would ask one thing of my sisters and brothers in the Church. I am one of “the bishops”, and on many matters I know before God how much I am a bastard bishop. But I also have a name; my name is Paul. Every bishop has a name. If across the Church we are to break the spirit of fear and conformity of which Peter Selby spoke, we must say our names to one another, in the room, in English, looking on the ones to whom we speak. In the Diocese of Liverpool I expect this of the people who share their being in Christ with me; that they will call me by my name and speak the truth to me, and will listen to me as I call their names and speak to them. And each one reading this has a bishop or bishops, each one with a name. I encourage you to learn that name and to use it in a conversation shared. It is in this way that the anger of which I wrote some months ago, the anger I welcome even though it is excoriating to me, will be tempered and used by God to change the world.

Paul Bayes is Bishop of Liverpool

January 2017

Footnotes

[1] Peter Selby, “BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church”, SPCK 1991

[2] BeLonging, pp 54-63

[3]Quoted in “BeLonging”, p.63

[4] Peter Walker, “Rediscovering the Middle Way”, Mowbray 1988, p.110

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 43 Comments

“Plastering Over the Cracks?”

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, member of the National Executive of UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch
plasters

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 6:14 NIV

Recently a builder dropped out of a job on my house. He wanted to know if I was having the work done for myself, or simply to sell it on or rent it out.  When he discovered that it was for myself, he pulled out because that would mean that he couldn’t simply board over the cracks and the damp and then skim the lot with fresh plaster. Instead, he would need to check for and treat any issues with the damp course, and then he would need to insulate and line the room before plastering.  The job became messy, awkward and potentially very time consuming.   A “quick fix followed by a quick pay out” it was not.

Papering, plastering or even talking over the cracks in any room, be it literal or figurative, is never a long-term solution. Even if it does the job long enough to ‘sell it on or rent it out’, at some point the whole thing is going to come crashing down around somebody’s ears. And then it will not only need to be done properly, but it is likely to include significant remedial work to undo any further damage from both the original issue, and the consequences of ‘the inevitable fall’.

If ‘the’ fall teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to tread carefully when covering over our mistakes or even our inner rot if we stretch the analogy.  The fig leaves and ‘hiding from God’ were as ineffective as boarding over the damp and plastering over the cracks. It simply couldn’t be done.  Precisely the same applies to conflict.  For conflict is bruising, and particularly wounding to any party that is either power-less or powerless in comparison to the other.  Yet Christians can still fall foul of the temptation to ‘plaster over’ the deepest of wounds in order that unity, which seems apparent on the surface of some of their most broken relationships, may be maintained.

We find this in the current debates around gender, sexuality, BAME and different abilities.  Groups of people have rightly felt marginalised and excluded from taking an active role as living bricks in the temple of Christ.  They have been unable to exercise their God-given gifts and talents and in many cases, held to standards of delivery or lifestyle that are either inappropriate or simply impossible to achieve.  Each of these groups[1] is subject to a majority group, free to exercise their own rights, exercising privilege over them and making decisions about them.

It seems inconceivable that any committee, albeit made up of the good and Godly, could make decisions on behalf of people groups living with identity and ability issues that are unknown to the group itself.  Pure Doctrine is a delight sitting in the hallowed halls of esteemed universities scribing one’s notes, but all genuine theology is contextual; it’s where the rubber hits the road and reality meets divinity; it’s where Christ sends out His disciples in pairs knowing full well what they will face in His service; it’s where creation continually creaks and groans with the birthing of new understandings, new knowledge and an ever expanding grasp of what it is to be human living in the vast universe gifted to us as curators.

I cannot know your privilege or your disadvantage I can only grasp mine; I can only view our respective lives and have a sense of where we might sit in that pecking order and how I might use any privilege I might have to shrink the distances between us.  But I cannot do that unless I first listen to you, open up my table to you, that you might hear how we are thinking of approaching your unique identity, the one I have absolutely no experience of living with.  This is the bare bones basis of reflective practice, of contextual theological praxis – what I like to think of as a practising priest as “bread and butter” theology.  It means that I need to be willing to hear things that I don’t want to hear, to be hurt myself as I hear your pain and anger and to risk being deeply wounded as I begin to recognise how I have wounded you.

The truth can be profoundly painful, but refusing to acknowledge the depth of any wound connected to a human being’s basic personal and relational identity will not do if we are the bearers of Christ’s light seeking to enlighten those ‘bruised reeds’ and ‘smouldering wicks’ to whom we have been sent as harbingers of God’s love.  Why plaster over these difficult topics with vaguely ameliorating platitudes that please no-one?  Are we guilty of simply papering over the great gaping wounds of persons forbidden to love, disabled from service, or simply excluded whether that be via unconscious bias or worse, deliberate prohibitions, spoken or unspoken?

Genuine peace is costly.  Genuine peace-seeking is a painful process.  It does not make us ‘feel better’ but confronts us with our own biases, privileges and lack of compassion and understanding.  We come face to face with our own deeply writ prejudices and we are humbled by the process. It is neither a pleasant task nor one for the faint-hearted but it is necessary if the prize – the pearl of great price – is to be won.

So please, do not send out yet another missive saying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”.  Tell me that we grasp the pain of our sisters and brothers in Christ who have and do feel wounded on the grounds of their identity; tell me that we are deeply wounded as a Church by our own sins of omission and commission towards people who belong to minority groups; tell me that there are no easy answers and that we are listening and learning and that it is challenging and painful to hear; tell me that you can’t imagine being in love with somebody you can’t hold in your arms or how soul destroying it must be to hear somebody tutting every time you do a reading.  Then ask those whom you wish to open up the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God to how that might look to them.  For it is imperative that we grasp that people of excluded and minority identities do not hear ‘you are fully welcome’ they hear the sound of someone peeling back a sticking plaster, or worse still, a door closing and silence. For some, that sound is synonymous with God.

Imagine if what they heard was, ‘Come in and tell us your story; let us dress the deep wounds of our sisters and brothers; let us – together – find peace.’

Footnote

[1] The diversity within these groups is beyond the scope of such a brief blog, not to mention intersectionality where two or more of those minority identities are lived out by any one individual.

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Human Sexuality | Leave a comment

An Old Dirty Candle to Transform the Darkness…

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

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Round the corner and down the aisle as you walk under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the Dean’s Vestry.  On the mantelpiece of the fireplace next to the Dean’s cupboard there’s a small and cheap rectangular tin candleholder, with a dirty old candle about the size of my little finger stuck in it by means of a piece of old newspaper. I’ve often wondered what that candle was about, until a few weeks ago when I was poking around in a room in the cathedral I hadn’t seen before, and found an old guidebook from 1926 which gave me the answer.

On 21st December 1868, the Revd Robert Gregory was installed as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was in his late 40s, an energetic vicar in south London, and already a noted reformer. His mission was to turn St Paul’s Cathedral from an erratically staffed, dirty, dark, and underused institution into a cathedral fit for the glorious age of Christian faith in Victorian London.

Because he was known to be a reformer, his colleagues wanted nothing to do with him. So, on the longest day of the year, after the evening service had been sung and the few choirboys and singers had left, the Archdeacon of London and the verger accompanied him by the light of that small candle up to the high altar of the cathedral, where he was unceremoniously installed on a single chair.

In the following 22 years as a canon, and for 20 years after that as Dean, Robert Gregory provided much of the driving force that transformed St Paul’s into the institution that we see and know today. He reached a financial settlement with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners that gave the cathedral decades of reasonable financial stability, although it would have been helpful to us if he’d known about inflation! He recruited the reforming organist John Stainer, who got the music into shape using the new choir school to provide well-trained choristers and ensuring that the adult choir actually turned up – for many years there was a weekly disciplinary meeting to try to get the unruly choir, clergy and vergers under control. His energy drove through a decoration scheme for the dome and the quire, culminating in the beautiful mosaics which now adorn the East End of the cathedral. A wonderful reredos behind the altar and a pioneering scheme for splitting the organ into sections were parts of his legacy.

One of Robert Gregory’s final acts was to secure funding from his American friend John Pierpont (JP) Morgan for the installation of electric light in the cathedral. Gregory went from from lighting one candle in the darkness, through perseverance, shared vision, response to public concerns about the inadequacy of the church, and a pioneering engagement in the spiritual and social life of the City of London, to the final triumph of a cathedral blazing with light. In his last few years, policemen helped him across the road from the deanery into the cathedral for daily prayers, as he contemplated the beauty and wonder of a building designed by Christopher Wren and beautified further and made fit for purpose through the vision of himself and others.

In my role as Dean of St Paul’s, I find Robert Gregory an inspiration. I certainly won’t be here for as long as he was, but I believe as he did in the power of vision, particularly shared vision, as we seek to discern what God calls us to do in the service of Jesus Christ, and put it into effect with faith, hope and love. Whether that calling is to us individually, or to us together: remember the power of God’s vision to change us and the church as well as the world.

In an age of change which can feel dark and threatening, with an uncertain future and ongoing conflict, where injustice and unkindness, terror and coercion, discrimination and abuse are all too common – let’s take inspiration from Robert Gregory and what he achieved in the service of Jesus Christ, beginning with a small candle shining in a dark place, and ending in a blaze of light and glory.

 

Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls | Leave a comment

Hopes and Dreams

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

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So the waiting game is nearly over, and we shall soon know what the Bishops believe we should do as a Church with regards to the challenging topic of sexuality.

It has been a gruelling process, which has left many of us bruised, battered and hurt.  We chose to make ourselves vulnerable, we brought ourselves to the table and sat through discussions about whether we are going to heaven or hell.  We have had our private lives dissected, our faith challenged and our integrity questioned.  We have been the subject of unkind and prurient banter and ridicule, particularly in relation to what we can and can’t do in bed with our life-long partners.  All so utterly demeaning.

We have been told not to be so emotional, to not share the pain of our journeys or the harm that has been done in God’s name in certain churches using disgraceful spiritually abusive practices.  We have relived our pasts and reopened old wounds.

However, we have done so willingly as we believe this sacrificial path has been what the Church has asked us to do.  The powers that be have asked us to trust them, and so we have.  They have asked us to be open, and so we have been.  They have asked us to believe that they will hear our stories and reflect on our testimonies – even if they then did chose not to have an openly LGBT member as part of their Reflections Group.

Trust.

It’s hard to trust a group of mostly middle aged heterosexual men who have a history of causing pain, and adding to confusion – rather than confronting it.

But this time it’s going to be different we’re told.  This time.  Just trust us.

This time, they know that the stakes are too high for us to be given just more platitudes that add to the “fudge” that exists in the heart of the Church.  This time they know that they have to make some clear and concrete decisions, because otherwise they will undermine all the trust that has been placed in them, at their own request, by the LGBT community, by those desiring an inclusive Church and by society as a whole.

Because otherwise the trust we have put in them would be broken.  And as we all know – it would be impossible to rebuild.  Many would just walk away knowing that yet again they have been let down by an institution that is bound by fear and compromise.  An unholy mess that creates smoke and mirrors that fool no one.

So I, like thousands of others, wait patiently – in hope that our nightmare will soon end.  No need to tell them the world is watching, that God is watching.  They know.

Trust us.

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 5 Comments