Dolly Parton and ++Michael Curry on the Power of Love

by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist


The Most Revd Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 2018, watched by many millions across the world, he preached at the wedding of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle. Dolly Parton is a talented, bestselling country and bluegrass singer and songwriter. She is also an actor and founded a non-profit organisation.

No-one would mistake one for the other.

He is black, she is white with a trademark blonde wig. Both are American and both are Christians committed to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Also, both have recently prompted numerous people in various countries to think afresh about marriage and love.

Two weddings and a lot of love. Storytelling is often a feature of Dolly Parton’s music. She takes this a step further in a new Netflix series, ‘Heartstrings’, with episodes based on several of her most memorable songs. At the beginning of ‘Two Doors Down’, the second episode, she describes how those she toured with included people of ‘different colours, gay, lesbian, transgender and all different faiths. But it didn’t matter, as long as we all loved each other and got along,…What it all comes down to is love is love, in road families and real families.’

In this funny, moving drama which she worked on with screenwriter Mark B Perry, she focuses on how a mother plans an elaborate wedding for her daughter which goes wildly awry. Gay and trans family members do not easily fit into her narrow view of how the world should be; there again, few of those gathered are quite as they seem. As the big moment approaches, numerous closets tumble open and various secrets are revealed – with an accident or two thrown into the mix!

This proved strong stuff for some of her more ‘conservative’ fans and a number walked out of a preview in the deep South, although others stayed. The episode works dramatically by keeping viewers guessing what will happen next whilst also providing some characters to whom they can easily relate. These, naturally, will be different for different audience members.

Yet whether or not immediately sympathetic, none of the bride’s family are mere caricatures. And those watching may, by the end, find their perspective broadened (I must admit I did). Change can happen when connections are made and others see, in another’s story, something which resonates with their own story or when they glimpse some shared values.

Whilst religion does not play a major part in the drama in any obvious sense, such themes as kindness, faithfulness, truth and forgiveness will be familiar to all Bible-readers. So will the motif of a party where neighbours are invited to set aside their hurt, rejoice with others and find healing and love again.

The real-life wedding in 2018 thankfully went far more smoothly.

In the years preceding this wedding, Bishop Michael had taken a fair amount of flak on behalf of his Church, based mainly in the USA, because of its stance on justice for all, including for LGBT people. As many will know, the Anglican Communion has many senior clergy who are not just non-affirming but who are actually openly hostile to the LGBT community. In dealing with these leaders he had been both gracious and firm, which we know reflects his own beliefs and approach.

His memorable sermon started with a theme set out in the Song of Songs, centred on passionate love. ‘There’s a certain sense in which, when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right. There’s something right about it,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives.’

This goes beyond the love of a couple for each other. ‘Christ’s ‘way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.’ It lights a fire that can feed the hungry, end war and lead to ‘a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.’

Not everyone liked the style of his sermon. Others disagreed with his theology, which was focused on God’s realm on earth where all are valued. Yet his words touched and inspired many – non-Christians included. The high-profile occasion made it harder to marginalise his church’s attempts, however imperfectly, to put these ideals into practice.

Changing hearts, minds and practice

It is a huge challenge to transform Church communities, institutions and the wider world into a place where LGBT+ people (and everyone else) feel fully valued. There is a risk of feeling as if nothing we do makes much difference, instead of celebrating what has been achieved and building on these foundations.

Alternatively, we may each assume that the approach we tend to take, which plays to our strengths or works in the settings with which we are familiar, is best.

The prophetic tradition is important – for there are times when the powerful and privileged need to be jolted out of complacency. Yet even in the Hebrew Bible, prophets often switched back and forth between diplomacy and fiery rhetoric to try to shift society towards holiness and justice. Both there and in the New Testament, poetry and stories tap into the imagination of readers and listeners, calling into question who is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’.

While safe places to vent indignation and frustration are needed, so too are spaces to share different opinions on how common goals might be achieved. Whilst it is helpful for those seeking change to question, indeed challenge, one another it is also important to listen to answers and value what people do, as well as noting what they do not do.

Dolly Parton and Michael Curry would not be as effective as they currently are if each had tried to work for LGBT inclusion using the other’s methods.

Few of us communicate as skilfully as either of these two giants but perhaps all can learn something from them, including the value of prayerfulness. Using our varying gifts and opportunities for influence, we can share the Divine invitation to set aside prejudice, break down barriers and, even amidst sorrow and uncertainty, join in celebrating love.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Savi Hensman | 1 Comment

“Yoga-Gate” – Fundamentalism in a Twist

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of  Chelmsford

Nicholas Henshall

One of my fellow Deans recently faced “Yoga-gate”. A yoga class meeting in the nave of the Cathedral attracted negative attention. Just before Christmas a vicar banning yoga classes from church premises made it on to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. And then just as Covid-19 made its presence felt the comedian Jenny Eclair poured public scorn on the whole Christian community for obsessing about such trivia at such a time as this.

On one level it is a side show that does not warrant serious attention. However, it is yet further evidence of a level of confusion and amnesia sometimes masquerading as “what the Bible really teaches” that is profoundly corrosive of the whole Scriptural witness.

Part of the issue here is that many contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with contemplative practice in the Christian tradition itself. Breathing exercises while seated are characteristic of all meditation practice and that is true as much of Christianity as of Hinduism and Buddhism. And for Christians – from Jesus’ early morning prayer times to the desert fathers and mothers, through the Hesychast movement and the Cloud of Unknowing to the opening up of contemplative prayer in the last few decades – there are precious gifts to share.

“Yoga-gate” also suggests that many of us are unfamiliar with the origins of yoga itself as practiced in the West. There is wide scholarly consensus that contemporary hatha yoga owes its origins to a combination of Danish and Indian gymnastics, plus British Army exercises as observed in 19th century Mysore. One of the perhaps quaint features of much contemporary yoga is that these origins are sometimes felt to be insufficiently glamorous. As a result, many yoga practitioners provide completely modern yoga postures with apparently ancient Sanskrit names. This is not helpful. It is what Eric Hobsbawm called “invented tradition”.

Even if it were the case that hatha yoga did spring from a clear alternative faith tradition, banning yoga from church premises remains problematic, not least in terms of what the Bible says. Certainly, the Bible and the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition are radically opposed to doctrinal syncretism. However, from Melkizedek onwards, the Bible is quite clear that God blesses pagans, gentiles, unbelievers, followers of other faith traditions, and uses them as both instruments of God’s purpose and as examples for us to imitate. God even gives the pagan Persian king Cyrus the Jewish title “Messiah”.

Jesus himself is clear in both teaching and practice. In Luke 4 the murderous anger of the synagogue congregation at Nazareth against Jesus is provoked not by his challenging manifesto (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”) but by his insistence that God chooses to bless pagans like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian rather than the faithful gathered in the synagogue. They are so shocked and appalled that they attempt a summary execution. It is no accident that Jesus makes the hero of his most famous story the despised follower of a heretical religion. We call him the good Samaritan.

Learning from the practice of other faith communities is also deeply characteristic of the Christian tradition. Christians inevitably inherited extraordinary gifts from Judaism, and – despite our contemporary stereotypes – Islam and Christianity have been very generous in learning from one another. Christians probably taught Muslims the practice of prostration in prayer, and then stopped practicing it ourselves. The ringing of bells before Christian worship derives directly from Francis of Assisi’s delight in the Muslim call to prayer during his visit to the Sultan. Again, the use of prayer beads – from the western rosary to the eastern prayer rope – is almost certainly a gift from Islam.

Most significantly, medieval Islamic scholars made Aristotle available to Christian theologians, something that changed the nature of western theology – catholic and evangelical – fundamentally. I love it that the leading UK Muslim lifestyle magazine, Emel, regularly runs features on St George as patron saint and common heritage for both English Christians and English Muslims. On a very pragmatic level it was beautiful to hear the Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Abba Aklilemariyam Komos, recently insisting that only building a new church in his community without restoring the local mosque would “disappoint God”.

Thomas Merton engaged deeply with other faith traditions. He was completely uninterested in their doctrinal superstructure as he fully recognised that different faith traditions believed different and incompatible things. But he was equally clear that people of different faith traditions can and should learn from each other’s practice without any doctrinal syncretism. Thus Sufis, Buddhists and Christians have little doctrinal shared ground but huge areas of shared contemplative practice from which they can and do all learn together. Indeed, I would suggest that over-busy Christians who have forgotten their contemplative roots have a great deal to learn about their own tradition from the contemplative practice of other faith traditions.

Which brings me back round to some serious theology. In the incarnation, God says a fantastic YES to the fact that we are embodied. Unfortunately, an overdose of Neo-Platonism in early Christianity and Augustine’s pessimism about the human body (for the west at least) has left a complicated legacy. Even extraordinary figures such as Francis of Assisi could still only see the body as “Brother Ass” to be drilled into submission. That has engendered among Christians a negativity about the body quite alien to the Bible.

The failure of the Christian tradition to find a way of giving a positive account of the body, with the consequent disastrous outcomes for our understanding of human sexuality, human dignity, the impact of poverty and so on, means that we urgently need better ways of discovering for ourselves the glorious and challenging implications of God “being found in human form”. Yoga is just one small way in which Christians can learn some great biblical values about the body.

Finally, maybe I need to declare an interest.

I wrecked my right shoulder in a road accident some fifteen years ago. They were in a car and I was on a bike, an unequal battle. Without yoga practice (much of it learned from physiotherapy) my right arm wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to type these words. If you are interested in exploring yoga practice – especially as many of us will have enforced leisure in the months ahead – my own personal recommendation would be the videos of Barbara Curry. My three children (all in their mid-20s) would firmly go for Yoga with Adrienne (available online), but I am no longer quite that flexible! There is no evidence that either yoga teacher has ever misled us practitioners into worshipping foreign gods.

Posted in Establishment, Nicholas Henshall, Safeguarding, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Minding Our Adjectives…

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

David ison 2

What do the words ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ mean for you?

I trained at theological college (a very long time ago) with a particular calling to serve in the inner-city. I had a year’s placement in a city parish in Nottingham, and thought I was prepared for what lay ahead. But when I went to inner-city Deptford in London, I started to discover the adjectives I hadn’t been aware of before. In modern-day terms, I became aware of my unconscious bias.

At college, there were adjectives for specific perspectives on theology, such as ‘black’, ‘third-world’, or ‘feminist’. But what I’d failed to notice (Foucault and Derrida weren’t in vogue in my theological world) was that that there was no such thing as theology without adjectives. In the same way that there’s no context-less human being – we have a family, a nationality and a particular culture – so the way we do our thinking about God inevitably has adjectives in front of it.

Because I was a white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, logical, male, heterosexual Christian, I hadn’t noticed that my theology (mostly) and my teachers (as far as I knew) were white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, emotional, male, heterosexual… It was when I went to minister in a multi-cultural, unchurched, working-class, inner-city, poor, non-intellectual, disordered, stressful environment that I discovered what my adjectives were, and had to re-evaluate the theology I’d learnt which had prepared me for a very different culture.

That didn’t mean leaving the Christian gospel behind. But it did mean going back to Scripture to find other ways of reading and being read by the text, rather than starting with what people like me said the text was going to mean. And that required leaving behind some of my adjectives, the inherited culture I’d taken for granted: for example, having a very restricted view of who should receive communion based on a particular interpretation of what’ worthy reception’ meant in 1 Corinthians 11. It’s been uncomfortable and liberating over the years to discover more of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the light of my comfortable assumptions being forcibly questioned by God’s reality.

Which brings me back to ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’: two adjectives which are apparently of universal meaning, but which are being used as markers of a particular, culturally conditioned theological perspective for those who have views which they might describe as ‘traditional’. The adjectives aren’t factual statements, but shorthand for perspectives which agree with a particular view.

The fact that people like me, who believe in the importance of Scripture and tradition and the need to engage with them, disagree with certain views (notably about women in ministry and marriage, and same-sex partnerships) must in the view of others make us unbiblical and unorthodox, ‘false teachers’. Whereas from my perspective (whatever adjectives you might give that depends on where you stand – I go for ‘inclusive and challenging’) I would agree on much of what ‘biblical and orthodox’ Christians believe as the fundamentals of the Christian gospel, but see beliefs around gender and sexuality as needing to be dynamic and eschatological (forward-oriented) rather than unchanging and creation-oriented: what is God calling us to become in Jesus Christ?

Another adjective which gets bandied about is ‘revisionist’. But revision and reform today can become tradition tomorrow. Look up the histories of Christian doctrine regarding violence, contraception, clerical power and clerical celibacy, for example, let alone the history of the Reformation.

It is of course possible for the Church to compromise with the ‘spirit of the age’ and deviate from its Christian roots. My predecessor, WR Inge, wrote shortly after becoming Dean of St Paul’s in 1911, ‘If you marry the spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next’. But that cuts both ways; it’s equally possible for Christians to cling on to the cultures of past generations and refuse to change when it’s needed.  When I was in training for ministry, our college principal Colin Buchanan used to say that the Church was only different from the world because it was ten years behind. I think he was being rather generous: it’s usually much further behind than that.

Holding onto the Christian culture of the 1950s, or of the 1550s, as if it were divinely inspired and the yardstick of what is ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ is as mistaken as regarding Scripture and tradition as outmoded. The soon to be unveiled Learning in Love and Faith project in the Church of England is an opportunity to engage with the complexities of this in regard to human sexuality, and an opportunity for all of us to face what we will find to be uncomfortable realities, in order to unearth those adjectives we hadn’t noticed we possess, and use them with more care regarding ourselves and others.

It will be both biblical and orthodox to seek God in Christ by engaging in this self-critical encounter together…





Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 5 Comments

Bridges, Kingdom and Unity

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News, Member of General Synod and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

Jayne Ozanne new

It had been a good but frank meeting.

As I rose to leave, I put out my hand and said: “You know, my heart really is to build a bridge between the two sides, that’s my aim and calling.”

The church official looked at me and smiled before adding “Yes, if there’s anyone left to walk across it.”

I left, feeling slightly angered and unsettled by his quip.

On the way home I pondered why I was feeling such disquiet and realised that it was because we had been talking about two completely different bridges. Indeed, I realised that it was this misunderstanding based on a deep fundamental difference that lay at the heart of our discussions regarding the complex issue of sexuality.

It was the perfect illustration.

For the bridge I was talking about was that between the primarily secular LGBT+ community on one side and the Church on the other, whilst the bridge he was talking about was between different parts of the Church that held differing views on sexuality. I was looking at it from an external perspective, he from an internal. It summed up the problem, perfectly.

So much of our internal church politics it seems to me are focused on just that: “internal politics” without any understanding of the people it is affecting in the public at large. Dare I say that this is not “kingdom focused” but rather “unity focused” – and is based on a concept of “unity” that I believe is fundamentally flawed. As I’ve said before on Via Media, unity should never ever be a goal or objective. It is not something you set yourself to forcibly create, but rather it is a by-product, or using biblical language “blessing”, that comes from people who are of one heart and mind over something. The emphasis being on “heart and mind”, people who have chosen to come together willingly over something, not something forced on them.

I am sure I’m not the only one who is really tired of being told: “the reason that senior church leaders don’t want to speak out on this is that they value unity so highly.”

The last time I was told this, I laughed and responded “Humbug! We are not united now – that is a myth! There is no agreement now. People are leaving now, however because they are not leaders of large churches but instead ordinary church goers you just don’t seem to want to take any notice of them. It is a complete fallacy to say that we are “united” when so many people within the church hold such differing and conflicting views, and a certain way of dealing with it is forced on one group against their will.”

But I recognise that my voice, like many others, is not a popular voice and is frequently dismissed or discarded. Of course it’s easy to do so, even popular to do so – especially when you’re on “the inside” holding all the power and surrounded by a group of people who all appear to hold the same opinion (or so you think).

Not long ago I was speaking to a survivor of sexual abuse in the Church who shone a very helpful light on all this by explaining: “You do realise, Jayne, that in the eyes of the institution there are “good survivors” and “bad survivors”?” She is absolutely right. The “good survivors” are the ones who “play their game” and don’t say anything to rock the boat. They are given a seat at the table and are showcased in order for the institution to reassure itself it is “listening” to survivors’ voices, whilst in reality continuing to do what it has always done. The “bad survivors” are those who refuse to play the game, who point out all the inconsistencies and who the institution works hard to silence and dismiss.

So too with those working for equality.

It is a dangerous strategy. For it reflects the imbalance of power and the arrogance at the heart of an institution that believes it can pick and choose who they listen to, and who they will blackball and dismiss.

Yes, bridges are indeed needed, as is the need for people to be able to choose to walk across them. But actually, only the former is ever in our control. We only ever given the tools (if we have the power) to build a bridge, and to do so we need to ensure that it has firm foundations – ones of uncompromised principles. Otherwise the bridge will collapse the moment that it is tested by storms and raging torrents beneath.

However, we can never control who chooses to walk over the bridge afterwards. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. But if people do choose to walk over it, it is then we start to see the fruits of something called “true unity”.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Living in Love & Faith | 3 Comments

Taking Advice – Gentlemen vs Players

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that English men’s cricket formally removed the distinction between professionals – referred to as “Players” – and amateurs – known as “Gentlemen”. Until then the social distinctions had been very firmly kept. Separate gates admitted the two classes to the playing area, and their names were written differently on printed scorecards. It was unthinkable for the captain of a major team not to be a Gentleman. In the years after the Second World War many of those distinctions seemed to make less and less sense; those who had fought side by side on the battlefield should surely be given the same dignity on the sports field.

By the 1950s, the demands of high level sport were making it less and less practicable for an amateur to set aside the time needed to train and prepare for each occasion. Meanwhile those who had formerly squeezed their cricket into the gaps available in the life of a teacher, lawyer or clergyman, were finding that their main profession no longer accorded the space required. An advertisement from the ecclesiastical press in the late 1960s that read, “Curate sought, slow left arm bowler preferred”, was probably thinking more of the needs of the Diocesan Church Times eleven than the County first team. The age of the amateur was dying.

Fifty years on, it looks truly dead. From health care to law, from asset management to academia, levels of specialisation have accelerated to the point where even the most gifted generalist cannot hope to keep up with the focused full timer.

Last week I circulated my diocese with the new advice from the Church of England legal team on how to interpret what it means to give “due regard” to the House of Bishops policies on Safeguarding. It’s pretty blunt, and necessarily so. No matter how many years ordained experience, or how broad their understanding of the wider pastoral context, and notwithstanding what other complexities they may feel need to be held in tension in the specific circumstances, any person or corporate body that follows a course of action not in line with the national position, unless it has first been approved in the particular instance by the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor and Diocesan Registrar, is at risk of disciplinary or equivalent action.

In the teeth of the course of recent history, the parish priest and, I would argue, the diocesan bishop, remain at heart generalists. Clergy are called to comprehend scripture and theology, ethics and psychology, social sciences and pastoralia, and to apply simultaneously each of these and more to the specifics of individual lives in particular places. On a bad day it can feel as though everything imposed upon us, from Faculty Jurisdiction to Human Resources, and from Safeguarding Policy to Churchyard Rules, diminishes our ability to fashion a holistic response to a multifaceted situation.

Yet, rather than despair at the encroachment of experts into our decision making, I would argue that we are better served by it. The professional staff we employ at national and diocesan level are there to make our work more effective, not less. Specialist advice and guidance provide boundaries and safe space within which we can deploy our own training and skills to craft an appropriate response to the questions we face.

Whether we’ve been twenty years a bishop or twenty days a curate, we should not be reticent in challenging a policy or expert opinion we believe does not fit the circumstances. It’s only when that challenge fails to change the advice we are receiving that we need to revise our position and comply. I lose my fair share of such arguments. Both I myself, and the actions I take after robust conversations with my expert colleagues, are all the better for it.

Like the Player and the Gentleman in those cricketing days of yore, far from being implacable enemies, the generalist and the specialist are batting for the same side.


Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Human Sexuality, Safeguarding | 2 Comments

Uganda’s Unholy Trinity & the Forgotten Martyrs

by the Revd Dr Nick Bundock, Team Rector of St James & Emmanuel, Didsbury


The ‘Shrine of the Martyrs’ is located in Namugongo, which is a township about 16 kilometres north-east of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city and one of the largest metropolitan areas in Africa.

There are in fact two shrines at Namugongo, one Anglican and one Catholic, and they commemorate the loss of 45 young men who were burned to death in 1886 by the King of Buganda for refusing to renounce Christianity.  It’s a moving and uniquely African site of devotion.  Such is its importance that in 2015 a crowd of two million gathered to pray there with Pope Francis.  But this incredible site of Christian pilgrimage hides a deeper story because many of the men who were burned in the fires of martyrdom were courtiers who had refused the king’s sexual advances.  The Shrines at Namugongo reflect not only the power of Christian devotion but also the complex and difficult relationship of Ugandan same-sex sexuality.

It was on Thursday 20th February this year that I found myself in a taxi, without a working seatbelt, racing down a Ugandan highway with two dear friends, Rob Eloff, an ordinand at St Mellitus and Kevin Lowe , the father of Lizzie Lowe, a gay teenager who took her own life in September 2014.  An unlikely band of travellers on an equally unlikely mission.

The sun is so strong in this part of equatorial Africa that the pale-skinned burn even through glass.  I could feel my legs singeing as we came to halt in the Kampala traffic.  The cars were thick on the roads and they were coughing out fumes into the Ugandan streets.  Our destination was Namugongo, but not ostensibly to visit the shrines.  We had another destination that day.  Off the beaten track, down roads that defied Google Maps, was a residential compound surrounded by a high wall and a sliding metal gate.  This was our destination.  We really didn’t know what we were coming to and in our nervousness we’d given the others in our party (safely back in the luxury of a western-style hotel in Entebbe) a constant mobile phone lock on our location – just in case.

As the taxi pulled up and came to halt, I reflected on how we’d come to be in this unlikely place.  Two months previously, in the safety of my study in Didsbury, Manchester, the Facebook invitation to visit Tom Twongeirwe in Kampala had seemed like a good one.  I’ve had a lot of communication from LGBT+ advocacy groups in the years since Lizzie took her life but not, I confess, from Africa and so Tom’s communication piqued my interest.  We chatted across the internet for some weeks before I eventually revealed to him that I would be with eleven others from my church on a trip to Uganda in February, visiting a long-supported children’s crisis centre in the beautiful Virunga Mountains.  Perhaps we could meet, however briefly, on our way back to the airport just before our flight home?

And so here we were, the three of us in a taxi in the middle of this Kampala suburb and within walking distance of the Namugongo shrines.  What Tom revealed to us in the hours we spent with him and his colleagues will remain vivid in my memory and has prompted me to write this short reflection.  Disturbingly, in the exquisitely beautiful country of Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, there are still martyrs being made in the twenty-first century and the issue is still about sex and faith.

For many in Uganda there is a commonly held theory that homosexuality is a Western ‘disease’ that is not indigenous to their country, that it’s an import totally alien to their culture and values.  The Namugongo shrines tell a different story, of course.  The ironic fact that Ugandan Christianity incorporated the nineteenth century European Church’s teaching on homosexuality is written into the blood of the martyrs and is just as strong today.

The Ugandan Pentecostal pastor, Martin Ssempa, an outspoken supporter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009), in recalling the blood of the Ugandan martyrs, has demanded the blood of the ‘gays’ and invoked true Ugandans to die rather than surrender their moral convictions to Western imperialism.  Not many indulge in such outspoken invective, but St James and Emmanuel has its own painful experience of being rejected by the Anglican bishops of the Ugandan church.  The punitive legislation that was eventually passed in 2014 was supported by the vast majority of Pentecostal, Anglican, Catholic and Muslim leaders in Uganda before it was struck down by the Supreme Court of Uganda on a technicality.  Even today, however, you can receive life imprisonment for ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ or seven years for ‘gross indecency’.

In a softly spoken presentation in the converted garage of that compound in the shadow of the Namugongo shrines Tom told us about the realities of life for LGBT+ Ugandans.  Many, of course spend their lives in the shadows of shame, many married, never daring to confess their true feelings.  Those who do ‘come out’ are almost immediately rejected from the family home and their existing poverty is compounded by a desperate lack of training and employment opportunities.

As Tom himself eloquently told us: ‘LGBTI persons in Uganda are dismissed and disowned by their biological families no matter at what age they are because they are regarded as a shame and a curse to the family and the community.  These people who are especially between 15-25 find nowhere to go other than the streets, no shelter, no food and no hope for the future.  The end result is them engaging in crimes like robbery and having unprotected sex work for survival.  During the course (sic), some contract HIV and others commit suicide.’

Tom is now the National Coordinator for the Universal Coalition for Affirming Africans Uganda (UCAA-UG).  He is a very brave young man surrounded by a small team of very brave colleagues.  They told us about their new project ‘Thrive’ which has four main aims.  Firstly, they want to rent out safe houses where the queer and rejected can be safe and receive mental health support, re-learn the art of self-care and begin to recover their self-esteem.  Secondly, they want to offer peer support to gay-affirming religious leaders in Uganda, many of whom are afraid to challenge the status quo.  Thirdly, they want to engage in spiritual direction for LGBT+ persons.  At the core of the UCAA-UG mission is a message of Christian love for the queer person.  Fourthly, they want to offer basic skills such as hairdressing so that LGBT+ Ugandans can make their own way in the world.  This is a huge task and they asked if we would put our shoulders to the wheel to help them start.  We will.

As we left the compound and got back into the dusty taxi for the journey home we asked the driver to stop at the Catholic Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs – it would be ridiculous to get so close and to simply pass it by.  At the heart of this sacred site there is a basilica and at the very centre of the building there is an altar.  It marks the exact spot where the first martyr was slow-burned in 1886.  The death of the Ugandan martyrs ‘the seed of the Church’ led to one of the most Christian countries on earth, if one of the poorest.

As we sped back along the highway to Entebbe and the air-conditioned rooms and luxury pool of our hotel, I had one final reflection.  Ugandan societal norms about homosexuality are controlled by an almost unbreakable triangle.  On one corner is a legislature determined to punish homosexual Ugandans in the severest terms.  On another corner there are long established societal prejudices whereby gay children are expelled from the community in shame and dishonour. But the final corner is occupied by the Church and it’s unflinching teaching on the moral evil of same-sex love.  This trinity of Ugandan culture is crushing and destroying lives, including the lives of young Ugandans with nowhere to turn.

When conservatives in the West blithely support the latest pronouncements from GAFCON do they have any idea what that means for actual people in Uganda?  Do they appreciate that a whole new generation of martyrs are being created in Namugongo?

What I witnessed in Kampala and in the beautiful lives of Tom and his colleagues goes way beyond ‘inclusion’.  They are fighting for justice and conservatives would do well to think on that before pouring ignorant fuel on the fires of Ugandan culture that have been alight since 1886.

Revd Dr Nick Bundock is pictured here (second from left) with Tom Twongeirwe (left),Rob Elroff (middle) and Lizzie Lowe’s father, Kevin (on far right).

Click here to support Thrive





Posted in Human Sexuality, International Relations, Nick Bundock | 4 Comments

The Whitewashing of Spiritual Leaders – Is Vanier Like Weinstein?

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

Rosie Haarper

It is old news now. As it broke there was a surprising amount of interest in the media about the finding that Jean Vanier was a serial abuser. Multiple articles in secular and religious press, Thought for the Day on R4, thousands of words were written as people processed the information. Vanier was the founder of L’Arche an international federation of communities for people with disabilities and those whom work with them. He was, for many, a spiritual giant.

We heard about Jean Vanier on February 22nd and two days later Harvey Weinstein was convicted of two counts of sexual assault.

Vanier abused at least 6 women over a period of 35 years. Weinstein also abused women, eighty women lodged complaints, over a period of at least 30 years. Vanier abused through spiritual and emotional power, gaining control over women via their faith. Weinstein abused his power as the most influential producer in Hollywood, controlling women’s career and reputation.

On the surface these are not dramatically different cases. Surely both men were abusive b**tards?

However the stories didn’t unfold that way.

There was zero compassion or understanding for Weinstein. Identified in the red-hot period of the ‘#MeToo’ movement he has come to represent the archetypal abusive male. The women who had been abused took centre stage and were praised for their courage in disclosing what happened and pursuing it to the end. He is now in jail with a 29 year sentence which may well be extended after the California case is concluded.

The response to Vanier was different. Firstly, he is dead. Such was his power that those he abused didn’t succeed, if indeed they tried, to get a criminal case underway. Secondly the response, at least in the religious press has been very much about the pain of the people who were not the primary victims. The headline in The Tablet ‘The truth that breaks your heart.’

Giles Fraser: ‘A few days ago, the l’Arche community published a report, the result of an internal inquiry, in which Jean Vanier was exposed as a sexual predator. And I have been reeling from it ever since. The sense of disappointment is crushing. I don’t want to write about it. I’m not sure how to write about it. I feel I have to write about it.’

Revd Dr Sam Wells: “I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Jean Vanier was one of them. Near the top of the list. It turns out that while he was doing so many beautiful and true things, he was also doing many deeply ugly and profoundly shameful things.” Sam goes on to be very realistic about the abuse and doesn’t do a white wash job at all – his is an excellent article, but even he manages to put his own personal hero worship into the mix.

The survivor’s voices are not heard.

There may be many quite understandable reasons for this, but it immediately reminded me of the many, many years when survivors were talked about but never heard in the CofE.

The other strand of reaction is about L’Arche. There is rightly a separation between Vanier and the work of the communities, but there is also a primary concern for its reputation and indeed its very survival. This again is highly reminiscent of the CofE’s response to abuse cases within its own institution.

For me the image that encapsulates this is the weeping apology. The survivor has every right to weep, but when the apology comes with tears it deflects attention and even sympathy from the truly needy person onto the apologist and the institution.

How about we don’t mess around with all this subtle spiritual stuff at all? All the waffle about how we are all fallen, and about how much good even a sinner can do when blessed by God. How about it we have the courage to treat Weinstein and Vanier the same?

They are both creepy abusive b**tards who have done grave personal damage to people who trusted them. We may even at some level be able to forgive them although that surely is the business of their victims, but lets not pretend that a holy abuser is any less gross than an unholy one.

I’m not convinced that after all this time we ‘get’ safeguarding.

We still resist truly independent scrutiny. L’Arche, to their credit, did not mark their own homework . We still talk about survivors far more than we talk with them. We still make them feel as if they are the enemy when they turn to the Church for help. We still moan and groan about the training we have to do.

Instead of calling safeguarding ‘the bane of my life’ as one bishop reportedly did, lets strain every nerve and sinew to ensure that we never again have to talk about the scale of abuse that either Weinstein or Vanier were able to perpetrate.

WATCH HERE – Canon Rosie Harper gave a memorable speech on Safeguarding at General Synod in February 2020, which received sustained applause.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 3 Comments