I return to work today as Dean of Leicester following a three month sabbatical. I had hoped for a gentle re-entry but instead as someone in a Civil Partnership, I return with a very heavy heart following the latest publication by the House of Bishops writing of LGBT people in the church.
I supported our Church of England ‘Shared Conversations’ which preceded this document. We find ourselves deep into conflict and so we needed to talk. We needed help to do that well. It seemed a wise strategy to find a way of being together with our different visions of Christian flourishing. Many LGBT people no longer feel that these conversations were worthwhile because of a sense of broken trust. I happen to believe in talking. I think the conversations did deliver new possibility which somehow has to be found afresh after this body blow.
As soon as this conversation process was handed back to the Bishops without any openly LGBT people as part of the conversation, as far as we know, it was bound to fail. Imagine talking about race or gender issues in this kind of way! It is no surprise to me how it came to be more a conversation about the Bishops’ own angst than a conversation about LGBT people and their discipleship. When asked about the House of Bishops, every diocesan bishop with whom I have spoken to in recent years has often referenced the dysfunctional dynamics of this group. I know how this can happen in many groups and how easily they become blind to their own prejudices and overwhelmed by their own needs.
The House of Bishops Report for Synod in short suggests no change in the church’s life but asks somehow to change the pastoral tone of the debate. Suddenly the church is to become friendlier and less horrible to LGBT people like me whilst remaining exactly fixed to its established position against gay marriage and other gay relationships. These are not naïve people. They know that the tone cannot really change whilst everything else remains the same yet their groupthink leads to this kind of document.
It will not work also since progressives and conservatives will continue to exist in the church with different theologies that mostly are unlikely to change. Having been through the shared conversations we have already conceded that conflict is our reality. A journey of good disagreement has begun.
The likes of me have been reasonably patient – not impatient enough according to others – recognising a slow shift towards understanding how God is at work in LGBT people. Many of us have chosen not to jump up and down as we do not see this matter as being the only thing that really shapes our lives and ministry. We have been prepared to work positively and gently to move matters forward but our patience is running thin.
I foresee conflict escalating even with the status quo. For example, the sop to the progressives is to allow maximum freedoms within the current set-up. However, statements already suggest that this will ratchet up the frustrations of conservatives and will proactively allow for more double think and dysfunction to develop. The gap between the publicly stated positions of the Church of England and the reality of life on the ground will grow. Conservative talk of exercising more discipline or legal sanction in the light of such freedoms against LGBT people will mostly not happen because of cost and because of the huge PR fallout caused by such actions – the majority of society would find such action incomprehensible. But talk of this kind will create toxicity. So in my life this is more of me and my partner drinking Burgundy at receptions and dinners with Bishops to read the next day in the papers about how we are basically inherently disordered or falling short of God’s plan. You can only put up with this so long! So keeping the status quo as mandated buys time but the systemic pressures will increase.
Northern Ireland’s recent history has parallels with this for me. During the 1970s and 80’s the stated official policies emphasized the unwillingness to move on any substantive issues whilst encouraging a change of tone towards peace. The status quo ‘apparently’ kept the lines clear between victims and perpetrators, between democrats and terrorists. It gave all the opportunity to feel like they were ‘managing’. But the internal pressures over-heated with violent consequences. The status quo held – ‘No surrender’ and ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’ (our day will come) was the stated ‘doctrinal position’. Politicians and governments kept face for a time.
Only when both sides came to realise that two very different and apparently irreconcilable views of the future were not actually going to go away and that the status quo was actually destructive for all did change start to come. At that point Power Sharing was imagined and then the details were planned and implemented. Paisley and McGuiness became uncomfortable friends but they stuck at it together. It has not been perfect and there are major challenges ahead in Northern Ireland but the conflict has actually been managed since the Good Friday Agreement. There is now much evidence for the goods of peace with generations now knowing nothing else. The different doctrinal political stances still hold as before. However, the tone and culture is different because there has been actual change in the overall system.
A decision to move forward through a genuine coexistence of different views on sexuality could be possible without anyone actually having to change their view; provisionally agreeing to disagree. Our own version of ecclesial Power Sharing is needed. We’ve done it before over all kinds of really important things such as the ethics of war. This has even happened when the subject is deemed to be ‘first order’.
We can see within the contorted thicket of the text in the Bishops’ document that they do not agree. This is maybe the most important small public step forward towards ‘Power Sharing’. In other words, the conflict is not just owned by the campaigners (whether conservative or progressive) but it is there in the heart of our episcopaly led church. We have always known this but now the Bishops have actually come out as disagreeing. They are still uncertain about this move and so you have to dig to see it. Now we need to support them just as with other coming out processes. It is often faltering, embarrassing and it provokes emotion.
This whole process is at least a process about reconciliation. However, reconciliation is less a political, psychological or in this case theological process than it is an art. It is about being able first to envision peace. Shared conversations were not attempts at technical fixes. Instead they were more demanding, more mysterious and disturbing for all and potentially more life giving than any synodical process. It was artistic rather than forensic trying to see whether peace could be imagined and inclusion welcomed.
Unfortunately, the Bishops have jumped for utility and quick fixes. The inclusion of the edited section of legal advice in the report makes it clear what kind of conversation they thought they were trying to have. It was far from artistic and instead it seems to have become a means to marshal anxiety! The kind of moral imagination needed to move beyond a status quo hiatus is to try and dream of a future of co-existent peace.
Firstly, although I am not a member of Synod, I want to encourage our proctors and members of the House of Laity to choose not to take note of the Bishop’s statement. The Synod is being asked to note it. But to note it would give credence to an impossible and illogical equation not true to the methodology and listening embodied in the Shared Conversations. We need to encourage the Bishops with a minority view to be true to their integrity rather than to succumb to the groupthink of the House of Bishops, hiding behind the word collegiality. Secondly, we need to somehow dream how we can move together with difference. We can’t let the failure embodied in this document to be the failure and end of our shared conversation but restarting it is a whole task itself with many now very uncertain about taking such risk again.
Dreams of such a future are far from wish washy. Many have often pointed out that totalitarian regimes and those most committed to a status quo are frightened of the artist and those who decide to dream of peaceful futures. Walter Brueggeman, reflecting on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible writes, “it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one (The Prophetic Imagination, 2001, p40).”
I’m not sure from where such energy will come with so many of us so deeply hurt, disappointed and broken. We believe in life after death. This promise for all the baptised has been given by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the power of the life-giving Spirit, I will dare to believe that hope can rise again with new visions of peace not shaped for a status quo that cannot work but shaped for a future of difference yet of mutuality too. I dare to believe it even if it will take significant time and much grace for my head and heart to reconnect and heal.
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Wednesday 1 February 2017