No change but change?
I write as the Church of England publishes the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) materials to help us engage more deeply with questions of faith, sexuality, marriage and identity. They come in the midst of a pandemic when we have just reached over 50,000 deaths in this country so inevitably land even more strangely than was planned. Understandably, other things currently hold our gaze but these materials have been long in the making and are now available. Meanwhile, God’s call to LGBT+ people is still being heard even if the church finds it difficult to receive this good news of Jesus Christ being at work. My Bishop along with his colleagues emphasize that actual changes to normative church practices is not imagined presently as we engage with this publication, even if it leads on to a yet unknown further process, debates and decisions in General Synod in 2022.
I can realistically imagine some change in the coming years within the Church of England in terms of tone. It is unlikely there will be big change because such change would need two-thirds majority in the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. So it is primarily dependent on approximately 50 people in the House of Bishops. They are the gatekeepers. A reasonable assumption is the majority of them are unlikely to want much change although they are quite divided but still largely give the public impression they are united. There is recognition that LGBT+ people in the church need to see some flesh being put on the welcome if fairly recently discovered talk of ‘radical Christian inclusion’ introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One can imagine a number of scenarios including some widening of pastoral practice whilst not touching fundamental conception of marriage. Or perhaps we might see some bishops being able to authorise local experiments in prayers following a civil partnership or civil marriage for same sex couples. There may therefore be even more a postcode church lottery. Some dioceses are by default likely to become even more no-go areas for LGBT+ people beyond support for those who are LGBT+ and committed to celibacy.
Many LGBT+ friends at this point will say ‘well what’s the point’, and perhaps those rigorously resisting any change might say the same. Each person will come to their own view. Not because of optimism but because of hope and faith and love. I’m with those who have noted that the ‘arc of history bends towards justice’. Of course not all this is about justice but justice is often a pre-requisite for peace.
So I have to try and dig deep as the LLF materials are considered by our church. The materials are not without flaws but they are generally good enough to stimulate healthy conversation. The hurdle I personally need to get over is the paucity of LGBT+ voices who have contributed to the development of the materials. As far as is known, only 5 of the 40 strong coordinating group is LGBT+ although others were consulted. We have learnt to be thankful for crumbs. However, can you imagine a conversation about gender or race or disability that now didn’t have significant numbers of people in the conversation who directly own that experience? Why are LGBT+ voices not allowed to be heard in a similar way to others? Why am I so dangerous or untrustworthy? It could be too easy to nurse wounds or niggle but I want to continue to choose hope.
A civil society
Pope Francis via a new documentary has spoken about support for civil unions and the rights for LGBT+ people to a family life. This does not constitute any change in the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the stance taken by Archbishop Ramsay at Canterbury when debates raged here about the decriminalization of homosexuality. Our bishops now mostly don’t vote or vote against legislation which seeks to include or protect LGBT+ people in society. They did not support the introduction of civil partnerships, never mind marriages for same-sex couples. I do not hear church people or bishops beyond those identified as LGBT+ advocates defending the legal rights or safeguarding the safety of LGBT+ people. That hurts profoundly. Without a shift on this, all the other talk about people being made in God’s image does not ring as if it is meant or believed, if it only gets actively applied to some people.
I hope for a kinder approach even if this seems far too little, far too late. I do not underestimate what a difference that could make. There is so much visceral toxicity in so many of these conversations. So often that leaves me feeling bashed. I have too many times been treated like an object to be examined or questioned rather than treated as a person in conversation. When I have taken risks in being vulnerable to try building trust with those who hold different views, from time to time that attempt has been exploited or disrespected. LLF is not the first time many of us have discussed these matters. LGBT+ people have repeatedly returned to the table to talk whilst some threaten running away. Oh to witness more of the tactics of kindness as opposed to the tactics of threat. Kindness is needed if we are to tell each other’s stories with truthfulness and that is a key mark of reconciliation.
Offering good news about sex, sexuality and marriage
Currently the burden about all this falls on LGBT+ people whereas the majority of the church and society is cis-gendered and heterosexual. This is both unfair and leaves the vast majority of the population with little or no access to any Christian wisdom on these matters. Our society has generally liberalised on issues of gender, sexuality and sex. This is now also happening in the global south, with resistance from some quarters. However, things are far from entirely healthy or happy. Fewer are opting to marry – I want to encourage more to marry or to enter civil partnerships. More think serial monogamy or just endless causal partnerships will really optimize human life but I want to explore how faithfulness and commitment and forgiveness could contribute to human flourishing. At the very least we need to admit that the Church does not have a single view or have all this sorted. For example: see the above average levels of domestic abuse in clergy heterosexual couples. Surely it is a case of learning to talk with people as opposed to talking at people, of building stable relationship foundations rather than dismantling them?
We all love the Bible
I love the Bible dearly – ask my colleagues about how much I go on about it! However, the phrase ‘Bible-believing Christian’ has sadly been turned into a political weapon as code for believing and reading the Bible in a conservative way which fits into a statement or framework of belief over and above the historic creeds of Christianity. The experience and indeed sometimes fear of every Christian priest is that people will read and understand the Bible in a multiplicity of ways – it is why Roman Catholics initially resisted the instincts of the Reformation to free the scriptures into the hands of the unenlightened laity. All our readings need to be heard within the community of faith (both now and historically), mindful especially of whose voices have been missing from the history and recognising that not everything we now face can directly be read off from the scriptures as if it were a manual. Weaponising the Bible is one of the saddest and shameful aspects of these debates.
Dealing with fear
I would love to be able to move a step nearer to not being so afraid when I am honest about being gay or when I mention my partner. I’ve heard many wild claims that society is now entirely at ease with this – tell that to the LGBT+ kids who are still being bullied at school! I have had to endlessly construct sentences which make my situation opaque e.g. I’m asked ‘do I have a wife’ and answer “I do not have a wife’ thus ends the line of enquiry. Heterosexuals frequently think the world looks like it does to them and don’t see the weight of their words or attitudes. We need to create the spaces which begin to enable people to breathe a bit more. I need heterosexuals to do that for me in the way I have tried to do that for you through my life.
Homophobia is real
Many LGBT+ people, including me, experience aspects of homophobia in society and in church. We’ve been called names, pushed in the street, received green pen letters and experienced being excluded from our families. However, for me personally I don’t think it always helps to label it as homophobia because that can close down conversation and very often I am trying to keep a conversation open. We shouldn’t need to go there if we ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’.
However, when we do become victims of hate or slander then we do need to name it. There is legislation to protect LGBT+ people which has force so that some kinds of talk and some behaviour is illegal, harmful and not a matter of debate. It actually needs calling out. Theological debate need not be stifled knowing that people are appropriately protected. At one level I do believe it is possible to hold the entire range of views on this and not be homophobic but that is hard and rare. At another level homophobia is also a systemic sin. That means I am also homophobic in the same way that I painfully need to face into my conscious and unconscious bias when I am sexist and racist. The Pastoral Principles also recently published by the Church of England will be very helpful if these matters get tricky. When someone feels or says they are experiencing homophobia then we need to take it seriously rather than ignore it or use that as a moment to contend for our version of the truth. When homophobia is experienced it is really harmful, destabilising and scarring.
Welcome but not inclusive
Language gets very slippery and I wish we would stop pretending that we are inclusive even if the Archbishop has challenged us with such a goal. Many places are not even as far on as welcome. As the Dean I think I would genuinely be welcome just about everywhere in the Diocese, but I would not be included as a preacher or leader in many places.
In Leicester, shifts in diocesan polity are felt like in other dioceses. Our diocesan bishop holds (as far as I can glean) a fairly conservative approach to sexuality, gender and marriage. All diocesan bishops shape how things are handled. Here many more of our clergy and programmes tend broadly to a more conservative approach as seen if we analyse language, normative assumptions, dress and worship styles. People are now attracted by our current culture. This is also bolstered by money from Strategic Development Funding. Here and in many other places our Resourcing Churches are all evangelical or led by evangelicals with broadly more conservative views. Those of a different hue are still here and cared for but they are less aligned with ‘the implicit programme’ and their voices are less significant.
This starts to reveal how power is at work in culture by both what is said and unsaid. It mostly happens between the lines but sometimes it is explicit objective change. For example, our Bishop has now introduced a ruling that all those who minister under his license if LGBT+ must be in regularised personal situations and not be married. This decision is in his gift. He did not have to consult. The Bishop’s decision to extend his regulation to lay people on the one hand is equalizing but there are other consequences. LGBT+ people perceive there is less space to flourish. This is one kind of way in which power is exercised to reveal or hide, to further or hinder the road from welcome to inclusion. I’ve heard clergy and bishops speak about what the church does or doesn’t permit as if that is somehow different to them and their own views rather than publicly and transparently owning how they and we exercise power. I wonder if LLF will allow this discussion to really surface?
Catching up – never mind considering further changes
Clergy and congregation will have a diversity of views in every church, with a significant gap being found between whatever the local party line may be and the believed and enacted practice of people. Often leadership can be accused of imposing their views. In all the congregations in which I have served, for example, I have sought actively to give space and voice to those of more conservative views alongside my more progressive views. The difference in view is part of the miracle of any congregation as is the freedom to express that.
However, work on the Pastoral Principles in particular has shown that being silenced is too often the experience in these debates. This happens in so many ways both for progressives and conservatives. For example, the church allows me to have a civil partnership – yet the most recent Pastoral Statement by the House of Bishops does not understand that I have a partner (of 30 years) but rather they understand him to be as a friend. Friends are wonderful, but the relationship I have and the support I am offered by him for my life and ministry is much more. Their statement was brutal and eroded the reality of my relationship. It was a kind of silencing through casual dismissal.
LGBT+ people in particular pick up or work out where there is safety or space or if that is otherwise. Official reports not least by our Safeguarding Advisers have now identified that these kinds of silence inducing, opaque behaviours and blindness are big contributors to dysfunction, poor well-being and mental health. In some cases they create cultures which can lead to abuse. We need to catch up with the diversity of experience and views that already exists; flushing out our silence making behaviours.
Engaging with LLF
Despite misgivings, countess broken promises and unfulfilled hopes through my adult life about the church moving on with deeper understanding with respect to sex, gender and sexuality, I am prepared to try and give LLF a go. I’ve already watched some of the free videos and listened to some of the podcasts. They are well produced and stimulating. All this is not where I would wish us to be. Ironically, it is harder for me to be a gay man in the church now than when I was ordained in 1993 but it is where we are.
I am committed to doing what I can to create a more genuine, loving and honest church. I am up for talking yet again risking having my life dissected. I am worried about getting hurt again. I want to learn. I want to explore welcome and inclusion. I want to remain in fellowship with and at the service of all the different expressions of our church. I do want to be surprised by God’s grace and so I am attempting falteringly to live in love and faith.
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Find out more about Living in Love and Faith on the Church of England’s website here.