It’s Time to Talk About…Sex!

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

One of the slightly tiresome things that British people seem to do is say one thing when they really mean another.  I find myself doing this all the time – it’s far easier to talk in riddles or to talk around the point rather than be direct and honest, even blunt. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of Living in Love and Faith. I’ve sat through a number of meetings, and read the book, and talked about it to a group of people from a variety of different viewpoints, and it’s all been described in rather beige terms. Words like ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ feature, as do discussions of ‘good disagreement’ or ‘bible based’ this or that (whatever that actually means?). Yet one word about which there has been far too little discussion has been the word sex.

It’s all a bit icky, I suppose. Nobody really wants to talk about sex to a group of ‘church people’, and prejudices still remain when talking about gay sex between men. The old tropes are never far away from the surface – it’s disgusting, it involves body fluids, and it’s just not polite to talk about it. Sex might be all well and good and produce children, but please let’s not chat about it over coffee. However, the current position of the Church of England is all about sex – and ultimately boils down to who does what to whom, when and even,what goes where. Until we grasp that, we will get nowhere.

The current position of the Church of England is clear – if you are not in an opposite sex marriage, then you  should not have sex, full stop. All such extramarital sex is sinful and must be repented of. And as the Church, in their wisdom, blocked gay people from getting married, then gay sex is entirely banned. That is really what the marriage debate is ultimately all about.

Civil partnerships were originally vociferously opposed by bishops, seen as the root and source of all evil, but once it became clear the world was not ending, they warmed to them. Yet it is a lie that “the bishops support civil partnerships” – what most support is the legal protections that civil partnerships bring LGBTQ clergy, provided they promise they’re not having sex. That’s not support – that’s a redefinition of civil partnerships. It is ludicrous to suggest that most clergy in civil partnerships are refraining from sex (willing or otherwise), any more than those in opposite sex marriages are – yet this is the falsehood the Church of England holds onto. It is nonsense. Meanwhile, those that do remain celibate are doing so under duress from a church pursuing a policy that flies in the face of the vast swathes of psychological evidence on wellbeing. Talk about rock and a hard place. Anyone who defends the current position of the church shares culpability in this denigration of LGBTQ clergy.

In my professional life, I have seen a number of different definitions of what sexual intercourse is. What has both bemused and appalled me in equal measure is that whenever this question is raised with those who so vociferously oppose same sex marriage, I am told that it’s a facetious question. It really isn’t – if you oppose something, you need to be able to define it. When does the sensual, for example, become the sexual? When does intimacy become ‘sexual’? Being blunt, does something need to penetrate something else for it to be classed as sex? One particularly useless definition I’ve heard is ‘something you wouldn’t do with a friend’ – is this really the best we can do (and is it even true)?

And the interesting thing is that I, and many who support same sex marriage, have no truck with a ‘what goes where’ understanding of sex. For many of us, sex is fundamentally part of relationship forming – something that comes from within and builds up a relationship in love. Sex is not some strange “add-on” – it’s central to the development of relationship. By telling someone they can have a civil partnership but cannot have sex, you are fundamentally assigning their relationship as second best. In fact, you are actively doing violence to it. You are demanding that a key part of the human story is withheld – that something which dignifies the human person is forbidden. You are placing an erroneous separation around the sexual act. This is plain and simple for anyone with even an elementary grasp of human psychology.

Yet that is what ordinands are asked to sign up  to when going forward for ordination – ‘do you agree to abide by Issues in Human Sexuality?’ means ‘will you promise to agree with this false divide, and make sure you don’t have sex and thus deepen your relationship with the person you love?’. The justification, of course, being that clergy are supposed to set an example to laity – so ultimately, the position of the Church of England is threefold: firstly there is a distinct dividing line between sex and relationship, secondly that all sex between people of the same sex is entirely unacceptable, and thirdly that their relationships are thus of a lower quality than opposite sex marriages. It’s ridiculous. And intolerable.

The problem is that no-one in the hierarchy seems willing to admit this.

Likewise, far too many clergy are forced to be complicit: ‘yes, we have a civil partnership, and strictly speaking that means we are celibate, but…’ Some bishops even seem to encourage their archdeacons to do the dirty work for them, going in after an interview to make sure the new vicar understands the ‘policy’. Civil partnerships only – no marriages. And “you need to sign up to Issues…if you know what I mean”.

It’s time this nonsense was blown out of the water!

Clergy in civil partnerships are having sex, and the church rules mean that they are forced to lie about it. This is not healthy sexual politics. Meanwhile, clergy still cannot enter a civil marriage with someone of the same sex, based on the House of Bishops’ ‘pastoral’ letter issued seven years ago on Valentine’s Day, ostensibly because of sex. Yet even the application of this rule is subject to a postcode lottery, with different bishops interpreting it differently.

This damaging farce needs to end. Clergy need to be encouraged to be honest, not duplicitous. Bishops need to openly refuse to abide by the 2014 statement and turn the conversation out into the open.

And we need to start talking about sex.









Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Spiritual Abuse | 5 Comments

What to ‘Give Up’ When Everything’s Been Taken Away?

by Canon Robert Hammond, is Lay Chair of Chelmsford Diocesan Synod and a Member of General Synod

It’s that time of year when I’m sure we’ve all been asked by work colleagues:  ‘What are you giving up for Lent then?’

It’s a ‘good opportunity’ question, really. A chance to do a quick bit of round the water cooler theology. Explain why many Christians give something up for Lent, that it’s more than not eating chocolate, or giving up cake. I tend to explain that it’s also about focussing on prayer life, God and perhaps taking something else on, or at least replacing the meaningless with the meaningful. And then I’d usually answer the question. One year it was single use plastic; that was interesting as with my Pret lunch being on full view in the office, I couldn’t sneak the odd plastic pot of (imported) strawberries and blueberries past my colleagues. Usually of course it’s alcohol or more specifically in my case, wine. I should explain though that I have a sideline in wine education, judging and leading wine tours abroad and that unfortunately March and April  just happen to be when many of the international wine fairs are held: Düsseldorf, Verona, Vienna, Bordeaux…  So, when I say I’m giving up drinking alcohol I usually add ‘unless it’s professional drinking’. At least, I used to.

Last year was different of course, The first Lockdown was introduced during Lent and we were all adapting to new ways of going about our daily lives: Zoom Church, online shopping, face masks, hand washing, the daily Prime Minister Briefing, the statistics and sadly probably also having some personal experience of the effects of Covid-19. Everything changed so quickly; plans were changed, flights cancelled, hotels re-booked, working from home was a novelty and frankly, I can’t remember whether I continued to give something up for Lent or not.

So, what about this year?

Like many of us my life has become far simpler, less complex, less frenetic but no less busy. I’ve become used to operating in one place – the canvas my life is played out on is smaller. As a Civil Servant I’m working from home full time and haven’t been to a work office for almost a year. I spend most of my time in my study, so separation between home and work life is blurred. I miss my daily commute by train; time to think, to pray, to read, to be quiet. I miss the walk to my office in Canary Wharf along the Thames. I thought I’d gain time but I seem to have lost it; the pandemic has been a time thief. I go from bed to office in 5 seconds now and that’s not long enough for me to contemplate the day ahead.

Of course, it’s also taken many other things we valued, eating out, our favourite coffee shop, travel, holidays, visiting friends and family or having them to dinner…  the list goes on. It’s easy to feel the pandemic has robbed us of them as well.

But, I then read the Gospels set out for Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday:

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17),

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret ……  and whenever you fast, do not look dismal, …  put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret and your Father, who is in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 6 & 16).

Have things really been stolen in the way I thought they had?  Yes, I’ve lost my favourite apricot tart from the bakers in Canary Wharf each morning and my coffee. I’ve lost the glamour of flying to wine fairs and tasting some excellent wines, and I’ve lost the kudos I got from posting that on Facebook. Hardly important things in the scheme of things!

So, this Lent I’m not going to focus on what I’ve lost or what I feel has been taken from me; none of that really matters and pales into insignificance when I look at how some people’s lives have changed over this year. But I am going to put effort into ‘perceiving and understanding’ and not dwell on ‘talking about having no bread’. I’m going to get some of that lost time back, which hasn’t been stollen – I’ve just lost the ability to use it properly. And I’m going to focus on going into my room and praying, not just working.  It seems to me that this Lent especially is an even better time than usual to focus on what’s important and not to get too hung up on giving something up. If I were at the water cooler in the office I’d say that what we’ve given up already is more than enough and perhaps we should enjoy that coffee or apricot tart and not feel too guilty, but we should reflect on the whole last year and what we can learn from it.

I got up earlier this morning, went for a walk and said Morning Prayer overlooking the sea; it felt good to have regained something I’d lost. And I will be giving up drinking alcohol this Lent, including professional drinking.





Posted in Coronavirus, Robert Hammond | Leave a comment

When You are Not Invited to the Table

by Augustine Tanner-Ihm is an African-American activist, writer, speaker who recently trained for the Anglican ministry at Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College, Durham, and now a Doctoral Student in Leadership, Culture, and Practical Theology at Bakke Graduate University.  

In many American Christian homes, families throughout the 50 states and territories traditionally leave an extra chair and plate at the dinner table. Strangely these extra knife, fork and spoon were rarely, if ever, used as this extra place at the table was designed for Jesus, himself. This is culturally designed to show honour while also being human-led by the privilege of having daily bread.

This extra place at the table is to show welcome and hospitality to Jesus but also to whoever may show up. At the table, everyone is disarmed and equalized. This is probably why Jesus and the Christian biblical authors use this metaphor many times in the Greek Scriptures.

What happens when you are invited to the table but there is no place for you there? You arrive with your best clothes and a bottle of wine and there is no one greeting you at the door. No one offering you a fresh cuppa. Or even saying your name. Many people would argue that you should be grateful that you even received an invitation at all. You feel rejected, despised, or worst forsaken.

As A Black Queer Christian, this has been my experience at many tables. It is also the experience of many marginalised people who do not fit into the majority narrative. “Sorry, we are Closed” signs from the Church have been unintended and (at times intendedly) communicated to me and people like me. Therefore, I have tried to use the right knife and fork, so to speak. I have tried to rid myself of any hint of blackness. Change the way I think, speak, walk, and dress to be accepted. I tried to date women with utter failure. I went through reparative therapy in a charismatic Anglican church to be right with the church and respectfully, accepted fully by God. I prayed and prayed, and nothing happened. I wanted to be loved and accepted by God and the Church, I was willing to give up everything. After all, isn’t that what the gospel is calling us to do? To be accepted at the table I must rid myself of my blackness and my queerness, right? But to what? To Whiteness and straightness? Aren’t these just as broken as anything other human identities construct?

This month we celebrate the lives of black folk that has made a significant influence in the US and around the world we celebrate LGBTQIA+ History Month. Two communities I am apart of and only recently I have been happy to be a part of. These two communities have historically been asked to eat the crumbs under the table in the cold winter’s night, while others eat at the banquet table. We celebrate communities that could not celebrate themselves. And even today many people find the idea of celebrating these communities divisive. When centuries of generational trauma continue it becomes difficult to align yourself with something or someone that is instilled that is immoral, disgusting and just wrong.

This week I watched Russell T. Davies’ It is a Sin, which was a fictional drama about the Aids epidemic in the 1980s in London. This was eye-opening to many people especially younger queer people in the community. I watched as a character named Roscoe was rejected by the family he loved because of his sexuality and their faith tradition, who even wanted to send him away “back home” to Africa. I watched as Christians and the church used a virus that disproportionately affects gay men to preach hate and sometimes violence. It was difficult to watch how the church treated the same gender loving relationships, particularly as someone who desires to be ordained. I recently read an article from 1982 entitled: “I would shoot my mum if she had AIDS, says Vicar”. And another about “AIDS’s is the Wrath of God” from another Vicar. The last article I read was even worse: “GAS GAYS SAYS TORY: Answer to Aids”.

I wasn’t born until 1990, therefore I have no lived experience from the 1980s of how the queer community was treated. However, I had two family members die of Aids and was scared to tell people because of the stigma of the virus. Therefore, I respect and honour so many older queer people who are still around and especially those who are still involved in the Church. This must have been extremely difficult to have as part of their lived experience, and indeed somewhat still part of their present, as it relates to their relationships and gender identity.

Growing up in the American Midwest we played a game called, “Smear the Queer”.

The game started when the object is thrown into the air. Players may either snatch the object out of the air or wait until it lands. If the object lands, the person closest to it MUST pick it up. Once a player is in possession of the object, they try not to get tackled. Once tackled, the object is thrown into the air (or at a particular person) and the game starts over again. Play usually ends when everyone is tired or when someone gets hurt. This game was played in my youth group and was a clear understanding that being queer was outside our welcome. The queer was a person that it was okay to hurt through voice or fist.

While listening to stories of the Windrush people being rejected from church services and called savages by the very people that had the conviction of the imago dei . Many Black folks I know have nothing but disdain for the Church of England. Even some Black clergy believe it to be “Babylon” (the place where evil flourishes outside of God’s will) or worst believe its leadership are mere imperial masters dressed in cassocks with Union Flags underneath. This felt very true when my dear brother and partner in the Gospel of Jesus, Father Jarel Robinson -Brown was bullied by many people around the UK. There was a call for unity but as we know from the Hebrew scriptures there is not unity with injustice. The Anglican expression of Christianity, in which I love and devoted all of my 20’s to full-time unpaid work, let down many Black Anglicans that have entrusted them with their gifts, talents and lives. For, my White Anglicans and Episcopalians in our great Anglican Communion, you must remember Unity and reconciliation follow justice, not the other way around! And people of this Anglican Jesus movement, we must allow and accept the prophets of the church. Prophets are rarely ever loved and are often rejected. But we know through the Scriptures that prophets sent by God to speak to God’s people were there for righteousness not for their own glory. It is always a path of sacrifice over glory for any prophet: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church”.

The invitation to the table is a transformative one. Jesus invited you as you are but does not want you to stay that way. He desires you to become more holy through love and worship of him. That is what sanctification is all about. But that does not mean we ought to reject others. Rejection is receiving the crumbs under the table. Rejection is giving your son a rock instead of bread when he is hungry (Matt 7:9). Rejection is being invited to the table only to realise you are not invited but what the person wants you to be is invited. That is not what being a part of this Jesus Movement that Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church is speaking about. Being a part of the Jesus Movement is not staying silent because staying silence in oppression means you remain controlled, and not controlled by the spirit but the flesh. Dean Kelly Brown Douglas speaks of the church that is not yet there. This church that is aspirational.

We are trying to be a church, but we are not there yet. This aspirational venture of trying to be church flows to its invitation of the other. The other is the one who is being crucified.  And we are a part of that daily crucifixion of the Queer and Black folk among us. Each day they come to serve but the church continues to crucify them asking “why you are not satisfied with the crumbs, you have been given?”

The Church must be a people that walk with the crucified people of the earth- not act as the arbiters of injustices! The Church cannot be the one that crucifies the helpless but rather needs to be the one to wipe away the human tears of the world’s injustice, foreshadowing for humanity the eschaton. And as Christians, we should only be controlled by the Spirit of God, not man. This actively demonstrates that the invitation that God is asking for the Church to extend to all people is not based on their personhood but on them being sacred children of God.

We must welcome people to the table and do as Jesus tells us in the gospel according to Luke – when welcoming people into the banquet, welcome everyone. Not just the people like you, but the marginalised people in society. Remember Jesus welcomed Judas to the table with open arms. He did not confront him with differences, but rather showed compassion and loved him. Just as we should.

Welcome to the crucified amongst us!

Posted in Augustine Ihm, Human Sexuality, Racism, Safeguarding, Social Justice | Leave a comment

What place for minorities? Church, Status and Power

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

Like many others, I was dismayed when I read about an ill-judged tweet by a young cleric – but even more so by the official response by those in charge of the diocese where I live and worship. It felt like a heavy-handed reminder of the second-class status of those of us who are black and minority ethnic in the Church of England and belong to other minorities, as well as potentially discouraging attempts to address vital issues for Christians today.

The Diocese of London, while condemning racist abuse, gave a boost to those demanding harsh punishment, against a background of racial and homophobic bias locally and nationally. However this approach met with strong reactions from other clergy and laypeople, after which the bishop backpedalled and further statements were issued. There is much to be learnt, for Church leaders and members, about taking justice seriously.

From individual misstep to institutional blunder

Tom Moore became a household name in the UK when, before his 100th birthday, he walked 100 laps of his garden to fundraise for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. A Second World War veteran, he originally hoped for £1000 but ended up raising £32 million and was knighted. He himself directed praise towards health staff: “They are all so brave because every morning, or every night, they are putting themselves in harm’s way. We have got to support and keep them going with everything they need”. Sadly he died of COVID on 2 February. There were numerous tributes and a call for applause, supported by the Prime Minister.

Jarel Robinson-Brown, a black gay theologian, has served as a chaplain at King’s College London (where I work) and been appointed to a curacy at All Hallows by the Tower, in central London. On 3 February, he tweeted, “The cult of Captain Tom is a cult of White British Nationalism. I will offer prayers for the repose of his kind and generous soul, but I will not be joining the ‘National Clap’”.

After a fierce mainstream and social media backlash, he offered “an unreserved apology for the insensitive timing and content of my tweet” but the Diocese tweeted a link to its own statement. This condemned his comments as “unacceptable, insensitive, and ill-judged. The fact that he immediately removed his tweet and subsequently apologised does not undo the hurt he has caused, not least to Captain Tom’s family. Nor do Jarel’s actions justify the racist abuse he is now receiving.”

It continued ominously, “A review is now underway, led by the Archdeacon of London” and warned, “As a Church, we expect clergy to ensure that all online activity is in line with the Church of England’s social media guidelines and built on truth, kindness and sensitivity to others. It is incumbent upon all of us to make social media and the web more widely positive places for conversations to happen.” Unsurprisingly, those calling for his sacking or worse renewed their efforts.

I think Jarel’s comment was indeed insensitive, and mistaken. Some people probably were drawn to the bemedalled veteran because they hankered for a bygone age when Britain was mightier and less diverse. But some fought in the war because they opposed fascism. And admiration for the late Tom Moore was probably more connected with valuing the era which gave rise to the NHS and putting public good above private gain, as well as hunger for good news and encouragement amidst the pandemic. Yearning for absent grandparents and channelling of grief maybe also played a part in the sense of loss some felt when he died.

Second-class Christians and neighbours?

Yet ever present reminders of actual white British nationalism, and enslavement or conquest of our ancestors, are plentiful in the diocese and far beyond. For instance, Archbishop Justin Welby has admitted that a trip to Westminster Abbey may seem to memorialise injustice. Trinidad governor Thomas Picton, buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, hanged several slaves and became notorious even by the standards of his day after the torture of a 14-year-old-girl.

This is not to say all such monuments should be removed or to deny the biblical truth that humans of all identities (ourselves included) often absorb prejudice and misuse power. But the forms which major injustice have historically taken have helped to shape present realities.

In modern times, churches in the diocese and elsewhere have sometimes been welcoming, quite often patronising and occasionally hostile to minority ethnic and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people. As an Asian lesbian and longstanding activist, my personal experience has mainly been of acceptance and willingness to journey towards greater equality. But, from my childhood until now, some have been less fortunate. There have been cautious advances; recently a former Bishop of Bristol was formally rebuked for overt racism.

The closeness of the Church of England to the UK state is a further challenge, so that it can seem part of an establishment which endorses nationalism and treats some people as if they were of less worth than others. On top of rising racist hate crime, the “hostile environment” which led to the Windrush and other scandals has devastated many lives. Public policy has contributed to disproportionate COVID deaths among minority ethnic, low-income and/or disabled people. And the killing of George Floyd last summer was a painful reminder of several local tragedies.

The social media guidelines fail to recognise that Jesus often had tough words for those treating others unjustly. Sometimes hard truths pave the way for forgiveness and healing. Also, it is easier to communicate in “positive” ways if one has little about which to complain (in contrast to many people of colour, LGBT+ and disabled people and survivors of abuse). Having one’s views or cultural norms questioned can be uncomfortable but does not compare with attacks on one’s bodily safety or basic rights, especially for those facing frequent or constant threat. Even so, the scales are weighted towards those perceived as holding the keys of power.

For instance, a vacuous tweet by St Helen’s Bishopsgate dismissing Black Lives Matter appears to have gone unchallenged by senior clergy. In December, that church’s open defiance of the House of Bishops (for not punishing people for merely supporting LGBT+ equality) was received mildly by diocesan authorities. General keenness to placate “conservatives” strongly opposed to equality made the heavy-handed official response to Jarel’s tweet even more jarring.

Learning lessons

Yet encouragingly, amidst widespread criticism, reported by national and Christian media, diocesan leaders backtracked to some extent. The Bishop stated that “immediate pastoral support in the face of the most appalling racist and homophobic abuse” was her top priority. She also recognised that the Diocese’s response had contributed to minority ethnic clergy and ordinands feeling less safe.

The (independent) Anglican Minority Ethnic Network have said that the voices of those who speak “prophetically to the Church and to society” should be “protected and not silenced.” Significantly, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce condemned Jarel’s “social media lynching”, calling for the Diocese of London to review its own response, which it accepted.

Hopefully Church leaders have now learnt that, even on pragmatic grounds, harshness to or abandonment of minority members to placate those opposed to equality can backfire. Occasionally they have boldly sought justice, despite opposition: perhaps that spark can be rekindled and the way of the cross (Matthew 10.34-39) more consistently followed, into newness of life?

For those of us from often shabbily-treated minorities and our friends, can we get better at communicating justly and wisely, despite the hurt and anger we may feel, so as to achieve the change for which we strive? Though unlikely to happen in my lifetime, I hope that one day, in the Church of England, there will be no second-class citizens but rather members of one body sharing joys and sorrows and witnessing to God’s inclusive love.

Posted in Racism, Savi Hensman | 3 Comments

A Rock Climbers Guide to Church, History and the Future

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

“Always going forward; never uprooted”.

At a tense meeting between Margaret Thatcher and David Sheppard in the aftermath of the Toxteth Riots, the Prime Minister asked the Bishop what he had studied at university. “History” he replied. The Prime Minister’s response was straight forward: “what a luxury”. It is not a story you find in David Sheppard’s official biography, but he was my sponsoring Bishop and I “heard it from the horse’s mouth”. The Prime Minister’s reflects a growing sense disconnection with the past that has been digging up our cultural roots over the last 70 years.

When I lived in Derby I came to realise that those who had demolished the Georgian brick terraces and then built a large dual carriageway straight through the centre of the city had really meant it. Concrete was the future – an ideology rooted in some extraordinary assumptions about our relation to the past and our understanding of human flourishing. To be fair, at the same time he ||TV programme Tomorrow’s World was telling us that we would all be wearing jump suits, travelling around in flying cars and going on holiday to the moon.

Our disconnect with the past is well summed up in the famous Jackson version of Tolkien, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost”. This is not mere nostalgia but a recognition of genuine rupture. We are heirs to the dislocations. Robert Taft, a great American liturgist and theologian, caught this in his powerful comment “those ignorant of history are victims of the latest cliché”. He was talking about patterns of worship, but it is a line worth pondering across church and wider society. Likewise, Goethe’s line that “the person who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth” could be the epitaph for our rootless, deracinated culture.

In this way, set free from our moorings both as church and society, we can free-wheel and invent at will, casually unaware that in burying our history we are disabling the very mechanisms that open up the possibilities of the future.

We find ourselves navigating several bogus approaches to tradition: a traditionalism that suggests that development stops at a certain point, and that a particular theologian such as Thomas Aquinas or Luther is somehow definitive for all time; or we rely on invented tradition to shore up our own view of reality; or like many artists, musicians and theologians in the post war period, simply decide to make a complete break with the past.

By complete contrast, the great conductor / composer Gustav Mahler’s take on tradition may open up a fresh and helpful seam worth mining. He suggested that tradition is “not the veneration of the ashes but the tending of the living flame”. That sounds familiar from a New Testament perspective where every scribe trained for the kingdom brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (13.52). Whether or not that is Matthew expressing his understanding of his own role and mission as an evangelist, it certainly informs ours.

Presciently, well before the pandemic, the Taizé Community planned to focus 2020 around the line “Toujours en avant; jamais déraciné” (always going forward; never uprooted) – words from the Polish nun, Urszula Ledóchowska. That captures perfectly the dynamic of tradition that we ourselves need going forward. Certainly Covid-19 has not exactly been our Babylonian Exile, but it has confronted us with some similar questions about our future – as church and society. An Ezra-like retreat behind well defended walls is not an option as we reimagine our mission.

This is precisely not an argument for nostalgia but for radical (in the true sense) boldness. The power of Vatican II (however imperfectly realised) was that it called people back to a dynamic, future facing re-engagement with roots, rather than to an idealised version of the past painted in the colours of contemporary anxiety. Much of what we trademark as pioneering innovation proceeds not from that dynamic re-engagement but from anxiety (about numbers, survival, parish share payments, etc).

The Victorian Church saw huge growth in impact, engagement, and numbers. But in the face of Darwin, Marx and what was perceived as secularisation, they lost their nerve. The Church historian Owen Chadwick’s judgement is devastating: “they drew up the drawbridge and boiled the oil”. We still live with some of the legacies of that defensive redrawing of the boundaries and our withdrawal into chaplaincy models of pastoral care – the “manicured sheep” model, as Pope Francis calls it in his re-telling of the parable.

Faithful improvisation is a metaphor that has been used both in ethics and liturgy to suggest how we might move forward – rooted in the deposit of faith, the “tradition” if you like, But tradition not as a static body of ideas or teachings but as something more limber that never stops unfolding; tradition as dynamic, constantly providing the resources to move forward, Tradition like the rock climber moving forward with three points of contact and one hand or foot searching for the next step.

A future-facing church is not well served either by a slavish obedience to the past or the pretence that the past has no power, especially in the context of whatever re-emergence from the pandemic turns out to look like. I would suggest that Mrs Thatcher was wrong about history. History is no luxury but the dynamic engine of renewal.

Posted in Nicholas Henshall, Politics, Social Justice | 1 Comment

LLF – Has There Been a Murder?

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

Has there been a murder or at least death by misadventure?

Has Covid -19 killed Living in Love and Faith?

We are in the middle of a global plague. People we love are dying. We have no idea how resilient churches will be in terms of attendance or finance. Where have our children gone?

Big stuff is going on.

Living in Love and Faith always was ill-conceived. It was attempting to speak into a dilemma that no longer existed even before Covid.

In the reality of today’s world a vanishingly small number of people want pick this scab. It’s over. Living in Love and Faith has died a death and we ‘d best give it a quiet burial.

Last week Bishop Paul Bayes wrote a really moving tribute to Bill Kirkpatrick. Fr Bill actually died three years ago but the deep thoughts and feelings that Bishop Paul expressed were stirred by the TV series ‘It’s a Sin’ which traced the story of AIDS. The cruelty and judgement thoughtlessly inflicted on gay men as AIDS claimed so many lives is agony to watch. Fr Bill walked alongside those who were ill and dying and he listened and reached out, and he prayed.

It leaves you wondering if things have changed.  Thankfully that answer is mostly yes. Society is far from perfect but for the vast majority of people being gay is just one of a variety of ways in which human beings are made and even folk who can’t quite get their heads around it because of the era in which they grew up want to treat it as private and personal. They’d rather not talk about it; live and let live.

If you are in sport it can be tougher, but nowhere other than the church is your sexuality open game for public discussion.

Of course there are Christians who genuinely feel this is the issue to go to the wall for, but there is an important piece of learning I’ve acquired as I’ve explored how the church can move into an era of full acceptance. One remarkable bishop that +Alan and I spoke to once he was retired talked about the cost of bringing about change. It had indeed cost him dear in many ways and we asked him what he’d do differently. He reflected that the greatest mistake he made was spending too much time and effort of the extreme conservative lobby. This sounds harsh, but as you unpack it there is sense in this. There are a group of people who live their faith believing they and others are teetering on the cliff edge of hell, and no one can sadly alter the fact that daring to change their attitude to being gay risks tipping them over the edge into eternal fire.

Unlimited discussions around Living in Love and Faith cannot possibly change this conviction -and such Christians will only engage on the basis of proving they are right.

We need to let go. To say ‘so be it.’ It must be pretty grim to frame your faith in a loving God that way.

The time for continuing with conversations which almost no-one wants, as a way of stopping doing what is right, is over.

I’ll name it:  Well-intentioned though it might have been (and I’m not even convinced about that) – it’s over! Living in Love and Faith landed in the midst of a global pandemic and turned out to be – let’s put it kindly – a chocolate teapot!

We have always had a way forward. It’s as if Paul saw this coming. Romans 14 is crystal clear. It was the usual bust up about what was morally right to eat. Paul tells them it’s not really the food or the possible idolatry that matters, it’s the judging one another.

As people of faith we are called respect the integrity of other people’s conscience. The key is in not judging -and therefore not controlling. We got there in the end with the re-marriage of divorcees. Finding a place where there is mutual respect of conscience on this matter could be the key.

I hear that it is proving very difficult to find LLF champions for the proposed discussions around the country. Maybe this speaks for itself. I have yet to meet anyone who would turn up to such a group. Gay people themselves have had years and years of generous and self-revelatory discussions. Often they have suffered abuse in that context and it is completely unreasonable to expect yet another round of such nonsense. Most people in our churches have friends or family members who are gay and they simply love them. It’s no longer a big deal, but they really, really don’t want to discuss it in public.

A lot of resource, financial and personal has gone into the construction of LLF. Senior people are heavily invested in it. I get that.

So I am asking for a grown up act of courage. Stop pretending. LLF has died.

Bury it.


Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Mental Health, Rosie Harper, Safeguarding, Spiritual Abuse | 4 Comments

Who Are The Prophets in Charismatic Churches?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea

Years ago I was invited by my then bishop to attend a day conference on Deliverance Ministry, about which he was a prominent advocate. At his invitation, a woman he said was an ‘anointed prophet’ was asked to prophesy to the group. What followed disturbed me deeply: intimate things were said as if by God to those present which seemed to be accepted as entirely authentic, without being weighed, and in a way that seemed closer to the fortune-teller’s booth than any biblical understanding of prophecy. There was a culture of ‘group-think’ present that assumed that the title of ‘prophet’, the track-record from her parish and the bishop’s imprimatur confirmed the truth of her words. It made me very angry.

When we reviewed the session I raised my concerns with the bishop about what had just happened. The bishop listened politely and, for the rest of the conference, I was firmly and clearly side-lined: I had a problem with my anger that “the Lord wanted to deal with.” From that moment on the bishop never invited me to join any future training: critical voices were not encouraged.

At the time of the incident above I was serving in a church associated with Charismatic Renewal, although our congregation was predominantly working-class. The typical church member had a life which was complex, messy and far from straight-forward. My boss and I often contrasted the life-situations and preoccupations of middle-class Charismatics with the needs and priorities of our own folk. Pentecostal form of Christianity are often found most powerfully in communities of the marginalised. I still like to think of myself as a sort of charismatic, open to the inspiration of the Spirit and ministering alert to when the Spirit speaks: at our own church we offer a sensitive ministry of healing and wholeness.

But among some Charismatics at the moment there is a concern that safeguarding is being used as a Trojan Horse to attack their freedom to believe and practise their form of Christian faith, including the use of charismatic gifts. This is because a number of people have started to speak about their own experience of poor treatment, bullying and coercion associated with churches where the added dimension is the unchallenged way in which the Holy Spirit is presumed to speak through certain ‘anointed’ leaders, lay and ordained. As I experienced in a modest way those years ago, when someone asks questions or critiques bad practice or simply doesn’t go along with ‘the leadership’, subtle or overt changes in relationship dynamics can occur. This sort of spiritual abuse isn’t inherent in Charismatic forms of Christianity, and it certainly isn’t restricted to it.

But, where the problem lies for Charismatics is the appeal to the Holy Spirit – if you don’t go along with what the Spirit is saying, you are quenching the Spirit, or (in a tradition with an occasionally baroque demonology) even possessed by a ‘spirit of rebellion’ which needs exorcising. Such appeals can amount to little more than a power grab by insecure or inexperienced leaders who, when faced with criticism, cannot face it or adapt. At a time when the Archbishops’ Council is funding significant work aimed at planting congregations with younger leaders, many of them emerging from the larger Charismatic churches, attracting younger disciples, it is important that firm, mature oversight is given, perhaps at a much closer level than the typical laissez-faire style of episcopal leadership.

With the publication of Living in Love and Faith, it is often LGBTI+ voices that are articulating these concerns, and especially the misuse of charismatic gifts. This naturally presents particular challenges to those leading churches where the theological wind blows conservative on matters of sexuality. I offer this to my Charismatic friends: please listen to these voices. If you hear such stories from LGBTI+ church members, please don’t write them off as revisionism. Hearing such stories is a pathway to growth: they allow a mirror to be held up to a less-appealing part of your culture. This could be an opportunity: although it is painful to live through, the stories of poor treatment, marginalisation and occasionally abuse are important for you to hear.

Perhaps it is the LGBTI+ voices that are the prophets among you?

Posted in Human Sexuality, Simon Butler, Spiritual Abuse | 5 Comments

“It’s a Sin…Not to Care and Listen”

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

In 1982 I moved to west London to minister as a University chaplain there. I had been ordained for three years. The West London Chaplaincy was a wonderful, creative outfit; it had been set up a generation before by Ivor Smith-Cameron and had no place of its own, built around small groups meeting in halls, departments and community houses. There were about 60 of these groups each week. The work was very rewarding. Intellectually demanding certainly, but it was also lovely to minister alongside Christian students; men and women whose sense of identity, and Christian calling, grew as they learned from one another.

It was at this time, as a young priest wanting to make sense of my life and of ministry, that I connected with the late, great Bill Kirkpatrick, who became my spiritual director. Fr Bill lived in a basement flat in Earl’s Court, from where he opened his heart to the community through “Reaching Out”, his ministry of presence and listening and love. He had converted a coal cellar, under the Inner Ring Road, into a chapel, with plain whitewashed walls and (for a place that shook whenever a lorry rolled over its roof) an extraordinary quietness and peace.

Fr Bill Kirkpatrick

Fr Bill was an intense presence. His listening released truth in the people he met. He wore a wooden holding cross around his neck. He made a great cup of tea. At the end of every session he would say “Thanks for sharing”, and I’d go and pray in that coal cellar and then walk up to Earl’s Court tube station feeling that I’d been heard and understood, and feeling that life was richer than I had known before.

I was not the only one to receive wisdom from Bill, whose ministry was widespread and deeply respected. (For example Colin Coward has written movingly of his own connection with him[1]). But in the years I knew him, Bill’s ministry took on one focus in particular, because of where he was and who he was. For Bill was a gay partnered man living in Earl’s Court, and these were the years of what was then a mystery illness that devastated and further marginalised the gay community in London, as in so many other cities; the years of AIDS/HIV.

And so, more and more, Bill’s life was spent accompanying people in their journey of illness and too often of death and bereavement. He brought a listening ear and the openness and love of Christ to people in fear and desperate need, people who saw all too little of that openness and love in communities of Christians that told them nothing more than that they were sinners, and passed by on the other side when they fell ill.

I write this partly to give honour to Fr Bill, who died three years ago this month and whose radical mission and radical ministry deserves to be celebrated at any time. But I write it in particular now because those years have been dramatized and recaptured by Russell T Davies in his TV series “It’s a Sin”.[2]

The series follows a group of young people, mostly gay men, as the adventure of their adult lives begins in the 80s. We are with them as they find themselves, and then find themselves under a terrible shadow. It’s truthful, honest, unsparing about the consequences of unknowing and unbridled promiscuity in a community that was still finding out how to live wisely in a world where love was not forbidden. It also remembers energy and laughter and joy and friendship and care and life, sustained even in the face of fear and illness and death.

It is resonant. Gay friends of mine have been triggered by it this week, remembering people they loved and lost in those years, remembering their own experience of living in the shadows, still hearing the homophobic echoes in their lives today. “It’s a Sin” is a title with a lot of resonance –it references the Pet Shop Boys’ song of course, but wherever did Chris and Neil get the idea for such a title or for such a lyric?

“When I look back upon my life
it’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame…”

Neil Tennant has said his song “was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously.” But he went on: “Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time…”[3]

Well, yes, you do wonder. Thirty years later, poor little talkative Christianity continues to talk. The churches’ conversations on love and faith, which so many are still pleased to call “debates”, will continue for a good while yet. Human lives will continue to be pressed like flowers between the covers of one book or another.

For myself, I love the body of Christ and I believe Jesus was serious when he asked his Father that we might all be one. So I will continue to do my best to take part in these conversations; I will do my best not to talk about people without them being there. I will do my best to advocate for love and marriage for all, in the persistent hope that Christ’s body may move forward together, may indeed be one, in love.

But when from time to time all this talking gets too much and I tiptoe out of the room in search of the God of love, when I want to follow Jesus Christ onto the street, I’m going to remember Fr Bill Kirkpatrick – a partnered gay man with a ministry on the edge of the church to people on the edge of the world, a man who reached out.

And I’ll remember a coal cellar under the London streets, and place of contemplation and silence as the cars roar overhead. And a priest with a ministry of “hearing through listening”, a ministry of unfailing presence, a ministry of encouragement for so many including me, most of all a ministry of listening to his people where his people were – listening in the hubbub of the Coleherne, listening on the street, listening on the ward, listening by the grave. And alongside all this a ministry of resourcing and writing[4] – about prayer, about AIDS, about death, and in everything he wrote, about life.

Thanks for sharing, Bill. Remembering you I’ll remember that a self-absorbed, censorious and condemning Christianity need not have the last word – it will indeed never have the last word, because the last word is life beyond death.[5]

Fr Bill Kirkpatrick




[4] For example “The Creativity of Listening: Being There, Reaching Out”,“AIDS: Sharing the Pain”, and “Going Forth: a practical and spiritual approach to dying and death”


Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Mental Health, Social Justice | 7 Comments

IICSA, ‘Living in Love and Faith’ & Lockdown 3.0

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project

Lockdown 3: how’s it going for you? I’m finding it far worse this time around.

Living with uncertainty is never easy, and it’s particularly difficult when things appear to be going backwards rather than forwards. Where I am, church buildings reopened: then closed again. Raised hopes were dashed. When the pandemic started, there was an institutional as well as a personal tendency to look on the bright side: in the Church of England, to focus on the numbers clicking on our online services and the inclusion of those for whom physical church is a step too far in some way. Now, the optimists are focused on the vaccination programme, and enthusing about using some cathedrals to deliver this.

Personally, I’m poised between optimism and pessimism (which I’d call realism) here. I accompanied an elderly neighbour for her jab. The leaflet given out says “two doses will reduce your chance of becoming seriously ill” and tells you that the date for the second dose will be written on the card stapled to the leaflet. Of course, it isn’t, because all that changed after these leaflets had gone to press, and so she doesn’t know when she will be given the second dose. The leaflet isn’t the most encouraging of documents, as it also says “We do not yet know whether [the vaccine] will stop you from catching and passing on the virus.” But at least that’s honest.

In the Church of England, we are also living with uncertainty about two issues: abuse, and inclusion in terms of sexuality and gender. And I’m not sure that we have honesty in either area. Our pandemic lockdown is difficult because it has no end date, no clarity as to its exit strategy. This vagueness can be excused, because we don’t understand the situation we’re in, but it’s not easy to live with it. But what about the Church of England responses to the IICSA report and the publication of Living in Love and Faith. Do we have an exit strategy?

In the case of IICSA, since the October publication we’ve had plenty of expressions of shame and of frustration. The 19 January House of Bishops claims “progress towards independent oversight for Safeguarding” but doesn’t share with all the rest of us – who aren’t bishops – what that progress is. Like outbreaks of the virus, pockets of abuse keep appearing. It’s clear that managing these pockets locally, at diocesan level, didn’t work. A church version of ‘track and trace’ can follow offenders’ careers from diocese to diocese, showing the connections between outbreaks of abuse. We still wait for the ‘lessons learned’ review into the actions of Jonathan Fletcher being carried out by the independent Christian charity thirtyone:eight, the most recent date revised as ‘not before January 2021’. For those who have survived abuse, there is clearly frustration at the lack of progress.

LLF, to my mind, invites a parallel between our discussions of sexuality and gender, and our attempts to make sense of the uncertainty we feel due to Covid-19. While our government exhorts us to “Follow the science” on the virus, scientists don’t agree on what that may be; partly because it’s all too soon to know, but also because ‘science’ isn’t one huge entity and they come from different disciplines within it. The over-simplification of “Follow the science” feels rather like “The Bible says”. Neither leads to agreement.

While LLF has a timeline, an exit strategy, it is increasingly unlikely to work. 2021 was supposed to be when we were ‘learning together’. Some dioceses were out of the starting gate immediately, with presentations from bishops at diocesan synods. As I noted in something I wrote for Modern Church, the LLF book uses the past tense for the pandemic, as they thought that everything would be sorted on the Covid-19 front before publication. At publication, more realism emerged; Bishop Paul Butler said to his diocesan synod that “We really hope that these LLF groups will be able to be done face to face and realistically this is more likely to be possible post Easter.”

But is even that realistic? The website for LLF anticipates midweek small groups, a Lent series, or away days; engagement with the resources by PCCs, deanery and diocesan synods and clergy conferences. How is any of that supposed to happen, if we won’t all be vaccinated until Easter, or November, depending on which press release you read; even assuming that vaccination is enough to allow groups to meet? With events still being cancelled – last week, Glastonbury, scheduled for late June – or rescheduled – the new Bond movie postponed again, from April to October – is the timeline realistic?

However, as Bishop Paul also noted, “We are asked to feedback our discernment nationally by November next year.” The LLF page states that “Engagement will need to be during 2021 so that processes of discernment and decision-making can take place in 2022.”

So, rather than delaying discussion of the resources yet again, isn’t it time for some online options to be offered? They would first need to be trialled to make sure that they are safe – not in Covid terms, but in safeguarding terms – for all participants. I’m not convinced that Zoom is the best way to have these conversations, not least because anyone can record a meeting, even by pointing a camera at the screen.

The lack of an exit strategy for lockdown is depressing, but understandable. The lack of an exit strategy, of a clear timeline and goals, for responding to IICSA is depressing, and there seems no reason for it. As for LLF, the planned timeline simply feels impossible as things stand. Are the episcopal Recovery Group (covering Covid-19) or the Next Steps Group (covering LLF) facing up to any of this? Some honesty here would go a long way in managing our uncertainty.

Posted in Coronavirus, Helen King, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith | Leave a comment

A Gospel of Love Trumps Hate in the White House

by the Revd Professor Robert Gilbert, Biochemistry Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford and Anglican parish priest

Does his faith help us to see why Joe Biden is the American President needed right now?

Political debate, and public discussion in the media, have never seemed so angry and divided as in recent years. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom there is a growing realisation that we are disunited. In other countries too, such as Poland, Hungary and Brazil, a politics of extremes has flourished.

One way in which the success of extreme political positions can be explained is as a response to the experiences of people “at the grass roots”. As a response to a profound sense of alienation and impotence, and of financial and social disadvantage, too. They feel that a radical, new direction is needed, and that they need to take back control.

And for sure, many people are justified in feeling powerless, and alienated from the centre where the power is; and many people do live in poverty and are forgotten about, with no route that they can see of making a greater contribution to the common life of their community and country.

But the anger and division voiced in politics and echoed by it in the media have not been simply a response to the voice of the people. I think the French-American literary anthropologist René Girard can help us understand something else that has been going on, and why Joe Biden might be the person well suited to help bring the hurt and fury to an end.

In Girard’s view, within human social groups, communities and societies, competition for limited resources and opportunities, and resentment at (perceived) relative success of others and unmet desire, find a let out in the spontaneous creation of “victims”, or perhaps put more biblically, “scapegoats”. Onto the scapegoats get loaded everything which seems to be making the community or society all wrong with itself. The scapegoats are innocent, but the community that has fastened their problems to them really believes they are guilty. If they do not believe this, then the scapegoating mechanism will not work. When the scapegoat is driven out, or killed, no sense of relief will come.

Girard then realised that the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus provide a total critique of this scapegoating process. Jesus seems to be the one who is driven out by his society, and whose death can bring people together: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). For Girard’s analysis, Jesus’s resurrection, the return of the scapegoat in forgiveness and love, reveals the reality of human violence and demonstrates the power of God to contain it, forgive it, and end it. In the words of the British theologian James Alison, following Girard, in this “God himself has given us the key to discover and inhabit with God the ordinary and good “secularity” of everything that is” (On Being Liked, DLT 2003, p60).

The former American President, Donald Trump, fuelled his rise to power on the sowing of division. He cynically preyed on the anxieties and resentment, on the sense of alienation and impotence, of the people in order to maximise their anger and the blame they ascribe to others. In order to identify for them individuals and groups that can be held to account, and punished or driven from power, to make for a better and greater America.

That this is so seems plain from the language of his 2016 campaign. That he continued to rule by creating and stoking a sense of division fuelled by the identification of scapegoats seems plain too. They include the residents of Muslim majority countries he banned from visiting the United States, the Mexicans he sought to exclude with a border wall, as well as his political opponents in a way which reached its inevitable violent conclusion on January 6th in the storming of the Capitol. The spate of executions which accompanied Mr Trump’s last days in office look, frankly, like a series of judicial sacrificial murders, offered to satisfy people on whose support he relies.

Mr Trump’s strategy seems to have been to define “his people” – the people who are with him and support him – by the common objects of their hatred. There is every sign that the new President Joe Biden understands this very well and sees it for what it is. And there is every sign that it is his Christian faith which enables him to do that.

Quoting Augustine in his Inaugural Address, President Biden showed that he plainly believes that a people need to be “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”. He understands that the things that Mr Trump used as fuel to build anger and resentment are real and need solutions, but they are not new, and recognising that is an important step towards building back better beyond them. President Biden clearly named “the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred,” to which he added some of their effects: “extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness”. But he also understands that their solutions start with recognising the good, ordinary secularity, the natural worldliness, of everything that is. In other words, that we are in this together, and we are good.

For Trump, a strategy of divide-and-rule was essential. For President Biden, this division must end. We can disagree, but “every disagreement does not have to be a cause for total war”. The new President’s Address makes clear that he sees growth in unity relying primarily on growth in equality – for a need for mutual recognition of equality between the politician and the people they serve, between the scientist or expert and the person they advise. A mutual recognition of goodness, frailty and value.

Joe Biden’s Christian ordinariness is what is needed now. It’s needed in the United States, and I would suggest something like this is sorely needed here in the United Kingdom too.

Posted in International Relations, Robert Gilbert, Social Justice | 1 Comment