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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I do know I cannot pray.

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

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

All power, honour, glory be to you!

You…sometimes hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

We are so privileged that we seldom sense you

            Hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

But we know people who do,

            We think of places where you do not appear.

We imagine you defeated,


            Held captive.

And we wait a day,

            Two days,

            Until the third day.

And then, most often then,

            Quite reliably then,

            You appear then in your full glory.

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

Come with full power into deathly places,

            And we will praise you deep and full. Amen.

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


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

  1. Penny Allen says:

    Praying for you Simon and recognising the hurt for all LGBTI people. A great deal is being asked of those in prominent positions at the moment, in a costly personal way. You have support and this will be shown to you shortly. Please feel that you are valued and cared for, not just by God but by those you serve.

  2. Jeannie Kendall says:

    It is sad that the church can specialise so often in exclusion (in many ways), when Jesus was so inclusive. I don’t understand why we do that to one another. Thank you for this, sad as it is.

  3. An excellent blog Simon. I don’t know you, but as a gay Christian, ( and sometimes at this point Evangelical) man I totally get what your saying. Thanks for the words and how they reflect bthe real pain of us all.

  4. johnpike1 says:

    Writing as a straight, married Christian, can I just say that I identify with all this myself. I have never been wounded by the church in the way that many of the people mentioned here have been. But the events of the past few weeks have badly affected my faith and the high view of scripture which I once held. Not any more. All this has left me reeling. Just now clinging on to my love of Jesus. I hate to think what he would have said about all this…..but I have some ideas.

  5. Angus Goudie says:

    Thank you for the prayer and reminding me again of the individuals who really need holding up in prayer at the moment, and that the moment can feel a very long time.

  6. Yes Simon, will pray.

  7. sgmurden1 says:

    I’ve found the church a place of great blessing but also a place of great hurt, but in the end we are simply called to follow Jesus. My role is to follow Jesus, to walk alongside him and yes sometimes we have to take his pain. The life of faith and the life of ‘church ‘ are not always closely related. Good piece Simon.

  8. Petro Hryziuk says:

    Keep in there. It is hard going. There is so much hurt, fear and misunderstanding around. God did and has called you to Himself and its at times like this that we need to just rest under the shadow of God’s wings. Sometimes being in this place it is very frightening and may appear a dark place but it is the place where we are. You are certainly in my prayers and I pour out my love to you. At times like this the Church absolutely stinks, but God doesn’t. I think that Bishops/Archbishops are more concerned about what other people think and their reputations rather than seeking God and loving ALL people regardless of who they are or where they have been.
    Keep in there and allow others to hold you with their prayers. Petro xx

  9. The Community of Anglican Cistercians holds you, and all who are hurt like you, in our prayers.

  10. Jo says:

    Not a saint, maybe, but most certainly a prophet. The church needs to hear what the Spirit is saying through you.

  11. Sue Robertson says:

    Yes Simon, I will pray. Your heartfelt and honest writing reads like a psalm. Thank you.

  12. Watchman says:

    Thank you for your courageous piece, Simon. I will pray for you and for all my wounded fellow Christians. Remember that whatever our bishops are doing, there is a shining example of what a bishop should be in Desmond Tutu – and there are others as well. I remain baffled how our bishops, who in most cases I truly believe are good individuals trying to do a hard job, become willing to trample on their best instincts when they get together as a group chanting “we must present a united front.”

  13. betty says:

    We Christians can be little S**ts at times and I imagine many times God has his hand on the faucet considering another flood. I don’t know when society figured out that calling ourselves a Christian means we will never be idiots towards another human, but as a Christian I stand firmly in the ‘often a b***h’ queue.
    The woman I grunted at in the row in front at church, who I thought was giving me the evil eye last week will, I’m sure, tell all her neighbours that I’m too rude to be a Christian. And when the minister asked us to pray for the person on our left I realised, the woman I sit beside most Sundays, I don’t even know her name.
    I doubt God will be giving me any pre-warnings about building a boat.
    I’ve been on the other side too. I grew up in a Christian home with minister parents, I saw the bullying from church members who disagreed with my dad’s concern for the poor. I grew up bitter at my folks who worked so hard for a church that didn’t want them that they didn’t realise they had hired a paedophile as a child sitter. I fled my parents home and straight into the membership of what I can only describe as a cult and when I fought against their strange idea of the Bible I was kicked out for not being spiritual enough. Ashamed of being kicked out of a church I became homeless rather than face my family.
    It took years to ‘get’ this, but although society expects us to be like-Christ, we simply are not. I’m preaching to the choir here, but God is Love. We humans are (badly) trying to imitate Jesus, not the other way around. Jesus isn’t imitating us, he is perfect in his knowing and loving us.
    As someone who has every right to shout that Christianity is crap because Christians gave me a tough journey, I say this… God is for you. When Christians are not, God is for you.
    I’d say Jesus doesn’t care about your sexuality, or any other hundred issues that makes one person different to another person, but he flipping well does. He loves you and cares about you because he made you to be you. He knit you together in your mothers womb. He watched every cell being divided and sat with enthusiasm at what you’ll become. He knew there would be bad times, uncomfortable meetings, sideways glances and a desert experience that would make you question everything, but he made you in Love, knowing that even in the darkest times, when you were knocked so low you couldn’t even speak to Him, He would still be there waiting with you.
    I am sure there are many, many people out there praying for you, I add myself to that list. But know that our love for you is only a fragment of God’s love for you.

  14. ramendik says:

    I think conflating God and Church is dangerous. You believe the church hierarchy to be wrong; without debating the issue, they can well be wrong. This wrong hurts you personally. But you don’t pray to a Bishop. We can’t really base our ability to pray on the Bishops being right, anyway,

    Article XXI, my favourite. “And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

  15. Rachel says:

    Thank you for sharing so honestly how frustrated you feel, though I am sorry to hear it.
    Incidentally, I actually went to your church for around four months a couple of years ago when first living in London. Although I did not ultimately stay at the church, I always appreciated not just your thoughtful sermons but also how you greeted and treated people in the church in a warm way which many could learn from. I regret not saying that to you before but it has stayed with me, and I mention it when relevant.
    So I hope it helps in some small way to tell you this now. I am sure there are many who respect, appreciate and love you, and will hopefully grasp that it is clearly not an easy path you tread each day. I do not presume to know enough about the inner workings of the Church of England to comment further on the politics etc. but if everyone in it had such a desire to include and welcome, we would all be a little closer to being Christlike.
    I am not great with praying nowadays either but I will do so for you.
    God bless you and keep you.

  16. majictreetrain says:

    Thank you so much, Simon Butler. Your words go to my heart, and express what I feel. I will hold you in my thoughts, in my own poor way.

    Btw the Quakers have a lovely expression – ‘holding in the Light’- maybe you know of it. I shall endeavour to do that….

    (Though I am truly through with the C of E as I’ve gone from young confirmand, to ordinand, to ministry, and my husband and I are now pensioners. — in all that time the Church made our lives impossible, especially when we were caring for an eldlerly bed-ridden relative, and were threatened by the church powers that be with eviction etc).

    Hope I have nt taken it away from you, Simon — just my own bit of anti-testimony.

  17. John says:

    Bless you, Simon. May you know the Father’s peace, and love, and upholding.

Any thoughts?