by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral
On 9th May 2018, the four bishops of the Lichfield Diocese wrote a letter to all clergy and licensed lay ministers in their diocese headed “Welcoming and honouring LGBT+ people”, setting out how they thought their diocese should seek to live out the “radical inclusion” called for by the two archbishops within the existing structures of the Church of England.
The tone of the letter is careful yet welcoming, wanting to affirm “the great contribution that LGBT+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese”, and noting that “the perception that the Church is homophobic and transphobic is harming our mission, especially to young people.”
On 30th May, Bishop Rod Thomas of Maidstone published on his website his reply to this letter. The tone of his letter is also careful, seeking to welcome and affirm: but it undermines that welcome as it notes the concerns on behalf of the clergy of the parishes in the tradition to which he ministers, with particular reference to repentance, participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion, and identity. He wants to welcome, while maintaining pastoral discipline: and this raises the question as to how far that’s possible, particularly over these three key issues.
Bishop Rod notes: “The 1987 General Synod motion, which remains the Church of England’s official position, speaks of the need for all sexual relationships outside marriage [between a man and a woman] to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion. I do therefore encourage clergy to be compassionate and sensitive in dealing with the issue of repentance, but nevertheless to see it as an important part of their pastoral care.”
The issue here is whether repentance for all sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is appropriate to the changed circumstances in which the Church of England finds itself.
The 1987 Synod motion was passed before the introduction by the state in 2004 of civil partnerships in the UK, and in 2014 same-sex marriage in England and Wales (and separately in Scotland). You could argue that before 2004 all sexual relationships outside marriage were objectively “dis-ordered,” in the sense that there was no legal regulation for them – even though subjectively there would be a huge difference between a committed heterosexual or homosexual couple who were not married, and promiscuity or casual sex. General Synod debates on cohabitation since 1992 have tended to be compassionate towards those who are in a heterosexual, committed but unmarried relationship because it’s so common in our current society (and has been at times in the past), while wanting to steer people in the direction of having a legally ordered relationship.
We now have two ways of ordering same-sex relationships within British society – though the Church of England tries to reserve one for not-sexually-active relationships; how do we respond to that? Do we continue to insist that what is ordered by society is nonetheless disordered and demands repentance? Or do we accept that this is an ordering which helps those who are unable to avail themselves of heterosexual marriage, whether inside or outside the Church, to find order and direction in their relationships, in accordance with the principles of marriage (permanent, stable, faithful, nurturing)? And, for Christians, to see this as part of their Christian discipleship – a possibility envisaged at least for lay people in 1991 in the church document Issues in Human Sexuality? It seems bizarre that the Church is spending so much of its energy on getting Christian LGBT people to repent when they are living ordered lives and are looking for the Church’s blessing, rather than promoting ordered relationships in a world deluged by disordered sexuality.
Following on from repentance, Bishop Rod’s letter raises the concern that: “the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation.”
This is a very concerning statement. Some of those concerns have been noted by the Revd Colin Coward in his open letter to the Archbishops about the Bishop of Maidstone’s response. He points out that Bishop Rod appears to support those who contravene the House of Bishops’ 2014 Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, which clearly states that same-sex couples in civil partnerships or marriage should be welcomed and not refused the sacraments or questioned about their lifestyle. And there are deeper issues here too.
It’s not only that appealing to Article 25 of the Book of Common Prayer begs the question as to whether that article correctly interprets ‘unworthy’ in 1 Corinthians 11 as being about a matter of individual conscience. In its scriptural context, Paul’s concern is about a religious and socially disordered matter – Christians eating separately and not recognising Christ in one another and the sacrament (which might sound familiar in other contexts today!).
It’s also that Bishop Rod’s letter assumes that LGBT people don’t trust in Christ’s atoning cross if they don’t agree with the view he sets out. This is itself an exclusive and unscriptural view insofar as it judges and condemns brothers and sisters in Christ who are very clear about their faith in Jesus Christ and their intention of living a holy life before God, if not holy enough in the eyes of those who share the Bishop’s view.
He goes on to say: “This approach is, I hope, one which avoids inappropriate ‘exclusion’ or intrusive questioning. However, there may be some private pastoral discussions where people bring issues to us which require very gentle probing in order to clarify what is involved.” There’s a practical problem here: what may be one person’s ‘gentle probing’ is intrusive questioning to others, and it’s the experience of many LGBT people that churches can be judgemental and unwelcoming in general statements from the pulpit and elsewhere. More concerning is his implication that there is an appropriate exclusion, whether this is sacramental (denying communion to an LGBT person) or, as some have experienced, telling people that they are not welcome in their church.
The Lichfield bishops’ letter notes: “We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Note that in all cases excommunication is reserved to the diocesan bishop (Canon B16).” Doubtless any exclusions that have taken place would be justified on the grounds, not of orientation or identity, but of perceived sinful practice: but can we be assured that no church with which the Bishop of Maidstone works excludes any LGBT person from communion on any grounds without referring the matter to the diocesan bishop?
In referring to people with gender identity concerns, Bishop Rod states that “we know that a wide range of issues may be involved and in some cases the suggestion of counselling would be appropriate. I do hope that clergy would be supported in the help they try to give in this respect.” In spirit this is a reasonable comment: but the experience of some LGBT people – highlighted in last year’s debate at General Synod on conversion therapy – is that counselling can be offered with a particular agenda, i.e. to shape a person’s identity in accordance with others’ beliefs as to what it should be. Can we be assured that clergy recommending counselling for others will do so in a client-centred way, and genuinely look for support from the wider church in doing so, not expecting others to retrospectively endorse their decisions (something which of course applies to pastoral care across all church traditions)?
The final issue in the letter concerns the identity of those offering for ministry in the Church. Bishop Rod writes: “I would hope that those offering for ministry of any sort would see their primary identity as in Christ, rather than these aspects of their personhood [i.e. sexual orientation or gender identity]. Difficulty arises where potential candidates have active sexual relationships outside marriage which are seen as intrinsic to their identity. In these cases, a fuller exploration of the consequences of discipleship may be needed before a teaching ministry can be considered.”
There’s a general and a particular issue in this. Generally: what does ‘identity in Christ’ mean in this letter? We have to take care over this, as there’s a small extremist ‘Christian Identity’ movement which is racist, anti-Semitic, and heretical. For mainstream Christians, however, it means being the person who we are growing into, becoming more like Jesus, to be assured of being children of God, inhabited by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Entering into our Christian identity does not mean eradicating who we really are, in order to fit us into an idealised (heterosexual) humanity, like the story of the Procrustean bed; it means Christ being manifest in and through who we really are. Bishop Rod’s view that our identity in Christ is primary implies that our sexuality (being gay or, presumably, straight) is a secondary ‘aspect of personhood’, rather than, as we experience it, an intrinsic part of who we are before God. Being clear about the nature of each person’s identity is a vital part of being welcoming to all and helping each person grow appropriately into who we are in Christ, without presuming that one Christian identity is privileged above others.
The other issue here is what ‘the consequences of discipleship’ are: and this takes us back to the issue of repentance. The confused state of the Church of England makes it harder for LGBT people exploring ministry to know what to do. The Church has clearly discriminated against clergy who are in a same-sex marriage, but has also been hypocritical in accepting the validity of clergy civil partnership without sexual activity while offering the opportunity to discriminate against any cleric in a civil partnership when recruiting for jobs. Clergy who are in formal, informal or hidden partnerships (about which ‘intrusive questions’ are not supposed to be asked) live in fear of discrimination if they are open about their partnership, or exposure if they hide it, whether or not they “have active sexual relationships outside marriage which are seen as intrinsic to their identity”. And the concerns of Bishop Rod apply equally to heterosexual candidates for ministry, many of whom will have issues with their own sexuality, practice and experience.
This institutionalised dishonesty is bad for people’s mental health and corrupting for the Church’s institutions. A simpler and more honest way forward would be to treat different orientations and identities equally, welcoming all and genuinely supporting the discipleship of those who live an ordered life.
That means requiring all ministers, in the words of the ordination service, to ‘endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people’ – to live without scandal by being in a recognised, ordered way of life whatever their sexual orientation or identity, whether single or in a civil partnership or marriage, and not to suffer discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or identity. That would help the Church as well as individuals to regain integrity and confidence.
At the end of his letter, the Bishop of Maidstone offers to keep Lichfield Diocese “informed about some of the approaches taken in the churches to which I offer ministry about the way they seek to welcome LGBT+ people.” It would be good for all of us to learn more about how they plan to do that in a radically inclusive way.
My hope is that the whole of the Church of England will be urged to follow the lead of the bishops in Lichfield in welcoming all to a place at the table of Christ.