by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, former Chair of the General Synod Human Sexuality Group and member of the Co-ordinating Group for “Living in Love and Faith”
I spent a few days recently in Oxford, in the company of 120 bishops. They were very friendly and I was glad to be there. I was invited as a member of the Coordinating Group for the resource which the C of E is preparing: ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage’.
The terms of reference for the resource state its intention:
The Church wants to understand what it means to follow Christ in love and faith given the questions about human identity and the variety of patterns of relationship emerging in our society, including marriage, civil partnership, cohabitation, celibacy and friendship. These are vital matters which affect the wellbeing of individuals and communities and which have a profound spiritual dimension founded on the truth that every human being is of infinite value in God’s sight.
We’ve been working on the resource for 18 months, and it’s starting to feel that the longer we work on it, the greater the depth of the challenge is becoming.
Why? Because it’s beginning to feel to me that, in the end, what is needed is a fundamental transformation of the way the Church of England thinks and does its business.
What do I mean by that? Underlying all this are many issues, but one of the crucial ones is the question of power and control. Historically, the Church of England – its doctrine, its way of being, its practices and procedures, have been in the hands of those who have been traditionally powerful – nominally straight, white men – the patriarchate.
Over the last 50 years, things have begun to change – the tent has been opened up.
Each time, there have been challenges – as we have tried to include women at all levels of the Church, and black people, the Church has had to let go of its previous preconceptions. I never forget that at the start of the work to outlaw the slave trade, all the bishops in the House of Lords voted against Wilberforce’s Bill.
Each time the tent has been opened up, a little has moved. The Church has broadened its base and more people have been welcomed. The process has never been easy, but we have learnt, each time. I am sure that the College of Bishops which I attended felt different because of the presence of bishops who are women.
LGBTI+ questions are complex, and it is proving hard (an understatement?) for the Church to work out how to respond. LGBTI+ people were, until recently, criminalised. We have, for centuries, been condemned as intrinsically sinful – “objectively disordered”. The ontological status of LGBTI+ people is something new for many of those in power, who don’t know quite how to deal with these questions, and many of whom at the very least find them threatening. I think that is one reason why these questions drag on and on and on..
What is to be done? What is the answer to the challenges we face?
In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter following the General Synod in February 2017, he talked about the need for the Church to find a new ‘radical Christian inclusion’. For the Church to understand more deeply how our gospel of love can be lived out, in England, in the 21st century.
Or to put it another way, in the famous words of Desmond Tutu:
This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw . . .” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all. All. All!”
That’s the context for the gospel on which I preached recently: the story of the rich young ruler. It’s one of my favourite stories, not just because I too grew up in a privileged world, a world I still struggle to have a healthy relationship with, but also because it contains one of my favourite verses in the whole of scripture.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ Mark 10.21
This story is about many things, but at its heart is the young man’s attachment to power, profit, status – patriarchy, if you will. Jesus challenges him with what we might term ‘his unexamined privilege’. But he does it not from a desire to hurt, but a desire to express love. Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and saw what he needed most.
Jesus understands, in love, that the man has to give up the things which are crucial to his identity, in order to find a new one.
And so, returning to Living in Love and Faith …
Remembering the words in the terms of reference, ‘the truth that every human being is of infinite value in God’s sight’ it seems to me that the challenge for us, as a Coordinating Group, is to help the Church to find a new identity:
- unless the Church is able to see us, LGBTI+ people, as absolutely, fundamentally and radically included in God’s love:
- unless the Church is able to stop thinking about us as people who are grudgingly being offered a place at the table:
- unless the Church is able to move away from the idea that the supposed sinfulness of LGBTI+ people is different from anyone else’s sinfulness, both in fact and degree,
the exercise will be a failure.
If we are to do this, we will have to be willing to let go of some of the fundamental building blocks of who we are – our understanding, as a Church, of gender and sexuality – in order to find a new understanding, more fundamentally reflecting the gospel of love.
Let me stress: I am talking about an opening up of our current understanding. Paying attention to the recent letter from the Bishop of Blackburn and others, it seems to me that we need to learn how to both affirm our traditional understanding of marriage and learn from the wisdom and experience of so many who are, at the moment, left outside the tent.
That’s why all of this matters – not just for me and the others on the Coordinating Group and anyone else directly affected, but for the whole Church. We have an opportunity to go back to first principles and discover a new thing.
Now it springs forth! Do we not perceive it?
It is very good, in this context, that the Dioceses of Lichfield and Oxford have both released unequivocally supportive letters encouraging the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people. They are carefully worded letters which respect the current position of the Church, but in a way which opens up hope for the future. Respect to the Bishops of Oxford and Lichfield and all who worked with them!
It’s a big task which we face, one which nearly all denominations are struggling with right now. But if we need encouragement – if we are looking for a source for hope – we could do a lot worse than to start with that wonderful image of Jesus, responding to the rich young man with that great challenge:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him.