by the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, former Member of General Synod
As it write this piece I am sitting in our house in the Peak District with snow swirling down from a rather leaden sky. Those of you who know me at all well will know that I have a passionate dislike for snow. It represents everything that I loathe about winter.
It’s pretty, I admit, but I really struggle with winter. I don’t like the cold, I really don’t like the dark and I particularly dislike the cold, dark and the wet together. ‘Why did you move up a mountain in the north?’ you might well ask. A very good question but none the less for me winter has it all, and it is not a happy place.
But the other day, on Blue Monday whilst planting some trees in the garden I was delighted to see snowdrops in full bloom. I spent some time just looking at their perfectly formed, resilient beauty. I love snowdrops, they are a sign of hope, that winter is on its way out and that better times are on their way. They made me smile and lifted a little of the gloom that usually occupies me in January.
I am beginning to feel a bit like that about the Churches and the cold, dark winter that has enfolded its LGBTI members for so long. I think that there are signs of hope all around us, if we have the eyes to see.
My attention was first caught properly by the Oxford Bishops letter, and its clear restatement of what is after all just official policy of the Church of England. Now, I know that there has been some criticism of it and what it says shouldn’t really need saying. But it does, and its commitment to compassion, contemplation and courage, along with listening to the experience of LGBTI people is, I think, profoundly hopefully. A green shoot of hope amidst the cold.
I even think that the reaction to it from those who struggle with the idea of freedom of conscience on issues of sexuality is positive because so much of it clearly comes from a recognition that the narrative is changing. That letter from just over 100 clergy, (it is worth noting the research on how many of them are retired, working in a very restricted number of parishes or not actually working in Church of England parishes but in para-organisations often funded from overseas) is explicit in that their main concern is over the ‘direction of travel’ and the letter is a recognition, I think, that they are no longer controlling the narrative and that the ground is shifting.
I was also encouraged, you’ll be surprised to hear, when last week I read the questions currently being asked of a carefully selected group of people on behalf of the Pastoral Advisory Group that is part of the Living in Love and Faith process. Now, I don’t think that the resources that Living in Love and Faith will produce next year are going to be spectacularly innovative, surprising or represent a significant change in the *public* thinking of the House of Bishops. That is just too much to ask. I also am a little frustrated with the underlying assumption that none of us has thought about these issues, read any resources or prayed over scripture and that we are waiting patiently for the Bishops to tell us how to do it.
But it is interesting that the Bishops seem to have abandoned the initial idea that they would produce a Teaching Document that we would gratefully receive and instead are producing something that is explicitly intended to encourage people to think for themselves. Anglicans, of course, have a great tradition of that, and every movement towards greater inclusion has come about because that is exactly what people did for themselves, often in the face of bitter institutional opposition.
‘The Bishops of the Church of England want these materials to be useful in a way that transforms how we relate to these questions as well as to each other and deepens our understanding of the Christian faith’. I think that these words are yet another sign of hope, another green shoot. It’s clear that the Bishops are finally recognising that they cannot control what is happening, that as Peter Leonard said in his recent piece for Via Media ‘Those who would seek to exclude and reject are now in the minority and those who would seek to include and affirm make up the majority.’ The Bishops are beginning to accommodate themselves to the change that is happening all around them.
Spring is coming – but before it does the Churches need to do some deep and prayerful thinking.
We need to think carefully about how we are going to live alongside the minority who in good conscience will find this hard. There is a proper debate to be had as to how we protect the vulnerable from harm and ensure that the young are protected from views and actions that damage their mental health and well-being. We need to develop procedures, practises and disciplines that allow for the expression of more conservative points of view whilst ensuring that we aren’t compromising on Safeguarding. Those of us who are progressive will also need to learn to accept that there will always be some who are not ‘on a journey’ and will always want to refuse to worship alongside us, pray with us and accept our ministry. That has been my direct experience, and it hurts.
But if we want to hold as much of the Churches together then we are going to have to think about these things, and very probably wait a bit for the fulfilment of our hopes until we sort this out.
Poetry is all the rage at the moment it seems, so I thought I would finish with a poem
Snowdrops are not innocent:
They fight for what they win.
Beauty’s what comes out:
Blind energy goes in.
from J. B. Pick’s “The Well” (Drumlins, 1988)