by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology
For those with ears to hear, the past few weeks have highlighted a very clear theme in the abuse scandal in the Church of England, whether that be in the IICSA report or the Diocese of Oxford’s review into the murder of a gay churchwarden of a ‘conservative’ church: it’s almost a truism – to quote Oxford’s review, ‘while people continue to feel forced to hide or lie about their sexuality, they can become vulnerable to exploitation’.
The topic has been covered in an excellent blog by Prof Helen King on this site, yet the silence from the Church of England’s authorities is deafening. The Bishop of Oxford may have said that this was a ‘clarion call for improvements to our work on LGBTI+ inclusivity’, yet where have the great statements of repentance been from the House of Bishops?
Same-sex spouses continue to be excluded from the Lambeth Conference, and meanwhile there hasn’t been a peep of recognition from the wing of the Church that would align itself with these ‘traditional’ views, with the usual woe-is-me ‘bullying’ accusations made yet again and again against people who honour the humanity of LGBT people.
It really is time for this to change.
The lying, silence, dissembling and wink-wink nudge-nudge way of ‘managing’ homosexuality in Church circles is not only embarrassing, but a grave sin. It moves the church into a place of hypocrisy and collusion, and it is one we are far too willing to tolerate.
After writing my last blog, I was told by a priest that it was a virtue to ‘tolerate hypocrisy’. By no means is this true – and what is more this is fundamentally different to recognising and living with paradox and different theological positions.
We live in a Church that thrives on hypocrisy – where ordinands are told not to ‘rock the boat’ by being ‘too vocal’ about being LGBT, and where clergy have ‘special friends’ or ‘lodgers’. This pressure to dishonesty thus forms the backdrop for being LGBT in the Church, and it is hardly a surprise that such a culture can be manipulated by those who are looking for vulnerabilities in the system. That an elderly gay man was abused and murdered is not a shock – it is the inevitable result of a culture of lies.
Anyone who is young, gay and in the Church has lived this reality; I am quite sure that other LGBT people similarly face the consequences of this culture. All of us know of the inappropriate clergy, the unacceptable taking of liberties that are just the right side of ‘explainable’, and the abuse of power by those in authority. Not being straight makes this whole structure a lot more threatening – not only because of the threats of ‘disclosure’ that can be made against you, but also because there is a deeper underlying culture of ‘being gay in the Church’ that is deeply damaging, and is directly the result of the tyranny of silence and lies.
This culture is like something from the 1950s, where never a word is spoken about ‘the love that dares not speak its name’, where gay clergy form elaborate pretences and where public intimacy is frowned on and sex commodified. LGBT people are thus made both victim and perpetrator, and the culture continues to level its destruction. This culture blurs the line between acceptable and unacceptable, producing and hiding perpetrators of abuse.
Of course, some clergy, like many others in society, need a level of discretion in consideration of elderly relatives or similar, such is the history of homophobia in this country (aided and abetted by the Church of England) – this is not the issue. Clergy who are not in this position and yet still deny their partners, or describe them as ‘special friends’, are, however, colluding in the toxic Church culture – as are leaders telling LGBT people to hide, or to ‘be careful about’ their true selves. We even have senior theological educators who actively sponsor and head up organisations that recommend heterosexual marriage to ‘same sex attracted’ people’ – and we wonder why we have a problem?
Yet here is the Catch 22 – those who are honest end up losing their licences or being thrown out, whilst those who hide and collude climb up the greasy pole of promotion. This is the very culture that the actions and words of our bishops and other leaders are perpetuating. Power, lies, fear and opacity are a heady cocktail – and it is high time the church took some responsibility for sponsoring this scandal.
Yet there is a desperation not to deal with this issue – how often have we heard that speaking out, or even simply being honest, will ‘embarrass the bishop’ or ‘bring the institution into disrepute’? Bishops seem very willing to talk about this issue and urge change over lasagne, yet are far too often silent at the Lord’s Table. Yet their silence and collusion, and that of those who continue to promulgate this culture of hypocrisy, is not only wrong, but sinful – abuse, threats and dishonour continue apace.
Perceived unity is not more important than keeping people safe and treating them as human beings. The word ‘traditional’ cannot be used to cover evil. Any senior cleric reading this might want to ask themselves – have I done enough? Indeed, have I colluded, and what am I going to do about it?
In Poland this last weekend, LGBT people – yet again the target of vicious hatred, abuse and oppression by a populist state – protested outside church property and called for an end to the church. The Polish Roman Catholic hierarchy have taken the side of the oppressor, and colluded with the state. In the UK, the state is light years ahead, yet the Church of England continues to sponsor and collude in a culture of hypocrisy.
The only reason people aren’t protesting outside our buildings is because they’ve stopped listening – we are an irrelevance. The secular world has grasped the nettle and respected the dignity of LGBT people.
There have been enough reports – it’s about time we started to listen to them, because until we do that, we are stopping the people’s ears and participating in dishonour.