by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury and and member of the Archbishops’ Council
Not long ago I did something very embarrassing. In email correspondence with a man of Afro-Caribbean heritage, I failed to notice that autocorrect on my new phone had substituted his name for a word that could be interpreted as racially offensive. When he responded by asking how to make a complaint against me I was mortified and immediately reached out to offer an embarrassed apology.
My partner runs an HR casework team for his Civil Service department. When I told him what had happened, he warned me that in discrimination law concerning protected characteristics the fact that my action had been accidental and unintentional was irrelevant. What mattered was the way in which the recipient heard the word I used. If he had complained, then in law I was guilty of the use of the word in causing offence, not because I intended to use it, but because of the offence it caused.
This has been in my mind as I have witnessed the reactions to the publication of Living in Love and Faith (LLF). We have already seen strong responses. There was a heartless attack on specific individuals from Christian Concern, which was contemptible. More worthy of note was the ill-timed Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) video The Beautiful Story, which speak of individuals less directly, and more in defence of theological principle or abstract ideas like orthodoxy and ‘the gospel’. For those who wish to read some helpful, measured responses, may I suggest Bishop Jonathan Clark and Jonathan Chaplin.
According to Dr Andrew Goddard, who clearly knew about the film in advance, the response from those associated with The Beautiful Story has included a strong element of surprise. The makers were surprised that people outside the CEEC network even noticed the video – apparently it was meant only to be directed towards Evangelicals; and they were surprised that the reaction to it has been so negative and strong. This “surprise” needs exploring because both are revealing and concerning for the integrity of the LLF process.
Fourteen years ago, I wrote a provocative article for the Church of England Newspaper entitled, We Have Renounced Secret Ways…But Have We? In it, I took to task a culture of secrecy and doublespeak that characterised the approach of some Evangelicals to their dealings with the wider Church. I asked, “Why all this secrecy? Why are conservatives appearing to say one thing to one audience and another to a different one? Why risk the accusation of dissembling, or even downright lying?” I concluded “that some of my brothers (and generally they are brothers) are in danger of becoming so focused on being Evangelical that they are in danger of forgetting something central to being Christian. I have come to think that their commitment to theological truth runs the risk of side-lining the idea – and maybe the practice – of moral truth. In part this is due to an Evangelical worldview that sees itself as an embattled minority, striving to keep the church pure when all around are capitulating to the spirit of the age. In such conflict, perhaps they think that the end justifies the means.” Today those words sound rather painfully relevant again.
Is the CEEC so naïve as to think that other Christians might not be interested in what they might say, on this of all issues? Or is the culture of CEEC so dishonest that they thought it appropriate to offer one face to their fellow conservatives and another to the wider Church of England? What does that say about honouring the Pastoral Principles to which we are all supposed to be committed? Setting aside the fanciful idea that everyone in “CEEC churches” might have a common mind on issues of human sexuality, there is now an urgent task for conservative evangelicals to demonstrate that they are serious partners in dialogue with the rest of the church and are not going to turn a smiling face to the LLF process while showing a very different face when they think no-one else is looking? The dialogue ahead asks all of us to speak to those on our side of the debate as though the other side were present too.
The other concern is that many Evangelicals are surprised – or to use Andrew Goddard’s rather passive-aggressive word “puzzled” – at the reaction. This is at the heart of the questions that people are asking about the safety of the LLF process, and specifically the safeguarding of people who identify, to use a shorthand, as either “LGBTQ+” or “same-sex attracted”. I recognise that there is a concern among conservatives that safeguarding is being co-opted to attack their understanding of orthodoxy. But I think this is to miss the point. What concerns LGBTQ+ people at this moment is the way in which conservatives speak of us. It is the way in which the language used lands that is the problem, because it feels as though it lacks any empathy (that’s how it feels – even if they don’t mean it to, it’s the offence caused that matters). I’m surprised at how unsafe LLF feels right now, even for someone like me who has become used to being gaslit by those who misrepresent my views and whose sexuality has become the object of intrusive speculation. If Dr Goddard can’t hear this yet then he would do well to listen to same-sex attracted conservatives who also level this criticism at fellow conservatives: start by showing kindness, care and understanding.
All online personal abuse directed in any direction to any group or individual member of the Church of England is unacceptable, but I do think that the root of the problem lies with the way too many speak of LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted people. Andrew Goddard’s false equivalence between the pain of having my identity, my most life-giving human relationship and my sense of self questioned by conservatives again and again and his pain at having his doctrinal and biblical worldview called into question is simply a further demonstration of the lack of empathy and understanding.
Moving onto more empathetic ground will be the safe ground which conservatives will find LGBTQ+ Christians able to listen to their views, secure and ready to respond to their entirely legitimate questions about biblical texts and doctrinal matters. I am already hearing of clergy being signed-off sick thanks to actions of CEEC and Christian Concern. I am already hearing of vulnerable young people relapsing into depression by these interventions. This is, biblically speaking, a greater concern than a defence of orthodoxy or of the Church’s teaching. In what way does inflicting harm by our words demonstrate gospel love? Here’s a clue: this whole episode has all left me feeling very vulnerable, and some of us feel too vulnerable to even pick up the LLF booklet and to face having our lives dissected, let alone respond to the gaslighting, the personal and theological assault that the CEEC, Dr Goddard and others offer, with so much brain and apparently a lot less heart.
Please, just speak to us as if we are vulnerable and we might just get somewhere. Then we can talk about the things you want to talk about. And, if you can’t do that, if you insist upon your false equivalents and head knowledge alone, for the sake of us all stand back. Let others who can take your place. I know they are out there and they too winced at The Beautiful Story.
But is it a Beautiful Story?
No: it was the wrong message, at the wrong time, in the wrong tone. There’s still time to set things right. We can talk about the things that concern the CEEC. But it must be on much safer ground.