by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News, Director of the Ozanne Foundation and Member of General Synod
I could see that the bishop was going red, and as he did so nervous giggles spread across the Synod Chamber. I stood, pan faced, at the speakers’ microphone and said: “I’m deadly serious, bishop.”
The Church of England’s Synod Question Time is supposedly an opportunity for General Synod members to raise questions of the various Chairs of the Church of England’s Boards and Councils and is one of the few mechanisms available for us to try and hold these senior leaders to account.
It was February 2017 and I had just asked the Chair of the House of Bishops, or more precisely the bishop tasked with overseeing the Church’s work on sexuality and gender identity matters, the following:
“Bishop, given we understand that the Anglican Communion might break over “it”, that the Church of England faces a split over “it” and I cannot get ordained because of “it”, what actually is “it” for a lesbian like myself?”
Of course, I didn’t get an answer.
You see, we don’t tend to really think about lesbian sex within the Church of England, dare I say we don’t really tend to think about lesbians at all! Most of the focus has, I’m sorry to say, been on the supposed sex acts between our gay brothers in Christ. That is undoubtedly because both Old and New Testament have a few lines of text about certain sex acts, which sadly are normally taken completely out of context and are frequently mistranslated. Sparing the fact that anal sex is far more prevalent amongst heterosexuals than homosexuals, what the Bible is clear about is that there is absolutely nothing that focuses specifically on the whether the love between two people of the same sex is right or wrong – that is, unless you think of that between David and Jonathan.
Today is Lesbian Day of Visibility, and I believe it is right and indeed necessary to stop and think about the plight of lesbians within faith communities, and sadly what so many have had to endure through the ages.
Lesbianism is not a new thing – it has just been far more covered up, due to cultural taboos and the dominance of patriarchal power structures that have subjugated women throughout the ages and kept them “in their place”, or worse, just out of sight.
In some ways I think many have, like Queen Victoria, just not considered the fact that women might be attracted to each other. Men may have been far more aware, not least I fear to say because of the prolific amount of online porn (evidently, many men find it more satisfying to see two women together than to watch another man having sex).
Be that as it may, faith communities have not, it seems, really thought through their stance on lesbianism. It is just “tucked on” to their position on all LGBT+ people, mostly informed by their position on gay men – the “L” is just another letter in the LGBTQI alphabet.
So, what is “it”?
In trying to force this question in Synod, I admit that I was trying to get the Church of England to see how utterly futile and meaningless their internal discussions actually are about sexuality. Can we really boil down the whole of the future of the Anglican Communion to how two people choose to express their love for each other? If that really is the case, then I would argue that what we should be focusing on is the actual love between two people – the fact that they have deep feelings for each other and have decided that they have found a life mate who they want to commit to, cherish and honour.
For centuries, lesbians have had a stark choice. For most, they could either stay as spinsters (the archetypal “maiden aunts”) tasked with either looking after aged parents or (if they were lucky) hiding behind the fact that they dared to have their own career; or they could enter into heterosexual marriages and just “put up” with it. This happened and still happens at great cost. The “just putting up with it” has sadly led to years of marital rape, or worse, forced rape – and sadly has led to some taking the only way out they know, that of tragically taking their own lives.
Many churches still teach that that is “the best way forward”, with many advocating that LGBT+ people should enter into mixed-marriages, little thinking of the significant harm this does – to both parties. On the one side you have someone who is having to endure a sexual act that they do not desire, the other because they are not experiencing the sexual desire that they deserve.
It is a pitiful state of affairs, but all too common – trapping both parties in a misery of hell.
Moreover, worse stories are now coming to light – particularly, sadly, within the minority ethnic religions. Here a lesbian’s plight is far more dangerous – with an untold number being subjected to “corrective rape”, often by family members, in order to try and “make” them straight. Few, understandably, will ever speak out about this for fear or shame. Even fewer will try to seek justice – they have been traumatised enough already, and they are all too aware of the state’s appalling record of getting any convictions.
So, what should we do?
Well one of the critical things, I believe, is for more lesbian women to become far more visible and to speak out about their experiences. That is why I am so keen to support #LesbianVisibilityWeek. We need to find new ways of profiling good role models, who can challenge stereotypes and show that we, women who are attracted to women, exist everywhere – in all cultures, age groups, social structures and backgrounds. We are a force to be reckoned with and we will not be silenced.
As for defining what is “it”…
…well, I shall await an answer from the House of Bishops on that. For, as I said, so much seemingly seems to rest upon it – even the future of the Church of England!