Lesbians, Sex and the Church of England

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!

This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Mental Health, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lesbians, Sex and the Church of England

  1. Anne says:

    Jayne, It’s not often an article about the C of E discussions around human sexuality makes me smile, but this did. Thank you for continuing the struggle with such courage and perseverance while still being able to express the truth with humour. Praying that one day people of all sexualities may be able to enjoy the welcome and support within the church that we straight allies do.

  2. charleswread says:

    I think your original question is still important – Michael Vasey discusses in Strangers and Friends just what is the gay sexual activity that the Bible allegedly condemns. Does it, he asks, include holding hands or hugging …? I also think the bigger question you raise here is equally important – most discussion of same-sex relationships – at whatever level of discussion or from whatever perspective – seems to assume we are talking about men. The gender issues have not gone away.

  3. kiwianglo says:

    Thank you, Jayne, for your upfront frankness in this article. What is often missed in this whole question of Same-Sex Relationships, is that it is not ALL ABOUT sexual activity. What is at the heart of Same-Sex Attraction is the possibility that two people might be able to comfort and support one another in a life of communion – both sexual and spiritual. This is no different from the fact that heterosexual attraction – ideally – should be based on the very same premise, that of the comfort and support of one another in an equal relationship. Infidelity is all too possible when society (or the Church) considers one-on-one Same Sex Relationships to be ‘out of bounds’ and therefore unsupportable.

  4. Dr Michael Blyth says:

    Jayne, thank you for such an excellent article. The history of the ‘hidden lesbian’ has indeed had some awful consequences: I have no doubt that some families, if it were possible to dispose of an unwanted relative in the C19, could have availed themselves of the new psychoanalysis for a diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ or neurasthenia then subsequently got their aberrant embarrassment committed to a mental asylum (this had often been the punishment, pre-therapy, for adulterous women from the C18 onwards). The churches – especially in the midst of Victorian sexual hypocrisy (child prostitution, brothels etc) – would have been entirely complicit in this: insanity was so useful, just as ‘the demonic’ continues to be now. It is high time the Church of England stopped insulting us by implying that every relationship is about sex acts. If you deny any human being the validity of a committed, loving relationship then you are disfiguring the image of God in your brother and sister and doing so with intent (which apparently does not seem to qualify as sin, despite being a serious one). Incidentally I am glad you mentioned anal intercourse in heterosexual relationships (on which the church remains amusingly silent, as if her petticoats would descend in shock at the very idea). Before the pill it was the obvious method of contraception. Thank you for drawing much-needed attention to the sufferings of lesbians throughout generations of families – there has been one glaring example in my own, discovered only after her death. The longer the church continues to commit to being hideously out of touch with the reality of people’s lives the shorter the time it has to ensure its survival. Hiding behind slogans about ‘God being love’ just don’t wash: especially if you’re one of the ones that doesn’t – and never can – measure up.

Any thoughts?