The Reckoning – Will the Church of England Survive?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media, Member of General Synod and Member of the Government’s LGBT Advisory Panel

They say “people in glass houses should never throw stones” – although it seems to me that the Church of England is an expert at it, and the house now has very little glass left!

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding myself choking on my proverbial cornflakes last Sunday when I read an exclusive interview in the Guardian with the Church Commissioners’ new Head of Responsible Investment, Bess Joffe, outlining how the Commissioners will be warning companies “that they must do more to protect biodiversity and increase the ethnic diversity of their senior teams or risk protest votes at upcoming shareholder meetings”.

Explaining why they were taking this action, Joffe told the Guardian: “You want to be in a world where boards of directors, management teams and pipelines of talent look like the communities in which they exist.”

She is of course absolutely right – it’s just rather embarrassing that the Church of England has such a poor record on doing just this themselves! We have woefully few senior church leaders from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, we have a pretty poor record on most areas of inclusion – looking at the current House of Bishops, and even the make up of General Synod, we still remain predominantly white, male and middle-class. We have woefully few members from any of the areas relating to the protected characteristics in the Equality Act – save of course religious belief. And then, of course there is the Equality Act itself and the preposterous fact that the established Church, which is in the privileged position of being able to make and shape British law, has been granted exemption to the one law of which it should be the Moral Guardian.

In short, Joffe has shown us that we are guilty, yet again, of not practising what we preach. In the real world, most would call this for what it is – rank hypocrisy.

To be fair, the Church of England has named “hypocrisy” as one of the Six Deadly Sins that came out of the Pastoral Advisory Group (otherwise known as the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together). However it’s not something that we are really very good at talking about or owning – I mean, have you ever been in a meeting when it has been called out or addressed? Instead we tend to excuse it away privately to ourselves, saying “well it’s really a lot more complicated than that, and things are changing!”

But are they really changing or are we just getting better at creating more fog, where we get accustomed to living in our slightly surreal world of smoke and mirrors?

At least Bess Joffe spoke out! I applaud her for wanting to use her position to change things – and particularly for wanting to use it to address inequality. But it’s interesting to pause for a moment and reflect on why she is able to do this when so few others aren’t?

I’d suggest that one primary reason is because she is a member of the laity and is therefore not confined by the ridiculous covenant of silence that so many senior clergy seem to have embraced. This means, frankly, that she does not need to “behave well” in order to get any form of preferment – or in other words, she is not warned off saying anything that might “rock the boat” and put any hope of future promotion out of reach.

I’m sorry to name it, but I think this is where so much of our real problems lie. We have created such large central structures at both diocesan and national levels – which we can barely afford in these financially strapped times – where in order to be able to be part of it you need “to conform”. And of course many understandably want to be “part of it” – they want to progress, often for the very honourable reason that they want to get to a place where they feel they can “make a real difference”. Although of course, few truly feel able to do so when they do actually get “there”. It’s “smoke and mirrors” after all!

I am speaking perhaps more bluntly than I normally do because I am deeply concerned that the Church of England is currently facing a crisis of such enormity that I fear few have truly taken its severity onboard. It is my sincere belief that we have only a few years left (if that) before we implode – under the weight of our central structures, under our inability to make decisions, under our crushed and demoralised parish systems and under the glare of a general public who have given up on an institution that they see as steeped in hypocrisy and puritanical legalism.

Believe it or not, God has not promised that the Church of England will continue for ever. The Christian faith most certainly will be carried from generation to generation, but God does not have to use an institution that has lost its ability to speak truthfully, act righteously and has chosen to exempt itself from standing up for the marginalised.

These next few years will be years of reckoning, and it’s about time we started facing some hard truths…we need to come off our fences, come out from our hiding places and allow the wind of the Spirit to blow away the fog and smoke that has blinded us so that we can look ourselves clearly in the mirror, and be honest about what we see.

Maybe then we’ll have a chance, but only if we’re humble enough to get on our knees and recognise how badly we’ve got so many things wrong – and how we have hurt so many people in the process!

We can but pray…

Posted in Disability, Establishment, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Living in Love & Faith, Politics, Social Justice | 6 Comments

Church of England: Will the Quest for Youth Save Us?

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

The Church of England has a serious age problem. Or so, at least, we are reliably informed.

Dioceses are scrabbling around to improve their ‘provision’ to younger people, and at the same time we are told that we should be aiming to be a younger and more diverse church.

In the first instance, and as someone I think is probably still defined as ‘young’ in church terms, I should admit to finding the language a little bit uncomfortable. I understand, of course, what the point being made is – and any church that wants a future needs to encourage people through its door, including young people. Looking around many of our congregations, it’s certainly true that there are many grey hairs and rather fewer teenagers. That, however, is no excuse for ageism. For far too long, the Church of England has been complacent about its membership, and for years the faithful have continued to pay the parish share, staff the churches, keep the show on the road. Many of these people are now elderly and continue their faithful witness. It seems ungrateful, at best, to bemoan their preponderance in the church.

In much discussion about the state of today’s church, the elderly seem to be the focus of attack. ‘Once all the old people die out’, a middle-aged person told me during a lecture at theological college, ‘then we can get rid of the BCP, and start focusing on services which are relevant’. Meanwhile, the elderly are casually described as being the most conservative in our churches, despite there being little to no evidence of this being the case. Churches that focus on outreach to the elderly never seem to feature in the shiny Church of England webpages – despite the loneliness epidemic that blights so many of our communities, made even more acute by the current pandemic.

This obsession with the young, and primarily the able bodied, straight, married young, seems to have taken over so much of the marketing of a church that claims to follow a ‘despised and rejected’ man of the margins. The answer to all the church’s problems often appears to be a superficial commitment to loud music, beautifully presented videos and incessantly, ludicrously, smiling people, who appear to be the models for 1980s action figures. Everything in life is not roses, as even a brief foray into the human situations in which so much of the world finds itself would suggest. Yet many in the church seem to genuinely think that obsessive optimism and ‘relevance’ is what young people are looking for. If only we could be more ‘relevant’, they tell us, then there would be more people coming through our doors. Yet even when young people are encouraged through the door, we barely touch the surface of the wider population, and they don’t tend to stick around.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat through excruciating church talks about how to be more ‘relevant’. The irony of a middle-aged person telling me (someone in their 30s) how my age group might become ‘churched’ seems to be lost most of the time. The solutions are always couched in terms of presentation and polish – never in terms of substance. Not once has someone giving one of these well-meaning but highly condescending talks appeared to have asked – what might we learn from the people who aren’t coming through our doors? What could we, the church, be getting wrong – rather than what might all the ‘youth’ gain from our great store of knowledge?

What the Church of England seems to have missed is that we are no longer simply an irrelevance to the great majority of young people – and not only the young. We run the risk of being seen by many in wider society today as an agent of immorality, not morality.

Opening the Living in Love and Faith book a month or so ago, I will admit to being less depressed than I thought I might be. Some of the content is really good, and some of it manages to move beyond the tired arguments we have gotten used to in recent years. However, one question remained for me – to whom exactly is this book supposed to be addressed? Or, more pertinently – what does a book like this tell the rest of the world about who we are, as a church?

The reality is that we are aeons behind the rest of the world on so many moral questions – and chief amongst these is the rights, lives and loves of LGBT people. Many friends and secular colleagues of mine are disgusted when they hear that we don’t ‘do’ same-sex marriages, or that our clergy get sacked for having them. It’s incomprehensible to most young people – and, indeed, amongst a huge number of the not-so-young. When we wonder why our mission is failing, we never seem to ask the difficult questions. It’s not presentation that people have a problem with – it’s our message. We used to defend slavery. We continue to oppress LGBT people.

Time and time again, we hear senior clergy opposing ‘all kinds of discrimination’ – just not, it seems, discrimination against LGBT people. We hear platitudes, but rarely a serious commitment to listen. And when it’s pointed out that the church is on the wrong side of history, we are fed nonsense about the fact that we are now in an age where we the Church are being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake’. Jesus told us we would never be popular, we are told – so who cares what the world thinks? We are told there is virtue in being persecuted, and being ‘against the world’. Yet persecution for its own sake is not what the Gospel is about.

Do we really claim that secular society can teach us nothing? Do we really believe there is nothing to learn about human flourishing from other disciplines?

I’ve grown very tired of hearing the mantra that the Church of England moves slowly, and that we shouldn’t be impatient about change. A slow and steady boat with holes in it will sink before it reaches the shore. Time is running out on this question, most particularly if the church wants to maintain any sense of moral authority. Covering our ears and pleading self-righteousness doesn’t cut it. It’s time we left the echo chamber and recognised what is already happening around us.

People in same-sex relationships are already living holy lives. They are already getting married to each other. They are already loving God.

We just haven’t recognised it yet. And it’s a mission imperative that we do.

Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Transgender | 5 Comments

Wise Words for this Year’s End…

by the Right Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Minnie Louise Haskins, who wrote these words in 1908, does not often appear in anthologies of great English poetry. Her poem was privately published in a collection called “The Desert”, and would almost certainly have been forgotten, if it were not for King George VI who used them in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to (what was then) the British Empire.

At the end of December 1939 the “phony war” had been running for almost three months. War had been declared, but nothing seemed to be happening. The bombs had not yet begun to fall on the UK. Dread and threat were certainly in people’s minds, but it was an invisible dread and a threat chiefly existing in the imagination. To that dread and threat the King’s quoting of Haskins’ poem spoke clearly, and the words became immensely popular, iconic and inspirational. They are carved in stone at the entrance to the George VI memorial chapel in Windsor.

At first sight it’s not obvious that the King chose the right words. Anxious people in dark and complicated times long for a known way. And there are always those who will insist that they have a safe light – if only people will follow them blindly.

This is certainly true this year, and indeed in the past few years.

The ongoing strength of political populism in the West flows from this anxiety, as people look for strongmen in whose booming words they can lose their own voice. So does the growth of movements based on “alternative facts” such as the antics of the President of the United States and his supporters in the weeks after the election there, or the stridently anti-rational lockdown protests seen around the world, including here in Liverpool. Empty promises of certain light, the hate that says it will cast out fear, all detached from the world’s reality.

Meanwhile Minnie Haskins, and King George, reached for a deeper wisdom, and people in 1939 were inspired by it, and I think we should be again. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

For me there’s another dimension to this, which goes beyond Haskins’ poem.

Walking by faith is the way things work, and is in particular the calling of the Church; and in the end the way becomes clear as we walk – together. We are not called to a vacuous smoothing-out of the complexities of the world, but to a process of courageous contribution and mutual enriching, so that the wisdom of God, as shared with a diverse community, may become clearer for us.

God’s wisdom becomes clearer as each person takes the opportunity to listen, and to speak, and to listen again. In short it becomes clearer through a diversity of voices and a mutual discerning.

In the political arena we have seen this discerning process in action – sometimes despite the best efforts of a simplistic and over-optimistic boosterism. Scientific advice and the values of human life and flourishing have (eventually) shaped policy. Of course this policy has had to be nimble, and to steer quickly and sometimes erratically by a flickering light. But there is no known way, and together the world is moving in the dark.

As I look back on the year and on the world, it seems to me that most of the political failures in dealing with the pandemic have come from a willed disregard of corporate wisdom, and from pretending there is a clear light. To feel our way in darkness and in faith is not heroic; but in the end it is the way the world works, and is working.

The same is true for the conversations within the Church on the matters that vex us. As an example, “Living in Love and Faith” is a complex and steady process which seeks to listen to many voices, including those (the diverse lived-out voices of LGBTI+ people) which have hitherto been excluded from the room.

Together we are seeking to discern a future for love, in faith. The bright lights and the booming words of a contentious certainty continue to attract some – but for most of us the way of mutual and gentle discerning is the way the church works, and is working.

Whether in the world of politics or of organised religion, this is a slow and a modest way to proceed.

Those who promise a simple light will continue to criticise it, indeed with an increasing shrillness. But for me Minnie Haskins and King George VI knew a thing or two, and I shall walk with them, into a future which is shrouded in darkness and filled with surprise but which is nonetheless assured by the presence of God.

In 1939 the King ended his quote from Haskins’ poem with the line I quoted: “That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” But the poem goes on in words that make sense in the context of the Christmas story, the story of the Incarnation, and which I commend to all Via Media readers as the year turns and as our hopes gather for 2021:

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Politics, Racism, Social Justice | 4 Comments

The Sound of Silence

by Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester

‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’

So goes the famous line in the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’  And yet the wondrous gift is far from silent. Not only a baby crying in the night but a baby-grown-to-be-man who told stories, spoke words of challenge, affirmation, and rebuke, and who one day would cry out from the darkness of crucifixion.

Yet there were also times when Jesus Christ chose to be silent.

In recent weeks amid the clamour around Christmas and restrictions, and the noise of news across the world, I have also been aware of  views about voices which are perceived as silent in response to different issues or opinions. And so it is that I have found myself this Advent reflecting on the ‘sound of silence’ .

As we celebrate Christmas, albeit one with rules and restrictions, we will undoubtedly hear those spine-tingling words at the opening of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). God, three-in-one, comes to be with us, and although the baby Jesus Christ cannot yet form words, he is ‘The Word’ – God’s communication with the world.

As someone who began professional life as a Speech and Language Therapist, I am passionate about communication and enabling all people, each created in the image of God, to find a voice and have a voice regardless of whether or not that involves the vocal cords. And of course, communication is about relationship and connection, and that is at the heart of who God is.

Yet in our relating and being with God, each other and creation, there is also a place for choosing silence.

One of the most life-giving times in my life was a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat. I escaped the demands of the world and the activity of usual daily life, but I could not escape God or myself and the noise within me.

It was the Gloucestershire composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams who arranged a translation of the ancient Greek chant ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent’ to make it into a popular hymn. The words invite us to be silent in the presence of God who comes to earth, choosing neither to be distant nor silent.

I remember when the Church of England bishops first discussed the Pastoral Principles being developed by the Pastoral Advisory Group. There was discussion around the principle of ‘Silence’ and how to present it because there was recognition that so often silence is destructive and yet at other times is deeply wise.

Silence can enable us to listen more deeply, to notice and to be taken to the deep places within ourselves to explore and discover. It can also prevent or quench the metaphorical forest fire ignited by the spark of the tongue (James 3:5). Silence can also be life-destroying.

As a bishop I am aware that I have a platform of privilege to speak and communicate. It is also true that it is not an exclusive platform as social media and digital communication allow anyone to say whatever they want, whether or not they are heard. And in the age of the sound bite, social media and quick reaction, each of us is faced each day with a choice of responding or staying silent. Either way people will make assumptions and draw conclusions.

Issues in national or church news around justice and equality such as gender violence, sexual abuse, racial justice, human sexuality, and matters of discrimination, all demand unequivocal messages regarding no one being diminished, and the need for change in institutional structures and culture. Words are required and so is action. So too is a silence which is humble, listens and refuses to add to the noise of darkness.

As we approach a very different Christmas yet celebrate the unchanging love of God revealed in the incarnation, it is not that God’s action speaks louder than words, it is rather that in the action is The Word. Here is our God who comes to be with us through the mysterious act of the birth of a vulnerable child, pointing to the day when the  silence of an empty tomb will speak of hope and light which will never be overcome by the darkness.

As I live this Christmas of 2020 which not only looks different from previous years but also sounds different, I will be reflecting more deeply on knowing how and when to use my voice in 2021 and when to be silent.

Posted in Bishop of Gloucester, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | Leave a comment

To Sign or Not To Sign – A Bishop’s Dilemma

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia and Director of the Global Commission on LGBT+ Lives

It has been very interesting reading the various responses from a range of bishops around the world to my invitation to them, and to other faith leaders, to sign our Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Live’s recent Declaration.

This Declaration is boldly entitled Declaring the Sanctity of Life and the Dignity of All” because that in essence is what this whole project is about: it declares that all lives are sacred, and that all should be treated with dignity.  We wrote it – with input from our Inter-Religious Advisory Board – in such a way that we hoped no religious leader could have a problem with it.  Surely we could agree that, independent of our theological views on LGBT relationships, LGBT+ people should have the right to life and that they should be treated with dignity…?

After all, there are 72 countries around the world where LGBT+ are still at risk of being locked up, and 11 where we are at risk of being put to death – purely for being found to gay or lesbian. It is sadly an even higher number (at least 15 countries) for those who are transgender. As we know all too well, there are a far larger number of countries – including the UK – where conversion therapy is still legal. So we hoped that religious leaders would want to join forces and speak out against the practices that have been classed as torture by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

But of course it wasn’t that easy.

It was fascinating to see the critical role of leadership here.  In Canada, where Archbishop Linda Nicholls was one of the first to sign, many other Canadian bishops immediately followed suit.  Similarly, in Scotland and Wales.  I’m thrilled to say that we now have 10 Archbishops, 9 from within the Anglican Communion, who have signed – the most recent being the Archbishop of Norway, Rt Revd Olav Tveit (the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches).

It was just as fascinating to see the excuses that many came up with for not signing.

I will be honest and say, without breaching any confidences, that these letters from known allies made me very angry.  Did they still not get the power differential at play between those in power to change things and those with none, who tragically fall prey to draconian regimes?  Did they still not understand the lives that were being lost, often because no one was speaking out into the silence?  Did they still think this was about appeasing their conservative friends, so as not to risk losing them – whilst at the same time they were losing countless others?

Interestingly, this became the focus of the discussion towards the end of our final session of our Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives conference on Wednesday.  The conversation came as a result of a typically bold and honest comment in the Zoom chat from Bishop Alan Wilson:

“I think it’s a fear of aggression that is holding things back more than anything else in the Church of England, and we really need to stop throwing LGBT people under the bus to try and placate them”

Archbishop Mark Strange, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, had just shared how his relationships with other ecumenical partners had in fact strengthened after their General Synod had taken the decision to allow same-sex marriages.  He said that whilst there had been some initial anxiety that they might become isolated, the reality was that they hadn’t been. Instead he said that in Scotland “they were in better relationship with other ecumenical churches than they had been for many many years”.  He admitted that there were some who still struggled as they didn’t like what had happened, but he added that hadn’t been excluded from anywhere.  Instead, he found that people wanted to have a conversation and hear what he had to say. 

Reflecting on this, Rabbi Laura said: “yes we are frightened of aggression, which is the other side of anxiety – anxiety and aggression/anger are either sides of the same coin.” She then went on to ask: 

“How do you flip the coin of anger and aggression so that people can express their anxieties?  How do you vaccinate (people) against aggression?”

Archbishop Mark’s answer was unequivocal: “the only way you can do this is in relationship”. 

He recognised that whilst there were indeed people who did not want to speak to him, he had decided to just keep on talking to them anyway.  As he explained, “it’s very difficult to maintain anger with someone you are in relationship with, with someone who wants to keep talking to you”. 

And the learning from this?

Well, as Bishop Paul concluded – he hoped he could play this recording to other bishops and show them that “it is not the end of the world to say what you think!”

So, faith leader, what do you think?  Will you sign our Declaration? Others have.

You can do so publicly or privately – just click here!

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Safeguarding, Social Justice, Transgender | 3 Comments

LLF: LISTEN TO ALL THE VOICES

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

Contested conversations and the life of faith

Contested conversation is written into Old Testament narrative. Indeed, the Bible presents contested conversation as its primary hermeneutical model. It still stands at the heart of the Jewish tradition and issues an invitation to Christians in a cultural context which often seeks bunkers and silos rather than listening to all the voices.

John J Collins, in his recent – and intentionally provocative – book What are Biblical Values? Goes as far as to suggest that when someone claims that “this is what the Bible says,” they normally mean “this is what I want the Bible to say”. And as Elizabeth Gaskell points out in North and South – her great novel of faith, love, and class – when the church starts talking about “keeping the teaching simple” that normally ushers in the infantilization of the people of God.

The Bible itself never claims to be without error or internal inconsistency. That is a product of the Enlightenment. Richard Dawkins and contemporary biblical literalists are (tragically) singing from the same epistemological song sheet.

The notion that texts only mean what they say is devastating enough for Jane Austen, and a complete catastrophe when it comes to sacred texts. For much of Christian history the Church has understood biblical texts to have many layers of meaning. Origen suggested at least four. Contested conversation invites contemporary Christianity to re-enter this arena.

So, John places the crucifixion on a different date and at a different time from the other Gospels. Paul himself recognises that he disagrees with Peter. Luke – who contributes more text to the New Testament than any other author – shows no trace of anything resembling substitutionary atonement. One of the reasons that so many churches in the early centuries chose to read Tatian’s synthetic version of the Gospels rather than the real thing was that it neatly tied up all these inconsistencies. much as we choose to do at Christmas with the infancy narratives and the family trees (plural) of Jesus.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch intentionally places two stories of creation side by side, with creation happening in a different order in each of them; the text then refuses to resolve the conflicts. In the same way two iterations of the Law itself, each of them reflecting different contexts and concerns. The biggest example is the variety of responses to the Exile in the early 6th century BC. Isaiah on the one hand; Ezra / Nehemiah on another; and Ezekiel offering something wildly different, driving a coach and horses through whole swathes of Old Testament thinking.

One of the primary roles of the church here is as the “venue” for these contested conversations. Luther translated the Bible into German not so that each person could sit at home deciding what the Bible said but so that the community of faith could gather round the Scriptures and swink and sweat in the corporate search for the truth.

Are there limits to the conversation? Certainly. Newman’s line that theology is always a “process of saying and unsaying” suggests that the goal posts are generously wide. Contested conversations are not intended to be bitter conversations, inviting exclusion or the denial of people’s right to be present around the table. Jesus’ own pattern of speech and action explicitly rejects the notion of power as coercion but embraces the idea of power as capacity to act. Any partner in the contested conversations who diminishes the ability of others to join in on the basis of a priori assumptions based on gender, sexual orientation or race is forfeiting their own right to participate. Just as when I was invited to address the congregation at Friday Prayers at our local Mosque last year, we go into the conversation clear and unapologetic about our identity, but undefended.

In lock-down I have been binge-watching Scandinavian Noir. In one of the final episodes of the gruesome Finnish drama, Bordertown, the lead character confronts a Puritan Christian sect whose theology and practice has led them to commit appalling acts. At the climax he walks into the church just as the elders are about to discipline yet another female member who they judge to have misbehaved. He asks for permission to speak. Stunned, they fall silent, and he simply says: if you go on listening to just one voice in your little echo chamber, you will carry on doing evil when you want to do good. You must listen to all the voices.

Its very unlikely that we are going to learn, develop and grow if we only pay attention to the voices we agree with. As the Bible itself suggests, we are invited to pay attention to all the voices, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.

The biblical practice of contested conversation can be challenging but ultimately teaches us to live not in the absolute authority of our own views but out of a place of assurance that whatever happens, the future is secured through what God has already done for us in the salvation of the whole created order.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Nicholas Henshall, Safeguarding | 3 Comments

LLF: The Cost of Careless Talk and Needless Silence

by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist

The damage often done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people in the Church of England has been much discussed lately. At the same time there has been serious concern about failings in safeguarding as well as ongoing racism, despite numerous promises from senior church leaders to do better. Some people have been trying to understand what keeps going wrong across a range of issues where power and status are involved.

There is much that is good, especially at local level. Congregations and clergy are often caring, worship can be profound and moving, thinking and witness impressive, including service to some of the poorest amidst the pressures of the pandemic. But there is a strong element of chance about whether someone who is part of this church will be nurtured or harmed.  It is a little like wandering through an often beautiful landscape with crumbling tunnels underneath which cause the occasional cave-in. It is only by recognising the underlying weaknesses that the structures can be made safer.

Recent media coverage has largely focused on controversy over certain study materials that were launched in November 2020 to encourage conversation on sexuality and gender identity, entitled Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This was followed by a pushback by those most opposed to greater equality, including several bishops, which made dialogue that much more difficult. The weak response of the vast majority of all other bishops deepened the sense of alienation felt amongst many affirming Christians.

Yet for me, the most disturbing recent reminder of the grave cost of the official line on sexuality and gender identity came in answers to questions at General Synod, on a preventable tragedy in Maids Moreton. What happened there was indeed exceptional, but the response is revealing about harm routinely done to LGBTI+ people. This has been made worse by the depth of denial among leaders, which also undermines the Church’s mission in various ways. But to make sense of what happened in that Buckinghamshire village, the broad context is perhaps needed first.

Making choices and passing on the costs

Numerous theologians have been making the case for affirmation for many years. In fact, it is now over half a century since the Church of England began its formal study of LGBTI issues. Today, whilst only a small minority of Anglicans in the UK now believe that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong, the institutional Church seems largely focused on not displeasing this faction too much. Indeed, it often refused to accept inclusive recommendations by its own working parties and downplayed the strength of the case for change. This made it easier for anti-affirmation campaigners to promote the hollow claim that ‘Bible-believing’ Christians necessarily agree with them and so fend off greater equality.

This was the backdrop to the grim events in Maids Moreton and nearby Stowe, described in an independent safeguarding review by Adi Cooper for Oxford diocese. Peter Farquhar was an active member of a theologically conservative parish church, sharing those beliefs. “He was a homosexual and celibacy was his way of reconciling his beliefs and sexuality”, but when he retired, despite a network of friends and family, he was deeply lonely. Sensing his need for emotional intimacy, a ruthless young man, Ben Field, pretended to love him.  He wrote that this had “given me happiness that I have long since never expected to enjoy”. But Field defrauded and poisoned him, then moved on to his next victim, Anne Moore-Martin, before being arrested.

In one of the questions at Synod, Canon Rosie Harper quoted the review: “’The policies of the Church of England regarding homosexual practice and the approach to sexuality and relationships continues to put people at risk because it forces people to hide, lie and become vulnerable to exploitation, as was PF’ and asked what steps will the LLF implementation group take to ensure that Dr Cooper’s concerns about both praxis and theology are comprehensively addressed?”

The Bishop of London replied on behalf of the Chair of the House of Bishops, stating that LLF resources “emphasise unequivocally that every person is equally loved by God and made in the image of God”, leading to “welcome, love and care” and an unprecedented openness “which will help to break the perceived need to hide, lie and so become vulnerable to exploitation.”

Prejudiced insensitivity and unkindness should indeed be discouraged. But the reply sidestepped the main issue: a theology which ruled out love like that which Peter Farquhar’s heterosexual neighbours might enjoy. The review indicated that he was respected and welcomed by his fellow-worshippers, who tacitly also knew him to be gay. Would he really have wished to open himself up to their disapproval and guilt, however caringly expressed?

Perhaps, as someone who grew up in a deeply hostile era when sex between men was criminalisedand who had internalised the message that acting on his sexuality was sinful, nothing done in the present would have prevented his victimisation by Ben Field. Moreover freedom of speech and belief mean that views that are potentially harmful cannot always be prevented without an overreach of state power which could be even more damaging. Anyway, penalising non-affirming opinions might have marginalised him yet more, since he was ‘conservative’ himself. But if the institutional Church had stopped pretending that suffering caused by inequality can be solved with “niceness” and instead embraced an affirmative stance (while allowing space for theological diversity), maybe he would have survived. So might many others whose mental or physical health  has been eroded by ongoing discrimination.

Of course, some LGBTI+ Church members are in affirming congregations. Others feel called to celibacy or have adapted to the constraints of a non-affirming stance. But not all can do so without considerable damage, just as some over-75s can safely run marathons but not all can! Yes, following Christ does mean taking up the Cross, even if this ends in pain or death. But this is not about heaping more burdens on the oppressed, rather the opposite: Jesus becomes a target because he champions those marginalised by the powerful and pious (Mark 3.1-6).

Undermining witness

While LGBTI+ people continue to pay a high price for Church leaders’ choices, the failure on this issue points to wider institutional weaknesses which leave others damaged or disadvantaged.  It also harms our mission.

In particular, official statements often reflect a theological perspective in which justice is not recognised as a practical expression of love, though this is a key biblical theme (taken up also by the early Church).

Showing love is not just about being kind and supportive but also taking action where some have been deprived of or refused, without adequate cause, what others can rightly take for granted (James 2.14-16, 5.1-4)  This Church failure to recognise the need to challenge misuse of power and privilege helps to explain why survivors of abuse and those facing racism, sexism, disability and class oppression have been repeatedly failed. This unwillingness to confront injustice also gets in the way of sharing the good news (Luke 4.16-19).

Change is needed, now.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Savi Hensman, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 1 Comment

LLF: Please Break the Silence, Bishops

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology 

How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13)

Since LLF was published just a few weeks ago, the calls for a safe space for discussion has become louder and louder, not least given a number of videos, and associated justificatory articles, which many have seen as representative of the erasure, belittling and downright abuse that LGBTQI people have become accustomed to as members of the Church of England. Despite the promises made about ensuring the pastoral principles are adhered to, it appears that bishops are determined not to even mention ‘LGBTQI’ in their statements, aiming instead to talk in vague generalities about ‘different lived experiences and theological understandings’. Beneath this, it has become abundantly clear that, not only are our senior leaders  still missing the point when it comes to power dynamics and structural oppression, but that this is a fundamentally unsafe enterprise even for those in power.

LLF has asked LGBTQI people to make ourselves vulnerable, so we can listen to those of other ‘theological understandings’, and thus find a way forward as a church. Putting aside the simple fact that a threat of schism (as made in the CEEC video) is hardly ‘listening’, many LGBTQI people are willing to do just as the bishops ask, despite the personal cost. Yet what has become absolutely clear in recent weeks is that the LGBTQI members of the House of Bishops who are not out are themselves terrified to speak out – and that their straight colleagues are giving them no public cover. If they are not feeling safe, then how on earth are the rest of us supposed to? If the pastoral principles are the key to this, then why do they only apply to the clergy and laity – and not the bishops? Is this really what a safe space looks like? And if not, then are we really happy to live in a church driven by fear?

Silence is not always a bad thing – sometimes it signals serious intent to listen, to engage, to leave room for differing views that don’t need a referee. Christ’s own silence before his accusers was an act of resistance in itself. But silence is not always a virtue. In the past few weeks, the silence from the House of Bishops has been deafening. Very few LGBTQI people are calling for bishops to present combative opposition to those amongst their number who are threatening schism, or those who suggest ‘same-sex attracted’ Christians are trying to divide the church. But for so many bishops, including LGBTQI bishops and those known to be supporters, to say nothing when there is so much hurt amongst some of the most vulnerable in our communities, is extraordinary.

This silence leaves open the marketplace for insidious voices to continue to work a dynamic of oppression against LGBTQI people. We are told that we should be more ‘gracious’, as though attacks on our very personhood, identity, and, indeed, on the ones we love, are something we should discuss politely over a cup of tea. We are told that our ‘issue’ is being debated and that we shouldn’t ask for too much. We are told that there might be a few changes around the edges but we shouldn’t ask for marriage – often by straight, white men who are able to return, without any knowing looks of disapproval, to their own wives and children. It is very easy to throw stones when one faces no risk, in a system where one’s own privilege is deeply entrenched.

We are told that we shouldn’t be asking for ‘special treatment’, when such ‘special treatment’ is simply to be able to enjoy the very things that straight people take for granted. It appears to me that an overwhelming majority of straight people do not want to understand what being LGBTQI is like in the church. Very few of us want anything other than what straight people already have – I would have rather more time for the argument that we should wait for marriage if heterosexuals also declared a moratorium on their own marriages to ‘give the church time to make up its mind on this issue’.

LGBTQI people, like any oppressed group, find ourselves in a deeply pernicious environment, where false equivalences are made between genuine oppression and theological disagreement, where we are expected to model perfect behaviour in the face of abuse, where our identity is fair game for ‘discussion’, where our commitment to scripture is consistently questioned, where our integrity is dismissed, where our arguments are wilfully misrepresented, where our experiences are discounted or trivialised, where we are described as an ‘ideology’, where we are continually spoken about not with, where the bishops who are supposed to be upholding this ‘safe space’ feel neither safe enough to speak out, nor brave enough to even mention us by name – and, indeed, sack clergy for entering into same-sex civil marriages.

It is in this kind of environment that LGBTQI people are successfully gas-lighted, belittled, delegitimised, scapegoated. This is what structural violence looks like, however ‘gently’ or ‘generously’ it is expressed. Silence in this kind of environment is not neutral – it is participation in sin.

Life outside the Church would be so much easier, particularly for those of us who have grown up in a world where being LGBTQI is no more interesting than being tall or short.  The miracle is that LGBTQI people are still coming to church, still offering themselves for ordination, still loving the church.

We’ve had report after report; we’ve had the facilitated conversations; now we have LLF. We’ve been told time and time again that it’s worth it.

If we are to put an end to this cycle of violence, then our chief pastors need to look in the mirror and ask – what am I doing?

Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Spiritual Abuse | 3 Comments

LLF: History Repeating Itself: The “Beautiful” Story

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.


Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Simon Butler | 7 Comments

LLF: Bishops – The Time Is Now!

by Jay Greene, Member of General Synod and Member of the Co-ordinating Group for the General Synod’s Sexuality and Gender Group

Back in January I was fortunate to go to Wales and see Cherry Vann consecrated as bishop of Monmouth. It was a truly moving occasion: Brecon Cathedral was packed; the sense of goodwill, new hope and expectation was palpable; and then we heard Cherry and her partner, Wendy, welcomed from the pulpit.  It was faith enhancing, faith restoring and the memory of that day has sustained me through these past two weeks. We have to ask ourselves why +Cherry needed to go to the Church in Wales to be recognised and valued for her gifts.  Why do people who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender rarely make it to the college of bishops here? I know that the Church in Wales has been on its own journey and I am not forgetting the past harm done to Jeffrey John at the Llandaff election.  However, they have managed to resolve their differences and move on. I think we could learn a little from that here in the Church of England.

Bishop Cherry was a member of the Living in Love and Faith Pastoral Advisory Group who produced the Church of England’s “Pastoral Principles”, which are to acknowledge prejudice; speak into silence; address ignorance; cast out fear; admit hypocrisy; pay attention to power.

These principles resonated for me as I took part in General Synod last week. I looked at members of the House and College of Bishops whose sexuality might be described as “a grey area” (a phrase made famous by David Hope, a retired Archbishop of York)  and wanted to say to them, as Our Lord said to Lazarus, Come out. Come out, not only from the closet but from the tomb of fear and silence which imprisons you and undermines true engagement with the Living in Love and Faith resources.

The Church is shaped by hypocrisy.

In 2003 my partner Marion was a Team Vicar and I helped her with admin and those myriad tasks which make parish life run more smoothly. People sensed that I had a vocation so I began that process of discernment which many of you know so well.  The Director of Ordinands described Marion and I as having “a modern marriage”. After a year of preparation, I suddenly got a call from the embarrassed DDO to say that the bishop had changed his mind. If I went forward for training then Marion and I could no longer live in the same house but “he didn’t mind what we did on our day off”……! What??? I’m not quite sure what the bishop thought “we did on our day off” but I can assure you that it normally includes, gardening, walking, and visiting family. Furthermore, when you come home from a harrowing funeral visit or a dispiriting PCC meeting you want someone to give you a hug and make you a drink – the promise of sex on your day off is not the panacea for all ills. The people of the parish knew who we were and their faith was not undermined by our love for each other.  I withdrew from the process. I believe that God brought us together and it was not for a frightened man, even if he was a bishop, to break us apart.  

There has been some change in the intervening years.  Marion and I are now in a welcoming and affirming diocese where she is a House for Duty priest for six small parishes and I continue to help behind the scenes. However, the culture that pretence and secrecy are okay because they preserve the status quo still pervades in the house and college of bishops and, I believe, undermines trust in the Church.  

Gay, Lesbian, and Bi-sexual bishops, I call on you again to come out. Let us stand together and acknowledge our sexuality, this is how God made us and we bring our whole selves to his service.  I call on your straight brothers and sisters in the House and College of Bishops to support you and uphold you in this. I pray that, if and when, you do come out and publicly own your sexual orientation, your straight colleagues will stand with you, commend your bravery and welcome this new openness.

You will need to be brave. We know how hurtful some people can be.

Last year when I was introduced to a conservative evangelical,  I was rather dismayed that, yet again, I found her first words to me were “ we are all sinners”.  That said, this is nothing compared to the trolling and hate speech that comes the way of some of our number. Yes, you will need to be brave as Jesus was brave, but know this – you are not alone as he was.  We are awake, woken like Lazarus and called forth from that time of prejudice, fear, and silence. We are here for you. By “we” I don’t just mean the LGBTQI+ community, I mean open-minded people in parishes, deaneries, and chapters all over England.

We know there are affirming bishops. We can read between the lines and see your input to Living in Love and Faith, but now we need you too to speak out.  One such is our new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cotterell. At Synod he spoke to us of the Vision and Strategy work whose aim is to create a church which is simpler, humbler, bolder.  A church which is Jesus Christ centred and Jesus Christ shaped. Archbishop Stephen is calling for a younger and more diverse church:  “this diversity includes human sexuality and identity and with the publication of Living in Love and Faith we now enter into a period of reflective learning as we are challenged afresh to honour each other and see Christ in each other.”

It is unfortunate that Loving in Love and Faith has taken a big knock from the release of the CEEC film.  There is a strong sense of betrayal amongst the LLF network of creators and amongst all of us, LGBT and straight, who were willing to engage with the resources.  Our trust in the process has been undermined but we can build back and build back better. In Vision & Strategy  Archbishop Stephen takes as his over-arching text:  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5.17). So, let us put aside the culture of fear, hypocrisy, and silence and make this church a ‘new creation’.

To do this will require more than bland unity from our bishops: it will need prophetic courage.  Bishops: the time is now.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jay Greene, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding | 4 Comments