A Farewell Discourse: The Hard Truths That Set Us Free

Within a few days, I shall be subsumed the Church of England’s system as a loyal and obedient functionary. Having spent the last three years deeply engaged with the struggle for LGBT acceptance on the other side of the Irish Sea, including the struggle for marriage equality, this is probably my last chance for some time to say in public what I actually think about the state of the Church of England.

Following the House of Lords vote on same-sex marriage, the anger and bitterness that already existed among LGBT churchpeople and those who support their full inclusion in the life of the Church has deepened. Online, people are shouting, not always terribly coherently. Privately, they are saying much worse things to one another. I have never seen this depth of anger among churchpeople before; some of it, from deeply loyal churchgoing Anglicans, tips over into outright hatred of the Church leadership, in a way that it never has in my lifetime. The reaction of Church of England bishops, and conservatives more generally, to this has been defensive and bewildered.

Shouting does none of us any good, and neither does chippy defensiveness. Nonetheless, I think there are messages my conservative my conservative brothers and sisters in the Church, especially my Evangelical brothers and sisters, need to hear. Some of them might not make terribly comfortable reading. But please take the time to read them – conservatives have set the agenda on sexuality issues in the Church of England for a generation. The view who feel betrayed and marginalised as a result  must also be heard.

I hope what I’ve written isn’t ‘Evo-bashing’ – because every wing of the Church has played a part in bringing us to this bitter and divided juncture – and I certainly hope it isn’t seen as Justin-bashing. I think Justin is a vast improvement, in many ways, on both of his immediate predecessors. He is clearly an extraordinarily capable man and deeply faithful and committed Christian. There are lots of things I don’t agree with him about, but in Anglicanism that’s part of the package for all of us. I think he has a lot to offer. I think he might even end up being the most significant Archbishop since Temple.

If you are conservative on LGBT issues, and find yourself about to explode as you read this, or want to shout defensively about the gay friends you have, please don’t. Take a deep breath and keep reading.

I’ll briefly review the Church of England’s record on LGBT issues, and then I’ll review Justin’s record, which is typical of most Evangelical clergy and pretty much every Evangelical bishop of his generation. I could write an equally critical article about Liberal Catholic bishops, but it would be involve different criticism and, let’s be honest, that’s not who has been driving the agenda on sexuality issues in the Church of England for a long time.

This is, unfair as it may seem, the sum total what you have managed to communicate to LGBTs over the past two decades. It may not be what you wanted to communicate, but it’s what you did.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a revolution in how same-sex relationships have been treated in law in the United Kingdom, as in most Western societies. The Church of England opposed nearly every step of that process, and in the few cases where it didn’t do so formally as a denomination, its Evangelical wing did so vociferously in the media, usually led in the public charge by Archbishop Carey and other senior bishops. And I mean every step – the equalisation of the age of consent; the abolition of the hateful Section 28; the granting of adoption rights to same sex couples; same-sex marriage. The introduction of civil partnerships was accompanied by an attempt to strip them of any social or spiritual meaning and constant denigration of gay and lesbian relationships; it remains forbidden to give civil partnerships any blessing in church. The outlawing of discrimination in employment saw the Church of England attempt to carve out as wide a scope as possible where it could continue to discriminate against queers. And, yes, it was about orientation rather than practice – ask Jeffrey John.

That is the record. There is no point in trying to minimise or obfuscate it. A couple of hours with Google and Hansard will reveal it in almost every detail.

Justin Welby was mostly silent when all this was going on, and when he wasn’t he supported a homophobic party line. When Justin first started being mentioned as a rising star and possible Archbishop of Canterbury, about two years ago, I quickly got the sense he was an incredibly able and highly regarded man and he might well end up in Augustine’s throne before too long. So, I tried to find anything he’d ever said online about LGBT issues.

All I could find was a statement in a regional newspaper from when he was elected Bishop of Durham, which was pretty much the standard C of E bishop line, approximating to ‘I think sex between two people of the same gender is a sin but I don’t pry into people’s bedrooms.’ (And, yes, the language was that clumsy and toe-curling.)

Andrew Atherstone – Welby’s sympathetic conservative Evangelical biographer – found two other references to gay issues from Justin’s time as a vicar in Coventry Diocese. One was at the time Michael Portillo’s gay experiences were publicised, where he baldly laid down the standard Evangelical opposition to same-sex relationships, without saying one good thing about them. The second was when same-sex couples were first allowed to adopt, when Justin wrote a hysterical editorial about the alleged dangers of gay parents and threatened to withdraw his parish’s financial support for the Church of England’s rather excellent Children’s Society, which supported the move.

And that’s the sum total of Justin’s record on homophobia before he was announced as Archbishop of Canterbury – a couple of bible bashings and a little dalliance with anti-gay hysteria. No mention of homophobia. Nothing but bad things to say about us or our relationships. No mention that trans people even exist – you know, the people who still get hounded to suicide by the Daily Mail in the way that gay people used to be. St. James’, Southam in the late ‘90s and early 2000s doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice church for a vulnerable lesbian teenager to grow up in. And don’t kid yourself, those trite ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ messages can really mess up a teenager desperate to do the right thing by God and ashamed of the feelings they have.

Now, I don’t think Justin is still where he was in 2000 when he wrote that hysterical parish magazine editorial; I don’t think most Evangelical bishops are where they were even a few years ago on LGBT inclusion. I think he’s travelled a long way in a short time. I think he’s serious about a Church of England where people are free to disagree with him, and I think he’s serious about opening himself to challenge from the LGBT community.

And in that, I think there is already a very interesting tale to be told – of change and growth, of new life, of loving people even when you can’t agree with them. It’s a more truthful story than the non-credible party line of “we’ve always been against homophobia, we just can’t accept gay marriage”. It’s also a much more Christian story than the party line.

We are all sinners redeemed only by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; we are, all of us, called to judge our own sins before we turn to the sins of others. I have passed by on the other side too many times to delude myself that I am any better than Justin Welby or anybody else on that score.

But if the Church of England is serious about loving, including and accepting LGBT people, it needs to stop patronising us and it needs to stop deluding itself about its own record – for it deludes neither us nor society in general.

‘Authenticity’ is one of the big mission buzzwords at present. There’s a need for a bit of authenticity here, and a good dollop of humility with it. If you only started saying nice things about same-gender relationships when the ‘threat’ of gay marriage emerged, be honest enough to admit it. As it stands, I doubt there is a LGBT person in the whole of England who actually believes you when you claim to oppose homophobia.

The ‘party line’ is morally bankrupt and only leaves us divided and angry at one another. We desperately need some truth in the Church of England. In Christ, the truth is what sets us free.

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One Response to A Farewell Discourse: The Hard Truths That Set Us Free

  1. The second most important Commandment which Christ stated was “love thy neighbor as you love thyself” and He gave us examples of such love. Sadly, one of my friends, a gay Minister of Religion, had to state that his “spiritual mother”, the Church, was seriously lacking in her nurturing and mothering qualities when he needed these qualities most in his own life, exclusively due to his being gay. Personally, I am extremely saddened that large numbers of the LGBT people who seem to have experienced this same lack in their relationship with the church. They either left the church behind to call themselves “spiritual, but not religious” or to have turned their back altogether on the church which they believe has turned her back on them first. Some of them equate God Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the church and thus now live in the “wilderness” out there where the church does not reach or even tries to reach them at all. Despite this sad reality, I believe and trust in God and hold on to my own personal motto: “By the Grace of God I am who and what I am!” – and nothing shall stand between His Grace and me as an individual. I pray that the day may come soon that the church and my fellows in the LGBT community at large will adopt this same motto and open her doors and their hearts to this belief and confession AMEN.

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