RADICAL INCLUSION .CO.UK
please do not erase our lives, our love, and precious parts of who we are
'Life shrinks or expands, in proportion to one's courage'
REASONS FOR NO CHANGE
In preparation for my Church House meeting to participate in 'Living in Love and Faith', I reflected on the reasons that church leaders had for repeatedly delaying doctrinal change on human sexuality. I believe the main reasons included:
1. Personal theological views on what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage.
2. Hesitation to change doctrine held by the Church for nearly 2000 years, and still held by many other churches today, just to align with cultural changes in society.
3. Fear of schism in the Church of England.
4. Fear of schism in the Anglican Communion.
5. Bishops need to be a focus of unity in their diocese, and supporting or allowing the blessing of gay relationships would be divisive and fracture fellowship, harming relations with a significant number of churches.
With regard to personal theological views, diversity of opinion certainly exists among bishops (I know, I've corresponded with more than 50 of them - a correspondence I'm grateful for, and whose confidence and privacy I will always protect). Yes, there is a diversity of views, as on other issues, but the policies and statements asserted in recent years have been managed by an Archbishop who appears to tend towards socially conservative (or at least very hesitant) views on sexuality. Apart from a little breaking ranks over the tone (not the doctrine) of the recent 'Pastoral Statement', the bishops have presented a 'collective' position, and top-down process has managed to maintain the conservative 'status quo' view held by one part of the Church of England, which is then imposed on the other half of the Church as if there was actually uniformity of biblical understanding at any level of the Church, which there is not. On the contrary, there are divergent views right down the middle of the Church, but this diversity of view is not addressed or accommodated. Instead, from the top, it's 'You must accept what we say is true, not what you think is true, and you may be sanctioned if you don't' - and no change is allowed.
With regard to the force of tradition through the ages, and all the saints who have gone before, and the Christians in other denominations continuing that tradition today, change may seem to require long and slow reflection in the context of 'the way things were passed on to us' over so many centuries. But as with other issues of social justice and discrimination the Church has had to deal with - slavery, race, the role of women - church tradition in the past has often reflected social and cultural assumptions, and oppressions, until social consciousness changed. Social consciousness has changed in many countries and cultures today, over human sexuality, shedding light on the harm and injustice being done to gay and lesbian people, and the diminution of their lives; and as this perception and realisation has deepened into principle and conscience, urgency is not about chasing a cultural fad, but about the recognition that here, today, now... right now... people are being marginalised, compromised, shamed for their love (because the condemnation of their tender love IS shaming), partners erased from announcements, or not invited where other partners would be (for example the Lambeth Conference), and most crucially being told that their most tender, costly, and precious relationships are wrong in the eyes of God.
If the bishops take one single thing out of LLF, it should be that they have not taken seriously enough the degree and extent of harm being done by the Church to gay and lesbian people, and specifically, not because of tone, but because of doctrinal condemnation of who they know themselves to be. If they genuinely learn that from LLF - the recognition of very present harm being done by the doctrine itself - they will realise that further deferral is simply not a viable option. As half their church already believes (especially after 50 years of going over this ground) that change needs to happen now. A uniform conservative position is being imposed on the whole Church, but that does not reflect the conscience and concern (and the belief) of probably more than half the Church who no longer think that gay relationships are wrong.
With regard to the fear of schism in the Church of England, I totally understand that fear, because I dread it myself. Believing in a 'Broad Church', and what we gain by loving and serving together with various expressions of faith, I hate the idea of schism. However, I'd raise this point: the most vociferous apologists for the conservative status quo tend not to be the bulk of people in the pews - those lay members who drive people to hospitals, check on the elderly, clean the church, sing in the choirs, come to church events and help run them. There is a large central group in church who do not have polarised views at all, but whose views on sexuality have evolved in line with society's, and who just want to get on with all the rest of church life and service to their community. They don't want schism. Up and down the land, in community after community, they are living out the love of Christ in their lives, living out their faiths, and sexuality is often peripheral to so much else they do. In the course of preparing the survey which forms part of this project, I have visited and fact-checked over 1000 church websites and facebook pages. It has been a deeply moving experience. Here is so much that is good about the Church of England: serving others, trying to grow community, and just doing stuff because it's kind, and it's happening in church after church after church. I am so proud of this Church for that! And proud of the countless priests who burn their lives out for their communities! It's really moving when you explore so many websites and see what's happening. So, schism over letting some churches bless gay relationships if that's what they believe (and many do)? Most people in the pews, and in our church communities, are committed to the Church of England and not inclined to schism at all. In other words, the threat of schism tends to be voiced by those with very strong doctrinal views, and these conservative voices in the Church (often, but not exclusively priests and lay leaders of conservative evangelical churches) have a disproportionate influence over leaders like Justin from a similar tradition. In the end, though, they do not have the right to dominate other people's consciences. Yes, at this point I personally believe their sincerely-held views and their own consciences should be respected and protected in their own local church communities. I do respect (and reasonably understand) the sincere conscience behind their views. But at the same time, we're in a situation where the Church simply doesn't believe one thing, and that's why the only way to avoid schism is to allow local priests and church communities to have right of conscience to act on what they deeply believe is right - including, for many churches, affirming and blessing and celebrating gay and lesbian relationships and their dedicated love.
I have corresponded with Bishop Rod, and I respect him as a person, because he is honest and true to what he believes, and his view is a conscientious view. However - and it saddens me - I believe that he and a (not that large) fraction of churches might branch off and seek separate oversight if 'unity in diversity' is introduced in England, as it has been in Scotland. That is choice and consequence (and I don't say that lightly, it grieves me). But it's not grounds for dominating other people's and other churches' consciences. In a Church with diverse views and diverse consciences, no resolution comes from deciding 'who is right' when all groups think they are. That achieves no resolution (and hasn't for 50 years). Instead, the real test is grace and love: 'Can we love one another, and care about one another, even if we have differing views on issues, out of central faith in the love of God, and shared service of the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the marginalised?' That, I believe, is what the largest group - the central core of ordinary church members in our local churches - favour. A resolution that's respectful of conscience, so we can get on with actual ministry and pastoral care, and not endlessly be torn up and consumed by sexuality. In the end, if church leaders change nothing... to appease conservative opinion... then the (false) uniformity they impose crushes conscience of others, and that disrespects all the work, the service, the convictions of so many churches who must reasonably feel: you do your thing if you choose, but in our communities we will live by our consciences and we will radically include gay and lesbian people (and, of course, the many other people of diversity who bring gift to our church communities).
With regard to the fear of schism in the Anglican Communion, oh I have very strong views on this. I'm a nurse. And my life experience tells me that deep in the Christian imperative is compassion, and personal one-to-one desperate human need. All over our world, so many people need help. So many people need love and care. My daughter, a dear and committed Christian, has lived and worked for years in a slum neighbourhood in Uganda with grave need and challenges. She has been given so much by people who have virtually nothing. I'm really grateful to them. They live alongside each other and they try to cope. Each week she sends me prayer requests, about malnourished babies, abandoned mothers, abject poverty, pitiful deprivation. And this living reality, in different countries, in different communities, is being repeated all over the world, including here in the UK. What amazes me and moves me is the way that Christian faith can inspire people in communities to help one another. I know Justin feels this acutely, and the pitiful helplessness of so many people, for example in South Sudan which he has special burden for. And as a whole world, so much help is needed, and solidarity, and support. Therefore I think the Anglican Communion is precious, as one network among others, where we can try to share, and help each other, and just recognise common humanity and desperate needs. So schism in the Anglican Communion is no casual thing.
However, I am saddened - in the face of so much helplessness and need - that some church leaders weaponise the sexuality issue, and politicise it, and threaten to break apart, province from province, when we so desperately need to support each other with bonds of love. The nurse in Nigeria is in many ways the same as the nurse in England: it's blood and vomit and faeces... and practical love. We share common humanity, and it's privilege to be able to care for people in their need, and be offered a share of their lives, often at a deeply personal, critical time. As a transgender nurse, as a lesbian nurse, do you think my dying patients care at all about my sexuality? They really don't. They need the presence of love and reassurance, and assiduous practicality. Our humanity transcends our gender or sexuality.
In the Anglian Communion truth is: culture varies from country to country, and the Communion is an alliance of separate Provinces, but those provinces have their own cultural contexts, their own communities, and what's understood in one country may be understood differently in another, and the emphasis and needs in one country may differ from those in another. What we have to do, right down to specific local churches and communities, is to try to live our lives in ways that allow the love and compassion to flow, right where we live and serve. And that may be expressed differently in different places, but each community is on a journey with God, who cares for every single person. And we have to listen to conscience right where we are. Because there's so much need. Now when it comes to England, the Archbishops of the English provinces have primary roles in understanding and empowering mission in the English church communities they have been entrusted to oversee. Right now, here in England, this involves living communities, immediate needs (not least in the present pandemic) and - as we know - the call to radically include not exclude or marginalise groups that, in some other countries, may be far more demonised and marginalised by the Church.
In short, the threat of schism in the wider Communion, while it really matters because we all lose when we break relationships, and that hurts those most desperate and vulnerable, is not something that justifies appeasement. We cannot say to gay people, because of the threat of this Nigerian prelate, you need to take the hit here in England. That makes gay and lesbian people expendable scape-goats in some worldwide political chess game. It should not even be countenanced, because it is just so wrong. Compassion doesn't work that way. Here, in countless communities in England, we want to welcome, to accept, to affirm gay and lesbian couples because - in many church communities across the land - we just recognise (as much of society now recognises) that committed, devoted, tender caring relationships of love are precious and decent (and a gift to community) regardless of gender. And that's where we're at. Gay and lesbian people in our church communities are not pawns in a world power game. They are friends. They are Church. And beyond sexuality altogether, though it's integral to who they are, and beautifully so, they are so much else as well: neighbours who help the elderly, friends who help you when you're down, colleagues who support you at work when you're not well, people just living their decent lives, here in England, in an English context, in their local communities.
Yes, our hopes should be that the Anglican Communion remains a network, helping each other with bonds of love, sharing friendship, resources, and help for the poor. But the threat of Schism by big power players does not give 'free pass' to church leaders in England to lock gay people in restrictive doctrine indefinitely into the future. With regard to the Church of England, the Archbishops (and poor Stephen Cottrell, a man I have high regard for, is recently thrown into this category) have a huge duty to support and empower the local churches who are central to mission (and to many people's lives) in community after community across the nation: and these church communities need empowerment to flourish, and that in turn involves exercise of conscience, opening up to love, expanding welcome. 'Perfect love casts out fear' we are taught. We should not be afraid, where we are, where we live, to live out conscience and as communities to expand our lives in love.
With regard to bishops needing to be a focus of unity: although the logical shortfall and paradox of the full statement (above) is glaring and obvious, bishops often do have strong pastoral instincts, and in correspondence I have picked up the sensitivity of some over the harm that may be caused to their pastoral relations with socially conservative churches, if they advocate change on human sexuality. And please don't get me wrong: my experience of bishops (including my own cousin) is that many of them are kind, caring, decent and faithful people, who take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. I've found my correspondence moving, and the fact that so many even bothered to interact, when I am nothing in the structure of the Church. (Because I'm not. I'm not anything.) At the same time, consequences make many hesitant to act. They really, deeply worry about fracturing unity. While the bishops are not unintelligent people, this heart-felt concern probably does act as a brake on the actions of some of them. To some, if changes were introduced allowing 'unity in diversity' (which a good number recognise as an option, as in Scotland), they fear it would precipitate division in the diocese, and even outrage; and it would be understandable if this prospect psychologically fed in reluctance to 'rock the boat', with deferral of action feeling tempting and in some ways preferable to outright conflict. In part that's because the debate over changes has met with more vociferous belligerence from conservative evangelical leaders about the potential consequences, whereas more socially liberal churches have tended to comply reluctantly with the status quo.
It does take courage for a bishop to speak out, if you fear the harm it may cause in your diocese. However, as I hope 'Living in Love and Faith' makes clear, very serious harm is already being done. The hurt over human sexuality is now a crisis, alienating so many people, marginalising others, demeaning their most intimate devotion and love. (Note: as a nurse I am very aware that the pandemic is our immediate crisis first of all, and beyond a simple fact-finding survey, I believe we have other immediate responsibilities as human beings in the coming months, and I won't be engaged in anything more myself until the end of the summer.) There is already a crisis about unity in the Church, because imposed uniformity doesn't cut it. No change in doctrine and practice in the Church on human sexuality is - let's be clear - a partisan position for bishops to take. I would say they have until the autumn to find the courage: to speak out with more individual diversity of view, and with frankness about their views. Privately I know that some have been appalled by so-called 'Church Statements'. But collective responsibility seems to be a principle at work. The other point, of course, is that a good many bishops DO have conservative views on sexuality, and want 'unity' but on their terms. And so the issue of 'Unity' in the diocese and in the Church is vexed, but the problem needs resolution. It may be, that if bishops are not able to exercise courage and dissent from the further proposed delay for reflection on LLF (thank you to the Bishop of Manchester for publicly pointing out the need for a timeframe for decisions once LLF has been released) then it will fall to the actual front-line church... the local churches and their priests... to exercise courage, and simply say 'We shall no longer discriminate between people if they want their relationships blessed (or indeed celebrated by a church community). Some of that burden of conscience and courage needs to be carried by PCC's whose lives are less vulnerable to sanction. There really is no reason why a PCC, representing a church community, cannot publish a statement setting out new policy that will be adopted in the life of their church, and exactly what they - as a church- believe.
Unity, that the bishops are understandably concerned about, is not the same thing as uniformity. They really need to get their heads round that. The Church has allowed diverse conscience before. The Scottish Anglicans have shown it is possible on human sexuality too. Unity based on one group dominating another group's conscience is no recipe for flourishing. On the contrary, in the view of more and more local churches, it is a recipe for harm, to gay and lesbian people, to the local church, and to the affronted public who are alienated by the Church's position on sexuality and find it incomprehensible (especially the young). Out of basic decency, in the end, local churches would need to take things into their own hands - working collectively around the country - but it would be far, far better if the bishops had the courage to make the decision themselves and forge a new Unity not based on a uniformity everyone knows doesn't exist, but rather on the basis of admitted diversity of practice and belief, but continuing commitment to justice, mercy, compassion and service which in every community in the country is about so much more than sexuality. We should be driven by conscience and compassion to be the sort of Church we already see, at the heart and centre of mission: getting on with serving our communities in so many practical ways. While your survey answers are coming in, we all have so many opportunities to live that out, as we find practical ways to work together as communities in the face of this virus. That has nothing to do with sexuality. It is something all Christians can respond to with a unity of purpose. And that's the point: unity goes deeper, and already exists deeper in the great work many churches do, than different conscientious views on sexuality. Diversity calls for love, for grace, for a quality of co-existence which, to me, marks out the Church of England at its best. In eternity, the only unity we have we find in Jesus Christ. In the lived out compassion of Christ let that be enough. Indeed let compassion and givenness be all. We can love one another, even with different views. We just have to want to. What we can't do is force other people to act against conscience. Unity is not all being the same. It is active conscience-driven love and compassion we can open to, when we open our hearts to God.
Two parallel sites have been created:
radicalinclusion.co.uk - the site you are visiting right now - is the more 'in depth' version if you have time to read it
radicalinclusion.uk is the 'quick read' version if you want a shorter summary of main points
~ click on any of the links below for 'quick read' versions of these pages ~