Gathering Voices 2019

GV Conference 2019 flyer
The latest Gathering Voices conference took place at De Montfort University on Saturday. This was another excellent conference and it was heartening to see that the number of people attending continues to increase.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘extending the table’. It had a strong emphasis on being multi denominational and on the experience of being an LGBT asylum seeker in the UK as well as highlighting the invisibility of bisexuals.

The start of the conference was a video from the dean of Leicester, introducing these themes and welcoming people to Leicester.

Next was the first of the keynote speakers – Luke Dowding, the executive director of OneBodyOneFaith. He explained that he had trained for ordained ministry, but he had been denied ordination because he chose to marry his husband. In doing so they became the first couple to get married in a Baptist church in this country.

He discussed matters of intersectionality and diversity, suggesting that representation is a better concept that diversity. He explained that welcoming LGBT+ people to churches is only the start of a journey that should lead to inclusion and then to affirmation.

He gave an overview of the situation for LGBT+ people in several countries, starting with Albania, which he had gone to during his gap year. He showed through his discussions of India, Uganda and Brunei the oppressive legacy of British colonialism. Countries like Uganda did not criminalise homosexual acts until the arrival of the British. Of the 53 sovereign states which used to be British territories, 35 of them have made homosexuality illegal. It was also the influence of the British legacy that linked homosexuality with religion, for example seeing HIV as ‘God’s punishment’. Anti-sodomy Acts, section 377, are still on the statute books in many countries of the Commonwealth.

He commended the report published last month by MCC North London, the LGBT African asylum seeker research project. This shows the way that Christianity is being used as a tool against asylum seekers.
The report is available to download as a pdf here.

The other keynote speaker was Dr Carol A Shepherd of Winchester University, @bispacemission

IMG_3073

The title of her talk was ‘We need to talk about Bi: The subject the church and LGBT+ groups keep ignoring’. It is easy to get knowledgeable speakers to talk about lesbian / gay or about trans, but well informed and articulate speakers about Bi and Christian are very hard to find, it was an area that the conference organisers were keen to address. As her talk was about Bi invisibility, she explicitly limited herself to discussions of sexuality and not gender.

Bisexuality is defined as ‘a romantic and / or sexual attraction to more than one gender’. This definition is taken from the Bisexual index.

She started by introducing herself and the books she has written. She wrote the book 119, under the pseudonym Jamie Sommers (the Bionic Woman). She also has a more academic book Bisexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.

119     bisexuality and the western christian tradition
These books are available to buy here and here.

She took us through a selection of important LGBT books and reports that say a lot about L, G and T but say little or nothing about Bi. These included the welcome message at Bradford Cathedral (@BradfordCathedral) and the Outcome report from the Methodists. The Church of England report Issues in Human Sexuality devoted only one paragraph to bisexuality – these were the 119 words that gave her the title of her first book. The expectation from this one paragraph was that those who were bisexual were expected to live their life as a heterosexual and not give in to their ‘disordered personality’.

She also showed that this was not limited to Christianity, the same erasure was present in other faiths as well. Her point was well made.

Bi erasure can happen even in LGBT+ affirming churches. Among those who identify as LGB, the percentages break down as follows:
Gay 31%, Lesbian 17%, Bisexual 52%. Of the 52% who are bisexual, the breakdown is 33% women and 19% men. This means that the majority of people who identify as LGB are actually Bi. However, the majority of those who identify as Bi are women. This has implications in areas where women are marginalised from power and influence.

Homophobia and biphobia exist among the clergy. Some clergy use this to hide their own same sex experiences and attractions.

Intersectionality needs to be addressed. Intersectionality is a concept first developed by Kimberle Crenshaw, in the context of being black and being a woman.   Her paper can be accessed here.  It can encompass those who are male/ female / opposite sex attracted / same sex attracted and any overlap of these. Intersectionality can come in many contexts, such as disability, nationality, gender, racial identity and sexuality but is not limited to these.

Mental health is another intersectional identity that disproportionately affects bisexuals. There is no specific data on the mental health of bisexual Christians. However, in the general population bisexuals are twice as likely to commit suicide as those who are lesbian or gay. In the general population the number of people who do not identify as straight is increasing, especially in the younger generations. When so many of the general population does not identify as straight, then the worst thing is not to talk about things, it makes you feel isolated and different.

Instead of focusing on ‘Jesus as Lord of men and women’ and ‘Jesus as Lord of lesbians and gays’, we should try to focus on ‘Jesus as Lord of all’.

Carol Shepherd was the breakout success of this conference and I would thoroughly recommend any conference or group that wants to know more about bisexuality and Christianity should invite her to come and talk.

If I have misrepresented what the key speakers said, the mistakes are mine.  This report is what I understood from the talks.

A Broken Church

I have been reading Letters to a Broken Church, edited by Janet Fife and Gilo.

letters to a broken church

This can be purchased here.
It is not an easy read, by any means and it does come with serious trigger warnings. The book draws on the personal experience of survivors of abuse and their allies to give thirty three essays on various aspects of the abuse crisis facing the Church of England. Some of these essays are very personal, where the writer talks about their own experience of abuse, others take a more analytical approach and speak of strategies to improve and the reasons that the church is failing.

The book was produced in response to the IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) hearings that have been taking place and where the Church of England has been one of the subjects of enquiry. The IICSA has brought to light many factual matters, but it has shown a church that is broken and which needs to be mended if it is to be the church that Christ intended it to be.

We are shown a picture of a church that is amateur and out of its depth in handling matters that are beyond its competence and experience. This is a church where those in power are not sufficiently trained and experienced to manage the complexities of abuse, but who are themselves not held to account for their failures. Nobody is being held to account for what has happened (or failed to happen) at a leadership level. We are seeing a church where protecting the institution from reputational damage is being prioritised over the needs of the survivors.

The church strategy of holding a lessons-learned review is wearing very thin very quickly. Lessons are not being learned. This is evident when the same failures are repeated. Lessons do need to be learned and those who fail to learn the lessons need to be held to account, if necessary removed from office if they are not able to gain the necessary expertise.

What we need are leaders who are willing to lead the church to a better and more compassionate place where it can truly serve all the people of this country. That means that it needs to start with real repentance at an institutional level and a timetable for intentional change. That will lead to short term reputational damage, but longer-term cleansing and growth. We cannot afford to have these failures tolerated and justified any longer.

The management culture that is currently in fashion in the Church of England does not easily find room for those people and issues that are not easy to manage, but a confident church that is open and accountable to the people it serves must embrace a different way of operating if it is to change the culture that allows so much abuse to flourish. Andrew Graystone in his essay An Entirely Different Approach: The Church of England and Survivors of Abuse, sets out such a strategy, which focuses on meeting the needs of the survivors rather than concentrating on making the problem go away and avoiding insurance payouts. Several writers show how the treatment they receive when they have made complaints is like being reabused because they are not adequately supported, or even not supported at all.

Among many excellent essays, the other one that needs to be essential reading is Martyn Percy’s Church, Cricket, Elephants and Armies. He shows very eloquently why the Church of England is not able to manage this crisis itself.

Although the context is different, a book like this shows why the Church of England has been unable to find a way forward in its struggles over human sexuality. Some of the issues are the same, such as abuse of power, bad theology, prioritising the reputation of the institution over justice and the dignity of those who are suffering. On human sexuality, the church has been writing reports and ‘listening’ to the experience of LGBT people for decades, with no progress and very little apparent learning and nobody taking responsibility for making changes. The effect is the same as the repeated ‘lessons learned’ and formal apologies without any institutional change in how people are treated and valued.

We need better leadership in the church. We need leaders who will do what is right, even when it is unpopular and who will show how the Church of England can actually be the type of church that is needed in 21st century England.  It needs to put people at the heart of the church, just as Jesus did.

Episcopally led, synodically governed.

News has emerged on Thursday of a meeting held between the bishops of Coventry, Newcastle and Exeter and a group of people opposed to the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith guidance. News article can be accessed here.

The background  is that in July 2017 the Church of England’s General Synod passed a motion calling for the House of Bishops to consider introducing new liturgy to affirm trans people in their faith after transition. The House of Bishops eventually decided that they would issue new guidance on using the existing Affirmation of Baptismal Faith liturgy. This new guidance was issued in December 2018 and can be accessed here:
With a press release that is available here:

Following the release of the guidance, an open letter was organised with public signatures. The letter is available to read here:

Having read the open letter, I was unhappy with the inaccuracies and instances of inflammatory language that is contained, so I wrote a detailed response to the letter. This detailed response, Why the Bishops are Right, can be found here:

Now, some of those who organised the letter have had a meeting with three members of the House of Bishops and have issued a statement about the content of the meeting.
This new statement repeats some of the inaccuracies and misinformation from the open letter, so I decided that this statement needs detailed analysis.  There is a great deal of what the writers said and much less of what the bishops said, which is what we are all really interested in.  On careful reading there are only a handful of points that merit addressing.

The first point is in the second paragraph which says that the bishops had agreed that the press release was ‘unhelpful’ and that it would be removed from the Church of England website. No reason was given for this. I fail to see how the press release is unhelpful, it provides a summary of the guidance document, shows the history of how General Synod asked the House of Bishops to produce this guidance and affirms trans people, saying: “The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit,”. The only ‘problem’ I can see with this is at the end where the Bishop of Blackburn commends the guidance. He subsequently changed his mind and did not support it.

The fourth paragraph was interesting, with the triple use of the word ‘concern’ –
• The delegation expressed concern that…some responses to the open letter were emotive in tone…
• We were further concerned that…. parish churches had been collated…
• We were glad that the bishops shared our concern for respectful public dialogue.
It could give the impression that the bishops were in agreement with them throughout, but the only thing the bishops explicitly agreed with was ‘respectful public dialogue’. I think we would all agree with that.

The first sentence  of the fourth paragraph expresses concern about some responses being ‘emotive in tone’ and not engaging with the points. Those of us who write about LGBT Christian matters are used to emotive, and even hostile, responses that have little or no engagement with the text. Being told that we are going to burn in hell or that we are an abomination or that God hates us etc is very common trolling. Perhaps the writers might like to look at some of the vicious comments that Vicky Beeching or Jayne Ozanne routinely have to put up with. It may be that this is the first time they have experienced it; in which case I hope they will condemn it whenever they come across it.

The letter organisers chose what information to ask people to disclose when they signed the letter. The organisers chose how much of that information to put in the public domain on the open letter website. Having chosen to list parishes and dioceses alongside the names, it was perhaps naïve of the organisers not to expect people to collate that information. Whether that collation was someone with a pen and paper scrolling through the screens to see who had signed in their diocese or someone doing a statistical analysis of this publicly available information or something in between, collation and analysis is an inevitable result of putting large amounts of data into the public domain.

One element of the work I do brings me into contact with LGBT people who have had bad experiences of church. Some have given up on the church completely, others just want to find a ‘safe’ church where they can worship and use their God-given gifts. Those of us who are LGBT know that churches are not automatically safe and we always have to think carefully and ask around before visiting an unknown church. Perhaps the writers of this new statement have never had the experience of going into a church and being preached against, being judged or criticised when all they want to do it join in the worship on a Sunday morning. Until you have been abused in church, it is easy to stay in a bubble that believes churches are always ‘good’ places to attend and be part of.

In the fifth paragraph, the writers are again expressing their concern. They are speculating that ‘ambiguous wording’ may be the result of inadequate theological reflection. I have found that ambiguous wording is so common in the Church of England, that it is almost a strategy. It allows for maximum flexibility without breaking the rules.

The next paragraph says that ‘[We appreciated] … the bishops’ further assurances at this meeting that the provisions of the guidance, even in adapted form, were totally inappropriate for those under the age of eighteen.’ No justification is given for this statement and it needs an explanation. It may be as straightforward as complying with UK policy, which is to delay gender surgery until a person is 18. There may be other reasons and it would have been helpful to avoid misunderstandings and ambiguity if the reason was given. After all, not everyone who transitions has gender surgery.

The writers argue in paragraph nine that they want the guidance withdrawn. As the request for the guidance was produced by General Synod in response to a diocesan motion, if the writers want it to be withdrawn then the most appropriate way would be for them to ask General Synod to change their mind.   I must say that having reread this article and the original open letter, I am led to wonder if the complaint is more about opposition to gender transition itself than to the actual guidance from the House of Bishops.

The writers say that they have been invited to join in the LLF project. One of the strengths of the LLF process is that it is balanced and independent of those campaigning for any particular outcome. It has academics with a range of beliefs and academic expertise on each working party. This allows for listening to other points of view, for compromising opinions and finding common ground while being guided by the Holy Spirit.

In order to maintain balance on the LLF it would be necessary to invite a proportionate number of people from strongly affirming groups. LLF is not something that should be open to campaigning groups, it should be able to do the deep and rigorous academic and pastoral work without having to resist ideological pressures to come up with particular outcomes. The LLF presentation at the last General synod said that we were moving on from ‘good disagreement’ (to ‘appreciative disagreement’) and this is best served by keeping those on the LLF to be the moderate and independent academic voices following the Holy Spirit.

The final paragraph…When what you are writing is likely to be read by people who have been hurt by the church or who have had the doctrine of repentance used against them abusively, this sort of paragraph in the article is going to alienate some readers. When you want to connect with someone you have to start where they are, not where you are.  Any statement like this which does not start by explicitly stating God’s love and affirmation, will be seen through the lens of previous hurts. I would urge greater pastoral sensitivity.

I wonder if the writers include statements like this as part of everything they write? We are all sinners, after all, so why not?

Ann Reddecliffe

Ex post facto truth, Archbishop?

The Christian faith has many mysteries. Now, along with the mysteries of the Incarnation, the nature of Hell etc, there is a new mystery – where does Justin Welby get his legal advice?

The Anglican consultative council meeting #ACC17 is currently taking place in Hong Kong. On the opening day there was a press conference and ++Justin was asked whether the ACC would be debating the invitations to the 2020 Lambeth conference.

[Video of press conference can be viewed here.    Start viewing at 38.50]

The short answer was ‘no’, but the explanation was surprising, for several reasons. The reason ++Justin gave for this was that:
‘The ACC is the only one of the four instruments [of communion] that is under a legal jurisdiction. It is an English company with charitable aims. And as such is governed by its trustees under British law. The trustees clearly specify what it can and can’t do … and doctrine is not one of the things that it does. ‘

Not exactly right…

The Anglican Communion has four instruments of communion. There are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. Information about each of these can be found here.

The ACC is a Registered Charity, No. 1137273 and a Company, No. 7311767. So is the Lambeth Conference – Registered Charity No. 1121679, Company No. 05985741. Both of these are subject to UK law.

A charity has to have public benefit in order to gain charitable status. The statement of public benefit is on the website of the charity commission. According to the public benefit statement of the ACC:

The Trustees believe that the Christian faith is of benefit to individuals and to society since it works towards a holistic vision of a transformed and peace-filled community and the flourishing of humankind and all creation.
The stated objective of the ACC is ‘to advance the Christian religion and in particular to promote the unity and purposes of the Churches of the Anglican Communion in mission and evangelism, ecumenical relations, communication, administration and finance’.

I agree that doctrine is not explicitly mentioned in these objectives. However things like ‘promoting unity’ and ‘finance’ are explicitly stated so they can be discussed.

In 2017 the Lambeth Conference received £160,324 from the ACC. It is expected that there will be more money paid to the Lambeth Conference by the ACC before July 2020. Clearly the numbers of people attending has financial implications, so it is hard to see how any discussion of the invitations would not be relevant.

Unity is another of the ACC objectives. Archbishop Justin has been using this in his discussions with Bishop Robertson, one of the bishops whose spouse is excluded. Bishop Robinson told Episcopal News Service: “He [Archbishop Welby] said to me there are only two of you in the Communion in this situation, you and Mary, and he said if I invite your spouses to the Lambeth Conference, there won’t be a Lambeth Conference.”

The full text of this interview can be accessed here.

The invitations impact on the unity of the Anglican Communion, so they are relevant for discussion under that objective.   When the news was originally announced, the secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon wrote a blog and it was he who affirmed ++Justin’s decision and he linked it to the Lambeth Resolution I.10.  That blog can be accessed here.

Something else that came out of the press conference at the start of ACC17 was the statement that the invitations to the Lambeth Conference are issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury and fall within that Office. This puts the it into a different legal situation. I was previously of the opinion that the discrimination was legal under the Equality Act 2010, schedule 23 paragraph 2. However, that exemption only applies to organisations. The Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury is not an organisation, so these exemptions do not apply.

To suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not fall under UK law is a claim that I find hard to credit. Certainly there are many aspects to the role, but they include being the diocesan bishop of Canterbury diocese and being a member of the House of Lords. Both of those aspects are under UK law.   A fuller list of the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury can be found here.

It is always dangerous when those in power believe that they are not subject to the law or believe they are above the law. That is when abuses of power can so easily happen. It is easy to tell yourself that what you are doing is for the greater good or to ignore the voices of those without power when you feel that there is nobody to hold you to account for your actions and decisions.

What this has shown is the need for ++Justin to get legal advice.  He needs advice about conflict of interest under UK law. As Archbishop of Canterbury he calls the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, chairs the meeting of Primates, and is President of the Anglican Consultative Council. Huge conflict of interest. If the ACC want to discuss the Lambeth Conference invitations, it should not be for the person issuing the invitations to also decide that his decisions cannot be discussed.

Is anyone else at the ACC familiar enough with UK company and charity law to tell the Archbishop when it is appropriate to hand the meeting over to someone else and leave the room because he has a personal interest in the decision?

Blackmail, closets and naked ambition

I have recently finished reading Frederic Martel’s book In the closet of the Vatican – Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.

in the closet of the vatican

It is a meticulously researched book about the Vatican and those in power there. One of its conclusions is that those in power in the Vatican, especially pope emeritus Benedict XVI, have been fighting the wrong battle. Martel shows that in campaigning against homosexuality and homosexuals, the church has created a culture where clerical child abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults can thrive. By fighting something which is legal, loving and between consenting adults, it has not only failed to focus on protecting the vulnerable, but has created an environment where protection of the institution has been put above protecting the vulnerable. The book makes compelling reading.

A key feature of Martel’s argument is that if someone who is homosexual in the church finds out about child abuse, they find it very problematic to report that abuse because of the threat of blackmail. ‘If you report me for child abuse, I’ll report that you are homosexual and tell them about your boyfriend.’ There are too many instances where the outed homosexual cleric has been reduced to the status of laity and the abuser has been moved with only a slap on the wrist. As the British security services discovered, when people are forced to stay in the closet, they are liable to blackmail and bigger secrets can be left unreported.

For the record, Martel suggests three steps that he considers essential if the Catholic Church is to deal effectively with child abuse, (i) end clerical celibacy, (ii) accept homosexuality and (iii) ordain women.

This has led me to consider how this would play out in the Church of England today.

Imagine a situation where a report about child abuse is made to a bishop, but the source is not entirely credible, or there is a lack of proof. They decide to be diligent and investigate anyway. Until the blackmail threat arrives – drop the investigation and cover it up or the fact that they are homosexual will be made public, along with the information about his same-sex partner, bringing with it the threat that ‘You will be finished in this diocese’.

If that bishop were the CEO of a UK company, they could simply call a press conference, come out, call the police and report the blackmail. Diligence and integrity rewarded. Anyone in the Church of England doing that would find that their chances of career advancement would be over.

The thing about being vulnerable to blackmail is that once you have covered up one thing, it becomes harder to deal openly with anything else.

It could also lead to the, hypothetical, case of a bishop covering up some reported incident, so that they can stay in the closet and years later the reports come out anyway. Then that bishop faces condemnation for a safeguarding failure by not acting on reports of abuse and the only way to defend their inaction would be to admit they were being pressurised to keep quiet. For them it is lose-lose, they either willingly covered up abuse or they admit to being in the closet. Either way it will be difficult to remain in post.

We need a climate of openness and honesty. As the Very Revd Jeffrey John reminded us all recently in his powerful Voices of Hope reflection, based on John 8.32, ‘the truth will set you free’.  This is available to read here.  We need a climate where truth can set us free. Free to be who we are, free to be honest about the problems in the church and free to set about building a safe church environment where the kingdom of God can flourish.

It has been over six years since the House of Bishops in the Church of England concluded that there was no impediment to those in a civil partnership being ordained to the episcopate.   Report available here.  The important part is item 7, which confirmed ‘that the requirements … concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.’

The relevant documentation affirming this is GS Misc 44 CHOOSING BISHOPS – THE EQUALITY ACT 2010 (REVISED).  This can be accessed here.  [Note – this document dates from before women were admitted to the episcopate, so all references are male.]

The most important sections are # 25, 28 and 30.

25. A person’s sexual orientation is, in itself, irrelevant to their suitability for episcopal office or indeed ordained ministry more generally. It would, therefore, be wrong if, during the consideration of a nomination to a diocesan see by the CNC or the selection process for a suffragan see, account were taken of the fact that a candidate had identified himself as of homosexual orientation.
28. It follows that clergy in civil partnerships who are living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality can be considered as candidates for the episcopate.
30. As in the case of divorce and further marriage, the fact that there may be those who are in a non-sexually active civil partnership who have been added to the preferment list does not mean that the CNC, or the diocesan bishop and those advising him in relation to a suffragan nomination, are thereby precluded from imposing a requirement that anyone in a civil partnership cannot be nominated to the particular office concerned. Those responsible for making the nomination are entitled in law to reach a judgement on whether the fact that someone is in a civil partnership would prove an obstacle to nomination given the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of those worshipping members of the Church of England to whom the bishop concerned would (once appointed) be ministering.

The Pilling report (GS 1929), did not have a problem with ordaining homosexual bishops either. It required all candidates for ordination to abide by the church’s policies, without discrimination.   Yet in the years since the House of Bishops’ decision in December 2012, no openly gay bishop has been appointed, either in a civil partnership or single.

It is interesting that since 2012, the Church of England has decided to ordain women bishops and so far there are 19 female bishops selected.   The first ever female bishop was announced less than 6 months after the decision.

In 2012, the House of Bishops initiated the Turning Up the Volume programme to increase the number of BAME clergy in senior appointments within the Church of England. This has led to more BAME bishops, including the first female BAME bishop – the Bishop of Loughborough.

Yet we are still waiting for the appointment of a bishop who is openly homosexual – male or female, partnered or single.  Anyone who has ambition in the church will get the message that staying in the closet is that only way to be considered for advancement.   Making the closet unnecessary would make the church a better place for all of us.