This excellent conference took place at Staffordshire University last Saturday. This year’s conference title was ‘From Welcome to Affirmation’.
The fact that this conference was taking place in Stoke-on-Trent was important because it is in the Diocese of Lichfield. All four of the bishops from that diocese had issued an ad clerum letter to all the clergy in this diocese on ‘Welcoming and honouring LGBT+ people.’ Hard copies of this were included in the conference pack. (Letter available here )
Dr Chris Whitney-Cooper, who introduced the conference, explained how the letter from the bishops had made a difference in her own evangelical church and the effect it had on her own church participation. It was helpful to see the immediate effect of the letter on a local level.
Gareth Street from Oasis UK opened his presentation with a video that had been made specially for the conference from Oasis founder Steve Chalke. Steve shared his own experiences of rejection, losing friends and eventually having membership of the Evangelical Alliance revoked. He linked the experience he had and that his organisation had experienced to the rejection many LGBTQ+ people feel from churches. It was a powerful testimony. I hope the video may be available online soon. Gareth talked through the Oasis Open Charter, which is something that churches can sign up to, through the Open Church Network. The charter is being relaunched soon.
Geoff Annas, bishop of Stafford and one of the signatories of the Lichfield letter, spoke of the particular problems that LGBT people face, mentioning homelessness and mental health issues, which are disproportionately higher in the LGBT community. But he also saw evidence of society’s desire for more diversity, especially in the entertainment industry. He spoke of the way that he sees God working through society and culture to promote increased diversity and acceptance.
Bishop Geoff also reminded us of the current position of the Church of England which the Lichfield bishops had explained in their letter. Everyone who is ordained in the Church of England has to agree to abide by the document Issues in Human Sexuality, available here
The Lambeth Conference in 1998 also passed resolution 1.10, text available here
This resolution does not have legal status in England, but has moral force. Bishop Geoff reminded the conference that this is the Church of England’s starting point. The church of England is now working on a new teaching document entitled Living in Love and Faith (more information available here).
There were breakout groups where people could explore an issue in more detail. These groups were run by stonewall, Open Table and Oasis among others. As is often the case, there were more groups you wanted to go to than sessions available.
The highlight of the afternoon was the Brenda Harrison memorial lecture, given by Revd Dr Tina Beardsley.
In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England addressed the Blackburn motion, calling for affirmation and welcome for trans people and for the House of Bishops to consider developing liturgy to mark significant points in a trans person’s faith journey. The House of Bishops decided not to develop the liturgy, but promised guidance. Tina, along with other trans priests Rachel Mann and Sarah Jones have been helping with the guidance. The Blackburn motion was able to address the issue of affirmation, but did not go further to celebrate trans people.
Tina described her time as a student at Westcott House, in the days before her transition. There was another student there, who would transition in the future to become Rev. Carol Stone. However, at the time when Tina was a student there, the biggest story was of the college chaplain who had come out as gay during compline the previous term.
Tina explained that she came out first as gay. She did this during a sermon, with the words, ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay’. There was a positive reaction from people who were pleased to see a gay man in a caring profession. Tina’s response was ‘I never said I was a gay man’.
Coming out in private is positive, but we need to be public in our affirmation of ourselves to combat the shame and stigma that some in society try to use against us.
The story of the good Samaritan is one that is important to LGBT people. The Samaritan is the one who is willing to cross the road to break the barrier between being pure and impure, just as Jesus did so many times. Jesus reaches out to those who are not at the table, he goes to where they are.
Being inclusive is not easy, it is costly not cosy. This is because there is a tension between inclusive theology and exclusive theology. Are we willing to leave our exclusive side of the street and cross the barrier to the other side?
This conference was well attended and a great success. They have promised us another one. I will look forward to it.