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?