Many of those who lead the Church of England and who fill our pews every Sunday morning are the generation who were at school in the 60s, 70s and 80s. What were they reading? Who were the romantic role models that they had? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Elizabeth Bennett simpering after Mr Darcy? Or perhaps the Brontës? Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester or a smouldering Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or even the ultimate tragedy of star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet?
Well generation Z in our schools now certainly aren’t reading those for their romantic role models. In YA (young adult) literature, the big thing at the moment is Heartstopper, the story of Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring. Charlie is gay and out, but then he meets Nick…. If you have never heard of it, your children or grandchildren almost certainly have.
The Church of England aims to be a younger church. It wants the young people in our schools to join the church. Nationally the Church of England has many schools, including many secondary schools. There are Nick and Charlies in all those secondary schools. What messages are they getting from us as a church? Do they see us as a safe place, people they can come to for advice or somewhere they would avoid like the plague?
Nick and Charlie are friends, but Nick realises that his feelings are more than friendship and it totally blasts his world. He doesn’t understand and he has no adults to go to for advice and support. So, in a heartbreakingly true scene, all he has is his laptop and Google. So alone in his bedroom one night he types in the words ‘am I gay?’ Long story short, he is bisexual.
If he was in one of the Church of England secondary schools, could he go to the school chaplains or ministry team? What would they have to say to him? Would they even listen to the questions he is asking or just give him the same answers that have been going round for centuries – ‘no, you can’t get married’ and ‘no you can’t have sex’. Or would they listen to the questions he’s actually asking? Can I hold his hand? What do these feelings mean and what does it say about who I am? Or even more urgently, how do I deal with the bullies?
A lot of the trouble is that the church has no theology of dating. In the Bible, nobody dates, all marriages are arranged. One man makes a contract with another man to marry his daughter. Think of couples like Isaac and Rebekah, they first time they meet is when she arrives with his servant on a camel. There was no ‘you must be tired’ or ‘would you like something to eat?’ Not even ‘hello, I’m Isaac’. It was straight off the camel and into his dead mother’s tent for sex. Romantic. Not.
Let’s also be honest that there are eight different types of marriage in the Bible. Some of the greatest figures of the Bible had large numbers of wives. They did not marry for love, marriages were arranged in order to have children. They were political arrangements between kingdoms and powerful families, they were to cement alliances, they were to make sure that there would be someone to carry on the family lineage. But love? No.
That is why Romeo and Juliet had to be a tragedy. They transgressed. They wanted to be with the person they loved rather than the person their families chose for them. Modern audiences want their love to succeed – Love Wins. But to the audience who saw Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s time, they were behaving unacceptably, they deserved to die for their disobedience. If they married whoever they wanted to marry, it would threaten the control the powerful held over who could marry and whom. How many married people in the Church of England had arranged marriages? Or how many met and fell in love and decided to get married themselves? How many of those in church leadership have Biblical marriages?
We, as a church, have to give the young people in our schools the role models they need for dating. We have to show them how to develop healthy relationships and to set boundaries. That ministry might just involve telling the Nick Nelsons of this world, ‘yes you can hold his hand’. And perhaps help him to navigate the bullies too.
But if Nick Nelson were writing this blog today, what would he say and who would he say it to? I believe he would have something to say to the bishops.
This ends now. We need you to make bold, courageous decisions. No more kicking the can down the road, no more going round in circles. Rediscover your backbone, rediscover your voice and rediscover episcopal leadership. The church needs to move forward together and we need you to lead. Make the decisions that move us forward.
Speaking as me:
To those of us who want to move forward together as a church, respecting differences and the conscientious beliefs of others. I say:
Let. Us. Begin.