Living in Love and Faith and Fear

With the college of bishops having held their first LLF meeting and Bishop Stephen Croft publishing his views on the future last week, there is a sense that the Living in Love and Faith process is finally seeing the light at the end of an extremely long tunnel.  There are hopes that by the end of next February’s General Synod that the decisions will be made and we just have to allow time to implement them. 

That is the best-case scenario.  The worst-case scenario could be that whatever the bishops propose gets rejected by General Synod and we are back at square one, except that we would have wasted six years, lots of money and an incalculable amount of good will and patience. 

It is likely that the eventual outcome will be somewhere between those extremes.  There is an expectation that some sort of accommodation will be found.  There has been talk of a ‘third province’ for many months.  Some, like Bishop Stephen, see this as a safe haven for those who take a conservative view.  Others see it as a place for affirming churches to do what they want.  There are numerous ways that could play out. 

Personally I hope we do not go down the third province route.  I want us to be able to be one church together, despite our differences.  There are many people with whom I might disagree about marriage and sexuality, but where our agreements far outweigh the disagreements and we work together in mutual respect to build God’s kingdom.

That is what it looks like from an insider perspective.  From outside the cosy church cloisters things look very different.

As Living in Love and Faith moves into its endgame, the language and visibility from all sides has increased.  We all want the bishops to pay attention to what we want.  We [insiders] understand that some of this is just noise and power games.  But in the LGBTQ+ communities, that is not the way things are being seen. 

Those of us who have spent years campaigning for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church have been very vocal in being part of the LGBTQ+ communities.  Our basic message of acceptance and affirmation hasn’t changed.  The fact that we are having meetings with more important people or gathering a wider audience for our work is completely unseen outside church circles. 

Instead those outside the church are hearing the conservative point of view getting louder and more rejecting.  The fear is growing and churches are seen as less and less safe places.  Christians are seen as unsafe and assumed to be hostile unless proven to be otherwise.  Talk of a third province is being heard as ‘if they can’t keep us out, are they trying to put us in a ghetto?’  People might want to follow Jesus, but they don’t want anything to do with churches full of scary Christians.

There is an irony here too.  Anyone familiar with LGBTQ+ literature, whether books, films, TV shows etc will have seen an increase in recent years of the use of religious and specifically Christian themes and imagery.  There is an increased interest in religion and in Christianity at just the time when Christians themselves are being increasingly seen as ‘the enemy’ to be afraid of. 

This increased use of Christian imagery and themes is especially strong in WLW literature.  Novels discuss religious ideas, films use religious settings etc.  It is OK to use Christian characters in positive ways.  To show what I mean, let me give one clear (and free, it’s on BBC iPlayer) example from the BBC TV series Fort Salem. When we are introduced to the lead character Raelle Collar, who we subsequently learn is gay, she is using prayer and Scripture to carry out what we would recognise as a faith healing.  Start watching from about 3.25 minutes.

BBC iPlayer – Fort Salem – Series 1: 1. Say the Words

This is just one of many, many clear religious and Christian examples, but you need to buy the books or have a subscription channel to get the full impact of this shift.  The spiritual hunger is real and growing.

For those, like me, who work to bring unchurched LGBTQ+ Christians and those seeking and questioning their own faith into our churches, decision time is also looming.  Can we really encourage those from the LGBTQ+ communities who are seeking Christ to join their local churches?  Or do I have to recognise that the Church of England has lost my trust? 

After February’s General Synod, I will have to decide if I can continue to bring LGBTQ+ people into Church of England churches or do I have to step across the line and take the Christian message into the LGBTQ+ communities and bring church to them?  I don’t know the answer yet.  But I know God’s call on my life and I know there is a real possibility that I might have to follow that call out of the Church of England.

The best person for the job

A row has broken out because some of the GAFCON primates and some of the GFSA Steering Committee are unhappy at the appointment of David Monteith as the next dean of Canterbury.  The reason these groups are unhappy is because David is in a civil partnership.

I am writing this as a member of the Changing Attitude England steering committee, and also as a member of David’s congregation at Leicester Cathedral, where he has been dean since 2013 and was canon chancellor before that.

What these GAFCON / GFSA people are missing is the David is the best person for the job.  He is a man of God, with deep faith and prayer life and an excellent preacher.   He represents the best of the Church of England, in his care for people and his bold proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.

David is also the person who led the reinterment of Richard III as not just a national event, but a worldwide one.  He brought church to the world.  How many of the primates could have achieved what he did?

I could describe at length the millions of pounds of fundraising he has achieved, the three major building projects that he has led or the effect his work at the Cathedral has had on rejuvenating the historical quarter of the city.  I could mention the millions of pounds that the cathedral now contributes to the local economy or the jobs that have been created.  But I am sure David would prefer that I mention the people who have been brought to Christ through his ministry or the work on promoting choral music to the glory of God.

In Leicester we always knew he was destined for greater cathedrals than our small one.  He will be missed not only by the cathedral community and the wider diocese, but by the city and county as well.  God has called him to a new path.  Canterbury, you are lucky to get him.

Ministry to the Heartstopper generation

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.

Asking the wrong question

The Church of England recently held its General Synod.  As part of this, people get to ask questions.  Question Time can actually be the most entertaining part of the whole event.  One of the questions submitted in advance was:

What is the Church of England’s definition of a woman?

The ‘official’ answer was

There is no official definition, which reflects the fact that until fairly recently definitions of this kind were thought to be self-evident, as reflected in the marriage liturgy. The LLF project however has begun to explore the complexities associated with gender identity and points to the need for additional care and thought to be given in understanding our commonalities and differences as people made in the image of God.

To be honest, I think that is about as good an answer as you will get.  But parts of Twitter practically went into meltdown.  ‘They’ve abandoned the Bible’, ‘The Church of England isn’t Christian anymore’ and so on and a lot worse.  With all these people so convinced that they knew what the Bible’s answer was, I was tempted to ask for a Biblical reference.  But if you step even a morsel of a toe into that cesspit, you just get covered in sh*t, rather than an actual answer.

Leaving aside the arrogance of those who believe that they know the mind of God with absolute conviction, in Biblical terms, the questioner was asking the wrong question.  The Bible is not concerned with defining a woman, there is no reason that the Bible should be.  In Biblical times the only relevant question would have been about defining if someone was a man.

In Biblical times, being a man mattered.  Being a man was high status, there were expectations placed on men that were not placed on women.  Certain offices, like priests, were only open to men.  Women were expected to wear head coverings, men weren’t. 

In the 613 laws of Moses, some laws only applied to men or to women.  Being faithfully Jewish meant keeping the laws, so you needed to know which laws applied to you.  That was the only reason there was any interest in knowing if someone was a man or a woman.

Even in Biblical times it was recognised that knowing whether someone was a man or a woman was not always easy.  There were people whose body was ambiguous.  It was recognised that where the religious authorities were not sure, that they should ask the person themselves.  The person would know best whether they were man or woman.  In contemporary jargon, we might consider this asking for their gender identity.  Sometimes even the person didn’t know, only God did.  In those cases, the person followed a modified set of laws combining some of the elements of male and female laws.

With the hindsight of modern medicine, we can identify some of the conditions that Jewish rabbis grappled with.  With that hindsight comes a different perspective on what is important in identifying whether a person is male or female.

To take one example, there is a medical condition called hypospadias where the urethra (bringing urine from the bladder) does not fully extend to the end of the penis.  The urethra may end at the base of the penis or part way along it.  Where that happens the end of the urethra is always on the underside of the penis.  This led to the rabbinic test known as the ‘arch test’.  In the arch test, to prove maleness, it was necessary to be able to urinate in an arch.  The urine had to be able to go upwards.  Failing the arch test was evidence that a person was not male.   Simply having a penis was not sufficient, in Biblical times, for a determination that someone was male.  With modern medicine we would consider hypospadias an inconvenience that could be corrected by surgery. There were many such tests.

As Christians, we have always seen the question differently.  In Galatians 3.28 Paul wrote There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In Christ it no longer matters whether we are male or female.  As Christians we no longer need to ask the question.  God knows who we are, that is enough.

More detailed medical information can be found in:

John Hare’s chapter Hermaphrodites Eunuchs, and Intersex people: The Witness of Medical Science in Biblical Times and Today in Susannah Cornwall (ed) Intersex, Theology and the Bible

Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine

Party like it’s 1753. (The Power of Love)

Money, sex and power are a heady combination and have caused untold problems for the church since the very beginning.  The church has been trying to be in control ever since.

Then governments tried to get involved.  You can never have too much bureaucracy when there is temptation involved, as St Augustine might have said if he were alive today.  Somehow these three elements of money, sex and power have all coalesced around marriage, leading to the centuries old fight over which institution controls marriage.

Until around the 12th century marriage was a very loose arrangement, that neither the church nor the instruments of government were very concerned about.  Folk ceremonies such as hand fasting were perfectly good enough to establish that two people consented to be a couple and to have children together.

That sufficed for centuries, but then money came to be the issue.  Or, to be more specific, inheritance.  Social views were changing on the acceptability of illegitimate children.  It came to be the case that legitimate heirs could inherit, but illegitimate ones could not – assuming that there was anything to inherit.  The more wealth, titles and land you had, the more important it was to make sure that the right people would inherit it. 

It became very important to make sure that the validity of a marriage could not be doubted.  The best way to make sure of this was to have witnesses.  What better witness than God?  Unfortunately, God could not testify in court, but clergy could.  Clergy who witnessed a marriage and recorded it were the best possible witnesses to show that a marriage had been legitimately entered into and that it was between the two people stated in the record.  The idea that the couple marry themselves and the minister is a witness is still the current church position.

Church courts came to be the ultimate arbiter of who was legitimately married and who was not.  They also became the final court for proving which children were legitimate.  Services and liturgy developed, eventually becoming the services we know now from the Book of Common Prayer.  By the early 1640s the church’s control of marriage in England was seemingly complete.

The middle of the 17th century was a turbulent time in English history and it produced a strain of Puritanism that did not accept the Book of Common Prayer and attempted to require The Directory of Worship (1645) to be used instead.  For a brief time, Parliament even allowed justices of the peace to carry out weddings. Each parish was to elect a registrar to keep records of the new unions.

With the Restoration and the new 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the church managed to restore its power over marriage again.

It would be almost a hundred years before Parliament’s next serious attempt to take some control of marriage.  Lord Hardwicke’s Act 1753 (An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages) required all marriages to take place in church, except the marriages of Quakers and Jews.  It also required them to be legally registered. 

From 1753, unless you were a Quaker or a Jew, you had to get married in church. That meant that the church was required to carry out the wedding.  In 1836, this was amended to allow for Roman Catholic weddings and to make provision for other non-conformist traditions.  However, the principle had been established that any couple who had the legal right to get married in England had the legal right to be married in their parish church.  The 1753 situation had a lot to recommend it, both from the perspective of the Church and the State. 

Governments are more responsive to the demands of the populations they govern than churches are.  So, there grew demands for access to marriage to be widened.  Parliament introduced legislation to allow categories of people to get married that the Church had previously not allowed to marry.

The first time this happened was 1857 when legislation allowed couples who had been divorced, and had a former spouse still living, to get married in church.  The bishops forbade their clergy from carrying out these marriages.  This lasted until 2004 when the bishops allowed clergy to carry out the marriages that they had always had the legal right to perform.  No clergy were forced to carry out these weddings against their conscience.

It happened again in 1907, with the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Bill. This gave clergy an opt out conscience clause.  All clergy were able legally to carry out these marriages, but were not forced to do so if it was against their conscience.  Then in 1921, there was the equivalent Marriage Bill for deceased husband’s brothers.

A similar arrangement was made in 2004 when those with a gender recognition certificate were allowed to marry legally in England.  They had a right to get married in their parish church, but all clergy had a conscience clause.

Next, the coalition government legislated to allow same sex marriages in England.  It bowed to pressure from some in the church and introduced the ‘quadruple lock’.  This was the first time this had been used in legislation.  The effect is that same sex couples are allowed to get married in various venues in England but not in Church of England churches.

This legal anomaly is part of the long power struggle between the Church and the State in England. For over 250 years, the State has been taking control of marriage in England and the Church has been losing the power struggle.  The church does not want to agree with the government over same sex marriage, because to do so would be to admit defeat and allow that it is the government, not the church, who gets to define and control marriage.

The result now is an almost undeclared civil war within the church.  It is a conflict that is alienating many in society, especially younger people. 

Ironically, the Church’s best strategy for defusing the conflict would be to insist on the removal of the quadruple lock and the introduction of a conscience clause and allow clergy to conduct same sex marriages. They would be well advised to treat this like every other ‘marriage extension’ and allow all ministers to conduct same sex marriages in their churches.   Those clergy who want to do so, will soon have a queue of people coming to their churches.  Many middle ground churches will only have to consider their position when a same sex couple comes to their door wanting to be married.  Then it won’t be theoretical, it will be about real people in their parish and pastoral and missional perspectives will be important.

Some ministers will not want to conduct same sex marriages and they don’t have to do so.  That is important, nobody has to be required to act against their conscience.  There will be calls for a split and some are already calling for a third province in England.  The financial and reputational damage from that would be enormous.

Other denominations have gone for an opt-in approach, where conducting same sex marriage is allowed at national level, but every congregation has to decide for themselves if they want to register.  So, far the uptake has been low, partly because each church would need to have ‘That Conversation‘ before registering.

Everyone who can legally marry in England has had the right to marry in their parish church for hundreds of years.  It is time to get rid of the legal anomaly that is the quadruple lock and to let churches get on with their core business without the power struggles. 

Love wins.  Let’s get the party started.

Learning from the playground – lessons for Living in Love and Faith

We all know what school playgrounds are like and we know that fights can happen.  Often they stop when an authority figure appears, but sometimes both parties are so invested in the fight that they just carry on the scrap anyway.

I have broken up many fights in my time.  Once you have imposed a ‘ceasefire’, what you do next is really important.  If you just tell both parties that they simply have to behave better and even do the ‘shake hands and be friends’ trope then you solve almost nothing.  That is a playground lesson.

What you should do in breaking up playground fights is to see who has been hurt and deal with that first.  Broken nose?  Black eye?  Blood coming from somewhere?  You find out who needs medical attention.

Then you must find out from both sides why they were fighting.  If you don’t find that out and just have a ‘play nice’ strategy then the problems are just likely to go underground and the next fight might be on the way home or behind the bike sheds.  If you do not address the problem they were fighting about, then you solve nothing.  Big playground lesson.

Sadly these are the lessons that the Living in Love and Faith process has failed to learn.  After five years of the LLF process, all we have are pastoral principles (which I support), documents on braver and safer spaces and a group course to listen to each other.  Even the LLF feedback mechanisms are a carefully controlled questionnaire about how much you have learned from doing the course in a group.  But there is no opportunity to look at the underlying issues and discuss them.

The opportunity to feedback into the LLF process ends on April 30th and it is important that people do feedback into it.  But we have to be aware that all the feedback mechanisms are carefully controlled to prioritise the ‘play nice’ slider scale responses. 

LLF and the Next Steps Group seem to see the problem in terms of people disagreeing and are acting as if the causes of the disagreement are of no more consequence that choosing whether to have custard creams or chocolate digestive biscuits with the after-service coffee.  People are literally committing suicide over this.  Others are repeatedly threatening to form a third province in this country over this.

Discussing the underlying causes of conflict is the biggest playground lesson any young teacher learns.  That lesson has not yet got on to the consciousness of the Next Steps Group.

The next playground lesson that needs to be learned is about power.  Fights where one person is standing up to a bully or an older student is fighting a younger one should ring alarm bells and be treated more seriously that a scrap about a football game that got overheated.  You always step in and protect the vulnerable.  Always.  Saying ‘I must be neutral on this’ or ‘both sides must be treated equally’ just means letting those with power carry on doing what they are doing. 

What is happening in the church is not a disagreement between equals, but is about one ‘side’ with power being able to impose their views on others.

To give an example of this, currently bishops do not allow the clergy to offer blessings to couples in a civil partnership (same sex or mixed sex) or in a same sex marriage.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally right and Biblically faithful.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally wrong and not Biblically faithful.  However the power imbalance means that those who believe blessings are wrong are able to impose their view on those who believe they are right.  At their next meeting the house of bishops could simply agree to allow such blessings as a matter of conscience.  Such a decision would be about accepting that both views are valid and permitted.

The current proposals for LLF are that after April 30th, two reports will be produced based on the feedback from those who have done the LLF course.  (Those who have engaged with the materials in other ways because they do not feel safe to do a course will be allowed to feedback into the responses, but their responses will be given less weight.  No protection for the vulnerable there.)  Then there will be three meetings of the college of bishops to come up with some proposals to put to General Synod in February 2023.

The elephant in the room is what happens if General Synod rejects the proposals as they did in February 2017?  Let’s remember our history, the Living in Love and Faith process began after General Synod rejected the bishops’ proposals.   But the bishops went ahead anyway.  We could easily end up with six years and zero progress. 

The biggest playground lesson that needs to be learned is that in order to move from a strategy of ‘fight nicely’ to a strategy that finds a way to stop the need to fight is to address the reasons underlying the conflicts.  We need to address the fear, ignorance, power, prejudice, hypocrisy and most of all the silence.  In other words, the bishops need to follow their own pastoral principles. 

The fighting needs to stop.  Our mission is to take the message of the Gospel to the people of this country, but they are horrified by they way they see people in church behaving.  Living in Love and Faith started with the idea of a teaching document, so I call upon the bishops to act like teachers and address the issues and allow the church to get on with being the church for all God’s people.

Let’s be honest about same-sex marriage

Some people support same-sex marriage, but do so on the basis of ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. Many supporters are not aware of the large amount of scholarship in support of same sex marriage. There is a lot of serious theology and Biblical material that we can engage with. It is important that supporters are able to argue from the Bible and theology if we are to convince sceptics.

The place to start is with Alan Wilson’s book More Perfect Union?

Alan Wilson is the bishop of Buckingham.

This book is written to introduce readers to the Biblical material and to examine the arguments in favour of same-sex marriage.

Another good introductory book is Gene Robinson’s God Believes in Love.

Gene Robinson was the bishop of New Hampshire in the American Episcopal Church. His election as the first openly partnered gay bishop caused a crisis in the American church.

His book is structured as answering a series of ten questions, such as Don’t children need a mother and a father? or Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage? Then finishes with a final chapter that God Believes in Love.

Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s yes to same-sex marriage is a book written by an evangelical aimed at other evangelicals.

He sets out to show that the Bible can argue in favour of same-sex marriage, but it is important to look at the whole Bible, not just fragments to proof-text a point. Well researched and explained.

Further reading

This is written by Rev’d Clare Herbert.

It is based on her research, done at the time when only civil partnerships were available in the UK. This gives a unique perspective on the question of marriage. It asks what civil partnerships and what marriage are? Then shows that the UK’s civil partnerships fit all the criteria for marriage.

Thinking Again about Marriage is an edited book, with chapters from many different authors, covering subjects like Christian history, Marriage liturgy, Vocations, Reproduction and Gender Complementarity.

This is an affirming book edited by two of the leading experts in this field, Rev’d John Bradbury and Professor Susannah Cornwall.

Advanced reading

This is a classic book from Professor John Boswell.

This book takes a historical approach to marriage. It starts in the Greco-Roman world and moves through medieval Europe to more modern times. This is a detailed book that looks at history, liturgy, translation and theology to show that ideas about same-sex marriage have strong historical roots.

Blessing Same-sex unions by Rev’d Mark D Jordan takes on the questions of why some churches are opposed to even blessing same-sex marriages. In this book he examines some of the misconceptions about marriage and shows that some of the current ideas are based on history and tradition rather than the Bible.

He argues in favour of church blessings for all.

New Approaches in History and Theology to Same-Sex Love and Desire is an edited book. It has chapters including same-sex love, sexual ethics, homophobia, homosexual law reform, queer Christian marriage and queer saints.

This is edited by Rev’d professor Mark D Chapman and Professor Dominic James.

Time for Change

The Church of England is not a safe place to be.  Was it ever really?

A new report has shown that only a third of LGBT+ people feel safe in their local church.  The report is based on a survey done by the Ozanne  Foundation and it can be accessed at SAFEGUARDING LGBT+ CHRISTIANS SURVEY 2021 – Ozanne Foundation

It makes for stark reading.

It is clear that churches need to be much more proactive in helping LGBT+ Christians feel safe in their churches.  This means that church leaders must be much more transparent about where they and their churches stand on LGBT+ issues.  When we go to a new, unfamiliar church many of us are used to checking out the website first to see what the church is saying.  Too often those websites hide their position rather than reveal it.  We deserve much more transparency from our churches and their leadership.

What this new survey brings out into the open is that this feeling of churches being unsafe is something that is people who are not LGBT+ are completely oblivious to.  Churches should be the safest of safe spaces, but all too often they are not.  This needs to change.

The time for that change is now.  So, this report needs to be widely read by those in church leadership at local and national level and it must be acted on.

Conversion confusion?

There is yet another open letter circulating for people to sign, this time asking Liz Truss, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities to allow religious exemptions from the proposed government ban on conversion therapy.  The open letter is available to read at:

Ministers’ Consultation Response – A Christian perspective (ministersconsultationresponse.com)

There are some errors and confusion in the letter, so what follows is a breakdown of these matters.

The opening paragraph starts by declaring that the authors hold ‘orthodox, historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics.’  Many of the signatories are from free churches and, for them, their definition of orthodox will vary from one church to another.  But for those who are Church of England / Anglican or Methodist the definition of orthodox would imply that they subscribe to the official positions of their respective denominations. In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England voted for a ban on conversion therapy.  At the 2021 Methodist conference there was an over whelming vote tor a complete ban on conversion therapy.  How can someone describe themselves as orthodox if they do not subscribe to the agreed position of their denominations?

The use of ‘historic’ rather than ‘traditional’ is interesting. Possibly it is a recognition that traditions develop and evolve?  Subscribing to historic sexual ethics would surely mean believing that contraception was wrong in all circumstances (because the only reason for sexual activity was for procreation), that there was nothing wrong with marital rape (because it was just the husband ‘enjoying his conjugal rights’), that remarriage after divorce was wrong when there was a former spouse still living (because marriage is permanent and only ends in death) etc.  Are those ideas really the sexual ethics for the 21st century?

Paragraph two contains various aspirational statements about ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect…’, or ‘never with any form of coercion or control.’.  Let’s hope that is true of every church whose ministers sign this letter. 

In the third paragraph the authors see a possibility that the proposed legislation will impact on the ‘normal practice of religion.’  They give some examples of this and fear they might be criminalised.  The normal practice of religion should not be abusive. Anything that harms others or drives them to suicide should not be a normal practice of religion in any church that calls itself Christian.

Then we get a very confusing paragraph which seems to conflate conversion therapy with someone converting to Christianity.  I think any prosecutor and even the most inexperienced magistrate could tell the difference between someone coming to faith in Jesus for the first time and someone who is undergoing a form of ministry to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

As the supporting material and the evidence submitted to the Equalities committee points out, ‘conversion therapy’ might not be the best term to use, but it is the term that is so widely used that it is recognisable and used for convenience.

Following this is a paragraph on marriage.  This is completely irrelevant to conversion therapy.  Why is it even included?  My best guess is that it acts like a dog-whistle in signalling to people of a particular viewpoint that they need to sign this letter in order ‘to defend marriage’. 

Paragraph six doesn’t really follow on from the paragraph about marriage.  It starts with ‘To urge and assist people to live in this way, far from being harmful, is a kind and merciful act, and of benefit to all.’  I am not sure what the authors mean by ‘this way’. Are they still talking about marriage?  The paragraph goes on the ascribe everything to people’s identity being in their ‘feelings’. 

This sets up the false dichotomy, in the following paragraph, between an emotional state and ‘Christian conversion’.  It seems to be all about someone living an unsuitable ‘lifestyle’.  It would be helpful if the authors showed that they understood the difference between sexual orientation or gender identity and ‘lifestyle’.   

The paragraph goes on to say that ‘It should not be a criminal offence for us to instruct our children that God made them male and female, in his image, and has reserved sex for the marriage of one man and one woman.’  Nobody is suggesting it should.  Is this another dog whistle to call the ‘orthodox’ to sign?  Imposing those views on others could be seen as coercion.  Do they teach that ‘male and female’ should be interpreted broadly or do they teach it as a narrow binary?  How is adultery relevant to a discussion of conversion therapy anyway?

Paragraph eight ends with ‘Yet we think it important you are aware that if it were to come about that the loving, compassionate exercise of orthodox Christian ministry, including the teaching of the Christian understanding of sex and marriage, is effectively made a criminal offence, we would with deep sadness continue to do our duty to God in this matter.’  I am not sure whether to be more concerned that this is put in the singular, as if there is one and only one Christian understanding of sex and marriage, or whether it is more problematic that the authors think conversion therapy is about sex and marriage, when it is about sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Paragraph nine wants ‘the adoption of an entirely different approach’, but gives no clue as to what the authors think that different approach should look like.

The final paragraph is a mistake, in my opinion.  It invokes the Queen, in her role as ‘defender of the faith’.  In fact, the monarch holds two religious titles – ‘Defender of the Faith’ and ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.  The defender of the faith title was bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521.  The faith being defended was Roman Catholicism.  This would have implications for anyone ordained who signed this letter, it means understanding that only men can be ordained and those men must be single and celibate for life.  I wonder how many of them are?

The other title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England would suggest that the monarch would be expected to uphold the official position of the Church on this matter.  As mentioned earlier General Synod, the ruling body of the Church of England, voted on this in July 2017 and voted for a complete ban on conversion therapy. 

Quite a confused letter, in my opinion.


Yes Bishop.  Sir Humphrey 2 – Church of England 0

Sometimes great comedy succeeds when it finds true to life characters and situations and takes them to extremes, where we see them differently and find the humour in the situation.  Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the TV programme Yes Minister, are two of those people who have become character classics. 

It is clear that the influence of Sir Humphrey and his mantras of delay and obfuscation are thriving in the upper echelons of the Church of England at the moment.  Except, it is not funny in real life.

For anyone not familiar with the Jim Hacker / Sir Humphrey dynamic, you might like to view

Yes, Minister – Sir Humphrey’s Stalling Technique – YouTube  on creative inertia

“In Due Course, Humphrey …” – YouTube  in the fullness of time

Then look at the minutes of the zoom meeting of the House of Bishops from 24 November  Meeting of the House of Bishops, 24 November 2021 | The Church of England   A grand total of 82 words, including the date, description and mode of meeting.  They ‘were updated…approved the direction of travel… received a series of updates… an update was given to the house…reflections…’   The only definite thing was that ‘the meeting ended in prayer’.   Sir Humphrey would have been so proud.

The level of obfuscation almost makes me wonder what is not being said.  The biggest thing missing is any sort of decision about anything.  As Sir Humphrey memorably put it ‘a decision is only an official decision if it was recorded officially in the minutes by an official’ even allowing that some might have recollections of other decisions being made. 

Sir Humphrey 1 – Church of England 0

Then there are the latest minutes from the Next Steps group about Living in Love and Faith.  These are available to read at LLF Next Steps Group Meeting on 24 November 2021 | The Church of England  Frankly watching Question Time at General Synod was far more informative about what was happening at the Next Steps Group meeting than their minutes. 

The minutes say ‘[T]he group also agreed actions relating to each of the Synod Questions which Bishop Sarah had promised to take to the Next Steps Group.’  To start with there were three questions – 52, 53 and 55 where their written answers were referred to the next meeting of the Next Steps Group.  The supplementary question to question 53 was also referred to the next meeting of the Next Steps group and answering the supplementary to question 55 Bishop Sarah promised to communicate the answers to the matters referred to the Next Steps group.

GENERAL SYNOD (churchofengland.org)  question paper

The supplementary questions can be viewed at General Synod November 2021 – Tuesday 16 November 2021 Afternoon – YouTube from about 3hrs 55 mins.

If it is already in the public domain, why not just say what was discussed and decided?

The obfuscation goes further. 

‘Discernment to Decision Making

The meeting agreed to work on shaping the process of discernment that will begin once the findings of ‘listening to the whole church’ had concluded. A sub-group will be formed to consider this over the coming months. It will draw on a diverse group of people for wisdom and advice.’

There is so much redundant language used here that I can’t work out if the new sub group is the LLF reference group or if the reference group is the ‘diverse group of people for wisdom and advice’. 

Then on Diocesan Synods materials for Living in Love and Faith, according to the minutes the group has just ‘agreed to offer Diocesan Synods a range of materials’, but at Question time at General Synod, in the answer to written question 47 it was stated that these materials would be available at the beginning of December.  Perhaps this is what Sir Humphrey would call ‘in the fullness of time’.  Still waiting.

Delay, contradiction, meaningless phrases and no clear answers.  Yes Bishop.

Sir Humphrey 2 – Church of England 0

For more on Sir Humphrey’s tactics you may like to watch,

Best of Sir Humphrey Appleby – Yes Minister Part 3 – YouTube  especially the part beginning around 5 minutes.