Marriage, divorce and a round of golf

Early last year I was talking to Jayne Ozanne about the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project (LLF).   For information about LLF click the link below.

Living in love and faith

Inevitably the phrase ‘long grass’ soon entered our conversation.  My expectation, at least, was that LLF would not solve the problems that the church of England is having in understanding sexuality, identity and relationships but that it might move the conversations forward.  It was that conversation with Jayne that led to the idea of thinking about the long grass like obstacles on a golf course. LLF might not get us to the clubhouse but it might move us onto the next hole on the course and a bit closer to a meal and a drink at the bar.  Or in my case a cup of Earl Grey tea (very Jean-Luc Picard).

This image of church progress like a golf course has been very helpful in seeing how things do develop in this long grass march.

With a lot of time on my hands during lockdown I was able to catch up on some reading, including the excellent, but expensive and very academic, The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century by Ann Sumner Holmes

I have found that trying to discuss same sex marriage or relationships with some in the Church of England is a waste of time.  As soon as the subject comes up, the conversation gets shut down quickly with bland sayings like ‘I believe marriage is between a man and a woman’ or ‘the Bible says its wrong’ etc.  No discussion, and a real unwillingness to engage with the big questions about what marriage actually is or what healthy relationships look like or what makes a Christian marriage.  To find what the Church of England thinks and believes about marriage, you have to look at divorce. 

The Church of England has produced lots of reports about marriage and divorce and then marriage, divorce and remarriage and then, after more long grass, marriage, divorce, remarriage and remarriage in church.  Lots of kicking the can down the road.  Reading Ann Sumner Holmes’s book, the roadmap became very familiar, the sexuality strategy has been played out before.  It took the Church of England from 1857 until 2002 to accept remarriage in church after divorce.  One hundred and forty-five years. 

As each new Church of England commission produced a report, which went to the dioceses who studied and wrote reports that needed working parties to collate and analyse and then report back on what had been decided, the debate moved slowly forward.  It moved slowly forward because the middle moved.  As people of influence had to engage with material before them on commissions they had to be challenged.  Those who couldn’t accept a report because it didn’t contain X [insert X of choice, parish clergy, working solicitors, marriage counsellors, academic theologians, ethicists etc] had their objections met or exposed for being simply intransigence. 

The path to the current position on divorce shows us the roadmap for the current debates.  In 1857 the Matrimonial causes Act introduced secular divorces by court order into this country.  It gave clergy the right to marry divorced people in church, but it gave them the opt out so no clergy were to be forced to carry out the marriage of a divorced person.  The opt out was personal, so they could not refuse to let their church be used by a different clergyman for the wedding.  It was the bishops who decreed that clergy could not carry out these marriages.

Then that eventually started to break down as parliament introduced further Acts affecting divorce and introduced the idea of the ‘innocent party’ to the divorce.  Then there was pressure on the church to allow the innocent parties to be able to remarry in church, then exceptional cases were allowed to remarry but there was no consensus on what the exceptional circumstances were and who could decide…  This led to that wonderful Anglican fudge of inconsistent practice.  That needed to be studied, of course.  Eventually it had become such a convoluted mess that there was no way to enforce any particular position.  So at the November 2002 General Synod synod voted to rescind the rules prohibiting remarriages and allowed clergy to exercise the right they had always had since 1857.

I took away some lessons from this:

One – parliament always moves first and the church always resists, but as the established church, it has to obey the laws eventually.

Two – the long grass runs out; each patch moves to the next hole and we will reach the clubhouse.

Three – the quadruple lock must go.  When clergy have the legal right to carry out all marriages then they will eventually be able to exercise that right.

Four – it is right that clergy can opt out of officiating marriages they feel is against their conscience, but the church is for all the people and must be for all marriages.  This means removing separate registrations for mixed sex and same sex marriages.  Registration for marriages would be for all marriages.

Five – Make the marriage preliminaries the same for everyone.  That way nobody can be treated differently from others.

With LLF materials soon to be published on November 9th, we are back on the fairway.  It has only taken since February 2017!  Let’s play this out and get through this hole and onto the next one.

Useful links

Marriage consultation paper, see especially chapter 9 . Clock the following link Marriage consultation

Online response form (till 2 December 2020)

by e-mail to; or

by post to Weddings Team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.

LLF materials

LLF book

Why I choose to write anonymously

I choose to write anonymously.  If you look through this site, you won’t find my name listed.  You will find things about me if you read through the blog posts and see what I have written elsewhere on the site, but my name is missing.  I think it is time to explain why.

When I first set up this website, I didn’t think about anonymity.  My mind was on what to call it, how to set up communication links, what I wanted it to look like and the structure of it.  Improving my IT skills was a big thing at the time, so that was where I was at.

However as time has moved on, some of the things I said have been taken up nationally and the profile of what I am doing has increased.  Only this morning I saw a new book that had a quote from me on the cover.  I have an audience for my work that has gone far wider than I could ever have expected. 

I have to recognise and acknowledge that being anonymous does come up in discussions.  I realise that some readers and discussers find anonymity affects credibility and gravitas.  It affects how they see what I write.  It changes the lens they put in front of the text.

Cyberspace can be a brutal place and the material I write about is exactly the sort of thing that brings out some of the worst trolling.  That level of abuse shuts down many voices in the debates.  Frankly I have had enough homophobic abuse in my life and I don’t need any more of it. 

Many of those around me know that I write and that this identity is mine, but not everyone.  Sometimes I get comments or messages from people I know in real life who don’t know this identity.  That can lead to some interesting real-life conversations!  And my real identity is out there, but perhaps a little more diplomatic.

Without this anonymity, I would be silenced by the abuse I know would come my way.  I know it would shut down the work I do here and impact the work I do locally and nationally.  Without using anonymity my voice would be silenced. 

I didn’t deliberately set out to operate this way, but as events have unfolded, it is the way that works for me.  Being able to put your name to controversial or difficult opinions is a luxury that not all of us can enjoy.  For some people speaking out will not be safe and their voices need to be heard too.

There is a dark side to anonymity and I acknowledge that.  If anonymity is used to threaten and abuse others, then that is something that should not be tolerated.  But for some of us anonymity is that only way that our voices can be heard.  So I will continue to write this way because I have something to say and a voice that needs to be heard too.

Hidden in plain site. Church clarity diocesan style

Correction.  It has been pointed out that I should have included the suffragan bishop of Bradwell, Dr John Perumbalath  of Chelmsford diocese, in my list of BAME bishops.   Thank you to those who pointed this out, I am happy to correct this error.


One of my jobs recently has been to go through all the diocesan websites.  I was looking for information on suffragan bishops, particularly contact information.  The information can be found here. Certainly what I found, or didn’t find, was very revealing, both about the national Church of England and the local dioceses.  I will look at just two issues, race and power.

Going through all the pages for the suffragan bishops, showed them to be very white.  Going through every diocese, there were only three suffragan bishops of colour.  Now, I admit that I am judging by their appearance and it is possible that someone identifies themselves differently, but pictures can speak volumes.   The recent twitter row caused by the front page of the 3 July 2020 edition of the Church Times showing a large collection of all white bishops shows the problem.

church times 3.7.20


The full archive edition can be accessed here.




Now that archbishop Sentamu has retired, the fact is that there is nobody of Diocesan level or above who is a person of colour.  With only three bishops at the next level down, there is a significant problem with race in the Church of England.

The three bishops are the bishop of Woolwich (Southwark diocese), Dr Karowei Dorgu, the bishop of Loughborough (Leicester diocese) Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani and the bishop of Dover (Canterbury diocese) Rose Hudson-Wilkin.  Even at the level of Cathedral deans there is an under representation, only the dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender, is a person of colour.

There are many clergy who are people of colour and who are more than qualified for senior roles and this lack of representation needs to be urgently addressed.  There is one diocesan vacancy at the moment, in Chelmsford, and others will occur so the opportunities to promote excellent BAME candidates will arise.

In his recent book Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England Azariah France-Williams argues that it is not enough to recruit [promote] more ‘black or brown’ people, the church must change the system itself.  This needs the people in power to change.

Knowledge is power.  Whoever controls knowledge has power over those who do not have that knowledge.  The Church of England nationally is very good at not being transparent, the recent safeguarding issues over the secretive core groups shows how far the church has to go to reach the standard of openness of secular practice.

Some of the diocesan websites are clear, informative and easy to use.  However, it is clear that some dioceses view access to information as something that needs to be carefully controlled.  Just looking for something straightforward like how to contact a suffragan bishop gave me a whole range of sites, from those that gave email address, phone number, mobile number, correspondence address, twitter handle, facebook account, YouTube channel, blog and Instagram account to those websites where you would never know they even had bishops!

If you cannot get hold of a bishop then you cannot hold them to account for their actions or lack of action.  You cannot enter into a dialogue with someone who hides behind a website contact form or a secretary’s email.

The most easily accessible was the bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, in Salisbury diocese for an impressive array of social media accounts, his own YouTube channel, a blog as well as email and phone numbers.  Clear websites, with easy to find information, include Canterbury, Gloucester, Lichfield, Rochester and Norwich, everything I wanted was accessible in one click from the drop-down menus on the opening page.   Well designed and confident.

Unfortunately things were not nearly so good in other places.  Visiting the websites of Blackburn, St Albans and Sheffield, you could validly wonder if they even have bishops.  Sheffield had an unlabelled icon of a church and outbuilding which led to the page about the diocese and this had a menu which linked to bishops and even then, only the link to the diocesan bishop worked. St Albans really needs to work on their menus.  Whereas in Blackburn, I eventually managed to find a link in a drop-down menu that was ‘Meet the bishop’s leadership team’, and I know enough about church codes to realise that there might be a bishop in there somewhere.  Finally I could see who they were, but could only email their secretary.

Derby and Truro seemed to have lost their suffragans entirely.  I had to use search engines to hunt for them.  The bishop of St Germans was consecrated weeks ago and announced a long time before that, so there has been a long time to get him at least an email address.  And what about the vanishing bishop of Repton?

What does it say about power relationships in the Winchester diocese that the suffragan bishop information is a page linked from the page of the Diocesan bishop? Suggests a visible hierarchy at least.

Then there is what websites say or conveniently do not say about things like marital status.

Taken as a whole, the availability of information is very patchy.   In my own diocese, trying to get a map of where the new deanery boundaries were proved highly contentious.  A view of ‘everyone who needs to know already knows’ seemed to prevail.  Yet some diocesan websites have all that information and more readily available for anyone to view.   In the modern world transparency and accountability are good things which help to prevent the abuse and misuse of power and aid in getting greater diversity.



On the campaign trail

In America the campaign season for the next presidential elections is well underway, with the party conventions being held this month.  That might be a time for big glitzy campaigning, but the election will be decided one vote at a time and every vote counts.

That grass roots activism is what we need in the UK.  We cannot wait until our leaders are ready to make things better for LGBTQ+ people of faith, we have to act and act now.  We need to step up our commitment to campaigning.  We do not vote for our religious leaders in the same way that the Americans vote for theirs, but we have a voice and it is time to speak.  Silence will continue the oppression we experience.

One of the realities in the UK is that senior Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords.  These unelected bishops have a place in our government.  So we all have a right to hold them accountable to us, whether we are Church of England or not, whether we are Christian or not, whether we are people of faith or not.

The Church of England is an establishment where coming out as gay, or even worse, having a same sex partner means that your path to promotion is blocked.  But blocked very quietly, with no transparency and no accountability.

Grassroots activism starts with the simple premise of ‘never shut up’.  There are many in faith leadership who would like to sweep LGBTQ people of faith under the carpet – out of sight, out of mind.  But we need to just sweep ourselves out from under the carpet, and anything else we find under there!  We need to keep putting our concerns back onto their desks and their inboxes.

So here is a list of the publicly available contact addresses for Church of England bishops.

House of Bishops contact addresses Aug 2020

Suffragan Bishops contact addresses Aug 2020

The Church of England is the established church in this country, so what the Church of England does is relevant to all of us.  Their lack of inclusion and affirmation for LGBTQ+ people of faith drives many of us from the church.  It is time to make our voices heard.  Say it, say it again and keep saying it.  God is listening, but the church is not – yet!

Silver bullet or smoking gun – Lambeth postponed

The Lambeth Conference 2020 should have started this week, marked this weekend by a Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral.  Bishops from around the Anglican communion and their spouses would have been gathered together for what would probably have been expected to be the high point of archbishop Justin’s archepiscopate.  But then Covid 19 happened and everything changed.  Initially it was postponed until 2021, but has now been put back to 2022.  Details here.

In view of the global nature of the public health crisis that is a wise precaution.  However, this does change the dynamic and there are new opportunities and threats.  Cancelling is not an option, but the clock is ticking.  Archbishop Justin has been in office since 2013 and can only stay in office until he is 70, which is in 2026.  History does not wait.

The first Lambeth Conference was in 1867 and was called by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Thomas Longley, archbishop from 1862 to 1868.  The presenting matter was the theological teachings of the bishop of Natal, John Colenso, mainly on polygamy.  Every archbishop since Longley has held a Lambeth Conference, with one exception.  Archbishop William Temple was archbishop from 1942 to 1944 and died in office.  His short time in office and the world war going on at the time meant that he did not have the opportunity to hold a Lambeth Conference.  Archbishop Justin may feel that his place in the history of the Anglican communion will depend on holding a successful Lambeth Conference.

It was not clear how exactly his Conference would function.  Most Lambeth Conferences have produced resolutions.  A full list of previous resolutions can be accessed here. 

However resolutions can be a risky strategy, as archbishop George Carey found out at his Lambeth Conference in 1998, where the conference passed resolution 1.10 on human sexuality, which can be accessed here.

The 1998 conference indirectly led to the formation of GAFCON, the global Anglican futures conference.  GAFCON has always regarded Lambeth 1.10 as a foundational tenet of faith that people of GAFCON have to sign up to.  However Lambeth resolutions are not binding across the communion, each one would have to be approved by each individual province to have any legal force. The damage that has been done worldwide by Lambeth 1.10 is very significant and there is no mechanism to withdraw a resolution once it is passed.

Archbishop Rowan Williams took a very different strategy in organising his Lambeth Conference.  It did not produce any resolutions, but instead used the Indaba process that would have been familiar to some of the bishops as a way to discuss controversial matters.

When archbishop Justin spoke at Greenbelt in 2019 and he was asked about those attending the next Lambeth Conference.  It was clear that getting a large number of bishops to attend was a high priority for him.  However, the issue of  partnered gay bishops is again proving controversial.

At the time of the previous Lambeth Conference in 2008 there had been one partnered gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the American bishop of New Hampshire.  He was not invited to the Lambeth Conference under threat of a boycott from many other bishops. Further details are available here.

At his Greenbelt talk archbishop Justin explained that by not inviting three episcopal spouses he could still invite the bishops themselves and that this compromise would allow many more bishops from around the communion to attend the conference.  It was a matter of numbers and this compromise was seen as an improvement on 2008.  This may be a compromise that archbishop Justin feels he can live with, but as time progresses the boycott threat grows too.

At first there were three bishops in same sex marriages:

Mary Glasspool, assistant bishop in New York and her wife Becki Sander

Kevin Robinson, Canadian area bishop for York in the Diocese of Toronto and his husband Mohan Sharma


Thomas Brown, bishop of Maine and his husband Thomas Mousin

But since then there have been two more married American bishops elected:

Deon K Johnson, bishop of Missouri and his husband Jhovanny Osorio-Vazquez Johnson


Bonnie A Perry, bishop of Michigan and her wife Susan Harlow.

America and Canada may well elect more bishops who are married.  So could other provinces.  A particular issue may be the Church of Wales’s bishop of Monmouth Cherry Vann and her civil partner Wendy.  <ore details are here.

The threat of a boycott is always an issue.  Last month GAFCON were due to hold their conference in Rwanda.  One focus of this was for bishops who felt that they were unable to attend the Lambeth Conference.  Details of this can be accessed here.

This conference has also been postponed due to covid 19.  Who knows if or when it will be rescheduled.  GAFCON was formed in 2008 as a gathering for bishops who felt that they could not attend that year’s Lambeth Conference.  It has met twice since then and could decide to schedule their next gathering either before or after Lambeth 2022.Or they might decide to have a virtual meeting.

Avoiding a wholescale boycott by GAFCON aligned bishops would be high on archbishop Justin’s agenda.  This will leave him vulnerable to pressure from GAFCON or other groups of bishops and archbishop Justin may feel pressurised to make further compromises in order to ensure high attendance.

However there are also opportunities for a replanned Lambeth Conference.  With the world in a different place in 2022 there will likely be reduced expectations for the next Conference.  With lower expectations, there is less pressure from history to deliver a ‘successful’ conference.  There will certainly be less money available for it, both accounting for what has already been spent and for the ongoing financial burden imposed on the church by the effect of covid 19.  Something less ambitious and less expensive may be a necessity.

A slimmed down and shorter Lambeth Conference, with more emphasis on virtual elements could see the matter of spousal invitations disappear altogether.

The future is not set, there are wildcards that cannot be predicted.  One of these is the University of Kent, which hosts much of the conference and supplies accommodation to delegates.  The facility simply may not be available for summer 2022. It also may have something to say about booking conditions.  The exclusion of spouses in same sex marriages was contrary to their equal opportunities policy.  They had to honour an existing contract, but that does not mean that they have to comply with a new booking.  The university made it clear that they would offer free accommodation to the excluded spouses.  The University of Kent’s response can be read here.

The other potentially significant wildcard will be the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process.  The materials were originally due to be published in time for Lambeth.  Now they will be published this November.  The fate of LLF remains to be seen, it could have sunk without trace long before summer 2022 or it could have been the start of a more high-profile engagement with sexuality and gender or indeed anything in between.

Once his Lambeth Conference is over then the archbishop will be less vulnerable to pressure from external sources.  His ‘legacy’ will be ready for history.  Without the need to keep others onside, what will his priorities be?  Might this be the time when progress in England could be possible, without the constant threat that any movement by the ‘mother church’ will imperil the worldwide communion?

The silver bullet would be a successful Lambeth Conference that would be archbishop Justin’s place in history and which would free him from some of the pressure to make compromises and keep as many bishops as possible onside.  However the smoking gun is that there will be two more years in which he needs to compromise and appease in order to ensure success.  Two more years where the two roles of primate of all England is in conflict with the role of the head of the Anglican communion.  Two more years of long grass for progress in England.

But with many variables still too early to call, the success or failure is in God’s hands.  When God rolls the dice, we all have to await the outcome.




Black Lives Matter in the LGBTQ community

For full disclosure I am white.  I feel I have to say that because it reflects on my experiences and it impacts on those who hear what I am saying.  But I am also female and I am also gay.  My life, as the lives of so many others, has been a mixture of privilege and oppression.

I am old enough to remember the times when being gay was effectively invisible.  There were no tv programmes with LGBTQ characters, no openly gay role models, few affirming books or magazines and the internet had not been invented.  Dinosaur times in many ways and almost unimaginable to the younger members of my extended family.  But what changed was visibility.  Not just LGBTQ people becoming visible, but supporters becoming visible too.

In a democracy, it is easy for the interests and rights of minorities to be ignored or swept under the carpet, because we have limited voting or economic power.  It is only when the number of visible allies is large enough that it is possible to hold those in power to account. It is time for allies to be more visible and to demand change.

I live in a very multicultural city in the Midlands and am part of a LGBTQ+ Christian group, many of our members are BAME.  In planning discussions for pride last year, one of the discussions we had was about flags and we decided to use the 8 colour rainbow flag as well as the traditional 6 colour one.  It was our way of expressing visibly our commitment to full BAME inclusion.

So now it is time to go further.  I have changed my logos to reflect visibly that Black Lives Matter.  It matters to me and to the communities that I am part of.


I know that changing my web page picture and changing my twitter profile etc won’t change the world, but it is one more step on the journey to the full dignity of all God’s people.  It needs a lot of allies to say that this matters to us all and to be seen to be saying that.

Living in a multicultural city the experience for people of colour can be different from that in more traditionally white areas, but most of the issues still remain.  Those problems are there in the LGBTQ community too.  Issues of power imbalance, economic power or privilege.  When you look at national organisations supporting the LGBTQ community, where are the BAME people in national leadership?  What are we doing to promote their contribution and leadership at local levels?  When we have Pride celebrations, are there people of colour in leadership of the event or of the organisations taking part?  Whose talents and gifts are we missing?  Which voices are not being heard in our community?

This website is one where faith is central to our work and this means being multi faith and ecumenical.  It means being able to amplify the voices that are missing, but not trying to speak for them. I cannot speak for the experience of being LGBTQ and Hindu or Sikh or Muslim or Jewish or the many other faiths present in my city, but I hear their voices and join my voice to theirs.


IDAHoBiT PC with Pride

We have recently celebrated IDAHoBiT day on May 17th.  The date itself is significant, because it commemorates the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation made the decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases. It meant that officially we were not sick any more. It was the landmark decision which was meant to take away the stigma that being homosexual was somehow ‘wrong’. Whether that supposed wrongness was medical, or psychological (as Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts would argue) or even a manifestation of sin was not important anymore, being homosexual was finally recognised as just part of life’s natural diversity. That is something to celebrate.

International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) was born as a way to co-ordinate grass roots efforts to raise awareness and combat homophobia. Thirty years later, homophobia has not gone away. It may be less overt than it used to be and many countries have enacted legal protections, but we all know it still exists. Society may have made some progress in tackling aspects of homophobia, but unfortunately the progress in faith communities has been limited. Many faith communities have not been willing to do the detailed examination or even self-examination to identify and root out attitudes that do not welcome and embrace those who are not heterosexual.

Homophobia is not the only problem faced by LGBTQ+ people of faith. Biphobia and transphobia also need action and these were later added to the remit of IDAHO day and the name changed, becoming first IDAHOT day and then IDAHoBiT day. Working to eradicate homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are important goals and there is a lot of work to be done both at national level and at grassroots level. It is easy to criticise others for their lack of progress in these areas and to call on organisations and governments to do more, but to be honest, we need to look at ourselves as well. The LGBTQ+ community can be an unaffirming place too. If we want others to do better, we must do better too.

There is a great deal that has been written about racism in the LGBTQ+ community and the difficulties that people of colour can experience in the community. The intersectionality of multiple oppressions can make life more difficult and acceptance and affirmation harder. This intersectional oppression is something we need to acknowledge and work to improve.

In the era of Black Lives Matters campaigns and in the wake of the death of George Floyd, we need to look at how we include and affirm those of multiple different ethnic and cultural groups. The Times magazine this weekend (Saturday June 13th) had as its cover story an interview with barrister Mohsin Zaidi. He describes his experience of multiple intersectional oppression and rejection, including his experience of racism in the LGBTQ+ community. In some ways it is a familiar story but it is one that we should be much more proactive in acknowledging and addressing.

a dutiful boy

Racism is not the only problem that needs to be named and worked on. Biphobia exists in our community too. Sometimes the B in LGBTQ+ seems the least visible part.
Biphobia seems to be more of an issue for women, at least at the moment. Part of that may be because current surveys show that the percentage of women who do not identify as either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual is greater than for men in the same category. Bi invisibility and Bi erasure can happen both unconsciously and deliberately. When we meet someone, we often make assumptions about their sexual orientation based on the gender of the person they are with. If we see a woman in a romantic relationship with another woman, we usually make the unconscious assumption that she is homosexual. If we see her in a romantic relationship with a man, we often assume she is heterosexual. This leaves bi women with the problem that they seem to be invisible and they have to come out even within their own community. This creates a pressure that others do not feel, multiple coming-outs can be mentally exhausting.

The Bi erasure can be more overt. I have spoken to many bi women who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community but who feel that they can only bring part of themselves to the party. If they turn up with a same sex partner everyone assumes they are a lesbian and they are included, but if they turn up with a male partner then they feel unwelcome, even though they themselves see it as a legitimate expression of their bisexuality. In lesbian spaces the message can seem to be ‘if you are bi then you are welcome but don’t bring all of yourself’.

LGBTQ+ communities can be very intolerant of those who do not fit the latest PC orthodoxy. At an LGBT History month event at De Montfort University the writer of the book Unorthodox


had with him one of the people he had interviewed for his book. She identified as bisexual, but told of her time at university where that identity had been challenged by those in the university LGBTQ+ community, their challenge being ‘why was she identifying as bisexual instead of pansexual?’ The implied criticism was what had she got against people who were non-binary or queer? She felt that this expectation of using a different label was really difficult. She used a label, as explained in the book, that her grandmother could understand. Family was hugely important to her and it meant everything to have her grandmother understand her and support her in her identity. Her grandmother could understand ‘bisexual’ but would find it much harder to understand newer identities. As a community, if we want other people to accept us for who we are, then we must start that ourselves.

If we want others to have more affirming attitudes towards us then we need to educate ourselves as well as others. We need a more nuanced understanding of whether people are being genuinely antagonistic or whether they are just not expressing it in a way that is as politically correct as we would like. We can make it difficult for allies to speak out on our behalf if they are afraid of being criticised for not using the right vocabulary or not fully understanding the nuances of complex issues. This can be quite hard. Many of us in the LGBTQ+ community have been hurt and we can react out of that hurt, but we must bring allies with us on this journey.

In this most unusual Pride month, let us model what we want from others. Let’s learn from the current challenges in society to look at our own community so that we can provide a model for other people. It is as Jesus said, that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us.



The arrogance of certainty

‘The arrogance of certainty’ is a quote from Megan Phelps-Roper’s book Unfollow. She is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, from which she ‘escaped’ in 2012 and she has a great deal to say about religious groups like Westboro and their views and in particular how to counter them.


She writes with a searing honesty that I could never come close to matching. But it is that deep honesty that allows us to see the thought processes and the journey she makes to leave the group. That has lessons for us all.

Growing up at Westboro she was taught that the major sin was doubt. Doubt of the church leaders or elders was equal to doubt of the word of God, so all doubt had to be suppressed and eliminated in favour of ‘obedience, obedience, obedience’. It was this suppression of the ability to question what they were being taught and told to do that allowed for the suppression of empathy and even the celebration of suffering of those outside the church. It shows how intelligent and well-educated people can be sincere but misguided.

Westboro used the 1611 version of the King James Bible for all the quotes that members were expected to memorise. This emphasis on learning quotes allowed for a distorted understanding of doctrine and its application. They could justify their actions and beliefs by quoting scripture, what would be seen as proof texting to those outside the church. The existence of alternative interpretations of scripture or scriptures that gave another narrative were just not tolerated.

Into this environment, we see the points where her views start to break down. When some JAG officers launched a court case (Snyder v Phelps,  a case on freedom of speech which one of her aunts argued  before the US supreme Court and won) against them after a protest at a military funeral, the response was to find out the names of the JAG officers and pray for ‘the Lord to kill the father of the Marine and his accomplices’. Only later was she able to put this in context of Jesus’s command to ‘love your enemy’ and to pray for blessings on your enemy.   For further information on this case, see here.

Another turning point came over ‘virtual picketing’. She ran a successful twitter account so when she was told by one of the church elders to retweet a tweet from him showing a photoshopped picture of members of Westboro in London protesting a royal wedding she saw it as stepping over a line. It went from posts that were ‘technically true’ but may be understood in a way that was not true, to something outrightly untrue.

Even when she had left Westboro and been cut off from her family, she still tried to engage with members of Westboro where she could. She tried the techniques that had worked with her. These mean: do not attack their doctrines, that is what they expect you to do and they will block out what you are saying. Instead show the internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of what they are doing. It means pointing out where they are not living up to what they say they believe as a way to open up the dogma.

I wish I had read this before I had my latest encounter with christian demonstrators. It is that lesson about holding people to their own rules and stated beliefs that is central to deradicalisation here. We cannot allow the narrative that others are faithful to scripture and church teaching but we are not, as it allows others to take the moral high ground that I believe is ours. If they are not abiding by their own rules, then they have no right to expect us to abide by them.

It takes those who have been on a journey out of radicalism to show the path for others to follow. Her journey is an important lesson for us all, of what can happen when we suppress our own intellect and allow others to do our thinking for us. So, read Unfollow for yourself and see what lessons you learn from her experiences.  Don’t just take my word for it.

Rene Girard and the episcopal crisis

Following the recent release of the pastoral guidance on civil partnerships,
(available here ) it is helpful to look at why this particular document has provoked so much anger and why that anger is not going away.

The church of England has long had a problem with ‘the gays’, it goes back decades. It has been going on for long enough that academics have been able to study the phenomenon, both those academics who are LGBTI+ and Christian and those who are not LGBTI+ or Christian.

The model that has proved most useful in studying the issues is the work of French philosopher Rene Girard and his ideas about violence and the sacred and particularly his ideas about the scapegoat.

The idea of the scapegoat first appears in the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, where the people of God put their sins onto the goat and send it out into the desert, purging the people of their guilt. Girard has written about Jesus as the scapegoat, bearing the sins of humanity.

Girard’s ideas go further than that. Societies and groups can create scapegoats who are blamed for the sins and failures of the group or society. The group’s fears may be projected onto them or they may be seen to be the source of unrest or degeneracy which the group must expel. The scapegoat is othered. ‘They’ must pay the price for ‘Us’. Often the scapegoat is expelled or even killed, but if the scapegoat will not go or cannot be killed then the scapegoat is persecuted or abused. This persecution or abuse is seen as perfectly reasonable to the majority of the society or group because it is happening to an outsider who is somehow ‘less’ than the insiders.

It is in this context that the current crisis should be understood. When the House of Bishops produced their 2005 guidance on same-sex civil partnerships or in 2014, when they produced the Valentine’s day statement on same-sex marriage, it was the scapegoat, the ‘other’ who was being told that their relationships were second rate or not what God intended and that the church regarded them as mere friendships, which had to be permanently abstinent.

What has happened now is that mixed sex couples are being told that their relationships are second rate and must be celibate. In doing this the church has gone beyond insulting the scapegoat, it has insulted those who see themselves as ‘us’. People who have always been nurtured and affirmed by the church are suddenly being told that their relationships are outside God’s will and must be celibate, their sense of insult and betrayal is huge. In doing this the church has insulted not only those in mixed sex civil partnerships, but those who are in childless marriages, those who are cohabiting or who cohabited before marriage or those who are divorced or divorced and remarried.

When you expect the church to affirm you then you do not have the coping mechanisms of those who are frequently abused by the church.

This brings to the fore the values disconnect between the powers that be in the church and the young people of our society. We saw at the recent meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod that on the matter of climate change there was a coming together of the church leadership and young people on a matter of importance to all. Preserving our climate is about shared values. However that sharing of values does not extend of matters of sexuality and gender where younger generations are far more understanding and inclusive than the church leaders. The fact that archbishop Justin was apologising for institutional racism in the church showed that values disconnect very clearly. Young people see a church that is racist, sexist and homophobic and do not like what they see. They see meaningless apologies and are looking to see repentance from the church and remedial action. When the church follows up its apologies with real change and inclusion then people will be more willing to join. This is a generation brought up in families that may have a step parent, parents who were divorced and remarried, whose parents may be co-habiting or the same sex or foster parents and who may be married or civil partnered or have no legal relationship. They are just family and the church has insulted them too. It has othered a lot of people.

It was interesting to follow the signatures on the open letter of protest to the archbishops.  Available to read here.   It may have started with many signatures from LGBTI+ people who did not like their relationships being debased yet again, but it very quickly went straight on the second day. It showed that the church cannot insult its core members like this. They are the PCC members, the church wardens, the parish clergy, the flower arrangers etc. They are not the scapegoat.

There are several ways out of this crisis, the only questions are what will be the price and who will pay it? The apology from the archbishops (available here) was vague and there is real speculation about what the archbishops were actually apologising for. Actions speak louder than words and the actions were that the college of bishops decided not to withdraw the statement. That fatally undermines the Living in Love and Faith project. The bishops cannot lead unless people will follow and they have upset too many people for that to be viable.