Sunday October 10th is the Church of England’s first Safeguarding Sunday. Some would consider this to be long overdue. Giving a particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar for a specific theme is a way of signalling that the Church of England takes an issue seriously. It sends a message of ‘pay attention to this’.
Unfortunately this message is too little and should have been done a long time ago. It is the reality that many people do not feel safe in their places of worship. Not just people who are LGBTQ+, but people who are vulnerable in other ways. Women can have a particular vulnerability when male headship is preached and some domestic abuse is ‘justified’ by reference to the Bible. It is true that ‘Bad Theology Kills’.
Feeling unsafe in a church starts with the preaching and goes through a lack of transparency to exclusion and othering. How a church sees itself is fundamental to how it sees the church members and the community it serves. Where a church embraces something like ‘faithful remnant’ theology or a theology that prioritises some people’s status in God above others, then it is a short step to treating some people as less than others and starts a slippery slope to abusive behaviour and language.
There are churches where the preaching is that being LGBTQ+ is a sin. Preaching that as a certainty, rather than acknowledging the range of views on the subject can lead to the situation where anyone who is LGBTQ+ in that church has to adopt the ‘single and celibate’ position in order to remain in that church, albeit at the level of being tolerated rather than being fully part of the church. Forcing people who are not called to celibacy to be single and celibate for life is harmful. As human beings, made in the image of a loving Creator God, we are called to love. Indeed ‘God is love’ but denying us the experience of loving others means it is an easy step to not loving yourself. In Matthew 22.39 Jesus gave his second commandment of love, that we should ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If you are not allowed to love your neighbour because you are being taught that your capacity for love is a sin, then you cannot love yourself as God intended.
Some churches can say that they welcome all people into their communities, but their idea of welcoming people who are LGBTQ+ is to encourage them to ‘put their sexuality under obedience to God’, in other words ‘to give up their gay lifestyle and go back to being straight’. Also known as conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy needs to be banned by the government right now. No more delays and consultations and certainly no religious exemptions. The government has shown no hesitation in banning other harmful practices that are ‘justified’ on religious grounds, such as female genital mutilation. Just because the harm is being done by Christians should not cause the government to hesitate or prevaricate. The recently published Copper report – available here The Cooper Report 2021 – Ozanne Foundation – has legal experts showing the government how to introduce the necessary legislation for a ban.
But women are also at risk from bad theology. The recently published book The Bible doesn’t Tell Me So by Helen Paynter shows how selective and out of context Bible quotes are used to abuse women. It shows that way that domestic abuse is ‘justified’ as ‘wives submitting to your husband’ with no understanding of the Biblical teaching to husbands on how they should treat their wives. The theology of ‘no divorce’ is used to tell wives that they must not leave an abusive husband. The Bible is rarely used to tell husbands that they must not be violent with their wives.
Similarly a theology of male headship can be used to disempower women in a church. It can justify patriarchal attitudes in church that would not be tolerated in a work place. The line between patriarchy and misogyny can be a very thin line indeed.
The church needs to do better. It needs to be a place where all people can feel safe. It has to tackle bad, abusive theology and be willing to follow Jesus to create God’s kingdom on Earth, for all God’s people.
Resources for Safeguarding Sunday can be found at Support Safeguarding Sunday | The Church of England