Friday, 21 June 2013

Fear & (Self-) Loathing in the (ex-) Gay Community

When I was an undergraduate there was a guy, 'John', on my corridor in college who made an extraordinary claim. He said that, as a schoolboy, he’d been obsessed with the Nazis and not only their attempted genocide against Jewish people, but their persecution of gay people. He’d had maps which showed their extermination centres and his biggest regret at the time had been that the Nazis had failed in their vile plans. This confession was all the more startling because, by the time I’d met him, he was an out gay man clearly confident in his identity and sexuality. Unsurprisingly he was repelled by his former views. As a teenager he acknowledged he’d really struggled to accept himself for who he was and had been drawn to precisely the kind of regime which gave focus for his personal fear and loathing.

I’ve been thinking about John today because of a couple of striking stories that have been in the news. Firstly, the news that Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, has both made an apology to gay people for hurt and damage caused by Exodus' ‘ex-gay’ ministry and also has immediately closed the organization down (though we should be *very* cautious about how deep this apology reaches). He has acknowledged that he has never resolved his own attraction to and feelings for men. Secondly, I’ve also been chewing over the story in The Church Times which suggests that, even if clergy in civil partnerships publicly state they’re celibate, they still might not be accepted as eligible for the role of bishop.

When I met John at university he was, unless my memory is faulty, the first confident, out, gay man I’d ever met. I’d grown up in a village and gone to school in a small town so perhaps that’s unsurprising. However, it was still an age (the late ‘80s) when ‘being out’ was – even in university contexts – relatively rare. As anyone who knows me or has read Dazzling Darkness will know, I was – at 18 – utterly unable to acknowledge how messed up I was and far from ready to come out as trans.

The reason John’s story has stayed so powerfully with me was that, though it remains difficult for me to acknowledge, I too saw the appeal of the Nazi totalitarian mind. I was, unlike John, not exactly obsessed with them, but as an utterly screwed up teen I'd been secretly attracted to the idea that ‘unacceptables’ were wiped out by Hitler and his gangsters. One doesn’t need to be a hugely nuanced psychologist to appreciate that my fascination with the Nazis’ gigantic crimes was a ‘public’ way of dealing with my internal desire to wipe out what I perceived to be 'the unacceptable’ within.

The ‘queer but so filled with self-loathing they want to persecute themselves’ trope is so pervasive it’s a cliché. From Cardinal Keith O’Brien through to Alan Chambers, queer folk have often so internalized cultural fear of difference that they become the most vocal agents of their own exclusion. Indeed, protesting too loudly about gay folk, or wanting them excluded from church or society and so on, has often been taken as definitive evidence of being in the closet. Fair or unfair, I’ve never quite been able to get beyond the feeling that anyone who gets overexcited about the acceptability of LGBTQ people in society or before God or in church may have some unresolved personal issues. That may be a little crude but it’s difficult to resist.

In some respects society has moved significantly since I went to university twenty five years ago. I may live in a metropolitan south Manchester bubble, but UK attitudes to LGBTQ folk have moved far in recent years. Nonetheless, let’s not pretend that queer folk, especially gay men, don’t get beaten up; let’s not pretend that trans* people get a fair deal in our media; let’s not pretend that prejudice isn’t real.

I’d like to think that young people are far more confident about their sexuality and gender than I or John or many LGBTQ people were twenty five years ago, but in my bleaker moments I fear not. Outside of the big cities, two women  or two men holding hands and kissing in public is probably not especially common. I suspect that in many schools it is still really tough to dare be out about being gay or trans*. I guess many wait till university or later to begin to be and express themselves.

And here’s the rub: my fear is that one of the environments which acts most strongly against sexual self-acceptance is a religious one. Even when the message ‘gay is bad’ is not explicit, the implication is ‘gay is not quite as good’. Indeed, that it’s a kind of impaired way of being a human being. I’m privileged to know a number of happy, confident Christian LGBTQ people who’ve had parents, families and congregations who’ve worked very hard to deflect and challenge the dominant religious narrative about being gay. Yet, ironically, an environment which focuses powerfully on the call to love and grow into the likeness of Christ so often invites people to be furtive and fearful. It rewards subterfuge and secrecy and invites self-loathing. It’s not always easy to come out the other side.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Being a bishop and being queer

This is the second time I've responded to a piece in The Telegraph in two weeks. I'm not sure this is a good sign (The Telegraph is hardly my news supplier of choice). Perhaps writing this blog post simply indicates how far I'm being sucked into increasingly febrile debates around gender and sexuality in the church.

After the relatively recent debacle in which the House of Bishops sought advice about whether clergy in civil partnerships could be excluded, de jure, from being consecrated bishop, John Bingham is reporting that any CP'd clergy in line for preferment will be duly quizzed by officers of the Archbishops about the state of their sex life. Queer clergy in CPs will need, in effect, to publicly state they are celibate in order to be bishops.

Quite apart from the horror of even trying to imagine *that* conversation ('Are you now, or have you at any time, been sexually active with the person you love & are committed to...who incidently is of the same gender as you?') the very fact that this General Synod paper exists is significant. It indicates just how very far the C of E is drifting from a society which is committed to a holistic and compassionate vision of humans as sexual and gendered beings.

I can no longer give a plausible account of the church's picture of human being, love and wholeness to a large section of my friends and acquaintances, some of whom have left church and others who are utterly turned off by its perceived judgmentalism. I might mumble about 'doctrinal rationales', 'about bishops as unity figures' but large numbers of intellectually questioning and caring people have just moved on. I'm not sure the church can ever catch up again.

If this General Synod paper were to be adopted as policy it would continue to treat LGBT people as the kind of folk who have to justify their presence in all aspects of church life. As ever I am reminded of that line Rowan Williams is reported to have put to George Carey when the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury: 'Who pays the price?' (Interestingly, I am inclined to say, 'In the long run, *all* of us...'; for though many LGBT people will rightly continue to see the church as a place not for them, the church will be diminished further if it continues its push towards the monochrome.)

Equally, I think of a comment a friend made in 2003 after the debacle over Jeffrey John's 'failed' appointment to the See of Reading. John was all lined up, but Rowan Williams (by now Archbishop of Canterbury) reputedly let John down. The rest, as we know, is history. My friend said, 'Well, I suspect that as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan thinks, 'Job well done' but, as Jeffrey's friend, he's just heard the cock crow.'

The story being reported by John Bingham has this general feel. That is, that at an institutional level, the church and its senior figures will think, 'This is how it must be...this is what a good job looks like...'. However, to someone carrying this policy out (unless they have a failure of humanity), it will be a bleak day indeed. They will instinctively recognize that asking the questions about celibacy and a couple's sex life has crossed an unhappy, inquisitorial line. They will have sacrificed compassion to institutional self-interest.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A new bishop for Manchester & a C of E beginning to accept equal marriage.

It is a measure of how out of the loop I am about Manchester Diocesan life that when I woke yesterday I had no idea our new bishop was about to be announced. Frankly, when I found out the announcement was imminent, I developed mild palpitations and a sweat. For a new bishop can be decisive for the feel of a diocese, especially if one feels one is part of a marginal or minority group. I greeted the news of the announcement of David Walker as our new bishop with real pleasure and, frankly, a bit of relief. (Though for a moment I did a double-take: the Dave Walker I am most familiar with is the Cartoon Church cartoonist. I had visions of Dave producing gentle satires of Manchester life whilst blessing inanimate objects and wearing a pointy hat.)

Bishop David Walker, however, has a record on social concern and interest in the needs of the vulnerable and marginalised beyond peradventure. He has stood up for the neediest and, as someone with family in the Midlands, I’ve heard good things about his pastoral sense. I sense that, at a time when the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being treated with less and less respect, Bishop David will prove to be a potent ally for those in greatest need and will also be an advocate for a generous Anglicanism. I anticipate he will also seek to build on the deeply impressive work of Bishop Nigel with LGB&T communities in Greater Manchester. Indeed, the Pink News has reported that Bishop David would not, had he been in the Lords, voted against the equal marriage bill had he been one of the Lords Spiritual. I sense that our new bishop, a Mancunian himself, will be greeted very warmly when he and his family return back north.

Running alongside that particular piece of good news, The Daily Telegraph is reporting that Church of England bishops have decided to drop opposition to the Equal Marriage Bill, acknowledging the overwhelming will of both Houses of Parliament for an extension of equality to queer people.  Rather, the Lords Spiritual will seek to ensure that the legislation is 'tidied up.' It is yet to be emerge quite what this will ultimately entail, but it looks essentially like a defensive move to ensure that churches, clergy and laity will not be required to step outside their conscience and fundamental beliefs on marriage.

However, I, for one, very much he that this doesn't simply have the character of seeking to lock the C of E completely outside the exciting extension of respect and equality the Equal Marriage Bill proposes. Some clergy, including me, would actively rejoice should we be able to celebrate marriage unions for gay folk as well as straight; equally, it seems increasingly a social imperative for the church to find ways of offering blessing to civilly married gay couples. I do not see how we can seriously continue to be a National Church if we do not do so. I understand that in conscience some clergy would not wish to offer marriage in church for gay folk, just as they do not wish to solemnize the marriages of divorcees in church. But I do not see why there should be a lock out for all clergy.

For some of us this is no mere paper exercise in inclusion. This is simply about seeking to grow into the likeness of Christ and make his glory ever more available. It is about being faithful to God's grace as we've experienced it and wanting to rejoice with friends and family in love and relationship. Many clergy and laity may think, ‘Well LGBT people are nothing to do with me except as people to be called to repentance.’ For many of us, however, especially in places like Manchester, this matter is simply about loving our neighbours and friends and rejoicing in the ordinary and every day; it is about rejoicing in the fact that gay and straight folk are all bearers of the image of God and our faithful, loving unions can reflect her glory.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Response to Telegraph Letter

In the Telegraph today 'religious' leaders have seemingly united to protest this government's equal-marriage legislation.

I suspect that many of my friends and those who have contact with me via social media will recognize that the Telegraph is not an organ noted for its social liberalism or progressive stance and thus provides a focal point for more conservative opinion. If my liberal friends are inclined to start frothing about 'gay-hating Christians etc' please remember that a) this is a letter in the Telegraph and b) the Christian figures represented among the signatories hardly represent either the vast majority of Christians in the pews or are significant active leaders of the church. Indeed, Michael Nazir-Ali may have been Bishop of Rochester but he has retired and is well-known for his conservative social and political outlook. Indeed, upon retirement he aligned, certainly for a period, with the conservative Anglican group GAFCON. Equally Rod Thomas may be very good at making noise in the public square, but his conservatism is hardly of the popular kind.
I am keen to see religious leaders working together. I am disappointed that it seems to be over matters of sexuality. Our common energies would be better exercised protesting that deconstruction of the welfare state which has led to an ever growing dependence on food banks. Equally we should be decrying and acting to end the criminal exploitation of the poor and vulnerable around the world. But that, of course, is hard. It requires a vision of society not grounded in privatized individual morality but in community respect and love. It requires a move away from an obsession with personal morality to ethical living.