Friday, 5 July 2013

Changing Attitudes: +Justin, sexuality and the local context

Last Monday I was invited to 'represent' the 'Church of England' for a Sixth Form 'Day on Spirituality and Religion' at a local high school. Many faith traditions were represented including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and so on. In the morning Year 12 students were given an opportunity to attend small workshops led by faith reps - something I very much enjoyed - but the afternoon was taken up with an open panel discussion in the main hall. Here the sixth formers - themselves coming from many faiths and none - were given a chance to quiz the representatives at length.

It was - in a quite potent way - a reminder of the extent to which social attitudes in my part of Manchester have shifted in the past few years. In his opening address to General Synod, Archbishop Justin talked about a revolution in sexual attitudes, signalled by the nature of the Lords' debate about equal marriage. The discussion in an ordinary Manchester school last Monday underlines that comment in my local context. The discussion we had about equal marriage was both thrilling and a profound warning to a complacent church.

Sixth formers can be notoriously provocative and excited about testing how far they can push things. (I remember only too well what an irritating and contrarian kid I was.) Thus the opening panel question, 'What is your view on gay marriage?', asked by a smiling lad was in part a punt to see how we'd react. The resultant 45 minute debate was, in contrast, compelling and revealing.

As no one else on the 15+ strong panel seemed ready to dive in and answer the question, I decided to go first. I laid out my own personal view - that I welcomed equal marriage & should prefer to marry gay & straight at God's altar - but acknowledged that the C of E has yet to come to a mind on this matter and C of E priests would be barred by law from solemnizing marriage for gay couples.

What surprised me was the very mixed response my comments caused. There were a few jeers and boos. However, if I received a 'mixed review' (which - given the rather wishy-washy C of E style answer I gave - I suspect I deserved), anyone who offered a more conservative view took (in a polite way) a bit of a mauling. Thus, those who claimed that 'homosexuality' was a sin, or that marriage was for procreation, or could only be between a man and woman  and was thus ordained by God/gods/etc got panned. Those who were supportive of gay folk received very warm applause.

One teenager claimed that 'organized religion' was nothing more than a kind of corporate bigotry and, when I responded, my initial response was to take it on the chin. As a representative of 'organized religion', I said, I had to accept that the C of E -as a justice organization - had not been impressive around matters of gender and sexuality. (I then went on to outline the ways in which the C of E and others has stood up for justice, the poor and the vulnerable on many occasions & the way in which the church, like any institution, will contain a variety of views.)

Of course, if one spoke to many of those sixth formers individually I'm sure one would find a whole range of views on any numbers of subjects, including sexuality. As with the C of E, people will sometimes say all sorts of things to fit in with the group, but privately believe otherwise. However, I was blown away by these pretty ordinary, but, I suspect, very representative group of young people who attend a state school in south Manchester. 'Unplugged' and encouraged to share their views, their instinct was to show respect and love towards LGBT people. Their sense of justice was piqued by perceptions - sadly borne out in the majority of cases - that religious people are naysayers and 'down on the gays'.

Perhaps these young people's views will change over time. Perhaps they will become more conservative ...but on this matter? Once you start seeing others as ordinary human beings like you it's very hard to stop. Thank God. If the C of E hopes to connect in even the vaguest way with this coming generation, we've got a lot to come to terms with. As The Church Times reported it, Justin Welby used his first presidential address to the General Synod to call on the church to recognise that the "cultural and political ground" in Britain is "changing", and to "accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality, and we have not fully heard it". How right he is. Time we got with the programme.


  1. I work in a Special School and the kids are BRILLIANT in their attitudes to gay and lesbian people. They seem to intuitively see it as a matter of Inclusion, extrapolating from their own experiences within the Education system.

  2. There may yet be hope for the C of E, then. However, the Pope would say something like, the Catholic Church should not swim with the tide just because the majority of people think that way, its role is to safeguard morality. Etc. So no hope for the RC Church, especially given that the current and former popes have just joined hands to write an anti-equal-marriage document. I now class myself as a recovering Catholic and an out and proud lesbian woman.
    Keep flying the flag, Rachel xxx.

  3. @Tracy - I think the best answer to that conservative viewpoint is the one given by someone on the Thinking Anglicans website recently. He wrote "I think that a relatively simple moral rule is available to us. We are called to be counter-cultural when it means being more just, more merciful, more sympathetic, more imaginative than the world; not when it means being less so."