Monday, 29 July 2013

We're All Cavemen - Equal Marriage and Popular Perception

'We're all cavemen still.'
This was the assessment of my cleaner (Yes, I have a cleaner...I'm *that* middle-class) when I outlined the Church of England's position in relation to equal marriage.

She'd asked - not unreasonably - whether the good old C of E would soon be marrying gay couples in church. As most of you will now be aware, the C of E will be legally excluded from conducting marriage for gay couples. When I explained this, her response was barely disguised disgust. She is not - as far as I aware - religious in a conventional sense (and she's not a member of my congregation) but she has shown sympathy for the kind of work I do and what St Nick's is basically about. But her assessment of the C of E - 'We're all cavemen' - felt all the sharper because of that. As far as she is concerned, the C of E (and presumably all traditions which deny gay people a full and proper celebration of our commitments) is in the Stone Age.

As ever with me, I indicated how at a personal level, this situation is not how I'd like things to be. I still feel the future of the C of E - as a national church seeking to serve local communities - lies in enabling local priests to exercise conscience on this matter, just as they do over divorce. Otherwise a bleak future awaits in which not only gay couples continue to feel let down and excluded by their local Anglican church, but also very many of their friends, families and supporters. A bleak harvest of antipathy and perceived irrelevance will, I fear, be reaped. My cleaner represents a perspective that is more typical than many within the church's bubble of holiness are inclined to acknowledge: that our queer sisters and brothers are simply just part of us. Our local communities and their friends and families, both straight and gay, just see LGBT folk as ordinary normal human beings.

My cleaner's final words on the matter also struck home. She concluded that the church is happy to say gay people are part of the church, to use their talents and their gifts (including their financial offerings), but it's shocking that the church cannot properly show them respect and give them equal standing. I didn't quite know what to say. Perhaps my cleaner's words do not quite capture the full truth, but there's enough truth in it, for it to hurt.

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.