Monday, 7 September 2015

'An (un)holy mess': The NW Region Shared Conversations, Part Two

NOTE This blog post (as with the previous one) has been written under a commitment to the St Michael House Protocols. I suspect the impact of this commitment on my writing will mean some people will find what I write here too sketchy and general. I write this blog post as part of my own process. I aim to be fulsome about my own reaction to participating the N.W. Region Shared Conversations on Sexuality (S.C.s). If I am discrete it is to protect the innocent.

One of the intriguing features of the construction of the S.C.s was the attempt to place them in a very wide social and cultural context. We were encouraged to consider the process in terms of human sexuality, not just homosexuality. So, for example, the images that were on display on the first day were not just representations of homosexuality. There were representations of divorce, contraception, single-parent families and so on. The images – intended as conversation starters – were chosen to indicate how our society has shifted regarding human sexuality in the past fifty years.

I welcomed the desire to place the S.C.s in wider contexts. However, I was stunned that there was a sense in which the whole process was guilty of (Alarum!! Use of rather provocative neologism warning!!) ‘cis-washing’: I was stunned that no reference to the impact of trans, intersex etc experience was even vaguely present in the set-up of the conference. Indeed, there was a lack of appreciation for the way our discourses on gender and gendered bodies impact on and are in dynamic relationship with our readings of our sexed bodies.

I’m pleased to say that when I raised this matter (as well as drawing attention to some slightly ill-advised linguistic faux pas re trans stuff on the part of a facilitator) with the facilitation team I was responded to warmly and sensitively. But, oh my! I know the C of E is hardly alight with the presence of trans* people, but… As with the Pilling Report, the structural silence regarding trans experience (as on lesbian experience) was telling.

Nonetheless, the attempt to frame discussions about ‘the LGBT issue’ in the Church in a wider context led to some telling reflections. Perhaps the most telling one – offered by several voices, included some Evangelical ones – concerned ‘Divorce’. I heard several people say – rightly - that the Church has found a way not to schism over divorce.

The example of divorce is especially telling as it is a subject about which Jesus makes explicit and unequivocal negative comment. Yet here we are struggling to hold together over something Jesus says nothing directly about: homosexuality. If – as a number of people pointed out - we can find a settlement regarding divorce and remarriage, then why on earth can’t we do this over same-sex relationships? Indeed, at least some present (as I heard it) have divorced and remarried in church and have not been anathematized.

Perhaps I was not paying attention, but I didn’t hear any terribly interesting responses to the above challenge. I heard people say that they would not, e.g., remarry divorcees themselves and did not want to be forced to do so (which of course, because of the Conscience clause, they cannot be made to do). We have all learned to live with that situation. We have all remained part of the C of E.

There were – I think – people present who would not accept the episcopal oversight of women or who will have passed resolutions in their parishes that prevent women from presiding at the table etc. (I may be wrong in that assertion!) The fact is that we’ve all grown to live with that situation. I’ve found the compromises that led to female episcopē very challenging, but we’re committed to living with the Guiding Principles.

The fact is the C of E has been living with profound hypocrisy over sexuality for centuries. If you doubt this go read a book like Tim Willem-Jones’  ‘Sexual Politics in the Church of England 1857-1957’, which examines the complications faced by the C of E from the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act onwards. Equally, it’s a cheap point, but one doesn’t need to have read ‘Wolf Hall’ to recognize that the C of E was born out of an inconvenient complication over sexuality in the 16th century.

Yet we have held together, more or less. I came away from the S.C.s even less convinced by the way some of my sisters and brothers in Christ have made beliefs about LGBT people and our relationships a kind of shibboleth over which orthodoxy is decided. It becomes less clear how LGBT people's status in the church acts as the trigger point for the exit of some, should blessings or equal marriage in church become permitted.

Some participants felt there was an insufficient attention during the three days to reading scripture together, including reading the (in)famous verses. I felt slightly different. I hope this is not because (as some might like to stereotype me) I have insufficient affection or interest in scripture. Rather, after twenty years plus of studying, debating and reading those texts it’s clear to me that our strategies of reading and interpretation lead to radically different conclusions; it seems clear to me that unless ‘reading scripture together’ is framed in contexts where trust, friendship and respect are already present, ‘proof texts’ rapidly become weapons of power to undermine people’s lives.

However, I’ve committed myself to read scripture together with some others who were on the S.C.s – some of whom are from very different theological positions. However, I feel more confident in doing that post-S.C.s. I feel like our reading will be grounded in a seeing of the Other as a human being and a fellow pilgrim with Christ rather than as a holder of a stereotyped position. I trust that I can participate in that process of interrogating scripture (and being interrogated by it) as someone who is understood as serious about biblical texts.

Nonetheless, I’ve come away from the S.C.s aware of the differences between the reading strategies commonly appropriated by different theological traditions. One participant spoke to me of letting ‘scripture be scripture’; perhaps it is a mark of how far I’ve fallen into perdition, but I felt I had to indicate that that very statement needs to be (though I didn’t use this word) ‘problematized’.

Equally, I very much respected another participant’s reminder that we need to understand the power and impact of the words we use and how we can all attempt to claim the ‘higher ground’ (!) by skillful use of metaphors.  Indeed, one of the fractures between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ evident in some of the remarks of participants concerned understandings of ‘truth’. For some, ‘scripture’ is ultimately linear, unequivocal, coherent and perhaps univocal rather than being subject to the aporias, partialities and messiness of our lived linguistic and contextual realities.

For some, I felt, the Bible is treated as a text which reads itself, or a texte that is hors texte, guaranteed by a God ‘unpolluted’ by the realities of compromised human being (either in the form of our fleshy embodiment or in the form of our often grubby church community and politicking). One phrase I heard used several times that troubled me deeply was the notion that we must discern the way forward ‘under scripture’. I shall be thinking about the meaning of that phrase for a long time I think.

I came away from the S.C.s more hopeful and energized than I’d expected. For while the 60 or so participants didn’t strike me as especially representative of wider society or even the realities of our churches (there was, for example, a woeful lack of delegates from minority ethnic communities), I sensed that most people were inclined to be affirming of LGBT people. I sense that most delegates, including a number of broadly evangelical ones, wanted to affirm LGBT people's desire to have our committed, faithful relationships honored in church and to seriously explore the possibility of formal blessings for LGBT people, as well as marriage in church.

Here’s the rub, however. What was telling was the difference between behavior in small groups and that in larger ones. When participants were in small groups, invited to listen and not dive in with critique or comment, relationships often began to form between those of quite different perspectives. In larger groups, however, participants were inclined to rehearse established positions.

I don’t see how the S.C.s can be replicated outside of its current carefully ordered, ultimately financially costly settings. When the new General Synod talks about sexuality in 2016 it’s hard for me to see how it won’t be a bit of bloodbath. Why? Partly because G.S. is – by its very nature – a legislative body shaped around political identities, but also because it is a large, public body. When people are ‘on show’ they readily behave in quite different ways to intimate, vulnerable settings. Audiences can make or break performance. Grandstanding and acting-out are encouraged. The media, in particular, is the audience and many of us want either attention or applause, or both.

Some on the conference called for ‘passionate patience’ (a phrase of Rowan Williams). It is a beguiling line. I heard its power and want to believe in its seductions. It’s a very Rowan line, part Hegel, part Holy Man. As ever, I want to meditate on the extent to which it is a line that emerges from a position of privilege and power: the urgency for change that some of us feel is not based on impatience, but on knowing that the patience of LGBT people, tested over endless centuries, has worn thin. But at the same time I don’t want to dismiss the use of Rowan’s line. The deployment of that sentiment might be a stalling tactic, but it might also be about giving some good, faithful and – dare I say it – holy people time to process and discern.

A final thought. One of the words repeatedly questioned by some of my more conservative sisters and brothers on the conference was ‘journey’. ‘How might this journey proceed?’ was (as I recall) one of the questions we were asked to consider. ‘Journey implies a destination’, some responded with concern. I think it’s fair to say that there were people on the S.C.s who think the notion that the Church is or should be on a ‘journey’ regarding matters of (queer) sexuality 'anathema'. Some others countered that to be human is never a static matter. We can undertake a journey without a clear destination in sight. The facilitators, in particular, were determined to note that the S.C.s are ultimately just that: conversations. There is no end game regarding LGBT relationships at the moment. There is no terminus.

I know some of my campaigning friends will be unhappy to hear those final two sentences. I too want to ‘get there’ – whatever that ‘get there’ is. A number of people expressed a view that they’d rather we, the Church, (via G.S. or The House of Bishops or whatever) made some decisions soon. There’s a big part of me too that would rather just get some clarity. I mean, I don’t especially want the G.S. to rule out the possibility of equal marriage or same-sex blessings in church for the next ‘x’ number of years, but at least one would know where one stood.

Yet if the S.C.s are anything to go by, there’s going to be no clarity or decision for a long time to come. Many will want to go slow in the hope of keeping as many people on the C of E bus as possible. But more significantly I’m not sure we have the legislative means to find an accommodation that can hold the various positions together. If I was going to go all Columbo on you, on the basis of these conversations, I think there’s no way we’re all going to stay together. My gut tells me that blessings and equal marriage in church are inevitable (I have no evidence for this, of course!). This will lead to some leaving, but I think fewer will leave than some currently believe. I also think that – as with the fissure over women priests – some will leave and later return.

The S.C.s reminded me that there are some truly extraordinary people within the C of E, whose faithfulness despite profound challenges is beyond doubt. I was moved to tears by the simple request from a number of people to have their faithful, committed and loving gay relationships acknowledged as beautiful and sacred. I was reminded, at the same time, that mess can be holy and missional. The church’s human frailty can show God’s face. But most of all, I was reminded that the longer we postpone the full acceptance and equality of LGBTI people, the more absurd the church’s public rhetoric of love, grace and justice is in danger of becoming.


  1. Thanks for this, Rachel. As a priest, and mother of a trans son I have been wondering how the SC's (which I have not been invited to be involved with - though I don't know what the criteria were) have been going - and what was emerging from the discussions with regard to trans issues. I really empathise with your frustration regarding the "patience" plea - especially as, while I pray that you are right that one day equal marriage in the C of E will come, many LGBTQI friends have already voted with their feet. :-(

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