Tuesday, 15 December 2015

An Open Christmas Letter to Bishop Tim Dakin

Dear Bishop Tim,

I’d like to talk to you about your rejection of Canon Jeremy Davies’ request for Permission To Officiate (P.T.O.) in Winchester Diocese. I hope you don’t mind, especially as I don’t know you or Jeremy. You certainly won’t know me. I’m a pretty ordinary parish priest in the north of England who occasionally writes. Like you I enjoy reading, walking and films. I am especially fond of poetry. I also happen to be transgender and a lesbian.

I suspect you’ve received a lot of letters from people in the past few days. Many will have been critical of your decision. Some will have been outraged. I also imagine that you will have received a fair few letters supporting your decision. From the little I know of the workings of Bishop’s offices, I guess your chaplain has been fielding a lot of flak and making difficult decisions about what to pass your way and what to consign to the ‘green ink’ pile. It must be a tiring situation for your chaplain and for you, especially after all the media attention.

You must be hoping that soon you'll get an opportunity to re-focus on diocesan Christmas celebrations and your wider national role. I trust that the time you and your fellow bishops are spending together at the House of Bishops meeting is grace-filled.

Given all that, you probably don’t need another person shouting at you about injustice. You also probably don’t need someone cheering you on. Nobody likes a lickspittle. (Though, as someone who’s received the occasional letter myself, one generally prefers the cheerleading ones!).

I’m also not writing to try to change your mind. I think it would be an even bigger story if, after all the media shenanigans, you decided to let Jeremy have P.T.O. I also sense that – for good or ill – you would argue that your position is entirely in keeping with one reading of the House of Bishops advice.

So why am I writing? I guess I want to reiterate what I trust we both know: rejection is horrible and is especially painful when one is simply trying to be as faithful and loving and authentic as one can. As I’ve picked through the media reports, it’s the human impact that I keep thinking on. I’ve tried to imagine how it feels to be Jeremy and his husband right now. And, if I’m honest, I’ve thought quite a lot about you.

I speak as someone who, from time to time, has paid quite a high price for trying to be faithful and loving and authentic. I mean, I don’t want to strain it or anything, but life can be a bit tough when you don’t fit into the conventional, easy patterns of church or society.

So, for example, twenty+ years ago, when I was first trying to be authentically ‘me’ as a trans person, I faced a lot of prejudice and took my share of abuse. Thank goodness I had an amazing family, but I lost friends, and suffered abuse and threats from both kids and adults. It was – I trust you appreciate the understatement – a bit wearing.

Since coming to faith in my mid-twenties, I’ve seen how, again and again, God is amazing, but I still get some horrible abuse from time to time. From Christians. From people who should know better and be able to live on what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Life is hard enough without one’s co-religionists treating one as either second-class, saved ‘under sufferance’, or so-dangerously ‘other’ that one’s attempts to live and love need to be carefully regulated and restricted.

So when I heard about Canon Jeremy my thoughts turned to how it might feel to get that message, that letter or email of rejection from you and your office. How it might feel to be told that – despite one’s ministry being affirmed and acknowledged over decades and despite already receiving a formal rebuke from another bishop & that being the end of it – I wasn’t welcome to occasionally serve church communities I’d already been helping for a while.

Goodness, that can’t have been a great feeling, opening that letter. I mean, even if it had occurred to Jeremy that one possible outcome of his decision to convert his Civil Partnership to Marriage was refusal of P.T.O., it must have been bad morning. After all, he’s not just some over-gobby troublemaker like me. He’s not some johnny-come-lately who’s seeking to stir up trouble and become a cause célèbre. At least as far as I can tell. That narrative will not do, even if one tells it to oneself as a justification for action.

This is a man who’s served the Church and God for decades. This is a man who was, prior to his retirement, Precentor of one our great cathedrals. You don’t get to occupy those sorts of roles by being a loud-mouthed campaigner or agitator. One has to be serious, sober and talented, able to relate to the great and the good as well as the passing wayfarer. And, yes, I think one has to be faithful.

I’m not trying to portray Canon Jeremy as a saint. That would be foolish. I simply want to indicate that Jeremy’s application to you was from someone of serious commitment, held clearly in high respect beyond Salisbury Diocese, who wants to serve God in word and sacrament. And in Salisbury Diocese he will continue to do so. We’ve all known some hard calls in our lives. I’ve had my measure of rejection. However, after decades of faithful service, and a quiet determination to be faithful to the hope that was in him, for Jeremy to be told his ministry is not welcome must have been a bit of a hit.

I guess, one response is ‘So what? What else did he expect?’ I can be a bit naïve about the church and its ways and means. I’m never going to be in the position of a bishop who has to weigh up an appropriate and proportionate response to what many might say was a willful departure from the current House of Bishops’ position on clergy and same-sex marriage. The Church of England qua Institution will, ultimately, come to a mind on the place of civil marriage, both gay and straight, in its economy of pastoral care and polity. In the meantime, I guess one must acknowledge that some will say, ‘Jeremy broke ‘the rules’ and he has been duly punished.’

Nonetheless, the human dimension does matter. In a world of great troubles, the personal price paid by Jeremy (and his husband) as a result of depriving him of P.T.O. may not appear great. But it will still be a real, human price. And it is in those costs – ordinary, sometimes banal, mostly ghastly – that we, the serving, pastoral Church, claim to find our weight, focus and dignity. This situation is a reminder that the price is paid not in the abstract, but in the particular. Among people who are simply trying to act for the good as they see it.

I said earlier I’ve been thinking about you, Tim. It’s extraordinary how one can think and care about people one has never met and probably never will meet, isn’t it? It applies as much to Jeremy as to you.

When I speak of ‘you’ I am, of course, actually speaking of the ‘version’ of you I have in my head. I hope and pray that this ‘version of you’ more or less approximates to a human picture rather than the usual liberal caricature of ‘The Evangelical Bishop’. The writer in me wants you to be more than a cipher for my disappointment, and my anger at your decision. I also want you to be rounded because there is still a part of me that’s Evangelical. I keep trying to remind myself that you – with your portion of faith, hope and love – are seeking to act for the good as you see it. That we are more alike than we are different.

I pray to God that your decision was not an easy one. (Although, if it was, I hope you have pause to ask ‘Why?’ in the weeks to come. Surely any decision that can have costly emotional and personal fallout for others should not be taken from the safety of ‘due process’ and ‘best legal advice’.) I also think that these might be quite difficult weeks ahead for you. Even with the most robust sense of self, negative press is wearing.

I know it’s tempting in such circumstances to attempt to rework this emotional distress into a kind of positive; that is, into an opportunity to participate in Christ’s woundedness and sufferings. To ‘play’ a part that saves us from moral culpability or villainy. You may well do this and I’m hardly in a position to argue you shouldn’t do that. We all work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

But – I hope you can forgive my boldness – may I commend another aspect to consider? In those distressing moments I think you will have (my constructed version of you, my hopeful version of you, thinks you will have them) I ask you to pause and pray. To think of Jeremy and Simon. To not lose sight of their human being and their particularity and their distress. And though (I admit my limitation here) I don’t think your distress is exactly commensurate (you being a bishop with all the privilege that goes with that etc.) I hope there may be a conversion to ‘the other’ in the mysteries of prayer and distress. The theatre of Tragedy, after all, reminds us that there is some knowledge that only comes through pain and wounds. And the Christian story reminds us that tragedy is very close to comedy; to the possibility of a world in which wounds are bound and the falsely imprisoned set free.

Forgive me. I get carried away. Especially at Christmas. Christmas is so very cheesy, but it can still startle me in the most extraordinary way. The Christ-child always reminds me that God comes among us not with clever arguments or theological constructions, but as that most fragile and defenceless thing, a baby. His only power is to elicit love. The encounter we make with God in the Christ-child is beyond the obvious delights of reason. It is in our shared humanity and holy simplicity. A thousand theological and political arguments come crashing down in Bethlehem on that Holy Night.

So may you have a blessed Christmas, Tim. But also, - along with Canon Jeremy, his husband Simon, me, and everyone who is simply trying to get on with being faithful and hopeful – a disrupting one. Where the Saviour without Safety pulls down the walls between us and we can never be the same again.