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.


Rachel 

22 comments:

  1. Well said Rachel. The church has to resolve the question of same sex marriage. All clergy should be able to marry and enjoy the love and comfort of the person they love. The Christian Faith is based on love. Cannon Jeremy has given many years of faithful service to the church.
    I am marrying my partner Samantha who underwent surgery in December 2014. #

    Kind regards,

    Rev'd Paul Waters

    ReplyDelete
  2. You couldn't have said it any better Rachel. I pray and hope that Bishop Tim will take your letter to heart, and not dismiss it and to hopefully pray, discern and in love reverse his decision not to give Canon Jeremy a PTO. May your Christmas be a Holy and Blessed one!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rachel, thanks for this thoughtful comment—but I am struggling to take it (and this dimension of the issue) at face value. Christina Rees take a slightly different angle in the Guardian:

    When Canon Jeremy Davies married his long term partner Simon McEnery he must have known what he was doing. Neither he, nor anyone else, should really be surprised that he’s been refused permission to take services in one of the two dioceses (an area of church administration under the ward of a bishop and divided into parishes) in which he currently officiates.

    So I am not sure who to believe: you, in drawing attention to the personal and human? Or Christina, who suggests this request was made quite knowingly and could be interpreted as something of a set up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian, I feel compelled to reply to your comment. I just want to ask you, if the eye offends you, do you pluck it out? Does your church hold sales and fayres in the Sanctuary? Do or have you ever had a lustful thought about a woman OR a man? Or indeed have you yourself wanted to marry into a same sex relationship?

      I think we need to take seriously the fact that over time, aspects of church 'rules' have changed. Perhaps they need to. I doubt Canon Jeremy would create a 'set up', but if he did, of what consequence is that to the progress of Love? (Please note my use of an upper case L) This world needs LOVE and COMPASSION, especially now. To deny a Priest his ability to work in LOVE, purely on the grounds that these loyal and loving men have married, makes ME question whether the Bishop actually has LOVE in HIS heart.

      There is no place any longer for hatred and fear, violence and abuse of power.

      Delete
    2. ' if the eye offends you, do you pluck it out?'. No of course not. That's because I have been taught something about how to read the Bible.

      The fact that you need to ask that question is evidence that much of the church appears to have forgotten how to, and I think that is one of the central issues here. So-called traditionalists are not interested in picking up isolated verses; we are concerned with a relatively clear, consistent teaching about humanity made in God's image from Genesis, through the gospels, to Revelation.

      Delete
  4. That's one of the most authentically Christian responses I've read in a long time. Being a bishop really can't be easy, but being in Jeremy and his husband's position is clearly very hard too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It must be pretty hard being God too in these situations... so much said one one's behalf , whether or not you actually agree with any of it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A very well written letter. I can't help thinking that whatever one's views are on same-sex marriage - and I'm sure your readers will have a full range - decisions like this cannot be easy. 'Heavy the head that wears the mitre.' I certainly wouldn't want to be taking these decisions!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Ian. Re:- Jeremy's intentions. I'm conscious that there is no 'view from nowhere'. We read events through all sorts of interpretative prisms, and I will have my own. For all I know, Christina may have a particular piece of info that leads her to read events as she does. Or, as someone who was involved in church politics in a direct way for a long time, she might be someone who sees machinations going on that may not be there. Politics makes people question motive all the time, I sense! I'm running on an instinct here that - based on the many people I know, gay & straight, who've married - people don't marry to make politics, but out of faithfulness and love and desire to give ourselves to the other person. But I can be a bit naive and romantic about all that stuff! RM

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Rachel. I think in this debate there are equal dangers in being naive and in being cynical. The problem is that I agree with you that there are serious feelings and commitments here—but this is intermingled with cynical manipulation.

    For example, I think many outside the situation found it hard to view the timing of Jeremy pemberton's action as anything but carefully planned to test the 'system' at its weakest point.

    And I knew Jeremy Davies a little in Salisbury diocese. When he and Simon entered a CP, there was some sort of celebration at the cathedral followed by a party at his house in the close which the bishop attended. When questioned about this, the bishop noted that the day was also Jeremy's birthday, and that was of course what the party was about—not a celebration of the CP.

    This kind of disingenuous dishonesty contributed to a sense among evangelicals in the diocese that a game was being played—the very border of apparently legality was being walked in a way which taunted anyone who dared to ask proper questions.

    I note that your bishop has tweeted in support of this post. He doesn't strike me as the sort of person to play games, but I hope he is aware that others do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian, I'm not sure, in your half dozen meetings, you got to know Jeremy terribly well. A cynic he isn't. I thought I was, but the I read your posts here and elsewhere. I may not be able to persuade you of our motivation, but I can give you a couple of facts. In terms of timing, we had our CP and marriage as soon as it was legally possible. In the case of our CP, to be honest, it was a couple of weeks after the law changed, on, as you say Jeremy's 60th birthday. Now you may be able to afford two big parties in a month, but we can't, so we combined the two. (We marked my 50th and our marriage conversion similarly last year.) If you did know us, you'd know the invitations to the first event were clearly to our CP and Jeremy's birthday, and that the CP ceremony was itself part of the event. I might ask why, if our CP was a cynical attempt to force the Church's hand, you also thought we attempted to conceal it behind a birthday party? Perhaps it's you who is being 'disingenuously dishonest'? Either way, on neither occasion did we seek out media attention; we were merely carrying out a legitimate activity open to everyone under the law of the land. This week, however, we are happy to court all the publicity we can, even somewhat snide and disparaging ones, because for every dissenting voice there seem to be hundreds out there given a chance to speak up for freedom and love.

      Delete
    2. By the way, another inaccuracy: on the occasion of our CP, there was no celebration at the cathedral, sort of or otherwise, and the ceremony and party took place at a stately home in the Wiltshire countryside, as our house, large though it was, wasn't big enough for all our friends.

      Delete
    3. Simon, thanks for commenting and for correcting my errors.

      I am not sure I anywhere call you or Jeremy cynical—but there is a good deal of it around. I hope you noticed on my blog post (if you read it) that I was impressed by the way Jeremy's comments had quite a different tone from the conversation I had with Jeremy Pemberton on BBC 2.

      But there was a lot of cynical manipulation going on in Salisbury diocese when I was there—in fact, the previous bishop appeared rather to enjoy it, because I think it showed us all how clever he was. (He did once tell me he was the brightest clergyman in the Church of England).

      There is no doubt that the fact that the party was both a celebration of the CP and a birthday party allowed the bishop to attend to support the CP whilst still in public claiming that he was only attending a birthday party. If Jeremy wasn't aware of this possibility, then I suppose I would have to, with Rachel, note him as one of the 'naive'.

      Delete
    4. "This kind of disingenuous dishonesty contributed to a sense among evangelicals in the diocese that a game was being played"

      Can "evangelicals" really be surprised that the "game" is being played on the terms they have dictated?

      Delete
  10. Rachel, thank you. I can't tell you how moved I am by your words.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To you and your husband, Simon: Mazel Tov!

      Delete
  11. What a fantastic, thoughtful and thought provoking letter, Rachel. There is so much to say about this subject but you have stripped it down to its bare essentials. I don't know much about Synod politics. I know that the all priests for whom I play the organ in my area here in the Cotswolds are fully affirming of my sexuality and my ministry from the organ bench. And so with all the considered reasonableness that your wonderful article can inspire I say the Bishop was wrong. The homophobia that small enclaves of the Evangelical movement are allowed to still display must be swept away. Swept away on a tide of God's life affirming love. Thankfully an ultimately irresistible force. With all blessings to you at this time of love and celebration (and extreme busy-ness for all of us!) Julian Harris Ilmington Shipston on Stour.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you Rachel...a wonderful piece of sensitive writing...I do not know how you can be so patient....I just tend to shoot from the hip!
    However having said that it is all very depressing....I just really feel for my gay brothers and sisters....O Lord how long before this wretched business is sorted?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you Rachel...a wonderful piece of sensitive writing...I do not know how you can be so patient....I just tend to shoot from the hip!
    However having said that it is all very depressing....I just really feel for my gay brothers and sisters....O Lord how long before this wretched business is sorted?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Many thanks for this, Rachel. I suspect I am in the position of quite a number of people who are trying to get their heads and hearts into harmony on this matter. My sympathies are with Jeremy and Simon, yet my head tells me that given the position of the C of E at the moment priests who marry their partner must anticipate disciplinary action.

    The problem with concentrating on specific case, and the distress which they cause, is that they take our eye off the ball. The essential thing is to mount a full-on assault on the nature of the "rules" and the way they are being enforced. In particular, the bishops must be forced to confess that Issues in Human Sexuality is not only woefully out of date but was never intended to be a statement of position. (How has it become established as one?) I have pointed out before on Thinking Anglicans that this document was intended solely for discussion. In any case, its position of same-sex relationships was demolished almost at once when Bishop John Austin Baker, who chaired the committee which produced it, announced publicly that he had changed his mind on the matter. He went on to speak and write in favour of those relationships. If we can get the stranglehold of Issues removed then that will be a definite advance.

    ReplyDelete