Friday, 12 August 2016

Personal Response to the 'Open Letter to the College & House of Bishops'

“We are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience. We would welcome initiatives to help local churches do so in a way that is affirming of and consistent with Scripture and would hope to support suggestions you might wish to bring to Synod to that effect.”

The above is an extract from an open letter to the College and House of Bishops from 72 ‘conservative’ members of the Church of England’s General Synod. The full text can be found here.

The letter essentially seeks to encourage the Bishops to refrain from considering “any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church”. The signatories feel that “much more biblical study is needed before we will be able as a Synod to make theologically informed decisions about human anthropology and sexuality.”

For an extensive response to the letter from a liberal/affirming perspective read Andrew Lightbown’s blog.

I want to offer a brief comment on the paragraph quoted at the top of this article.

When the signatories say “we are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience” I actually don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I'm sorry if some of you think this is an inappropriate response, but it's genuinely thrown me.

I am simply bewildered. I acknowledge that I am a bear of little brain, but I can’t begin to get my paltry grey cells around it.

Because what it seems to be saying – behind the words – is ‘We are committed to a church that is ‘genuinely welcoming’, but…”

For, as the letter unfolds, it would seem that ‘genuinely welcoming’ is not be defined in relationship to people who actually might like to be welcomed (i.e. outsiders, visitors, gay people who would like to have their relationship celebrated in the sight of God), but by the those who are already the ‘gate-keepers’.

Now, ‘gatekeeping’ is inevitably part of being human. We probably all carry around within us ideas about what ‘genuine welcome’ looks like. It will be drawn from Biblical, cultural, inter-cultural ideas and experience.

Yet – call me odd – but my experience of what constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ is a dialectical matter.

So, as a vicar I might say, ‘My church is very welcoming…indeed, it’s trying to be genuinely welcoming.’ And perhaps I could adduce all sorts of examples of how welcoming our church is, primarily drawn from people who are already ‘within’ I suspect. (I suspect that when church's do 'audits' about welcome they draw far too often from the experiences of 'insiders' rather people on the edge or new members.)

But surely it’s a crummy account of ‘welcome’ that precisely excludes the experience of those who are not ‘on the inside’, who aren’t the ‘gatekeepers’.

It would be like me, as a vicar, being told (as I have been from time to time), ‘Vicar, your church isn’t very welcoming because of x, y, z,’ but insisting that – while that feedback is welcome – it’s not the visitor/stranger/outsider’s job to tell ‘us’ how welcoming we are. They are not the arbiters of what welcome looks like.

And I think that – given the rhetorical formats this letter uses (e.g. talking about ‘patterns of sexual attraction they experience’ rather than someone’s ‘sexuality’) – the signatories aren’t really that interested in hearing these constantly reiterated refrains:

"A symptom of the Church’s lack of welcome and affirmation of LGBT people is the refusal to bless and celebrate our committed, loving relationships.

When 'we' (LGBT people) repeatedly say that the Church is a bit rubbish at welcoming us can you please take that seriously? We're not making it up.

That to talk of ‘genuine welcome’ while treating our relationships and lives as failed, second-rate or to be carefully ‘controlled’ is not what welcome looks like."

Here’s what the Church's 'position' typically communicates:

"We like to talk about ‘genuine welcome’ but what we really mean (wrapped up in hand-wringing, and an apologetic shrug’) is ‘conditional welcome’.

We like to put up signs saying ‘genuinely welcome’, but how often we invite people into limited affirmation, love and a bleakness that encourages self-loathing."

And even affirming LGBT priests like me feel the cheapness of that welcome. For time and again I’ve said to LGBT couple friends who want to marry in church, ‘Sorry, hun, I can’t marry you in church…but I can offer private prayer.”

And if 'we' think offering, e.g. private prayer as an alternative to blessing or marriage constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ in the modern world, we’ve probably had a very limited experience of being ‘unwelcome.’

And – here’s the thing – I reckon most everyone in the pews and in ministry (even in some relatively conservative settings) gets that ‘conditional’ welcome is not the same as ‘genuine’ welcome.

Because actually most Christians are suckers for commitment and love and want to celebrate and bless it. Because they see God blessing those people’s committed lives.


  1. Even as a member of a Church without any LGBT/autistic/... issues, there are times when you are made to feel a bit of an outsider.

  2. Hi Rachel, thanks for writing and publishing this. I've long found it odd that while I'm in a hetero partnership, I'm welcome-ish, but if I express other aspects of my sexuality, I'm not. To be honest though, I find myself less than welcome as an (ADHD) woman with a mind and ideas of her own, who doesn't want to sit still and be talked AT! Stopped going to church 18 months ago when the new vicar reverted the format to, 'great, I have an audience and I'm gonna enjoy this'!!

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