Monday, 30 January 2017

The Bishops' Report: A Personal Coda

Today presents more pressing concerns than a House of Bishops’ report on sexuality. I trust that most of us are seeking to concentrate on them and find ways of speaking into and acting into the geo-political fissures of our world. I trust that we who are ministers of good news are seeking to model that in the communities in which we are set. Today, like most days, shall be quite busy. For me, as someone with ‘the cure of souls’ in an unfashionable part of Manchester, there are a lot of pastoral, financial and liturgical matters to take up my time this week.

However, I want to write a coda to the events of the weekend and try to articulate in a more nuanced, less emotive way some of the things that have been going through my mind. For me, I hope this shall be the last thing I write on the Report for a while. 

I must admit ‘achieving thought’ re the Report it something of a challenge. For - as I’ve discovered after chats with LGBTI friends and colleagues over the weekend – a common response to the Report is profound tiredness. It has triggered a kind of bone-deep weariness. Part of the issue at stake in the Report is ‘newness’ – a new tone, a new teaching document, a new beginning to how we discourse around relationships. And, for many of us, we cannot believe that after all the energies spent and personal lives laid on the line in recent years, we’re being asked to ‘start again’.

However, let’s take the Report’s ‘newness’ at face-value. One is inclined to agree that there is a profound need for a new teaching document on marriage and relationships. How on earth ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ ever became regulative for the church’s discourse on sex is bewildering.

However…I suspect we’re all kidding ourselves if we imagine the ‘newness’ of the new teaching document will lead to a kind of Wittgensteinian ‘Now, I understand!’ moment for all concerned, including LGBTI people.

Why? Well, as I read the Report, a restatement of the established doctrine of marriage 'as between one man and one woman’ will form the cornerstone of that new document. Precisely one of the questions at stake for LGBTI people has been pre-determined before we approach the new stage of discourse.

So what might that newness consist in? Perhaps, a clear (‘clarity’ is an important part of what the HoB statement prioritizes) and compelling theological, 'biblically-informed' presentation of the nature of ‘Holy Matrimony’. So clear that anyone – gay, straight, trans, non-Christian, Christian of every flavour – will read the document, hold up their hands and say, ‘Oh! Now I get it. When they say same-sex relationships aren’t in the running for being called ‘Holy Matrimony’ I understand! I’ve made a category-mistake.’ 

Yes, a category-mistake. Because I sense that’s what is being implied in the Report’s discourse. And, indeed, one implication of the annex is that what’s up for grabs in a new teaching document is also the option of the Church saying something ‘new’ like this:

CHURCH: ‘Hey! You! Straight people! You ones in state/civil marriages…’


CHURCH: Yes, you! Now listen up. We know you’re ‘married’…

STRAIGHT PEOPLE…: Yes, rather splendid isn’t it? We hear you approve of marriage…

CHURCH: We-ll, yes we do…We love it…Well, we did…as a rule we do, but…


CHURCH: You see, marriage is all rather splendid…perfect for having babies and all that…the ONLY place for sex (I’m sure you all agree…) but you see, what you’re doing isn’t OUR idea of marriage…we’re into something called ‘Holy Matrimony’…it’s marriage…

STRAIGHT PEOPLE: Yes, like what we have…

CHURCH: Well, not quite…you see, it WAS!…but then that gay thing in 2013 spoiled it…damn shame that…though we don’t blame them for messing stuff up. Oh no! It’s not their fault…

STRAIGHT PEOPLE: Oh we see! So what you’re saying is that we’ve made a category-mistake too…we’ve mistook what we do when we get married in a registry office or a castle or so on as the same thing as you mean by marriage. Oh! I see! So when you’ve gone on about how LGBT people shouldn’t get married…you’re not saying that they shouldn’t get married…it’s just that marriage isn’t marriage like YOU mean it…indeed, our marriages aren’t like you mean marriages…our marriages are more like LGBT ones…they’re more like LGBT marriages than the marriages you have in church…’


STRAIGHT PEOPLE: But we can still have a blessing in church…

CHURCH: Ah…well…

And everyone lives in clarity, ever after…

OR…. Because of us, the Church, getting it so messed up for so long, It might go like this:

CHURCH: Hey! You! Straight people! You ones in state/civil marriages…we’ve got this amazing new document on marriage and relationships that’ll make EVERYONE realise we’ve not been beastly to the gays (they even helped write it, good isn’t it?) and maybe NOW we can all get on and start coming back to church every week and not feel bad…It sets out brilliantly what we mean…you know, how not every marriage is quite holy matrimony and your state marriage is a bit, well, we wouldn't say lacking, but...And now we’re all clear on this, you can stop thinking the church is prejudiced and stuff…and we can be the National Church again…’

****Tumbleweed ***

CHURCH: Hello? Everyone? Anyone listening…?

I, like most Christians, want to be alert to the new Creation coming into being. But so many of us in the LGBTI community who’ve been asking for news, good news, from the church for what it seems like…well…forever (the personal cost certainly creates that effect!)…are tired because now we’ve been told we’re starting again. Yes, we always start from now, and that’s a ‘new’ place, but really? Really, are we simply going to go around the houses again? YEs, the houses are going to have a make-over and there will even be LGBT people on the street who can come around for very chaste quiche, but…

I want to touch on two other pernicious effects (on me) of digesting the latest Report. Again, anecdotally, I know from conversations with friends that I am not alone in feeling this.

As people who’ve read this blog will know, I’ve sought to commit wholeheartedly to the Shared Conversation process. I’ve constantly sought to be eirenic, generous and allow those who I want to stereotype as ‘the baddies’ to be more than ciphers for my frustrations, etc. Sometimes I suspect I've failed. Always, I’ve found this extraordinarily costly, while discovering interesting and rich things along the way. And, well, as perhaps the above sketch indicates, my commitment is in danger of becoming rather careworn.

What I want to be attentive to now is what that commitment has meant in the light of the new Report. I want to outline what might even be called a pathology; certainly, a psychological dissonance.

It’s this: Because of the tonal quality of the S.C.s I now experience a dissonance between some of my (insofar as I can be self-knowing) justified grievances with the report and my perception about what I can reasonably say without being accused of ‘failing’ the new mood of the C of E’s discourse on sexuality.

I have introjected a voice which says: ‘Well, Rachel, you’ve bought into this process, you want to achieve good disagreement, you are partly responsible for this outcome (the Report), even if in a marginal way. So now you should suck it up and get with the programme because (AND THIS IS THE RUB)…because if you don’t then you become the one who breaks ranks and is no longer being respectful to those you disagree with.’

Let me be clear. This is not a good or healthy voice, but it strikes me as – for me – an effect of my participation in the process. 

In short, I feel I would be betraying the process set in chain by the S.C. if I step outside the carefully constructed discourse of ‘generosity’ the process established and has ‘led’ to this Report. Forgive me if this caricature, but one even senses ‘opponents’ just waiting for the likes of me to dare say anything other than ‘This report is the way forward’ so that they can claim, ‘Foul! Look at them! The angry LGBTI people who aren’t satisfied with the Bishops’ reasonable, generous, eirenic report! Typical! That lot can’t help themselves.’)

In short, that we who have sought to have our lives fully celebrated by the Church are, in our dissatisfaction with this considered Report,  are demonstrating once again that we’re the problem. We can’t play fair and nicely and ‘move on’.

So, I come to my final point. It’s not an easy one to acknowledge. Again, I know I am not alone in feeling this.

I feel – for want of a better term – a wee bit ‘gas-lit’. (I appreciate that’s quite a claim, but bear with me…)

For a full definition of the term, google it. I want to be clear that I’m using it in a slightly different sense than the classic definition. In the classic variant, a gas-lit person is one who is deliberately manipulated to doubt the reality of their own convictions, their grasp on the truth and the facts.

In the present case, I don’t want to suggest that the authors of the Report are deliberately attempting, consciously, to damage LGBTI people’s grasp on the realities of their lives. Yet, unconsciously, I sense that this is one of the potential side-effects of what the Report constructs.

I’ve read and re-read that document and been left questioning my reading of the Church’s fullest intentions to welcome and include LGBTI people. Personally, when I read phrases like ‘same-sex attraction’ being given equal, unqualified weight with terms like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ I am left doubting the Report writers trust in the terms which the overwhelming majority of LGBTI people have found to locate and describe themselves with.

Most of all, I feel messed-up by the double-think. One moment, I read ‘Yes! Welcome! Repentance for past attitudes! New tone!’ and the next, ‘But your relationships!’. Did I even sense in the document a claim that were an ordained gay person to marry their same-sex partner that they’d be so falling sort that – qua ministry – they’d count as (essentially) a bad example to their congregation? A bad shepherd to the flock. (Forgive me if this is a misreading.) If so, then ‘Thanks!’ Thanks for effectively traducing many people’s deepest, richest commitments in their embodied, personal life.

Scott Fitzgerald claimed that “an artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” So I try to remain an artist, of sorts. Whether I'm still fully-functional, time will tell! I try to remain a poet. So, forgive me for inflicting a poem, of sorts, on anyone who’s bothered to stay with me this far.

The following is a ‘found poem’. Fans of Dave Gorman will know what one of those is, though poets have used the concept for far longer. This ‘poem’ is based on lines I found in the Bishops’ Statement, loosely arranged by me. 

I do not claim it is even handed, though I like to feel that it offers a number of readings. I believe one of our most distinguished bishops recently suggested at a national Archdeacons’ Conference that the C of E might be richer if we all wrote more poetry. Perhaps, Bishops’ Reports might be more fun/interesting if they took to writing them in poetry. Well, otherwise, gadflies like me might do it for them!

I offer it, I hope, not in a spirit of bitterness, but of a deep, if bruised, affection for a number of folk in the Episcopacy. I ‘get’ that Bishops speak out of ‘institutional’ mouths as much as they might ever out of ‘personal’ mouths, and I pray that they always know the difference. I pray that some might be bolder with their personal convictions, lest the nation thinks that ‘the Church’ only has one take on biblically-informed, pastoral, and theological readings of marriage and commitment.

We Believe

(A found poem based on the House of Bishops’ Statement on Sexuality 27/01/17)

We want to begin by reaffirming
The wellsprings of prayer,
Mindful of our calling as bishops.

We are confident that -
Read as a whole -
The psalmist rejoices!

If we are heard as lacking in love
It is felt keenly,

The challenge:
This is not just our problem.
We want to listen.

We seek to draw together
A received deposit,
Easy, painless, rapid;

It is hubristic
For anyone to propose.
We believe that.

We believe that
It is the responsibility of bishops
To help: not necessarily

Offer a solution, 
But clarity.
We are called to live the gospel

Shared with those we find attractive,
Shared more effectively.
We fall short.

We must do better:
Earnest imperatives, smoke screens,
Dismissing those we disagree with.

Break us into fragments.
The next step:
The process of deliberation.

We describe some parameters,
We outline,
Indicate hopes;

Tone needs to be revisited 
(full and nuanced)
a fresh tone of culture and welcome

and support, without changes.
Law, doctrine, mutual love,
Clergy – their lifestyle –

The most significant choices
That people make
Deemed to be unhelpful.

Express welcome to lesbians
And gay people – make good use!
Moral judgments 

Will take time, consider
The significance of community.
Affirm the role of single people

Reaffirm the current doctrine,
A package of materials.
The same option should not be

Open to a double-standard –
It is clear then,
Questioning has been challenged.

We believe that
Moral questions remain:
Intrusive, sexual. The place of

Disagreements between bishops,
Unity itself, fundamental trust:
We are seeking to discern. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

More Dust: Personal Response to the Statement on Sexuality

Having read the House of Bishops’ Statement on sexuality, I want to offer a brief update on my ‘Handful of Dust?’ post of yesterday.

As predicted, there were no radical proposals regarding the status of LGBTI people in the church. There’s talk of new documents, a new tone for talking about gay people, or building new bonds of respect, and an indication that intrusive questions directed only at LGBT ordinands and clergy shall be dropped.

But there is to be no pastoral accommodation regarding services of ‘blessing’ for LGBT relationships. Certainly, there shall be no shift in marriage doctrine.

I don’t think any of us expected any proposals regarding ‘gay’ marriage. But there was some hope that broad pastoral accommodations might be made to celebrate LGBT people’s relationships in church.

Reading it was an emotional experience. Not because the language was fabulous prose. No, because for people like me this isn’t a doctrinal or ideological matter. It affects huge swathes of my friends and colleagues. When I read the tense prose of a document like this, I see friends, family and colleagues hungry for affirmation and not receiving it.

I think of LGBT friends – often at the edge of faith and church - who’ve approached me to marry them or bless them.
I think of the many civil partnerships etc I’ve attended and thought, ‘This is marvellous and yet…I want people to know that God rejoices with them…’
I think of the people in the congregation I serve who ask for bread and receive not so much stones as dust that clogs their mouths.

And, yes, I think of myself.
Please forgive my self-indulgence in the next and final point:

It is a great privilege to serve as a priest. And becoming a Christian was the most extraordinary moment in my life. I am not ashamed to say I love God. And – I don’t want anyone to doubt this – I’ve been prepared for sacrifice in ministry. It hasn’t – to quote my old training incumbent – been all beer and skittles.

But what I’m starting to wrestle with is another love, an even more embarrassing love (in our current culture) than saying I love God.

I love the Church of England. There I’ve say it. I love its bewildered, often clumsy way of figuring out what it believes about stuff and how to cherish people.
I love its awkward, often patrician style. I love its combination of the brilliant, the pompous, the grand and the ordinary.
I know no other church. When I came back to faith I headed for the only church I could ever be part of: the C of E.

And now…
Well, today, I feel damaged. Not by the latest cack-handed attempts of the bishops to keep everyone together and speak with an authority the C of E last had in…well…you fill in the dots…

No I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. When I read today's document, I thought, ‘Am I so damaged, so mistaken in my bonds of affection for an institution that cannot offer people like me what we hope for (love, affirmation, rejoicing, joy), that I don’t know when enough is enough?’

I am idiot enough to still love the C of E at a deep level. Mainly because I love the wonderful, the odd, the frustrating and, well, the simply magnificent in congregations like the one I serve. And they love me. They model the love of God. God is known in this fractious, crumbling institution.

But, right now: oh, C of E – the skeins of my love for you are breaking. And I have a question: Can you ever really love people like me?