Grief, self-criticism, and a new immanence
Posted: 25 Nov 2016 @ 00:04
Nick Bundock reflects on his church’s journey to being inclusive, born out of tragic circumstances
LIZZIE LOWE took her own life in a forgotten patch of farmland behind the River Mersey on 10 September 2014, while her parents were at a film club run by a group from St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury (News, 9 January 2015). It is not possible for me to convey adequately the explosion of grief and dismay that hit the Lowes, the church, her school, and her wider network of family and friends.
Two years on, we are all still wrestling with Lizzie’s death. She would be 16 by now, and no doubt excelling at her A-level studies. The litany of “What ifs” is overwhelming.
Lizzie was gay. Nobody in her family or church knew this — how we wish we had. As a 14-year-old, she was still exploring her feelings, and trying to juggle the many powerful emotions of the teenage years, but it was painfully clear from the coroner’s hearing in December 2014 that her sexuality and her perception of faith were at odds with one another, and had become a chasm too wide to cross.
Lizzie had become convinced that God could not love her the way she was — a feeling she expressed by text message to the few confidants she had, leading up to her fatal decision.
St James and Emmanuel has undergone a revolution since Lizzie died. It is not that we were ever “hard-line”. Actually, we have always been a pretty broad expression of Evangelicalism. Like many similar churches, however, we have largely avoided the topic of homosexuality, to preserve the peace. I now realise, too late, that ignoring the topic of sexuality is, by definition, exclusive, and unsafe for people who are gay.
In the months after the coroner’s report, the revolution at St James and Emmanuel started with a decision by the PCC to adopt a statement of inclusion. This was followed by three structured “listening evenings”, and inclusion is now a regular item on the agenda of the PCC.
We lost some members during the turmoil of 2015. That was immensely painful for me as a vicar. But we have also gained members, including a wonderful gay couple who had been told not to play in the worship band of their previous church when people had found out about their relationship.
Worship in our church has never been more vibrant and alive. Our paradigm shift has swept a new sense of immanence into our services, and a fresh honesty into our interactions. Personally, I have crossed the Rubicon: there is no way back. When I do look back, I do so with horror at what a passively homophobic priest I have been.
I do not want anything I have written to sound like a hackneyed rags-to-riches story, or even a resurrection-after-death story. There is no way to erase the horror of Lizzie’s death, or the madness of the wider Church’s ripping itself apart over this issue. Two years on from Lizzie’s death, though, I hope that we have gone some way to amend for our failures. I am proud to lead a church that is both Evangelical and inclusive.
The Revd Dr Nick Bundock is Team Rector of Didsbury, in Manchester.
This is a statement from the network Inclusive Church, which we have adopted:
We believe in an Inclusive Church — church which does not discriminate on any level, including: economic power, gender, mental health, mental ability, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in a Church which welcomes, accepts and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.
Here, in this testimony from an Evangelical-style Church of England parish church, is played out the tragedy of the credibility gap between extant Church Doctrine and the reality of LGBTI people’s actual lives in the world of today:
“Lizzie was gay. Nobody in her family or church knew this — how we wish we had. As a 14-year-old, she was still exploring her feelings, and trying to juggle the many powerful emotions of the teenage years, but it was painfully clear from the coroner’s hearing in December 2014 that her sexuality and her perception of faith were at odds with one another, and had become a chasm too wide to cross.”
This extract from this article in the CHURCH TIMES clearly outlines the tragedy of the Church’s official stance on homosexuality – when related to the real lives of teenagers, and there must be many of them out there in the world, who are members of faithful Church families – who have a job reconciling their inner life understanding of their true nature with their understanding of what the Church teaches and requires of them, personally.
The heartache of the Lowe Family, their Vicar, Nick Bundock, and the Parish Family of Saint James & Emmanuel, Didsbury, is mute testimony to the gap between a defective theology and the reality of the Gospel of Jesus, who came to set us free from prejudice towards those we do not understand, who are different from ourselves and yet part of the family of all God’s children – loved by God beyond all human understanding. May Lizzie’s death not be in vain. May Lizzie Rest in Peace and Rise with Christ in glory!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand