by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Former Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod
I am glad to have among my friends several candidates for ordination, currently testing their vocations or in training. I’m encouraged by the quality and commitment which they show, and by their deep dedication to Gospel values and to working beside people in need.
Some of them happen to be LGBTI+. They ’re people who have had to work out how to respond to the notorious question posed as part of the selection process – the confirmation that they have read and agree to abide by ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ with its cruel expectation that clergy in same-sex relationships should be celibate.
I entered the priesthood shortly after ‘Issues’ was published but before it had morphed into policy. There was never any secret about my sexual orientation. I was fortunate to be in a widely known relationship when I was ordained both deacon and priest, and I was never required to give such a guarantee. I’m bemused and surprised, but very relieved, that others have not been put off by the question.
I know that we have lost many good candidates as a result of the current position, and I know that it is a bit of a postcode lottery – different bishops have very different policies.
I always ask my friends what makes them stay. I am touched and encouraged by the answers I receive. A deep sense that they are being called to serve, a recognition that the C of E’s current position is ethically and theologically unsustainable, and a trust that, in the end, the love of God will win out over the reactionary pressures of tradition.
My friends’ responses have increased my feeling of urgency that we must make progress towards recognising and celebrating the diversity of human experience and love. It’s an urgency which has a real focus, as I am a consultant to the Coordinating Group of members of the College of Bishops responsible for ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF).
I think I’m not breaking any confidences if I say that pulling together the document/resource/whatever it will be is a really complex process. The four working groups – Theology, Biblical Studies, Science and History – are doing great work on developing background studies which will, in different ways, be drawn on for the final product. The College of Bishops was given a good insight into the work in progress, last week. But there isn’t a great deal of time to produce the final product, if it is to be ready for Synod to think about in 2020, and expectations are running high on both sides of this debate.
There is great potential for something exciting to emerge. Something which takes seriously recent scholarship and advances in scientific understanding, which recognises the range of legitimate interpretations of scripture, reason and tradition, and opens up the possibility of moving towards a shared economy within the C of E – recognising and affirming LGBTI+ people unequivocally as well as respecting the positions of those who are more conservative. I’m hopeful by nature, and I think that no one would wish to see the amount of time and commitment – and money – going into the process wasted!
But I am anxious about its reception because I’m not sure that the purpose of this whole process is fully understood. I think that many supporters of LGBTI+ inclusion are looking to LLF to make strong recommendations for change – including, for some, the opening up of church marriage to same-sex couples. And many traditionalists, including people close to the process, are looking to it to rule out any realistic change.
LLF may not do either of those things. When I think about it, I often think about exam papers – especially maths exams. I remember sitting A-level papers which set difficult equations to be solved. ‘Please show your workings,’ the instructions said.
My hope is that LLF will enable the C of E to ‘show its workings’ as we move towards full inclusion. At the moment the only recent document accepted by the Church, albeit without due process, is ‘Issues’ – which is widely acknowledged to be deeply flawed and was published in 1991. LLF will, if it is as good as it could be and if it is accepted, bring recent scholarship and contemporary understandings of sexuality, gender and identity into the warp and weft of the Church of England.
But it will be only part of a process – Synod, the House of Bishops and many others will be involved, once LLF is published, in deciding how to move forward. And any movement depends on whether we are all there to help make change happen.
So I am really grateful to my friends who are willing to trust the church with their futures, because they are making a long-term commitment to a flawed and confused institution. And I am grateful to so many others who are carrying on the struggle alongside LGBTI+ people.
As for me, I’ve been having these conversations for 25 years. I have, God willing, around another ten years of active ministry. The process of change, if it happens, will not be quick – I don’t expect it to be over before I retire. It will be for others to take forward.
To you all – and you know who you are – thank you for being willing to take on the struggle. And may God be with us all as we try to help the church become the thing it so wonderfully could be, with a little more courage and a lot more love.
In the current climate of better understanding about the realities of gender and sexuality issues, the recruitment of clergy might better be conducted in a spirit of openness about the realistic expectations of bishops in their requirements of ordination candidates (also, that of Religious Orders of their own candidates).
I’m glad to be able to say that my own conscience was quickened early on in my clerical career to be open about my own sexual-orientation to those whose task it was to examine candidates for entry into the novitiate of S.S.F. and (later on – in my case) for the process of ordination into the priesthood. This, I think, should be ‘best practice’ for anyone approaching the prospect of becoming a Religious or a clergy-person. My examination for these two roles was undertaken over 40 years ago, but even in those days, it was notoriously difficult for a prospective candidate to be open about this most deeply personal aspect of their life – in an atmosphere of ambivalence on the part of the Church to acknowledge that someone like me could legitimately aspire to become part of a religious organisation. One comes to understand that one has to live with one’s own conscience – not that of other people.
Thank God, this is no longer an insurmountable problem – for those of us who are able to be frank and open – about an innate condition which, if properly understood by examining chaplains or bishops, ought not to be an obstacle for recognition of a valid call to any office or ministry in the Church. The question of whether, or not, a member of a Religious Order could then go on to form a ‘special relationship’ which is explicitly forbidden by most Religious Constitutions (something like the discipline for Roman Catholic Church for its clergy and Religious) is not in question here.
However, in our Anglican situation, where ordained clergy are often encouraged to be/come married, there is the on-going problem (for an LGBT+person) of how to live out one’s priesthood in perpetual celibacy – a situation which becomes an ideal breeding ground for a code of covert activity leading to the possibility of hypocrisy – not only in the life of the person/s involved in cohabitation, but also the officials of the Church that are often obliged to ‘turn a blind eye’ to what is actually going on. It is this reality which can lead society (knowing the true situation) to regard the Church itself as hypocritical.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand