Urgent need for church leaders seeking inclusion to speak up, following letter from bishops of the Church of England Evangelical Council
A recent letter from eleven Church of England bishops poses a serious challenge to those in the church who wish to see the Church of England move towards a more inclusive position. The LGBTI mission was founded to advocate Anglican practice which demonstrates that God’s abundant love is for all people, irrespective of sexuality or gender identity. The letter, penned by the Bishop of Blackburn, warned against moves towards the church being more inclusive.
There is an urgent need for Church of England bishops and other leaders who want to be more welcoming towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Christians to be clear about the theological imperatives for greater inclusion. The credibility of the latest study process on sexuality and gender identity (Living in Love and Faith), due to report in 2020, hangs on those welcoming voices being heard. If Bishops and church leaders do not articulate LGBTI inclusive theology, there is also a risk of further alienating young people, many of whom already think that the church is unjust and unloving towards them, their LGBTI family members and loved ones.
This present initiative is the most recent of several processes of study and dialogue over the past half-century. Time and again, these have pointed out the need to treat LGBTI people in a more loving and less unequal way, in line with core biblical values – but church leaders have consistently been reluctant to act on this, for fear of upsetting their most conservative members. These include some church leaders from the Global South, though there are theologians and ordinary churchgoers throughout the world who understand the need for change.
At present, there are severe restrictions on what is legally possible in Church of England churches. Clergy and parishes who want to hold marriages for same-sex couples are forbidden to do so, and licensed clergy are themselves forbidden from being married to a same-sex partner, and some have lost their licence and permission to officiate for having done so. Official teaching even frowns on physically intimate same-sex partnerships which are permanent, faithful, and stable, even though the vast majority of British Anglicans disagree. People who would make excellent priests have been turned away, and some LGBTI people still face distressing rejection or pressure to hide their identity. The Church of England is making extensive use of religious exemptions under the Equality Act of 2010, which makes such behaviour illegal in all other areas of our national life.
Many of the bishops who would like to see greater inclusion have, so far, failed to say so. But while LGBTI members are still treated as second-class and leaders opposed to inclusion are making the headlines, this silence is hugely damaging and undermines trust.
Though many evangelicals now affirm LGBTI people and committed partnerships, the letter from eleven evangelical bishops calls for ‘Living in Love and Faith’ clearly to articulate ‘the traditional teaching of the Anglican Communion. The form of this is what Lambeth 1920 called a “pure and chaste life before and after marriage”’. It warns of division if this does not happen.
However, Anglicans globally have already moved on to take a very different view from that of the Lambeth Conference of a century ago, which expressed a strong disapproval of contraception, or divorce and remarriage even in extreme circumstances other than infidelity, such as domestic violence and abandonment.
In LGBTI Mission’s view, to fulfil Jesus’ call to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and to “love one’s neighbour as oneself” is vital for the Church’s mission and ministry in the 21st Century. Now is the time to be bold, and to respect the consciences of those wanting greater inclusion (as well as those opposed to full affirmation, who would not need to be required to act against their conscience), and to witness in deed, not just word, to God’s self-giving love for all.
Tracey Byrne, Giles Goddard, Ruth Harley, Rosie Harper, Savi Hensman, Chris Newlands, Jeremy Pemberton, Simon Sarmiento (Chair), John Seymour, Bishop Alan Wilson
The letter from the eleven evangelical bishops:
Despite the fact that there is probably a majority of Evangelicals in the Church of England who look forward to a more open policy in the church regarding its intentional ministry of inclusion of LGBTI people; a minority of Seven Evangelical Bishops has just written a Letter to the Bishop of Coventry (my old diocese), Christopher Cocksworth, who is the Chair of the Coordinating Group of the C.of E.House of Bishops’ ‘Living in Love and Faith (LLF)’ Commission; protesting against any new changes in Church polity concerning its official stance on the inclusion of LGBTI members.
It appears that these seven protesters, headed by the Evangelical Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson – not unlike the members of FCANZ in New Zealand – are intent on scuttling any movement towards the radical inclusion of LGBTI people as both clergy and members of congregations in the Church of England – a matter which is currently being discussed by the Coordinating Group, headed by Bishop Cocksworth.
Simon Sarmiento, Chair of the LGBTI Mission in the Church of England, the author of this article, is also a founding member of the blog ‘Thinking Anglicans’ which, amongst other matters concerning the structure and polity of the Church of England, is also an important supporter of a more liberal Church which is able to cater for the growing sympathies of the broader membership of the Church which sees the need for a greater openness towards the newly understood diversity of gender and sexuality identity of both clergy and the people in the pews.
In regard to the work of the LGBTI Mission, I believe that the task of discernment of the realities of gender/sexuality issues facing the LLF Commission would be greatly helped by a greater openness towards the FACT that there are many more LGBTI people amongst the clergy and people of the Church of England than are currently willing (or able – because of their fears of job security or censure by the Church) to be open and frank about their innate gender/sexual identity. There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, but there are probably many more people feeling they have to hide their true sexual/gender identity – because of the reasons stated above – whose lives could be transformed by being able to be honest and open about this important dimension of their private lives, without the threat of losing their status or, in the case of the clergy – their livelihood.
The problem of enforced hypocrisy – about one’s personal gender/sexual identity – is surely one of the most debilitating aspects of one’s ministry in the Church, whether as clergy or laity, and the sooner this enforced secrecy is no longer considered necessary, the healthier both Church and people will become. Society has already gotten over the revelations about the amazing diversity of gender/sexual identity in the community outside of the Church. Surely it is now important for the Church to catch up with the biological and social reality of life as it is actually lived out in the world God created.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand