I have been actively involved with the Church of England for nearly thirty years as an openly gay priest, beginning with the Southwark Diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network (inevitably, SLAGS for short) and preceded by my membership of the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation, where we were at least out to each other.
Conversations with many people involved with the church in different parts of the country, from lay people young and old to ordinands, priests and bishops show me that the mindset of the Church of England at local, parish level is almost certainly open to the presence of LGBTI+ people and probably thinks that we would feel welcome and comfortable in their congregation, whether or not they were signed up as an Inclusive Church.
THE CONVERSION HAS HAPPENED
The majority of members of the Church of England have already undergone a conversion. They welcome women in ministry, lay and ordained, priestly and Episcopal, and they value and cherish their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex clergy. The welcome may be covert – direct questions are not asked but “they know about their curate or vicar” and welcome the partner who shares the house. Many will have learnt from their children, who are more likely than not to be open about their own sexuality or gender subtleties.
This majority is present in local parishes, the grassroots where the clergy are not aligned with Forward in Faith, GAFCON, Reform, AMiE, or the bishop of Maidstone. The Forward in Faith website records that 380 parishes in the Provinces of York and Canterbury are affiliated to FiF. A search for conservative evangelical parishes (Reform, GAFCON, AMiE, and +Maidstone) showed a total affiliation of 346 parishes. The combined total is 726. The total number of parishes in the Church of England is 12,600; 11,874 are not affiliated with either a conservative catholic or evangelical network. The common thread linking the 726 conservative catholic and evangelical parishes is, of course, their opposition to the ordination of women, not necessarily opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
There is another view of the Church of England, the view from the top, of General Synod and Church House, the College and House of Bishops and the groups representing minority traditions in the Church. The view at the top is unclear at best and murky at worst.
This “Church at the Top” exists in marked contrast to the “Church at the Bottom.” It represents the official position of the Church of England, which is to deny equality in ministry and relationships to LGBTI+ people, prohibiting the blessing of relationships in church, the solemnization of same-sex marriages in church, and the ordination and appointment of clergy in same-sex marriages. Those at the bottom either live in ignorance of this reality or think that there will be no negative effect on LGBTI+ people, lay or ordained, in their local congregation.
Even people seeking ordination or in training may think they are being ordained into a Church that is going to be safe and welcoming. For the majority it will be, but some will find themselves in a deanery with a FiF or GAFCON presence, where the best policy will be to construct a careful closet around their identity to guarantee security.
The six sub-groups that comprise the Living in Love and Faith process working towards helping the bishops publish a new teaching document in 2020 have been appointed from the top and their brief comes from the top – of course. Their brief is not to develop a teaching document that will primarily meet the needs and expectations of the “Church at the Bottom.”
A POST-HONEST TO GOD CHURCH
The majority of members of the Church of England have moved on from the post-60s Honest to God decades, from a faith once-modelled on Biblical literalism and fundamentalism. They have adjusted relatively easily in the last two decades to the transformation of the public visibility, changed legal status and social equality granted to LGBTI+ people since 1997 when the new Labour government began a radical reform of legislation.
AN INVISIBLE GULF
This transformation has created an invisible gulf between the general acceptance by ‘the people in the pews’ of equality for LGTBI+ people and the conflicts at the top of the institution pursued by conservative evangelicals and catholics in England and the homophobic axis in the wider Anglican Communion represented by GAFCON. These networks identify themselves as the defenders of doctrinal and biblical orthodoxy. In doing so, they have created a disconnect between the Church of England hierarchy (bishops, General Synod, Church House) and the majority of members of the Church of England. In addition, they have reinforced a perception of Christianity in the general population as being homophobic, misogynistic, prejudiced and abusive.
The Church is inhospitable to lesbian and gay clergy who marry. The majority of people worshipping in parish churches Sunday by Sunday do not differentiate, as do the rules, between equal marriage and civil partnerships. Those entering civil partnerships are deemed to ‘have married’. The majority do not read the Church Times or the Church of England Newspaper or listen to Premier Radio; nor are they members of a Facebook group dedicated to LGBTI+ people in the Church of England. They are broadly oblivious to the dramas experienced by LGBTI+ people, confronted every day thanks to conservative demands that Anglicans should not capitulate to the secular world but should defend God’s will by adhering to teaching that condemns homosexual activity and resists those who explore the complexities of gender and sexuality.
The Church of England lacks the ability at the moment to map this radical disconnect between the “Church at the Top”, bishops, General Synod and Church House, and the “Church at the Bottom”, in parishes and congregations.
RESPONSIBILITY LIES WITH THE LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH PROCESS
Responsibility for dealing with this disconnect has fallen to those involved in the Living in Love and Faith process. How is Living in Love and Faith going to resolve this invisible disconnect? Those directly involved in the process have been selected to represent a spectrum of views in the Church, from the conservative to the radical, continuing the Shared Conversations dynamic. The eleven bishops who wrote to the Bishop of Lichfield last week represent one axis of this dynamic.
I have no doubt that Archbishop Justin longs for a resolution to the saga that has been running since Lambeth 1998. I have no doubt he wishes to bridge the gulf and confirm the beliefs about the place of LGBTI+ people in the Church held by the majority of congregations in contrast to the official position of the Church: the quadruple lock against marriage and the lack of equality in ministry and relationships. I doubt that the current process will result in the necessary breakthrough that reconnects hierarchy and parish.
Fr. Colin Coward, honoured by the Queen with an MBE for his work on behalf of LGBT+ people in the Church of England, is a much-respected voice of support for the minority of people in the Church of England whose gender/sexual identity happens to be different from the ‘norm’. His distinction, in this article – of the difference of compassionate regard for LGBT+ people in the Church of England between the majority of members and the Church hierarchy – has become more obvious recently:
“The majority of members of the Church of England have already undergone a conversion. They welcome women in ministry, lay and ordained, priestly and Episcopal, and they value and cherish their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex clergy. The welcome may be covert – direct questions are not asked but “they know about their curate or vicar” and welcome the partner who shares the house. Many will have learnt from their children, who are more likely than not to be open about their own sexuality or gender subtleties.”
Regarding this paragraph, I personally know at least two clergymen in same-sex partnered relationships in the Church of England, whose ministry and presence is very much valued by their parishioners – who know about their ‘live-in partners’ and are fully supportive of them and their relationships. The local Bishop is obviously aware of the relationship – in each case – and, presumably accepts them as part of the diocesan team.
The C. of E. House of Bishops is obviously not totally united in this matter of welcoming the ministry of same-sex partnered clergy; but the fact that there are bishops willing to accept this situation reflects the general tenor of the pew-membership of the Church who clearly (apart from those few belonging to homophobic societies within the Church) cannot understand the official stance of those bishops of the Church who are dragging their feet on this issue.
Unfortunately for the public witness of the Church, this reticence in acknowledging the credibility gap – between the majority in favour and the minority in opposition to the accommodation of same-sex partnerships – is antithetical to the Gospel of God’s loving redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; whose own attitude towards society’s ‘outcasts’ was so very different from what is now recognised to be that of the GAFCON/FOCA/AMIE faction that seeks to re-assert the premise of Law over Love.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand