by the Venerable Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight and Chair of OneBodyOneFaith
How long are LGBT+ Christians expected to carry the painful emotional cost of being part of an unsafe church?
After a break of some 12 years I returned to the Greenbelt Festival in the early 2000s as a newly out gay Christian. I attend a session by a then well-known progressive Church of England Bishop who was talking about human sexuality. In the session he said that LGBT+ Christians should have patience with the church. I said that whilst I understood this, he needed to recognise that it was those of us who identified as LGBT+ that had to bear the painful cost of this patience. He responded by saying that I knew the situation and if I didn’t like it, I could always leave.
November 2020 and after years of reports, General Synod debates and shared conversations, Living in Love and Faith is published and yet another two-year process begins. The heavy and painful cost of this still rests with LGBT+ Christians. As Chair of OneBodyOneFaith, we have taken the line all through the LLF project of recognising some people will want to engage with this and others will not. That some will see it as a way to move forward and others will see it as another tactic to marginalise and exclude. As an organisation we seek to support those who fall into either category.
Having supported the project, I now find the thick book sat on my desk staring at me and I am unable to pick it up and read it. This is not a critique of the material itself but rather a snapshot of what I am feeling and why.
There is a huge issue for me about just how safe this process will be for those of us who are LGBT+. I attended a session with other guests and some of the team who put the LLF material together this last week to introduce it. It was of course online but as I ‘entered’ the online room and looked around I found my anxiety levels increasing. I was in a space with those who have been architects of reports, statements and social media posts that have sought to exclude me and criticise me and my faith as a result of my being an openly gay partnered man. I do not doubt the sincerity of The Bishop of Coventry or his team in trying to create a safe space, but it was simply not safe, and I question whether it can ever be. In these groups I bring more than a theology or an idea or issue, I bring myself. I bring myself, my faith and my loved ones into a space where they can be dissected, examined, and condemned. I am a confident, out gay man with a senior position in the church and despite this here I was in an online room with significant anxiety.
My inability to see how this can be a safe process was underlined a couple of days later when the Church of England Evangelical Council released a 30 minute video called ‘The Beautiful Story’ in which they use very thin theology and some unhealthy arguments to condemn and judge LGBT+ Christians in an inappropriate and condemnatory way. This included members of the group who have worked on the LLF material clearly indicating that they have no intention of listening or engaging at all and thus undermining the whole process. The negative and abusive impact this video has had on a large number of LGBT+ Christians has been significant.
In addition to feeling unsafe I feel patronised.
Throughout the LLF process and in the meeting this week I have heard members of the LLF describe many times the incredible journey they have been on (although clearly not those in the aforementioned video!). I am delighted that they feel this way. For those of us outside it has been and remains deeply costly and painful. Additionally, many, many of us, both LGBT+ Christians and others, made this journey years ago. I have done it; I have worked through what my faith and sexuality mean. I recognise myself as created and beloved by God. I see my sexuality as a gift from God, I am glad I am gay and wouldn’t want it any other way! Yet I am expected to enter into that costly and painful process yet again just because the church has kept kicking the can down the road. I am glad some people feel able to do that – I am not sure that I do.
The world currently faces the worst health crisis in a generation. We are having to deal with a situation none of us could have imagined. The Church is having to adapt in ways we never imagined. My inbox has never had so much in it and my diary has never been so full. I am dealing with levels of unprecedented anxiety in people. Right now, the world needs the church to be offering a better narrative, to be offering hope. That is a challenge, but it needs to be our priority and I see very many Christians, including LGBT+ Christians offering that hope. What the world does not need is for the Church to be making judgemental statements about sex or to be seen to be entering yet another long and protracted conversation about it – it looks very much like ‘Nero fiddling while Rome burns’.
So that is where I am with it. That may change but I can’t see it happening anytime soon. I have tried my best to be hopeful and engaged but I also need to take care of myself, my loved ones and the people I seek to serve as a priest.
So that comment I made to the Bishop at Greenbelt some 20 years ago still stands. The painful and personal cost of this process is still being born by LGBT+ Christians.
And yes, we still have the option to leave but for some bizarre reason God seems to want me to remain. God seems to want me and my wonderful partner of nearly 14 years to be here as part of a loving and affirming parish and diocese. God seems to want me to worship with a diverse bunch of people on an island off the South coast of England. God seems to want me to serve with the fantastic, diverse trustees and members of OneBodyOneFaith in empowering LGBT+ Christians and advocating for change. God seems to want me to see the change which is happening at parishes across the country where people are affirmed and loved whoever they are, a change which the House of Bishops seems unable to see or to acknowledge.
God seems to want me to be part of a community of Hope. That really is a beautiful story.
This is the all-revealing record of the deep feelings of Archdeacon Peter Leonard, an Anglican parish priest based on the Isle of Wight; which speaks volumes of the level of disappointment LGBTQ people have with this latest report on gender and sexuality by the Church of England’s special commission on the subject.
The publication ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is available in published book form but also free, on-line from the C.of E. website. Its content says a lot about what has been learnt by the participants from 4 years of ‘conversations’ on this important subject but which, sadly, offers nothing new about how the Church will ultimately deal justly and fairly with the LGBTQ people within its borders.
This, for me, is the most telling paragraph of Peter’s response to LLF:
“Throughout the LLF process and in the meeting this week I have heard members of the LLF describe many times the incredible journey they (the members) have been on (although clearly not those in the aforementioned video!). I am delighted that they feel this way. For those of us outside it has been and remains deeply costly and painful. Additionally, many, many of us, both LGBT+ Christians and others, made this journey years ago. I have done it; I have worked through what my faith and sexuality mean. I recognise myself as created and beloved by God. I see my sexuality as a gift from God, I am glad I am gay and wouldn’t want it any other way! Yet I am expected to enter into that costly and painful process yet again just because the church has kept kicking the can down the road. I am glad some people feel able to do that – I am not sure that I do.”
I am sure that this statement echoes the thoughts of may of us in the Anglican world community who happen to be living with the reality of the LGBTQ community in our midst. How much longer will the Mother Church of England take to openly admit that many of its clergy – and many more of its adherents – are living out the reality of their non-binary gender/sexuality. We/they do not need to have to go through yet another lengthy process – with all that means about our inherent sexual/gender identity still being opened up for questioning – while getting on with the work of the Gospel in the local community.
We in Aotearoa/New Zealand have at least got as far as opening up the possibility of recognising and Blessing the partners in a civilly-celebrated Same-Sex Marriage – still subject to the approval of the local diocesan bishop, but a possibility nonetheless.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand