I met Savi Hensman 10 years ago, at an Anglican Eucharist in Stoke Newington, England in a parish where people were welcomed from all situations of life. Savi was – with her family – an immigrant from Sri Lanka, who came to realise in her early life that she was ‘different’ from other females. She came out as ‘gay’ in her early twenties and, living with a strongly Christian family in the U.K., became quickly aware of the prejudice that can be levelled against anyone who is different – whether racially, ethnically, sexually, or culturally – and sought to overcome, first in herself and then in other, the effects of unjust prejudice, especially in the Christian Community of which she was, and still is, a part.
To speak to this gentle, unassuming and yet persuasive Sri-Lankan woman, is to encounter a strong, intelligent and powerful advocate of equality for all people – no matter what differences may be found in their personal life or situation. She sees the Love of God in Christ as paramount in the battle for equality of opportunity for everyone, irrespective of their background or cultural setting. This article was written by Savi specifically for the U.K. blog of Jayne Ozanne.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
|Advent Reflections: Seeking Justice; Showing Mercyby Jayne Ozanneby Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist|
Advent is a season of eagerness and patience, yearning for change whilst feeling the uneasiness about what this might mean, for us as well as others.We are reminded that God’s love is bound up with justice (Isaiah 11.1-4, 42.1-4). We may cry out from the depths, longing for the day when we and our loved ones will be safe, that our oppressors will be punished and that we will finally be treated with dignity – yet all of us benefit from God’s readiness to pardon (Psalm 130, Luke 6.36-38).
Forgiveness and redemption are on offer but personal and collective healing can sometimes be slow and painful.Thanks largely to my late parents, I grew up aware that faith, care and resisting injustice are all linked. I became involved in anti-racist activism in church and society in my teens and then from the age of about twenty on sexuality – after coming out as lesbian. I had to rethink some of my own prejudices (internalised or otherwise) and am grateful for those who were willing to challenge me in non-destructive ways, always going the extra mile (Matthew 5.41).I learnt the importance of persuasion and persistence as well as protest and that equality might not be achieved all at once.
Changing institutions that are facing multiple pressures can be a complex process. Though living in England, my connection with Sri Lanka continued and, as the situation there deteriorated horrifically, I saw even more graphically what could happen when states and armed groups wielded too much power. I joined with others in defending human rights, even for people with views starkly different from mine.I discovered that others were more likely to listen if they felt at least partly heard and understood and that hurt and anger, if not channelled constructively, could get in the way of achieving goals.
Even in the pre-internet era, the people who were most forceful, or willing to do most damage to those seen as oppressors, often won admiration, yet their tactics could backfire in the long term.Over the years too, including as a community worker and volunteer, I found out more about the hazards of unintended consequences. Life seemed messier, uncertainties greater, than when I was a child. Yet there were also moments of joy and major achievements by the movements of which I was part, reflecting I hope the Holy Spirit at work despite human errors and weaknesses.Edging towards LGBT+ equality in the Church of EnglandOver the years, it has been encouraging to see a huge shift in views amongst both theologians of various denominations and ordinary Church of England members.
There is far greater acceptance of committed, physically intimate partnerships between couples of the same sex or gender and recognition of gender diversity. It is excellent that so many churches, including some in the UK, have moved forward – but highly frustrating that progress in the C of E has been so slow and fragile.I understand why some people might want to demand complete parity with no exceptions so that, for instance, all parishes might be required to celebrate marriage for partners regardless of gender. But groups and networks such as the (currently inactive) LGBTI Mission and Equal have taken a different approach, which allows space for freedom of conscience within reasonable limits.
I believe there are good reasons for this that are both pragmatic and value-based.Other UK-based churches which have moved further towards full inclusion have tended to do so on the basis of respect for conscience. I suspect it would have been nearly impossible for resolutions which took a different approach to have won enough votes at decision-making bodies. Allowing local discretion is also in line with national law, which in turn reflects international expectations around freedom of belief.Additionally, whilst I recognise the damage which non-inclusive beliefs can do, I fear that a purge of ordained and lay ministers not yet able to embrace full equality would be even worse.
I would not want leaders who have been welcoming and caring towards me booted out because they interpret the Bible in ‘traditional’ ways or are still undecided.But I would like to see the archbishops and more diocesan bishops publicly recognise that for those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)+ this is a generous stance, especially given the human cost of discrimination. And while leaders should maintain space for Christians who read Scripture and tradition differently on matters of sexuality and gender identity, favouring people who do not face discrimination and buying ‘unity’ at the cost of the excluded is in stark contrast to Jesus’ example and teaching (Mark 2.23-3.6).
Three interconnected biblical themes often linked with Advent come to mind which might help the Church to move forward on this issue: justice as an outworking of love, equality, and rejection of idolatry. Theologians have written libraries-worth of books on each of them, martyrs have sacrificed their lives: I believe it is therefore time to give these due weight in official pronouncements.It is unjust for people with plenty to hoard God’s generous gifts to humankind while others’ needs go unmet. This applies to both material goods (e.g. Isaiah 5.8-10, Luke 16.19-31) as well as freedom and dignity (Jeremiah 34. 8-17, James 2.1-12) – unless there are truly compelling reasons why some should be denied what others have. Many take it for granted that they can marry or be open about their gender without being prevented from being Church leaders.
Those who nevertheless deny this to others should ask themselves searching questionsAnd behaviour towards some people as if they were second-class Christians based on their identity (e.g. as working class, disabled, minority ethnic or LGBT+) is at odds with the radical equality of Jesus’ vision (Matthew 23:1-12, Luke 22.24-27).It can be tempting to treat mortals, institutions or concepts as objects of worship. Throughout history, unequal treatment of women and girls has done much damage, blatant and subtle. Yet most senior clergy seem reluctant to speak against theologies promoting male domination, which are harmful and can unintentionally foster idolatry. LGBT+ people who do not fit neatly into roles rooted in sexism are affected too.Such imbalances distort relationships with God and neighbour.Mercy is important; so is justice!