Last Tuesday, on the eve of the General Synod debate on marriage and same sex relationships, I was heading for the launch of OneBodyOneFaith (a merger of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Changing Attitude) when I saw this slogan on a poster on the Underground:

Take me as I am, or watch me as I go

It brought to mind the outpouring of hurt and anger from LGBTI members of the Church of England, who feel they were invited to be vulnerable in the Shared Conversations but were not truly heard and understood, or who took on trust the House of Bishops' request to be patient during this process but now feel this trust was misplaced.

At the launch event, Colin Coward, former Director of Changing Attitude (CA), called this show of anger ‘unprecedented’ in more than 20 years of his involvement in the Church of England’s debate on ‘issues of human sexuality’.

This was particularly evident in the CA Facebook group, which has sometimes generated more heat than light, and struggled to practice what the Church of England called ‘Good Disagreement’1 in an attempt to manage the diversity and intensity of feeling invoked in this debate.

It is understandable that a group of people who have felt devalued, wounded and excluded by church need a safe place to express how that feels and find support from peers to channel that anger into constructive campaigning action.

Sadly, this slogan on the Underground reminded me of several people in recent weeks who posted in the CA Facebook group that enough was enough, and that they would leave the Church of England, either for another denomination, or perhaps to become ‘spiritually homeless’ for a time. Particularly poignant were posts from clergy who felt no other option than to surrender their licence to serve as ordained ministers, despite years of sacrifice and service.

So it was with great delight that we arrived at the launch of OneBodyOneFaith to find around 100 people from different denominations, some LGBTI, some allies, there to witness the power of their conviction that our common faith shows us there is another way.

The atmosphere was one of passion and conviction, celebration and affirmation of all that has been achieved, and commitment to all that remains to be done in seeking full acceptance and equality for LGBTI people in our church communities.

The affirmation of those committed to the cause came in the form of the Rainbow List,which emerged as LGCM’s response to the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) list of those it saw as in violation of ‘the authoritative teaching of the Anglican Communion on sexuality’3 published in November 2016.

More than 100 people made it onto LGCM’s Rainbow List published in December 2016, and nominations continued after the list had closed. Nine nominees received awards on the night, including:

  • Colin Coward for services to Changing Attitude
  • Ruby Almeida, Chair of the Quest group for LGBTI Catholics
  • Paul Northrup, Creative Director of the Greenbelt Festival
  • the legal team representing Jeremy Pemberton in his case for unfair dismissal after marrying his husband
  • Nick Bundock from St James & Emmanuel Didsbury, who led his parish to become more open and inclusive following the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe who feared her faith community would reject her
  • My husband Warren Hartley, one of the founding members of the Open Table ecumenical worship community for LGBTQIA+Christians, now a growing network across the country.

OneBodyOneFaith encouraged supporters to lobby their Synod representatives not to ‘take note’ of the report, which meant it could not return to Synod during its current five year term, so another way forward would need to be found. It stated its mission4 that,

We are looking for the first signs that our national church is going to honour the gift that God has given it in the lives and witness of its LGBTI+ members… and starts to embrace and embody the equality that is ours in Christ.

It also held a prayer vigil outside General Synod the following day. The two hour debate on the House of Bishops’ Report on Marriage and Sexuality after the Shared Conversations was passionate on all sides, and the outcome was unclear until the last moment, when the report failed to gain the required two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses: Bishops, Clergy and Laity.

It is interesting to note that it was the House of Clergy, who have the most current pastoral experience of responding to pastoral situations in this area, who voted by a majority of seven to reject the report. As the vote is anonymous, the intentions of individual members cannot be known, but it has been suggested that some conservatives also voted not to ‘take note’ of the report as its proposed methods were unacceptable to them too.

Perhaps there is a way of finding ‘Good Disagreement’ with those people in determining a more equitable way forward which respects the diversity of theological and pastoral responses to the issues raised in the report without forcing one group to conform to the will of the other. Such diversity is already accepted in responses to couples marrying after divorce, and women in ministry, so why should this be such a test of orthodoxy?

For me, the moment that stood out from the debate was when Canon Simon Butler, a gay priest with a partner, spoke to those who opposed same-sex relationships,5 quoting Genesis 32.6, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel:

'I will not let go until you bless me' and I look forward to the day when you can say the same of me.

I have written elsewhere6 about the power of Jacob’s story in my faith journey towards integrating my sexuality and spirituality. It is a great sadness that some feel they must walk away from the struggle of this debate – it is a challenge for those of us who believe there is a more just and equitable way, but it is a struggle we feel called to hold onto, until the blessing we believe comes from God is no longer withheld by members of God’s Church.

In a statement on Wednesday evening7 following the vote, the Archbishop of Canterbury called for:

a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church... founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology... based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and... a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

This unexpected language reflects a true change of tone, of the kind called for by the House of Bishops’ report which it failed to embody. It gives cautious hope of a more meaningful way forward.

The struggle continues, but it proves holding on can bring blessing to our woundedness.


References:
  1. 'A Search for Good Disagreement’ by Phil Groves, in Grace and Disagreement Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality (Archbishops’ Council 2014) pp. 52-71.
  2. Announcing our extraordinary allies: the 2016 LGCM Rainbow List, lgcm.org.uk 21/12/2016
  3. The Church of England and Lambeth I:10, gafconuk.org 13/11/20164. 
  4. A time to build, onebodyonefaith.org.uk 14/02/2017
  5. Archbishops propose new way forward on sexuality after Synod reject Bishops’ reportchurchtimes.co.uk 15/02/2017
  6. The Scared and the Sacred – wrestling with identity, abravefaith.com 23/09/2012
  7. Statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury following today’s General Synod, archbishopofcanterbury.org 15/02/2017