THIS SUNDAY is the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern international LGBT rights movement. Pride marches in cities across the world, including New York and London, are taking place this weekend to commemorate the struggle for equality that began in New York's Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28th 1969. Forty-five years after the first Pride marches in New York and London, why do we still need them?
We only have to look at events in York, England, this past week for an example. On Saturday 20 June 2015, York Pride started its parade from outside York Minster. The minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York, the second-highest office of the Church of England. Its website lists its values as: Courage, Trust, Wisdom - it was an admirable display of these values when Canon Michael Smith, responsible for pastoral care at the Minster, announced he would launch the parade.
At York Minster we invite everyone to discover God’s love through our welcome, worship, learning and work, and I am looking forward to sharing with other local organisations in welcoming and affirming the LGBT community from our city and beyond and saying a short prayer and a blessing as they begin their Parade.
A bold move for a senior representative of the Church of England, at a time when the country's established Church is in the midst of controversial 'Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality'. Human sexuality is used here as a euphemism for 'homosexuality' or 'same-sex attraction' - the private and intimate lives of our heterosexual sisters and brothers are not up for discussion on these occasions. The aim of these conversations, taking place across England over twelve months, is:
to create safe spaces in which difference and disagreement can be explored.
Yet responses to the blessing of the York Pride march in the past week indicate that, at least in some quarters, the Church of England may not be such a safe place to explore what the Shared Conversation process calls 'good disagreement'. The day before York Pride, Revd Melvin Tinker from Hull spoke on local radio station Minster FM to say that Canon Smith should refuse to welcome the LGBT community, as he should all 'people who are doing things which are wrong'. He continued with some concerning comparisons:
Would he say serial adulterers should be welcome in the church? Would he say that people who engaged in paedophilia should be involved in the church?
He placed consenting same-sex relationships and marriage as on a par with adultery and paedophilia as 'immoral actions the church should condemn', and claimed that some leaders in the Church of England are 'taking people away from the true message of the Bible.' You can listen to an excerpt of the interview here (3 mins 36 seconds). He also expressed disappointment that the Archbishop of York, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, had not spoken out against the blessing of the Pride march. On Monday 22nd June, the Archbishop of York issued a statement in response to criticism over the Minster's role and Revd Tinker's interview. You could have blinked and missed it, as it took him ten paragraphs to explain the reason for the statement, and there was no indication of its content in the headline on the Archbishop's website or in the Church of England Communications Team daily news digest. The statement is ambiguous and confusing. He appears to defend Revd Tinker's right to make such comments, but makes no mention of him or his conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia:
Clergy of the Diocese are entitled to express varying views on the question of human sexuality. That is the nature of the Church of England. How those views are expressed is central to how we are heard as Church. Our first call is to love God and one another... From time to time strident views will be expressed. Stridency is no substitute for love. Where injury has been caused, natural justice requires that the Church of England’s processes are properly followed, so that grievances may be resolved Christianly (sic) and in an orderly manner, as befits the Body of Christ.
He quotes at length the words of the York Minster clergy in blessing the Pride march, but says nothing of his own opinions or what actions he will take in response to calls for disciplinary action against Revd Tinker. In a Facebook discussion about the statement among members of Changing Attitude, which works for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop was accused of 'fence-sitting' and trying to 'ride the coat tails of York Minster's welcome and inclusiveness.' Some expressed surprise that the Archbishop says that clergy are 'entitled to express varying views on the question of human sexuality', as those putting themselves forward for ordination can be asked if they are living in compliance with relevant paragraphs of the House of Bishops' 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality. One vicar commented:
Clergy are only entitled to express varying views, provided those varying views don't affirm same-sex marriage. Theological diversity is only encouraged if it fits within the narrow views permitted. If only he would heed his own comments and apply them to all.
Another commenter compared the Archbishop's comment on diverse views on sexuality to the debate about racism in the USA following the recent shooting of nine people at African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina:
Would he say to the people of Charlestown that people have a right to express whatever views that wish on race. I think not!
(Incidentally, the debate around the Confederate flag as a relic of slavery and a symbol of racism which the Charleston killer identified with has led some conservative Christian critics to respond that if this flag is banned, so to should the 'fascist, anti-Christian' Pride flag - but that's another story entirely).
The Church of England's role at York Pride, and the responses from Revd Tinker and the Archbishop, are symptoms of contradictory positions the established Church seeks to hold together. Diana Johnson, MP for Hull North, where Revd Tinker serves, spoke in Parliament on Thursday to call for:
a debate in Government time about the responsibilities of the established Church of England around community cohesion and not inciting crimes of hate.
A statement from the House of Bishops in January 2014, which announced the process of 'Shared Conversations', said:
We are united in acknowledging the need for the Church to repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and affirming the need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever and whenever it is to be found.
Yet the Church of England remains exempt from UK equality law on sexual orientation, for example, maintaining that its clergy may be in civil partnerships and be eligible to become bishops but must remain celibate, and cannot enter a civil marriage with someone of the same sex (The employment tribunal of Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who lost his licence to work as a hospital chaplain after he married his partner, began the previous week - his case is against the same Archbishop of York. In the hearing, Bishop Richard Inwood, who revoked Canon Pemberton's licence, is reported as saying that Pemberton's marriage was 'sinful and unwholesome', while Bishop Alan Wilson, speaking for Canon Pemberton, said the Church’s teaching that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman is a 'lousy definition' of matrimony. Bishop Inwood is retired and unlikely to face any consequences of his decision, while Evangelical clergy are calling for Bishop Wilson's resignation.) The state Church was also legally excluded from performing same-sex marriages when they became law in England and Wales last year.
Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude, wrote last week about the Archbishop of York's statement:
Sentamu's peculiar statement which said nothing about the madness of the Hull vicar... arises because these ideas and attitudes, that we can easily get engaged by and worked up about, are symptoms of a much deeper and more fundamental difference which we're afraid to name...
We have dramatically different visions of the nature of God. This is the fundamental disagreement underlying the conflict, and our images and constructs of God are, indeed, fundamentally different. If this is so, then of course we are going to have utterly different and probably irreconcilable views about sexuality and gender, when our dreams and visions (one one side) and fixations and addictions (on another side) about God differ so dramatically.
We end up angry or confused and having deeply engaged threads about what conservatives are writing and thinking, and assume that somehow there's an argument to be won or more theology to be done.
Will the Shared Conversations change anything? That remains to be seen - the website for the process acknowledges:
The conversations in themselves have no decision-making authority in the Church of England.
Will it be, like Macbeth's bleak assessment of life,
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I sincerely hope not! There are lessons to be learned from the history of the LGBT rights movement which may sustain those involved who are calling for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Anglican Communion.
What does Pride mean for LGBT people?
Pride is a problematic concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition; a vice which could lead to other 'sins' such as envy and revenge, superiority, corruption and prejudice. It can drive us to seek recognition, take too much credit, or refuse to accept our need of others and of God.
For the LGBT community, however, Pride does not mean the 'deadly sin', the desire to be more important than others, failure to acknowledge the good in others, or excessive love of self. The English word ‘pride’ comes from the Old French for ‘brave' or 'valiant’. Pride for the LGBT community is the opposite of shame – a courageous affirmation of oneself in what can sometimes be a hostile environment. It is not about being more important, but about campaigning for equality and celebrating the diversity of human sexuality and gender. Pride is also the opposite of prejudice. It is only a problem when it is at the expense of another - a healthy self-esteem does not raise me up to oppress those different from myself. For instance, there's nothing wrong with a patriotic pride in one's country, until it becomes the kind of nationalism that reserves the right to discriminate and escalates to racism. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with being proud of your heterosexuality, but is is a problem when it becomes:
heteronormative: a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation
heterosexist: a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favour of heterosexual orientation and relationships
homophobic: a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being LGBT, expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred, which may be based on irrational fear, sometimes related to religious beliefs.
While it is good that the Church of England diocese of York welcomed and blessed the Pride march last weekend, the way the criticism of this move has been handled shows there is still some way to go for the underlying issues of ignorance and prejudice are challenged consistently and well. If you are among those still unconvinced of the need for LGBT people to affirm their rights and identities through Pride marches and festivals, perhaps the words of Anthony Venn-Brown, a former Pentecostal preacher who now campaigns against Christian 'ex-gay' reparative therapy will persuade you:
When you hear of Gay Pride, remember, it was not born out of a need to celebrate being gay. It evolved out of our need as human beings to break free of oppression and to exist without being criminalized, pathologized or persecuted. Depending on a number of factors, particularly religion, freeing ourselves from gay shame and coming to self-love and acceptance, can not only be an agonising journey, it can take years. Tragically some don't make it. Instead of wondering why there isn't a straight pride be grateful you have never needed one. Celebrate with us.
― Anthony Venn-Brown, A Life of Unlearning
As I was writing this post, the Supreme Court of the USA voted to make same-sex marriage a legal right in all 50 states - a hard won victory fittingly falling close to the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the first Pride marches. I wonder what Bishop Alan Wilson would make of this definition of marriage, taken from Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion holding that couples of the same sex have a constitutional right to wed:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.