As the Church of England’s General Synod gathers this month, a senior cleric has highlighted a connection between the ongoing debate over same-sex relationships and marriage, and the latest scandal over historic abuse.
The Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has made the link in an article published on the website of Modern Church, a society promoting liberal Christianity, of which he is a Vice President.
In the essay, called Beating the bounds in states of unfeeling, Prof Percy says of the House of Bishops’ report, Marriage and Same-Sex Relations after the Shared Conversations, to be debated at Synod on 15th February:
we learnt far too much about how tortured the authors all felt in this debate; and much of their own agonising and pain. But we learnt virtually nothing of the pain of the people - the very subjects of the report - that the church continues to torture and to oppress.
He claims the Bishops’ report is guilty of ‘projective identification’ – communicating their tensions, chaos and confusion in a way that causes similar feelings in the reader:
They project their powerlessness on to the very groups who most need compassion and liberation.
Against this background, Channel 4 News reported a police investigation into Jonathan Smyth QC, a prominent conservative Evangelical and Chair of the Iwerne Trust, which raised funds for the Iwerne Trust camps,1 who is alleged to have carried out ‘brutal lashings’ on boys in his care.
Professor Percy’s essay seeks to understand this tragedy and the Church’s responsibility for it, so lessons are learned to avoid such a scenario in future. He highlights connections between the Smyth case and wider issues in the church, including classism, elitism, sexism and homophobia. Percy sees this too as ‘projective identification’,
the leaders working out their own ambivalences and hostilities towards their own bodies and desires.
He critiques the conservative evangelical doctrine of ‘complementarianism’ - that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life and religious leadership – which, he argues, ‘legitimizes socio-psychological behaviour patterns’:
Those men who most fear their relationship with their own bodies, and the bodies of women (that is to say, their ambivalence, the need to repress their own desires, often with associated feelings of shame, and sometimes of disgust; and quite often with some seeking to repress an inchoate homosexuality) simply transfer that to other groups, and attempt to make them feel as they do.
He compares the individual ‘projective identification’ of Jonathan Smyth’s repressed sexual desires to the ‘institutional projective identification’ of the Church of England:
The leaders of our institutions do not use others merely as a hook to hang their projections on. They strive to find in the other, or to induce the other to become, the very embodiment of that projection. Thus, women in the church have experienced indifferent procrastination and discrimination for decades. All of this is recast under the guise of ‘we need more time to reflect’ (on gender, and sexuality) - which is merely a coded way of saying ‘we don’t know what to think of you as people; you are not like us, and we are still resolving our issues of ambivalence, shame and confusion in ourselves on these issues’.
The House of Bishops’ report on the two year process of Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality, Percy claims,
is yet another platform - institutional projective identification - for the bishops to tell us how tormented they feel, and invite us all to participate in and re-experience their own agonising. Having a semi-conscious sense of their own impotence, they then needed to hand this on; otherwise they can’t continue to hold on to their power and authority. So they projected their impotence and torment on to the very groups they were supposed be listening to so deeply.
He argues that the House of Bishops’ report lacks compassion and shows no desire to alleviate the suffering caused by
‘those alienating, visceral forces of hatred that oppress and marginalise people - and to which Jesus was (and is) so openly opposed.’
Percy concludes by calling for
‘some revolutionary emotional and ecclesial intelligence to rectify this. Otherwise, the Church of England will continue to be a place that is full of ‘states of unfeeling’. It won’t even be able to enter into the experience of women, let alone our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, who are part of the church.’
Click here to read and download the full 4500 word essay, Beating the bounds in states of unfeeling, by Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy.
Note for editors: Modern Church is a membership organisation that promotes liberal theology. It encourages open, respectful debate and discussion of matters relating to Christian faith. It was founded at the end of the 19th century as a Church of England society. Now it welcomes all who share its ethos.