During the long months of lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic I was encouraged by my sons to watch Queer Eye on Netflix. I became hooked. When I felt overwhelmed with the uncertainties of the world on an international and personal level I would stick on an episode and be moved by the sheer warmth and kindness. For those who have no idea what I am talking about; Queer Eye is a make-over programme. Individuals whose lives have got stuck for some reason are nominated by a friend or family member to welcome the Fab Five into their life for a week. The five are men with expertise in grooming, clothes, design, food and wellbeing. They are all gay. This seems to give them a freedom to offer new perspectives. The result is life changing.
We meet individuals who are stuck for different reasons. Sometimes they are so fixated on helping others they do not know how to look after themselves. Sometimes they are stuck in a time warp unable to let go of the past and live confidently in the present. They still dress in the clothes of a college student or with the haircut they had in their twenties. Often there is fear, either in the past or the future. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear that if they stop for a minute everything will fall apart, fear of loss and grief.
Some of these fears arise out of genuine experiences of rejection or failure or loss. Others are projections shaped by inadequate self-esteem or patterns of upbringing that suggested any focus on the self was selfish. We see how often fear can paralyse people or leave them trying to hang on to an idea of themselves which is long out of date. We see how fear can cause them to reject help from the people who love and care for them believing that any kind of dependency is weakness. We often see an inability to recognise their own worth.
What moves me in this programme is that these fears are met with compassion and kindness. There are no glib suggestions that life’s injustices can be easily overcome. Learning to know who you are and to find a sense of confidence in your inherent worth as a person is remarkably transformational. Moreover, the Fab Five are what we might call in pastoral theology wounded healers. These men have faced their own fears. Their queerness, and for two of them their skin colour, has been lived out in a world that still has so many fears about people who are different. As they talk they share small moments of their own stories. We catch glimpses of painful rejection from families, of bullying at school, of tough times. We also get insights into the good relationships, the positive ways they have embraced who they are. We see how harsh religious judgements have caused deep wounds with one of the five finding it hard to even step inside a church building. Yet, despite this he designs and completes a wonderful meeting space for a church.
These men clearly understand what it has meant in their own lives to be met with compassion and kindness and they are able to express kindness and delight in those they meet. They show the value of relationships, of finding your family even if your own family don’t want you. They tell people that they are worth it, not in a self-indulgent way, but in a genuine valuing of our shared humanity. They also spread joy. This is a generous programme. They give and they do so trying to understand the person in front of them. They give to enhance and help. They give so that giving may be shared and relationships built up. They rejoice so that people can learn to share joy. I know of course that it is TV and it is carefully and skilfully edited but that cannot take away from the sheer humanity and kindness on display.
So, why am I writing about this programme in an essay about the fearful church? Principally because I believe the institutional church is stuck in many ways and is reaching for unhelpful ways of trying to move forward. The statistics of attendance are on a clear downward slant. The age profile of those who go to church is heavily stacked towards the older end. Although a percentage of younger people will experience Christian worship as part of their education it is far fewer than when I was in school back in the 1970’s. Smaller congregations also means smaller offerings and financial decline is a real concern especially after the pandemic.
The loss of commitment to organised religion coupled with the increase of a pick and mix spirituality is deeply confusing to a Church that often does not understand the people it seeks to serve. Although the church still has a public voice it is finding that its views are less likely to be asked for or listened to. Increasingly, the internal church debates are both of little interest to the wider society and on some subjects, deeply alienating. Thus the church is facing a loss of power and influence alongside a strong sense of being misunderstood. The fears are genuine and manifold. The future is uncertain.
As this is the church we need to add to these genuine fears of decline the fear that we are letting down God. This is a fear that we often find hard to articulate. It is also the fear that makes us blame each other. So for some wings of the church we are letting God down by giving in to societal shifts in terms of women, sexuality and marriage. If only we were clearer about our counter cultural stand God would send the spirit and all would be well. For others, myself included, the criticism is that we have not moved with changing understandings about women, sexuality, science and so much more. If we could really spread the good news of God’s love for all people things would be different.
We blame each other for failing as evangelists. We do not pray enough in the right way, (of course there are different opinions of what that would look like). We neglect the sacraments or the word of God or the service of the poor or proper theology. We bicker amongst ourselves and at times we more than bicker, drawing lines between proper Christians and those who for whatever reason do not fit. We fear rejection from each other and many fear displeasure and at worst rejection from God. All of us can be guilty of nostalgia. Like some of the individuals encountered in Queer Eye, we metaphorically dress as if we were our younger selves and wonder why people, including ourselves, find us unattractive.
We struggle to face these fears. Often attempts to make the church more modern – business-like, more growth orientated and more branded – lack kindness towards the very people who make up the church. Clergy and committed laity are overstretched and under-appreciated. There is a constant busyness; attempting to control the decline and re-establish a sense of who we are. One writer suggests, ‘our busyness, strangely enough may constitute its own version of laziness (JBE p 82) – a failure to actually face the realities and the serious work needed to address the underlying issues. There is a nostalgia for church as it was, a distress that all the hard work fails to make a serious difference and a longing for how it might be. This can end up exacerbating our collective lack of self-esteem and damages our internal relationships. We cannot hide from these fears or try to return to a former age, however much we may want to.
Alongside the realities of decline we have to face up to the proper shame for past failures. The shame of failing to stop serial abusers from preying on children and young people. The shame of racism and classicism. The fact that so many congregations made good Christian immigrants unwelcome because they were black. The still unprocessed misogyny which led to such a begrudging acceptance of women in the ministry of the church and a continuing undervaluing of the work of so many lay women. The shame is acknowledged but not properly addressed so it continues to undermine our sense of who the church should be. We try to counter the shame by officiously practicing safeguarding and talking about diversity, by pointing to changes made and saying we are sorry.
Much of this is good and necessary. Yet, a failure to really listen to those who the church has hurt means we have simply added levels of policies without culture change. Some of these have established unkind disciplinary processes that in too many incidences do not recognise gospel principles of compassion, forgiveness and human dependency. We seek to manage risk as if human relationships do not involve vulnerability and openness. There is still a sense that reputation management for the institution is prioritised in a desperate hope that we will not be shamed again. We need to honestly confront the self-understanding of the institutional church that meant certain types of people were trusted despite many warnings about their behaviour and other types of people mistrusted for not being like us.
Where are the wounded healers that might be able to help the church face these fears? Who can be the metaphorical Fab five who can kindly speak truth and give gifts that can help us move forward with a sense of integrity into our uncertain future? I believe we need to hear from those people who have known and experienced ‘othering’ by the church, who carry the wounding of that experience. Amazingly, there are plenty who, despite the rejections, the sexism, racism and homophobia they have experienced from the Institutional church, have found a secure place in God’s love and an articulate faith of inclusion. These folk, and I include myself, stay in our damaged and at some times, damaging church because we recognise that this is our family.
Having faced the fears of rejection and marginalisation there can be a new confidence in a richer vision of both God and humanity. Some have written what we call standpoint theologies; looking at Christianity and the institution of the church from different perspectives. We need to learn from these about the blind spots and narrow visions that are part of the Church’s past and present, so that we can acknowledge past shames and imagine possible futures. These should not be special interest, alternate, theologies but welcomed as the necessary correctives to heal the fearful church.
As a woman growing up within the church it has taken so long to find genuine confidence in my full humanity before God. I have grown through feminist language in prayer and reflection, theology that speaks to my lived experience, the visible presence of women in places of power within the organisation. These changes matter, but they have been so slow and so begrudging. How transformational it would be if a patriarchal church could truly acknowledge and repent of the ways women have been at best taken for granted and at worst oppressed and abused. How different if feminist and womanist theologies were read by all.
Imagine how enriching it would be to be part of a church that can talk confidently about sex and gender differences and how these can help us understand God and humanity more fully. How exciting it would be to be in a church that rejoiced in the gifts women bring and acknowledge how much of the day to day service of the church they have carried. Yet, the fearful church wants to cling on to patriarchal privileges, to welcome women into the club as long as they don’t question too many of the rules and rituals. It is not able to see how alienating this stance is to a world in which more and more women are embracing their full humanity.
The long history of othering women is connected to fears about sexual desire. This of course connects to the deep fears within the church about homosexuality. The church has taught men and women to be ashamed of their sexual desires. People have been rewarded for secretiveness, for a denial of self that is deeply damaging. Fear of exposure, fear of rejection and internalised shame is a deeply damaging wound that the church has inflicted on individuals and on its own body. Queer theology has insights to offer about embracing difference, challenging stereotypical views of masculinity and femininity, questioning our current idolising of the nuclear family.
We have seen how gay and lesbian couples have things to teach all of us about what marriage means and yet the Church of England has rejected that gift suggesting that it should not be blessed. What would a church look like that was not afraid of human sexuality? How freeing it would be to be part of a church that celebrated all marriages. What can we learn about God and humanity from listening to the wisdom of those who despite all the efforts to shame them have found that in God’s eyes they are good and gloriously made? The fearful church is terrified of acknowledging that differences in sexuality have always been part of human diversity, clinging to the need to shame others there is a failure to see how shocking and unkind this looks to so many in and beyond the church.
The church seems to feel more comfortable in publicly expressing its failures in welcoming in people of different skin colour. In the Church of England there has been a recent acknowledgement of the disgraceful treatment of the Windrush generation; the men and women from Caribbean commonwealth countries invited to come to work in the UK during the post war years. They arrived in the ‘mother country’, many as faithful Anglicans only to find that they were not white enough to be welcome in the Church of England.
Yet, it is possible to express sorrow for these failings without addressing the roots of the problem. It seems easier to look at a moment in the recent past than to address the long and complex history of colonialism and slavery. There are Christians across the world who have stories to tell us shaped by their perspectives on colonialism and racism. The Black lives matter movement is another wake up call to say look at the world from where we stand. There is a rich and diverse theology; Latin American, Indian, African and black theologies written by those who have grown up with racism and the legacy of colonialism, all of which can and should challenge the white normativity of so much of our church thinking. We need to listen and learn.
Understanding and repenting of the colonial past that has shaped the church and still shapes so many ways our culture works, is a hard task. On a trip to India a few years ago I was shocked to see the white Christ-child with his white mother in the crib of an Indian church that traced its roots back to the Apostle Thomas. Yet, this is just a simple example of the colonial legacy of a white church. For those, including myself, who as white western Christians have grown up with a history and imagery of the church which privileges our story there is a need for a reimagining of God, the church and humanity. What would it mean for the church to really accept that Jesus wasn’t white?
There is more. We need to encourage the theological perspectives of those differently able, those who do not fit the inherent class system of the church. Though the institutional church claims to want this there is immense fear of change. Above all there is a fear that diversity will mean an erosion of power for those who have held power as of right. This fear needs to be corrected by our gospel vision of mutuality and genuine interdependence. And there needs to be a proper recognition that this change should be uncomfortable for many of us. There is genuine anger to be heard and carelessness to be acknowledged. Yet, there is also hope. If we can start to allow the stories of others to change our understanding, we may find that in really listening to these voices we expand rather than contract.
In Philips and Taylors book On Kindness they quote Donald Winnicott, ‘a sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us.’ They acknowledge that this is not without tension. ‘It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind to oneself and other, to forego magic and sentimentality for reality. It is kind to see individuals as they are, rather than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.’(p.96) We need this kind of kindness. The generosity of those who have been hurt by the church is seen in their willingness to compassionately speak truths, to offer new perspectives, to unblock channels of fear. Can we find the grace to really listen?
The Fab Five in Queer Eye regularly commend those they meet for their willingness to be open, to try the different clothes and new foods, to let go of damaging past narratives and embrace new perspectives. I nominate the fearful church for a make-over. We need help. Can we listen to compassionate critique from the standpoints of those whose voices have too often been deliberately excluded? We need the encouragement to step out of our comfort zone and learn from different experts. In a modern world which is, albeit hesitantly, trying to talk differently about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, the colonial past and the diverse future, the church needs to find the courage and humility to listen. When it has truly learned to listen it may find that despite all the signs to the contrary it does have something useful to say. We may find that our vision of God is enlarged and our capacity to share God’s reconciling love with the world becomes more authentic. We might become kinder and understand more deeply the joy of our faith. We may then be surprised to find that after our makeover others may then find us more attractive.
Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy is Chaplain of Trinity College Oxford and Chair of WATCH (women and the church). She is one of the first generation of women ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994. She is a feminist practical theologian and has long been an advocate for an inclusive church. She is the author of Mothering as a Metaphor for Ministry (Routledge 2014) and What Clergy do when it looks like nothing (SPCK 2014) as well as a number of book chapters and journal articles.