by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia, Member of General Synod and Director of the Ozanne Foundation
I made myself sit down and watch the Church of England’s Evangelical Council’s “Beautiful Story” video yesterday, which, like reading the massive tome Living in Love and Faith, I have been steeling myself to do as I knew it would need both a high level of resilience and courage.
The opening notes of synthesised music immediately acted as a trigger – taking me back to those large packed worship spaces, where we are all carried along on a wave of professional modern music that lulls us into believing that we are safe, we are loved and that we are in God’s presence.
It was a world I was so utterly familiar with – a world where I had, to use Rosie Harper’s term from her recent Via Media blog, been “groomed” as a young impressionable Christian.
It was a world where I believed without question that those “up front” are always right, for they are our ordained leaders “appointed by God” (oh yes, and bishops) to lead us into all truth and righteousness.
Their teachings – like the interviews in The Video – sound so reasonable, so plausible. Indeed, to think otherwise would be to question Truth itself.
I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with the many Trump supporters who are currently living under what the rest of the world believes to be a false sense of reality, fervently believing that the election has been rigged and that Trump is indeed the True President. What’s more, no matter how much you try and tell them otherwise, they are so “sure of their truth” that anyone challenging them “must be working for the other side” – that is, for the devil himself!
Many friends have asked me: “Why don’t you just switch the film off, walk away from this mess, stop putting yourself in a place that hurts and wounds you so much?” The answer is because I am committed, I’d even say called, to work for a world where not one more young LGBT+ person will go through what I had to suffer. I do not want another LGBT+ Christian to have to sit under this “oh so reasonable sounding teaching” and contemplate killing themself, because they can see no other way out.
So, at long last we have a 30-minute piece of evidence that clearly sets out the harmful teaching to which many evangelical churches are subjecting their congregations – including their LGBT+ congregants – to. Please just stop and think for a minute what it must feel like to be a young LGBT+ teenager growing up in these churches, wondering who they can trust with the knowledge that they are “different”, that they are, heaven forbid, gay or bisexual or trans and being asked to watch this. Here are leaders you have been brought up to revere, that everyone around you admires and respects, telling you that being in an intimate relationship with someone you love is wrong and sinful. Here are “role models” clearly stating that it’s absolutely fine and normal to be single and celibate for your whole life, as that is what Jesus did and what he calls those of us who are not heterosexual to do. (Editor’s note – we are not Jesus!).
The pressure this sort of teaching puts people under is enormous. It comes from those in authority at the front, with no hint that there may be other senior Christian leaders – even evangelicals – who think differently. They just say “this is The Truth”. End of. Full stop.
Make no mistake about it, Church of England, this sort of teaching is wrong, harmful, dangerous and must be stopped. What is it going to take? Another young person deciding to take their life? Another set of statistics and reports that tell you what you already know but refuse to admit, that you cannot try and appease all sides in this debate?
Seriously, I have absolutely no idea why church leaders, including bishops, do not see what their inability to act is doing to the vulnerable in their care. This constitutes gross negligence, which future generations will look upon with disgust and ask how we let it all go on, on our watch, for so long without anyone blowing the whistle or anyone caring enough to intervene.
That is why I believe the time has finally come to call for an independent inquiry into the harmful practices and rhetoric that LGBT+ people are being subjected to in our society, and by certain religious groups in particular. It needs to be led by a QC who can hear the evidence of the trauma that people have gone through, and continue to go through, by those in positions of influence and authority over them.
The Church of England seems to believe that it has dealt with this by creating a set of six Pastoral Principles. My personal view is that that process, just like the Living in Love & Faith (LLF) process, was highly flawed in its conception, its objectives and in its membership. Despite repeated interventions on the floor of Synod, calling out the fact that there were a lamentable number of LGBT+ people with the right experience engaged with the process, the Church of England proceeded – deaf to any of this input, and arrogant in its assumption that “it knew best”. The project is now in the court of public opinion – and the verdict is deafening. They should have listened! But that is not, sadly, a skill that many in the central structures seem to have.
I mean, who would put a group together that was primarily tasked with providing safeguarding proposals, which had a membership weighted towards those perpetrating the very harm we were trying to protect people from? No wonder they didn’t want to come up with anything other than “principles” or “guidelines”, to do otherwise would risk a whole plethora of Clergy Discipline Measurers against their friends and colleagues! We needed something that had teeth, that would hold people to account, with clear consequences for when they crossed the line. Instead we got “guidelines”, which can be interpreted in any number of ways and so does not set a clear safeguarding standard.
However, the sad fact is that these principles are all that we now have for now. So perhaps we should try and measure “The Beautiful Story” video against them?
Prejudice – from its opening words to its close, the film shows a deep-seated prejudice towards LGBT+ people, particularly LGBT+ Christians, and indeed to anyone who holds a different view.
Silence – the video says absolutely nothing about what other faithful Christians believe, particularly LGBT+ Christians, even though many fronting the film have been part of the LLF process and are more than aware of what other Christians believe and teach.
Ignorance – it shows absolutely no understanding of the harm they are creating, nor of the mental health consequences of the teachings they are commending.
Fear – the whole teaching is wrapped in a fear of admitting that they might be wrong
Hypocrisy – goodness, there is so much I could write here, but perhaps the starting point is how can someone who has been an active member of the LLF co-ordinating group, and who is tasked with rolling it out in his diocese, be the front person of this film? How can bishops who are tasked with ensuring the roll-out across their dioceses of the LLF resource be seen to say “this is the only way of reading Scripture”?
Power – I don’t think these church leaders have an inkling of the power they hold over younger people in their care. There is sadly an air of “assumed privilege” from most of the speakers, which comes from a deep internal belief that they are the only ones to take Scripture and Christ seriously.
So where do we go from here?
Well the Church of England has proved itself completely incapable of protecting the most vulnerable – one just needs to look at the recent IICSA or Adi Cooper reports to recognise this. That is why we must look to another more senior source of power – which is why an independent inquiry is needed.
Meanwhile, like Trump supporters living in their alternative reality, many in churches that revere the “Beautiful Story” will continue to believe that the secular world is “the enemy”, that only they “have the truth” and that Jesus is coming soon.
It is clear that these people cannot and will not change their minds, so it is high time that the bishops stepped up to the plate and laid out clear safeguarding rules and regulations to protect those in their care.
The key question, to which we need an answer, is why don’t they?