by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13)
Since LLF was published just a few weeks ago, the calls for a safe space for discussion has become louder and louder, not least given a number of videos, and associated justificatory articles, which many have seen as representative of the erasure, belittling and downright abuse that LGBTQI people have become accustomed to as members of the Church of England. Despite the promises made about ensuring the pastoral principles are adhered to, it appears that bishops are determined not to even mention ‘LGBTQI’ in their statements, aiming instead to talk in vague generalities about ‘different lived experiences and theological understandings’. Beneath this, it has become abundantly clear that, not only are our senior leaders still missing the point when it comes to power dynamics and structural oppression, but that this is a fundamentally unsafe enterprise even for those in power.
LLF has asked LGBTQI people to make ourselves vulnerable, so we can listen to those of other ‘theological understandings’, and thus find a way forward as a church. Putting aside the simple fact that a threat of schism (as made in the CEEC video) is hardly ‘listening’, many LGBTQI people are willing to do just as the bishops ask, despite the personal cost. Yet what has become absolutely clear in recent weeks is that the LGBTQI members of the House of Bishops who are not out are themselves terrified to speak out – and that their straight colleagues are giving them no public cover. If they are not feeling safe, then how on earth are the rest of us supposed to? If the pastoral principles are the key to this, then why do they only apply to the clergy and laity – and not the bishops? Is this really what a safe space looks like? And if not, then are we really happy to live in a church driven by fear?
Silence is not always a bad thing – sometimes it signals serious intent to listen, to engage, to leave room for differing views that don’t need a referee. Christ’s own silence before his accusers was an act of resistance in itself. But silence is not always a virtue. In the past few weeks, the silence from the House of Bishops has been deafening. Very few LGBTQI people are calling for bishops to present combative opposition to those amongst their number who are threatening schism, or those who suggest ‘same-sex attracted’ Christians are trying to divide the church. But for so many bishops, including LGBTQI bishops and those known to be supporters, to say nothing when there is so much hurt amongst some of the most vulnerable in our communities, is extraordinary.
This silence leaves open the marketplace for insidious voices to continue to work a dynamic of oppression against LGBTQI people. We are told that we should be more ‘gracious’, as though attacks on our very personhood, identity, and, indeed, on the ones we love, are something we should discuss politely over a cup of tea. We are told that our ‘issue’ is being debated and that we shouldn’t ask for too much. We are told that there might be a few changes around the edges but we shouldn’t ask for marriage – often by straight, white men who are able to return, without any knowing looks of disapproval, to their own wives and children. It is very easy to throw stones when one faces no risk, in a system where one’s own privilege is deeply entrenched.
We are told that we shouldn’t be asking for ‘special treatment’, when such ‘special treatment’ is simply to be able to enjoy the very things that straight people take for granted. It appears to me that an overwhelming majority of straight people do not want to understand what being LGBTQI is like in the church. Very few of us want anything other than what straight people already have – I would have rather more time for the argument that we should wait for marriage if heterosexuals also declared a moratorium on their own marriages to ‘give the church time to make up its mind on this issue’.
LGBTQI people, like any oppressed group, find ourselves in a deeply pernicious environment, where false equivalences are made between genuine oppression and theological disagreement, where we are expected to model perfect behaviour in the face of abuse, where our identity is fair game for ‘discussion’, where our commitment to scripture is consistently questioned, where our integrity is dismissed, where our arguments are wilfully misrepresented, where our experiences are discounted or trivialised, where we are described as an ‘ideology’, where we are continually spoken about not with, where the bishops who are supposed to be upholding this ‘safe space’ feel neither safe enough to speak out, nor brave enough to even mention us by name – and, indeed, sack clergy for entering into same-sex civil marriages.
It is in this kind of environment that LGBTQI people are successfully gas-lighted, belittled, delegitimised, scapegoated. This is what structural violence looks like, however ‘gently’ or ‘generously’ it is expressed. Silence in this kind of environment is not neutral – it is participation in sin.
Life outside the Church would be so much easier, particularly for those of us who have grown up in a world where being LGBTQI is no more interesting than being tall or short. The miracle is that LGBTQI people are still coming to church, still offering themselves for ordination, still loving the church.
We’ve had report after report; we’ve had the facilitated conversations; now we have LLF. We’ve been told time and time again that it’s worth it.
If we are to put an end to this cycle of violence, then our chief pastors need to look in the mirror and ask – what am I doing?