by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
The damage often done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people in the Church of England has been much discussed lately. At the same time there has been serious concern about failings in safeguarding as well as ongoing racism, despite numerous promises from senior church leaders to do better. Some people have been trying to understand what keeps going wrong across a range of issues where power and status are involved.
There is much that is good, especially at local level. Congregations and clergy are often caring, worship can be profound and moving, thinking and witness impressive, including service to some of the poorest amidst the pressures of the pandemic. But there is a strong element of chance about whether someone who is part of this church will be nurtured or harmed. It is a little like wandering through an often beautiful landscape with crumbling tunnels underneath which cause the occasional cave-in. It is only by recognising the underlying weaknesses that the structures can be made safer.
Recent media coverage has largely focused on controversy over certain study materials that were launched in November 2020 to encourage conversation on sexuality and gender identity, entitled Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This was followed by a pushback by those most opposed to greater equality, including several bishops, which made dialogue that much more difficult. The weak response of the vast majority of all other bishops deepened the sense of alienation felt amongst many affirming Christians.
Yet for me, the most disturbing recent reminder of the grave cost of the official line on sexuality and gender identity came in answers to questions at General Synod, on a preventable tragedy in Maids Moreton. What happened there was indeed exceptional, but the response is revealing about harm routinely done to LGBTI+ people. This has been made worse by the depth of denial among leaders, which also undermines the Church’s mission in various ways. But to make sense of what happened in that Buckinghamshire village, the broad context is perhaps needed first.
Making choices and passing on the costs
Numerous theologians have been making the case for affirmation for many years. In fact, it is now over half a century since the Church of England began its formal study of LGBTI issues. Today, whilst only a small minority of Anglicans in the UK now believe that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong, the institutional Church seems largely focused on not displeasing this faction too much. Indeed, it often refused to accept inclusive recommendations by its own working parties and downplayed the strength of the case for change. This made it easier for anti-affirmation campaigners to promote the hollow claim that ‘Bible-believing’ Christians necessarily agree with them and so fend off greater equality.
This was the backdrop to the grim events in Maids Moreton and nearby Stowe, described in an independent safeguarding review by Adi Cooper for Oxford diocese. Peter Farquhar was an active member of a theologically conservative parish church, sharing those beliefs. “He was a homosexual and celibacy was his way of reconciling his beliefs and sexuality”, but when he retired, despite a network of friends and family, he was deeply lonely. Sensing his need for emotional intimacy, a ruthless young man, Ben Field, pretended to love him. He wrote that this had “given me happiness that I have long since never expected to enjoy”. But Field defrauded and poisoned him, then moved on to his next victim, Anne Moore-Martin, before being arrested.
In one of the questions at Synod, Canon Rosie Harper quoted the review: “’The policies of the Church of England regarding homosexual practice and the approach to sexuality and relationships continues to put people at risk because it forces people to hide, lie and become vulnerable to exploitation, as was PF’ and asked what steps will the LLF implementation group take to ensure that Dr Cooper’s concerns about both praxis and theology are comprehensively addressed?”
The Bishop of London replied on behalf of the Chair of the House of Bishops, stating that LLF resources “emphasise unequivocally that every person is equally loved by God and made in the image of God”, leading to “welcome, love and care” and an unprecedented openness “which will help to break the perceived need to hide, lie and so become vulnerable to exploitation.”
Prejudiced insensitivity and unkindness should indeed be discouraged. But the reply sidestepped the main issue: a theology which ruled out love like that which Peter Farquhar’s heterosexual neighbours might enjoy. The review indicated that he was respected and welcomed by his fellow-worshippers, who tacitly also knew him to be gay. Would he really have wished to open himself up to their disapproval and guilt, however caringly expressed?
Perhaps, as someone who grew up in a deeply hostile era when sex between men was criminalisedand who had internalised the message that acting on his sexuality was sinful, nothing done in the present would have prevented his victimisation by Ben Field. Moreover freedom of speech and belief mean that views that are potentially harmful cannot always be prevented without an overreach of state power which could be even more damaging. Anyway, penalising non-affirming opinions might have marginalised him yet more, since he was ‘conservative’ himself. But if the institutional Church had stopped pretending that suffering caused by inequality can be solved with “niceness” and instead embraced an affirmative stance (while allowing space for theological diversity), maybe he would have survived. So might many others whose mental or physical health has been eroded by ongoing discrimination.
Of course, some LGBTI+ Church members are in affirming congregations. Others feel called to celibacy or have adapted to the constraints of a non-affirming stance. But not all can do so without considerable damage, just as some over-75s can safely run marathons but not all can! Yes, following Christ does mean taking up the Cross, even if this ends in pain or death. But this is not about heaping more burdens on the oppressed, rather the opposite: Jesus becomes a target because he champions those marginalised by the powerful and pious (Mark 3.1-6).
While LGBTI+ people continue to pay a high price for Church leaders’ choices, the failure on this issue points to wider institutional weaknesses which leave others damaged or disadvantaged. It also harms our mission.
In particular, official statements often reflect a theological perspective in which justice is not recognised as a practical expression of love, though this is a key biblical theme (taken up also by the early Church).
Showing love is not just about being kind and supportive but also taking action where some have been deprived of or refused, without adequate cause, what others can rightly take for granted (James 2.14-16, 5.1-4) This Church failure to recognise the need to challenge misuse of power and privilege helps to explain why survivors of abuse and those facing racism, sexism, disability and class oppression have been repeatedly failed. This unwillingness to confront injustice also gets in the way of sharing the good news (Luke 4.16-19).
Change is needed, now.