Living in Love & Faith – My Journey

by Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry and Chair of the Living in Love and Faith project

I am very grateful to be asked to contribute to Via Media and to share some thoughts on Living in Love and Faith shortly after its publication.

I’m writing this a week before the launch itself and, perhaps as you can imagine, my anxiety levels are steadily rising. By the time you read this, LLF in its several forms – book, course, films, podcasts and online library – will have been released, with all sorts of assessments in its wake. You may well have formed your own view, though I’m hoping people will hold their final judgement until they’ve engaged in some way with the range of material in its different forms, and also given the whole lot a chance to do the work it’s intended to do. I certainly don’t want to try to sell LLF to you or to cover over any of its faults that you’ve spotted already, and all of us will be able to find many, I’m sure. Rather, I’d like to share something of my experience of living with this project over these last years, and trying to so with love, faith and – yes – hope.

I had a load of mixed emotions when I was asked to chair LLF’s Coordinating Group back in 2017. As much as I sensed, in fear and trembling, the scale of the challenge that it would involve, there was something about it that struck chords with me and the experiences that God had led me through. Academically, I’ve long been interested in how different people and perspectives can be held together by seeing that which is of Christ in each other and hearing that which is of the gospel in each other’s position. In ministry, I’ve been called to Coventry to share its remarkable story of peace and to live out something of the prophetic words spoken by the then Provost in the BBC’s 1940 Christmas service broadcast to the nations from the ruins of the Cathedral’s bombed out remains.

‘What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts . . . We’re going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ-child-like, sort of world in the days beyond this strife’.

Well, although I soon discovered that simplicity was a virtue LLF would find difficult to embody (everything we discussed together was layered in complexity), I came to see that it was a very great opportunity to build a kinder and more Christ-child-like Church for the sake of the world; and that it would need to be rooted at every moment in the simplicity of the Coventry prayer – ‘Father, forgive’.

About mid-way through the project, I encountered the work of Hartmut Rosa, a German sociologist who contends that our relationships in the modern world have become mute and that we have become deaf to each other, indeed to the world itself. He describes the need to overcome the alienation many people experience that can lead to a sense of ‘every day despair’ or even hostility. He proposes that we can do so by engendering resonance between people in their deep identity and dearly held views, and so be at greater peace in the world. These are the final words of Resonance, his weighty book on the subject:

A better world is possible, and it can be recognised by the central criterion, which is no longer domination and control, but listening and responding.’

That helped me to understand better what I’d seen happening as around forty very different people with diverse life experiences and various – and often conflicting – views and beliefs met and worked, spoke and wrote, ate, drank and prayed together over many demanding days. I could see that a deep listening was taking place in each of us and that we were responding to each other, to what we felt, thought, believed, hoped and prayed for, listening and responding together to scripture and the theological tradition. Listening and responding to God. And that seemed to me to be the responsibility of LLF – to allow us, difficult as it can be, and it was really difficult most of the time, to listen to each other, to ensure that we had heard well and that we had truly allowed each other’s voice to be heard, and to respond in love, faith, and with hope.

I’ve learnt a lot about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage over these years, and my prayer is that the LLF resources will help those who make use of them to travel their own long and rich journey of learning through them. I’ve learnt a lot about myself as well – about, as the Pastoral Principles put it, my ignorance, prejudices, hypocrisy and fears, as well as my failures to give silence a voice and attend to my own use of power. But it’s been the opportunity to come to know other Christians more deeply, to see into their lives and to understand better their strongest convictions and highest hopes that will have been the abiding gift of these last years for me.

Those colleagues are too numerous to name but I will – if I may – mention three: Alex (a gift to LLF from the URC), who is trans, Giles (a contributor to Via Media and Vicar of St John’s Waterloo), who is gay, and Jason (an Adviser to the Bishop of London and former curate at Christ Church, Mayfair), who is straight. As members of the LLF Coordinating Group, we’ve worked closely together. We must have spent hundreds of hours in meetings together right up to the launch. I know they have given many more hundreds of hours to our common task, shaping texts, framing films, creating podcasts, arguing and contending, listening and responding. I also know something, though only the surface, of the cost they have had to bear in our endeavours, and I worry that the price they have been asked to pay will have risen since the launch. I have seen Christ in them and heard the gospel through them.

Yes, we have further to travel along the way of Christ’s truth. We are not done with our listening to God and discerning how we faithfully respond to God. But this I know: we belong together because we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Posted in Bishop of Coventry, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Transgender | 1 Comment

Scripture & Sexuality – Taking Nothing For Granted

by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, Member of General Synod and Co-Founder of the Evangelical Forum on General Synod

At the beginning of this year I took for granted that I would be able to worship in church freely, socialise with friends, spend time with my family, run my first marathon and be able to tie up my own shoe laces. To take something for granted, according to the dictionary, is “to assume that something is true without questioning it”, or “to never think about something because you believe it will always be available or stay exactly the same”.

A global pandemic impacting us in the UK from March, and a broken shoulder impacting me personally from the end of September have changed pretty much everything about life – nothing is the same as it was this time last year. Things I never thought about have become unavailable to me overnight, assumptions about my life, abilities and entitlements have been deeply challenged. I have been forced to think about how day-to-day living is experienced by those with physical impairment or chronic pain in enlightening ways, and hopefully have grown in wisdom as a result … though I have mainly been frustrated and impatient rather than graciously stoic about the fact that I can’t run 5k let alone a marathon, and although I can now dress myself, those boot laces remain in the ‘impossible with one hand’ category.

Over a longer period a similarly diverse and unexpected combination of factors have caused me to reflect on how much of my church tradition’s teaching on sexuality I had hitherto taken for granted. Assumptions I had never questioned have been challenged, concepts I had never really thought about because some things always stay the same and are unchangeable began to trouble me, to gnaw away at my previously rock-solid stance.

My journey through the ‘silent middle’ in the debate on same sex relationships, articulated in a speech to General Synod in February 2017 has continued.  I would now describe myself as a gradually more confident ally. I think differently since I have ventured to question and explore with an open and undefended mind, and hope I have grown in wisdom and understanding through discovering the rich contribution LGBTI sisters and brothers bring to God’s church. Sticking my head above the parapet when invited to speak in ‘that debate’ had a much more significant impact than I could have ever imagined, leading to fascinating conversations, opportunities for engagement and some enriching new friendships, and significantly, a deeper love for God, and for the Bible. 

My evolving perspective resulted sadly in a parting of ways with EGGS (the Evangelical Group of the General Synod), as along with others I felt I could not, with integrity, remain part of a group which defined evangelicals in terms of their views on sexuality. A new “Evangelical Forum”, of which I became a founding member, is attempting to offer a different way of meeting together as evangelicals on Synod. We will aim to provide a hospitable space for conversation, reflection and fellowship, where conscious of our oneness in Christ and his command to love each other, we undertake to listen in love, speak with kindness and understand with open hearts.

This is going to be so important as we begin this month to engage in Synod and then across the whole church with the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) materials which aim to help the whole Church to learn how relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of a humanity created in the image of God.  Commenting on the House of Bishops’ decision to proceed in the autumn of 2020, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on 25/6/2020:

“The LLF resources are about vital matters which affect the wellbeing of individuals and communities. That is why it is important for the Church to move ahead with publishing the resources as soon as possible. ….  They will help the Church to live out its calling to be a people who embody the reconciliation of Christ as together we explore matters of identity, sexuality and marriage.”

It’s envisaged that learning and engagement with the materials will over the next couple of years move to discernment and decision-making.  I really hope and pray that right across our structures and people, from synod to parish, from bishop to youth group member, from Mothers’ Union stalwart to fresh faced ordinand, we will take nothing for granted as we commit to learning together. I long for a church in which it is good to explore and question openly, from a place of acknowledging our common calling as children of a God who loves us, whether we be gay or straight, evangelical or liberal, catholic, charismatic or any other tradition, reflective practitioner or learned academic.

At some point, when discernment leads to decision making, we will clearly not all be in agreement, which is why we have careful synodical processes to navigate. But that is still a way ahead. For now, at the end of this year in which so much of what we thought to be unchangeable has been stripped away, I dare to hope we can approach this opportunity differently. Of course, we hold on to truth with integrity, but perhaps that truth might be as simple as, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.

My journey towards a more inclusive interpretation of scripture has speeded up as I have realised that Jesus loves my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues too, and that the Bible surprisingly “tells me so” – I don’t have to ditch it to embrace a theology which welcomes rather than condemns a loving, intimate relationship between two people of the same sex. This has been liberating for me as an evangelical, and I am indebted to Marcus Green and David Runcorn, whose books The Possibility of Difference and Love Means Love have helped me grapple with some of my preconceived notions.

I am resolved to take nothing for granted, other than that it is possible to live in love and faith, as we journey together through the next stage of this long process. But I am committed to speaking out in support of those whose very existence has been challenged for far too long, and committed to doing this as an evangelical, loved by God, and tentatively trying to love those who find my changing views a challenge, embodying reconciliation with them.

I’m happy to walk and talk with any who want to prepare for LLF hitting Synod through creative conversation. However, at least for the next few weeks, I will need to ask you to tie my boot laces before we venture out!

Posted in Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Nikki Groarke | 8 Comments

Uphill Struggles and the Road to Peace

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and the Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

One positive side-effect of the first lockdown was that I began regular exercise again, and I’ve kept it going. Every other day I jog (candidly it’s more of a shuffle) for 2.5K around the streets here.

There is only one fairly steep hill, which takes some will power to climb. Half way up the hill it’s easy to consider giving up. The hill is called Church Road (I know this story sounds like “Pilgrim’s Progress”, but I promise I’m not making it up).

Church Road takes you up, past the church hall where the Beatles first played together, and past the churchyard with a grave which was the inspiration for “Eleanor Rigby”, and on to the house where the present Rector lives, who played Father McKenzie in the recent movie “Yesterday”.

These facts might well help you in a trivia quiz (you’re welcome), but none of them makes the hill any easier. And by the time I reach the top I’m usually gasping for breath. It’s just at that point of maximum tiredness that I pass the parish church’s war memorial, facing the road at the top of the hill, with its simple message “Peace”.

Peace is a word with many meanings, but in my experience any peace worth the name comes after a climb. No climb, no peace. In this Remembrance season that is surely clear.

In his book “The Cost of Discipleship” Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of cheap grace and costly grace, the cheap grace that causes us to sleep spiritually, and the costly grace that assuredly calls us forward on the path of discipleship. In a similar way you might speak of cheap peace and costly peace.

Cheap peace exists, for what it’s worth. I could choose to suspend my run and instead to experience a peaceful moment at the bottom of the hill. The problem with doing that its that I’m no longer exercised, and I’m not one step closer to home. Alternatively I can face the exertion and climb the hill and pass the war memorial and receive its message of peace, and run on.

Speaking of the leaders of his own time the prophet Jeremiah was moved to say: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

Jesus on the other hand came to his disciples there in the upper room, where the doors were locked for fear of the Jews, and he showed them his serious, indeed his mortal, wounds; and as a wounded and risen person he said “Peace be with you”. (John 20:19)

Cheap peace comes at the foot of the hill, where wounds are not taken seriously, on the near side of conflict. And costly peace is to be found where the seriously wounded One lives and breathes and blesses, on the far side of conflict.

It will not do to settle for cheap peace at the bottom of the hill, certainly not for those who follow the Prince of Peace. When I was a parish priest in High Wycombe in the 80s, and also one of the national co-chairs of Christian CND, I preached at the town’s Remembrance Day service, to an audience including senior USAF and RAF service people from the local bases, as well as some from the peace movement. At the end of the service someone drew me aside and said: “Well, Paul, it wasn’t easy, but you managed to get away without offending anyone today”. 

I was profoundly depressed. It was evident that I had chosen words which had not reflected the truth as I understood it. It was evident that my discipleship itself had fallen short. I’m still looking for the bit in the Gospels where someone says to our Lord: “Well, Jesus, it wasn’t easy, but you managed to get away without offending anyone today”.

Of course there is nothing to be gained by giving gratuitous offence, and of course patience and compassion and self-control and endurance are virtues in the Christian way. But when a community seeks real peace, it is only to be found after the most profound exertion, and in the midst of honest speech and honest listening, and if necessary of honest and clearly-expressed disagreement.

To say that honest speech and honest disagreement matters is by no means to state the obvious.

As I write the “shenanigans” following the US election are ongoing, as the result is awaited and the President rages. Television commentators are interrupting the speeches of their own President to tell their listeners that he is not speaking the truth.

As I write the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements, and even the insane fantasies of the QAnon conspiracy, continue to gather adherents in the UK – for some, joining them seems so much easier than climbing the hill of truth and walking on the stones of evidence.

The Coronavirus has squeezed our common life hard, and it has revealed fault-lines which continue to open. In the words of the Authorised Version of the Bible: “…judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter”. (Isaiah 59:14)

In such a world Christian people are surely called to exert themselves, and to seek the hard peace which is found at the summit of the hill. It is not enough to stay at the hill’s foot, where the grass is long and where we can agree with everyone, or at least agree to differ, and where the vulgar sound of struggle is pleasantly distant.

This is surely true in every part of our common life, as a church as well as in the nation.

Will we confront the lies in the public square which I have mentioned above, and take a stand for the truth, even if it means we will not get away without offending anyone today?

Within the Church will we exert ourselves to climb the hill to where the grass is shorter, and finally to address and not to postpone matters of contention, as for example in the area of human sexuality and relationships which hurts and marginalises and silences so many?

And in all these things will we be enabled by God’s grace to reach together for the costly peace which comes on the far side of a renewed honesty and a renewed public courage?

I can only hope.

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Wise Leadership: Needed Now More Than Ever!

by the Ven Elizabeth Adekunle, Archdeacon of Hackney

Our leadership matters now more than ever, as we look to our leaders to steer us through these choppy and unpredictable waters. The world has been faced with grave uncertainty because of Covid-19 and there are questions around how leaders manage the effects of a pandemic they cannot control. We have seen first-hand the legislative decisions that leaders across the world have made in response to the spread of the virus, and this has led to comparisons about effective leadership.

In addition to this uncertainty, the world watched on their screens the murder of George Floyd during lockdown and the subsequent protests and stories of injustice and discrimination that emerged. Despite lockdown many felt empowered by ‘Black Lives Matter’ to protest and to ask leaders to confront and address the racial discrimination within our structures and institutions.

If this was not enough uncertainty, add to the list the future leadership of the United States. The turnout of voters this year has vastly surpassed the number who voted in the 2016 election. One reason for the increase is likely, in part, to the gradual expansion of voting rights but another more important reason, relates to the desperate desire for good judgement and wise leadership in an environment that seems overwhelmingly divided. The likelihood is that we will know the results later today and the outcome of this contested presidential election may well lead to anger, frustration and violence.

How our leaders lead and implement change in this moment in time, affects us in ways that leadership has not dealt with in recent history. It seems crucial therefore that our leaders have the right tools to take on this immense level of power and responsibility.

The bible offers key teachings, not only about the dangers of the allure of leadership, but about wise affective leadership. The Hebrew scriptures aptly refer to these books as Wisdom Literature. These five books deal precisely with our human struggles and real-life experiences. Armed with prayer and quiet reflection, within these pages we see nuggets and insights in to how to be wise. For example, Proverbs 8:12 says “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion.”

In the New testament we see the practical application of such leadership in the mission and service of Jesus; in his trial and death. Jesus exhibits a counter-culture style of leadership that is not based on ego and progression but rather on humility and integrity. A list of qualities and characteristics can be found in the nine Fruits of the Spirit; all of which help to develop wise judgement.

Biblical teachings are ongoing tools in an unpredictable world, in which God’s reflective wisdom is needed during times of trial and times of temptation, so that leaders do not pretend. The 1662 book of Common prayer offers these wise words:

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain the same by his infinite goodness and mercy”.

Wisdom can and should be nurtured, for wisdom brings good judgement, altruism, a perspective beyond the individual and an understanding of the power that leadership can wield, both positive and negative. Leadership can bring out the best and the worst in those who step up to the challenge. Therefore, recognising this and holding in tension these extremes is crucial for good clear judgement.

In a world that demands immediacy and is often unreasonable and unwilling to see the opinion of others, or indeed the bigger picture, or the longer view it takes wise leadership not be to seduced by those that shout the loudest, or miss the voices of the ‘least of these’ and the crucial discernment process that comes from listening to others and learning from others.

Nelson Mandela in his biography Long Walk to Freedom equated a great leader with a Shepherd, Mandela said, “He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.

To lead wisely means to recognise that one does not have all the answers and cannot and will not know everything. Wise leadership involves a collective group of people with different gifts and skills in which different people at different times, depending on their strengths, or ‘nimbleness’ come forward to steer the group in the best direction. Mandela’s metaphor also hints at the strength and agility of a group that does not have to wait for and then respond to a command from (the front), the one in charge. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of his/her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting the direction that all should follow.

Wise leadership can be counter-cultural, in fact a leader may represent traits that are the opposite of what the world has been trained to see its leaders do and say. There are times when great leadership means letting go of what others, including one’s seniors, perceive one’s actions ought to be as a leader. Jesus is a good example of this. Wise leadership will inevitably involve God’s commandment to love and an understanding of the long view.

The wise leader understands that purposeful work is essential to human dignity and human flourishing and the immediacy of the short-term solution often does not create lasting impact.

Let us pray therefore that we will have the courage to recognise and appoint wise leaders that can contemplate the long view and hold them to account in order to make the world a fairer more just place

Archdeacon Liz will be in discussion with Cardinal Tagle on November 2nd 2020 for the first of the Autumn Westminster Abbey lecture series on ‘Wise Leadership’. The talk will be available on YouTube shortly.


Posted in Coronavirus, Elizabeth Adekunle, Politics, Racism, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Covid, LLF and the Power of “Lived Experience”

by the Revd Canon Timothy Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark and Member of General Synod

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God’.[1]

On the 8th October Radio 4’s Moral Maze explored the concept of ‘lived experience’ and agreed that, taken solely on its own, ‘lived experience’ is an unreliable position for moral authority, as it leaves itself open to manipulation by our unconscious and conscious biases.

However the panel admitted that when matched with rigorous and careful reflection, drawing into a deeper empathy with those with similar narratives, ‘lived experience’ acquires a legitimate moral agency that has the power to change attitudes and transform lives.  The program concluded that ‘Lived Experience’ speaks particularly powerfully when it states that ‘there is only so much we can do unless we have a voice at the table.’

Within this context ‘lived experience’ becomes a plea from the powerless to the powerful. Compare Donald Trump’s recent responses to his ‘lived experience’ of Covid-19 to the rallying cry from the ‘lived experience’ of disabled people. ‘Not about us without us’ becomes a direct plea to the powerful to listen and respond to the narratives of those who are being disabled by the very people who hold power and influence.

Although the Church of England’s new teaching document ‘Living in Love and Faith’ reflects on the lived experience of many within the LGBTI community, am I alone in wishing that the writers of LLF had had the opportunity, before going to publication, to hear and reflect on the lived experiences of the powerless in this pandemic?  For this pandemic is robbing many of the very action that is the LLF’s elephant in the room, namely physical intimacy.

People with serious underlying health issues have had to shield from their sexual partner, mirroring the lived experience of many for whom this is their daily existence. Others have found themselves geographically separated from their sexual partner due to lockdown. As previously stated in Savi Hensman’s Via Media blog on “life without closeness” this pandemic has forced us to step back from embracing or shaking hands, all but robbing us of a vital part of our humanity and that loss has hurt us profoundly.

It is within this context that I have been reflecting on my recent lived experience of being shielded, cut off physically from family and friends, and in particular having to live socially distanced from my wife for two weeks at the beginning of lockdown.

As a physically disabled person I experience physical intimacy as a gift of immense grace. To offer myself completely to my wife, emotionally, spiritually and physically; for that offer not only to be received but desired and for that offer to be reciprocated in kind, has been for us a perpetual manifestation of God’s love and grace. For to offer oneself so completely to another is an act of risk and vulnerability, one which opens us to the possibility of rejection and immense hurt, but also the possibility of profound transformation and healing.

Being desired so completely by my wife has confirmed and affirmed that I am fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God. Physical intimacy continues to be for us a gift and vital sign of the vulnerable, selfless and graceful love of God.

Bernie and I do not have children and our sexual relationship is not open to the procreation of children and yet there is nothing about our experience of physical intimacy that in anyway falls short of God’s purposes, but rather continues to be an ongoing sharing of grace that has drawn us both into a deeper and closer relationship with each other and with the incarnate God; the Word made Flesh; the Risen Body, both fully divine and fully human that invites us to gaze upon the open wounds of Christ and respond ‘My Lord and my God’.[2]

That two weeks at the start of lockdown, when self-distancing denied both of us the possibility to be physically intimate, afforded me the gift of a glimpse of what the Church of England demands of clergy living in loving committed same sex relationships.

For the Church to demand that others are denied the experience of physical intimacy; to deny the possibility of offering oneself completely – emotionally, spiritually and physically – to the one they love and to deny that offer being reciprocated – all whilst denying them and their life partner a covenantal relationship with God, is to deny the graceful action of God and to fall desperately short of God’s purpose. 

It is the action of a powerful Church, selecting and predisposing particular passages of scripture to the judgmental pronouncements of the powerful over the powerless. In doing so ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ has all but robbed LGBTI clergy of a vital part of our shared humanity and it has hurt them and the Church profoundly.

Many Christians respond with ‘you cannot bless a sin’ and I agree with them.

‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ has not been a blessing for the Church of England, because it has denied God’s graceful action and therefore colluded with sin. ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ has brought about serious safeguarding issues which the church can no longer ignore; for its pronouncements deny and abuse God’s purposes within loving relationships, profoundly impacting on the mental health of so many LGBTI Christians and denying the opportunity for the church to be for them a sacred place of safety and sanctuary.

My ardent prayer is that through the upcoming publishing of LLF and the conversations that ensue, the Church becomes a blessing rather than a barrier for LGBTI Christians, a Church that truly listens and responds to the lived experiences of the powerless, transforming fully into the Body of Christ, leaving no one behind –  a true agent of God’s grace, living out the Gospel clarion cry:  ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God’.

[1] The First Letter of St John, Chapter 4, verse 7

[2] Gospel of John, 20 verse 28

Posted in Disability, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Tim Goode | Leave a comment

Collusion, Hypocrisy & the Greasy Pole to Success

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

For those with ears to hear, the past few weeks have highlighted a very clear theme in the abuse scandal in the Church of England, whether that be in the IICSA report or the Diocese of Oxford’s review into the murder of a gay churchwarden of a ‘conservative’ church: it’s almost a truism – to quote Oxford’s review, ‘while people continue to feel forced to hide or lie about their sexuality, they can become vulnerable to exploitation’.

The topic has been covered in an excellent blog by Prof Helen King on this site, yet the silence from the Church of England’s authorities is deafening. The Bishop of Oxford may have said that this was a ‘clarion call for improvements to our work on LGBTI+ inclusivity’, yet where have the great statements of repentance been from the House of Bishops?

Same-sex spouses continue to be excluded from the Lambeth Conference, and meanwhile there hasn’t been a peep of recognition from the wing of the Church that would align itself with these ‘traditional’ views, with the usual woe-is-me ‘bullying’ accusations made yet again and again against people who honour the humanity of LGBT people. 

It really is time for this to change.

The lying, silence, dissembling and wink-wink nudge-nudge way of ‘managing’ homosexuality in Church circles is not only embarrassing, but a grave sin. It moves the church into a place of hypocrisy and collusion, and it is one we are far too willing to tolerate.

After writing my last blog, I was told by a priest that it was a virtue to ‘tolerate hypocrisy’. By no means is this true – and what is more this is fundamentally different to recognising and living with paradox and different theological positions.

We live in a Church that thrives on hypocrisy – where ordinands are told not to ‘rock the boat’ by being ‘too vocal’ about being LGBT, and where clergy have ‘special friends’ or ‘lodgers’. This pressure to dishonesty thus forms the backdrop for being LGBT in the Church, and it is hardly a surprise that such a culture can be manipulated by those who are looking for vulnerabilities in the system. That an elderly gay man was abused and murdered is not a shock – it is the inevitable result of a culture of lies.

Anyone who is young, gay and in the Church has lived this reality; I am quite sure that other LGBT people similarly face the consequences of this culture. All of us know of the inappropriate clergy, the unacceptable taking of liberties that are just the right side of ‘explainable’, and the abuse of power by those in authority. Not being straight makes this whole structure a lot more threatening – not only because of the threats of ‘disclosure’ that can be made against you, but also because there is a deeper underlying culture of ‘being gay in the Church’ that is deeply damaging, and is directly the result of the tyranny of silence and lies.

This culture is like something from the 1950s, where never a word is spoken about ‘the love that dares not speak its name’, where gay clergy form elaborate pretences and where public intimacy is frowned on and sex commodified. LGBT people are thus made both victim and perpetrator, and the culture continues to level its destruction. This culture blurs the line between acceptable and unacceptable, producing and hiding perpetrators of abuse.

Of course, some clergy, like many others in society, need a level of discretion in consideration of elderly relatives or similar, such is the history of homophobia in this country (aided and abetted by the Church of England) – this is not the issue. Clergy who are not in this position and yet still deny their partners, or describe them as ‘special friends’, are, however, colluding in the toxic Church culture – as are leaders telling LGBT people to hide, or to ‘be careful about’ their true selves. We even have senior theological educators who actively sponsor and head up organisations that recommend heterosexual marriage to ‘same sex attracted’ people’ – and we wonder why we have a problem?

Yet here is the Catch 22 – those who are honest end up losing their licences or being thrown out, whilst those who hide and collude climb up the greasy pole of promotion. This is the very culture that the actions and words of our bishops and other leaders are perpetuating. Power, lies, fear and opacity are a heady cocktail – and it is high time the church took some responsibility for sponsoring this scandal.

Yet there is a desperation not to deal with this issue – how often have we heard that speaking out, or even simply being honest, will ‘embarrass the bishop’ or ‘bring the institution into disrepute’? Bishops seem very willing to talk about this issue and urge change over lasagne, yet are far too often silent at the Lord’s Table. Yet their silence and collusion, and that of those who continue to promulgate this culture of hypocrisy, is not only wrong, but sinful – abuse, threats and dishonour continue apace.

Perceived unity is not more important than keeping people safe and treating them as human beings. The word ‘traditional’ cannot be used to cover evil. Any senior cleric reading this might want to ask themselves – have I done enough? Indeed, have I colluded, and what am I going to do about it?

In Poland this last weekend, LGBT people – yet again the target of vicious hatred, abuse and oppression by a populist state – protested outside church property and called for an end to the church. The Polish Roman Catholic hierarchy have taken the side of the oppressor, and colluded with the state. In the UK, the state is light years ahead, yet the Church of England continues to sponsor and collude in a culture of hypocrisy.

The only reason people aren’t protesting outside our buildings is because they’ve stopped listening – we are an irrelevance. The secular world has grasped the nettle and respected the dignity of LGBT people.

There have been enough reports – it’s about time we started to listen to them, because until we do that, we are stopping the people’s ears and participating in dishonour.

Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 3 Comments

Church of England – Please Mind the Gap!

by Anne Foreman, Member of General Synod, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and former National Youth Adviser for the Church of England

If elected I will serve with the interested of parishes always in mind….”  So said my election address for the Church of England’s General Synod in 1999.  Now, as I approach my final few months on General Synod, having served on it for two very different Dioceses I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Synodical Structures and Pastoral Parishes is wider still.  The central structures have come up with a plethora of initiatives, such as Renewal and Reform, Simplification, Mission Shaped Church, Strategic funding for Resourcing and Planting new church communities, Estates Ministry, Everyday Faith.   However, questions need to be asked about how these fine sounding initiatives actually connect with existing neighbourhood schemes of care, advocacy and support? What is more, it often seems to be forgotten that parishes run on shoestring budgets, unlike the eye watering budgets behind these national projects!  The relevance of such initiatives to parishes is questionable and so the gap remains.  A gap brought sharply into focus by the response of the Institutional Church to Covid-19. 

In parishes you do what you can, where you are.  So, for the thousands of people going about their business of loving God and their neighbour there appeared to be little understanding at a national level of the impact of closing churches.  The physical building of the church, whether in a rural or urban setting, is often the focus from which service to the community springs and sustenance for its worshipping community sought. Suddenly it was not to be available. Despite lockdown first appearing on the scene in mid-March, it was not until the 9th September that anything like an empathetic recognition of the impact on community life by church closures came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he said…”worship is the work of God – not a social gathering – and gives the strength to love and serve.”  At last we had something that was more than a set of bureaucratic responses to matters of heart and soul.  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that the many imaginative and creative ways of being church locally during this Pandemic has been in spite of national directives, (sorry guidelines), rather than in response to them.

Though General Synod representatives in our diocese work hard to communicate to parishes through contact with their deaneries, it’s a bit of an uphill task to enthuse people about stuff that does not appear relevant to the day to day concerns of their own parish life.  Concerns that have increased rather than diminished during this Pandemic.  Parish share still has to be found, Annual Meetings  still need to happen, faculties still have to be applied for.  Small wonder that the General Synod Report isn’t high on the Deanery Synod Agenda! 

In the main I think it’s due to time scale.  Although the internal workings and time scale of the Church may make sense to us in our synodical, gathered state, when we scatter…..when we go back to our parishes and out into the real world…..”to live and work to His praise and glory….” then the snails pace of action simply baffles people.  People, whether they be people in the pews or people on the fringe of church life, they simply don’t understand why things take so long. Structural  requirements render the gap too wide to be able to capture imaginations, let alone hearts, for Christ.

Measures at General Synod may have to be debated, supported by voting and enacted nationally, but they are lived out and implemented locally, through local relationships whose foundation is trust and loving God and neighbour.

Of course some General Synod stuff is actually highly relevant, in particular for example that arising from the Simplification Agenda, designed to make Parochial Church life easier. For instance the enabling of joint Councils for small Parochial Church Councils – sounds great and will be welcomed, but the legal rigmarole involved in making it happen is far from simple!  If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had been given some structural synodical stuff to read I don’t think for a moment that their hearts would have burned within them.!

Or take the long awaited publication of the Living in Love and Faith, LLF, materials.  Good people have worked long and hard, consulted widely and produced high quality materials.  And yet….and yet….it’s going to be another couple of years of conversations before any conclusions are reached, or not.  Dr Eeva John spoke of the need for scholarly work to connect with lived experience.  Speaking now as a former youth worker, for many (not all) young people, their lived experience includes sex.  While LLF conversations carry on we have a generation of young people who think the church just doesn’t get it as far as sex is concerned. We have a generation of young people for whom sex has become an alternative leisure activity.  So how then is the church to connect with them to model relationships, including same sex relationships, of fidelity, loyalty, kindness, delight and respect if it continues to say that marriage between a man and a woman is the only place that any physical expression of love or desire can happen, or indeed that sex is purely for procreation?

When I was still supervising full time Youth Workers and they were faced with a difficult issue  I would ask….”how and in what way will your decision enhance the lives of the young people you work with and for…”.? But that was then, and now for me the question is…..”How and in what way will the mission of the church be enhanced by the existing structures of the Church of England?”  The heart of the church beats in local communities and synodical structures need to uphold and strengthen the local.  More attention needs to be paid to minimising the gap between those structures and life as it is lived locally.

Posted in Anne Foreman, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 8 Comments

World Without End…?

by the Bishop of Buckingham, Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson

On 13 August 2012 ministry took a new path for me. A journalist had alerted me to untoward goings on in Sussex. Young peoples’ lives had been damaged. The Church shied away from taking proper responsibility. Survivors felt they were being treated as an embarrassment, sidelined then blocked.

As a result, my colleague Revd Rosie Harper and I were invited to meet some of the people concerned and listen to their stories. When all is said and done the Church is a pastoral organisation. It exists to bring the grace and truth of Christ to a generation within its care. This calling had been massively betrayed, and I felt ashamed of the Church I represent.  Things had to change.

More and more people were getting in touch. Very often what they craved was someone to listen to their story and take it seriously. I realised that very often the most healing thing was truth about what had actually happened and, above all, honesty.

One emerging common theme shocked us. Male or female, high or low, recent or not, every person we listened to told us things had got worse for them after they reported.

In 2013 Pope Francis saw the Church as a field hospital. Imagine a field hospital in which all the wounded soldiers leave more shot up than they were when brought in. That couldn’t be entirely their fault.

I was comforted in July 2013, though, by our new archbishop’s recognition of the problem. He apologised and seemed to understand the systemic dimension of our failings as he articulated for General Synod “a profound theological point. We are not doing all this – we are not seeking to say how devastatingly, appallingly, atrociously sorry we are for the great failures there have been, for our own sakes, for our own flourishing, for the protection of the Church. We are doing this because we are called to live in the justice of God and we will each answer to him for our failures in this area”.

Time passed by. Budgets for training and advisers began to grow. I was encouraged.

In 2015 our archbishop told us “We failed big time, we can do nothing other than confess our sin, repent and commit ourselves to being different in the years ahead.”

Time passed by. A new project was in the air, collaboratively developed with survivors — “Safe Spaces”

2017 seemed less hopeful. News broke of John Smyth’s sadistic abuse of teenage boys whose trust he had betrayed as he blighted their lives. But at any rate the Archbishop was still sorry. We were told he “apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”

January 2018 saw preliminary hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Rightly, our Archbishop had lined up the Church for early examination, a brave and honourable act.

And when the atrocious Chichester tale was revealed, giving substance to what we had heard on 13 August 2012, we were as sorry as he:

“You can apologise and apologise to survivors, and I would want to put on record again — I don’t know how to express it adequately — how appalled I am and ashamed I am of the Church for what it did.”

Time Passed by.

More money was spent, training improved and Safe Spaces underwent a reboot and would soon start for real. That was the good story. We continued to hear not so good stories from survivors, all of whom wished they never had reported to Church authorities.

We wrote a book, taking survivor experience seriously across a very broad spectrum of church abuse. We tried to understand the roots and cultural context of our failures, and proposed a fresh approach. It was mentioned by enough survivors for IICSA to call for material from it as evidence in 2019.

When our archbishop read the latest IICSA report last week, he was still sorry not only for what had happened but for the Church’s failure to respond pastorally.  “We cannot and will not make excuses, and I must again offer my sincere apologies to those who have been abused.”

After 8 years of sorry, then, from our Archbishop at least if not others, how do I feel about the post-IICSA future?

I am encouraged to see that our new Archbishop of York whom I like and respect very much as a former close colleague, is sorry too. He said on national radio how shocked he was by the report. Rosie pointed out he’d known about what was in it for years.

He replied personally “Shocked to read it again, Rosie. I suppose what I’m saying is I hope I’ll never stop being shocked and distressed until we have changed. I am in a position to really help make that change. I am determined to do so. And quickly.”

I am sure he will be supported, as will survivors, by Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, the Church’s new safeguarding bishop. Not only in General synod, but in a really helpful Religion Media Centre IICSA report briefing with survivors and advocates, Jonathan clearly demonstrates fresh commitment to drive change at every level.

Oh, and Safe Spaces actually started, albeit with a few learner driver’s kangaroo jumps, on 29 September 2020.

I return to Archbishop Justin’s words in 2012. But… How long O Lord?

Jesus said “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Martin Luther King said “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”

Rosie and I have met many survivors, courageous and wise people, who have often tolerated years of being ignored, patronised, lied to and blamed. They feel they have been going round and round in circles for ever.

After multiple forced apologies from a surprisingly small selection of bishops, a few training and cosmetic changes have happened at vast cost. Dr Josephine Stein reminds us this all dwarfs provision for survivors. Then somehow all the regret ends up back the too-difficult box…  until the next shameful revelation.

As it was in 2012, is now…. and ever shall be? world without end? Really?

Posted in Bishop Alan Wilson, Disability, IICSA, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 5 Comments

Why the Church of England Must ‘Connect the Dots’ – IICSA and LLF

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford

Life in 2020 has been very much about uncertainty. I’m not just thinking about the pandemic.

In narrower Church of England terms, in 2020 we’ve waited for two very important documents to be released: last week, the IICSA final report on sexual abuse of children in the Anglican Church, and in early November Living in Love and Faith (LLF), delayed from spring 2020. This delay changes the original sequence of events. Now it’s October: IICSA, then November: LLF.

What’s the connection?

While a member of LLF, I was one of those who asked over and over again for IICSA to be taken into account in the documents being produced. Yet the last LLF draft I saw still gave the impression that the questions such abuse raises were not really LLF’s concern. Yet you’d think some sort of liaison would be useful between these two large and costly processes – costly in terms of both money and emotional pain.

The extensive IICSA transcripts mentioned LLF twice on 1 July 2019, but only in passing. “The church has also been confronting issues concerning its teaching on human sexuality” said Nigel Giffin QC, representing the Archbishops’ Council. In his second witness statement to IICSA, the Archbishop of Canterbury had stated “I am informed by Mr Tilby that these [LLF] resources will be reviewed by the NST before they are finalised to ensure that they sufficiently address safeguarding related issues”.[1] I have no idea whether that review happened. Did anyone join the dots? The error in the IICSA final document, the claim that LLF – described as a “large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality” had been published in 2019 – suggests not.

I think the two documents are more closely related than the failure of an internal Church process to join forces with IICSA would suggest, and that the links need to be better understood.

In the Executive Summary of the IICSA final report, we read that: “Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome.”

What were, or are, these ‘taboos’?

Let’s go back to Fiona Scolding at the IICSA inquiry into Chichester Diocese, on 5 March 2018. She asked, “How far did the reaction of some within the church to homosexuality possibly inhibit the reporting of child sexual abuse?” DI Wayne Murdock, involved in the Peter Ball case, made it clear that “one of the factors that influenced his view of the public interest in bringing a prosecution was the risk that some church witnesses would be exposed as homosexuals in court. That would, in his words, have seen their roles within the church effectively finished.” As Murdock put it: “I believe that the issue of homosexuality had a detrimental effect in encouraging witnesses and potential complainants within the church to come forward” (IICSA, 23 July 2018).

So homophobia within the church deterred the reporting of sexual abuse.

When Fiona Scolding was interviewing the Bishop of Chichester, Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner, on 14 March 2018, she asked: “Do you not think that the Church’s difficulty in coming to terms with the complexity of self-identity when it comes to sexual orientation may have contributed to the misapprehensions you have identified because, you know, certainly amongst conservative individuals, homosexuality is seen as sinful?”

He answered “Yes.” She then asked, “The idea of civil partnerships is seen as anathema and the idea of getting married within the church is anathema. Do you think the church may have, albeit unwittingly, contributed to that by its approach to sexual orientation in the past?” Bishop Warner replied: “I think there has been contribution from the church on this”. He went on to talk about how covering up homosexuality contributed to a culture in which sexual abuse was also kept secret.

On 24 July 2018 Fiona Scolding, interviewing the former Archbishop, Lord Carey of Clifton, proposed that: “The church was so uncomfortable in dealing with and managing same-sex relationships that it didn’t really have an understanding of what was an appropriate same-sex relationship and what was an inappropriate same-sex relationship.”

Finally, at the 11 July 2019 IICSA hearing, Archbishop Justin Welby was asked whether “there is sufficient openness about  human sexuality in the church now so that there is, and can be, proper debate and discussion with victims and survivors and proper work on minimising risk within the church?”

He responded, “Yes. I think there is far more openness than there was. I think the Living in Love and Faith Project has enabled a culture of transparency in ways that didn’t exist before.”

When I re-read that, I was taken aback. Openness? A culture of transparency? Really?

I don’t get the impression that there’s any less fear now of being ‘exposed’ as gay. Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham,[2] remains the only out, gay, partnered bishop. If people still think their roles within the church would be “effectively finished” if their sexuality were known, that shows that the church is still not a safe place.

That has implications for safeguarding as well as for LGBTI+ people in all roles in the church. Despite the impression given in the key cases explored by IICSA, sexual abuse is certainly not only about men abusing boys: far more such abuse involves men and girls, or men taking advantage of their power to abuse women who know that nobody will believe them. The church’s history of secrecy, pretence and denial is one of the reasons why the terrible harm revealed by IICSA happened.

We need to join up the IICSA evidence of why sexual abuse was not reported, and the opportunity LLF offers to understand how the church continues to fail those who are not ‘pale, male, stale’ – and straight.

Refusing to acknowledge that, in the words of Stonewall, “Some people are gay. Get over it” has contributed to the shameful history of abuse in the Church of England.

[1] Graham Tilby: former National Safeguarding Adviser. NST: National Safeguarding Team.

[2] On the reactions to his coming out, I recommend Grace Davie and Caroline Starkey, ‘The Lincoln letters: a study in institutional change’, Ecclesial Practices, 9 (2019), 44-64.

Posted in Helen King, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice | 6 Comments

Safeguarding, ‘Reabuse’ and LGBT People

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and member of the Archbishops’ Council

Last Tuesday was perhaps the most shameful day in the history of the Church of England for hundreds of years. Forensically, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) catalogued the personal and institutional generational failures which led to the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by people in trusted positions in the Church. Whilst many say that the failure to address this issue over decades amounts to ‘reabuse’, some even saying that it is worse than the sexual offences once committed, none of us can escape the responsibility that this has taken place on our watch and that we have the duty to put it right. Some are even calling for a Truth and Reconciliation process like that of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s an idea worth exploring.

I was struck therefore by a forceful response to what seemed to me to be sincere statement of sympathy for survivors and victims of sexual abuse by Bishop Sarah Mullally from one of her priests in the Diocese of London. Father Robert Thompson described Sarah’s words on Twitter as ‘virtue signalling vacuousness’, pointing out that he has raised 4 safeguarding concerns with the Diocese of London concerning the treatment of LGBTI+ church members in some evangelical and charismatic congregations and has not had a proper response to any one of them. Lest this should seem like special pleading from him (or me) for a particular group within the life of the Church of which we are part, we should note that the IICSA report makes specific what we have known for a long time: that our hypocrisy and dishonesty about sexuality has without doubt contributed to the culture in which sexual (and I would say) emotional and spiritual abuse has been allowed to exist.

To be fair, however, we must not assume that being LGBTI+ in and of itself makes one a vulnerable adult in safeguarding terms. Still, for as long as I can remember I have had to listen to simply dreadful stories emerging from certain evangelical and charismatic churches, usually when a church member comes out or refuses to toe the line taken by ‘the leadership’ (which usually means the clergy). They find themselves silenced, removed from every ministry and leadership role, and generally treated like pariahs. The failure of many of these congregations to be able to discuss matters of sexuality or to live with diverse opinions has wreaked a dreadful emotional toll on many LGBTI+ church members and has contributed to what can only be described as a culture of fear, the subtle and overt withholding of love or placing conditions on it, and silencing of dissent. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of abuse. 

Some within the tradition have felt uncomfortable about this for a long time. David Runcorn, a long-standing and respected Evangelical theological educator and spiritual director, has attempted to provide an Evangelical theological narrative based on openness, generosity (including to those who take a conservative view) and pastoral care. His recently-published Love Means Love addresses these concerns with an eirenic spirit that is admirable and biblical, although as a straight man he cannot necessarily summon the sense of righteous anger that those of us who see the damaged lives that have resulted do. Other evangelicals within General Synod, effectively kicked out of the Evangelical Group in General Synod (EGGS) for simply wanting to explore a line similar to Runcorn’s, have coalesced into a new group in which a different, honest expression of dissent can be aired, within a caring atmosphere far different from the stifling atmosphere of EGGS which, over my twelve years as a member, became increasingly reminiscent of a Soviet-style party meeting. It gives me no pleasure to admit I often felt afraid. Father Thompson notes the way in which especially some large churches in this tradition use their financial clout to exert leverage over dioceses: do what we want, or else, is the message.

The tragedy for the Church of England is that there is much within evangelical and charismatic traditions that the rest of the Church of England desperately needs. Missional zeal, social justice and deep personal faith were once the hallmarks of Evangelicalism, things that attracted me to Christian faith, even if these days I feel excluded from the evangelical tradition. Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that the tradition most committed to the theological concepts of personal sin and repentance can see the beam in its own eye instead of projecting it onto its LGBTI+ members and their friends. Some of those most urging change in the Church’s traditional position are senior evangelical bishops who have come to see that for themselves.

In the meantime, we await the publication of Living in Love and Faith. I am committed to the process, more perhaps than many sceptics among the LGBTI+ community in the Church. But even I want to sound a word of warning. As we engage with scripture, science, theology and much more in the months ahead, we must not forget that, within parts of the evangelical and charismatic wings of our church, brothers and sisters face emotional and spiritual abuse. Conservatives and hard-liners within these traditions will want to focus on the intellectual issues – many will immediately want to rebut anything that smacks of a chink in the wall. But we must hold them and the wider church to account for this often unacknowledged abuse that is being inflicted in the name of “truth” and “sound doctrine” – including persuading those like Bishop Sarah who are I think very sensitive to issues of abuse that this is unfinished safeguarding business. I urge her and other bishops to take seriously the sort of allegations and concerns that Father Thompson has raised. There are plenty more where they came from.

We must not forget those who are most vulnerable to bad religion and who remain at risk of the ongoing abuse that has shamed the church so obviously in recent days, and continues to do so where so-called ‘truth’ silences love. As I said at Archbishops’ Council recently, any defence of the gospel or the church that sees that as more important than protecting the vulnerable will lead us back to the place we are being shamed into leaving hopefully once and for all. Ironically, the evidence of such abuse is the clearest example of why the theological position held by conservatives is biblically untenable. 

By your fruits you shall know them.

Posted in Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 13 Comments