“Sexuality and Human Flourishing” – Day Conference Report

Claire Herbert

For me the word ‘inclusive’ means reaching out to all – all parts of our church and world and all parts of me. The day conference of 6th Feb was trying to create a safe and holy space in which all sorts of eople from within and beyond the Church of England could speak to each other about the discovery of God within their sexual identity and experience. In addition each of us was challenged to stretch beyond our  normal’ way of seeing ourselves to ask whether there might not be whole spectra of experience and identity which we do not uncover for fear of disapproval and rejection.

Arnold Browne (1) led the day with a Bible Study on Paul. He demonstrated how Paul had been instrumental in holding together Christians of vastly different views in one emerging Church. Paul urged our submitting all things, including our sharp disagreement with our neighbour, to the overarching love of Christ as Paul did himself – remaining unmarried while other apostles married, calling uncircumcised gentiles to Christ while others adhered to Jewish practice, holding his own firm identity and opinions while  permitting others to adhere to their own.

In her talk which followed Alison Webster (2) emphasised two points from her own experience which had included an outward shift from being lesbian to being married, while she herself resisted categorising herself as either. She suggested that the categories into which we fit people – gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, married, single, partnered – dictate the power people feel they have in our church and society and therefore deserve close scrutiny by Christians. She suggested there is a broad hinterland of relationships in all our lives less easily categorised so mistakenly ignored and
devalued.

The morning’s speakers argued for a diversity of sexual experience we ignore in the scriptures and in ourselves and hinted too that ‘the who’ we allow to speak for ourselves as the Church, and ‘the how’ we speak – by lectures, sermons, formal prayers, debates – are covering instead of unearthing the energy of God’s connection with us in terms of our sexuality and human flourishing. How might the Church facilitate a wider discussion of these issues, a listening process for us all? A panel of speakers, sensitively chaired by Brian Thorne (3) took us to the heart of the matter: that the Church may be profoundly supportive of people grappling with difficult issues of human sexuality and identity and may also be destructive of selfesteem.

Transgendered, gay, lesbian and heterosexual people, all at this stage of their lives in successful partnerships and marriages, gave moving accounts of being nurtured or in the wilderness in relation to Church at different stages of their lives.
Participants met throughout the day to ask what resources the Church might provide to facilitate rather than obstruct our flourishing as sexual human beings. Some suggested answers were these • Bible Study resources to help us move beyond over simplistic interpretations of scripture

  • Spaces to extend the listening process to the involvement of us all so that questions of faith and sexual identity are not laid simply at the door of LGBT Christians
  • Ways of doing theology together so that we become more confident of our own voice
  • Protection and support for LGBT ordinands and ministers in post.

As a postscript, one of the most enjoyable features of the day was the working together of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, with two parish churches, a counselling centre, and member groups, including Inclusive Church, from the LGBT Anglican Coalition. In the struggle to be both ‘real’ and ‘Christian’ we need all the help we can get. The temptation to be unreal – the punishment of honesty and the reward of secrecy – is alive and kicking in the Church.

  1. Arnold Browne, the former Dean of Trinity College Cambridge, has a special interest in the use and abuse of the Bible and in counselling psychology. He has contributed chapters to Sex and the Christian Tradition (ed.Jeremy Morris) and to An Acceptable Sacrifice? Homosexuality and the Church.(eds. Duncan Dormer and Jeremy Morris)
  2. Alison Webster is Social Responsibility Adviser for the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, and has a long-standing interest in identity issues, particularly gender, race, sexuality and disability. She is the author of Wellbeing (SCM 2002) and You are Mine (SPCK 2009), an in-depth study of the formation of identity.
  3. Brian Thorne is Emeritus professor of the University of East Anglia and known internationally as a person-centred therapist and writer. He is a Lay Canon of Norwich and Professional Fellow in Residence at the Norwich Centre. His books include Infinitely Beloved, Behold the Man, and The Mystical Power of Person Centred Therapy.

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