If the last Newsletter seemed a little downbeat, that is certainly not the mood of the Committee following the joint conference with the Modern Churchpeople’s Union and the Student Christian Movement in July. Around 120 people gathered at High Leigh Conference Centre to discuss aspects of sexuality in the context of justice both within the Church and within the world. Mike Dark’s account of the conference below gives an excellent picture of the experience from the point of view of someone for whom this kind of conference was, in many ways, new. As a gay man he naturally stresses the elements which dealt with that issue, but also mentions the rewarding insights to be had on other matters too, notably from Adrian Thatcher on children and families – his thesis being that society today, in its attitude to sex and family life, gives little recognition to children’s needs – and also from Martin Pendergast on the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
One of the most powerful moments of the conference, which should also be put on record
here, was when the entertainer Amy Lame, well known as a lesbian, ‘came out’ in public as a lesbian Christian – with a priest partner. More moving still perhaps is the news that, since this experience, she has felt able to be with her partner in public at the Edinburgh Festival. But this was not the only coming out that occurred. One person whom I know well, a single priest in her 60s, admitted in her discussion group that, though heterosexual, she remained single because the idea of any sexual acts aroused personal disgust in her. This deep feeling has not prevented her from having friends, and blessing unions, of all sexual orientations. Her disclosure arose in the context of a discussion on the equally irrational feelings of some straight people towards gay sex. We who are sexually active, whatever our orientation, do well to remember how disgusting and/or ridiculous our activities can appear, and how many complex and irrational feelings the whole business of sex can arouse. We do well also to be thankful for those trust-filled encounters where such intimate feelings can be discussed. It will be clear that, for many, the conference was a profoundly rewarding event in itself.
The commitment of time and money was obviously not such as everyone could make, and it would have been even better had more than a mere dozen or so CSCS members been able to come; but we were well represented and contributed leadership to many of the group sessions. We have begun as a result to attract some new members. And we all came away on something of a high.
But what about the outcomes of the conference? And where next?
Of course we did not produce any startling new insights which would convince those Christians for whom various aspects of sexuality are problematic. Many of our speakers indeed are in regular dialogue with those of a more conservative persuasion, but none had a complete answer to the question ‘How do you conduct a successful dialogue when the participants are arguing from quite different premises?’ As Mike implies in his account, the most powerful change agents are people – friends – rather than intellectual arguments. More contacts exist across the various divides than perhaps some of us were aware of. If participants in the conference went back into those contacts refreshed with a little new vision, the outcomes could be remarkable, and would on their own more than justify the conference.
But the those three days also helped to focus the issues for many who are ‘on our side’ but have never really addressed issues of sexuality. I was amazed to learn that this was the first MCU conference on any related theme for over half a century! For those who do not know the MCU, it is now a large network with over 700 members including some bishops; and whilst its influence is perhaps not strongly in the ascendant in the present state of the Church of England, it is still a force to be reckoned with. Moreover it has regional networks which are being rejuvenated after a period of relative inactivity. We hope to offer speakers to the meetings of some of those networks – and to invite local CSCS members along.
One interesting feature of the conference was what I call the Emily Dickinson factor:
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant;
Success in Circuit lies…….
The really fundamental issues of what human sexuality actually is, and how we understand it in the light of faith, were rarely addressed directly. It is the special mission of CSCS to keep those particular issues before the Church, because they constitute an important link between arguments about the nature and interpretation of Scripture, on the one hand, and debates about specific issues like homosexuality on the other. (Anglican ethicists of the past, such as William Temple, would have called this the area of ‘middle axioms.’) Writers as different as Jack Dominian and Jo Ind, both CSCS members, have contributed importantly to the debates here through their writings, though it is far from certain how widely their insights have been received in the wider Church.
In the event, the conference programme did not allow for a specific slot on such issues. Yet indirectly they were certainly addressed – particularly in the inspiring and challenging presentations by Trevor Dennis and Adrian Thatcher, and also in the equally inspiring worship designed and led by Colin Coward. We were reminded just how much there is in Scripture and tradition which is actually positive about sex, even if it is largely obscured by the more familiar cases of ‘Thou shalt not’.
It might have been good, however, with hindsight, to have had a little more about the insights of the natural and social sciences on human sexuality. To be sure, Adrian Thatcher gave us some thought-provoking points from the contemporary sociology of the family Yet a number of gaps still remained. And the conference was by no means unique in this. Gill Cooke and Alan Sheard, both members of CSCS as well as of MCU, have been doing some work on the declining attention to scientific evidence within church reports. At one time, as they pointed out at the conference, Anglican ethical studies were distinguished by the space which they gave to the scientific evidence and its possible impact on traditional church teaching. Alas, recent reports, notably on homosexuality, focus almost exclusively on Scripture and tradition, with only the smallest glance towards the scientific data. Surely this is an area on which we need to work much more. There are too many people – on both sides perhaps? – whose minds are made up and who do not wish to be confused with the facts. That is not the Anglican way, or the way of liberals in any denomination.
Perhaps our postmodern awareness of the social construction of science has led us to be too aware of the relative nature of scientific conclusions and hence wary of calling science in evidence at all – thus leaving the field free for the fundamentalists of all kinds. Maybe it is not just a new theology of sex that we need, or even a new theology of the authority of Scripture and tradition, but a new theology of knowledge as well?
That, perhaps, is more for the MCU to work on than for CSCS. But we hope that our fruitful
collaboration on the conference will be just the start of our partnership in this area. We may expect to hear more from Gill and Alan in a future Newsletter.
We are now beginning to plan our own annual day conference and AGM on Saturday 10 February. At the time of writing neither the location nor the theme/speakers are finally decided, but it seems likely that it will be in Birmingham (though London is not yet ruled out). Apologies for the lack of detail – we will have more in our Winter newsletter – but put the date in your diary NOW!
Meanwhile we hope you will be interested in – and perhaps feel able to support – Henry Mayor’s initiative reported below. The whole question of sexuality in the African Churches, as all of us in the Anglican Communion know only too well, is at the heart of the worldwide debate, and those addressing it (often at great personal cost) deserve at least our prayers and possibly much more.
This edition concludes with two book reviews. We hope to have many more in future editions; there is a rich crop of current writing about faith and sexuality, and we look to our readers also to contribute from their reading.
We would also ask our readers to let us know what is happening locally in the so-called ‘listening exercise’ in which Anglican Dioceses are urged to enter into dialogue with gay and lesbian people. News has reached us of an innovative pack produced by the Diocese of Worcester to encourage such dialogue. If others know of good local initiatives, please contact us.
The agenda is huge and growing, and our resources – of people as well as money – are short. But it should be clear that CSCS – which means all of you who read this – is engaged in a great enterprise.
Last of all, just as we went to press we received notice of the death of Roy Parr, a long standing member of CSCS as well as of LGCM and its Roman Catholic caucus, and a frequent (if sometimes anonymous) contributor to this Newsletter. Roy would surely want us to remember him by carrying on that great enterprise. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.