Tag Archives: Clare Herbert

Compassion and Protest

Clare Herbert

I want to begin this evening’s talk with two sets of words between which I feel caught.

The first words come from St John’s Gospel in which Jesus is praying for his disciples movingly before leaving them.

“ I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they all be in us, just as I am in you and you are in me. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me” .

Another is found in St Matthew’s Gospel and St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is warning his disciples about some of the possible effects of mission.

“ Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

In our own day the urge to live together in Christ is interpreted strikingly differently.

The writers of the recent Anglican Covenant , a vitally important document in terms of the future ordering of the life of the world wide Anglican Communion , underscores unity and harmony of agreement as important goals of our common life together.

“ We affirm the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism to the full visible unity of the Church in accordance with Christ’s prayer that all may be one”.

But in the Guardian the Revd Marilyn McCord Adams, appalled by what she found of how slowly things had moved for both women and lesbian and gay people in the statements of the Church of England writing when she was Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, said:

“…liberals must not make an idol of unity. In institutions, as in biology, differentiation and division may be in service of richer and more mature integration. The Jesus of St John’s Gospel prays for unity, but the Jesus movement precipitated a schism within Judaism. It was not his first choice, but it is how the Gospel spread.”

As an Anglican priest and practising lesbian I feel squeezed by the pressure of trying to work out which set of these words to live by and how, and by the possibility of whether it is possible to live by all of them at the same time! As a true Anglican I want to live the former, to join around one altar in all difference and harmony, to make the Anglican Communion work! As a lesbian priest and particularly as a lesbian pastor I want to protest.

A fortnight ago, Nicholas Sagovsky set the scene for our series of lectures on Radical Compassion with a talk of rare clarity, authority and grace. I want to build on 4 aspects of what he said

  1. God is radically compassionate towards the human race and we are to turn the world upside down by imitating the radical compassion so alive in his Son.

  2. Radical compassion involves cost to the self: anyone who is in attentive engagement with the other who suffers, suffers also.

  3. Working at what needs to be changed to end the suffering of the other involves attempts at creating justice, the formation of networks of right relations between ourselves and others, as well as between ourselves and God.

  4. The Church, therefore, because it sings the song of Mary’s Magnificat, possesses as a primary goal the creation of active citizens who are intent on creating justice in society rather than turned in upon themselves and on issues of church leadership and hierarchy.

I agree with all of this but want to suggest that 4 above sets up well-nigh insuperable tensions for Gay and Lesbian Christians which may result in legitimate and just protest.

When people ask me “Why do Lesbian and Gay people go on so much about who they are? Wasn’t it better for all of us in the old days when they didn’t say anything?” I reply, we are not in the old days! The reality I know is that as the State becomes increasingly tolerant towards gay and lesbian people, providing legislation which allows us to live in less fear, in more rejoicing, and with increasingly regularised family ties and responsibilities made clear, as the Civil Partnerships Legislation has done, as has Equality of Access to Goods and Services – so the relative intolerance of the Church of England becomes harder to bear. That tension leads of course to human suffering and pain, and to very many gay and lesbian people saying why bother with the church?

How best to live compassionately with that pain? I want to suggest two positions to take up – that of waiting for justice and that of working for justice.

  1. Waiting

Waiting for the revelation of God’s mercy, in Exodus, in Exile, in prayer, in steady daily attendance upon God’s grace to deliver, in expectation of the End Time, has been a constant theme in Hebrew and Christian Theology from their very beginning. Two very good books to read about it are The Meaning is in the Waiting, by Paula Gooder, and the Stature of Waiting, by William Vanstone. One of our most important modern theologians who writes from the perspective of being a gay man in the Catholic Church is James Alison and he also recommends waiting for justice to prevail as an important stance for gay and lesbian Christians to consider. His perspective is of it being essential for us not to waste time on the furious activity of putting down our enemy in the quest for revenge. In all his writings he is hyper alert to the human tendency to make of those who oppose us scapegoats and warns gay and lesbian Christians against doing this.

He said in a lecture on this very platform called TheDivided Self,

“ The more attention I give to that person or group being wicked, and not like me, the more I allow myself to be fascinated by the evil of that person I then give that person or group permission to dance around inside me, outside my control.”

He urges that we are within God’s own End Game in relation to gay acceptance in Church and Society but that

“ …the process of adjustment to truth in this sphere is going to take a long, long time.” He challenges us

“ Do we dare to have our love stretched by building (the church) without approval, as we wait longingly for the day when some… Wall comes down…Can you take responsibility for that? Can you persevere?” (Lambeth Conference) (Building a Church outside the walls)

Waiting for acceptance can be for many reasons. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference would advise such waiting, as the developing world deeply needs the support of the Western Church yet cannot tolerate our sexual mores. Some may wait in celibacy or silence because they are fully given to other causes of justice or ways of life in which open gay protest would hinder fragile and important relationships. (School Headmaster in a predominantly Islamic area) Still others because family or friendship relationships are not ready for truth telling and may never be. And here it’s important to remember God’s time goes on past this flesh bit.

It is important to honour waiting for God’s mercy to be fully revealed as a vital and important Christian witness. But it’s important too, because we are looking at the pressures which lead to protest, to fully acknowledge the dangers in this position.

The main danger is the ease with which it may cover collusion with fear – fear of who one is so that one never allows oneself to develop fully, not out of freedom but out of constraint, and there is all the difference. For the one unable to be compassionate towards the self is rarely compassionate towards others – the person waiting for the revelation of who they are may painfully confuse others, may act bitterly or spitefully |towards those who see more freely, and of course are also likely to be blind towards the massive injustices cause by homophobia here and across the world. The one waiting may also not in reality be able to contain that waiting but turn to all sorts of abusive forms of deviant behaviour in an effort to over control self and others. One of the things I am desperate to get the Church hierarchy to own is the need to look at how much deviant sexual behaviour among gay people, including gay clergy, happens because the outlets are not there to be open and true and freely who one is.

Facing the tensions of now – waiting for Justice to be revealed. As a theologically, psychologically and pastorally mature stance which sets the self free for disciplined service and generous joy, it is admirable though may not be open to all to thrive on, or enjoy. This stance may certainly be understood as its own compassionate protest against an unthinking gay world which equates “being out” at all costs with goodness.

Working for justice

There are all sorts of ways of working for justice for gay and lesbian people whether Christian or not and the need to do so seems hardly worth arguing about, or does it? Last time, just before the end of his lecture Nicholas slipped in a line which astonished me – he seemed to suggest that if the Church were to spend less time arguing over issues of gender and sexual identity and more time over seemingly more important issues like justice then those former issues would simply and somehow shuffle down into a just shape. What worried me was not did I get it wrong? I get loads wrong and don’t worry about it. What worried me was if it was possible for me to get this wrong then it was possible for others to mishear too and for the age old message to be perpetrated by a quite evidently lovely person that issues of gender and sexual identity are somehow less important to pursue.

For me this is a dangerous line to take for three reasons.

  • What I have experienced at the heart of gay oppression in the church is my NOT being taken seriously as a full person – being objectivised, talked about and treated as an object whom it is possible to pass judgements and opinions over as if those judgements and opinions did not hurt or injure me. And the reason I work for justice for gay and lesbian Christians is because I consider that it is this objectivisation of people – not coming alongside them as people with attention engaged, not giving them the attention of compassion – which lies at the heart of all injustice – the depersonalising of the other so that it becomes easy to hurt and oppress them, and to support the climate in which they may be violated, even murdered. The Samaritan was a neighbour because he saw and understood pain and need and did not detach himself from it leaving a person to die as an object in the ditch.

  • A further evil which may then take place and which certainly happened to me is that lesbian and gay people may internalise this oppression, may hate themselves, do themselves harm, try to detach their own gay identity from the very core of themselves. I suffered from this phenomenon dreadfully when I first came out. I was in my middle thirties and there was no hiding my sexual orientation any more because I had – at last I might add – met someone worth loving for the rest of my life. I was beset by phobia and fears and a sort of mental illness which made even going outdoors terrifying for a while. I had a good life – what I couldn’t do was allow myself to have it, see myself as good. Told often enough that we are sinful, or that we should keep quiet, or that we are causing disunity in the Church, eventually many of us internalise profound shame, a shame which saps confidence, cripples joy, and may lead to the reinforcement of mental illness, to despair, to hiding frightened in inauthentic relationships, even to suicide.

  • Then, in contrast to Nicholas’ apparent stance, I have been heavily involved in the sheer slog of getting women into the priesthood and please God this year, through General Synod, into the Episcopate on equal terms with men. I have no sense at all that we would be where we are now if it were not for the dedicated work of the Movement for the Ordination of Women and now of WATCH, the daughter organisation, “Women and the Church”. Involved in those campaigns I was confronted with the truth of how hard we had to work when two friends of the Movement – the then Bishops of Durham and Lincoln, both speaking on the MOW platform openly said how much we had to do to get through the fiercely supportive and protective ring of the House of Bishops – they were quite clear that despite seeing us to be on the side of right, their first tendency as men and male bishops would be to protect men they had gone to school, university, London Club and now the House of Bishops with no question. It was a shocking but utterly helpful insight to gain into the dangers of sitting back. It is in this sense of understanding and having gratitude for those who go before us in the struggle for justice that James Alison suggests we claim our present freedoms because of their work – “We stand on others’ shoulders”.

So what work is going on?

Recently the main LGBT Christian charities have come together in the Anglican Church in a new way as the LGBT Anglican Coalition and we are lobbying for change, particularly over the blessing of same sex relationships and the care of LGBT Ordinands; we are creating liturgy resources; we are educating for openness in terms of struggling to listen to the others who disagree with us; we are trying to get the voices of LGBT people in the developing world heard. One important thrust of this work is simply by our meetings to offer role models of being Christian and lesbian, Christian and gay. The worlds of Gay Pride, Old Compton Street, the Scene both for men and for women can offer images of the gay life which Christians want to challenge. Much of our work lies in simply being and proclaiming with our lives; it is possible to be gay and longing to be recreated in the image of Christ in our personal, partnership and social lives. My own doctoral research work lies in what constitutes good pastoral care for lesbian and gay Christians who are in any sort of developmental transition. So watch this space and look up LGBT AC on the WEB.

But to enter the second part of this lecture I want to look now at what I take to be one particular form of working for justice which is protest in the narrowest sense of the word, speaking out, shouting out, acting out; using our bodies to speak our hearts and minds.

Saying ‘Ouch’ audibly in Church when all parents are presented as necessarily warm and accepting towards their children when that is NOT the experience of all gay and lesbian people by a long chalk and over parentalised images of God really don’t help.

Waving banners and singing hymns at Gay Pride.

Marching for gays to be able to be accepted as adopters.

I have a hunch that it’s this sort of work which people feel slightly out of line with being Christian, slightly egotistical and not understanding of the pain of others, slightly divisive, unnecessary, coarse, even. Where does protest fit in the Christian tradition? And is it compatible with compassion?

I understand protest in this narrow sense as being on a continuum in lesbian and gay experience with three things:

  • Saying, Voicing, Speeching who we are – Coming Out if you like;

  • Conversation with God, having Chutzpah, having it out with God about who we are.

  • Prophecy, envisioning God’s future for us.

When I walked my first Gay Pride March – joined friends very shyly and nervously here on the steps of St Martin’s – I was so nervous and so proud! Gradually along the way I enjoyed singing, blowing my whistle, dancing alongside outrageous cross dressers and acknowledging all our common identity – I became less afraid of myself and my common humanity with others and it was like Coming Out, especially when we rounded Piccadilly and the crowd on the roof of St James Piccadilly who knew me started to wave and cheer knowing as they did what this might be costing. I was with friends. Knowing myself to be with friends not on the pavement but walking the walk was a form of coming out.

No-one ever wants one to come out nor is it ever easy to do so, to admit one belongs to a minority, but it is part of establishing identity – I am NOT like that, I am like this; with these people I am specially at home! Hilary Mantel in her autobiography ‘Giving Up the Ghost’ is not writing about being gay but, after a Catholic childhood, in which nobody at all much listened to her, the experience of finding out who she was is not dissimilar.

“When you were a child you had to create yourself from whatever was to hand. You had to construct yourself and make yourself into a person, fitting somehow into the niche that in your family has always been vacant, or into a vacancy left by someone dead.”

The niche most of us had to fit into for the long years of growing up was heterosexual, so no wonder. Coming Out has the force of protest attached to it. It is particularly difficult for the Christian to come out in my view because the Church is so ill at ease with the body, let alone with things sexual to do with the body – again Mantel writes rather mischievously and endearingly:

“ In terms of the Catholic Church, the church in which I was brought up, the body is a beast, a base simian relative that turns up at the door of the spirit too often for comfort; a bawling uncle, drunk, who raps with the door knocker and sings in the street. Saints starve. They diet till they see visions…Some saints are muscular Christians. But there are no fat saints” (and no gay ones either for similar reasons as far as I can tell.)

Anyone who has listened even recently to certain Bishops of the Anglican Communion justifying violence against practising homosexuals and the language such complainants use about the body, will understand how for the Christian to come out at all is a brave step of protest.

But protest is also in a continuum with conversation with God and with prophecy arising from that conversation.

Chuntering, grumbling, cheeky conversation, Chutzpah with God in which we establish who we are and who God is has always been a lively part of the Hebraic religious tradition. Anyone who has seen the play or film Fiddler on the Roof will have found themselves attracted to the way the main protagonist protests to God continually about the hand he has been dealt – if I were a rich man is the least of it! This chuntering protest we see more seriously reflected in Moses’ misery before God over his shyness, Jeremiah’s about his youthful inadequacy to be a prophet, let alone Job about his personal pain. And lest we forget the women of the tradition – Sarah’s laughter at the idea of future fertility and Hannah’s long lament before God over childlessness are connected with this – here I am being human as you made me, and it hurts, and I just hope that YOU are noticing! We could do with recovering the force of Chutzpah.

Jesus is – unfortunately for us – not given humorous lines, but he certainly spends time differentiating himself from what is expected! “Didn’t you know I would be in the Temple?” “It’s not time yet for me to be creating miracles with wine!” “Get behind me!” “Get out of the House of God.” “Please let this cup pass from me”?

Then, by the time we reach Paul, let alone the early fathers of the Church, we arrive at a culture more heavily influenced by neo-Platonism than were the Hebrew prophets, in which strong emotions like anger and fear, desire and admiration, are to be more tightly controlled so that we have lost our confidence in growing into chutzpah, grumbling before God.

With confident conversation about who we are we move further into the continuum between prophecy and protest. Both prophecy and protest make available to others the passion, the danger and the freedom of God.

Walter Brueggeman in his beautiful book Hopeful Imagination about the prophetic voices of Exile – of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 2 Isaiah, suggests how there is a phrase in Isaiah Chapter 43, verses 18 – 19 which acts like a hinge in Israel’s history, a hinge in our own story of faith, a hinge in the developing history of the Church.

Do not remember former things;

Behold, I am making a new thing.

He suggests if we are to follow these prophets, “We need to learn to articulate a newness out of our own tradition but speaking a newness out beyond the purview of most of our present contemporaries.” And I find this a very helpful encouragement when I think about the act of protest. The protest, trust and courage of the prophets were based not on egotism but in their knowledge of and dependence upon the ways God had worked and was working. The protest, trust and courage of Jesus and the saints of the Church have also been so based in who God is – one who leads us out to live with justice and compassion. Prophecy – discerning the ways we understand God and acting and speaking of it – links our protest with compassion for we have responsibility for others who are in pain. We need by our protest to speak to them a word of hope! Protest in itself may be fuelled by compassion for those whose lives are blighted by oppression, by bullying, by death threats, by the terror of torture and execution, by simple fear.

When gay and lesbian Christians protest – at General Synod, at the Lambeth Conference, celebrating the Pride march here in prayer and word and song, we bring about the new actions of God by the way we treat each other, welcome each other, and challenge each other, by the ways we see God and worship, by the ways we talk about God and listen – in prophetic protest we bring about the new actions of God just for a few moments in our lives by the use of our imagination to conjure the longed for future for ourselves and on behalf of others. Protest for us, as for other Christians throughout church history suffering the hiding of God beneath cruel human shapes, may be prophetic and an act of compassion.

But what about when others disagree – strongly disagree? What about their right to be, and their hurt at our loud proclamation of who we are? Isn’t that the crunch issue in the Church of England at the moment?

I think and think and think about this one and this is where I am right now. Those who disagree with me must have the right to say what they think, to exist without fear of violence or retribution, as must I. But the extent of that right ends when their opinion causes others to suffer greatly and fuels even unconsciously the fires of violence and hate. I consider conservative views about homosexual practice to be based on fear caused by taboos created in speech and then in liturgy and then in written texts in vastly different societies than our own some 2–3000 years ago where there was no understanding of homosexuality as an orientation nor of its capacity for goodness and faithfulness in terms of relating. As a Christian pastor attending to the needs of LG people or their parents of friends, I know that the costs of living under such taboos are far too great for me to be happy with the calm of those who disagree with me. The cost of perpetuating taboo on this subject is often somebody else’s wellbeing and sometimes, and increasingly across the world, somebody else’s life. That price is too high for me not to put myself on the line in protest, and I do this as an outcome of the call to be pastoral, not as an act of aggression.

If that is the positive side of protest wherein lies its danger?

  • We must not depersonalise in our turn those who disagree with us. We are trying to attend to God’s kingdom of kindness, justice and compassion and not only to our own ends. Like the people of Israel who so easily forgot the pain of oppression in Egypt in their triumph at having a land of their own, we need to beware the tendency to simply recreate oppressions with our own views and desires. Having known what it is to be outside the establishment of society and Church, Christians who are Gay and Lesbian are called to heed the outside experiences of others, the outside parts of our world – to let our own experience speak so as to save, to grow IN compassion as a result of what we have experienced in being oppressed ourselves.

  • We need to learn to repent and mourn ourselves. I am very struck how in learning from Walter Brueggeman about Israel’s prophets, when they protested they did so to the people as well as on behalf of the people. The people themselves were to enter into the acceptance of exile, understand their own role in their oppression, fully, before being able to be led out. And I sometimes feel that we Christian gay and lesbian activists such as I represent become raucous in wanting everything now when we have not accepted how much work we may need to do towards repentance: in the ways we relate, listen and present ourselves to a taboo trapped church; in the work we may need to do in distinguishing between freedom of sexual identity in Christ and barely disguised promiscuity; in the efforts we may need to make to relinquish the identity of victim in our lives so that we are freed up in our energy to work alongside others who are even more in need.

  • And if we will protest we must learn to bear the consequences. If we are being called to witness the conflict between God with God’s Church over the issue of the responsible use of human sexuality, it will probably prove not too comfortable a place to be!

I want to end with more words from McCord Adams. What does compassion mean when protest is unavoidably necessary? She writes,

“Getting along to get along” is not the Gospel. The synoptic gospels virtually guarantee: because the reign of God stands in judgement over any and every human social system, its coming by successive approximations is sure to violate our socially constructed identities repeatedly. Our part is to discern for all we’re worth, and to live up to the light that is in us.”

For some of us that will involve protest.

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“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

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.


Clare Herbert

The “rain” in this address is the sexual orientation known as lesbian or homosexual, and its growing acceptance in our secular culture, as recently demonstrated by the civil partnerships legislation from which some of us are benefiting. We know that things are different in small towns, up north and in rural areas of our country, but in most cosmopolitan centres we have gay friends, we know gay priests living openly, some of whom we rejoice to know live in committed partnerships. At a deeper level the rain is our starting to understand that homosexuality is part of us all, and as an important part of us all, to be carefully considered and reflected over, rather than rejected and pushed away.

That is the raining that is going on as far as I can tell – not just in Soho, where it is raining rather a lot, and where I was the Rector when I did a lot of this thinking – but everywhere. And acknowledging that it is raining seems to be freeing people up not for orgies – but for companionship, laughter, going to Church, feeding the cat, looking after children, leading choirs and planning day-care for elderly relatives. As a central London priest who is my friend once said to me – darling if only they knew it’s not so much about S and M as M and S! But anyway, it is raining, if I am not much mistaken.

Of course some parts of our Church pretend that it is not raining, or not raining enough as to worry about. They usually smile a lot. Other parts of our Church know it’s raining but decide to try to put the Church under a huge Centre-Parc–type roof so that they do not have to feel the rain. They smile a lot too, but with real worry that the dome above them may leak or collapse. Yet other parts do a sort of war dance in the rain, swizzling their umbrellas and ranting that everyone must enjoy the rain equally, that homosexuality is not really difficult for anyone to accept. Come on in – of course the water’s lovely! This talk is about my own acknowledging that it’s raining, and learning to sing in the rain.

When I met with Inclusive Church trustees just before applying for my present post I asked them what they thought Inclusive Church is for and they said “The transformation of the world.” They then asked me to think about what sort of Church we are aiming at creating once acceptance of women and gay and lesbian people in equal relation ships with men and heterosexual people is here. What is the real point of what we are trying to do? It was clever of them to ask me to think about that because the vision I formed then sustains me in my work now.

Few would doubt that we need to transform the world to become less a place of oppression, gross injustice and violence to become more a place of well-being, equality and peace, but how do we get there? Many would agree that we need to create peaceful sustainable life-styles for as many as possible on this earth, but where to begin?

In the Church of England we have to ask what is it about the ways that we speak and live which help us make that peaceful sustainable life-style for ourselves and for others and what might it be about the way we speak and live which destroys our being able to move towards peace. The work of Inclusive Church is urgent because of its insistence that we need to look at all paths to peace , all the ways in which we live in disharmony and I was pleased to receive in the summer , via inclusive Church, papers about what was going on in Palestine and the Lebanon at the time. That information and view sharing seemed as important as anything I am more usually doing about equality for women and for gay people in the Church – we need to look at the whole.

The most frightening thing for me about the divided Church is that it seems to be giving up on the human struggle for real peace and settling instead for the creation of order – building the Centre Parc dome over “orderly church” and excluding the rest. Order in human living comes as a result of the struggle of people for real peace in their lives or in the life of their group but not as something which can be imposed to keep chaos at bay.

And it never lasts very long – order – it is not a permanent state. As we are seeing chaos breaks out and needs facing as a creative force rather than feared as purely and permanently destructive. At least that is my experience, from which I will now speak. For me the transformation of the world begins with the transformation of the self. I approach the questions “how to transform the world” and “is it worth it”, by means of my own story.

I grew up in a wild and windswept part of North Devon, at a time when the Guardian described it as the most isolated part of England, more so even than Northumberland. The tiny market town at the centre of my life in my formative years had one bus out a week so we made life happen there, entertained ourselves and went to Church a lot! By the age of 10 I was entering regional Bible quizzes where I swear I learnt whole books of the OT off by heart to answer and thought no more about it. Church was the other place you went if you weren’t pub, Church was youth club, Church was community. By the time I had gone through university, reading theology and loving it, and theological college, I knew a lot about the Gospel! That is I knew the words, of love, salvation, forgiveness, new life, but I was dead inside. I had a sense of the centre of my body being shaped like a coffin. I knew from looking around me what the words of salvation should mean but I didn’t know what they meant in any sense which brought me joy and hope.

In my first job as a deaconess and university chaplain in Bristol I met Professor Denis Nineham, and began to talk to him. He obviously thought I was far too churchy for my own good and started to talk to me about giving the Church a break. As I struggled to see how I was going to survive he said: “Theology needs a dancing partner to bring it to life – if the Church is going to go on treating women as badly as it does, you should get out and do something different. Find the dancing partner for your Theology.”

I didn’t do much with this phrase for a while but it slowly began to alter my life. I changed my life-style, became a social worker and entered into psycho-analysis. In psychoanalysis and psychodynamic counselling I found the dancing partner to theology for me which would eventually bring me the good news of the Gospel – of relating, love, forgiveness and of courage, of discipline, of reaching out to the others in my life in real rather than bogus ways.

Psychoanalysis taught me to distinguish rain from sun, to be able to tell the truth a bit more. It helped me see that my growing up had been far from easy and that trying to believe , while it had given me a community to grow up in, had also taught me to think everything would be wonderful if I tried a bit harder to believe more. Finding it difficult to walk down the road one day, ironically on my way to deliver a lecture on pastoral theology, I knew that the words weren’t working. It was the practice of psychoanalysis over years which gave me the liberty of living and loving as my own self, that living and loving which the Good News of Jesus and his Church talk about.

And I suppose that experience of the gap between the words of theology and life as I knew it taught me to beware any Gospel or words from the Church which might imply we need nothing else to understand and live a good and happy life. For me that whole idea had proved confusingly and frighteningly useless.

So, to summarise, to be people who transform the world we need to develop as people in whom theology dialogues with other subjects, other people, other disciplines, not just our own – with feminism, ecology, politics, philosophy, biology, psychology, film, whatever – Faith, to bear fruit which is alive and offers life, needs a dancing partner!

As the layers of what I had been unprepared to feel dropped away, I found of course that I am a woman and that I am gay, wanting both to live with a partner and be ordained as a priest all within a Church which didn’t want to talk about being either a woman or gay let  alone both! Any ordinary mortal, aware of their own fragility with more honesty and grace than I am, would have given up at that stage, would have not gone for ordination as a priest when I was after all already about 40! But you see I had been captivated by the Jesus figure at a very young age, and had known the strength of a church which almost certainly saved me from terrible loneliness and possibly from mental breakdown when I was young. I was hooked – Called to be a priest and testing that calling honestly with Bishops, with a very strong vision of the Church as actual and theological community. Called into a paradoxical way of life, I was ordained.

Luckily for me another wise figure hove into view at the time. Monica Furlong helped me to explore being both gay and a woman as I went through my early years as a priest. She helped me to see that it was being gay which was the sand in the oyster of my life as a priest, which might produce a pearl, eventually, if I let it. If I tried neither to extricate the sand from my life nor get out of the oyster shell something of worth might come (though the temptation to do both at times has led me a merry dance , taking me very near thresholds of vicious uncertainty about myself and near breakdown of either me or my career). What is that pearl?

The pearl is learning to individuate from the Church as Institution and yet remain working within it as a free and healthy person calling other people to freedom and health. The grit in the oyster, never being one with the Church’s teaching, has eventually allowed me to be able to see the Church from my own viewpoint, to be sufficiently separate from it to establish my own inner authority of voice and life-style, to individuate from the Church to be my own person who is priest and woman and gay.

What the Church of England appears to ask of its most successful, priests is fusion between that priest and the needs of the institution. In its most so-called successful priests I see the picture of one who assumes that it is OK to work all the time. I see one who is at the beck and call of the parish as if the parish were one’s family. I see one for whom a contract and set hours off is somehow not necessary as it is for ordinary mortals. I see one who derives energy and purpose from the favour of a Father-figure Bishop, in whom greater authority apparently resides than within the self. “Not my will but Thine, oh Lord” becomes interpreted as a lack of separation between the priest figure and the demands of the institution – as if all that the priest is, is priest, not a number of different figures with competing and complementary demands within the one self which is what I believe being fully human is.

What I am not saying here is that everyone needs to be out, or that being a closet gay or lesbian within the Church is wrong – people make decisions about what they can manage at any one time in their lives with care and sense. What I am saying rather is that the silencing of gay and lesbian priests and people is very wrong – because it does not allow us to explore , discover or speak from the position of our own authority, that authority wrested out of our own dialogue between being captivated by Christ and gay.

Nor am I advocating an easy journey towards honesty. A bit like a childhood hero of mine – Harry Williams – I spent years in analysis discovering and managing myself! Saying that the locus of authority for who one is, and who one is going to be, lies within the self, does not mean that one does not believe in the mystery who is God , or in the need for ethical, spiritual and religious guidelines, or in the vital importance of community in which to shape and offer that authority. It does not mean that one is a mere individualist or selfish (as some of our most senior Bishops have got pretty near saying about gay and lesbian people who wish to be open about their lives). No-one in the end has authority over me, but I discover the meaning of my own authority in relation to others and to God and to the tradition of my faith and politics and family and so on. If you like I am saying dialogue in relationship is all – is where the Holy Spirit blows – but it has to be dialogue between real parts of the self, between groups able to speak honestly and openly within the Church and using a theology which is humble, capable of cross fertilisation by other arts and sciences.

I was struck recently by some words of the poet Michael Rosen speaking on Desert Island Discs – of forming a poem he said “ If you fib, the poem won’t work


Just occasionally as Dean of Women in the Two Cities Area of the London Diocese I met with other women and a small group of Bishops from the Ministry Division to talk about the development of the ministry of women as Bishops and Priests within the Church. Those meetings were always held in the context of the residential meetings of the House of Bishops. I thank God for those meetings because they gave me some tiny glimpse of what we are up against and why it might be difficult to talk about gender relations and sexual identity in the context of the Church. It looks as if the House of Bishops – all men of a certain age, educational level and marital status, having arrived in positions of considerable power and not dreaming of losing it – might find it very difficult to talk about the weather, if it caused conflict, never mind a wayward son or daughter, some vulnerability of their own, or the number of gay clergy they have in their diocese! The vulnerability involved in being human is not where it is at – believe me! It’s about having power and maintaining the order that sustains that power, world-wide if at all possible.

Welcoming Church? They don’t even welcome women – one half of the human race! If they were really interested in the welcome of women then women would be in all the meetings in equal numbers – surely one does not need to be an ordained or consecrated woman to be worth listening to – surely just being different, representing the thoughts and life-experience of the other gender would do!

Understanding the conservatism of our leadership has helped me understand just a little why we are still wed to biblical pictures of gender elations, family and community life, and sexual relationships – pictures from 2000-3000 years ago and utterly different social milieus.

There has to be some strong reason to be so wed when the pictures given in the pages of the Bible are themselves so complex and changing over time that it becomes clear they cannot be used simply as a rule-book in sexual ethics.

There has to be some strong reason when one of the great treasures of the Church – the pastoral awareness of its priests – is being completely overlooked. It is not just in Soho that pastors encounter the gay person, the devastated and liberated divorcee, the young person or older person needing a period of sexual exploration and reflection to grow in to the next phase of their life, the contentedly childless couple, the lonely person – all questioning heterosexual monogamous marriage as the only holy sexual state, with, of course, that celibacy which priests are so magnificent at maintaining! It is in this real struggle for pastoral sensitivity and understanding that the vulnerable God is daily understood in the pastoral work of the Church of England – but in order to maintain the semblance of one mind across the world wide Anglican Communion in sexual ethics the wisdom springing from that that pastoral work is being lost.

There has to be some strong reason for maintaining so conservative a sexual ethic when our gifted lay – people – parents and teachers , nurses and psychologists for goodness  sake, counsellors and artists and biologists, know human life to be other! Why even our children, from age 11 onwards onwards, know that life is different in terms of sexual identity and journey than is being openly spoken of in the Church.  There are so many problems springing from this lack of ability to talk openly about changes within our understanding of gender relations and sexual identity that it is hard to know where to start. But I want to mention four.

Firstly – unless we align gay with holy, clearly and firmly, we contribute to homophobia within our society. The child being bullied in the playground for being a pansy, the lesbian couple from the North who visited my Church recently after being literally stoned in their street at home, the gay man struggling with whether it is possible to be a Christian and gay; these do not hear the Church being open and welcoming towards gay laypeople – they hear the reiteration of what their family have probably already said to them – we love you, but only conditionally Secondly – unless we align gay with holy, clearly and firmly, we cannot begin to talk to the gay and lesbian world about sexual ethics , we cannot challenge the ethics of “the scene” – we have earned for ourselves absolutely no place to stand. What  is the pastoral point of that? Why is it more important for me, as the parish priest in Soho, to show unity with people across the Anglican Communion and not with members of my own parish on Old Compton Street who may be in need of blessing or help? Why does the one group matter more than the other? (Because of the need to maintain power with order, is the only answer I can think of!)

Thirdly – unless we align gay with holy, clearly and firmly, we are creating pastoral mess with the identity of gay priests in parishes. Again, it is as if we are permitted to study pastoral psychology, but not use it in relation to this issue. We study how projection is part of what priests and congregation become involved in. How is the gay or lesbian priest to be clear about who they are – breaking down a little the projection on to them of being apparently single and available sexually . So many dishonest relationships coalesce around the silencing of gay priests, helping neither priest nor layperson, let alone their partners, develop healthy mature relationships of integrity in their personal lives or in their parish.

Fourthly and lastly, what about being gay and lesbian and experiencing the Good News of God’s love, the Gospel? Strange that it is heterosexual married folk who are meant to possess a very special awareness of the nature of God’s love. As far as I am concerned , it is being loved by my partner over 15 years that has told me more about mercy , grace and forgiveness, and joy, happiness and creativity than any other relationship in which I have been known. Of course it has – this is not rocket science – it’s the wonder of being known long-term and loved. Perhaps especially when, as for many people who are gay an d lesbian (though not all), that “being loved” business was rather messy and conditional on not being gay in one’s family of origin. If we are not allowed, in the Church, to speak of the very person or relationship which has helped one most live the Gospel, this repeats past hurts and old tortures instead of offering liberation and energy to create a new thing.

The parish priests and lay people of the Church of England are in a unique place of pastoral availability and stored wisdom to enter the discussion of the complexity of human sexuality with thinkers in other disciplines – best not to start however with the House of Bishops. Probably more fruitful by far to work – if you will excuse the expression – from the bottom up!

If you came to St Anne’s Soho one Sunday morning while I was Rector of that Church you might well wonder what on earth I am talking about. One Sunday just before I left to take up my present post the organist couldn’t find the music for the mass setting – and that in the middle of the mass not before – we were down to about 25 in number – and I had to preach about women being created from the rib of a man! Marvellous!

In other words we looked pretty normal, and quite fragile. But something was happening there to do with the transformation of the world – or at least that part of the world over which we had some agency – ourselves and our community and a tiny bit of the wider world.

It’s partly to do with our history. Soho grew up like a rather overheated plant out of the Royal Hunting Fields after the great fire of London. Because the buildings were overquickly
raised then they were not very well built and the rich quickly moved out to open Soho up to floods of refugees, artists , small craftsmen tradeswomen, Jewish, French , Greek, Italian, the sex industry and now of course the pink pound. Diversity of culture and life-style has always been the name of the game. Though we are a tiny intense village we have to embrace diversity to manage to co-inhere together at all – on the school roll there are 139 children speaking myriad different languages.

It’s partly to do with the nature of our Church building. It was built, after the Blitz had destroyed the former Church, 20 years ago, within a centre which has attached to it many community rooms. A very successful local amenity group is housed in the tower, film companies use the former choir vestry, and the church itself is tiny. This gives the effect of no one particular group having dominance. We had to dialogue to survive fruitfully on the one site. We didn’t have to look for the community to come in to the Church – they are there already. It is more that we have to justify our usefulness to them, which is a challenging but fruitful way of life. What did they make of our togetherness, our rituals, our hospitality, our links with the wider world, did they ever need us or like us or appreciate talking with us? These were the acid tests of our identity.

In this living with difference we experienced the odd moment of romance and sentimentality, but more usually great difficulty. The one who is very different from me creates the gap, the absence, the wound, showing me that diversity is not the by-word for a comfortable life, but a real hard-edged place to be, of jarring and struggle and  forgiveness, as we inched our way towards the wholeness in complexity for which we are made. But we were getting there! We had some groups in which the Bible was studied by intellectuals and those with little formal education, some parties at which the London Gay Men’s Chorus sang to the old ladies (who staring at their beauty are often heard to mutter wistfully as they struggle to comprehend – “What a waste!”), some lunches at which the violently anti-church parent could see that we don’t wear crosses or horns and might just might be quite alternative ourselves, and so on. It was a slow haul but one going on in different ways and places across the parishes and meetings of all our churches.

The Orthodox theologian Nicolas Berdyaev wrote that we “need a multitude of modern saints, people willing to take upon themselves the burden of this complex world” Part of that burden is learning to wait for something to emerge rather than dictating what will come. One aspect of the present love of order within the Church is that we create guidelines for growth, numbers for viability, clarity of Good News to tell the world. What I think actually happens in our churches is that something emerges and we don’t quite ever know what it is going to be. But its main shape seems to be a place to belong, a building used for dialogue and debate and a community offering acceptance and the bonds of affection against all the odds! Only when folk get there, to knowing and feeling that they are accepted, do they tentatively begin to explore if they might need to change. It’s not a starting point – change – but a response to love, which is the main thing we have to offer.

So, to summarise my thoughts – what we have to offer is ourselves, honestly engaged with the Gospel and the world. We have to offer the willingness to enter dialogue with other people and other knowledge bases, not from a position of power or coercion to convert, but from a position of need and desire. I think that as religious people with a concept of the Kingdom of God within and without we have to offer debate about the locus of authority in making decisions about our lives. I believe that from our pastoral praxis and from the wealth of laypeople with knowledge of the human sciences we could be contributing far more than we are about the complex phenomenon which is human sexuality. And I believe that we have valuable spaces in which people can find in us the love of God and a belonging and acceptance which may trigger world transforming change.

To end then, I don’t believe the world is uninterested in Christianity and sexuality – it is interested to find people of integrity, to engage in dialogue, to debate where authority is to be found, to embrace the problems and opportunities of realising our sexual complexity, to be able to dip in and out of, or rest in, places of belonging. It is perhaps we who need to change! Perhaps God is asking us to admit that we are as frightened of real encounter with other human beings as anyone else. And perhaps if we start there we may learn to be less afraid, we may start to sing in the rain, and know ourselves to be already a multitude of modern saints able to take upon ourselves the burden of this complex world.

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