by Revd Clare Herbert, Rector of St Anne’s Soho, London
Speaking as a lesbian, an Anglican priest and one who enjoys an extremely happy civil partnership (with someone who looks remarkably like the person chairing this conference) I suspect that I am in a very small minority within the Church of England. All I can say is that its just as well I’ve got freehold or I might be finished off altogether!
As such, I have spent the whole of my adult working life bearing witness to the need for the Church to change – first to ordain women and then to accept gay and lesbian people lay and ordained, single and in partnership, as equally bearing the image and carrying out the purposes of God as heterosexual people. What strikes me is how different I find life within these two struggles for recognition within the Church. The first struggle was epitomised by NOISE – whatever our problems the Women’s Movement in the Church was not quiet. We bellowed and sang and danced and prayed and vigiled and wrote it seemed endlessly, and while many wished we would keep quiet no-one ever suggested with any seriousness that it was some sort of moral imperative that we should. And because we were so vocal the movement was relatively united. While there were skirmishings off by individuals and groups of course, nevertheless the movement for the ordination of women itself held firm, spread across the whole hierarchy of the C of E and throughout the dioceses and was in the end successful. This was a long, fierce, difficult but ultimately open and relatively united campaign.
Whereas what I experience now as a lesbian priest who is struggling to understand and give voice to the issues surrounding homosexuality in the Church of England, is a silencing of my voice and a fragmentation in the movement for change within the Church. I am concerned about the splits between LGCM and Changing Attitude. I admire the strength of the first but could never sit easily to such hardline stances and language. I am worried about the breakdown in funding for the other before it has established a strong enough group network throughout the dioceses .I have never quite understood the role of the “Clergy Consultation” within the Church of England – consultation with whom- and now Inclusive Church emerges with a strong membership but is it going to be a movement for political change or not – it is difficult to judge at the moment. I have found it hard to know where to place energy for change and feel fortunate that Changing Attitude London found me or rather it found my dining room just as I was looking for some group in which to become less silent and in which to receive challenge and support. We have had a great time organising this conference – even if the whole thing had not happened today the conversations to form it have been so good that it would have been worth it already, and I am very grateful to be given the chance to speak and to help create this safe space among us.
Because I want to talk today about the sense I have of being silenced , the mechanisms used to do that which are outside me and inside me, and the resources I am using to overcome it. I want to end by putting to myself and you a challenge.
So, first of all, how am I being silenced? It is a strong word! How are the gay and lesbian leadership of the Church – for that is what the clergy after all are – being effectively silenced – with some few notable and honourable exceptions some of whom are here today? I suggest that we are silenced by the disapproval evident in so many reports produced by the Episcopal Hierarchy of the Church over the last 15 years or so; by the attitude towards us of people in power in the Church; by the sense of threat that hangs over us if we do speak out and by the way all these hook into our own inner world of guilt and fear – of being a nuisance when we clergy had taken up vocations which made us appear good, obedient, caring.
First to the reports. Last week, preparing this talk, I took to my bed with a cold. I am still not sure if I was depressed by the cold or loaded down with grief over the position of gay clergy after reading them. I concentrated on a few only – Issues in Human Sexuality published in 1991, and the study document published later in 2003 Some Issues in Human Sexuality. I read also the House of Bishops’ Statement on Civil Partnerships of 2005 and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflection “Challenge and Hope for the Anglican Communion” of 2006. Along the way I caught up with the list of criteria presently being used in the selection of candidates for ordained and accredited lay ministry in the Church of England authorised by the House of Bishops. All in all not a bundle of laughs!
What depressed me was the lack of change in these reports written over 15 years with regard to what is termed the “mind of the Church” on sexual activity outside marriage, and therefore of course on sexual activity within homosexual relationships. It feels as if the sexual ethic contained in the house of Bishops Statement “Issues in Human Sexuality” has been written in stone as the one permissible view to hold within Anglicanism.
This report stated, in case you have forgotten, that the clear Mind of the Church is that sexual activity is to be practiced only within heterosexual marriage if it is to reflect God’s will for the human race. Gay and lesbian clergy are free of course to argue with this but what they are not free to do , it states in paragraph 5.5 is to go against that clear mind in their own practice. Herein lies our silencing – if we are willing to live lives of celibacy – an extremely serious demand it seems to me in terms of human health and growth, with no great track record of success demonstrated in our neighbour Church of Rome – then, and only then, we may argue and debate about the Mind of the Church in these matters. If on the other hand as clergy we live lives of sexual fulfilment and faithful partnership the only way forward for us is to either lie about it, keep quiet, or get out of the paid employment of the Church.
All following reports have used this ethic as their touch-stone.
Theses reports have led me into comic, sad and downright worrying situations at times. First the post Lambeth Pastoral Statement of 1998. I arrived at St Anne’s to be Rector here on the very Sunday just over 8 years ago when I was expected to read out a pastoral statement from George Carey following the Lambeth Conference of Bishops from all over the Anglican Communion. Glancing through it I knew I couldn’t do it with any integrity since it simply reiterated the same old points about biblical theology and sex outside marriage. So a few Sundays later we all sat down having had a chance to read it quietly and expressed our views. I was much heartened when a quiet shy and eminently respectable heterosexual member of our congregation ended the proceedings with his own statement “Never mind! What a good job it is we are wiser than our so-called spiritual superiors” Then he chuckled. I knew then this was going to be a healthy place to be. People here knew that we need to make up our own mind about what our adult sexual identity and its fulfilment is going to be and that for most of us this is not the clear cut path to lasting and successful marriage of the lucky old House of Bishops but a tricky business of experiment and failure , hope , mess, dawning wisdom and luck!And I am sure that up and down the country, not just in Soho , similar views are held. How are we letting the hierarchy of the Church of England get away with such a naïve picture of human sexual development?
Far more compromised for me was my response to the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships , issued in July 95. Based on this statement and my loyalty to my own Bishop our decision was to not share that gloriously happy civil partnership day with the parish. I am sure I did well by diocesan loyalty lights that day – but excluding the parish only confused some of them, I think, and gave some dear people struggling with these issues themselves and very kind to us as a couple a sad sense of exclusion.
But perhaps most worrying of all for me has been my careful scrutiny of the House of Bishops’ authorised criteria for the selection of candidates for training for accredited lay ministry and ordination. Agreement by the candidate to the House of Bishops Statement “Issues in Human Sexuality” has become one of those criteria. This puts me in a really tricky situation which is more likely to make me resign than any of the others I am describing, because it is one thing getting oneself into hot water but it takes a very brave person to be happy about dousing someone else , especially someone in the vulnerable position of seeking ordination. Do I betray them by living as I do when they have to assent to a statement I cannot assent to. Do they perhaps feel they betray me by their assent. And less personally than that , are a lot of would-be ordinands lying or is the Church going to be devoid of gay and lesbian ordinands in a few years time?
The endless reports affect me, even when in all other regards there are signs that this parish is healthy and growing, that I am leading a fruitful priestly life, in love with the Christ of the margins I have always been in love with, and that far from putting people off by having an open stance people are attracted to courage and honesty in myself and my colleagues and come in greater numbers. I don’t understand the suggestion in the reports that out gay clergy known to be living in partnership will fail to attract large enough sections of parish life to be viable as parish priests. Temperament, values , politics , age , ability to smile and communicate and so on and so on all influence the capacity of a priest to draw people, – so does the size and substance of our clergy team and lay leadership profile! And similarly if we have good sense about our happiness in ministry we will carefully choose parishes where we think we have half a chance of seeing eye to eye with people in a whole range of areas.
Nor is it only the conservative sexual ethic of these reports which is depressing. Sometimes a sort of distancing sarcasm seems to enter in , as in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s report Challenge and Hope where he speaks of the “Rhetoric of Inclusion” in inverted commas. To speak of inclusion is not to use rhetoric but to remind the Church that some minorities are being excluded and to stick up for them – I thought that was not rhetoric but a main obligation of a Christian. And there appears to be not just a wise caution but a fear of modernity , as if the Holy Spirit of God cannot possibly have anything to do with the freeing of peoples lives who have been caught up in recent liberation movements. This slight sarcasm and suspicion of modernity smack of an utter lack of empathy with the gay and lesbian community – a total inability to understand what it might be like for us to be experiencing some of the freedoms and joys which have come to us over these last few decades, releasing us from invisibility, fear and lack of self-esteem. There is absolutely no sign given that these liberations have been understood. It is as if the oppressive way of life apparently offered to us in some biblical phrases would be a preferable way for us to live.
That lack of empathy angers me – the reports seem to be written with a total failure of imagination about what their effect might be on the lives of gay and lesbian priests who have perhaps been honest all their life long with the hierarchy about who they are.
If we are silenced by reports we are also silenced by people – people with power over us quite frequently say they don’t want to hear that we are gay or lesbian , or this is not relevant when we try to speak of our partner of many years, when we are in fact trying to tell them who we are and about some of the most important aspects of our lives! Bishops think it is just and OK to say they don’t want to hear about something – actually it is deeply rejecting, offensive and undermining of us as people. And I have noticed that the lack of naming of partners and the absence of invitations to come to things together have the same depersonalising effect.
And again of course we are silenced by the threat of not being able to find another job – those writing and pronouncing these prohibitive statements about us are responsible for our future homes, incomes, careers. Conversely we are threatened by seeming disloyal to those who have provided those benefits in our lives up to now knowing that we are gay if we speak out honestly of our own open dealings and conversations with them! We are in a serious catch 22 situation.
I found it nerve-wracking contemplating speaking today , and part of that is the serious threat that it is disloyal to do so and will somehow rend apart the delicate fabric of our diocesan , national , and international church life. That smacks to me of a fear as grandiose as that a child gets in a family in which they are warned not to give away any of the family secrets no matter how badly affected they may be by those secrets themselves. And it feels as if we are the scapegoat to be sacrificed so that unity will be maintained.
To summarise , the mechanisms of silencing gay and lesbian clergy are these
Insist that celibacy is the only position from which a gay or lesbian clergy person may speak out in the Church
Refuse to hear the stories of gay and lesbian clergy where those stories include experiences of that very sort of love which is so praised in the lives of heterosexual married people
Treat with ill-disguised contempt movements sticking up for gay and lesbian people in the Church and with suspicion those very modern movements which have brought freedom and joy in to their lives
Block conversation about the personal life of a gay or lesbian clergy person and totally ignore the name and existence of their partner
Threaten that to talk openly and honestly about ones life is to rock the boat , possibly the boat of the whole Anglican Communion.
Offer nowhere to talk about all this and take no responsibility whatsoever for the lives of gay and lesbian clergy who have been honest all the way through their career about their life circumstances
That is quite a packet for anyone to handle even if they represent only a small minority of people within the Church.
If these are the mechanisms of silencing what are the results?
1. Ironically of course one result is a proliferation of just the sort of behaviour the Church of God would least want! Dishonesty , covert hidden behaviour including hidden sexual behaviour, deceit , anger , depression in ourselves, and fear.
2. Then there is confusion in our congregations. I am not one of those clergy who believes either in huge self-disclosure all over the place , or in using ones congregation in exchange for main friends , but nevertheless I do a think a clarity about who one is draws out honesty and health in others rather than creating attractions of conceit and confusion.
3. Thirdly, because gay and lesbian clergy who have no call to a celibate life are effectively silenced there is a lack of role model being presented for young gay and lesbian people in the pew struggling to live the mind of Christ in their relationships, and a sense among older gay and lesbian people in relationship that their lives are considered somehow second best, not as holy as those of the clergy.
4. In the national arena there is permitted no gradual building of a new theology , wrought yes from biblical and sacramental understanding but also from the lives of gay and lesbian people and from clergy set free to discover the profound , lasting love of a partner which holds and challenges them even in the very difficult leadership role which they pursue day by day.
5.And there is a growing sense of incredulity in secular society – in the gay world alienation from all the Church stands for – does that really not matter when gay parishioners are attacked and vilified , sometimes even murdered, and young people bullied – why does supporting them matter less than holding together culturally with some other country – really , why? And in the straight world a sense that the Church is hypocritical and so far behind on sexual ethics that it is simply out of the argument, not worth consulting.
So what resources am I trying to use to cope with my position and to create the energy for change. My main resources for coping with all this, apart from my lovely partner of course have been my sense of call to be a priest and psychoanalytic insight.
I do have a strong sense of call to be a priest and the clear reassurance that other people acknowledge that call wholeheartedly in what they see in me. One of the best things about the job is that it naturally attracts a lot of feedback because it requires of its nature both public performance and intimate involvement in the lives of other people. So my own inner sense of myself is reinforced by what others say of me. It is then extremely strange , in the midst of that fulfilling busyness to read reports that state I ought not to be performing as a priest at all. There is some sort of miss-match which does not add up. To add to the miss-match, part of my call is to understand love and I do not feel remotely called to a celibate expression of love in my own life – indeed I think that route would be highly dangerous for me – I need the earthing of real loving to come alive as a human being and hope that some of that liveliness of being loved is poured out towards others in my ministry.
A strong sense of call and the love of a partner are resources I use to gain energy for ministry. But I also use the resource of psychoanalytic thinking.
Psychoanalysis has helped me understand that it is perfectly acceptable to want to be fully loved in a earthed way and far less sensible for one such as me to imagine a life of single service dedicated to others. It has helped me too to see how it is important for me to individuate from the Church , to not vest the authority for the way I live my life in the mind of anyone else but my mind , which of course must be formed in dialogue with the views of others and my sense of myself in God and God in me but will not be given over to those others for shape and direction completely. The responsibility for that shape and direction ultimately lies with me.
It has also helped me to see the terrifically strong group processes going on in the Church in which I need to be able to place myself and stay , while I remain aware too that the Church is not the only conservative institution in our society and that in all such institutions it is not easy to talk of sexual or gender relations and that we should not be overly surprised at it being slow going in the Church. Our oppression is NOT OK but it may not be easily shifted. People do not easily speak of sexuality or gender.
And psychoanalysis has helped me to know when I have found places of delight – of fun, challenge, discussion , acceptance, joy , even , such as has been the planning group for this day conference in which we have been able to speak with affirmation of each other’s celebrations and achievements, with excitement of a Church made new one day by people who know how to live with difference, with sensitivity about the frailty and strength and discovery of human beings searching for life in all its abundance. There have been real “upper room moments” in that group and I would highly commend to you London Changing Attitude if that is the sort of atmosphere you are looking for! Oh and I would recommend St Anne’s too!
But I find I leave this bit of the conference with a challenge, to myself, to Changing Attitude London, to you.
Gay and lesbian clergy have so much to give if only we could be permitted to be heard. We have often been in the edge places and held on there to the Christ on the edge so that our faith in Him is strong. We have stared who we are in the face and asked for God’s grace to live who we are proudly and lovingly and that may include for some of us knowing that we need to live in partnership. We are able often to attract those in need of help because the vulnerable sense that we are vulnerable too and find a way in to our hearts and ministry while others are attracted to our pursuit of justice. We have learnt how to laugh, and know with absolute certainty that the Church is a crazy place and never gets everything right nor ever will. If we are lucky we have found partnerships which inform us every single day of our life that there is more to human complementarity and difference than can be contained in a simple gender divide – let me tell you! We often present a strong sense of call against all the odds which, though it would be dangerous to see as the only cornerstone of vocation nevertheless does have good biblical precedents – viz Sarah, Jeremiah, Mary and Paul! – authentic hearing of God’s word often seems to come in the context of surely not me! And we know how to let faith critique religion, to let living love soften the harsh mechanisms of the law.
My challenge then, – Can we decide today then that the freeing of the voice of gay and lesbian people in the Church , including clergy who may or may not be living in same-sex relationships is unequivocally a serious political issue for us to resolve? Can we , using the resources we shall talk about this afternoon , create strategies to counteract the silencing and make it non-effective? How may the mechanisms for silencing be deconstructed so that more of the truth may be heard in this Church of ours? Thank you for listening so that I have been able to do a bit of the deconstruction for myself!