Listening to and engaging in dialogue with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans

A major fault line has become apparent in the reaction of different groups to the Windsor report. Pro-gay groups argue that there have been repeated commitments to listen to, study with and engage in dialogue with lesbian and gay people. These commitments have been reinforced and extended by Windsor. Conservative groups are putting forward two arguments:

  • The church cannot afford to listen because the mind of the church has already been made up and expressed by Lambeth 1.10 (despite the commitment to listen included in the resolution).
  • To listen doesn’t mean listening to the experience of the majority of lesbian and gay people, but only to those who have already accepted a narrow definition of church teaching about human sexuality and are prepared to struggle to live without expressing their love and desire within a faithful, committed relationship.

The bishops of the Anglican Communion first recognised homosexuality as an issue the Communion needed to address in 1978. The Lambeth Conference held that year passed a resolution recognising the need for deep and dispassionate study and pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encouraging dialogue with them.

“While we reaffirm heterosexuality as the scriptural norm, we recognise the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them.” From Resolution 10 of the 1978 Lambeth Conference

No action seems to have been taken by the Communion (the Instruments of Communion as they have now become known) in response to the resolution. A few individual provinces were engaged in study, research and dialogue, however limited, but this was largely in response to initiatives within each province, rather than to the Lambeth resolution. In the Church of England, for example, the House of Bishops commissioned and published in 1979 their report Homosexual Relationships: a Contribution to Discussion.

In 1988 the Lambeth Conference reaffirmed the statement adopted in 1978, implicitly acknowledging that no action had resulted from it. The 1988 statement extended the commitments made in 1978. Now the bishops identified biological, genetic and psychological research as specific scientific and medical areas in which study needed to take place, and accepted the reality of socio-cultural factors in forming different attitudes across the communion. Resolution 64 added a recognition of the bishops concern for human rights in asking each province to reassess its care for and attitude towards homosexual people.

“This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation” Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference

These resolutions, passed by the bishops attending the 1978 and 1998 conferences, recognised the need for and committed the Communion to a number of tasks. The conservatives who label pro-gay supporters as revisionists are now arguing that these tasks cannot be on the agenda of the church because there is an unchanging and unchallengeable teaching about human sexuality in Christian scripture and tradition.

The attempt to overturn the teaching and commitments made by the bishops of the Anglican Communion was begun during the final period of preparation for the 1998 Lambeth Conference. It was largely successful, as resolution 1.10 adopted in 1998 demonstrates. The dialogue and study called for in 1978 and 1988 become a commitment to listen in 1998, a clause inserted during the plenary debate. It was welcomed at the time by lesbian and gay Anglicans because it seemed to rescue the resolution from being totally hostile and negative towards us. With hindsight, it can be seen to compromise the resolution by making it appear to request incompatible actions.

“The Conference:

a) commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;

b) in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence [A28] is right for those who are not called to marriage.

c) recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships, and we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual people. [A24] We wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.

d) while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, [A36] calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals [27], violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex.

e) cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions;

f) requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;

g) notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23, and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process. [A15]”

Those present voted 526 in favour and 70 against, with 45 abstentions. Resolution 1.10 was the result of a disastrous process within the Conference and in the plenary debate chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames. At the end of the debate, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd George Carey, made a most inappropriate and damaging intervention designed to reinforce the anti-gay atmosphere in the hall.

The report of the subsection dealing with human sexuality acknowledged that having prayed, studied and discussed these issues, … we are unable to reach a common mind on the scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific questions which are raised. There is much that we do not yet understand. The subsection reiterated the request from Lambeth 1978 and 1988 that the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us. Those bishops who engaged with one another under the careful and patient guidance of Bishop Duncan Buchanan of Johannesburg arrived at an honest recognition – we do not share a common mind and there is much we do not understand.

The final text of resolution 1.10 both denies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people a place of full equality within the Anglican Communion and commits the Communion to a position which is ambiguous. For the first time the bishops reject what they call homosexual practice and, in a phrase itself full of ambiguity, state that they cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordain those involved in such unions. At the same time, the resolution wants to listen to our experience, assure us that we are loved by God, are full members of the Body of Christ, need to be ministered to pastorally and sensitively and condemns irrational fear of us. We cannot become full members of the Body of Christ when are being categorised according to our sexual practice rather than our identity as people who express ourselves in love and care for others of the same gender with the result that the expression of our love in a committed relationship with a partner will not be accepted or tolerated by the church.

The Windsor report continues the attempt at resolving the Communion’s problems by continuing the ambiguous position adopted by Lambeth 1.10 in wanting to impose sanctions on Provinces which are creatively engaging with the experience and needs of lesbian and gay people while at the same time advocating yet again a Communion-wide process of honest and frank listening. Section 146 extends the reach of 1.10, adding discernment to the listening process.

Windsor report

146. We remind all in the Communion that Lambeth Resolution 1.10 calls for an ongoing process of listening and discernment, and that Christians of good will need to be prepared to engage honestly and frankly with each other on issues relating to human sexuality. It is vital that the Communion establish processes and structures to facilitate ongoing discussion. One of the deepest realities that the Communion faces is continuing difference on the presenting issue of ministry by and to persons who openly engage in sexually active homosexual relationships. …it has to be recognised that debate on this issue cannot be closed whilst sincerely but radically different positions continue to be held across the Communion.

Section 146 recognises that the debate cannot be closed while radically different positions are held across the Communion. Pro-lesbian and gay groups not surprisingly welcome both this recognition and the repeated commitment to a process of listening and discernment.

The renewed commitment to listen and to a continuing process is what worries those opposed to the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people the most. This results in an attempt to say that listen doesn’t mean what would normally be understood as listening. Repair the Tear (RTT), published by Anglican Mainstream UK and the Church of England Evangelical Council, argues this in section 13. It describes para 146 of Windsor as a potentially misleading and strictly inaccurate statement because the actual Lambeth 1.10 resolution only called for “listening” as one would listen to any group of people. RTT fears that Windsor may be giving the substantive content of the resolution a much more tentative status than that declared by the Lambeth Conference and the Primates. The authors of RTT express their fear that the authoritative status of Lambeth 1.10 might be gradually eroded if the Communion were to listen to those most directly affected by the resolution and engage in respectful dialogue with those who reject its reaffirmation of traditional and biblical Christian teaching.

RTT puts forward a new argument. Listening must not primarily be linked to the theological sphere but to the pastoral sphere. A deeper effort must be made by all to engage in the pastoral support and care of those who struggle to understand and live in the light of orthodox moral teaching. RTT implies that there is no room in which to discuss the theology of human sexuality in the church. It limits engagement with lesbian and gay people to those who struggle and live in the light of orthodox moral teaching. Is this what the bishops gathered at successive Lambeth Conferences intended when they passed the resolutions in 1978, 1988 and 1998.

Conservatives reveal one of their prime fears as they present this argument. If the church listened to the experience of those of us who understand ourselves to be lesbian and gay, created in the image God and blessed by God in our loving relationships, the listeners might be changed, and by extension, church teaching and policy might be changed. This is a realistic fear. Experience shows that whenever a group or society engages with lesbian and gay experience, change occurs. Prejudice and misapprehension is revealed for what it is. Hearts and minds are changed. RTT makes its position clear in para 6. Despite the claims of some (those of us arguing for full equality for lesbian and gay people in the church) Windsor is not about establishing a framework for continuing the conversation on the issue of sexuality – as though there were no clear position on this established in the Anglican Communion. Conversation can only be held within the already agreed doctrinal and structural arrangements of the Anglican Communion.

The Windsor Report does reinforce the commitment to an ongoing process of listening and discernment with lesbian and gay people to be engaged in honestly and frankly. Inclusive Communion argues that as a matter of urgency, the Primates must now take practical steps to make this happen. In order for gay and lesbian people to be able to speak about their experience and theology it is essential that the primates create a climate of safety in which we can tell our stories without fear of reprisal. A moratorium must be declared to ensure that no lesbian or gay person who works for the church can be sacked for speaking out. In many parts of the Anglican Communion it is simply not possible for gay and lesbian people to speak of their experience or share with us their understanding of the Bible. Until this is made possible, the process of listening cannot be said to have properly begun. Primates must not presume they have listened to us without asking us whether this has indeed been the case. The Primates need to initiate the deep and dispassionate study they have called for, ensuring they provide adequate resources for the study to be undertaken.

In order for this listening process to take place, the necessary climate of safety will require the setting up of a body that will seek actively to provide that safety. It will need to allow voices to be heard across national and provincial boundaries, especially in countries where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. That body will need the authority to ensure that voices, even if they must be heard via third parties, can be heard without fear. This must not be an end to the process. We need an assurance that the listening process will run parallel to a discernment process that will recognise the interaction between questions of ecclesiology and ethics. We do not wish to concentrate on ecclesiology alone and long to talk about holy scripture and the ethics of lesbian and gay sexuality and relationships. The full inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the Church at all levels is a Gospel imperative.

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