Listening in the Diocese of Wakefield

I was in Harrogate on Friday and Saturday, joining the bishop’s senior staff meeting of the diocese of Wakefield. I had been invited by Bishop Stephen to help them think about how the diocese might engage with the listening process.

Richard Seed, Archdeacon of York, and Jeremy Timm, Chair of Changing Attitude trustees, were both involved in the production of a DVD in the Diocese of York in response to the listening process. They had been invited on Friday evening to show the DVD and talk about the way it was produced and had been used in York.

I began the Saturday morning conversation by talking about Jesus, who in his friendships and encounters (I’m thinking Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciple, the woman at the well) was sexual, intimate, embodied, incarnate and transgressive, and who was fully present with people, fully open to them, listening without prejudice. I gave a brief review of key stages of development in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, from Lambeth resolutions in 1978, 1988 and 1998, to the 1987 Higton General Synod motion to Issues in Human Sexuality 1991, the 1997 Labour government’s legislative reforms, Lambeth 1.10 in 1998, Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson in 2003 to the present day and the Coalition equal marriage proposal.

The landscape for LGB&T people in the UK has been transformed by the legislative changes. But there are three areas of society where prejudice and ignorance which lead to homophobia still exist. In Friday’s Guardian, an article by Charlie Condou who plays a gay character in Coronation Street highlighted the problem in schools. Sport is the second area where to be gay is an issue is sport, and the third area is of course the church.

But the Wakefield meeting left me wondering where the problem is in the church. I met a group of people who were universally at ease with homosexuality and included gay men in the senior staff. They presented a picture of a diocese which was broadly welcoming of LGB&T people, knew of gay clergy and of parishes where LGB&T people were fully included. There were just minor pockets of dissent, they said.

There is no ‘typical’ diocese but I suspect that Wakefield is not untypical (London or Southwark might be less ‘typical’, but for different reasons. The bishops and all members of the Wakefield senior staff are at ease with the presence of LGB&T people in the church. They clearly didn’t think there was a problem at grass-roots, parish level, and that’s the message conveyed by the LGB&T Anglican Coalition.

The Church of England in parish churches is much like the rest of society. It has been educated and changed during the last 14 years of major law reform. Where then does the problem lie and where might we need a listening process?

I think listening, real, open, Christ-like, non-judgmental listening is needed at Church House, General Synod, in the House of Bishops and between the groups opposed to the full inclusion of LGB&T people. How this might happen is something to which the CA Director and trustees will give attention. The meeting in Harrogate came up with a good idea, suggested by the bishop – that General Synod should devote 2 hours to a presentation and discussion of church policy affecting LGB&T people and they talked about a diocesan synod motion to that effect – but it would propose a discussion at Synod rather than a motion, which would simply polarise people around the familiar opinions and prejudices.

Comments

  1. Richard Ashby says

    …where the problem is in the church? I would suggest that it lies in precisely these people who just won’t face down the tiny minority whose noise (and finacial muscule) have everyone else in their thrall. I wonder, if and when the crunch comes, that the opposition will turn out rather like Rupert Murdoch – old, deaf and out of touch.

  2. says

    Colin,

    I wonder if the core problem is because of Canterbury’s role in the wider Anglican Communion. This means that for many bishops, the need not to embarrass the ABC is greater than the need to do the right thing by gay people.

    Just to give one example. In the summary of the CofE’s response to the listening process it said this “The Church of England is aware of its unique place within the Anglican Communion, with one of the primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, being also the Focus of Communion. In this context the General Synod of 2007 commended efforts to ensure that discussion of human sexuality did not lead to disunity in the Church of England or in the Anglican Communion.”

    In other words – many Bishops might be entirely at ease with LGBT issues, but they will still decide that anything that is controversial or might “embarrass” the ABC will be kicked into the long grass.

    It reminds me of the Iraq war and the cabinet decision to invade. It is fascinating to see how many cabinet members say (now) that they were always against the Iraq war, but only voted in favour so as not to embarass Tony Blair. How many Bishops will say in about ten years time that they never had any problems with gay people, and they always knew that the policy had to change, but they did not want to embarrass Rowan Williams.

    It is known as the Nuremberg defence. I knew it was wrong but my boss told me to do it.

    Simon

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