A few weeks before Christmas 2011 Anglican Mainstream announced its intention to stage a conference in London on 27th January to be called: ‘The Lepers Among Us: Homosexuality and the Life of the Church’.
A number of us involved in Changing Attitude and the LGBT Anglican coalition were outraged by the implication that gay people can be likened to lepers, i.e. diseased, deformed and deserving of social exclusion and death unless ‘cured’. We felt such a public statement gave succour to every homophobe and gaybasher in the land. We spread the word and we estimate that as a result a dozen or so complaints were made to the police about the potential incitement to hatred that this conference represented.
Anglican Mainstream’s ludicrous response to police action
Clearly the police took these complaints seriously and Anglican Mainstream, presumably deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, changed the name of the conference to ‘The Pastoral and the Prophetic in conflict? Homosexuality and the Church’. Oddly, however, their co-sponsors, the ‘CORE’ issues Trust, did not, and consequently there was utter confusion as to what conference exactly it was that those of us who had signed up for it were actually going to be attending.
This shambolic situation was apparent in the two emails sent by Lisa Nolland, the main Anglican Mainstream event organiser, to all participants in the week prior to the conference. On Monday 23rd January she sent an email referring merely to ‘our conference’ informing us that ‘we have been promised a demonstration by gay activists but we regard this as an opportunity rather than a threat’ and ‘we are not intimidated’.
So not intimidated were Anglican Mainstream that two days later, less than 36 hours before the conference was due to begin, Ms Nolland sent another email at 9 o’clock at night telling us that we would not get in to ‘our conference’ unless we signed a statement promising to ‘behave respectably’ and acknowledged that ‘If I disrupt the proceedings I understand that will be asked to leave and will not be recompensed. This threatening missive was signed ‘love, Lisa’, a curious and jolting juxtaposition.
Anglican Mainstream’s insensitivity to leprosy
From Anglican Mainstream’s point of view there were then two unfortunate coincidences to compound their pre-conference embarrassment.
Firstly, on the very day of the conference the Church of England Newspaper reported on its front page a story about the film company, Aardman Animations, apologising over a ‘leper slur’ in its forthcoming blockbuster involving Hugh Grant. The company apologised and said it would remove the offensive reference ‘out of respect and sensitivity’. The charity, The Leprosy Mission, had organised a campaign arguing that the use of the word leper was derogatory.
Its national director went on to say that lepers face the triple whammy of disease, disability and discrimination, and the film left unchanged would perpetuate negative stereotypes. It is difficult to avoid comparing the sensitive and caring response of the film company with the silence of Anglican Mainstream. It made no such apology for insensitivity and lack of respect when it suddenly changed the conference title without any word of explanation, even to its own supporters.
Secondly, it just so happened that World Leprosy Day this year fell on 29th January, the same weekend as the beknighted conference. Anglican Mainstream was either ignorant of this fact or wilfully decided to remain silent.
A pitiful conference turnout
Far greater embarrassment lay in store for Anglican Mainstream in the actual conference itself, however. I duly arrived with a gay friend at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster to find all of the doors locked and chained except one. Our way through this was blocked by two very large and muscled security men who gave us the once over, demanded to see ID, and then made us sign the ‘love, Lisa’ declaration, before allowing to proceed to the registration desk where our ID was rechecked and the ‘love, Lisa’ form taken from us.
We entered the big main hall to discover not hundreds, not dozens but about just 30 people huddled at the front near the stage. As the day went on it became clear that many of these were not really conference participants as such but were people involved in the administration and delivery of the day who were part of the contributing organisations. If you take them out, and the four gay people including myself who were there for research purposes, the number of actual supporters was pitifully small, probably just in the teens, a very poor turnout for such a hyped up event in the capital.
Gross over exposure of an ordinary and basically good man
Chris Sugden, chairing the conference, opened proceedings in the manner of a dull and uninspiring headteacher, laying down the law yet again about the ‘love, Lisa’ rules. And we were then quickly on to the star turn, Jim Reynolds, author of the book, ‘The Lepers Among Us’.
Now Jim has a simple message. I had read his book so I knew this. I wonder if anyone at Anglican Mainstream really had. Jim’s message is this: the conservative evangelical churches in Texas where he lives treat gays like lepers. They exclude them. They send them off to psychiatrists, psychotherapists and parachurch organisations (Exodus, Living Waters etc) to get ‘cured’ and made ‘normal’ before they will accept them. Jim thinks this is wrong.
Jim thinks the churches should keep the lepers ‘among us’. The churches should do the ‘healing’ and the ‘curing’ themselves. Jim works with men struggling with the sin of same sex attraction. Yes of course he thinks it is still definitely a sin, but by Texan standards his views count as ultraliberal, and Jim has suffered some ostracism at the hands of his coreligionists.
Jim is actually a really nice well meaning bloke. There were, however, three huge problems with his appearance at this conference.
- He was massively over-exposed. He was billed to speak for an hour before coffee and an hour afterwards. Then after lunch he was to speak again in conversation with Paul Perkin, vicar of St Mark’s, Battersea Rise for another 40 minutes. Jim simply did not have that much to say and found himself repeating things over and over again. We heard about his marriage difficulties in the 80s four times at least. There simply was not three hours worth of structured material to deliver.
- The old adage about the US and the UK being two nations divided by a common language proved excruciatingly true in this case. Time and again Jim failed to understand questions that were asked of him. And in some cases the attempt to communicate with him had to be abandoned. Watching Paul Perkin try to interview him was painful. Paul must have felt that he was drawing teeth, and for Jim too the experience looked profoundly uncomfortable.
- Jim’s whole approach is pastoral and full of homespun axioms about what is right and wrong. Biblical and theological underpinnings to his beliefs were difficult to elucidate. At one point he seemed to quote the story of Sodom in his condemnation of homosexuality. But he also referred to passages in Ezekiel and Matthew which make clear that the sin of Sodom was a failure to care for the poor, needy and strangers. As I have argued in The Gay Gospels (www.thegaygospels.com) not only does Sodom have nothing at all to do with homosexuality it is also the precursor to Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbour. When I put this to Jim he seemed stumped, and chuntered on about the evils of gay marriage. We drew a similar blank over how anyone now can possibly believe Paul’s apparent claim that homosexuality is caused by idolatry.
Downhill all the way….
After the desultory Perkin-Reynolds interview in the afternoon there was a presentation by barrister Paul Diamond who spoke articulately but appeared to get carried away with his own rhetoric, making absurd generalisations about the police being ‘anti-Christian’.
Then we were on to a management consultant and evangelical church member lecturing us on the causes of homosexuality, though his qualifications to do this remain a mystery. Nature dismissed, it was obviously due to nurture and we heard yet again the well worn discredited thesis of the domineering mother and distant father, which if true should have made every boy brought up in England between 1920 and 1970 gay.
Like Queen Victoria, this speaker seemed unaware of the existence of gay ladies for whose proclivities this thesis is presumably not the explanation. Tea came as a blessed relief and stiffened the sinews for what proved to be the greatest challenge to the will to live.
The good, the bad…….
Mike Davidson, chair of CORE issues, stood up and declared himself ‘healed’ of his homosexuality and claimed he was now an ‘ex-gay’. I don’t doubt his good intentions, though to my gay eyes he still looked and sounded very gay, but I’ve been wrong before and we all know straight blokes who are a bit camp. Only Mike can say to what his inner lustful fantasies and desires are directed.
The problem was that Mike did not say, and we were left entirely bereft of any idea of what exactly this ‘healing’ consisted in. He then showed an Exodus video in which American ex-gays talked about their experiences. But the point is that Exodus is a busted flush. It is in crisis, as the credibility of its claims is undermined by numerous and ongoing high profile revelations of ex-gays who now admit they were never cured at all. Mike’s failure even to comment on the continuing collapse of the ex-gay movement and his pretence that all was well were scandalous.
And the very ugly indeed
We were then treated to what can only be described as a lip-quivering and blazing-eyed rambling rant from Ms Nolland about the evils of sex education. She seemed set on outdoing all previous speakers in the smearing of the LGBT community. We had already heard about gays as paedophile child molesters, gays as threats to the family and marriage, gays as spreaders of disease.
But now Ms N was going for gold with her bitter denunciation of LGBT organisations, and especially the Terrence Higgins Trust, for producing perverted and obscene curriculum materials intended to corrupt the innocence of children. Apparently gay activists have conned their way into schools to tell kids that ‘eating faeces’ is great sexual fun (Lisa taught us to call this ‘scat’) and to teach them how to do ‘cock and ball torture’ really well (Lisa said we should refer to this as ‘kink’).
Ms Nolland is also an enthusiastic advocate of the spurious slippery slope argument: tolerate homosexuality and we will be engulfed by all manner of perversions and we will drown in vile pornography. She distributed several ‘information’ sheets including a list of the most popular acts advertised and depicted on the internet such as ‘double anal’ in which ‘a woman is penetrated anally by two men at the same time’, ‘multiple men ejaculating onto a woman’s face’, ‘a penis thrust so far down a woman’s throat that she gags’ etc etc.
Ms Nolland seems to be a world class scaremongerer, alarmist and demoniser. Her presentation was very ugly indeed. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I suspect that even amongst her own constituency there was embarrassment about a lack of balance which appeared to border on pathological obsession.
A shocking failure
This was a terrible conference from everybody’s point of view. The content was truly terrible for gay people but also terrible for Christian traditionalists. Their position was poorly represented. The insensitivity and lack of charity evident in the day did not make for a pretty sight.
For Anglican Mainstream also this was a terrible conference. They did not get the support they expected, and the few people who showed up will not have positive memories.
At the end of the conference Chris Sugden thanked Jim Reynolds, and in what was presumably a seriously misjudged attempt at humour, said that in Oscar Wilde’s story about the picture of Dorian Gray, the picture looked older and older while Dorian himself looked younger and younger. Looking at the very youthful photo in the brochure it was obviously the other way round in Jim’s case.
It would be hard to imagine a more grossly offensive remark to make to a guest. This toe-curlingly embarrassing social gaffe symbolised the bizarrely inept offensiveness of the entire conference, and arguably of the whole mission of Anglican Mainstream itself. I hope they will learn from the experience but I am not holding my breath.