The Diocese of Oxford has an honoured place in the Listening Process on human sexuality in the Church of England. An appendix to Some issues in human sexuality (2003) describes how the process began there, a year before the Lambeth Conference 1998, and the series of study days that followed. This sentence appears in the Conclusion: “Hearing the ‘voices’ of those who have had personal struggle with their faith because of their sexuality was a humbling, moving experience for many.”
In no way do I wish to minimise people’s personal struggles, but I think that it has become increasingly clear to us in Changing Attitude, England, that for many LGB&T Christian people, their struggles are not so much with their faith as with the organisation of the Church. I’m thinking especially of public statements, whether from Archbishops or those anonymous Church of England spokesmen at Church House, that send out a message, whether intentionally or not, that the Church does not really value or welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
It was the impression that affirming Christian voices, such as ours, were not being heard by students, that led the Revd Gareth Hughes, Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, to invite me to preach at Evensong in the College Chapel last Sunday in my role as Vice-Chair of Changing Attitude, England. I had a lovely time.
Quite apart from the prayerfulness of the chapel and the beauty of the music – Herbert Howells’ Gloucester Service sung by the College Choir – I had the privilege of being listened to for ten minutes by a mainly young congregation and with a quality of attention that was incredibly moving. Afterwards I had the pleasure of meeting a wide range of students, tutors, fellows, and, as it was the weekend, some parents as well. I met Baptists, members of TEC (the Episcopal Church USA), members of the Christian Union, as well as college and university diversity or LGBTQ officers and activists, some of whom wouldn’t normally attend Christian worship because they feel alienated by the ‘official’ Church position that they hear in the media.
That the official line is ignored at the grassroots level of parish churches and congregations was mentioned to me more than once, and that a genuine (unconditional?) welcome can be found needs to be celebrated. Some people were glad to know that Changing Attitude, England existed and believed that it was vital that we continue with the struggle, however uphill it might seem at times: ‘it’s important that you’re doing this work’.
Other people had questions about how we, in Changing Attitude, interpret the Bible – a topic addressed in my sermon which was about the compassion of Jesus as described in the gospels – and it was good to talk about the so-called ‘terror texts’ and to hear one young woman acknowledge that other biblical passages (or their interpretation) can be just as problematic for women, again something I alluded to in the sermon.
There were people who enjoyed the queer readings of the Bible – Joseph’s princess dress went down exceptionally well with some (though not with everyone) – but it was noted that, strategically, it might be better not to use this material when we engage with those who disagree with us. I concurred and was able to say that is the view we had come to in Changing Attitude. These startling queer readings are very much for queer folk, for our inspiration, and to reassure us that the role models are there in Scripture, but may not be convincing to those who do not share our experience.
At one point I was strongly challenged, not, as might have been expected, by the CU members, but by two bisexual people, a young man and woman, who felt bruised by identity politics; caught between ‘both sides’: gay and straight. It’s not a view anyone’s expressed to me before. I was glad that they felt free to do so and that we had an opportunity to talk it through; and to talk about other things as well, for there’s far more to life, as we know, than gender, sexuality and the Church of England, important as these matters are. Amongst the dreaming spires of Oxenford one is, thankfully, very aware of that.