Like the wideness of the sea – a prophetic vision of women and LGB&T people in the Church of England

I read Maggi Dawn’s recently published book Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women bishops and the Church of England at the weekend. Last week I read Sarah Maxwell’s Transcendent Vocation: Why gay clergy tolerate hypocrisy. I’d like to draw from both books in a series of blogs that address the environment of the Church of England in the week Justin Welby is enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury.

For forty years or more, the Church of England has been dealing with, or avoiding dealing with, both the place of women and the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Church. A distance has been kept between the two movements for full inclusion in the Church of one very visible and one smaller and less obviously visible group.

LGB&T organisations have honoured the campaign for women in the episcopate and held back, wanting Synod to complete the one process before attending to LGB&T equality. General Synod halted the momentum of the movement towards women in the episcopate and the Government increased the momentum towards a more complete revolution for the place of LGB&T people in society, and inevitably, in Church as well. The two movements are now running in parallel; significant differences remain.

Women are visible in ordained ministry; the sexuality of LGB&T people, lay and ordained, remains invisible unless a person has deliberately come out. Women are ordained as priests but cannot be ordained as bishops. The Church of England knows how many women have been ordained as deacon and priest. LGB&T people are ordained as priests and bishops but the Church has no idea how many of us there are. Women now have to wait for a further 3 or 4 years before Synod finally approves (we hope and pray) legislation enabling women to be consecrated as bishops in England. At the July Synod, I hope there will be a confident indication of the way forward. The Pilling report on the place of LGB&T people in relationship and in ministry will be presented to the House of Bishops in December. We have no idea what decision the House of Bishops will make about our future in the Church based on Pilling’s recommendations.

Both books heighten my belief that the Church of England will be pitched into an even deeper crisis if it fails to embrace radical change, both spiritual and practical. Today I want to highlight some of the unavoidable issues identified by Maggi Dawn that have parallels for LGB&T Anglicans.

“Many of us have been living with daily expressions of serious and unacceptable prejudice which have produced highly-stressed working situations for many female clergy.”

Maggi is able to identify from her own experience the highly-stressed working situations that result from unacceptable prejudice against women in the Church. LGB&T have been subjected to unacceptable prejudice for years, and still are, often from people who are totally unaware that they are speaking to someone who is gay or that an LGB or T person is present in the room. Maggi helped me realise how we have tolerated such prejudice in the Church for far too long.

“It is an impasse that projects such an unacceptable and illogical theological message that real people are currently withdrawing their presence from the Church. If it really matters to the Church that people do not leave over this issue, those who are already leaving, quietly and without making demands, need to be noticed just as much as the few who threaten to leave unless adequate provisions are made for them. Far worse than the lack of any practical measures is the apparent lack of awareness of a silent exodus of people who feel they can no longer represent a church that excludes or devalues women.”

The same is true of LGB&T people, and of our friends and families. The last two years have witnessed a steady stream of people leaving the Church having endured years of prejudice and intolerance and repeated prevarication from the House of Bishops.

“Prejudice against women is more vocal and more prevalent than many would like to believe, and it we do move towards consecrating women, then we will need more than a piece of legislation; we will need to give focussed attention to changing the culture of the Church.”

Changing the culture of the Church is a huge task. On the surface and to the majority of people I’m sure the Church of England looks to be functioning much as it has always done. Under the surface, there are deeper spiritual troubles, way deeper than dealing with conservative negativity, finance, buildings and declining numbers.

“To agree to wait beyond the point of acceptability requires a passivity that is profoundly bad for the soul. And in this situation the call to wait, and wait, and wait again carries an undercurrent of immense, disempowering betrayal. Under the surface there is a more explosive and rotten situation than perhaps people acknowledge.”

LGB&T people have been waiting and enduring for years, through the poison of the 1987 Higton debate, the dreadful Issues in Human Sexuality of 1991 and the evil of the 1998 Lambeth Conference debate which gave birth to Resolution 1.10. The effect on the spiritual health of LGB&T Anglicans and the soul of the Church has been, as Maggi says of women, profoundly bad.

“Endless delay gradually builds a sense of profound injustice that eventually has consequences, both on the individuals involved and on the spiritual life of the Church.”

The evolution of equality legislation and the introduction of civil partnerships showed how LGB&T people can be included as equals in society. But it wasn’t until the advent of equal marriage and the arguments against advanced by the Church, that Christian attitudes have come to look so utterly unjust.

“Churches may call on people to wait, and thus pacify communities and individuals into a mode of living that will merely survive oppression without completely losing hope, and without causing any trouble. But this kind of waiting does not ultimately bring about change; instead it prevents both communities and individuals from flourishing. Calling on the Church to wait, if that simply means buying time and pacifying justifiable anger, is a mistaken and even destructive misuse of a spiritual discipline.”

Flourishing in the Church for women and for LGB&T people and for all the people of God is so obviously to be desired, that it makes the passive waiting we have tolerated to date look absurd. I am still torn between the voice that says, be patient, don’t rock the boat or upset people, and the voice that says, this is intolerable, and now I know that it’s been intolerable for years, playing the secrecy game and suppressing truth and desire.

“The legislation and practice of the Church produces an image of God that is not the same as the God most of its members claim to believe in, and certainly not a God I believe in. If we really believe in a God who is powerful and just, creative and true, loving and wise, beautiful and mysterious, how dare we present to ourselves and the world such a pinched, narrow, mean picture of God.”


  1. Jean Mayland says

    I have long been very sad that WATCH has nort been clear and open in support of gay and lesbain clergy. There ought to be gretaer cooperation betwen the members of the marginalised area of the Church.

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