Christian conversations about invisible elephants

Changing Attitude has recently received a report about a diocesan Initial Ministerial Education (IME) day for curates held a few weekends ago. The topic of the day was homosexuality.

At its heart, says the Church of England website, IME is aboutEquipping and developing the Church’s ministers in order that they might begin a ministry which may stimulate and enable the whole Church to participate more fully in the mission of God in the world.”

An openly gay lay person had been invited to participate in the training day. He had been asked to present sessions on the Church and homosexuality, the details of the 2013 same-sex marriage legislation, and the theological arguments for same-sex marriage.

The organizers of the day had also asked a conservative evangelical to explain to the curates why being gay is against the will of God. Now, there’s no reason why a fundamentalist holding negative views about homosexuality shouldn’t contribute in some way to a church-organised training day. We know they will continue to be part of the church and are, at the moment, more than backed up by the establishment.

However, there was, says my correspondent, a herd of elephants in the room.  As he looked at the group he saw a number of people he knew to be gay and many more he strongly suspected of being gay.

Throughout the day he was the only person talking in the first person about being gay and Christian. In the day-long discussions not one of the gay curates revealed they were gay. All referred to homosexuality as if it were relevant to someone other than themselves, an external subject to be analysed and examined, a source of problems to be resolved, a theological puzzle, and nothing to do with them.

The fundamentalist was free to set out his views with no fear of repercussions. He was quite possibly unaware that a significant minority of those present were gay. If one of the curates had been similarly frank and said ‘well, I’m gay/lesbian and I don’t agree, here’s my life experience’ – then the fundamentalist could instantly mark their card and make their life and future in the church very difficult.  The fundamentalist takes no such risks and therefore the playing field is completely uneven.

The very minimum requirements necessary for there to be any real honesty in the current climate is:

  • Allow fundamentalists to talk about their theological and biblical views
  • Then ask them to withdraw so as not to inhibit everyone else
  • Apply Chatham House rules for anything anyone wants to say subsequently

The church closet

The closet doesn’t only exist with powerful effect in the House and College of Bishops. It’s present at the beginning of people’s ministry, from the moment someone offers themselves for ordination, through theological college and into the first curacy and then incumbency – and by the time your name has been added to the list of those from whom bishops are selected, the church closet has you firmly trapped within its jaws.  Young gay curates and mature gay clergy are hiding within the institution, colluding with the oppressive, dysfunctional, heterosexist culture of the C of E.

So the Church of England’s version (in one diocese at least) of equipping and developing the Church’s clergy in order that they might begin a ministry which may stimulate and enable the whole Church to participate more fully in the mission of God in the world is to intimidate those present who believe in the God-created identity of LGB&T people by having someone hostile to the sexuality of LGB&T people talk about the conservative evangelical interpretation of the Bible which believes that God describes homosexuals as committing an abomination. This is a shockingly bad practice.

These are recently ordained clergy who in the course of their ministry are going to pastor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and they are being presented with two views about homosexuality as if both are applicable to same-sex marriage and both will help stimulate and enable the whole Church to participate more fully in the mission of God in the world – and both are appropriate pastoral responses to LGB&T people.

Being a Christian priest is about being true to oneself, being authentic, being willing to challenge the heterosexism which forces LGB&T clergy and laity into compliant servitude and silence about their real lives and experiences.

Changing Attitude is clear that, as with women in ministry, no substantive conversations should take place without LGB&T people present and with our voices contributing. This is not possible unless the space is clearly safe for all those present. It is not possible when the Church sets up a training day at which conservative views which are hostile to the integrity and dignity of LGB&T people are presented in the context of sessions designed to enable clergy to participate effectively in the mission of God in the world.

The Church of England continues to be a very unsafe place for LGB&T people who want to live openly within the church. The Church cannot be a safe place if it continues to allow teaching that results in discrimination and prejudice against us. I know that for some, this is an issue of teaching and biblical authority and as the publication of the Pilling report nears, lines of difference are being more firmly articulated.

The House of Bishops and the College of Bishops cannot take the Pilling report forward, once published, unless open LGB&T people are involved in the process. The House of Bishops is already confronted with the same, difficult dynamic that my correspondent encountered at the IME training day – people present in the room, discussing issues of sexuality which affect them directly, as if they were not gay and no-one gay was present.

The next few months are going to be very difficult for the Church of England. The church can’t have conversations about LGB&T people without us being present, and it can’t have appropriate, healthy conversations when theologies and scriptural interpretations hostile to the flourishing of LGB&T people are given undue credence.


  1. says

    Colin, as ever this is an excellent post. The church is totally stuck. We still have the ‘maybe we should treat women equally, maybe not. Maybe we can see gay people simply as people made in the image of God the same as all humanity -maybe not’ sort of conversations. It means that as a church we still allow that being discriminatory is a legitimate point of view. The result is that language and behaviour that would be illegal in society at large is still considered acceptable within the church. I really think that we need point out that -even if these people genuinely believe that what they say and do is right -they are still profoundly wrong and must be stopped. History is littered with the evidence that you can believe something very deeply, be profoundly wrong, and that acting on that belief has evil consequences.

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