What does the landscape look like as we approach 2014 – the landscape of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion – for Christianity, for Changing Attitude and the attitude of the Church towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight people?
Every day I find myself wondering what the Church thinks its primary mission and focus is as a result of the many different encounters I have as Director of Changing Attitude:
- Listening to Andrea Minichiello Williams at the Law Society
- Reading the comments she made in Jamaica
- Listening to Baroness Waris’s Kaleidoscope lecture on Human Rights Day
- Engaging in the amazing conversations about faith, truth, love, vision and strategy with the Changing Attitude trustees
- In church on Sunday mornings, wondering why the church manages to create worship which is so disconnected from people’s feelings and real life experience
- Walking alone in the deep silence and profound beauty of Salisbury Plain, intensely aware of God’s amazing love and creativity
- Hearing about the fears and challenges faced by close friends in England and elsewhere, uncertain about whether bishops appreciate them or the Church is committed to us
- Reading Thinking Anglicans – and the Pilling Report – and Facebook messages – and emails – and Peter Ould – and Frank Mugisha, Maurice Tomlinson, Alan Wilson, Archdruid Eileen – and hosts of others whose ideas either inspire me or produce despair.
I’ve come to the conclusion, a conclusion that will seem incredibly arrogant to some, that the Church in general and Christians in particular, have a very inadequate grasp of the core, fundamental, basics of Jesus’ teaching revealed in the Gospels and developed by Paul and those who wrote the gospels and epistles.
It has taken me a long time to fully realise that the heart of Christianity is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s unconditional, infinite and intimate love, woven through creation and immersed in the heart and soul of every human being. Each one of us is being loved, every moment of our lives, tenderly, longingly, and passionately, with infinite grace and compassion. This is the heart of the truth that I encounter in Jesus, but it’s taken me a lifetime to arrive at this core truth.
Why has it taken so long? Because the Church clearly doesn’t ‘get it’, not in the way it talks about God and Jesus at both national and parish level. Few of those who preach, pray and worship seem to have encountered the vibrant, unconditional love of God which is core to their being and to Jesus’ living experience of the Father.
I come closest to the core experience when I’m walking alone on Salisbury Plain in sparkling sunshine or sitting at home before sunrise each morning in deep silence and contemplation. My experience of ‘orthodox, traditional’ Christianity verges on “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – and if ‘nothing’ is a rather extreme judgement, then I regularly experience a Christianity which lives at one remove (at least) from a real encounter with the holy, transforming energy and warm, loving presence of God.
It’s in the context of this core awareness of what I experience God to be like and of what Jesus reveals that I evaluate the many experiences of Church and the huge diversity of Christian experience and narrative – much of which looks to me barely Christian or, at worst, dramatically and damagingly unchristian.
Yet all find their place in the ‘broad’ Church of England and are represented (often over-represented) on General Synod. The vision and energy of the Church is neutered by the need to hold within the institution those who differ in their attitude to women and LGB&T people, to orthodoxy and tradition, and to Biblical interpretation.
For me the critical disjuncture isn’t gender or sexuality, but the failure of the Church to be caught up by God in the love-energy of the Holy Spirit which transforms life and lives.
Long, long ago, the Church began to domesticate Jesus and emasculate his message. The outrageous, transgressive acts of Jesus are read without awareness of the radical impact he had on people’s lives, those people in the Gospels who either walked away from the challenge because it was too costly or whose lives were changed forever.
I’ve spent most of my life exploring the problem that I am for the Church as a gay man, with the result that my attention has been focussed on problems of sexuality and gender rather than the liberating energy and love of God. These qualities haven’t been absent, but I have held on to them despite the enervating life of the Church.
I have never forgotten three weekends organised for young people in the Diocese of Southwark in 1967. They were led by Derek Tasker, DDO, and Gwen Rymer, Youth Officer. Derek was tall, austere, holy, and presided at Communion with an intense ‘real presence’. Gwen was and is rough and robust, smoking and drinking and swearing her way through life. The two of them showed me how Christianity could be real and profound and integrated. I meet fewer people with similar qualities now.
Today, time and energy in the Church is consumed by maintaining buildings, traditions, and fault lines of belief – unexamined attitudes and fears. It has become far more passive, safe and conformist. There is little passion and transformative energy.
I’ve been inclined to accept that this is just the way it is, a reflection of the times we live in. But I have conversation after conversation with people who are in despair, deeply frustrated, exhausted by the demands of the institution and bored by their experience of worship and preaching. How often do I read of parishes having yet another session or series of sessions on prayer – and how rarely do those sessions begin to really engage with people and help them encounter the living God in their real lives and bodies and emotions.
So, that’s what the landscape looks like to me. In 2013 I became more and more frustrated with the impotence and passivity of much Christian life and practice.
Bringing people to Jesus – Alpha, HTB, GAFCON and FCA
Archbishop Justin Welby wants to bring Jesus to the people and people to Jesus. He has two huge problems which get in the way of his ambition. One is that people think the Church is prejudiced against women and LGB&T people and is not actually Christian in its life and teaching. The second is that when people come to church, they experience hymns, sermons, prayers and language which reinforce the distance of God from our real selves rather than engaging people with the God of Jesus Christ, God who is energy and life, unconditional love and infinite goodness, grace and blessing.
I’m told repeatedly by conservatives that growing numbers are to be found (and only to be found) in conservative evangelical parishes. The assumption is that if this pattern of church life was rolled out across the country, success would follow. This pattern of belief is also founded on the idea that homosexuality is wrong according to God and the Bible – and the weakness of liberal churches is the result of their failure to adhere to Biblical teaching.
I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because I’m told by people directly involved with HTB that churches using the Alpha course and associated with the HTB ethos and pattern of worship, including HTB itself, no longer talk about homosexuality because their congregations don’t think being gay is a problem. Just ask Peter Chater who wrote the blog about Anglican Mainstream and was once, with his civil partner, an enthusiastic member of St Mark’s Battersea Rise, where the Senior Pastor (not incumbent or vicar) is Paul Perkin, and his wife Christine is Associate Pastor – so no problem with women in ministry and authority at St Mark’s. Paul is a key leader of GAFCON and FCA, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, which threatens to create an alternative structure within the Church of England for those opposed to the full inclusion of LGB&T people.
The Bible is, of course, part of the problem as well as holding the key to the solution. The Bible is being interpreted and used to create and justify prejudice against LGB&T people.
Christian faith in the early 21st century is constructed in a way that produces a version of Christian teaching that legitimates prejudice and undervalues the infinite, unconditional love of God which is clearly fundamental to Jesus’ teaching. The Church is adulterating the love of God.
I have in mind the teaching of Rene Girard and the theology of James Alison, among others. James writes about scapegoating and the nature of atonement. I also have in mind my own training as a psychotherapist where I learnt more about the human capacity to project, split and ‘other’ people, dividing the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’. The Church does this in a shockingly unreflective way and to a very unhealthy degree with LGB&T people.
Ex-gay, post-gay and other categories are one manifestation of the way in which the Church ‘others’ people, those who can belong only by re-labelling themselves and creating identities which, to Changing Attitude, diminish our God-given human gifts and qualities.
Human beings have a great capacity (which if I was going to use the word sinful, I might use it here) to scapegoat people, to divide people into them and us, the lost and the saved. The way in which the Church is labelling and polarising and scapegoating people is one of the most significant dynamics of the crisis in the Anglican Communion in relation to gender and sexual diversity.
The Anglican churches have become obsessed with turf wars over how an honourable and equal place can be given in the Christian Churches to those who differ about the place of women and LGB&T people in Christian life and ministry. This conflict is the result of the failure to place Jesus’, Paul’s and John’s teaching about God’s unconditional love at the forefront of Church life and teaching. Others, of course, would argue the reverse – that the Church is corrupted by pro-gay teaching.
At its worst, the Church is being mean, nasty, hypocritical, and judgemental and at its inadequate best, boring, disconnected from real life, anaesthetizing the shocking challenge of the Gospel, failing to touch the core of people’s lives and being, their guts, hearts, emotions, souls, essence, vulnerability, vitality – and our potential to be amazingly, awesomely beautiful and creative.
The HTB brand is ‘getting there’ because it now ignores homosexuality as an issue, and with Alpha, creates a relational, personal introduction to Jesus and the Christian faith in which fellowship and belonging are integral qualities.
The challenge of 2014
Whenever the unhealthy, unchristian obsession with and projections onto people because of their gender and sexuality occurs in the Anglican Communion, it has to be named and challenged. At its worst, it is an evil which leads to the murder and imprisonment of LGB&T people.
It has to be confronted in those Provinces of the Anglican Communion which support anti-gay legislation and where bishops preach against gay people.
It has to be confronted when it manifests as prejudice and homophobia in the attitudes of individuals and organisations.
It has to be confronted in Private Members motions and debates in the General Synod of the Church.
It has to be confronted in the facilitated conversations proposed by the Pilling Report.
It has to be confronted in the House of Bishops meeting on 27 January 2014.
Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin are on their way to ‘getting it’. But the addiction of the Church to a judgemental, law-obssesed, unloving, guilt-inducing interpretation of the Bible, and the dire culture of the Church, corporate and local, is a huge obstacle to their ambitions to achieve a radical reorientation and transformation of Christian life and witness. And yet, people’s reaction to Pope Francis shows how deeply people long for a reformed church which embodies Jesus’ teaching about love, truth and justice.
The obsession of the Church with ‘traditional’, ‘orthodox’, ‘mainstream’ teachings that justify exclusion and judgmentalism are blind to the awesome, radical, unconditional love of God which is the culmination of God’s revelation and covenant in Scripture.
Changing Attitude England is organising two events in 2014, on 8 February in Stockport and 1 March in London. Unadulterated Love will celebrate all whose diverse gender and sexuality are among the absolutely fabulous gifts we bring to life and to the Church, ministries which glory in God’s unconditional, infinite, transforming love.
Come and celebrate with us next year – become a supporter of Changing Attitude – it’s going to be a year of intense activity and engagement with the Church of England, and we are going to need all the resources and energy and love we can mobilize!
To book go to: UnadulteratedLove.ticketsource.co.uk
For further information Email: UnadulteratedLove2014@gmail.com