The Church of England and the Clare Balding/Alice Arnold/Ben Bradshaw/Ian McKellen/Derek Jacobi problem

Clare Balding and her partner Alice Arnold, who entered a civil partnership in September 2006, are just two of the many faces and voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on TV and radio in the UK. Both are highly respected broadcasters and personalities and their relationship is honoured as equal to marriage.

Ben Bradshaw MP is partnered and a committed Anglican, one of many openly gay Members of Parliament in all parties, who are valued by their constituents and whose sexuality is of no consequence to their work in parliament.

In the world of theatre and the arts, on stage and back stage, there are thousands of individuals and couples acclaimed for their creative gifts. Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi appeared together in Vicious on TV last year, two gay men playing gay couple Freddie and Stuart, their bickering domestic life and intimacies looking camp but otherwise no different from other couples, gay or straight.

None of these people are judged because of their sexuality; their presence in society, on TV, radio, stage, in parliament, is seen as unexceptional now by the majority.

The huge majority of people in this country see the contribution which people like Clare Balding, Alice Arnold, Ben Bradshaw, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi make to their lives as a real gift. The quality of their work isn’t related to their sexuality but their integrity and passion may come from the depths of courage, wisdom and experience which being part of a minority can give.

This positive experience of LGB&T lives and gifts is indifferent to age, class, culture, social status, race or gender. But there is one group of people for whom the presence of LGB&T people is an absolute, determining factor – conservative evangelical Christians. They are not representative of the majority of Anglicans but they dominate Anglican thinking and attitudes about sexuality and gender diversity.

The Church of England has a problem

The Church of England has a nasty problem. To individual supporters of Changing Attitude and members of the LGB&T Anglican Coalition it looks like a huge problem, causing deep anger and distress. Parts of the Anglican Communion have a huge problem, which threatens schism and challenges faith.

Those LGB&T people whom the huge majority in our society value for the quality of their work and lives are, in church, treated as pariahs. This is the message the trustees of Changing Attitude and leaders of the LGB&T Anglican Coalition receive time and time again and have been given again this week.

It seems unbelievable to us and will be to many ordinary Anglicans, but there are senior church leaders who still fail to understand that their attitude to LGB&T people is peculiar and unjust, unloving and dishonest. Some senior leaders see us not in the same way as the majority around them, not as people with lives of deep faith and love, but as a group of people judged by God and condemned by various passages and teachings in the Bible.

I don’t know how to put this strongly enough – their attitude is abhorrent, incomprehensible to the majority, ignorant, prejudiced.

This group of people in the Church are unable to discern the difference between mature, adult people who make conscious, Christian decisions about their pattern of life – the majority – and others who feel constrained conform their lives to the teachings of the conservatives.

The majority of LGB&T Anglicans and our real lives are invisible to many senior leaders in the Church. I’m talking about the thousands who worship in congregations week by week, sing in the choir, make tea and coffee, are members of the PCC, Deanery and Diocesan Synod, their sexuality invisible. I’m talking about those who are Readers and ordinands, deacons and priests, people these leaders interview, ordain, licence, and claim to care for pastorally.

They are invisible. And even when we are not invisible but personally known, we are treated differently by them because we do not conform to their view of what the Church teaches, what God creates as ‘normal’ and what the Bible reveals about us. Our lives are abnormal and wilfully unhealthy and disobedient to them. We corrupt the purity of the Church and Gospel and we will be judged by God.

Some of them think that LGB&T campaigners for equality, including Christian campaigners, are campaigning for the freedom to practice paedophilia, bestiality and polyamory.

The people who believe this imagine themselves to be the virtuous, righteous upholders of God’s timeless, unchanging truths, set out with inescapable clarity in scripture and in the teaching documents of the Church.

Others are less extreme in their views but still myopic in their awareness.

They see groups within the Church who prove that it is perfectly possible for LGB&T people to live according to this conservative evangelical view of God and Scripture. For these people, True Freedom Trust, Living Out, and those who describe themselves as ex-gay or post-gay or are committed to abstinence, are living proof that it is perfectly possible to conform to conservative teaching and live contented, fulfilling lives.

The disconnect between Church and society

The disconnect between this pattern of life and the lives of people like Clare Balding, Alice Arnold, Ben Bradshaw, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi is total. There is a huge gulf between the way conservative Christians expect LGB&T people to live and the way the majority of people in this country see LGB&T lives – both the lives of public figures and the lives of family members, colleagues and those in their social networks.

There is a further huge gulf which is much more difficult to write about. From views expressed by senior Church leaders I know that I personally, we in Changing Attitude, are seen as a problem that they are unable to think about properly let alone deal with appropriately. For them, it is easier to deal with the ex-gays and post-gays and celibates than to engage with the out gays, the confident no apology for being gay gays, the civil partnered gays and the soon-to-be-married gays.

They see no reason why Changing Attitude and the Coalition groups should be included in any process of engagement or discussion. We are not the same as women. It is not appropriate to include us. And it we were to be included, then of course, the post-gays and ex-gays and celibates and abstainers must be there as well.

The Pilling Report is shockingly bad for not having explored this conflict. It’s there in the report, exemplified by the Bishop of Birkenhead’s dissenting chapters. It was more important for the group to resolve their differences by publishing a report detailing their differences than to address the deeper, underlying problems affecting the Church – one of which is the disconnect between the values of UK society and of parts of the Church – values which society no longer thinks are Christian.

Something else has been brought to the attention of Changing Attitude this week – shocking, disgusting examples of prejudice and abuse in theological colleges and in dioceses towards LGB&T ordinands and clergy. The abuse happens because of the sick Christian attitudes and teaching about normal sexual and gender diversity.

I’ve written enough for the moment. A final thought – when the College of Bishops meets on 27 January to discuss the Pilling Report, are they going to spend the day within the world of the report, confined in their thinking to the conflicts it explores but doesn’t begin to resolve? Or will some of the bishops and senior women have the courage to speak truthfully about what they know and believe about God and the Bible and LGB&T people? Two months after they meet, the first C of E lesbian and gay clergy will be getting married.

Comments

  1. Richard Lewis says

    Absolutely spot on ! I wish that there was more interest in the Church in recognising allies
    to work with in addressing issues in the world rather than everlastingly identifying those who are perceived as being different in some way. Is it something to do with a sort of elitism and the need to feel that only the church has the right answers ? The lovely thing about Clare Balding (et al) is that they are not just good at their jobs, they are exceptionally good and hugely inspiring, along with all sorts of others who may or may not have chosen to comment on their own sexuality.

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