The College of Bishops Statement – mass conversion needed

The author James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. Baldwin was black and gay, creative and self-reflective.

In a chapter about him in Love in a Dark Time Colm Toibin writes that Baldwin tried to do something more truthful and difficult than presenting himself as innocent and others as guilty. He sought to show that the damage had entered his soul from where it could not be easily dislodged. He shook his head, says Toibin, at the possibility that anything other than mass conversion could change things.

I know that the damage in my soul will never be fully dislodged, and neither will the damage in the soul of the Church or the College of Bishops be dislodged. Reading the statement issued on Monday following the College of Bishops meeting its clear that mass conversion is needed if real change is to happen, and mass conversion is an unlikely outcome from this Statement.

Where Baldwin writes about “the body of sexual myths … around the figure of the American Negro” who “is penalized for the guilty imagination of the white people who invest him with their hates and longings, and is the principal target of their sexual longings”, I think about the complex interaction in every part of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion in the interaction between sexuality, gender and race.

In the Church as well as in the world of James Baldwin, “The subject is the flesh itself and sexual longing, and how close to treachery lies desire, how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.”

Colm Toibin writes of Baldwin: “His essays are riveting because he insists on being personal, on forcing the public and the political to submit to his voice and the test of his experience and his observation. He was interested in the self, in the hidden and dramatic areas in his own being, and was prepared to explore difficult truths about his own core self in fiction.”

The exploration of human sexuality by the Anglican Communion and the College of Bishops is conducted more in the world of fiction than reality.

So (unless I hear a report to the contrary) it’s a fair assumption that the deeply personal was absent from the College meeting on Monday. I assume that no bishop or senior woman talked about their sexuality in a way that risked too much, didn’t talk about their fantasies as a young person or the fantasies they still entertain, didn’t talk about what it’s like to be gay, lesbian or bisexual in the Church, especially when you have arrived at a senior position.

How can the damage in the soul of the Church begin to be dislodged when the personal has to be kept so carefully under wraps? How can bishops and senior women talk easily about gender and sexuality in the College of Bishops where divisions are deep, the subject is the flesh itself and sexual longing, and desire lies close to treachery and the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind?

So, to the Statement itself

The College of Bishops continues the practice of talking about LGB&T people in our absence, even though there are several bishops who are gay in the College. They are not open about their sexuality. It is too difficult to reveal that you are gay to your brothers and sisters in the College. The Statement of course reflects this difficulty, writing about we who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as if we are other, a problem to be considered in the context of other dynamics, our needs weighed against other needs, – and in our experience, usually outweighed by other needs.

I don’t believe the corporate statement that: “We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.” As other comments on the Statement show (Andrew Symes on Anglican Mainstream, for example) , any welcome the College claims to offer is totally compromised and restricted by other factors.

The College claims “to be united in acknowledging the need for the Church to repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and affirming the need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever and whenever it is to be found.”

They could only issue such a statement from ignorance of how institutionally homophobic the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is. I understand their lack of awareness, which is made more difficult when those bishops who are gay remain firmly in the closet.

It’s impossible to conform to a conservative interpretation of Scripture and not be homophobic. I know conservatives will disagree with this statement and some will be hurt by it. I also know that comparing a conservative hermeneutic about homosexuality with hermeneutics about race or gender or slavery isn’t popular. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the parallels are appropriate and the results all too similar. Prejudice and homophobia are the result of a particular Biblical hermeneutic.

The third paragraph, unsurprisingly, sets this out: the bishops “are united in seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church.” It is impossible to reconcile the dominant hermeneutic with the desire “to make a loving, compassionate and respectful response to gay men and women within Church and society.” Or it is possible, but only if you accept the exclusive authority of one particular hermeneutic.

The bishops recognise the strongly held and divergent views across the Anglican Communion, in the Church of England, the College of Bishops and society as a whole, deeply entrenched views. I don’t think this is accurate. I don’t think British society as a whole reflects the deeply entrenched views held by Christians. The infographics  published by Changing Attitude on Monday refute this.

A cop out is proposed. The proposed facilitated conversations would best address the problem by dealing with it ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level. Reading this as a gay man, I’m shocked by the strategy. Instead of ensuring and stating that the conversations would be best served by bringing in LGB&T people from a variety of positions in society as part of this inclusive process, the College has proposed to go in entirely the opposite direction. I’m not against ecumenical and Communion-wide involvement, but this would make it much more difficult for LGB&T people to participate and would ensure a lock-down against real change, apart from those genuinely committed to real human flourishing.

Perhaps the College didn’t propose to go in entirely the opposite direction. Perhaps those who drafted this concise report of a whole day’s discussion have been selective in what they included and excluded.

What the Statement says is specifically excluded is one of the few recommendations in the Pilling Report that gay a small ray of hope to many LGB&T Christians – the recommendation 16 on page 151 that there can be circumstances where a priest should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service.

Let me remind the College of Bishops once again of the advice prepared in 2008 by The Worshipful Nigel Seed Q.C., Chancellor and Vicar-General of the Diocese of London for the Clergy of the London Diocese.

“… there is in any event no prohibition on a service in such circumstances which is not a service of blessing, providing that “it is reverent and seemly and is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.

“Whilst engagement in sexual activity may be in the mind of those entering into a civil partnership, and is certainly in the mind of their detractors and the media, it is not in the law. So the entering into a civil partnership of itself cannot represent a departure from the doctrine of the Church England – in so far as engagement in homosexual activity can be said to be contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England.

“The position is clear. Unless and until one of the relevant authorities listed in canon B5.2 provides a form service under canon B2, beneficed clergy (or other clergy authorised by them) may use a form of service they consider suitable in respect of a civil partnership providing that service does not amount to a “service of blessing” and is reverent and seemly and is not contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”

Nigel Seed is very clear. Services of prayer are allowed under Canon Law and can include a blessing of the two individuals. If this is not legally authoritative, the House of Bishops needs to issue a statement to that effect.
The Statement says College is clear that the Church of England’s pastoral and liturgical practice remains unchanged during this process of facilitated conversation. No change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisaged.

The Alice in Wonderland status quo therefore continues.

• There are gay bishops but their sexuality is to remain invisible
• The Church of England’s teaching on marriage is unchanged but there is nothing to stop clergy praying with same-sex couples and blessing them as individuals
• The process to prepare the facilitated conversations is to be organised with no input from openly LGB&T people
• Bishops will continue to ordain and license partnered lesbian and gay clergy and allow clergy to conduct services in which the couple may receive a blessing following civil partnership.
• The bishops are going to issue a statement just before equal marriages become possible which makes no concessions

There’s one more thing, a critical thing, which has to be stated.

The College of Bishops met shortly after the Anti-gay Marriage Law was signed in Nigeria and when advice is that the anti-gay Bill in Uganda will be signed within a month, with the result that in both countries, LGB&T people are being picked up by police on suspicion of being gay, are being abused by neighbours, attacked, humiliated and vilified.
Neither of the Archbishops nor the College of Bishops have thought to make a statement about this shocking development, which is supported in total contradiction of the Dromantine Statement, of the position of Primates in the Anglican Communion.

This is why the Statement’s assertion that: “We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained” will be and is being derided by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans. It is an empty commitment, shocking in its complacency. The College of Bishops is not to be believed or trusted and won’t be until there is a dramatic outbreak of Christian truth and integrity in the College. At the moment, cowardice characterizes the College.

Remember, College of Bishops, what Dromantine  states, and then read what the Primate of All Nigeria said.

6. The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship (vii).

The Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), The Most Reverend Nicholas Okoh, on Monday, warned those practising same sex marriage to desist from the act, saying they were heading for destruction…

[As I was posting this blog, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York released the text of a letter they have written to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, referring to the Dromantine Statement in the contect of Nigeria and Uganda. I warmly welcome the letter]

James Baldwin, black, gay American, shook his head at the possibility that anything other than mass conversion could change things.


  1. says

    “The process to prepare the facilitated conversations is to be organised with no input from openly LGB&T people”
    You and I both know that that is a work in progress whose results are yet to be seen!

  2. Stephen says

    Thank you, Colin.

    It may be time to go to the barricades.
    Gay Bishops to be outed.
    Disobedience as regards blessings etc for Gay couples encouraged.

    What use to the Church is a House of Frightened Purple shirts?
    Why can’t they see what the Holy Spirit is saying to them by the work that is happening in Society? When the Church is so deaf and blind, movement has to be where people will receive these signs of love and fellowship. Gay Marriage √. Society honestly doesn’t give a flying f*ck what the Church says. Why can’t the Bishops see what a dangerous situation they are putting the church into?

    The Bishops are running scared(rightly) about Women Bishops – hopefully, it is just a short matter of time before the same happens about loving LGBT people. They don’t love us – they want us to go away. But we won’t and we can’t.
    And I, too, am fed up with being talked about and not with. Why are they so afraid of Dialogue with LGBT people?
    After all the dialogue you have had with senior clergy over the last decade or so, it must be awfully dispiriting to hear all this post Pilling stuff (not to mention the outrageous over-emphasis of the diatribe by +Birkenhead.)

    I am so glad that I have never felt unloved by God, never as I have felt unloved and uncared for by the Church.

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