From the personal to the infinite

Reflections on receiving an MBE for work towards equality in the Church

Sanjay Kumar, a trustee from the earliest days of Changing Attitude, was one of the trustees past and present who came to the celebration following the Investiture on Friday. Sanjay gave me a card in which he quoted Mattie Stepanek:

“Unity is Strength … when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.”

In my heart, mind, soul and guts I absolutely believe this to be true. The strength of Changing Attitude and the effectiveness of our campaign for justice for LGBTI people in the Church relies on teamwork and collaboration between thousands of people, not only in England but in many other parts of the Anglican Communion.

I am always acutely conscious of just how far and wide the network extends. Holding the vision, holding me to the task, and sacrificially giving of their time and expertise, are the trustees of CA. At the regional level are the CA diocesan and local groups, and informal networks of people, LGBTI and straight, engaged in myriad ways in being salt and leaven, urging change, opening awareness, nudging local churches forward. Then there’s the very active and vitally important CA Facebook group, a forum for news, ideas, discussion, support and challenge. There are the other national CA groups in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria and Kenya.

And beyond these formal manifestations of CA’s work, there are thousands of individuals who are connected with CA. I’m thinking of the other LGBTI campaign groups such as Integrity in the USA, Canada and Uganda and people, lay and ordained, in Jamaica and China, Spain and South Africa, India and Cameroon, and many other countries around the world, individuals for whom the online presence of CA is a vital source of support and encouragement.

Sanjay is among the many people who congratulated me on the award of the MBE and told me that my work and vision inspired them. I return my heartfelt appreciation to all of you, somewhat overawed by the way you see me. I find my personal feelings about my role in CA difficult to process. I know CA came to be only as the result of an initiative I took in 1995, but I write this hesitantly, deliberately not writing ‘I started Changing Attitude’.

I accept that without me it might not have come into being at all, and that I have strongly influenced the ethos and work of CA. But the vision and energy, the dream and the campaigning edge, are rooted elsewhere.

We wouldn’t have achieved so much or developed into such an effective campaigning organisation if the vision hadn’t inspired hundreds, and today, thousands of people in the international Church. Changing Attitude wasn’t the first. Integrity was active well before us in the USA and LGCM here in the UK. Together we are working to transform the Church and in England that work has become all the more effective thanks to our working together in the LGBTI Anglican Coalition.

It’s the involvement of so many people in so many different ways that has made us so effective. And that makes me conscious of the somewhat unfair privilege I am given of receiving the honour from the Queen, an honour which has to acknowledge the work of the thousands who are together Changing Attitude.

There’s another reality I’ve reflected on in the course of this weekend. Where does ‘it’ all come from? And by ‘it’ I mean the vision, the energy, the ideas, and the qualities that have enabled us to be so effective.

Twenty three years ago when I was still Vicar of St Faith’s Wandsworth, I had a feeling in my chest that there was something big I was supposed to do. I had no idea what this big thing was, and it was only with hindsight that I realised Changing Attitude, after it had come into being, was the thing.

Almost every morning since late September 1977 when I arrived at Westcott House Cambridge, I have spent between 15 and 30 minutes in contemplative silence. We ordinands were expected to spend 25 minutes in silence six days out of seven, preferably in chapel before Morning Prayer. Every morning Mark Santer, John Armson, and later Rowan Williams, were there in chapel. I had never given myself to silent prayer before, indeed had a minimal personal prayer life, and I had no idea what should happen in the silence, except I wanted to ease my anxiety.

Thirty seven years later, what happens in the silence has evolved through many different stages, helped significantly by the holistic which was integral to my psychotherapy training. Now, the silence fills with a depth of intimacy and presence, energy and goodness, love and beauty, which infuses me and in which I am immersed. Language cannot but be inadequate in describing the experience. As John Armson said to me recently, it is being in the presence of ultimate mystery and otherness which is also most intensely present.

This holy space, the place of encounter with the living God and experience of the divine which is both wholly other and deeply present is, of course, essential to the Judeo-Christian experience of God. But we live at a time in Church history when it is less valued and the presence of God less practiced. There’s too much head stuff now, too much dependence on the Bible as the controlling guide to experience, an ignorance of history and the apophatic tradition.

Changing Attitude was born within that tradition, nurtured by Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, my spiritual guide at the time, later by Sister Una Kroll and nourished now by Henry Morgan, my current guide, and enriched unknowingly but a host of people throughout my life. The threads are often as tentative and tenuous as is my faith sometimes, and that’s the nature of God revealed in Scripture and creation.

I believe, heart and soul, that it is this rootedness in the contemplative path that has given and gives Changing Attitude the qualities that inspire and energise others. As many of you reading this will know full well, gay and straight, it can often feel like a lonely and somewhat crazy enterprise that we are engaged in as Christians, let alone in the life process – hold to the path, my friends! The true God, God who is infinite and unconditional love, is always fully and intimately present within you and enfolding you. (Bishop Peter Selby, if you are reading this – I have never forgotten your confirmation sermon preached on the text ‘with you always’.)

The Church of God always needs people living contemplative, mindful, deeply aware lives, integrating body, heart, mind and soul. This pattern of Christian life is vital to our work now in CA, vital because we need to be grounded in our bodies in love if our vision and energy is truly to lead the Church into becoming more fully the Body of Christ, living into the Kingdom, the Kingdom in which all are included. The campaign for justice and equality for all in the Church can be intensely demanding of our very selves. If our hearts are open to and we are living in the infinite presence of love, we are being transformed and the Church cannot but be transformed along with us.

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