I’ve returned home from General Synod deeply troubled by the extreme contrasts in the stories I’ve heard and the conversations I had on Monday and Tuesday.
There have been good news stories, not least in crossing the final hurdle to enable the first women bishops to be appointed. I learnt that there are lesbian and gay ordinands in civil partnerships in training at residential colleges where their partner is welcome to stay in college at weekends alongside husbands and wives of straight ordinands. There were other good news stories.
But I’ve also heard shockingly bad news stories both at Synod and in the weeks leading up to Synod. I’ve been given information which makes me fearful not only for the well-being of LGBTI people but for the well-being of the life, mission and ministry of the whole church. There is a continuing movement towards prejudiced and corrupting thinking and practice in the church.
I became increasingly distressed and irritated yesterday, as some of those with whom I had conversations will testify. I woke today worried that I allow myself to lose my heart-centred core and openness and become too fearful and angry.
And then, drinking an early morning mug of tea, I read the profile of Una Kroll published in yesterday’s Guardian. Una was my spiritual director for many years when she lived in Monmouth. She was already a significant figure in my life from her hears in Southwark, my own home diocese. Among many other things, she is remembered for her 1978 cry from the gallery at General Synod in London: “We asked for bread and you gave us a stone!”
Sometimes, says the profile, only the old fashioned method will do – shouting out your rage, a public cry of fury. The article concludes by reporting that Una now laments a lack of passion for change among many younger than herself. She is now 88 and I am 19 years her junior.
Vocation and selection of LGBTI candidates for ministry
Having heard dire rumours from a bishop prior to Synod that Ministry Division has instructed that no LGBTI people should be accepted for training I asked another bishop at Synod what the truth is. He told me that only once in the whole, complex selection process can candidates be asked about their sexual orientation. They are asked if they are aware of Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) and whether their lives conform to the teaching of the church. After that interview, the matter should never be referred to again. Seemed pretty clear cut to me, and I was told with clarity and authority by a bishop who is one of the best.
But other conversations derided this account of the policy. There are many ways in which information about a candidate’s sexuality and relationship status can be elicited by indirect questions or it can leak out in, for example, conversation in a pub with other candidates at a selection conference. Let me describe one recent example of actual practice which shows how some bishops actually deal with candidates (and this a bishop who is also pro-gay).
A prospective ordinand entered the process, met the DDO and was referred to a vocations adviser. She asked inappropriate questions, learnt more about the candidate (whose life conforms to Issues) and wrote a hostile report not recommending the candidate. The diocesan bishop retired and the candidate asked to meet the new bishop. The candidate confirmed that he was single and celibate but could not give the bishop an assurance that in the lifetime of his ministry he might not fall in love and want to contract a same-sex marriage. As a result the bishop refused to endorse his vocation.
Changing Attitude has first-hand accounts of several similar recent experiences. We also have three examples of gay deacons whose gifts are now lost to the church because they have been treated with such shocking injustice in the first year of ministry (again by bishops who ought to know better). All three are no longer serving their titles and the investment in training them plus the skills and wisdom they bring to the church have now been lost.
The current culture of the discernment and selection process and the information we receive about selection practice shows that LGBTI people are being discouraged from presenting themselves as candidates for ordained ministry. The number of LGBTI clergy in the Church of England is being steadily and deliberately eroded. LGBTI vocations are being blocked – not all, but a significant proportion.
Why is this happening and who is to blame? It’s very hard to get at the truth. No-one in the highest echelons of the church seems to know, or will admit to knowing. Are conservatives to blame, those who believe the church should never select and ordain any person identifying as LGBTI, partnered, single or celibate? Some who are pro-gay are to blame because they are ill-informed, implement policy unthinkingly or are influenced by their own internalised homophobia – gay bishops included.
The rejection of LGBTI people is bad for them and bad for the whole church. LGBTI people have often brought pastoral and spiritual gifts, creative imagination and prophetic vision to their ministry in the Church of England.
On December 10 it becomes possible to convert civil partnerships to marriage. Changing Attitude knows of several gay and lesbian priests who will convert and be married on or soon after 10 December. Casually mentioning this to people at Synod, I discovered that there are a significant number of other lesbian and gay priests in CPs who are converting to marriage. What preparations are the bishops making to deal with this new reality?
One bishop I asked (and I can scarcely believe this) that a conversation is taking place as to whether converting a civil partnership to marriage is a less serious offence than getting married (presumably after living with your partner for some years in an unmarried state). Whatever the outcome of those particular deliberations (are they serious?) the likely action to be taken against any priests who marry who come to the attention of a bishop and about whom the bishop worries is to send them a letter telling them they have been naughty, but not as naughty as Jeremy and Andrew who both received monitions. Clergy converting will not be sent a monition.
What none of the clergy planning to convert their CPs to marriage can know for sure is how their bishop will deal with them. No action is likely to be taken unless they receive a complaint. A complaint will only be submitted if a conservative who feels justified in lodging a complaint hears about the marriage. The complaint can only be investigated if submitted by someone with a direct connection under the Clergy Discipline Measure. Theoretically, a bishop’s freedom to act and the potential to act under CDM is very severely circumscribed, but as is obvious from the treatment of the three deacons this doesn’t guarantee protection.
I arrived at Synod with many questions about the Shared Conversations, none of which were satisfactorily answered. I gained a little more information. The first will take place in February/March in the East and West Midlands, they are not intended to produce an agreed outcome, and the resource material doesn’t add or take away from earlier documents. From Changing Attitude’s point of view, that’s bad news. We have still not seen the resource material, despite a promise in February 2014 that we would, and it looks as if it has been produced without any direct LGBTI input and certainly is not expanding on or updating what the church and bishops have already produced – which was grossly inadequate when first published and totally inadequate for purpose now.
As a result of what I learnt about the treatment of vocations, ordinands and deacons, I have even greater concerns about the Shared Conversations, adding to the concern identified by Kelvin Holdsworth in Glasgow.
There can be no guarantee that LGBTI people participating in the Conversations will be safe, and I don’t just mean safe from abuse or attack from other participants. The presence of the facilitators is going to ensure that disputes in the conversations are contained and dealt with appropriately. What LGBTI people can’t be protected from is a conservative member of the Conversation or a bishop who is present or to whom things are reported taking action.
Bishops who have started to organise for the Conversation in their diocese seem to be doing so in a random fashion. There is no plan to ensure that in each Conversation in the clusters of four dioceses, the presence of lesbian, gay male, bisexual, transgender and intersex is guaranteed. Indeed, I suspect there is nothing beyond participants being selected without any criteria being set. And still, some bishops will be very unaware of who the LGBTI people are in their diocese or amongst the clergy – and those who do know may be reluctant to tell.
We have to hope that many of these concerns can be dealt with. What can’t be dealt with because it’s too late now is the failure to involve LGBTI people in the preparation process. This is still a conversation about us. Changing Attitude has not and will not be participating in the process formally as an organisation. Supporters of CA who are invited to participate will do so as individuals and at the moment, I advise the greatest caution about participation, both for lay people and clergy.
My question following my Synod experience and learning that the resource material for the conversations doesn’t move beyond Issues in Human Sexuality, Lambeth 1.10, the Pilling Report and House of Bishops documents such as that on Civil Partnerships and Marriage and Equal Marriage is: How is the current experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people responding to a vocational call, encountering the selection process, undertaking theological training, being ordained and ministering with a less than supportive bishop or incumbent – how is this experience going to be heard in the Shared Conversations? It’s absolutely essential that it is, and at the moment, I can see no way that it will be. There is certainly no intention that it should from the centre, from Bishops and DDOs and MinDiv.