The core issue for the mutual conversations

In the course of yesterday’s Westminster Faith Debate on Diversity at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, an idea crystalized for me. It is something I have been puzzling over for some years in the context of my conversations and friendship with Andrew Goddard. Andrew represents in my world those who share a similar integrity to him.

Andrew once told me that there would be no place for him, or he would find it difficult to stay within the Church of England were the church to change its teaching and practice to allow a full and equal place for LGBTI people, to officially accept partnered (and now, married) lesbian and gay people in ministry and blessings (and now potentially weddings) in church.

The people who share Andrew’s integrity are already fully part of the church and they are already fully included with their integrity of scripture and tradition. Some ‘threaten’ to leave (Andrew is not threatening to leave but might feel he has been given no alternative) if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are given an equal, fully included place in the church.

We are not already fully included. Our relationships receive qualified approval from some but not all bishops. We are not allowed to marry if we are ordained. None of us can marry in church. We are not allowed to have our relationships blessed in church. Even the fact that we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex can be a bar to ministry, lay and ordained, and can result in exclusion from ministry in our parish. We are acted against by the institution with prejudice and sometimes with homophobia.

Yesterday’s debate on Diversity

In their opening remarks each speaker briefly articulated their point of view.

Trevor Mwamba, a bishop from Botswana who is now an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Chelmsford said that everything in life is interconnected. In the church, one size does not fit all and the question is, how to affirm radical diversity in the church, appreciating diversity and complexity and not being afraid of diversity but affirming each other.

David Porter, the Director for Reconciliation at Lambeth Palace and responsible for the facilitated discussions/mutual conversations, an Anabaptist, said the borders of diversity get us into trouble in the institutional church. How do we live with our deepest differences? Christianity is relational, not doctrinal at heart, and the challenge is relational not structural. Our relationships are with God in Jesus Christ and with one another. How do we speak of the other whom we believe to be our theological adversary?

Andrew Symes, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, said complete inclusion is impossible. The discussion is about where we draw boundaries. Scripture as generally interpreted down the ages speaks clearly of areas where there cannot be diversity for God’s people.

Later in the meeting Andrew said the Christian Church has been uniform and consistent for 2000 years on human sexuality and marriage (a statement that I know many will pounce on). There’s no need to change at a fundamental level from what the church has always believed and what the majority around the world believe.

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes said diversity is value laden and the Biblical images we use of wine, buildings and bodies are about the end product. She talked about ideas of resilience and adaptation, of evolutionary biology and biodiversity. It is in the nature of creation that God chose evolution. God likes and works through and accepts random mutation and the survival of the fittest and she asked how that applies to diversity in the church. Our theology adapts to evolutionary riches around the world as they come up against each other.

Later Miranda said we have a problem with the Bible. The historical text gets an awful lot of things wrong. Scripture contains a huge variety of theologies in the 66 books and there is inevitably a huge diversity in the church.

Finally, Alan Wilson said the Church of England has always contained diversity but Anglicans in the middle don’t have a single issue to unite over. Subjective church unity is provisional. Who does love not include? Women? Gay people? Christianity is relationships. The Anglican Communion is toothless and irrational and amazingly diverse. Mutual respect requires equality, not post-imperial guilt or deference.

In the discussion and questions which followed, the culture of ‘nice’ came under scrutiny and several questioners said the panel were avoiding conflict. Miranda echoed David Porter, saying Christianity is relational and inherently diverse and not based on doctrine and dogma. This is one of the most significant themes that marked the evening.

David said we need to step outside where the conversations about LGBTI people have got – there are no pre-conceived outcomes to the shared conversations.

The themes of abundant flourishing, giving space and not drawing lines, the grace of God and of becoming more conscious of the Christ in ourselves so that we can see the Christ in each other were articulated in questions from the audience.

Random comments: There is too much niceness and too much talk of principle; Christian truth is relational, not propositional; Christian settlement requires an unhealthy uniformity; the era of Christendom is over.

The outcome of the conversations

The thought that crystallised this morning having read my notes again is, who in the church is signing up to the fundamental ethos of the mutual conversations as articulated by David Porter yesterday give the different ideas articulated by and the positions adopted by the speakers?

Some of us articulate a narrative of full inclusion. Others have a narrative of biblical fundamentalism, sola scripture, and unwavering historical consistency.

The challenge facing all of us is how do we arrive at a place where all of us, which our radically different needs and expectations, all of us are able to stay within and value each other within one church.

How do we live with our deepest differences, not excising or excluding but living with, they with us, us with them, all fully included, loving one another in our disagreements?

The challenge is relational not structural.

A minority of evangelicals, those who call themselves ‘headship evangelicals’, want the church to give them a ‘headship bishop’.

If that is accepted as a principle (which it has been for conservative catholics) then the church needs to construct oversight for every integrity in the church in which all have at least one bishop. Another category of bishop needs to be created, a gay equality bishop who will affirm equal marriage and ordain and licence married lesbian and gay couples. I’m not serious about this suggestion, of course, and a proper resolution to the mutual conversations has to be achieved in which we LGBTI people and those who are conservative all acknowledge the integrity of others.

The outcome of the conversations has to be a place for everyone, for ‘them’ and for ‘us’, equal as members of Christ’s church in ministry and relationship. For us, this means a change in church practice, to knowingly ordaining LGBTI people, openly consecrating LGBTI bishops, and blessing and celebrating same-sex relationships. This is fundamental to the well-being and flourishing of all people in the church and Kingdom of God.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who believe we are already full members of the household and Kingdom of God can only participate in the mutual conversations with the acceptance that our equality in the church is an ultimate given, as must be true for all other participants.

This is the core issue, the fulcrum of our dilemma, the mainstream question we have to deal with, the matter of reform around which the conflict swirls, the challenge God is confronting us with that we are living out in the church.


  1. AndrewT says

    I couldn’t care less about these “conversations”, which, like everything the CofE ever does, seem to pander to the egoes of clergy. As a mere layperson the church has already made it abundantly clear that I am unwelcome and I have no intention of ever returning, however much these presumptuous fools “converse” about me.

    • Anonymous says

      Feeling for you very much in this , especially as a woman priest in the Church in Wales. At the end of the day, I think it is the people in the pews who do all the welcoming, irrespective of interest groups or of the institution itself. This has certainly been my experience of the Church here. I know and understand how tedious it is for you, and for many who come from the opposite theological direction, to hear of conversations which issue forth in very little action and change of attitude, but please do know that there are many Christians and many churches who do welcome you and want to see you flourish in the fullness of our shared humanity. On this note, you might like to take a look at my blog posted on the Faith Debates website.

  2. UnaKroll says

    Colin, thank you, but we do not need to go on using the same old arguments. in this era we need to begin an exploration of what it means to be a human being, irrespective of gender and gender identity, and how that relates to Christ’s humanity by which we are redeemed, not by His virility, else women could not be included in baptism. Please, please try and get the hierarchs of the Anglican Church to get a better perspective and see that diversity is a huge blessing which we should embrace as people who have evolved over millions of years and have learnt to regard revealed science as a companion to good theology. Una

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