On the evening of Monday 15th September 2014 I joined three other panellists at a meeting of the Church of England College of Bishops. This was day one of the College’s Facilitated or Shared Conversation on Human Sexuality. We had been invited because we identify as Christian and LGB or T (or same-sex attracted). We each had 10 minutes to tell something of our story and to say what was on our heart.
Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening. My name is Christina Beardsley and I’m Head of Multi-faith Chaplaincy at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital.
I think I might be at the end of the line [I was the last of a panel of four to speak] because I have a transsexual history. Transgender usually comes last, as in the acronym LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; with ‘I’ for Intersex often omitted altogether, as is the case tonight.
Of course it may because I’m the oldest person on the panel which calls to mind the lines ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ – I see some of you have started already – and a red hat that doesn’t match and run my stick along the railings. Ordained priest 35 years ago I look back and, sadly, the Church of England has not become bold and carefree, like the old woman in Jenny Joseph’s poem, when it comes to matters of sexuality and gender. But it should, and I hope that you can do that in your conversations, for sexuality is about our passion, our creativity and our loving.
When I was priested in 1979 my presentation was male. There was no official Church of England teaching about sexuality. I left theological college and my principal, bishop, training incumbent and the church wardens all knew that Rob was my partner. He still is, only now we’re a married couple – but more of that later. While I was serving my title the Gloucester Report was published and politely ignored by General Synod. Had it been accepted I would have had to tender my resignation to my bishop, which I know he would not have accepted.
And then there was AIDS. The 1987 General Synod debate on Human Sexuality – the Higton debate – took place because Synod was also discussing the church’s pastoral response to people with HIV & AIDS. Many signed up to Tony Higton’s private member’s motion on personal morality so that the pastoral care discussion could proceed without being diverted onto the issue of sexuality – for which read, homosexuality. In retrospect Synod was not well prepared for the Higton debate. I found the outcome shocking. People who I respected and were responsible for nurturing my vocation had said I was acceptable, and then the General Synod seemed to be saying that I wasn’t.
It was confusing and distressing. Some clergy resigned, but I realised that would hurt the people I was serving. I believed I had a vocation and carried on. My position then on same-sex relationships, and it hasn’t changed, was what Jeffery John would later encapsulate in the title of his book, ‘permanent, faithful, stable’. As a Christian I believe in monogamy – whatever the gender of the partners or spouses, but I’m ashamed to say that in the late eighties I did think that being monogamous made me OK with God, and looked down on those who weren’t.
Then Bill died. Bill had been my training incumbent. I was an incumbent myself by then. He died of lung cancer in June 1989, two years after the Higton debate, and my life began to unravel. Bill had been an abba to me, as he was to others. He had mediated God’s love to me unconditionally. I hadn’t run back to him for advice but he was there if I needed him – and then he wasn’t.
You might call what happened next a charismatic experience. I certainly felt touched by the Holy Spirit, but it was also, unsurprisingly given that we are continually living out our baptism, a death-resurrection experience. With it came the conviction that I had to say these words in my next sermon, ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay.’ I told Rob, who said, ‘Are you sure you’re meant to say that?’ ‘Well’, I replied, ‘I’m not completely sure and yet I’ve never felt anything so strongly. I’ll know once I’m there.’ And I did. My words hit the local and national press but what a superb headline, ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay.’
A few days later one of the Sunday School teachers came to see me. As she left she said, ‘I think it’s great that you’ve come out. It’s such a good role model to see a gay man in a caring profession.’ And in my head a light switched on and I thought to myself ‘I never said that I was a man!’ it took me another ten years to work through that one. I had incredibly supportive parishes, but once I began to address my gender identity I knew that I would have to leave. To have one coming out in a parish is acceptable, to have two is excessive. It was proving difficult to find another job, but eventually, in 2000 I got a small part-time post as a hospital chaplain.
This stage of my journey wasn’t easy for Rob either. In 2001, when I transitioned from male to female, our neighbours, whom we’d known for many years, noticed the strain. Barbara stopped me one day and said, ‘I hope this [my transition] won’t upset your relationship with Rob. It is a marriage after all.’ Well, it was and it wasn’t. I suppose Rob and I did see it like that. This was prior to Civil Partnerships. We hadn’t even had prayers in church. I’d said prayers for other same-sex couples, in their homes, but had never wanted this myself. I suppose I was waiting for the Church to sanction it, or maybe, given my gender identity, hoping that one day we would be married as husband and wife. Which is what happened in 2006, post-transition and gender recognition, at the church I attended.
I’m grateful that the House of Bishops made that possible by acknowledging two theologically acceptable positions in the Church of England with regard to transsexual people. My hope is that the House will acknowledge two theologically acceptable positions in the Church of England on same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and same-sex marriage.
Lesbian and gay ordinands and clergy, and their partners if they have them, are supported and affirmed by some bishops, but not officially and this causes tremendous strain. Laity can vote with their feet. Their sexuality is not an issue in the workplace. The NHS, with its culture of equal opportunity, has been a safe place for LGBT clergy, but even that is threatened by the Church’s current policies.
This summer I’ve heard the gospel of God’s unconditional love in Christ proclaimed at the ordination of deacons in Chelmsford, and the clergy retreat at Westcott House. The Church’s exemption from UK equality legislation is seriously at odds with that message. It’s time to integrate our theory and our practice and I hope that you can enjoy the task ahead. Don’t be inhibited: wear purple, an ill-matching hat and run your stick along the railings!