I’m sitting on a train as dawn breaks over Wales heading back to London after a speech at a glittering golf resort set atop the rain lashed hills of Gwent. My second billet this week, for I was at the Shared Conversations for the dioceses of the East Midlands – Peterborough, Lincoln, Southwell and Nottingham, Derby and Leicester – in an unusually comfortable (by CofE standards) hotel in Leicestershire.
It felt, on arrival, like a smaller Diocesan Conference, and, checking out the lobby for friends and acquaintances. I saw several from Lincoln, in which I was ordained, as well as Peterborough, where I presently serve, and checked everyone else out too, for signs of churchmanship, affiliation, liturgical congeniality; like you do, but especially when meeting to discuss this most divisive of issues; what do we do about the gays (wring hands, look pained, cough, look at feet)?
Well, it was officially to discuss issues in human sexuality, a phrase now as boring to me as ‘in-out referendum’ or ‘Delivering Quality First’, not because the issue is dreary but because our efforts to engage with it have so frequently stalled. If there have been attempts to dismiss it it nevertheless refuses to go away and I guess as we approach elections to Synod next year it behoves us to give it some fresh attention. Boring also because issues in human sexuality for many of us were pretty much resolved some time ago – thirty years ago in my own case – after running away to London from a Midland town which promised little to someone who realised first that he was gay and second that there was the potential for richer life in London. Cue ‘Smalltown Boy’, the song that made Bronksi Beat famous, and launched my own career in pop music, which brought not only material success but vindication for our conviction that being gay was something to be celebrated rather than deplored and that you could refuse the narrow caricature imposed upon us by a world which viewed us with little sympathy. Had we not declared UDI and merely settled for what was on offer then a lifetime of unfulfilment and disgrace lay ahead – if at all, for then the statistics for attempted suicide among young LGBT people were dizzyingly high (NB they still are, and I have had to deal in my own ministry with the suicide of a young person struggling with their sexuality).
I restate this to give an idea of what it is I brought to the discussion – and others too – and to give a sense that I had for many years fought what to me is the good fight and one in which we had largely triumphed. One of the reasons we’re having these discussion is that the view of the wider world in which we live, in places like the UK, has shifted very rapidly towards equality and inclusion for gay people in the past quarter of a century. We need to acknowledge that in a significant way if we want to occupy the place a national church needs to occupy.
And of course the tough reality is that the church in some quarters continues to express opposition to equality and inclusion for gay people, for reasons which seem as self evident and unarguable to them as mine to me.
Two things to say about that: battle hardened veterans of this conflict on both sides go armed to the field, for me an exhausting and exhausted way of conducting the argument – can’t we try something new? – and that we must keep this in mind lest we slip into Anglican habit of imagining that we seek to find a middle ground between two equally meritorious positions. For me this is a justice issue, and there is no acceptable middle ground between justice and injustice. For some on the opposing side it is no les non-negotiable, we’re either faithful to the standard set out clearly in Scripture and head to salvation or we don’t and head to perdition instead. So we arrive at this point from very different premises, and although we can argue Scripture, and psychology, and the 39 Articles, it is highly unlikely that we will persuade our opponents of the rightness of our causes. And there was little evidence of that although, inevitably, the arguments were raised and rehearsed as usual.
Very skilled facilitation helped us not to return too often or for too long into these entrenched positions. What we began to do was to explore opportunities for accommodation in an atmosphere which aimed to produce something like the Christmas truce so memorably celebrated in Sainsbury’s sensitive seasonal advert last year. We were invited out of our trenches to meet in neutral territory, if not safe territory (how can it be safe when LGBT people can be sacked for availing themselves of the legal right to marry one another?) and there discover some common experience, our shared calling. To have an opportunity to do that with people from whom we feel defyingly estranged reminds us that the intensity of this battle expresses our closeness to each other, not our distance from each other; and I learned too that just as I go into these discussion clenched for battle, so do my opponents, who feel more like victims themselves, rather than aggressors, and if you feel victimised your capacity for sympathetic imagination is limited. One delegate, representing conservative evangelical opinion, was notably willing to hear in as direct a from as possible the problem people like us had with people like him, and like a lion in den of fierce Daniels, listened while a queue formed to do exactly that. He gave a gracious and thoughtful account of his own position too and that was impressive and valuable. From these encounters offers were made and accepted to continue the conversation; again, valuable.
There were also two empty chairs, left unoccupied for two delegates on the conservative evangelical side who were invited but felt unable to come. I’m not sure this was a meaningful or effective gesture, but I can report I accidentally sat in one at a session and may have slightly turned the debate in a direction the absentee would not have. Better to turn up, surely?
Another memorable conversation occurred with someone else representing conservative evangelical opinion. He was clear about two things: first, that he had not shifted from the line on the moral wrongness of same sex relationships; second, that he wasn’t shifting from the church either. “I’m not going anywhere.” he said, a view I share from the other side of the argument, and that was significant for it encourages the hope that some change and some accommodation may be reached. It means that he has to work out a way of being
within a church that does things he fundamentally disagrees with – me too; perhaps we all do?
This seems to me be something worth aiming for. Worth aiming for because it may be for now the best we can do; worth aiming for because we might thereby model a way of being together, of upholding a certain attitude to one another, that could say something distinctive and powerful to a fractious, divided and intolerant world. We live, corporately, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, into which we are all baptized, and in that what is dark may become light, what is fallen lifted up, what is despairing restored to hope; and the price of that is sacrifice, patient endurance, and the Cross, our unique hope.
I finish this on another train, taking me to Canterbury to facilitate an unrelated conversation with the Archbishop (about food for the hungry, as it happens). If I get a chance I hope to talk about the Shared Conversations too. I was glad that there were bishops represented at our conference and I hope others felt safe enough, as I did, to engage as fully as possible with them, with everyone, as part of a continuing process to understand the mind of the church in the light of the Gospel, faithful to our tradition, alert for the signs of God’s new creation.
A modest wish, hedged with pieties perhaps; but a modest victory, that might to some even look like a defeat, is worth the effort. What do you think?