NOTE: The Shared Conversations were governed by the St. Michael’s House Protocols. It is under these Protocols that this reflection is written, and so names and affiliations have been redacted to protect the innocent.
Earlier this year, I received an invitation from the Bishop of Manchester to take part in the North West Regional Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality. Initially, I was thrilled and humbled to be given the opportunity to tell my story, offer my insights, and shape the conversation. My enthusiasm was, however, short-lived. When I received my copy of the Conversations’ programme, any optimism I had dissipated. The Conversations were approached from a vague, undefined point of objectivity, with limited space for personal encounters.
Arriving at the Conversations and taking part in the sessions did not rid me of my dismay. Throughout, we walked on eggshells and danced around the topic at hand. Our discussion on Scripture simply produced a list of the many different ways Christians read and apply the Bible to their lives. The discussions on possible futures was simply blue-sky anything-goes thinking. Even the session on the fallacy of “good disagreement” was not to be thought of in the context of sexuality, but simply how we, as Christians, can disagree well. Ironically, there was little agreement on what even that may look like.
On the morning of the second day, we divided in to small groups of three, found a quiet place somewhere in the hotel, and each shared our stories. It was a place of deep vulnerability. As whenever anyone shares their story with me, I felt privileged to be able to hear it. But telling our story is all we could do. We each sat there and, for fifteen minutes, explained what had happened in our lives thus far. And then that was that. From there, we moved on to something else. There was no follow up, no chance to expand my story or properly engage with the others’. I made myself vulnerable, showed the pain and bore my wounds to complete strangers, then was told to move on to whatever came next. I was sliced open, and the deep wound was left to bleed. I was happy to share my story. I wanted to help people on the “conservative” side of the discussion to have a genuine experience and encounter with someone who has hurt because of their beliefs. I hoped that I would be able to help to challenge and help to re-evaluate. But those who heard my story had already made up their minds about how relationships and marriage should work, and how lesbian and gay people did not meet God’s “ideal”.
But one exercise in particular summed up the entire Conversations for me. In a plenary session, we were asked, in our large group of fifty-or-so delegates, to each stand up (if we so wished) and say what, moving forward, is essential to us. The expectation seemed to be that these statements would be pithy yet profound. Some were. The statements from the LGBT delegates spoke of their longing to be loved and affirmed, to have their love for their partners seen for the beautiful thing it is, to not have to live in fear of losing their ministry and their jobs, and that we may move past academic theology and frame the discussion with actual human beings in mind. Then one individual rose and, with a breaking voice, asked that they and other conservative Christians not be marginalised because of their theology and beliefs about human sexuality. They said that, for them, it is essential that there always be a place in the Church where those who held to “traditional” and “biblical” theologies would not be marginalised.
That comment sent a knife through my heart. And the reason it did is because it so clearly sums up the victim mentality of conservative Christianity, and the lack of understanding on the part of the Church of England.
Throughout the three days, I, a gay twenty-year-old Christian, was expected to sit and listen to and engage with those whose theologies and beliefs taught that I am less than equal to them in the eyes of God. I was happy to do so if it meant I could show them the human behind the concept and offer a genuine encounter which might allow them to move past their hatred. But instead I was expected to “learn” from them. I felt like the child in school who’s being bullied and the teachers, instead of challenging the bully, make the child talk to the bully to understand where the bully was coming from, and then acknowledge that they have a right to bully the way they do. I was not allowed to challenge the bully, nor attempt to suggest that they may be misguided. The bully was elevated to an equal moral position with the bullied child, who was told to “respect” the bully and understand that they would continue to pick on them.
I went with an outstretched hand. I went to offer encounter and experience. I wanted to challenge presuppositions and shatter preconceptions. I wanted to be encouraged, I wanted to help shape the conversation. Instead, I have come away from these conversations not hopeful of a chance of a better future, but broken, hurting, and bleeding. I have come away wishing that I had never accepting the Bishop’s invitation. I have come away with a clearer-than-ever understanding of the Church’s lack of commitment to listen to and learn from those that it has systematically oppressed, persecuted, and silenced. These Conversations demonstrated the Church’s attempt to pay lip-service, not any attempt at repentance.
I am broken and hurting. And the Church doesn’t want to heal me.