General Synod: feeling the weight of the Church of England

(‘Questions’ section corrected 22 November 2021)

I’m back on General Synod: for the second time in my life. What’s it like? I published a short piece just over a month ago, after my election as a representative of the Oxford Diocese to the House of Laity of General Synod; and now I’ve had my first meeting. It was very full-on, information-heavy (by necessity) but my overall reaction was strongly that it was right for me to be there. ‘Coming home’ would be far too strong, but I was absolutely certain that I was right to stand. 

I represented Guildford Diocese in 1985-1993, in my late twenties, as one of the five youngest members. There are still very few in their twenties, but those I’ve already met clearly have a lot of experience and thinking to offer. Synod also looks more ethnically diverse than it did then, and of course – big difference – when I went on in 1985 women were only in the House of Laity. Things can, and do, change. So it was odd to meet people who, when told I’d been a member a long time ago, said “Oh yes, I thought I recognised you!” 

This blog is subtitled Reflecting on sexuality and gender identity in the Church of England, and although I am far from being a single-issue member of General Synod it’s not going to become a general blog on everything that happens at every meeting. Nor will it become a blow-by-blow, day-by-day summary. Other people do those and, quite honestly, I need time to decompress every evening rather than rushing back to my computer. So, sparing you all my thoughts about Synod in general (and I’m sorry that, even so, this is a longer blog post than usual), here goes, mostly on those themes.

Living with Living in Love and Faith?

I put in a request to speak in the debate on the Agenda, when members can ask the Chair of the Business Committee about the reasons why topics are included; or not included. I wanted to ask why the Leeds Diocesan Synod motion (on the wealth gap) was ‘in’ the agenda when the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion (on blessings for same-sex couples after a civil partnership of marriage) was ‘out’. This meant I could flag up to new members the way that the current policy, of not allowing debate on such themes until after the ‘Living in Love and Faith process’ is complete, will mean at least six years of silence on topics which are very important indeed to many of us. I spoke to the Chair of the Business Committee before and let him know what I was going to say, or at least roughly what, as it rather depended on what he said in his intro to the debate, and what other speakers raised. 

In fact, I was called to speak first. But before the debate could start, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to Synod. Following a lot of concern about the widely-reported statement from the Anglican Church in Ghana apparently endorsing a bill proposing the criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people, he denied that this is their church’s policy, supporting this with reference to private conversations he is having. This was a surprise, bearing in mind the bishops in Ghana, for example, offering to “open our counselling and support centres for the needed transformation services required by these persons or groups”, which sounds a lot like conversion therapy. The beginning of the debate on the Agenda was further delayed a little by a silent protest by LGBT members of Synod holding up placards pointing out that if the proposed bill in Ghana goes forward, they would be imprisoned there; of course, if the bill becomes law, it will also affect those of us who are allies, as we too would be liable to be imprisoned. This was a powerful reminder that, in debates about sexuality and gender identity, it’s not ‘us’ talking about ‘them’. ‘We’ are all the Church.

Then we moved to the debate on the agenda. After pointing out that the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion had been bumped down the list, I asked whether there is a ‘forbidden list of words’ which evoke the ‘Not to be discussed while the LLF process continues’ response: I named sex, sexuality, gender, friendship – because LLF talks about friendship – and marriage, asking whether a Diocesan Synod motion from Blackburn will also fall foul of the ‘not yet’ rule because it includes the word ‘marriage’. The answer was that there is no ‘forbidden list’, but everything is considered on its merits: a clever answer, but I think I know what it means.


I also decided to submit two questions (every member is allowed up to two) for the Questions session which is traditionally on the first day of a Synod meeting, and to think about possible supplementaries after the written responses to my questions came out a few days before Synod met; the deal is that the original questioner can ask a supplementary, and it’s possible to ask these on other people’s questions too. While there are not always helpful answers, the Questions session offers an opportunity to hold our leaders to account. 

At a late stage, I decided to ask one supplementary on someone else’s question: I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury about the Ghana bill’s Clause 23, which would mean non-consensual surgery on people whose bodies do not fit the binary; he obviously wasn’t expecting this and gave an answer on the lines of Ghana not being the business of the House of Bishops. But at least members of Synod who didn’t previously realise this group of people is also affected now know about it. 

One of my own questions concerned how the Reference Group is being used by the Next Steps Group taking the Living in Love and Faith process forwards: the answer made it clear that it is only being used now, which seems odd, but it’s an answer and I appreciated the Bishop of London introducing her answer with “Thank you for this question which appropriately calls the work of the Next Steps Group to account”. So, no supplementary.

The other question I asked was on safeguarding: I was at a meeting shortly before Synod at which a church member challenged the amount of money being spent on safeguarding training and on support for survivors, and this made me pretty angry. There are no excuses for rejecting the training, and I am delighted that at last the Church is helping survivors. My question was simple: when is the Makin review into the abuses carried out by the late John Smyth going to be published? (useful video here) The Scripture Union Independent Case Review has now been issued but had a very narrow remit; Smyth was a trustee from 1971-1979. Survivors have been kept waiting for over two years already for the Makin review, apparently because of new evidence being brought, but what we’d been told most recently – publication “in 2022” – is still vague. The response I was given from the Lead Bishop for Safeguarding started with the usual “deep regret” but could not give any date. So I asked a supplementary about whether the review is including Smyth’s actions in Africa, since it seems to me that these have never been taken sufficiently seriously, and that the whole idea of sending someone with such a history to Africa is not just horrendous, but deeply racist. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe in 1984 (he continued to visit family in the UK) but then moved again in 2001, to South Africa, after nearly being brought to trial for offences against boys at his camps in Zimbabwe, including the death of 14-year-old Guide Nyachuru. The Bishop’s reply was that “If and when evidence comes forward of abuse which has taken place outside of its [the Makin review’s] specific remit, then that evidence is taken seriously, and further investigation into what comes to light will be, and must be, undertaken.” The terms of reference for Makin suggest a time frame up to August 2019, covering C of E bodies and office holders who had knowledge of what Smyth was alleged to have done; so, does that cover their knowledge of Africa? By 2013, the C of E authorities most definitely knew about what Smyth had done (the ‘Ruston report’ of 1982 was originally kept within the circle of Iwerne Trust leaders) and had informed the Anglican church in South Africa. But previously we had been told that Africa was not included in the Makin review.

Pomp and circumstance

There is just one other aspect of this first Synod of the quinquennium on which I’ll comment here: the Westminster Abbey Eucharist. It was very traditional, with of course the Abbey choristers, the organ, the robes and all the pomp. In contrast to the services I remember in 1985 and 1990, the Abbey didn’t want us all processing in, so we were seated with other diocesan members. This spared me what I recall as the most emotional part of the whole thing, that feeling of walking down the aisle to my fate, like a chosen victim in an animal sacrifice. But the service was still highly emotional, and not just because the hymns included one my parents had at their wedding and two we had at ours (‘Be still for the presence of the Lord and ‘For all the years’) which are already on my emotional high-octane list. 

Alongside the emotion, though, this time around I felt something else, alongside the feeling of being entrusted with an important responsibility. 

What you see speaks more powerfully even than what you sing and say. Over and over in the following two days, we heard the current C of E mantra of “simpler, humbler, bolder”. But did any of that apply to the service? Simple? Humble?? We also heard a lot about “Setting God’s people free” – one of Synod’s ongoing programmes, about valuing the laity. However, for the service, clergy were instructed that they must wear Convocation robes. Lay members of Synod were not to wear robes or uniforms, and that included laity who are Licensed Lay Ministers/Readers, who often wear robes when performing their roles in church. Why no robes for lay members of Synod? Because they ‘represent’ the laity. No, I don’t see the logic there either – clergy on Synod ‘represent’ the clergy who voted for them – and my preference would be for no members of Synod to wear robes or uniforms; just be there as Christians. 

At the same time as the service emphasised that we have been entrusted with a role which needs to be taken very seriously, there was another message: that this is the established Church. How can we possibly say anything that will change its course? The feeling of weightiness here is huge, and not always positive: and I was very aware that the weight of the Church is still crushing people. 

… UPDATE: Further reflections, focused on the Archbishops’ address, on the Via Media blog.

Posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith, Renewal and reform programme, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Handing on the baton? Part 2

Back in July 2021, I wrote ‘Handing on the baton? Part 1‘ as a response to the presentation given to the outgoing General Synod on where the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process had then reached. You’ll remember that this all started in 2017, at which point I was a member of the History Thematic Group, supposedly feeding in a historical dimension to the creation of the learning resources. Since then, I’ve been elected to the Synod myself. There isn’t any formal discussion of LLF scheduled at the November 2021 Synod, but there will be an optional briefing session from the Bishop of London and members have all been issued with a new document to bring them up to speed on where we are with the ‘journey’ (a rather over-used image), GS Misc 1306. This has a section summarising the responses to the questionnaire issued to members of the ‘old’ Synod, and the ‘passing the baton’ image is used there too.

Presumably the phrase ‘passing the baton’ was suggested, or at least agreed, by the group of bishops who are now taking LLF forward: called, in another reference to travel and journeys, the Next Steps Group. But it’s now concerning me. The idea of a race has good Biblical precedent; it is used in the New Testament by the author of Acts (who mentions finishing the course) and in the epistles, for example in 2 Timothy 4: 7 on how ‘finishing the race’ is equivalent to keeping the faith, as well as 1 Corinthians 9:24, where only one runner takes the prize. In a context like that of LLF, where everyone is supposed to be heard, the idea of a prize seems out of place.

I’m not a runner, but it seems to me that there are important differences between LLF and a race. In a normal race, the course is marked out; you know where the finishing line lies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with LLF. Briefly, when we began in 2017 after the failure to ‘take note’ of the report GS2055, it was clear; the finishing line, in the sense of the date when the report was to be completed, would be summer 2020, ready for the Lambeth Conference. But even then it was less clear where the finishing line would be in the sense of the Church taking decisions on the questions which led to LLF, questions which in in GS2055 were all around equal marriage. That finishing line has continued to shift and shift; part of that was due to Covid and to the postponement of the Lambeth Conference, and it’s my suspicion that the latest timeline’s schedule for issuing a report on how participants responded to the LLF course reveals that the bishops want that to happen only when Lambeth 2022 is safely over. The distance over which this ‘race’ is run goes on being extended.

I am a realist. I know that when LLF started, we were making up the plan as we went along. There couldn’t be a clear list of topics for a publication until our discussions began, and for some time there wasn’t even agreement over whether there should be a ‘big book’ or something more accessible as the output. Over the course of 2017-2020, things kept changing. The initial concept for the book was to have something on where society and the church are ‘now’, with an explanation of how we reached that; then, a section on how God communicates – at one point, in that time-honoured Church of England tradition of things beginning with the same letter, that was going to be Creation, Canon, Church, Context, Conscience – and then a section on being human. That final section moved more and more towards being about humanity as fallen and then redeemed. You may well wonder how a document on equal marriage became such a huge project.

If there is a baton to pass on, it has changed its shape many times over the process. At one point, the book was drafted so that the story of the road to Emmaus provided the overall shape: at another point, one of the eucharistic prayers became the framing device. This all felt awkward; trying to fit everything into one of these frames obviously changed the content and its emphasis, but we were told that some bishops thought the book should tell the story of salvation more fully, and it’s the bishops’ teaching document.

When you pass the baton in a relay, you don’t change the baton and you don’t change the race length at the same time. Yet even at this (supposedly) late stage, there is the proposal to add in more resources: one of them, a resource called The Gift of the Church. What’s that? I’d no idea until I saw the document which forms the basis of GS1306, which tells me that it “encourages theological reflection across the church about what it means to be church in the light of the LLF process and the questions it raises. It also aims to ensure that the work of discernment and decision-making is biblically, theologically and
experientially grounded in what it means to be church”. Who’s writing it? From the minutes of the Next Steps Group meeting of 29 September 2021, apparently the Next Steps Group and the Faith and Order Commission, with unspecified “others”.

Another addition is “an annotated bibliography relating to gender identity and transition”, even though trans Christians have argued against going ahead with this now. The letter from Revd Tina Beardsley of Changing Attitude England to the Bishop of London, summarising the current situation for trans people, has been published on the Unadulterated Love blog. Who is this bibliography for? Does anyone need it, bearing in mind that the LLF book has already discussed what it is to be trans and that, as Tina points out, the Church’s position on ordination and marriage of trans people is clear? Why problematise this group now? Tina has offered a training session to the Next Steps Group and, as for a bibliography, I’d have thought a simple recommendation to read Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue: An argument for justice (2021), would suffice.

If this is a race, the losers still seem to be people who identify as LGBTQI+. The bishops-only Next Steps Group has a more diverse advisory group but it isn’t clear whether this has even met. At the moment, the involvement of LGBTQI+ people in this process has moved from minimal to apparently non-existent. It feels to me like the baton is just being passed between white cis-het people, while the race continues to be extended.

Posted in Church of England and gender, Episcopal Teaching Document, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghana, Anglicans and expediency:

Living in Love, Faith and Lambeth

The current outrage about the support of some Anglican bishops in Ghana for the proposed legislation imposing 5-year prison sentences for identifying as gay or trans, or 10 years for promoting anything other than heterosexuality, yesterday reached the stage where the Archbishop of Canterbury has made a statement and various other bishops are repeating it or making comments of their own. To my mind, the best response so far is that of the senior staff of Portsmouth, the diocese which is officially linked to Ghana. They rightly draw attention to the document signed by all Anglican primates in 2016, rejecting criminal sanctions against LGBTQI+ people. So how do the Ghanaian bishops get away with this?

The discussion has made me think again about the Lambeth Conference, the official once-a-decade international meeting of Anglican bishops. In the C of E, what is resolved at these conferences has moral authority, but not legal force. Successive Lambeth Conferences have changed their views; for example, on contraception, condemned as “hostile to moral welfare” in 1908, seen as “an invitation to vice” in 1920, but fine within marriage by 1958. In the context of the Ghana situation, a resolution from the 1998 conference, known as Lambeth Resolution 1.10, has been mentioned again. I hadn’t really read it properly at the time; I wasn’t in any church roles and had other things to do, but now I regret not having been aware of what it said and how it was put together. It supports “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”, so, I ask, is marriage after divorce acceptable? probably not, so that would already put the C of E – and me! – in a difficult position. It recognises that – even in the Church – there exist “persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation”. That’s pretty mealy-mouthed, hinting that these persons may be misled by their feelings, or what the 1998 documents called their “false understandings” of themselves, and contrasts with Portsmouth Diocese‘s point that what Ghana proposes is imprisoning people “for being who they are”.

Lambeth 1.10 rejected all “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”. In terms of our current discussions in the C of E, the resolution went on to state that the Lambeth Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions” (why use “sex” and then “gender” here? I think I need this unpacked). The Resolution also condemned “irrational fear of homosexuals”; what, I wonder, would count as a “rational” fear?*

When you go further down the webpage giving Resolution 1.10, you will find that – rather like the C of E today in the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) book – the bishops “confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality”, some of them thinking it’s a disorder but that “through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle”; presumably this means conversion therapy is fine, but that has been condemned since 1998, even though the current statement by the Anglican bishops in Ghana is still promoting what they call their “transformation services” – sounds like an interior decoration firm, but it most definitely is not. At the other end of the spectrum in 1998, there were already some bishops who thought that monogamous homosexual relationships should be supported and people in them should be able to be ordained.

In 2016 George Conger blogged about his experiences of the creation of 1.10. His intention was to show that some of the liberal attempts at that time to cite another clause of 1.10, on ministering to all regardless of sexual orientation, in order to support the involvement of C of E bishops in Pride parades, were not what those who voted for 1.10 had in mind. I can quite see that! Conger was at Lambeth as a gofer – the one who went out for late night takeaways, drove bishops to the station, served the canapés, put the conference directory together and, along with all this, typed up handwritten notes to create the final documents. Along with his fascinating comments on the lack of trust between the bishops, he gives an explanation for the origin of that “irrational fear of homosexuals” phrase; it was there to avoid saying “homophobia” because the Bishop of Dallas wanted to avoid giving the impression that opposing “the ‘gay’ agenda” counted as homophobia. Simon Sarmiento has also posted his experiences of Lambeth 1998, including the various stages which 1.10 went through in drafting, and Bishop Buchanan of Johannesburg’s critique of the idea that homosexuality is a “white man’s importation”, something I have also commented on here. Simon’s version of what the “irrational fear of homosexuals” is doing there instead credits a Kenyan bishop, Samson Muraluda. He also pointed out that, when considering this Resolution, “The unsolved mystery of yesterday is why 100 or so bishops attending the Conference apparently did not vote at all.”

I’m very glad that I wasn’t at Lambeth but, as regular readers of this blog know, I played a small part in LLF as a member of one of the thematic working groups, on history. Lambeth was mentioned all the time; the Terms of Reference under which we worked from October 2017 onwards stated that the document should be available for discussion before summer 2020, as it was both the end of the 2015-2020 Synod quinquennium and the occasion for the next Lambeth Conference. The LLF book was often described as “a gift to Lambeth”, calling up worrying images of bishops being given a presentation box, opening it expecting something lovely, and finding several hundred pages of reading matter. It reminds me of the random gifts received by royalty; a selection of which are here. But there wasn’t a Lambeth in 2020, and it still hasn’t happened. Were copies of LLF sent around the world anyway? I have no idea.

And if there is a Lambeth conference next year – the fifteenth one is now scheduled to happen at Canterbury from the end of July 2022 – how does it fit with the timeline for LLF? At the moment, that timeline involves the publications of two important items only in September 2022. These are the findings of ‘Listening to the Whole Church’ – the feedback from those who want to say how they found the LLF course – and yet another resource, ‘The Gift of the Church’, a late addition to the huge number of pages published as part of LLF, and something I’d never even heard about until this month. Only after those are published, a month or so after Lambeth has happened, can the ‘discernment’ process begin in the College of Bishops.

From the imperative to rush to publish in time for Lambeth 2020, it seems to me that there is a further pause being put on the LLF process now in order to ensure that no decisions are made until Lambeth 2022 has happened. Why? Because that way, the Archbishop of Canterbury keeps his hands clean and somehow holds the Anglican Communion together. “Yes, brother (and sister) bishops, we have published these resources, but no, we haven’t changed anything and of course we may not do so.” Are these delays, with the continued uncertainty for those who long for their relationships to be blessed by the church, a fair price to pay?

*Various amendments to 1.10 were proposed but were defeated or withdrawn. If you find 1.10 worrying as passed, I suggest a stiff drink before reading these.

Posted in Episcopal Teaching Document, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Back on General Synod after all these years…

Today I attended the online count on Zoom and discovered that I have been elected to the House of Laity of General Synod to represent Oxford Diocese for the next five years. It’s still sinking in… The elections work by Single Transferable Vote, and I was the third of 24 lay candidates to be given one of the 9 places. I am amazed, since I am not currently a member of Diocesan Synod so not really known much outside my own patch. I spent a lot of time on the ‘campaign’; I emailed every voter individually and addressed them by their names (that took much of three days), responded to emails back, recorded the optional 3-minute video on where I worship/what I can bring to Synod/what the issues are, and answered the 4 questions selected from those sent in by voters, in 120 words or less.

It’s over 35 years since I first stood for Synod, for the Guildford Diocese. I very seriously considered standing in 2015 but it wasn’t the right time; I was about to retire, my mother wasn’t well and needed more care, and it just didn’t happen. This time, it did. I shall think about this more when I’ve recovered from the shock, but meanwhile here’s the text of my election address: I was as straightforward as I could be about where I stand on ‘the issues’, the various connections I have with formal church groupings, and so on. And I didn’t feel the need to mention Cranmer!


Election address, 2021

In some ways I may be the typical Church of England member in this diocese – average age, a woman, middle class – but that doesn’t mean I am happy with the status quo! I have served on General Synod before, when I was one of the youngest members. I’ve attended as a visitor since then: I know what’s involved, and what the current issues are. Back in 1985 when I first offered myself as a candidate, I noted that I couldn’t say how I would vote on every issue, because if I knew that already there’d be little point in holding a debate: I want to listen as well as to speak. But I have some fixed points: above all, full inclusion, as modelled by our God who lived among us in Jesus, an inclusion covering not just gender and sexuality, but also age, disability, race and class.

Church and church roles
I’ve worshipped in a range of churches, from a gathered evangelical church when I was a teenager, to a flagship Anglo-Catholic church, to Anglican churches in Paris and Vienna when I was working there. Most of my life, however, I have simply gone to my parish church, and done what’s needed – from serving coffee to polishing the brasses. I believe in the parish system with all its openness and fuzzy edges. I’ve had moments when I have felt God’s presence very strongly in a range of church settings, and – after some years not attending church – when walking down the road at night.
I am currently an authorised lay preacher, server and intercessor, and am on the team running a weekly online contemplative service in my parish; as a Chapel Homilist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford I also have a chance to engage with young Christians and enquirers about the Christian faith. In my parish, I’ve also been a sidesperson and Deanery Synod rep, and led Emmaus groups, specialising in the introductory level, ‘Nurture’, which is aimed at those wondering what the church believes, or who are new to faith. I have represented the Church of England on the British Council of Churches and at the European Council of Churches. I was an Oxford Diocese participant in the Regional Shared Conversations and then was asked to join the national team preparing Living in Love and Faith, working with the History sub-group.
I fully support the ordination of women and their flourishing in churches of all traditions. My stepdaughter is a priest in secular employment. I’m concerned about the flourishing of women in dioceses where the bishop does not recognise them as priests, and about inequalities in selection which mean that only a third of ordinands under 35 are women. I’m a former member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women and currently belong to Women and the Church.

It’s my career – and my passion.
Trained in ancient history and social anthropology before moving into the history of medicine and of the body, I have worked full-time in higher education all my life, teaching, researching, writing and managing people, in Cambridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Reading and at The Open University. I’ve held visiting roles in Europe and the USA. I also worked in Liverpool for 7 years at Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, for 5 years as a resident tutor. LIHE was formed from Anglican and Roman Catholic teacher-training institutions; our little chapel was where I first served and preached.
At LIHE I particularly enjoyed working with returners to higher education – often young men made redundant from Ford Halewood – so it was a real pleasure to end my formal career at the OU, where such students are the norm. To encourage more people into learning, I was invited to design a free online course on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World which is on the FutureLearn platform; this encourages interactive learning as a community from all over the world.
I continue to work with the Quality Assurance Agency and the OU on quality review, including supporting a college in Leeds for which the OU validates their degrees. I have been a Church of England reviewer, for theological colleges and lay training schemes. The future of theological education is under debate and I think I can make contributions here.

I haven’t experienced sexual abuse in the church, but I know those who have. The terrible experiences of abuse, secrecy and failure to believe reports are something for which we should all repent. Safeguarding training is essential – no excuses. So is proper recompense for those whose lives have been affected. At the same time, the process of reforming the Clergy Discipline Measure has begun, so that the lives of innocent clergy and their families are not destroyed.

Marriage and sexuality
I didn’t marry until in my late 40s, and I’m an enthusiast for it! We met online, through Christian Connection and we’ve run The Marriage Course together. My husband was widowed, remarried and then divorced before we met. In my youth, divorced people weren’t allowed to take communion – not permitted until 1981 – but even in 2005 my husband’s divorce still meant interviews with our vicar before we could be allowed to make our vows in church. I feel for those whose legal civil partnerships and marriages can’t even be blessed in their churches, and support equal marriage while accepting that some priests would not feel able to preside at these marriages. I also believe in and will work for full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in ministry. I’m on the steering group of Changing Attitude England and belong to Inclusive Church, OneBodyOneFaith and the Campaign for Equal Marriage.

The gospel on the streets
I’ve been a Street Pastor in my town since my husband helped set up this scheme locally, and I love it. The depth of theological discussion that happens with young people in the early hours of the morning can be wonderful, but they are quite clear that they have no urge to enter our buildings. We sometimes talk about ‘taking the gospel to the streets’ but I find that God is already there, ahead of us as He usually is, in the support people are showing to each other when things are tough for them.

Older people
While we work to make sure that children are aware of the stories of the Bible, for example through the ‘Open the Book’ project in schools, I worry that we are forgetting the older members of our society. I was the main carer for my mother during her final years and both of us often felt very isolated. I now support (mostly) older people in various voluntary roles: accompanying our vicar to take communion into care homes, working with the Home Library Service, as a digital helper in the local library, and recording for the Talking Newspaper. I’ve also helped run ‘Grave Talk’ locally.

I tweet on @fluff35; I have written articles for the blogs of Modern Church and Via Media, and have my own blog on church issues, I would love to have your first preference vote: and please feel free to contact me now or if I’m elected, with any questions.

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged | 4 Comments

Counter-cultural Cranmer?

Those who can vote in the current General Synod elections have this week received something from a group calling itself ‘CounterCulturalChurch’. This is a reaction to two emails from another loose grouping, ‘InclusiveOxford’, which I have supported. The full text of that ‘CounterCulturalChurch’ message is at the end of this blog post.

There are many, many questions raised by their insistence that the church “has always been called to be counter-cultural”. Some of these are matters of historical fact; in the early church – the period about which I know most – the relationship between the message of the church and that of Roman imperial culture is hardly so simple. I suppose you could get around that by stressing “called”: the church has not always listened, when called. Other questions are contemporary. What exactly is ‘culture’ saying, today? That women should give up their jobs and stay at home? That women should be included at all levels of society and paid equally? That transphobia is acceptable, or that people who are gay should be assaulted? Or that it’s fine to be trans or gay or both? Which ‘culture’ are we called to ‘counter’?  

But as a historian, I am also disturbed by the email’s statement that “Cranmer wrote these prophetic words: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies’”.  

Because, quite simply, he didn’t.  

It doesn’t take much effort to find out that the words are not those of Cranmer, but of Ashley Null; see for example here. It’s “not a direct quote from Cranmer”, as noted here, and it’s only on ‘Quote sites’ that it is attributed to Cranmer himself, as here. You can easily find out more about Ashley Null and his work on Cranmer, for example here, but the writers of the email don’t seem to be interested in him.  

Why a “Cranmer quote”? As it happens, I included a chapter on ‘Hippocrates in quotes’ in a book I wrote about the history of creating one’s own version of Hippocrates in order to promote a drug or a method of healing. The whole book is open-access, online, here. I noted there that “Quotations give the impression of knowledge without the hard work of reading the rest of the text from which they are taken.” They are often lifted out of context, altered or even created from scratch by their receivers. An Internet quote has various features, some of which are more or less specific to the electronic medium; the quote is usually presented as something someone ‘said’ rather than ‘wrote’, it is noteworthy and repeatable, and it has an implicit meaning that is largely taken for granted, so it needs no explanation or commentary. It is not just presented with no context; the very concept of there being a greater text is absent. “Hippocrates quotes” commonly give no date and no title of the text from which they are supposed to originate.  

But this “Cranmer quote” is even worse – it is very simple to find that these are not words which he wrote! So, why Cranmer? I think I’ve worked out why whoever wrote this message wanted to include his name. I suspect it goes back to the advice issued by CEEC and EGGS to their candidates for Synod, discussed here: in essence, try to sound like an Anglican. Thomas Cranmer: just saying his name means you are a proper Anglican. Or, not.      

The email:
You will have received two emails from ‘Inclusive Church’ so to find some balance here’s an email from a group of candidates who, united around Jesus’ teaching, want to achieve pretty much everything ‘Inclusive Church’ wishes to but without being swept along by culture by redefining marriage.
The church, if true to the Gospel, has always been called to be counter-cultural.  The church, as a lifeboat, should be in the sea but when the sea gets into the lifeboat we’re in trouble.  This is the predicament we’re in now.
Cranmer wrote these prophetic words: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” but we, the candidates listed below, promise to uphold the truth as revealed in scripture. 
As John Stott said: “Truth becomes hard if not softened by love;
Love becomes soft if not strengthened by truth”
.  We – a broad coalition of orthodox clergy and lay people – commit to holding grace and truth in balance so please prayerfully consider voting for us:
Andrew Atherstone, Johnny Dade, Martin Khurt, Joy Mawdesley, Kevin Mentzel, Jeremy Moodey, Will Pearson-Gee, Kate Pellereau, Vaughan Roberts and David Walker.
Andrew Bell, Gracy Crane, Prudence Dailey, Andrew Gibson, David Horrocks Helen Lamb, Andy Marshall, Daniel Matovu, Olly Shaw and Jacob Wigley.
The deadline to vote is this Friday at midnight. Don’t miss it!
Yours in Christ,
[This is the first and last email you’ll receive from us.]
Posted in Church of England and gender, General Synod | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Being winsome

You know how a word passes entirely under your radar for years, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, I’ve become alert to “winsome” recently. I’ve seen it in job adverts for Christian institutions (one here, another here), as well as applied to various Christian leaders like John Stott and John V. Taylor, Bishop of Winchester from 1974-84, and I feel sure I’ve also seen it applied to Tim Dakin, the outgoing Bishop of Winchester. It even turns up in a puff for a book on the theology of sport (“in winsome fashion it advances a conversation that is much needed”). And now it has turned up on a document posted on Twitter by Fr Steve Hilton, something which appears to come from a handy guide for General Synod election candidates issued by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS), offering “examples of winsome election statements”.

What does it mean? It’s not a word I have ever used, and after doing a little research I am not sure I ever shall. It’s one of those words which seems to have acquired its own meaning in some evangelical Christian circles. 

Starting before all this Christian winsomeness, the Oxford English Dictionary takes it back to Old English wynsum and Saxon wunsam, meaning “Pleasant, delightful, agreeable. Obsolete.” The win part means “joy” or “a source of joy”. The modern sense of the word is given as “Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners”. Other dictionaries go for “sweetly or innocently charming”. But I wonder: is this charm for its own sake, or is it the idea that the charm, or the attractive appearance, somehow wins somebody over to your point of view?

Turning now to Christian uses, it’s not an entirely new word in church circles. In the November 1951 edition of The Venerabile, a publication put together by those involved with the Venerable English College in Rome, there’s a poem by their archivist Henry E.G. Rope, entitled Ostia Antica, in which children “request/Some picture of a saint with winsome mien”. And nor is it as girly as I had assumed from all that sweet innocent charm: The Witness for 10 December 1921 includes a reference to Roman Catholic priests in the USA with Irish names and a “commanding presence” which “tends to make them winsome to men in their congregations”. 

Here, being winsome does seem to suggest “winning some” to Christ. There is a 2020 book entitled Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without dividing the Church by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. It’s a follow-up to their Winsome Persuasion: Christian influence in a post-Christian world (2017). Persuasion… interesting word. Indian Hills Community Church website has a 2018 article on “Winsome Evangelism”. The author, Ed Daly, notes that you’re not going to find the word in your concordance, but the absence of any equivalent in Hebrew or Greek doesn’t stop him arguing that it encapsulates James 3:17-18. He defines it as “the idea of gracious speech and a loving demeanor characterized by joy, wisdom, faith (total trust), a sure and steadfast hope without compromising on the truth and our convictions, and above all compassion”. The Church Mission Society magazine The Call for Autumn 2020 includes a church planter in Valparaiso asking for prayer that “the church missionary communities  … continue to be active, fervent and winsome”. Ed Stetzer gave a talk to Saddleback Church in November 2020 on “Winsome Witness in a Warring World” (maybe going too far on the alliteration front?). Being winsome, he says, is having “an attractive personality”. 

Some winsome fans are more explicit about how this quality is effective in mission and witness. An article from 2015 tells readers that “The Bible calls us to be winsome for the gospel”, using 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23 about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”. So, Paul suggests, you change your approach according to those to whom you are talking – be a Jew to Jews, be under the law to those under the law, be weak to the weak and so on. Of course, he really was all those things: he wasn’t faking it! And another article is explicit that being winsome is “to be persuasive, to win people to your side”. Maybe not so “innocent” after all?

Also from 2020 is the article “Should Christians be winsome?” by Jim and Amy Spiegel. This helpfully points out that plenty of Jesus’ behaviour was “not exactly the stuff of winsomeness”: overturning the tables in the Temple is just one example. They also challenge the frequent claim that being winsome is obeying Jesus’ “unless you change and become like little children…”, pointing out that this is about humility rather than “charming naivety”, and that “there are no biblical commands to be winsome”.

What worries me in this call for winsomeness is that it is not entirely honest. Certainly, we all need to find ways to talk to those with whom we disagree in a respectful way. But being sweet and charming and doing it with a smile doesn’t negate the basic disagreement, nor does it acknowledge it as such. In so many ways, I would like a more honest church, not a more winsome one.

Posted in General Synod | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Church of England as a WASGIJ

No, this isn’t an acronym. In this blog post I want to think about strategy and schemes in our church; and at the end of it, you will learn more about my hobbies than you cared to know.

But first: the context. At central level, the Church of England has been making some attempts to face the brutal facts of its own possible demise. In my own parish, the finances have largely held up during the pandemic – the advantages of moving regular attenders to standing orders rather than relying on the plate collection – and, although we have lost the income we’d expect from coffee mornings and from renting the recently reordered building to local groups, we haven’t spent as much on heating and lighting because of the lower level of use. Within the team ministry in which this parish sits, things are less rosy and the solution has been to draw on reserves, which is fine as a temporary solution, if a church actually has any reserves. But none of that helps with the deeper problem: the skewed demographic which makes me, at 63, one of the younger members of the congregation.

What’s the answer? If we believe in our message, how do we tell other people about it? In recent weeks there has been quite a lot of faff around a plan put forward by a group called Myriad, a name which makes me think of the passage in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus talks to a man who is possessed by “an unclean spirit”, asks the demon for a name and is told “My name is Legion, because there are many of us”: but that’s probably not what Myriad had in mind.

Myriad is an initiative of the Gregory Centre for Christian Multiplication (no, I’d never heard of this before either), choosing the name of Gregory partly because he was a saint “plucked from the business world … amidst the collapsing Roman Empire”. Sort of independent, but sort of Church of England – it’s run from the office of the Bishop of Islington – it describes itself on its website as “a movement of people with a vision to see a multiplication of new forms of church across this nation and beyond”, going on to explain that “Our aim is to support the planting of 10,000 new, predominantly lay-led, Church of England churches in the next ten years resulting in 1 million new disciples of Jesus Christ.” So, alongside the multiplication in the sense of different “forms of church”, there’s the basic maths: 10,000 new churches with 100 new members in each. The website uses a very odd pseudo-Greek font for headings, so in the word “plant” the ‘a’ is an alpha and the ‘n’ is the Greek pi, so if you tried to pronounce that it would be “plapt”. Yes, I’m a classicist and I notice this sort of thing. While we’re on the Classics, the Myriad people say that the word “suggests a variety of lights and colours”, which quite honestly – it doesn’t. The ancient Greek myriad just means 10,000, or in some cases ‘countless’: indeed, ‘legion’.

Much of the discussion of this so far has focused on the words “predominantly lay-led”. So many questions arise: how would these people be selected, trained and supported? What about safeguarding concerns? Then there was the use of the unfortunate term “limiting factors” – factors presented as limiting any growth – which suggested that the main limitation at present is having to spend so much on training priests. At the end of July, the Gregory Centre issued a statement trying to explain that none of this was intended as an attack on priests. At the July General Synod, the Archbishop of York addressed that directly: “Even where some services or mission initiatives are lay led, they remain under the oversight of the local incumbent”. Who, of course, has nothing else to do in their day job…

Nor did it help that this “10,000 churches” statement coincided with the Church of England using exactly the same figure. Coincidence, or not? Different people involved seemed to be giving different versions of whether these were the same 10,000 or a further 10,000; there’s a good summary here. It isn’t clear who currently funds Myriad: the director, Canon John McGinley, referred to “personal supporters” and “a couple of trusts”. So, who is paying this particular piper? He commented on the number 10,000 that “interestingly that number has now been adopted by the church in its national vision and strategy … We are simply wanting to contribute to this”. Oh, so no connection then; just an interesting coincidence? This does seem unlikely. He tried to explain that “We are offering our experience of church planting to serve the national vision for 10,000 new Christian communities” (the national vision??), but that doesn’t really help – it still suggests that there is one scheme, with Myriad offering its solution to the C of E in general. The C of E is officially talking about a “mixed ecology” of parish churches alongside fresh expressions (“new forms of Church”); and, no surprise, Myriad refers to this on its own website (defining a mixed ecology church as one which is “Christ Centred and Jesus Shaped” – the language of the C of E’s “vision and strategy journey”), further giving the impression that it’s all the same 10,000 churches and that they are going to deliver what the C of E has apparently decided it wants.

The C of E is currently very fond of “data-rich discussions” and “measuring progress” (as in the Church Development Tool approach), along with management-speak and official titles for work schemes, although usually these are a lot more clunky than Myriad: there’s “Renewal and Reform”, the “Transforming Effectiveness agenda” or “The Emerging Church of England”, as well as management diagrams like the one here. Then there are the bizarre titles of new senior management posts in some dioceses, such as the Associate Archdeacon Transition Enablers of Sheffield. Such initiatives and posts have been seen as diverting money away from the parish level, hence a new movement to “Save the parish” rather than funding large churches to spawn more churches modelled on themselves. And what is a church, anyway? Earlier pronouncements from the centre seem rather confused about that: this press release, from 2018, talks about £5.3 million for Leicester Diocese to develop “up to 50 new churches, or worshipping communities, in the area”. Isn’t a church a “worshipping community”?

Of course none of this is easy. The Church of England is a very complex structure. But there’s something about these top-down, work streams and management processes which feels all wrong to me. I’ve been mulling over my own solution for a while now, but decided the time has come to throw it out into the blogosphere. Rather than thinking about “vision” and having a list of national strategic priorities to create churches in a particular shape, why not learn from the Wasgij? “Wasgij Church”: you heard it here first.

So: I enjoy jigsaws, and always have. When I was caring for my mother in what turned out to be her last years with us, jigsaws became my sanity device, something I reflected on here when I realised that “At the moment I’ve no idea what the picture within which I’m living is supposed to be”. My favourite type, the Wasgij – as the name indicates – is a jigsaw done in reverse. There’s a picture on the box, but this isn’t what you are aiming to recreate. Something has happened: perhaps a crime has been committed and you are trying to find out what the scene looked like earlier; perhaps it is a few minutes later and something has happened to disrupt the picture; perhaps it’s many years later and the people in the picture are older while the buildings in the background have been upgraded. Alternatively, your task is to create what a particular individual pictured on the box can see, thus explaining why everyone is screaming (there’s a lot of screaming in Wasgijes).

To do a Wasgij, it may be possible to use the jigsaw technique of doing the edge first, but will any of the natural or man-made structures in the picture still be relevant? If you are trying to see the scene from the point of view of someone in it, then there’s no point thinking about the edge at all, as you are looking in the wrong direction. Instead, you need to look for colour: there’s a lot of dark blue, so what can that be? A detailed fabric from an item of clothing can be found on several pieces: can you move those pieces around to make a larger section? But where does that section go, when the box can’t help you?

Why my husband and I enjoy these jigsaws is the sense of mystery which can last right up to the final few pieces. What has happened? As all those brown pieces start to come together into the shape of bears, what is going on in those woods? The designs are in the style of a saucy seaside postcard, which adds to the fun.

The current Grand Scheme for the C of E involves “six bold outcomes … which begin to describe what the Church of England might look like if our endeavours bear fruit”. How about if we turned that around? If, instead of thinking what our church might look like, we looked at what we’ve got, and thought about how it could fit together? If we abandoned any idea of what the picture on the box – whether that’s our historic experiences of church, or some cloned church plant – looks like, would this give us the freedom to find something entirely unexpected, and glorious?

Posted in Renewal and reform programme | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Handing on the baton? Part 1

I’ve just been listening to today’s “Handing on the baton” presentation to General Synod, taken by the Bishop of London (leading the Next Steps Group) and Dr Eeva John (noble facilitator of the whole LLF thing). Dr John focused on the words which began the LLF process: following General Synod’s refusal to ‘take note’ of GS2055, the Archbishops’ call in February 2017 for a “radical new Christian inclusion”. 

Dr John tried to unpick that, rightly noting that for some it is “a troublesome phrase”. She insisted that it means we are all equally human, equally made in God’s image but, as Marcus Green commented during LLF, the restrictions put on some of us – not able to marry in church, not able to offer ourselves for ordained ministry – don’t give that impression at all. As for “new”, Dr John took that to mean that in the LLF process the whole church has been invited by the bishops to learn with them; that wasn’t what I thought it had originally meant, so I went back to look at that February 2017 document. What the Archbishops wrote then was: 

To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

Going back to the Archbishops’ letter was, however, more illuminating than I had expected. Further down I read this:

We will also be suggesting to the Business Committee a debate in general terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm.

Now, I’m not currently a member of General Synod, although I do try to keep up with it; but I can’t remember this debate ever happening. Instead, every time there has been a private members’ motion or a diocesan synod motion coming along, or a question posed in the formal Questions section, which has concerned “marriage and human sexuality”, the response has been that this can’t be discussed while the LLF process is going on. The General Synod has not had the opportunity mentioned in February 2017.

As for the rest of the joint presentation today, I’m not sure what was new in its contents. We were told about the Pastoral Principles Course published in April to “create braver and safer places” but surely we all knew about that already. The shift from “safe” to “safer” seems like a sad acknowledgement that there isn’t safety; even in the earlier regional Shared Conversations, where facilitators were present to provide safety, plenty of people were bruised. In the short question session allowed after today’s presentation, one Synod member shared this (her words were “verbally battered”). I was interested that Dr John, in response to a question about particular readings of St Paul, commented that LLF “filtered out more left-field views of Scripture” and that we “take serious readings of Scripture seriously”. I’ve registered my surprise that, while queer theology is mentioned in LLF, no queer readings of Scripture are included, but there’s my answer: that these are not considered “serious” readings. 

Throughout today’s presentation, though, I noticed the language of ‘we’ and ‘ours’. I have observed this at every stage of the LLF process and I find it no less revealing and no less dangerous now. From the Bishop of London: “our actions” can cause distress; we need to acknowledge “our authority and power”; “how do we as a church make space for…”. Who are ‘we’ here? Thank God, despite everything, there are already people who are LGBTI in the Church of England, including in the House of Bishops. Why is it that, whenever I hear presentations about LLF, they sound as if the cis-het majority ‘we’ are graciously allowing various ‘theys’ to enter ‘our’ space?

Posted in Episcopal Teaching Document, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rewriting your history: thinking about the Winchester case

When I was involved as a contributor to Living in Love and Faith, the ‘History’ group – with which I initially worked – was chaired by the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin. I’m a lay person and I have never been employed by the church, so I don’t tend to hang out with bishops very much, and I had not met this one before. On 20 May, Thinking Anglicans posted “Winchester rebels against its diocesan bishop”, the story of how Bishop Tim has “stepped back” from his diocese for six weeks. The ‘stepping back’ seems to be because of a threatened motion of no confidence from the Diocesan Synod, one backed by a large number of clergy and lay members. I am not going to discuss my encounters with Bishop Tim in the context of the LLF group because personal information of that kind is still under the embargo of the Memorandum of Understanding (“Under no circumstances will views expressed within or to the groups be attributed to individuals outside group meetings”). Instead, I want to pick up on two points which have been made in the subsequent discussions of this extraordinary situation: one about history, the other about power.

First, some context. The diocesan website has so far said nothing about the bishop’s ‘stepping back’. But, at the time of writing this piece, 349 comments have been made on Thinking Anglicans and from these and from the blog posts and newspaper stories it seems that the dispute concerns management style and the methods of pastoral reorganisation. That long TA thread has often gone off-topic, taking opportunities not just to revisit the Bishop’s role in the circumstances in which the Channel Islands were moved from Winchester diocese to Salisbury and his involvement with the merger of the South American Mission Society and the Church Mission Society, but also to tell stories about other bishops, past and present. Questions were raised about the gaps in Bishop Tim’s published CV; about the circumstances of his ordination and the lack of any theological college training or of parish ministry experience; about what he means in his unusually long online bio on the diocesan website by saying he ‘unexpectedly transferred, as an ordinand, from Oxford to Nairobi diocese’; and, in the comments on the Surviving Church blog, about his 2020 PhD ‘by publication’ (presumably still assessed and examined by academics?) from the University of Winchester and the presence on his submitted list of work that was not in fact ‘published’ (the list includes a book review, conference papers with no publisher listed, and papers produced for various boards). 

There have been plenty of attempts to fill in the gaps here. But what counts as a reliable source when writing someone’s history? Some TA contributors did sterling work in finding back issues of various publications such as Oxford Diocese’s The Door and the journal Anvil and comparing them: also comparing the entries in Crockford, Who’s Who and Wikipedia. Which is the most authoritative, here? It’s difficult to say. In my line of work, when someone needs 150 words about me, they’ll usually ask me to write them. So it’s up to me what I include – and what I don’t. If someone introducing me at a conference decides instead to go it alone, well, there’s plenty online that they could use; but despite having a detailed university page about my background, I’ve also had experiences of being introduced at conferences as the author of books I did not write! The very length of Bishop Tim’s (self-constructed?) diocesan bio just makes the gaps more obvious, and it isn’t even up-to-date; it still has him chairing the LLF History group, but now that’s … history.

In a church where testimony plays a role, perhaps personal experience trumps everything else. That could be why LLF makes a point of including many individuals’ stories in the teaching materials; I’ve often wondered what happens if one of those individuals rewrites their story later, when one stage of it is preserved forever by LLF? In the TA thread, people who had worked in senior roles, for example in the Church Army UK, gave their own recollections, but even then these weren’t accepted without challenge.

Another of the contributors to the thread, Simon Bravery, who had already intervened several times, shared what he interpreted as a positive comment about Bishop Tim, from a blog post written seven years ago. In this, Rachel Hartland was upbeat and enthusiastic about her experience of Deacon’s Day in Winchester, mentioning the bishop’s “seriously inspirational talk” about ordained ministry, his vulnerability when questioned by the ordinands and his “fresh ideas and a fresh way of doing things”. She then described how the bishop asked the ordinands if they were willing to be ordained in red stoles, for the colour of the Holy Spirit. As it happened, Rachel had already had an ordination stole made, in ivory and white, created from her wedding dress and incorporating a reference to a cross her father gave her at university and wool from her mother’s saddle-cloth. She was clearly uncomfortable with the bishop’s idea but went along with it, and tried to reflect on the incident as showing how our “nicely laid plans” can be “well and truly shot out of the water”. Yes, as a mere authorised lay preacher, I’ve done that training too: the Kolb reflection cycle, when you try to make sense of your reaction and learn from it for next time… 

And that would have been the end of it, except that Rachel responded on TA to Simon’s posting, as follows:

I wrote this blog post as an ordinand 7 years ago as a reflection on my first meeting with the peers with whom I was to be ordained. Our meeting that day with +T was in that context. A lot has happened to myself and colleagues since then: his seeming vulnerability when he spoke to us initially could now be interpreted differently. His snap decision over the stoles – with no concern for the personal significance of their design – is hardly a positive reflection on his pastoral care for his clergy.

Simon apologised for misrepresenting her current views, writing that he was “trying in the interests of balance to find something positive to say”. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

With that input from Rachel, we can revisit her blog post. Upbeat and enthusiastic, yes, but also – think about it, you’re moving towards ordination to the diaconate and your bishop comes up with an idea. Who has the power here? Precisely. Are you going to risk being forever in the bishop’s bad books by saying, ‘Actually no, Bishop; while I understand where you’re coming from, that’s not an appropriate thing to suggest at this point, and don’t try to bully us by bringing the Holy Spirit into it’? If we read that alongside another TAcomment by a member of Winchester Diocesan Synod that “People are fearful of using their real names for comments online in case they incur +Tim’s wrath”, what happened seven years ago feels even more significant.

I was interested in this exchange, not least because made me wonder about my own blogging. I started this blog in 2015 when I was chosen as one of Oxford Diocese’s representatives on the Shared Conversations process. I was very excited about this. But I realise now that I was also very, very naïve. In my first blog post, I blithely talked about how I’d worked with Christians with views very different from my own about all sorts of topics. Ha! It wasn’t until the Shared Conversations that I met, to give just one example, someone who thought that people with intersex characteristics were evidence of The Fall; and, while we’re on this, that The Fall was a real historical event. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. 

And then I was asked to join LLF. Again, I hadn’t a clue. I think at some level I was excited to be in what my favourite musical, Hamilton, calls ‘the room where it happens’. But that room wasn’t a place of equality. Most people there knew others in the room. Clergy know each other. Bishops know each other and know clergy. There were very few lay people present, and I got the impression that most of those knew each other from General Synod. I haven’t been on General Synod for decades now – I left in 1993 – although such is the nature of the Church of England that some who served with me are still there, and were involved in LLF. But in general I didn’t have the ‘history’ which they all shared. As a non-clergy, non-church-employed, non-theologian, I was of very little interest to them (with a few notable exceptions). There are many comparable situations in the Church of England. Most importantly, for most clergy or church-employed people, then taking part in projects like LLF can be presented as part of your job, whereas for lay people in particular you need to take leave to make it possible to be there.

I’m not going to rewrite any of the blog posts I’ve put up here. They represent where I was, at a particular time, and as such they’re a historical source. I reserve the right to object, and to clarify, if someone takes them as my current views. I wrote as a person without power in the church, and was probably unaware of some of the power moves taking place in the room where it happened. It is interesting now to read more about the person who was chairing our group, and to wonder how I would have reacted if I had been aware of some of this at the time.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Conversion therapy: faith without fear

Unusually today, I was up in time to listen to some pre-7 a.m. radio, so I heard the very rushed interview the Today programme was running on conversion therapy. Anyone who still doesn’t know what this ‘therapy’ entails can read the stories told by those featured in the current harrowing series being featured on Jayne Ozanne’s Via Media blog, for example this one

The context for today’s brief interview is the considerable unease about the 11 May statement issued by Bishop Sarah Mullally in her role as chair of the LLF Next Steps Group. In this she stated that 

The General Synod has voted overwhelmingly to reject coercive Conversion Therapies so we welcome the Government’s commitment to explore these matters further with a view to enshrining that position in law.

We recognise the difficulties in defining Conversion Therapies and look forward to working closely with the Government to develop a viable definition and subsequent legislation.

We want to prevent abuses of power, and ensure that issues of consent are made absolutely central to any future legislation.

There are many problems with this statement. First, the General Synod motion to which it refers, passed back in 2017 (!), never mentioned the word ‘coercive’. It wasn’t distinguishing between different forms of conversion therapy. You can read the motion as passed here. Second, there are already viable definitions. Third, consent is not as simple as the statement seems to suggest, and it’s on that point which I would like to focus briefly.

In the Today interview, Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance seemed to be confusing celibacy – in the Christian tradition, a specific vocation – with abstinence – not having sex. He emphasised that people asking for prayer to end their ‘same-sex attraction’ (the preferred terminology of those who don’t think there is such a thing as ‘being gay’) do so “with their own free choice”. He said “they’re an adult, they’ve made their own choices”.

I think the safeguarding scandals usefully help us to think about this. “They’re an adult”: but are they what safeguarding would call a ‘vulnerable’ adult? Who is a vulnerable adult? The definition has expanded considerably in recent years, and when I took the safeguarding training it was emphasised that any adult can be vulnerable at some point in their life. In 2015 Stephen Parsons discussed this and pointed out that ‘vulnerable’ is less about the “individual personality, but more the particular setting that he or she finds themselves in”. Stephen discussed poverty, illiteracy and the time between childhood and adulthood as just three of the “‘vulnerabilities’ that impact on the way that a individual is rendered more susceptible to the blandishments of religious teachers”. Another setting, I think, is being a gay person – particularly a young gay person – within a congregation which believes homosexuality is a sin.

In the Today interview, as well as using the words ‘choice’ and ‘choose’, Lynas expressed his worry that, if prayer is included as a form of conversion therapy, then people who are ‘same-sex attracted’ “won’t be able to get prayer”. Leaving aside what to me is a very consumer-focused view of prayer as a commodity which you ‘get’ from someone else, it’s not a ‘free choice’ asking for prayer if your whole world is a church which tells you that you can stop being gay if you pray hard enough or if the right people, or enough people, pray for you to be straight. In the world of ‘getting’ prayer, this means telling people who think homosexuality is a sin that you think you are gay, and it means the church leaders – the gatekeepers, those with the power to evict you – are likely to be the ones praying with you. Does that sound like a wise move? Isn’t the unequal power dynamic obvious?

I’m reading Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt (2021) at the moment. He discusses how the gatekeepers “articulate the box of norms that members must follow, then police conformity, and then impose punishments or dispense rewards accordingly”. His theme is the expression of doubt but his points also apply to conversion therapy. McLaren writes, “Many of us are drawn to faith communities because they are places of warmth, safety and belonging. But sometimes, they are among the most dangerous zones we enter.” People who have been through conversion therapy talk about how they wanted to belong, to stay in the church which to them was their whole life, the place where their friends and family were; how they wanted it to ‘work’ and how they had to pretend that it had done so, because if it hadn’t then the authority of those from whom they had ‘got prayer’ would be challenged.

But a safe community of faith is one where we can express our doubts, and our sexuality, without fear.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments