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Author Archives: Simon Reader

Vicky Beeching – Undivided and Undeterred

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Simon Reader reviews Vicky Beeching’s new book, Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame.

I had the good fortune of meeting Vicky Beeching a few times when I worked for Linda Woodhead and the Westminster Faith Debates – Vicky had interviewed Linda for her Faith in Feminism project, and thereafter attended a few of our debates in London. She also very kindly agreed to speak at one of our debates in Oxford on the future of the Church of England. As I greeted her there at the University Church, she asked if there was somewhere quiet she might have a moment or two to pray and gather her thoughts before the debate. Vicky is someone who takes her faith and the future of the Christian church extremely seriously, and her recently published memoir Undivided is a testament to that.

However, it’s also a heartfelt and deeply moving account of Vicky’s torment at being unable to reconcile being gay with what the Christian church has taught about human sexuality, particularly from within the evangelical tradition she grew up in. Vicky’s story is remarkable – as a prominent and popular figure within American contemporary worship music, her professional success hung on being in harmony with a view of sexuality and relationships that was inflicting profound harm upon her mental and physical health. As such, coming out in 2014 meant the loss of her Christian music career and place in the evangelical faith community, as well as inviting the homophobic invective of some of its more extreme elements.

Undivided charts Vicky’s life from growing up within the evangelical church tradition, through studying Theology at Oxford University, before moving into a breathless and, at times, dramatic life at the forefront of Christian worship music in the USA. It describes numerous painful episodes of inner agony as her church and much of her fan base subscribed ardently to a theology that abhorred or claimed to be able to ‘cure’ the person she knew she was.

Yet as her health was pushed to the brink, Vicky’s faith never seemed to waver; she found in scripture and theology a more affirming and loving God, giving her courage to be herself and to turn her experiences into something redemptive. Although her music may now have taken a back seat, this memoir is something of a redemption song.

I remember when Vicky came out as gay in 2014, and I remember the ways in which her story shed light for many on the experiences of young LGBT+ people being brought up in Christian communities. Even those within the more liberal Anglican tradition who might have condemned the language of outright homophobia, realised that their silence around homosexuality had left young LGBT+ people to draw their own conclusions – that they were outsiders, that they were irreparably broken, that church couldn’t really be a place of welcome for them.

Like Vicky, I grew up under the pernicious Section 28 legislation, when this silence was shamefully echoed for my generation in schools and classrooms across the country, with the support of Christian churches. The journalist Patrick Strudwick – incidentally the same journalist Vicky entrusted with her coming out story – wrote recently on the 30th anniversary of that legislation about how the public war between LGBT+ activists and politicians was well documented, but the private battles of the children it so malignly affected was not. Likewise, the Church’s public disagreements about sexuality are well known enough, but Vicky’s book brings to light the grievous and sometimes fatal harm that it continues to cause young LGBT+ Christians.

So long as the Church of England continues to kick this debate into the long grass, it should know that it is kicking people there too.

Although there is great sadness and regret in the book, it is also full of hope and optimism – along with one or two very funny anecdotes (the one about meeting the CEO of the biggest Christian radio network in America made me laugh out loud). Considering everything she has been through, it’s miraculous both that Vicky found the courage to tell her story, but also that she continues to have faith in the future of a Christian church that has done her so much harm. Some might say that a church which is not willing to embrace the gifts and the gumption of people like Vicky does not deserve to have that future at all.

Undivided ought to be widely read by those Christians who find themselves as yet unable to affirm the equal rights of LGBT+ people to marriage, happiness, family life and the church’s welcome. They may not realise the untold damage they have been doing; after this memoir there can be no excuse. But perhaps Vicky’s book is of greatest value in the hands of young LGBT+ Christians suffering in the same way that she did. I have no doubt her story has been a lifeline to very many young people already, and she tells it here with a raw honesty and an engaging style that teenagers will be able to connect with.

The book is dedicated to Lizzie Lowe, a fourteen-year-old girl from Manchester who tragically took her own life in 2014 because she feared telling her Christian community that she was gay. Vicky has honoured her memory here with bravery, intelligence and grace.

Vicky’s book Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame, is available to buy here.

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A Prayer called Paddington

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Following a trip to the cinema, Simon Reader ponders our shared values and Justin Welby’s hard stare.

If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
Aunt Lucy

I highly recommend the latest Paddington movie if you haven’t yet had the chance to see it at the pictures. Having our niece to stay at the weekend was the perfect excuse, but there’s plenty to recommend for grown-ups in this delightful, very funny and, at times, moving sequel – not least a scene-stealing turn by Hugh Grant.

As with the first film – and the books – I think it has quite a lot to say to us. At a time when society seems so very fractured, and amidst so much hand-wringing about our national identity, Paddington is a reassuring reminder of the kinds of values that we still aspire to. It’s been said lately that we don’t really have shared values, but I don’t think that’s right – we may not be very good at living out our values, but that’s a different thing. At the recent William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture, Jonathan Bartley quoted GK Chesterton saying that “the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it has been wanted and never tried.”

The latest Paddington film is, amongst other things, about the redemptive effects of acting with kindness, courtesy and compassion – and doing so unerringly. It’s perhaps this disarming constancy which makes Paddington a challenging figure for many of those he meets in a more cynical world. He innocently lives out the values he was instructed in by his Aunt Lucy in a way that continuously rubs up against the norms, pace and habits of the rest of us. But gradually Paddington’s conduct has a redemptive ripple effect on those around him, inspiring people to find and realise those same values in themselves.

For Christians, it’s actually a very familiar story. An unusual stranger is delivered remarkably into a broken world, radically challenges its values and priorities, and through his goodness offers a kind of salvation to those who encounter him.

The vices that Paddington is pitted against in the film are principally those of greed and deception – the villain of the piece is an avaricious, delusional dissembler. This obviously calls to mind certain powerful contemporary figures and themes that Christians need to be calling out and challenging today. It was good to see Justin Welby recently criticising the US President in public, and re-affirming this country’s values of tolerance and solidarity.

And, of course, Paddington continues to speak to us on the theme of welcome and hospitality, arriving, as he did, as an immigrant from Peru on a station platform with a label around his neck saying: “Please look after this bear. Thank You.” As Michael Morpurgo has written, “What’s extraordinary is how powerful that story is today. We only have to see that bear to see the predicament of a Syrian child.”

These predicaments are, sadly, nothing new. On the theme of hospitality and immigration, next week sees the publication of a new Temple Tract on the role of Archbishop William Temple during the Second World War in drawing attention to the plight of Jews in occupied Europe, and his petitions to the UK Government to provide asylum to those able to leave enemy-occupied territories. Rob Thompson, Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews, has been through the Lambeth Palace Archives to put together a fuller picture of Temple’s advocacy and courage, and writes in his forthcoming tract of Temple’s example of the idea that “every little act of good will towards our friends or strangers is enough and can change the world.”

I’d suggest that Paddington isn’t a bad example either!

Speaking about his creation in a 2014 interview, Michael Bond reminds us that one quality that’s sometimes overlooked is Paddington’s courage: “he stands up for things, he’s not afraid of going straight to the top and giving them a hard stare.” I imagine William Temple as having a pretty good hard stare, and I like to imagine Justin Welby and others confronting the present government in the same way over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Perhaps this might be an effective ploy when Donald Trump finally makes his infamous state visit to the UK, rumoured to be scheduled around the end of February 2018. Imagine thousands of protestors not chanting, jeering and waving placards but stood silently at every roadside giving the President a Paddington-style hard stare. That would be quite something.

In the meantime, I hope that we don’t give up on the idea that we share values; I think they’re all around if we look for them. Maybe we just need to work harder to cultivate a society that makes Aunt Lucy’s maxim more true.

Rob Thompson’s Temple Tract, At the Bar of History, Humanity and God, will be available online on Monday 11th December 2017.

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From Genes to Values: Shifting the Designer Baby Debate

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Following the latest, widely reported developments in gene-editing technology, Simon Reader assesses the state of the ‘designer baby’ debate.

The news last week of the latest breakthrough in gene-editing technology was met with global media coverage, along with commentary on the familiar trope of designer babies and disquiet over the ethics of choosing children. Scientists have now successfully developed techniques to remove genetic mutations from human embryos that would cause heart failure in future persons, a procedure with obvious therapeutic benefits that also promises applications in the case of other potentially harmful mutations.

As ever, upon news of developments in this field of biotechnology, moral questions are raised anew about the prospect of designing or choosing the kinds of children we have in the future, with warnings that ethics is being left dangerously far behind. Given that we have been contemplating the possibility of so-called designer babies for decades now, you could be forgiven for wondering why there is still this perceived lag between the development of the technology and our moral assessment of it.

Reproductive bioethics engages particular kinds of moral questions where the existence or non-existence of future persons is at stake. If we accept that is it permissible to destroy, manipulate and choose from among human embryos (as is the legal status quo), then it is difficult to say that choices spelling non-existence for particular kinds of embryos are harmful. That is, if embryonic and early stage foetal organisms are not morally considerable, we cannot say it is bad for particular embryos and foetuses that they are not selected to be brought to term as human persons. This leaves us committed to the idea that, while we might think it regrettable, there is nothing wrongful about reproductive selections which uniformly avert the lives of particular kinds of people, or particular conditions, where no harm to persons is committed in the loss of them.

In last year’s award-winning BBC documentary, Sally Phillips invited us to consider A World Without Down’s Syndrome, the prospect of a future society where Trisomy 21 is all but eradicated by virtue of realisable parental preferences not to have children with the condition. It’s really not so fanciful, given the very high percentage of terminations that are undertaken upon prenatal diagnosis of Down’s. Indeed, it’s reported that in Iceland, where almost everyone screens for Down’s Syndrome, 100% of positive diagnoses now result in termination. While liberal societies are absolutely committed to the procreative freedom of individuals to make informed reproductive decisions regarding their own bodies, should we be indifferent to a basically eugenic outcome when these decisions cluster around the same norms? And where such societies purportedly abhor social discrimination in principle, can we seamlessly and consistently exercise discrimination in reproductive practice simply because the methods for doing so are morally permissible?

Phillips’s documentary urges us to think beyond the moral legitimacy of the techniques involved, and the unquestioned individual liberty rights of prospective parents, to consider the broader values we are expressing and handing on as a society in the choices we make. Perhaps it is not surprising, when predominant scientific accounts of human agency ordain that human beings – or their ‘selfish’ genes – are motivated simply by the renewal of themselves through sexual reproduction, that we may have lost sight of the fact that reproduction also fundamentally renews the world of human society and our values with it. We don’t just pass on our genes in procreation; now that so much choice is involved, we are also purposively passing to future generations an ideological determination of what (and who) we value in life. When those choices and choice regimes collectively perform the broad exclusion of certain kinds of people, or of people possessing certain kinds of traits or ‘imperfections’, what does this say about us and what we value?

In the light of new technologies of reproductive design and selection, we are moved to experience this tension between the now practicable parental wish to have a child best suited to go well in the world, and a social wish that we do not as a society become less diverse and less hospitable as a result. The ongoing unease over ‘designer babies’ I think attests, in part, to the fact that we have not really had the debate in these terms, addressing this tension in good faith. One effect of doing so might be to flip the traditional notions of liberalism and conservatism on their heads, where the former is associated with creating designer babies and the latter with refusing reproductive choice. That is, we might instead think of selective reproduction as profoundly conservative where its aim is a child’s conformity with current norms of ability, appearance and achievement. We may also then come to think of the refusal to choose as expressive of a radically liberal, positive and inclusive ethical gesture of welcome and responsibility for whomever our children might be.

In Phillips’s documentary, she spoke to one mother who refused prenatal testing not because she didn’t want to know, but in order to keep the information from medical professionals who she felt would harass her to terminate if the result was positive for Down’s. However we frame these debates over the years and decades to come, it is imperative that mothers should be free from coercion to relate to their own bodies and the newcomers they may bear in the way that they choose.

Simon’s book, The Ethics of Choosing Children, is published by Palgrave Macmillan this September.

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Radical but not Equal: Inclusion in a guarded Church

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Simon Reader is the new Communications Manager for the William Temple Foundation, having worked previously for the Westminster Faith Debates. He also helped to convene the Oxford series on The Future of the Church of England.

As we wait to discover what radical new Christian inclusion in the Church looks like, following Synod’s vote to not take note of the Bishops’ paper on marriage and same-sex relationships, there is some optimism about this being a meaningful turning point. The clergy’s rebellion on the paper feels like a significant watershed, but the immediate way forward seems uncertain beyond more rounds of conversations. The proposed new large-scale teaching document on human sexuality is not going to effect any conspicuous shift in the Church’s teaching, so we have to be hopeful the Church can find inventive new ways to be more welcoming to LGBT people.

A survey last October reiterated the findings of the Westminster Faith Debates some years ago, that most people who take a view – and younger people especially – do not perceive Christian churches as welcoming to LGB people. I considered this in relation to Pilling in 2013, which stated the Church’s warm welcome to gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained as a “finding” of the report, despite the contrary available evidence.

That kind of complacency has now been rejected by the clergy, who are, after all, those working at the front line of the Church’s pastoral mission. As Rev. Sally Hitchiner described recently on breakfast television, young people are actually being deterred from exploring their faith by the Church’s treatment of LGBT people. She quoted a young woman at her university as saying “Well I’d love to be religious, but I can’t because I’m gay.” This is not good news. For as long as younger generations keep coming to such a view, the Anglican faithful will continue to decline in the UK.

A rare, youthful figure in the Synod debate, Lucy Gorman lamented in her speech that, as a young Anglican, she is one of a dying breed. Passionate, articulate and deeply moving, Lucy told of the harm and grief that can follow from the Church’s approach to LGBT people. She spoke of the reality beyond the staged case studies and the Synod walls; of a generation averted from a Church that is lacking in love. And she spoke of the late Lizzie Lowe, and the anguish of her friend Helen who also took her own life.

Recent reports have indicated the connection between homophobia in the Church and the mental health of young LGBT people, whom we know are particularly vulnerable to self-harm and suicide. Researchers in the US have linked a drop in suicide rates among LGB teenagers to the legalisation of same sex marriage, demonstrating what must obviously be true: that safe, welcoming communities underpinned by genuine equality help LGBT youth develop and thrive into adulthood. How could it be otherwise?

Civil recognition of the equality of LGBT people makes sexual minority groups more able to flourish; to be proud, and to be happy. To be less fearful about being ourselves and less likely to be untruthful about it. This legal equality creates a kind of felicity condition for LGBT people to be heard as they want to be heard in civil society, to be known as they want to be known and relate as they want to relate. A context where our words, actions and feelings are acknowledged as meaning what we know them to mean. This condition does not yet exist for us in the Church of England, which faces the present challenge of somehow creating that condition, even though it is not possible to grant the equality that would seem to be a necessary requirement of it.

In the Archbishops’ letter setting out the way forward following last week’s vote, they talk in rather curious terms about “the guarding of the deposit of faith that we have all inherited.” But what is it that we are guarding it from? And who are we guarding it for?

Writing about the problem of generations, Karl Mannheim identified the need to guard against a loss of culture, knowledge and tradition as present generations continually give way to the fresh contact and consciousness of new ones emerging in their place. But this process of giving way to new generations also does something useful – “it facilitates re-evaluation of our inventory and teaches us both to forget that which is no longer useful and to covet that which has yet to be won.” Younger generations covet equality for LGBT people in the Church of England as something yet to be won. The longer it continues to guard inequality, the more inclined they will be to forget the Church altogether as something which is no longer worth inheriting.

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