Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Grace & Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England

21 Jan 2016

Following last week’s Primates’ meeting of the Anglican Communion, we share an edited extract from Hayley Matthew’s Temple Tract ‘Grace & Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England’.  

“I have to keep my head down and my mouth shut if I want to keep my job.”  (Interview H).

One of the key arguments cited from within the Church is the idea that ‘equality and diversity’ are ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’ terms picked up from management-speak and secular legislation, neither originating from nor alluding to Christian principles or doctrine. As such, they are not necessarily to be regarded as principles to which Christian disciples should aspire, and certainly not points of reference against which to align Canon Law, for example. Indeed, they may be entirely opposite to all our Lord taught, and something against which to make a stand.

“I have been ‘suggested’ into remaining single for most of my adult life despite having wanted to commit to a long-term, stable, non-scene relationship with another practicing Christian in lay-ministry, as I wait until this hoop is jumped through followed by another, and another, and another.” (Interview I).

Constructs of power, however, are rarely openly acknowledged within faith communities called to embody the grace and humility of an egalitarian faith. Additionally, theology and doctrine tend to appeal to ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ constructs informing the gendered identity and sexual development of human beings. Given the vast weight that two verses from the book of Genesis are given in promulgating binary gender positions and heterosexism within Abrahamic faiths, the need to acknowledge power differentials and their origin within theological and doctrinal developments is critical. In my Temple Tract ‘Grace & Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England’ I offer both historical and progressive theological positions, analysing their power constructs to view a dialectical interplay of voices and research perspectives that has the potential to introduce more inclusive and mature views of humanity, sexuality and the Church. I also raise the voices of gay and lesbian Anglican priests (interviewed for my recent doctoral research) to articulate the struggles and pain they have faced at the rejection of their sexuality by their faith community and employer.

“whatever you do, do NOT fall in love while you’re in this parish,” (Interview J).

Despite adhering to a faith that claims to represent an all-loving God who loves each of us as we are, in a Church that aspires to form ministers in ‘a role in which God is helping you become yourself more deeply and fully’, homosexual clergy report feeling fundamentally constrained from being ‘fully themselves’. Although in so doing priests enable their parishioners to similarly grow into the same sense of wholeness, in order that God’s glory might more fully and freely flow through all that they are and all that they do, the homosexual priests interviewed all articulated feeling only ‘partially accepted’. Indeed, more than one priest felt used for their skills, talents and family-free work ethic, whilst simultaneously being rejected as an individual with needs and desires for human contact and intimacy. Such discrimination had a significant psychological impact, with self-reported changes in mental-health such as a ‘constant low-level depression’ (Interview K) or feeling ‘de-sexualised’ (Interview L) as a direct result of experiencing discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation.  Again and again, clergy recounted ‘not being allowed to love’ diminishing their ability to love God, humankind, and even life itself.

When analysing power structures within institutions, it is possible to suggest that anything which is seen as a ‘threat’ presupposes a challenge to somebody’s autonomy and leadership, thus alerting us to an institution fundamentally presupposing power differentials that not only proscribe but uphold inequalities. Yet William Temple’s work and legacy remind us that our faith has the ability to influence and inspire people not just in their own lifetime, but in generations to come, including politicians, Prime Ministers and, of course, Bishops and Archbishops. It is crucial that we acknowledge and own – or perhaps more importantly, learn how to use – the power that we have, for the common good.

Yet the term ‘common good’ tends to intimate a crude ‘one size fits all’ approach that has neither been deconstructed nor subjected to pastoral reflexive cycles in anything other than an ad hoc manner. Surely now is the time to revisit our understanding of our personhood, gender and/or sexuality, offering theologians and reflective practitioners a vehicle with which to incorporate, examine and re-examine core texts, alongside key advances in medical, psycho-social and genetic understanding of the diversity inherent within the reproduction of humankind. It is my belief that emotions run particularly high around gender and sexuality because they hit upon two profound and paradoxical truths that we are loathe to acknowledge. First, that power is used overtly and covertly through a faith which calls us to kenosis, or the outpouring of our ‘power’ for the sake of others. Second, gender and sexuality are at the very core of what it is to be human. All are agreed that ‘it is not good that [humankind] should be alone’. As we live out that Trinitarian truth, it is isolating and diminishing that we cannot exercise or develop our divinity (imageo dei) if we are refused the depth of relationship and love emulated within the Trinity, and expected – indeed, celebrated – by monogamous, heterosexual, married couples.

Temple, when talking about politics, boldly suggested that ultimately all power struggles were between the ‘the Haves and the Have-nots’. Nowhere is this more personally illustrated than between those who may fall in love, engaging in a consensual, monogamous, committed sexual relationship, and those who may not.

Hayley Matthews is a trustee of the William Temple Foundation and an Anglican priest.

Combing critical theory with theology, Hayley’s Temple Tract ‘Grace & Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England’ is available as an e-book.

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