Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Radical but not Equal: Inclusion in a guarded Church

24 Feb 2017

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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