As a Christian living and working in England, I’m naturally quite interested in what the Church of England is doing. I’m not an Anglican, though I have great love and respect for many brothers and sisters in that part of the family of God, and a special appreciation for the history and theology of what might be called classical Anglicanism. I’ve watched events unfold in the Church of England and the wider Anglican communion with interest and prayerful concern ever since spending a year full time studying at St Johns College, Nottingham. The training and research I did there has shaped me, and today it leads to this slightly awkward blog post.
I’ve noticed online some concern expressed about the Church of England’s ‘Pastoral Principles’, something that has come out of the Pastoral Advisory Group process of ‘Living in Love and Faith’, which is attempting to engage with the questions and complexity of a mixed set of opinions and experiences around LGBTI* people and their involvement in the life of the church. The principles are introduced thus:
“One of the tasks of the Pastoral Advisory Group has been to set out some principles of pastoral practice for how the Church of England can live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters. The outcome of this work has been the production of the Pastoral Principles for living well together.“
It is well worth noting that there is an interesting contradiction in terms in this framing statement, which perhaps hints at some of the bigger problems in the document. The phrase ‘live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters’ seems very nice and wise, but to put it bluntly, it is simply impossible. To put it clearly, it is impossible to ‘live well together’ as an organisation/family where one group thinks the other groups wants it dead, gone, or on the way to hell. This is in evidence on both sides of the essentially binary question of recognising and performing same sex weddings in Churches.
Please hear me – I am not for a minute suggesting that LGBTI* people (in any arrangement of relationship!) are not human, not made in the Image of God, not welcome at church and in it’s activities, or worth any less than anyone else. I firmly believe that the Bible teaches clearly that marriage is ‘heterosexual’, but I also think that the word ‘heterosexual’ is deeply unhelpful. The Bible doesn’t teach about straight or gay – it teaches about humans, made in the Image of God, male and female, who will occasionally look and act in ways that don’t easily conform to any culture’s understanding of what it means to be male or female, or ‘straight’ or ‘gay’.
Herein lies the rub.
In principle, the following pastoral principles are very sensible:
- acknowledge prejudice
- cast out fear
- speak into silence
- admit hypocrisy
- address ignorance
- pay attention to power
These are all good principles – and some effort is made to ground these in the Bible – and they are a mixed bag.
Positively, the invitation to ‘speak into silence’ is vital. Too many churches are not clear about what they believe about many things, and not clear about what limits to involvement there might be for different people. I grew up in a church that didn’t believe women could preach – and the women in membership there knew and understood this. There wasn’t silence! The church I’m part of at the moment sometimes has a problem with talking about issues of sex and sexuality – which is why I was so grateful for the opportunity to offer some teaching in an evening service on this issue – but we are connected with an American branch of the same movement who have a clear position (Even if, for some reason, it has disappeared from the website!). We need to talk about things! Naming things is vital for bringing them into the light, and engaging them with the power of the Holy Spirit and the deeply transforming wisdom of the Bible. One lady called Jo has shared her wisdom on this in a blog post I’d firmly recommend.
We should not be silent!
Negatively, however, is the somewhat ironic unpacking of what it might mean to ‘Address Ignorance’. The question is asked, ‘Can it be right for people with pastoral responsibility to be ignorant of what it is like to be LGBTI+?’, and on the face of that question, can anyone with a heart disagree?
Firstly, something I’ve been saying since at least 2014, is this notion of ‘being’ ‘LGBTI+’. No one is born straight, gay, bisexual, or trans. Some people are born intersex. Instantly, we’ve oversimplified things by saying that sexuality (Who we are attracted to) and gender identity (how we understand ourselves) are the same thing. There can be no one experience of being LGBTI+ – no one person can simultaneously ‘be’ all of these things except in some incredibly logic-stretching exercise of self-definition. Once we move away from seeing people as straight or gay (or anything else), we can start again with viewing people as they really are, glorious dust, sinners made in the image of God who are invited to become saints and be transformed in ever increasing glory by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Jesus.
Secondly, if we accept that generic label of ‘LGBTI+’ (and I really don’t think we should!) then we should logically have to give equal weight to all possible experiences. My wife and I both present (by being married!) as being ‘straight’, yet we experience our straightness in different ways (not least because I am a man and she is a woman). Experience is not a source of objective truth. That’s why it is a useful thing to note – and I’ve read a lot of books by people seeking to work through their experience of being LGBTI+ and Christian – but it cannot and should not shape things in the way that it so often does.
To close, then, these ‘Pastoral Principles’ are something of a mixed bag (or, perhaps, a curates egg). I strongly agree that churches should be open and careful about what they think about big questions. As a teenager, I appreciated knowing what my church thought about things, even as I disagreed. That meant we could have a meaningful conversation – and come to a recognition that there are significant theological differences! I however disagree that it is a remotely pastoral principle to a) lump all the constituent parts of LGBTI+ into one ‘experience to understand’, and b) to imply that people who disagree with same-sex marriage, for example, do this out of ignorance of experience. That is not, to be fair, the implication of the resource, but it is a common assumption. If you want to ponder these things further, feel free to use some of the resources below…
Experiences of being LGBTI+ (these are just some that I’ve read, please do point me in the comments to others!)
- David Bennett, A War of Loves – a stunning memoir of how a gay atheist activist discovered Jesus.
- Vicky Beeching, Undivided – a beautifully written but in my opinion theologically deficient book about how a worship leader came out and wrestled with her identity.
- Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem – a challenging book about how to live with truth.
- various, This is My Body – a challenging collection of theological and personal reflections on Trans* experience.
- Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting – a superb book about identity and holiness, written beautifully.
Resources on engaging conversations with Christianity and sexuality/identity questions
- Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality – my single favourite book in this space.
- Glynn Harrison, A Better Story – one approach to talking about these topics.
- DTLC: Sexuality – the first of three talks I’ve given on this topic (with lots of links and quotes!)
- various, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views – a very helpful book clarifying the binary on part of the challenge of pastoring LGBTI+ people.
- Denny Burk, What is the Meaning of Sex? – a conservative and very helpful book looking at what sex is for.
- Klyne Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are – a superb book about understanding human identity.
- Andrew Walker, God and the Transgender Debate – a good basic introduction to this complex area.