There are days when turning on the news or opening Twitter induces a kind of writer’s paralysis. The last 48 hours have been something like that. It’s not that I can think of nothing to say; if anything, it’s that I’ve got too much to say. The atrocities and oppressions that I can see rolling out across the Western world are so much, it’s difficult to know where to begin. And if I talk about the House of Bishops in the Church of England, will it read as if I’m ignorant of or indifferent to the troubling things that are happening both on the far side of the Atlantic and in Whitehall?
I am going to talk about the Church of England.
On Friday, the House of Bishops released their report on same-sex marriages following on from the Shared Conversation process that has taken place in the Church of England over the last two years. This came from the work of the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality, and then a facilitated meeting of the whole House of Bishops. Their work has produced a document that I do not find particularly helpful, and I do not particularly discern the hand of God or the Holy Spirit at work within it.
In summary, the House of Bishops has no intention of allowing the Church to explore any possibility of change to its marriage doctrine, nor to Canon Law, but it thinks it is important that the Church is seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren than it is at present. The sticking point is that the suggestions for the ways in which the Church might bring itself to be seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren do not include actually being nicer to us, as the report accords us neither equality of status nor recognition nor the right to be spoken about in language that doesn’t stink of insidious homophobia.
It is, then, difficult and draining reading, but I do recommend reading it all anyway.
My heart breaks today for my LGBT sisters and brothers in England and their allies who trusted and hoped in the process of the Shared Conversations. I am disappointed for them, but I must confess that I am not in the least surprised.
We had our own version of shared conversations in Scotland in 2014. They were called the Cascade Conversations. I have been heard to say that I thought the Cascade Conversations in Scotland were a dangerous and abusive process, and I was horrified when the group that planned them went around telling other Provinces that it had been wonderful. I never had the expectation that it would lead to good things — and looking at where the Scottish Episcopal Church is now, I still don’t believe that I was wrong. I am prepared to acknowledge that on an individual basis there were some people whose experience was different to mine and who found the process helpful, and I am certain that the same is true in England. I have, for whatever it’s worth, and I am certain that the same will also be true in England, not found that those people have been prepared to acknowledge that for some of us the process was frankly damaging. But it is my view that largely the good things that have happened in furthering the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church since the Cascade Conversations have been in spite of that process, rather than because of it. The people who were most critical of the process persistently made it clear — privately, publicly, and through Synodical processes — that we did not trust it and that there would be consequences for the Church if it were used as a delaying tactic. We are now in the middle of a process that we hope will advance the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and that is a process of which I have been very proud. The situation in our sister province in England is plainly now much bleaker.
The question is raised as to why these things are still important, right now. There are other injustices in the world, injustices that are being celebrated on the front page of the newspapers, and those things seem objectively to be bigger than this thing, and certainly more imperative.
And it’s not a stupid question.
But the answer is that this is important because they are all part of the same thing.
I gave a speech to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church eight months ago, and in it I called on us as a Church to play our part in dismantling systems that have kept the oppressed oppressed.
I was criticised for that line: I was accused of crying “homophobia”, and told that it wasn’t fair to claim that people who were anti-LGBT equality were furthering the cause of the oppressor, and I stand by it anyway.
This latest from the Church of England is about more than who can walk down an aisle hand in hand with their beloved. It is about an abusive policy in an organisation that is charged with the care and education of thousands of children. It is about allowing an organisation that chooses an anti-equality agenda to continue to claim charitable. It is about formally endorsing the idea that this particular employer can behave abusively in how its employees are treated and will be treated in the future.
The anti-equality agenda of the House of Bishops and the anti-equality agenda of the President of the United States are all part of the same thing. It doesn’t matter: it’s about marriage, it’s about gender equality, it’s about allowing scientists to report science, it’s about interfaith relations, it’s about who we welcome across our borders and into whose face we allow our governments to slam the door. These things are all part of tearing down the world of freedom and inclusivity and justice that so many of us and so many who went before us worked so hard to build.
In the world we live in now, you can be for equality or you can be against it, and you can help me fight for the forces of freedom and inclusivity and justice in the world, or you can get out of my way. It is time for all of us to choose which side we are on.