The Cascade Conversations: Why The Scottish Episcopal Church Is Frightening Me

In a few days, fifty people will be meeting in Pitlochry to have a conversation about issues around homosexuality as they relate to the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is the process that I alluded to after Diocesan Synod and that Kelvin talked about earlier in the week.

I will not be there because I haven’t been invited.

I’m not comfortable with the process as I understand it or with the environment in which these conversations are going to be conducted next week, and I’ve publicly criticised both of those things. In spite of that, I find it odd that I’m not going to be there. It is going to be two days of conversations about gay people and our relationships. I am one of the convenors of the Church’s only national LGBT advocacy group and I haven’t been invited, and nor has the other convenor and nor has the founder. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I will freely admit that I, on behalf of Changing Attitude Scotland, had already turned down the opportunity to give input into the design process as those of us within the organisation felt it important not to lend credence to what we see as a flawed process, and so it might seem churlish of me to now be suspicious about my lack of invitation to the Cascade Conversations. But it seems to me that we have moved on from process and are now into substance, and I do find it deeply worrying that that conversation is going to be happening without us there.

There is a phrase for this in the NHS: “No decision about me without me.”

I do not believe that these few days are going to be a safe space for LGBT people. I worry that the precautions that we are told will be taken will be more effective at making it a safe space for homophobic people than for the people who the conversations are about. I admit freely that I wouldn’t have been comfortable sitting in and participating in those conversations, and I wouldn’t have been comfortable thinking of my LGBT friends doing that, particularly my LGBT friends who are in ordained ministry. But I do uncomfortable things all the time, and here’s the thing: I’m a lot less comfortable thinking that those conversations are taking place behind our backs.

And I don’t feel that I’m overstating things when I say that it’s behind our backs. It’s not only that I’m not going to be there. It’s that I don’t know who is going to be there. It’s that I don’t know what the conversation points will be. It’s that ten months after the questions was first asked, I still haven’t been told what “issues about same-sex relationships” are. It’s that in discussions about Pitlochry, people keep telling me that participants will maintain confidentiality and I don’t understand – and I say this as someone whose entire life is regulated by the General Medical Council – what that means or how it’s going to be achieved or what the point of it is.

This frightens me.

It frightens me because I believe that it undermines the place of LGBT people within the Church, whose existence ought not to be up for debate and whose rights ought not to be the subject of backroom politics and under-the-table decisions.

Now, I’ve been told a lot in the ten months since this process was imposed on a dissenting General Synod that it is going to be done this way because the Synodical process of debating and passing resolutions does not allow for Whole Church engagement with the issues. I disagree with this, but I do see how that might be a matter of opinion. But for the sake of absolute clarity, let me list the things that Synod is:

  • The accepted governing body of the Church.
  • A body of lay and ordained individuals who were elected by the whole Church in a free and open electoral process.
  • An annual meeting for which the agenda is freely available.
  • An open meeting at which anyone who was not elected is free to come in and hear whatever is said.
  • A moderated process which is carried out according to established rules, which publishes a public record of minutes and decisions, and about which anyone, whether member or observer, can talk about to anyone else.

It is the way this Church decides things. It is the way we decide little things that seem relatively inconsequential, like when exactly we celebrate the feast day of a saint that only three people have ever heard of. It is the way we decide important things, like what provisions we are going to make for our clergy in their retirement. And it is the way that we decide enormous great seismic social shifts in the life of the Church, like the ordination of women. It isn’t a perfect system, perhaps, but, my God, it’s better than any of the other options.

If there are issues about LGBT people to be debated, let them be debated in the proper way and let us do it in public.

I’m also frightened because I believe that it undermines the credibility and integrity of this Church that I honestly love.

When I talk about the Church, I do it with a certain amount of privilege and I am very aware of that privilege. I am not an unprominent member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. I will be at Synod, because the Diocese in which I am a member chose to send me there. I am a member of a congregation that is growing and comparatively well off and has a degree of press visibility. I am white and middle-class and speak English as my first language. I am not ordained, not in the priesthood or in the diaconate or in any lay ministry, and that means that I can piss people off without worrying that it will impact on my livelihood. I am single, and that too is a privilege because it means that I can talk without jeopardising my relationship or dragging a partner into something that they never signed up for. I am enormously privileged. I have a voice and people pay attention when I choose to use it, and, because of all the rest of it, I believe that I have a responsibility to do so.

But still I’m frightened.

I’m frightened of what the Church is saying about me and about people like me. I’m more frightened of the things that are being said where I can’t listen to them than I am of the nasty things that are said to my face. I’m frightened for my place within the Church and for the place of the Church within my life. I’m frightened that a decision will be made about me and my friends that has no mandate, that I have had no say in, and that the clock cannot be turned back on. I’m frightened because even though no one can take God away from me, it sometimes feels like they’re trying to.

And if that’s how I feel, with all of my privilege and my little bit of power, I think that everyone else should be bloody terrified.

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Design Group for the Discussion of Same Sex Relationships

Today was the Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway.

I chose not to seek a point of clarification at Synod today because I’d realised that I was so angry that had I got my hands on a microphone at that particular moment I would have done something that I have never done, ever, not in any church, not at an AGM or a Vestry or at General Synod. At that moment, I did not trust myself to speak without losing my temper. The Bishop, the Chair, the whole of Synod, all the invited guests, and the members of the Design Group for the Discussion of Same-Sex Relationships. They would all have got shouted at and I don’t think I could have brought myself to entirely regret it later.

The point that I wanted to clarify was in any case clarified by someone else, but I’ll come to that.

Yes, I am banging on about same-sex relationships again. Oh, believe me, I am as bored of talking about it as I know you are of hearing me talk about it, but, given that I participated in a small group conversation today in which LGBT people were referred to as those people, I trust you’ll see why I don’t consider my job done.

Today, we have been given an update from the Design Group for the Discussion of Same-Sex Relationships. I mentioned this process last June when it was imposed on a dissenting General Synod, and the Provost wrote before Synod last year about the information we were given on the process — information, I might add, that has never been made publicly available, to the point that there were people at Diocesan Synod for whom today was the first time they knew that such a process had been taking place. I was invited in my capacity as one of the convenors of Changing Attitude Scotland to meet with the Design Group late last year, and I declined to do so on the grounds that we do not believe it wise to collude with or endorse a process that we don’t believe is fit for purpose. In declining that invitation, I outlined at some length what our issues with the process were and I informed both the Design Group and the Standing Committee of General Synod of the alternative mechanism that I propose for seeking resolution to the issue of same-sex marriage within the Church. The proposition, which I do not feel is a terribly radical one, is that a resolution is sought through the usual channels of Synod, which would lead to a three year discussion with an end in sight and a framework for getting there. I keep being accused of trying to rush the process. I presume you will forgive me for believing that three years has never by any definition constituted a rush.

In all of the correspondence I’ve had on this subject over the last eight or nine months, one of the things I’ve kept saying is that it isn’t my intention to undermine the work of the Design Group. I’d been told very little about the work that they had done, but I thought that if it were good then it could be used to bring about just such a motion as to lead to what I propose and I didn’t think it out of the realm of possibility that their work might start us off in facilitating just such a three year discussion process as I’ve described.

My view on that has changed somewhat today.

It is my opinion that not only the process which led to its formulation but the Design Group as a group is not fit for any purpose at all. It is my opinion that the existence of the design process and its imposition on General Synod last year is and has always been a stalling tactic. It is my opinion that the Design Group considers LGBT people to be Other. It is my opinion that this has not been and will not be a transparent process. It is my opinion that the Design Group is not a safe space for people who happen to be gay, and that furthermore both the Design Group itself and any space or conversation that it tries to facilitate will potentially be a dangerous space for people who happen to be gay.

I am tired of being talked about as if I am not there. I am tired of LGBT people being talked about as though we are not Christians, as though there are no LGBT people in our churches or in our rectories or on our Synods. I am angry that when these conversations take place, they are of a tone and with a presumption that a conversation about same-sex marriage is about Other People, that it is not about the marriages of people who are in the room, and that a conversation about gay bishops is about Other People, that it is not about the careers of people who are in the room. I am so tired of standing up just to remind them that I am not an abstract concept.

I believe that this is a process with no credibility and that if the Province continues to pursue something so deeply flawed and so very unsafe that that will raise questions about the credibility of the Church.

For consider this:

You cannot claim to be working to provide a safe space for conversation if you demonstrably have no understanding of what a safe space means to LGBT people.

Dear England

It was with interest and a smidgen of what I recognised as hope that I watched some of the statements coming out of the General Synod of the Church of England earlier this week. From the Synod as a whole on the matter of bishops who happen to be women, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on the matter of the blessing of marriages between same-sex couples. It seemed, for a bright flare of a moment, that the Church of England might finally be nudging, slowly but inexorably, towards the advent of social change for which so many of us have longed for so long.

In the early hours of this morning, the House of Bishops of the Church of England released a pastoral guidance on same-sex relationships.

It says, among other things, that:

  • Issues In Human Sexuality is still a thing.
  • The Book of Common Prayer has scriptural authority.
  • The Church of England grudgingly acknowledges the existence of non-ordained LGB individuals who consider themselves to be gay and who reject the notion that this requires them to acquiesce to a life of celibacy. Grudgingly.
  • Individuals to whom the above applies are Other.
  • Two people of the same sex who have chosen to get married or who are planning their wedding cannot seek pastoral input or conversation from their priest without being required to be lectured at about their deviance from Church teaching.
  • Same-sex marriage is unwholesome and lacking in integrity.
  • An ordained person who is in a same-sex relationship cannot get married.
  • A person who is married to a person of the same sex cannot seek ordination.

And that:

  • The entire House of Bishops, all of them, which is fifty two people, agree that marriage is between a man and a woman.

This is a lie. It is a lie that by the very telling of it it shoots holes into what is left of the moral integrity of the Church. It is such a transparent lie that I’m moved to ask why the Church of England, which historically has admitted to the existence of shades that are neither black nor white, why divergence of opinion is allowed — encouraged, even — on every topic under the sun, but not on this one, on the matter of gay people and the kind of sex they may be having, the Bishops and the Church must speak with one voice. Why?

I was asked, prior to the publication of that pastoral guidance, to appear in my capacity as one of the convenors of Changing Attitude Scotland on the BBC in a debate about Christian unity, in light of disagreements around bishops who happen to be women, priests who happen to be gay, and marriages which happen to be between people of the same sex, and particularly in light of some of the things that were said at General Synod this week. I declined (and I’m far from the only one to have done so), principally because I don’t think it’s an appropriate conversation to be having in Scotland, where, because of the choices we have made and the issues that we have already resolved and the advantages we have by not being the established Church, that conversation would be a very different one, and also because I don’t presume to speak for the Church of England. Indeed, I consider it my great privilege, and, today, reading the deep and genuine pain that is evident all over my Twitter timeline, my great relief, that I am not a member of the Church of England.

If the invitation that I declined yesterday evening had been issued after the guidance from the House of Bishops had been published, it might have been that I’d have been tempted to accept it and to get very angry indeed, but that wouldn’t have made it the right or the appropriate thing to do. I do not speak for the Church of England.

None of this is to say that the Scottish Episcopal Church is perfect. I live in hope and perhaps a little bit in fantasy. But the battles that I’m steeling myself for in our Synod later this year are not the battles that are being fought by my friends to the south of the Wall.

I do not speak for the Church of England. I do not speak for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and, in this space, I do not speak even for Changing Attitude, but I do speak for myself and I suspect for others here too when I say to my LGBT friends and our LGBT allies to the south of the Wall that they are not alone, and that we share in their heartbreak and we extend to them our love and our communion.

(The full text of the guidance from the House of Bishops can be read on the Church of England website. Many thanks to Jeremy for suggesting inclusion of the link here.)

A Brave New World

This morning, I woke up in a country where I have the right, granted by my government and protected under the law, to ask someone to marry me. I know that that doesn’t sound like a big thing to a lot of you. But when I was growing up, I didn’t ever believe that that would be a reality in my lifetime — I might only be a wean, but remember that I did most of my growing up under Section 28 and that homosexuality had been decriminalised in Scotland only four years before I was born. It’s a huge thing. It’s no wonder I can’t shut up about it.

I was on a life support course yesterday and then I had a time-sensitive errand that I absolutely could not not run, and so it was that when the arguments were being summed up I was in a garage with Flo’s wife trying to find a feed that would play on an iPhone.

“Sorry,” we said to my (wonderful) car salesperson. “Sorry, we’re being very rude but they’re voting in the Scottish Parliament.”

“Is this the marriage law?” he asked.

I nodded.

My car salesperson is a straight-talking straight Glaswegian. There was a time when I would have avoided a conversation about LGBT politics for fear of the response I might get. The fact that I no longer avoid those conversations is a little bit because I’ve changed.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous, if you ask me,” he said.

And then Beanie flapped at me because they were voting and I abandoned all pretence at polite conversation, first while we watched the vote and the announcement that the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act had passed at 105 votes for to 18 against(!) and then while we screamed and hugged and cried. In the middle of the garage.

“I’m sorry, I’m okay, I’m sorry about the crying.” I rambled, incoherently, in half-sentences that I couldn’t finish because I had to keep stopping so that I could stop myself from bursting into tears, trying to explain the significance of what just happened.

“You’re all right,” he said. “I was just saying, it’s absolutely ridiculous. I mean, what’s the difference? You should just be able to get married!”

That, right there, is how we’ve changed the world.

It’s Time For A Vote

The final debate on the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act starts today at 2pm in the Scottish Parliament, with the final vote afterwards.

I know you all know this well enough to sing along to now.

Once more, with feeling.

This Time It’s Personal

There are people who would tell you that I’m too prone to taking things personally, and never moreso than when it comes to my politics. It’s true. I’m not ashamed of it.

Cut off my friends’ disability services? Personal. Saddle a generation of working class students with crippling debt? Personal. Legislate against what decisions I’m allowed to make about my own body? Personal. Launch a vendetta against working women? Personal. Try to cut up my NHS and sell it off for loose change? Personal.

Tell me that I shouldn’t be allowed to get married? Personal.

And for reasons beyond the obvious.

Let me tell you a story about the equal marriage campaign.

On a wet Monday evening in the early spring of 2009, a guy called Nick Henderson came from the Equality Network to talk to the St Mary’s LGBT Group. He wanted to talk to us about a petition that he was putting together to present to the Scottish Parliament asking them to consult on the possibility of same-sex marriage legislation. At the end of that meeting, a number of us had agreed to start collecting signatures, and that was what I ended up doing during the Easter term of my third year of medical school. I would dash away at the end of a lecture or a clinical skills session to meet up with some other cathedral people outside the library or in the university cafeteria, and we would spend our respective lunch hours with clipboards and biros.

A few months and a lot of signatures after that, with the same sort of work having been done by groups of people around Scotland, I went to Edinburgh, to the petitions committee at Holyrood to watch them consider this petition that we had put forward. As we waited for the afternoon session to start, I had coffee with Tim Hopkins, also from the Equality Network, and we talked about the public launch of the campaign that would need to happen if the petition was accepted. Most likely at Pride, which was coming up in a matter of a few weeks.  Tim mused on how good it would be if he could get a member of the clergy to speak at the launch. I know a priest who I think would probably do it, I said.

(A word to the wise: If you ever volunteer your priest to speak at Pride, don’t forget to tell him or her that you’ve done it.)

So it was that I found myself back in Edinburgh, in the rain, for Pride (it isn’t Pride if it’s not raining) with a ragtag bunch of Scottish Episcopalians, standing underneath an open-top bus that was fitted up with a sound system that didn’t work, listening to Kelvin shout about the white knot and marriage equality. A thing that he has continued to shout about for the last five years.

And that was where it started.

And when it did start, equal marriage wasn’t something that was on the international radar in the way that it is now. Only six countries had passed laws that allowed same-sex marriage. It wasn’t even a blip on the political landscape in Westminster, where in less than two months the first marriages between same-sex couples will actually take place. Just five years later, tomorrow, Scotland will become the seventeenth country to pass such a law. For five years, LGBT Scotland and the Equality Network have run an extraordinary campaign and I hope that sometime in the next 24 hours we will all learn that that campaign has achieved something wonderful. It has been an honour to play a very small part in what I truly believe will turn out to have been an enormous piece of the history of the civil rights movement of this century.

This is personal to me.

It’s personal because of the work that I’ve done and the work that my friends have done. It’s personal because of a campaign that I’ve considered myself part of since it was a thought of an idea. It’s personal because it’s who I am. The story doesn’t end with this. There are battles still to be fought and won. But on Wednesday morning I might wake up in a country where I can get married, and it doesn’t get more personal than that.

Let’s Go To A Wedding

I go to a lot of weddings, and therefore they are a subject on which I feel I can speak with a certain amount of authority.

I’m twenty-eight and recently graduated, which both put me squarely in the demographic which is most likely to be getting married and having babies and therefore most likely to also have friends who are doing those things. As a server at the altar of the Lord, I spend a not insignificant number of Saturday afternoons hustling around a cathedral looking for stray stoles and unpaired black shoes and then watching two people whom I’ve usually never met before make vows to one another. And as an ex-chorister in the Church of England and as the stepdaughter of an ex-churchwarden in the Church of England, I’ve spent a lot of Saturday afternoons in various churches around the land riffling through hymn books and handing out service sheets and choreographing bridesmaids.

So, you see, this is a thing that I know about.

The things that I have seen at weddings include (but are not limited to):

  • In almost all cases, guests who avoid going into the church until the last possible moment, as though by actually approaching the door they risk being forced back by a blast of garlic fumes.
  • A registrar who took so long with the signing of the register that the pre-prepared playlist of over twenty minutes ran out and we turned, for Plan B, to Whatever Beth Has On Her iPod.
  • Terrible bridesmaid dresses.
  • One photographer who brought a video camera with him so large that I presumed he had liberated it from the BBC while on his way to the church and then proceeded to park it directly in the path that the happy couple would need to take.
  • Men who have clearly never worn kilts before.
  • A priest and a server sitting in a car in the main street of a one-horse town in South Lanarkshire failing despite two mobile phones and a sat nav to work out where the wedding they were supposed to be going was to be held.
  • A father of the bride who quoted Josiah Bartlet in the opening of his speech.
  • A page boy and a bridesmaid who came down the aisle in a motorised car.
  • A groom who wanted an Entrance Of The Groom and duly had it, to The Dambusters theme tune.
  • That everyone in England always chooses All Things Bright And Beautiful because they think that everyone will know it.
  • That nobody sings anyway.
  • That some people are a bit daring and choose Lord Of The Dance instead, having apparently not paid any attention to the words when they were doing their choosing.
  • A priest who got the middle names of the couple mixed up.
  • A priest who carefully balanced his stone on the cairn that the couple was building, and, like Jenga, made it collapse.
  • A registrar whose pen ran out.
  • The odd bridesmaid who was apparently never told that being a bridesmaid would involve doing things.
  • A guest who appeared at a really quite posh venue wrapped head-to-toe in a tartan rug which she had walked through the town market dressed in due to a far away car park and general lack of umbrella. (Me.)
  • Happy tears.
  • Laughter.
  • Love.
  • Promises.

The social change in the last ten years that has more than any other made the difference to support for same-sex marriage has been civil partnerships. An odd thing to say about a law that at the time I thought still perpetuated a second-class of citizenship for the LGBT community. There’s an extent to which I still believe that’s true — if I didn’t, I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of equal marriage. My fear then was that this would mean that equal marriage might never happen, because legislators would think it unnecessary. And there are some legislators who do say that. But it is to the surprise and delight of eighteen-year-old me, civil partnerships have turned out to be overwhelmingly a force for good, because they sweep away the old prejudices about gay relationships. Because where before the only thing the general population had to think about same-sex relationships was about gay sex, now when people think about same-sex relationships they think about two men or two women pledging vows to one another in front of their friends and their family.

They think about weddings.

And it is that that has changed the world.

You will see in that list of things that I’ve told you about weddings, I haven’t told you which ones were the weddings of opposite-sex couples and which ones were the civil partnerships or blessings of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. I bet if you read back through it, you won’t be able to tell. I bet if you try to guess, you’ll get some of them wrong. The ceremonies that are put together by the opposite-sex couples who I’ve seen make promises to each other are not substantively different to the ceremonies put together by the same-sex couples who I’ve seen make those promises. And the love that I see shared by the same-sex couples who come together to vow their lives to one another is certainly no different to the love I see shared by the opposite-sex couples who make that vow.

It is my hope that on Tuesday we will see that no difference enshrined in the law of Scotland.

Friends, Activists, Legislators

On Tuesday, the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act comes to Holyrood for its final vote.

It’s a strange feeling, that a piece of legislation that started out, at the very beginning, with a small meeting and a white piece of paper, has brought us to this place at this time. An idea that I truly thought wouldn’t go anywhere, but a conversation that I thought it was important to have anyway. A labour of love for so many people of whom I am so very proud, and for me too.

If you watch the news or read the papers or really are alive in any way at all, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the die has been cast and that the events of next week are a foregone conclusion. A politician (kind of) once said this: there’s moment after you cast the die but before it hits the table — breathe wrong and you’ll change the way it lands. It isn’t done. You still have time to write, email, and phone your MSPs and tell them that it is important to you that they vote for equal marriage on Tuesday.

Over the next four days, I’ll be posting something every day about this.

I thought I’d start by looking back at some of the things that have been said about equal marriage legislation and why we think this is important.

First, it’s easy to get tangled up in the rhetoric and forget what it is we’re actually talking about. Clare Flourish gives us a good run down of what this bill is and what it isn’t.

Jaye Richards-Hill, who you may recognise from the time she and her wife Ruth had their marriage blessed in front of Holyrood, reminds us all that we aren’t looking for special rights but merely for equal ones.

And then let’s have a look again at the speech that David Lammy gave to the House of Commons during the passage of the similar legislation in England.

I’ve written a lot about this over the years, including a piece about why I think it’s time for equal marriage and my pride on the day eighteen months ago that the Scottish Parliament announced that they would be seeking to legislate for it.

A number of religious bodies have made positive contributions to this campaign. For just a few examples, take a look at the letter sent to Parliament by the Faith in Marriage coalition, at the responses made to the government consultation by Ekklesia, the United Reformed Church, the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, and Changing Attitude Scotland, and at Kelvin Holdsworth talking about love, respect, and inclusion.

Read what Caron Lindsay wrote about watching the legislation pass through its initial reading in parliament at the end of last year.

Remember that we are merely the latest ripple in a tidal wave of equality that has been sweeping around the world. Remember that when New Zealand passed equal marriage, there came no hurricane nor hellfire nor plague of frogs but instead the singing of a Maori love song that spread across the Internet and to the ends of the earth.

And then have another listen to our song.