DO I stay or do I go? Rarely have I felt so torn. Finally, I decided that I could no longer continue.
It has been an odd experience.
The Church of England is engaged in an ambitious project about human identity, sexuality, and marriage, now called Living in Love and Faith (LLF) (News, 4 January). After decades of discussion, various reports, and, most recently, shared conversations, LLF’s timeframe is just three years. It is due to report in 2020.
LLF rose from the ashes of a refusal by the General Synod to take note of a House of Bishops document on sexuality and marriage (News, 17 February 2017). In the letter that followed this unprecedented outcome, the Archbishops promised “a radical, new, Christian inclusion”, and a substantial teaching document on marriage.
The whole project is overseen by the Coordinating Group (COG). The eight COG members are bishops, as this is primarily an episcopal process. There are five non-episcopal consultants plus four staff members.
The process has also involved thematic working groups of academics from the four disciplines of biblical studies, the sciences (biological and social), history, and theology. There is also a Pastoral Advisory Group, formed to review and recommend pastoral practice in relation to LGBTI people.
When the names of the first participants were announced, it looked as if the process would be covering familiar ground, and that people were being selected with a view to balancing one strongly held theological opinion against another. Reading the initial terms of reference, I found it all very disappointing.
Then, much to my surprise, I was invited to join the co-ordinating group as one of the consultants. I didn’t need much persuading. If I, a transgender priest, could be included, obviously things were going to be different this time.
I HAVE been a member for 15 months, from the very first meeting, held in Coventry, in August 2017. Even then I had feelings of disquiet. Because some were on holiday or not yet involved in the work, I was the one woman present. The gender balance has improved only slightly since then. Including staff, the group is now composed of 12 men and five women. It’s a familiar imbalance, and sorely inadequate. Lessons are not being learned.
Almost from the start, I knew that I would probably have to leave at some point. People may find this hard to believe. After all, the process is more open than earlier ones have been. It has evolved over time. The teaching document will be less substantial and more accessible, and there are creative possibilities around communication. Evidently a culture change is under way.
I have sometimes likened my reaction to “fight or flight”, but that doesn’t fully capture the sense of powerlessness and oppression I have experienced.
Deciding to leave has been hard. I have loved and been loved by the other members. I admire and respect them, and know that they are doing their best, though with their hands tied by the constraints of “the Church’s current teaching”. Praying together as a group has brought us close.
But the moment came. At our meeting in the second week of January, two triggers, in quick succession, brought matters to a head. An LGBTI+ person known to me was demonised. It was as if a mask had suddenly dropped.
Shortly afterwards, the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again, in relation to someone else I know. It was all too much.
My concerns about process, however, have existed for months. I can list these under three headings beginning with the letter “p”: power, parish, and practical theology.
I HAVE touched on the first of my concerns: an overwhelming impression of privilege extended towards those who are male, heterosexual, and cisgender (i.e. not transgender). This imbalance is bound to skew the outcome. Coincidentally, when I joined LLF, I was also part of an international, interdisciplinary research team looking at prayer in hospitals. A predominantly female team with an incredibly collegial ethos, it drew on many of my gifts. By contrast, LLF has often left me feeling marginalised and deskilled.
Although treated as a full member of the co-ordinating group, I frequently felt peripheral to a process that appeared to be tightly managed elsewhere. My suggestions or nominations were never taken up, and not always recorded in minutes. Narratives are crucial, and I began to realise that what I stood for was unlikely to be represented.
The group is extremely clerical, with only one lay member, other than the enabling officer. Also, the four working groups are all chaired by members of the House of Bishops. There has been an effort to balance different theological perspectives, but the power imbalances in the process are striking.
I have also sensed a lack of awareness of how difficult this inequality might be for LGBTI+ participants. I have come increasingly to the view that it is not a safe process for us. By the end, I found myself reluctant to refer contacts to take part in the process.
Very few people within the process, and just two of us on the co-ordinating group, are publicly out about being lesbian, gay, or, in my case, trans. There is no one who is openly bisexual. The only member of the College of Bishops to be publicly open about his homosexuality is a member of the Pastoral Advisory Group, and his very singularity highlights the risk of coming out within current church culture. There are just not enough openly self-accepting LGBTI+ Christian people within the LLF process.
LLF is said to be wide-ranging, in that it will consider heterosexuality as well as homosexuality, but that sidesteps the fact that it is homosexuality and gender variance that the Church of England struggles with. It also overlooks the difficulties that LGBTI+ people face trying to articulate their position in a heteronormative culture.
Only now, 15 months on, as LLF enters the interdisciplinary stage, are substantive discussions taking place across the whole process. Hitherto, we have explored questions and identified themes. Perhaps that will prove to be the right approach, but it is one I’ve found hard to relate to.
WHAT has been happening in the parish where I help out has also played a part in my decision to leave. As in many Church of England congregations, LGBTI+ people are simply not a problem. Many parishes, as we know, are open to the possibility of equal marriage in church. Church members inhabit an equality culture at work, and are often surprised to find that the Church takes a different view.
The gulf between bishops and the grassroots has become even more sharply focused for me in the past three months. Our parish fell vacant. As the PCC drew up its parish profile, one element was non-negotiable. This was a church committed to equality, determined to appoint the best person for the post, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or marital status.
Why, I began to wonder, did LLF need another 18 months and more, when a parish like ours had already embraced full equality? Formerly a three-resolution parish, the PCC had rescinded those 15 years ago, and the church worked out where it stood on gender and sexuality relatively quickly after that. Changes in civil law, like the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 in people’s workplaces, no doubt played a part. As noted recently in another context (the closing submission on behalf of Slater & Gordon survivors at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, July 2018):
Changing the culture and values in an institution does not guarantee a change in that institution’s behaviour. . . Compel the institution to change through the law, and then the culture will change thereafter.
LLF, on the other hand, has adopted a pedagogic approach. In the longer term, by definition, the outcome still remains uncertain. As originally envisaged, LLF was intended to produce a document in which the Bishops taught us about sexuality and marriage. My recent parish experience suggests it should be the other way round. Bishops have much to learn from their congregations where an equality culture has developed following wider legislative changes.
LEARNING from the grass roots is an official part of the LLF approach, it is true. The voices of some individuals and congregations will be heard, including those of LGBTI+ people. What will be overlooked, however, is their significance, owing to the following three assumptions.
First, it is assumed that the Church’s difficulties with sexuality and marriage can be resolved intellectually, symbolised by the many papers produced by the working groups. This approach constantly risks “othering” people, especially those who do not conform to gender or sexual norms. Academic expertise is being privileged over the important consideration that people — including LGBTI+ people — are the experts on their own lives.
Intellectual rigour is necessary, but sex and marriage are visceral topics. A practical-theology method that starts from people’s experience would be preferable in this instance. Beginning with experience is the norm in practical theology, especially where there is perceived injustice, inequality, or complexity. Again, I contrast this with the prayer-in-hospitals project, and my collaborative research with the Revd Dr Chris Dowd exploring the lives of Christian trans people. Crucially, it provides access to raw data: the evidence of what is really going on.
Second, there’s an assumption that LLF is handling equally valid views about sex and gender, on which we can, in the end, agree to disagree. Research suggests otherwise. In Transfaith (2018), written with Chris Dowd and based on interviews with 12 transgender Christians, we gave evidence of the rejection that some had experienced in conservative churches, and the negative impact of conservative theology on their lives.
More recently, I heard from one young trans person during a workshop who admitted to “having huge panic attacks about ‘Does God hate me?’” after a spell in a conservative Evangelical church
Of course not! Yet who can blame them for gaining this impression when the recent official guidance on marking gender transition has produced such an outcry among conservatives (News, 25 January, Letters, 21 December), and a questioning of the therapeutic consensus on which many trans people depend?
Third, there’s the presumption that an ongoing — and in the Church of England’s case, extremely protracted — discussion of sex and gender is a neutral process. It isn’t. It can be deeply undermining for LGBTI+ people to live with this kind of uncertainty, which inevitably implies that they are, at the very least, “a problem”.
As one young woman said to me: “People are allowed to have lots of different views on things. . . But, ultimately, they’re still working [out] how they feel about gender and sexuality as a church. And I think that I found it difficult to be there for that reason.” She has now left the church she grew up in.
ANALYSING these stories over the past few weeks, I realised that I could no longer, with conviction, continue to reach for that deep, but elusive, theological place where differences over sexuality, gender, and marriage might be reconciled.
To articulate the theology of those who take a different view to one’s own with generosity is a noble ideal; but knowing the harm that some views can inflict, I became increasingly reluctant to do this. Other self-affirming LGBTI+ people in LLF presumably take a different line. One, I know, would like to see their own theology generously expressed by those who hold a conservative view.
They were unsurprised, though, by my leaving, as I have often expressed my concerns and reactions to them — many of which they have agreed to. But, to them, the LLF glass still seems half full, whereas for me it appeared half empty.
I continue to hope that LLF will produce something wonderful for the whole Church, but I no longer wish to be part of it for the reasons I have explained. I will continue to pray for everyone involved, and I am grateful to the other COG members for their warmth, especially the chair, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, and LLF’s excellent enabling officer, Dr Eeva John.
When they launched LLF, our Archbishops assured us that no one was an issue or a problem. I’d like to believe it. Were that true, though, my experience of LLF would have been very different.
The Revd Dr Christina Beardsley is a retired healthcare chaplain.