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A safe way to speak honestly

06 November 2020

How Anglicans talk about sexuality matters, say Helen Berry and Jamie Harrison

youtube/church of england

A card that summarises the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together formulated by the Pastoral Advisory Group

A card that summarises the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together formulated by the Pastoral Advisory Group

THERE is a condition, hemianopia, with which, as you look ahead, you think you are seeing the whole picture, but actually you see it only partially. Indeed, you are benignly unaware of it, until you scrape the car or knock over the vase of flowers. It can be a shock when pointed out, not least because it is painless; but it can have dramatic consequences.

The Pastoral Advisory Group that formulated the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together was convened to try to understand why we see things partially, and how to seek some remedies. The Pastoral Principles were published last year (News, 1 March 2019), but they are embedded in a five-session video course that will be among the resources for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF), which will be published on Monday (News, 30 October). It is hoped that, by paying attention to the Pastoral Principles, the conversations that arise out of LLF will take place in as safe an environment as possible.

None of us volunteered: we were co-opted, in our different ways. Early concerns about whether any of us could speak on behalf of others were openly discussed. Whose voices were missing, and who might be left behind? In the face of justified external scrutiny, how dare we, how could we, address these most intimate of issues?


Helen: I decided some 30 years ago that I could not reconcile remaining in the Church of England with my non-conforming sexuality ­— and remain a mentally healthy person. What I brought to the PAG, and what surfaced in our deep work together was the profound sorrow of the LGBTI+ community: our desire to bring our beautiful and diverse personalities and gifts, but not feel accepted or loved unconditionally. It was my place in the room to articulate that hurt. In working with my siblings, I experienced the desire above all desires to create and sustain a unified church family, no matter what our differences. I came out of that experience truly transformed. It was no longer about being “right” or persuading others of my viewpoint or matters of conscience, but about finding a space where we could hold these tensions and differences in mutual respect.

Jamie: For me the six “Can it be right?” questions of the Pastoral Principles failing to explore prejudice, promoting conspiracies of silence, ignorance of what it is like to be LGBTI+, tolerating fear in our churches, evading and denying matters of gender and sexuality, and not acknowledging disparities of power — called out the “hemianopia” in the way I viewed others. An unappreciated narrowness was exposed, assumptions and beliefs about others landing as a shock. I began to see the world, and others, differently. The greatest challenge has been facing up to my own ignorance and prejudice. My mistaken assumptions about others have begun to be exposed, but it is still only a start. The self-satisfied beliefs I once held about my own way of being towards those different from me have been laid bare, as I’ve seen that acceptance of others was on my own terms.


IN THE ministry of Jesus, the healing of visual disorders did occur, but often spiritual or emotional “blindness” seemed more important to him and needed confronting. The prejudice seen in the questions over the man born blind (John 9) highlights a much deeper problem than a purely physical one. The issues were far more about attitudes and blaming, from a position of moral superiority and legalism.

We named the six key themes addressed in the Pastoral Principles as “pervading evils”. This language seemed at first provocative and difficult; surely, whatever we were dealing with in our pastoral concerns shouldn’t be labelled “evils”? Perhaps we were just being too radical, attention-seekers in the contested field of church politics. Yet, as we met together, discussed, prayed, spoke, listened, and disagreed, the overwhelming sense was that we could no longer evade the need to be honest.

What became striking over time (and we met over a period of two years) was that an approach that reached for the lowest possible level of agreement and that simply mapped out our disagreements was not possible. It would have been a denial of what our meeting together had come to mean; it would have been, if not an act of cowardice, at least a form of betrayal of who we had become.

Responses to the “evils” that we identified are not rocket science: acknowledging prejudice, speaking into silence, addressing ignorance, admitting hypocrisy, casting out fear, and paying attention to power. But, taken together (and there must be no “pick and mix”), they profoundly challenge the Church at every level, and one can see how they might be used in other contexts where there is disagreement.


THE LLF resources will come to us after much hard and stretching work. Questions of human identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage are of deep importance, and we will all have strongly held views and opinions about them. That is only proper. But what would be improper would be to fail to engage with the resources thoroughly and seriously. The Pastoral Principles offer a safe and open way into the sorts of conversations that we all need to have — in humility and gentleness.


Jamie: No system is perfect, no framework foolproof. The LLF resources are likely to test us all. But I hope and pray that they will help each of us, with our own particular “hemianopia”, to see more clearly and completely.

Helen: And I hope that the LLF resources, together with the Pastoral Principles, will open up dialogue and mutual understanding on these most personal of issues as we journey together towards a fuller revelation of God’s purpose for humanity. And, in these troubled times, that truly would be miraculous.


Dr Jamie Harrison and Professor Helen Berry were both lay members of the Pastoral Advisory Group. Dr Harrison is Chair of the House of Laity in the General Synod. Professor Berry is Head of Department and Professor of History at the University of Exeter, and was formerly a lay member of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

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