Some time ago we at Changing Attitude Sussex (CAS) decided to conduct a survey of the attitudes of churches in our diocese towards LGBT people. We announced our plans to the local press and got a fair amount of good media coverage. As a result a number of Anglican clergy became sufficiently concerned about the idea that eventually I, as CAS Convenor, was contacted by the Rural Dean. We entered into discussions and it became clear that one of the main issues was clergy who wanted to report in the survey that their churches were welcoming to and affirming of LGBT people but were afraid of the reaction it might provoke from their diocesan hierarchy. The Rural Dean contacted the Bishop who invited us to his Palace in Chichester to talk the whole project through.
A remarkable event
This was quite a remarkable invitation and it proved to be quite a remarkable meeting. We all know the position set out in the now famous, some might say infamous, resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that ‘homosexual practice is incompatible with the teaching of scripture.’ This statement has come to take on the air of a magisterial teaching in a Church with no magisterium. Bishop John Hind firmly upholds this particular statement. His speaking and voting record in the House of Lords on LGBT issues is from our point of view, to say the least, not good. He is not a natural ally of ours. He does, however, take his pastoral role as a bishop in the established church of this country seriously. He is of course a pastor to all the people in his diocese and all the people includes us.
My LGCM colleague and I arrived at the Palace with a degree of trepidation. A rather fearsome looking agenda had been sent to us in advance of the meeting and we steeled ourselves for some frank exchanges. The agenda informed us that we would be meeting the Bishop of Chichester, the Bishop’s Chaplain, the Archdeacon, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, the Rural Dean of Brighton and a lady theologian from the University of Chichester. This is quite a daunting line-up which conjured up mental images of heretics being interrogated by the Inquisition. In the event the Bishop’s chaplain greeted us warmly and we were shown through to the Palace gardens where a table had been prepared with bottles of red and white wine and nibbles. The bishop arrived and immediately created a positive atmosphere which is best described as friendly but business-like. We sat around the table without it being apparent that there were two ‘sides’. The meeting had been planned to last one hour but we stayed for almost two
The proposed survey
We explained what we wanted to do and actually showed the Bishop the survey sheet we intend to send to every church in Sussex over the coming months. The concept of the survey is very simple. It is a single sheet of A4 with descriptions of four different approaches to LGBT people, ranging for example from ‘leaders and congregation believe that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful and that it is wrong to be in a gay or lesbian relationship’ through to ‘gay and lesbian people can be fully and openly involved in every aspect of the church’s life including lay leadership roles’. In the accompanying letter, which will be sent to both the vicar of the parish and the secretary of the parochial church council, we ask that these descriptions be discussed with representatives of the congregation. They then simply tick the box which best represents how things are in their church. We also ask them to add any comments they might wish to make. On the basis of these results we will compile a ‘Which Church?’ dossier which we hope will be helpful to LGBT people in choosing a church.
Not St Paul on the road to Damascus but…..
Bishop John’s response to us took us by surprise. There was no blinding light and sudden conversion to our cause like St Paul on the road to Damascus. There was however an unexpectedly definite willingness to ‘do business’ with us. We had made it clear that the survey would go ahead whatever, but that we thought it would be in the interests both of the Church and of LGBT people if it could go ahead with some kind of supportive statement from the diocese as to its value and usefulness. This he agreed to, and the statement he gave us will be very valuable indeed in ensuring a good response to the survey. He said:
‘I consider this survey to be a helpful and appropriate contribution to the process of listening to the experience of gay people commended to all in the Anglican Communion by the 1998 Lambeth Conference.’
He went on to say that he thought the results of the survey would form a sound basis for further discussion.
This really is an extraordinarily positive position for Bishop John to adopt. Although not a formal member, he is associated with Forward in Faith and was a keynote speaker at their conference last Autumn. So this was a pastor reaching out a long way to find common cause with a particular section of his flock. Given where he is coming from I think it was a visionary act on his part and he is to be commended for it. He did this in the full knowledge that there will be people on his own side who will criticise him severely for it.
The spirit of the times?
Because the press release went out through the Diocesan Communications Office there has been considerable media interest. The Argus used the story to sell its paper and billboards all over Brighton and Hove had ‘HOW GAY FRIENDLY IS YOUR CHURCH? written on them in big black letters. The Sun picked up on it in its own inimitable style under the wonderful headline ‘Pew’s the most gay?’ So far all the media reporting has been positive. After Bishop James Jones of Liverpool recently shifting his position, arguing that we should now agree to disagree, accepting that there are different views which can legitimately be held within a single communion, and Bishop Tom Butler from Southwark taking advantage of his retirement a few weeks back to say that he had changed his mind and was now opposed to discrimination against LGBT people, perhaps Bishop John’s courageous public statement of support for our survey is part of the spirit of the times. Let us hope so.
For more information visit www.changingattitudesussex.com
Dr Keith Sharpe
Chair, Changing Attitude Sussex