Tuesday 30 March 2010

Bishops who complain about crucifix ban maintain prejudice against LGBT people

The bishops of Winchester, Chester, Hereford and Blackburn, with the retired Lord Carey of Clifton and Michael Mazir-Ali from Rochester wrote to the Sunday Telegraph about Shirley Chaplin, a Christian nurse who has been “prevented from working in a patient-facing role” because she refused to remove the cross she has worn every day since her confirmation 40 years ago.

The bishops argue that this “is yet another case in which the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect.” Discrimination is being shown against Christians, they claim and they “call on the Government to remedy this serious development.”

On the face of it, Shirley Chaplin’s treatment by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust seems unjust. They have categorized her cross as "just an item of jewellery" rather than a Christian symbol. The uniform policy of the NHS trust permits exemptions for religious clothing and this has been exercised with regard to other faiths.

The bishops extend their argument to claim that Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship are not being upheld with “numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country.”

Isn’t it sad that these five bishops and a retired archbishop can motivate themselves to write in support of the right of a Christian nurse to wear a cross and complain that other Christians have been dismissed because of beliefs about marriage, conscience and worship but don’t relate this to church attitudes to and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people? Most of the cases referred to by the writers are connected with people who objected to having to deal with LGBT people in their work place.

In a civilized society like the United Kingdom, the population, led by Government initiatives, realised very quickly that discrimination against LGBT people is unfair and unjust. The equality granted to us under the Equality Bill, Civil Partnership lesgislation and other recent measures has been accepted by the majority, many of whom have LGBT family members or colleagues.

The bishops want a civilized society for certain groups of people but claim exemptions to enable the church to continue to discriminate against LGBT people. The majority of people in the UK see through the prejudice that such bishops have imposed on the church. They treat church attitudes to human sexuality with contempt and derision.

The bishops discriminate against LGBT people and treat us with disrespect. If the Church of England continues to claim exemption and maintains a policy of prejudice informed by Biblical fundamentalism against gays and lesbians, I hope and pray that the population of this country will continue to desert the church and seek spiritual inspiration and nourishment in healthier and more holy places.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Changing Attitude’s meta-narrative

The trustees of Changing Attitude met last Saturday and devoted the final forty minutes to a conversation about what I called in my report to the trustees: ‘Changing Attitude’s meta-narrative’. This is an expansion of my original paper, integrating comments from the discussion.

I would like Changing Attitude to tell a more positive ‘meta-narrative’ and I have been puzzling over this a lot in recent months. I have been searching for something deeper and more embracing than the desire for an inclusive church or justice for LGBT people or ‘back to Hooker’.

Changing Attitude has been habitually reactive or defensive in working for change, reacting to conservative initiatives and defending ourselves against accusations and falsehoods. We are also constantly being pushed into a dualistic dynamic, though this is changing.

I am searching for a focus on being healthy and holy – living as mature people, adult, emotionally literate (Rowan Williams used the phrase in an article in the Guardian recently) in contrast to the sin/guilt/redemption/heaven/hell, dualistic, us and them, Christian/Moslem/Jewish/Buddhist dynamic which we still inhabit.

I have a prophetic urge to move to a new phase, creating a more comprehensive description of what is of essence to us as gay-affirming, inclusive Christians. I dream of a bigger vision to match the coherent conservative sin/redemption account, a theology which I believe to be dangerous for the health and future humankind and our planet, let alone our ‘salvation’. This may be too ambitious, but I am fed up with being trapped by conservatives in a narrative which is unhealthy for people and destructive of creation and human relationships and trust.

Our present ways of thinking in the church are dualistic, based on confrontation and competing claims to exclusive truth, not only in relation to different faith communities but between different Christian churches and within the denominations themselves.

From this dualistic, competitive starting point, I have been challenged to move to a different awareness of God – awareness that God is one and creation is one. Progressive Christians are searching for a meta-narrative that describes the unity of creation and the unity of God. We are striving to let go of the dynamic of conflict with those who disagree with our theology of human sexuality. We can be critical and analytical of each other’s positions but we do not need to engage in a competitive dualism.

Time and energy is absorbed in the futile conflicts over human sexuality. We could live together in greater harmony, harnessing the energy of creation, divine energy, to build communities of cosmic consciousness, gathering those who can trust in their own spiritual experience of the spirit within to work in co-creative ways.

We are in a state of emergency within the Anglican Communion. At the same time we as living in an environmental and financial crisis of global proportions. Both are symptomatic of a much deeper problem, the state of our consciousness, how we think about ourselves and conceive our world. We need to be aware of our interconnectedness and live into a new paradigm, living sustainably in harmony with nature and each other and the living universe, birthing a global culture that will endeavour to bring well-being to every form of life on earth.

The trustees of Changing Attitude are among those hungry to become catalysts for change, agents of transformation in God’s creation. This led us to think about healthier ways to be spiritual, a concept that Western Christianity does not always understand and therefore has difficulty encouraging.

The disapproval of human sexual diversity expressed by church authorities leads to a constricting vision and a negative effect on emotional and spiritual health and well-being. Intuitively, we yearn for truth, beauty, goodness, love, but the church invites us to suppress or repress our innate holiness. We are challenge to work with a holistic model of being healthy that affirms our human integrity. To be a healthy person is to be integrating physical, emotional, spiritual and relational dimensions of health.

In Changing Attitude, we believe that to be on a spiritual path, exploring and deepening our relationship with God, is of the essence. Only then can we grow towards being healthy people, people of integrity.

How do we become absorbed in such unhealthy ways of being in the first place? All children internalise the values of their parents, extended family, school, church, society and culture. Human beings are not free in the sense that we all inherit from our childhood and upbringing an embedded mindset that reinforces cultural and religious values. The process is mostly unconscious, and blessed are those who are gifted with or develop an ability to examine what has been internalised. The capacity to reflect on and explore our internalised assumptions and prejudices is an essential ingredient of the path to healthier living.

Tragically the church tends to reinforce the wounds and traumas of childhood by modelling God as a bad parent who infantilises us. There is a huge need for an expansive vision of God who is utterly trustworthy, absolutely the good parent ‘par excellence’. A good parent God could never do the things the Church does to us: encouraging us into dualistic ways of thinking so that we demonise and exclude one another and those we perceive to be ‘different’. A reforming voice is needed that will challenge the church when it projects its prejudices and fears onto LGBT people.

How do we become more healthy? For Christians, prayer and meditation are of the essence. Times of individual or corporate silence, reflection and meditation deepen our connection to ourselves, each other and God. Meditating opens us to a matrix of awareness and relationships which can bring a new consciousness into being. It helps us become aware of the relationship between our inner and outer worlds, a consciousness which can begin to embody the changes we dream of. Transforming our own attitudes through personal reflection and work on self-transformation are essential as we work for change in the church.

Heart-centered awareness underpins our prayer and meditation, involving both rational and non rational consciousness. Without this there can be no true, just and lasting peace in our world.

Deep trust is an ingredient of heart-centered awareness because trust enables us to take the creative risks which are necessary for a just peace, whether personal or societal. To be hopeful ‘we need to do hopeful things', highlighting the connection between hope and action. Without hope it is impossible to continue to be motivated in the demanding struggle for justice in the church. Maintaining hope depends both on inner resources and outer actions.

Factors which have brought about dramatic changes in our perception of our place in creation include the image of our fragile planet seen from space; globalisation, including the telecommunications and the internet; the separation of sexual pleasure and intimacy from reproduction and insights derived from the human sciences, psychology and psychotherapy.

Many of the deep seated beliefs at the heart of each religion need to be challenged. Cooperative thinking is required between Christians and members other faith traditions as well as those working from a secular perspective. Major global problems arise from what people believe or are brought up to believe. Those which run counter to humanist values of peace, justice and equality need to be reframed.

Religions turn the deepest revelations about holiness and justice into norms, hierarchies and rules. The institutional model of relationships is habitually formal rather than spiritual. We live with a model of salvation which derives from Augustine rather than Origen. A growing theological shift is occurring that many people seem to be aware of, albeit unconsciously. We should try to reclaim and reframe the Scriptures which so often have been used against us.

The integrity and health of LGBT Christian people can be difficult to maintain when church authorities repeatedly criticise and deny us. Our challenge is to help LGBT people realise their vision and encourage their faith in their self-worth and in God who loves and cherishes us infinitely.

Networking is a powerful agent of social change. Change is born at the grassroots and networks bring energy to this source of potentially radical change. The power to forge our future lies with ordinary people, with their inventiveness and enthusiasm, who pool their ideas, resources and energy. This is the new force that is able to re-shape world opinion and bring about change. Networks operate through a synergistic process, and result in outcomes that are greater than the sum of the contributing parts. New and more fluid structures are evolving in society and Changing Attitude supporters and local groups need to be connected locally with those who share our transforming vision.

The process of listening in depth, of awareness, openness, and a sense of being guided by the questions rather than the solutions, become tools for transformation.
Significant seismic shifts are having a ripple effect throughout the Anglican Communion. If we choose, Changing Attitude has the opportunity to seize this moment, a paradigm shift from the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant to Jesus’ ministry of baptism into the New Covenant. Today, society appears to lead in areas where the Church was once the bearer of conscience and creative change.

The new scientific-spirituality paradigm, which is so meaningful to many people outside the Church hardly affects those within the Church. We live in a dynamic, ever-changing universe in which 'everything flows, nothing stays still'. Our work requires us to let go of certainties and be less attached to particular outcomes a greater vision of God and creation.

The most comprehensive and lasting peace, whether in the church or the secular world, requires that 'all the voices come to the table' so that a solution can emerge which does not leave some participants as victors and others as vanquished. Changing Attitude must work collaboratively with individuals and other organizations, mutually empowering one another and helping each of us to fulfill more of our potential.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Confirmation of Mary Glaspool’s election

“Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the giver of the promise is to be trusted. We ought to see how each of us may best arouse others to love and active goodness.” Hebrews 10.23,24

The Guardian’s headline today reads: ‘Crisis grips Catholic church as sex abuse allegations widen’. Yesterday’s headline in parts of the Anglican Communion was ‘Los Angeles Bishop-elect Glasspool receives church's consent to ordination’.

Sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and the cover up of abuse by bishops is evil. Dare anyone say that the confirmation of the election of a partnered lesbian as a bishop is in any way ‘evil’? Has Bishop Gene Robinson’s 7 year ministry brought ‘evil’ into the Anglican Communion, as some would claim? The Anglican Communion’s thinking about human sexuality is so utterly distorted now that the majority in our Communion claim that good people are evil and those who think and act in evil ways are good and holy.

Mary Glasspool becomes, for many in the Communion, another visible sign of God’s welcome to LGBT people and the blessing bestowed on those of who are faithfully and lovingly partnered and called by God to ministry in the church, lay and ordained, priestly and Episcopal.

Other groups in our Communion have ordained bishops to represent their particular version of truth and orthodoxy, bishops who are symbols of disunity and division. The Episcopal Church will ordain a bishop who is a symbol of hope to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across the Communion and to all who long for prejudice about human sexuality to be overcome.

The world has moved on since Gene Robinson was ordained bishop in 2003. A period of restraint was exercised in North America while Instruments of Communion began to work our a process in reaction to his election and ordination. We now have the Windsor Report and the proposed Anglican Covenant.

In parts of the Communion hostile to the presence of homosexual Christians and same-sex couples, attempts have been and are still being made to further demonise LGBT people. Bills were introduced in Nigeria and Uganda; outbreaks of violence and persecution have occurred in Kenya and other countries; gay people murdered in the UK.

Same-sex marriage rights have been introduced in a number of countries and several US States and in England, Civil Partnerships. Inroads have been made in England into the Church of England’s reactionary stance against extending a welcome to LGBT people. The Church of England’s prejudice against the full inclusion of LGBT people is being steadily eroded, from within the House of Bishops and without as a result of equality legislation.

Networks of LGBT people, the majority of them Christian, are developing across Africa. They are yet to have a visible impact but they will.
2010 is not 2003. In seven brief years the global community has, by continuing a public discourse about the presence of LGBT people in society, inadvertently encouraged a process of education and awareness among peoples hitherto ignorant of the reality of LGBT people.

The discourse in Uganda has highlighted the prejudice, ignorance and bigotry found in Christian leaders. There is a division between the focus on anti-gay rhetoric by individual Primates, bishops and Christian leaders and other bishops who in private reveal more generous levels of understanding and tolerance. There is a gulf of understanding in the Catholic church between official Vatican teaching and the pronouncements of Ugandan bishops.

Mary Glasspool’s ordination will be controversial, but the controversy for many is now focussed on how reaction will reveal prejudice, ignorance and intolerance within the Christian community rather than a principled stand based on tradition, scripture and the unity of the church. Unity in Christ cannot be based on ignorance and prejudice.

“Spirit of the living God, in communion with you and with the cries of those who suffer injustice, work in and through us new deeds of discerning wisdom and true judgement, that we may know among us the fulfilment of your promises, even the firstfruits of your rule of justice.”

Coda to Psalm 94 by Jim Cotter from Out of the Silence ... Prayer’s Daily Round (Cairn Publications)

Friday 12 March 2010

Today is the day of Brenda’s funeral

My partner and I will be leaving at 10.30 to drive to St Peter’s Church, Frimley, where Brenda's funeral will take place followed by cremation at Easthampstead Crematorium and refreshments and a celebration of her life at Ye Olde White Hart, Frimley.

There is some anxiety around, not unusual on the day of a funeral but heightened today because Brenda was in a Civil Partnership with Pam and was an evangelical Anglican who very publicly identified as lesbian. Brenda had a public profile as a result of her work with the European Forum of Lesbian and Gay Christian Groups, the Evangelical Fellowship and of course, with Changing Attitude. She played a key role in organising our tenth anniversary service at St Martin-in-the-Fields when Bishop Gene Robinson spoke and our presence at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

There is anxiety, for example, because the Bishop of Guildford has informed Pam that his chaplain is attending in recognition of the work Brenda did as a member of the diocesan human sexuality group. But is the chaplain really coming for this reason, or might he be coming as a spy, to check on who participates in the service and whether it conforms with Church of England policy, the Highton 1987 motion, Issues in Human Sexuality, Lambeth 1.10 and the Windsor report?

Isn't this a ridiculous anxiety? It would be, if there were any truth in the thought that the chaplain might be coming as a spy. Knowing Bishop Christopher Hill reasonably well, it’s extremely unlikely! But there are others in our church who have spied on us – remember the hospital chaplain whose house was spied on to determine which rooms were slept in, which lights were put out when, and whether he might be sleeping with the male lodger? Remember also that Anglican Mainstream is so concerned about the possibility of being spied on iteslf or infiltrated by pro-gay people that it’s last ex-gay conference was held in conditions of extreme secrecy.

And remember that we who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are often anxious about how we are perceived and whether the next person we come out to is going to judge or condemn us. There are good reasons for anxiety today when we come to commend our sister Brenda into the loving care of God. There are some who believe this to be an impossibility because Brenda transgressed God’s immutable laws.
What might it be about me as a gay man or Brenda as a lesbian that places us outside God’s loving mercy?
For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in the heights or depths – nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8.38,39 REB
NOTHING. I believe that to be true with all my heart and soul. My being gay and living with a partner and Brenda being lesbian and living with Pam separates neither of us from God’s love nor from the Kingdom.

I believe this to be true for a second, totally subjective reason. I believe myself to be a reasonably emotionally healthy, integrated person. The ex-gay movement likes to think we LGBT suffer from an addiction or a personality disorder. I can think of some in the church to which such an analysis might apply – but to Brenda or myself – no. If we suffer from an addictive or personality disorder then, my friends, we are all doomed – and we are not. Some LGBT people are addictive and do suffer from personality disorders – some are depressed – hardly surprising in the circumstances.

But many of us lead deeply faithful and spiritual lives and I am outraged when told that I am destined for hell-fire and will be judged more severely than anyone else because I am gay. The church’s obsession with homosexuality based on readings of scripture and the tradition of the church will have to change around us. I am not sacrificing my spiritual health or my deep openness to the love of God to enable those opposed to LGBT inclusion to remain members of an inclusive church.

Neither did Brenda, and the celebration today will reflect tearfully and joyfully on the life of a person who gave her all to God, to her friends and her partner. Brenda lived with a deep evangelical faith, immersed in scripture and prayer. She was passionate and creative, perceptive and fun. Conservative evangelicals will dismiss these qualities as irrelevant to Brenda’s salvation. I think they are fundamental. I think the church has been and still is hooked on the law, on 'getting ourselves right with God', on wanting us to suppress our deepest, healthiest, holiest loves and desires to conform with a reading of scripture that reflects historical prejudice.

The Kingdom will have drawn a step closer when the funerals of LGBT people (and our Civil Partnerships) can be celebrated in church without fear that we are going to be investigated by the bishop’s spies, however thinly disguised as a chaplain. How can a spy assess the inner workings of my heart and soul? Am I and Brenda wrong in our self-assessment – that we are not addictive nor do we suffer from a personality disorder because we identify as lesbian or gay? Are we wrong to believe that our conservative brothers and sisters are mistaken in their interpretation of Scripture? Are we wrong to believe that we are created in the image of God and that with our heterosexual brothers and sisters, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God?

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Reactions to the Bishop of Liverpool – Andrew Goddard on Fulcrum

In August 2009 Andrew Goddard alerted me to two books. One was Andrew Marin’s ‘Love is an Orientation’ which he reviewed somewhat enthusiastically. As Laurie Roberts commented on Thinking Anglicans today, what was all that about? The second book was ‘Ex-gays?’ by Stanton L Jones and Mark A Yarhouse. I’m half-way through reading it at the moment. The purpose of this 400 page book is to prove the thesis that some in the group studied from Exodus Ministries changed their sexual orientation, thus proving wrong all those who believe sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable.

I don’t, as it happens, believe that sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable. I do believe that extreme conservative evangelicals have an addiction to proving that homosexuality as an identity doesn’t exist in reality. The study doesn’t do that (I’ve peeked at the conclusion). Those who wish to believe that homosexuals cannot exist as a category in God’s creation are nevertheless likely to add Jones and Yarhouses’s book to their Gagnon collection as another proof text for their thesis.

This week I have also read, in the latest edition of Theology and Sexuality, ‘The “Lyings” of a Woman: Male-Male incest in Leviticus 18.22?’ by K Renati Lings. Lings argues from analysis of the Hebrew text that it is proscribing incest between male family members and not prohibiting all erotic expression between men. The Hebrew is opaque, and modern translations abuse the text by interpreting it, often from contemporary (and prejudiced) understandings of sexuality and sexual behaviour.

One difference between the Colin Coward category of Christian and the conservative evangelical category is that to me, much of the Bible is opaque and cannot be read as proving ‘literal, inerrant truth’.

Andrew’s problem is that he genuinely wants to be and is a good friend to many LGBT people but wants us to adhere to his ‘biblical and traditional theological Christian sexual ethic’. He argues that James Jones is wrong to have appealed to just war and pacifism as analogies in his argument. But I think rather that it is the visceral reaction to homosexuality which arouses intense feelings among those of a conservative persuasion, much more so than divorce, abortion (though that arouses equally intense passion in the USA) and the role of women in church. The result is that homosexuality is the issue onto which all the arguments about biblical and traditional theology and sexual ethics get hitched, to the tragic disadvantage of LGBT people and the health and unity of the church.

I think the most important question is not whether we are conforming to traditional church teaching but whether homosexuality in itself and its expression in intimate sexual relationships is a sin. Conservatives say that of course it is, it’s obvious, the Bible is quite clear. Lings and others say the Bible is not clear. Romans 1 is not clear to me as a decisive argument. If I am definitively judged by Paul in 1.26,27, then so in the following verses are the envious, gossips, scandalmongers, the insolent, arrogant, boasters and those disrespectful of their parents. Is homosexuality really a sin in a category of its own, different from divorce, envy, abortion, insolence?

I don’t believe it is, of course. I believe that gay identity came into focus in the latter half of the C20th because the second world war disrupted set patterns of relationships sufficiently to open new possibilities for us in society much as it did for women – and the battle for territory for both groups continues. Conservative Christians were worried by the dramatic change in social structures that these developments presaged and have been fighting a rear-guard action against them ever since.

Andrew’s Fulcrum article and the article on Anglican Mainstream posted by Philip Giddings, Bishop Wallace Benn; David Banting; Paul Perkin and Chris Sugden (with comments from Stephen Trott, Charles Raven, Peter Ould, John Richardson and John Nolland), show just how insecure and upset conservatives are by James Jones’ address. Andrew says it ‘opens up a new phase in the Anglican, and particularly the evangelical Anglican, discussions about homosexuality’. Much is ‘vague and slippery’ in James Jones’ argument, he says.

Andrew worries, for example, about ‘the important work of True Freedom Trust’ with those who experience homosexual attraction and yet embrace traditional teaching, ‘faithful brothers and sisters who will feel abandoned, betrayed and undermined in their costly discipleship and forced to bear an even more “agonising cross”’ if the church follows James Jones. What about the rest, the other groups of faithful LGBT Christians, those whom God has called, the church has baptized confirmed (and ordained)? If the church gave “sufficient attention to their situation or to their theological, ethical and spiritual insights” (as Andrew quotes Jones), then it should steadfastly accept rather than reject the central proposal of his address and his vision of the Anglican future. But Andrew and the others are writing defensively from a conservative corner of the Church of England. Andrew thinks my teaching has to be challenged and corrected. I beg to differ. I think we have to respect difference and allow the space in the church argued for by James Jones.

I think conservatives are reacting so strongly to James Jones this week because they would like the Church of England to move in the direction of the Anglican Church of North America. The Bishop of Liverpool’s address and the defeat of Lorna Ashworth’s original motion in General Synod both show a church moving in the opposite direction. Andrew fears a future akin to the minority who have left TEC and gathered under the ACNA banner, claiming that they have been marginalised and excluded because they alone uphold the biblical and tradition sexual ethic. Andrew thinks the CofE has followed a much better pattern of “serious and rigorous study, upholding Scripture and tradition while engaging thoroughly with substantive issues biblically, theologically, sociologically and experientially.” ‘Issues’, and ‘Some Issues’, Lambeth 1.10 and the 1987 General Synod motion (does anyone really take that as Anglican policy?) may exemplify traditional CofE methodology but many would challenge the quality of research and thinking embodied in them and disagree with the conclusions they draw.

Andrew would like others in episcopal leadership to engage with, analyse and critique Bishop James’s address. Is he wishfully thinking that they would take him to task and insist that he conform with ‘the House of Bishops’ position’? His argument might have benefitted from the input of other bishops, says Andrew, and “its position certainly places many of them in a difficult position.”

The House of Bishops are in a mess. They are deeply split and totally unable to be honest with each other according to reports of House of Bishops’ meetings. Significant numbers of bishops actively go against the theoretically agreed teaching of the church. If James had taken his paper to the House and they were able to be honest, the majority may well have supported him. There would certainly be a range of views as wide as that manifest in TEC and the schismatic North American churches.

Saturday 6 March 2010

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool calls for Anglicans to “accept a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality”

In early 2000 Cardinal Thomas Winning wrote an article published in the Telegraph in support of Section 28, calling homosexual acts inherently wrong. Bishop James Jones supported Cardinal Winning in an article for The Times claiming that there were serious health issues in the act of gay sex and that natural theology and biblical principles recognise only two forms of vocation and do not support same-gender sexual acts. I wrote him an angry three page letter questioning his ability to understand or listen with respect and integrity to lesbian and gay people. Before he left Hull for Liverpool I had written challenging his views on homosexuality.

James Jones has journeyed a long way from his thinking about homosexuality in 2000. Then, his views were described as traditionalist. Although he admitted that public attitudes were changing he thought that gay relationships were not equal to heterosexual relationships. As a result of my second letter we met for tea at the Athanaeum. Since then we have met regularly and developed a friendship based on deeper understanding and trust. I have changed over the past decade and so has Bishop James in his attitude towards LGBT people.

The diocese of Liverpool has come to exemplify how the process of listening to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can be encouraged and made to work, both in the local and the international context. I was invited several years ago to meet the human sexuality group which he convened in the diocese, enabling people of differing convictions to explore their differences creatively. This model was adapted to form the basis of a three-way conversation between the diocese’s link partners of Akure in Nigeria and Virginia in the USA. It is a model which could be followed by every province and diocese of the Anglican Communion that is genuinely committed to Lambeth Resolution 1.10 and the process of listening to lesbian and gay people.

His condemnation of homophobic attacks in Liverpool is an example of the pro-active response needed when gay people are attacked and abused. The Church of England bishops have often been slow to criticise homophobia at home and outrages abroad such as the appalling anti-homosexuality legislation in countries like Uganda and Nigeria.

Today, Bishop James used his presidential address to the March synod of the Diocese of Liverpool to call for Anglicans to “accept the diversity of ethical convictions” in the debate on sexual ethics so that “we will let nothing deflect us from mission.” He talked about how “we handle disagreements about ethical principles within the body of Christ” and said that “on a number of major moral issues the church allows a large space for a variety of nuances, interpretations, applications and disagreements”.

He proposed that we can move “towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully” and that he believes “the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love within the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.”

Bishop James said the Diocese of Liverpool has the full spectrum of moral opinion on human sexuality evident in the Church of England at large and in the Anglican Communion and accepts a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality.

I welcome his acceptance that Christians can legitimately hold a variety of ethical conviction about lesbian and gay people loving each other fully. This is both a strong affirmation of gay relationships and a confirmation of Anglican tradition, that differences in attitude to homosexuality are not church-dividing and that Christians can live together in one church community respecting each other’s convictions. This is the church into which I was baptised and which Changing Attitude advocates.

The bishop’s address to the Liverpool Synod confirms the significant change in his own understanding of human sexuality and the continuing change in church attitudes to gay and lesbian people. The majority of bishops voted in General Synod recently to extend pension provision for the partners of lesbian and gay clergy. Some bishops in the Lords have voted in favour of equality legislation, breaking the party line against such legislation. Together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop James has a strong respect for the rights and dignities of lesbian and gay people.

I hope that the Bishop of Liverpool will continue to act as a beacon for other bishops who respect LGBT people and encourage them to speak more openly about their genuine support for faithfully partnered gay couples.

Friday 5 March 2010

Changing Attitude Sussex hits the local press

Changing Attitude diocesan groups continue to make an impact across the country, and this week it’s the turn of the newly-formed Sussex group which covers the diocese of Chichester.

The Brighton Argus has a leading article today responding to an article published on Tuesday by Father Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Brighton. In his article he attacked gay people for being ‘hedonistic’ and complained that local politicians pander to the ‘gay lobby’ and are ‘ignorant of our faith’. Keith Sharpe, Convener of CA Sussex was approached to do a radio interview in response and emailed a letter to the editor of the Argus encouraging other group members to do the same.

The result: two letters in today’s paper and an article on the Comment and Analysis page.

“Is the church to blame for why the LGBT population want nothing to do with it?” it asks rhetorically. “The offensive nature of Fr Blake’s remarks is unfortunate but what is more serious is his failure to understand the extent to which the church itself is to blame for many gay people and many politicians wanting nothing to do with it. Father Blake’s God is for everybody.

“Instead of condemning gay people Father Blake should ask himself what he is doing to evangelise the gay community, and why he does not have more gay people in his church. The answer of course is that gay people are not there because of the Church’s relentless hostility and its misrepresentation of a handful of biblical texts to condemn them.”

Chris Cooke, Chair of the LGBT Hate Crime Forum, wrote saying Father Ray Blake shows that the Forum has a mountain to climb when such ignorant comments are espoused from supposedly ‘educated’ clergy. He congratulates the Changing Attitude group for making great strides in challenging the hostility gay people face in church - just the sort of progressive approach LGBT people need.

In the second letter the Revd Dr Brian Twohig points out that gay and church communities are not mutually exclusive but overlapping. Any church which claims to follow Jesus’ gospel of love and tolerance should protect minorities from discrimination and persecution based on prejudice and ignorance.

CA Sussex has achieved a real impact in Brighton and garnered good publicity for the group – at the bottom of the leader is an advert for the next group meeting with Jeremy Marks from Courage UK.

Changing Attitude’s goals and bishop's changing attitudes

Changing Attitude’s goals are: “The day when the Anglican Ccommunion fully accepts, welcomes and offers equality of opportunity to LGBT people, including the blessing of same-sex relationships in church and the training, ordination and preferment of LGBT clergy and lay ministers.”

The goal in England will only be achieved incrementally, and even in the Episcopal Church, a full welcome and equality of opportunity for LGBT people will not be achieved universally. If I’m reading the runes correctly, however, in England there are signs of real change in the House of Bishops and practical changes are being achieved thanks to the work of individuals, secular groups like Stonewall and faith communities with a greater commitment to LGBT inclusion than the Church of England. Lord Alli’s amendment is an important development.

Martin Wharton, Newcastle and Richard Harries, retired bishop of Oxford and patron of CA both voted in favour of the amendment while David James, Bradford, voted against, as would Michael Scott-Joynt if he had been present.

The English House of Bishop’s voting pattern in the Lords and in General Synod is revealing. In the vote on clergy pensions at General Synod the majority of bishops, 12, voted in favour: Ian Brackley, Dorking; Richard Frith, Hull; James Jones, Liverpool; John Packer, Ripon and Leeds; Paul Butler, Southwell and Nottingham; Anthony Priddis, Hereford; John Pritchard, Oxford; Geoffrey Rowell, Europe; John Saxbee, Lincoln; John Sentamu, York; Timothy Thornton, Truro; Rowan Williams, Canterbury. Two bishops voted against: Robert Paterson, Sodor and Mann and Nicholas Reade, Blackburn, and three abstained: Christopher Cocksworth, Coventry; John Goddard, Burnley; James Newcombe, Carlisle.

At the end of January, bishops in the Lords voted for Lady O’Cathain’s amendments to counter the Government’s attempt to reword the law governing church employment. York, London, Winchester, Durham, Chichester, Exeter, Liverpool, and Hereford all voted for Lady O’Cathain and against the Government, as did Lord Carey. Lord Harries voted against Lady O’Cathain and for the Government’s amendment.

The voting patterns help build a picture of where the sympathy of individual bishops lies and more significantly shows that, as I’ve said before, the House no longer feels constrained to maintain a common mind about issues affecting LGBT people. It is still true that it’s much easier for retired bishops to vote according to their conscience than serving bishops.

Conservatives are not happy about these developments. Ruth Gledhill interviewed the Right Rev Michael Scott Joynt, Bishop of Winchester after the vote in favour of Lord Alli’s amendment. He told her that 'Having thought about it a great deal since the committee stage, I regret enormously the vote last night. I think it will make for a great many difficulties. There are two I am particularly concerned about. Notwithstanding the bland words of a number of individuals, some of whom surprise me, I believe it does further fudge the line between civil partnerships and marriage. That is shown by some newspapers which simply speak of gay marriages in church. The second thing is, I believe that it will open, not the Church of England but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages as they all do but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches. Unless the Government does something explicit about this, I believe that is the next step.'

The Bishop of Winchester radically disagrees with other members of the bench of bishops in the Lords and in the House of Bishops. According to an opinion poll conducted by Populus and published by The Times in June last year 61% of the British public believe that same-sex couples should be able to have a civil marriage. Bishops like Michael Scott-Joynt hold a principled in accordance with their own biblical and theological views. They are, however, dramatically at variance with the majority in UK society. The majority doesn’t make it right – except that other bishops agree with the majority and are now prepared to vote accordingly.

The Evangelical Alliance issued a statement calling on the Government to guarantee that churches will genuinely be free to choose whether or not to hold civil partnerships without risk of future anti-discrimination lawsuits following the amendment to the Civil Partnerships Act whilst acknowledging that the change to the Civil Partnerships Act is in keeping with the important principle of religious freedom. That’s an important development which genuinely creates more space for LGBT people in what has usually been a body with very judgmental attitudes to LGBT people.

The Christian Institute and Christian Concern for our Nation both claimed conspiracy theory as a reason for Lord Alli’s amendment being passed. The Christian Institute blamed a rare break in normal procedure allowing the sitting to continue late into the night to allow the Bill to receive its entire Report Stage in one day which led to Lord Alli’s amendment being reached when scores of Peers who would have voted against it were not in the House. I’m not sure who these scores of Peers are, but certainly even if every bishop had been there and voted against the amendment, it would still have been carried.

Andrea Williams, Director of CCFON, was upset about the amendment and said: “What took place … is nothing short of outrageous and all who care about democracy should be alarmed at the proceedings. At the end of January, Baroness Royall for the Government stated that: ‘Any change can therefore be brought only after proper and careful consideration of these issues’. Was this statement deliberately deceitful, or do the Government believe that last night’s debate constituted the ‘proper and careful consideration’ of the issues? The amendment was debated for less than an hour and was voted through literally at the eleventh hour, taking everybody by surprise. To have such a significant change in the law—a change to another piece of legislation no less—take place at the end of the Equality Bill’s passing, without any real debate or consultation, and at such an hour that most Peers were not even in the House, is a disgrace and a clear manipulation of the system.”

Extreme conservatives don’t like what is happening. I hope and pray that bishops who support the full inclusion of LGBT people and welcome those in Civil Partnerships will hold their nerve, strengthen their back bones, and continue for vote in accordance with changing attitudes.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Rwandan threat to criminalise homosexuality not enacted

In December 2009, the lower House of the Rwandan Parliament was set to vote upon a revised Penal Code, Article 217 of which would have made homosexuality a criminal offence for the first time in the East African nation.

The proposed Article 217 would have criminalised "[a]ny person who practices, encourages or sensitises people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice." It would impose prison sentences of between five and ten years for those convicted of homosexual acts. The "encouraging and sensitising" aspects would have meant a ban on counselling and could have impacted on health services for gays and lesbians. Proposed fines range from 200,000 to one million Rwandan francs (£216 to £1,090).

In the wake of the Ugandan Bill, it seemed in the autumn as if a wave of actions hostile to LGBT people was going to spread across Africa, demonizing and further criminalizing gay people. This hasn’t happened in Rwanda, where, following strong action from diplomats and human rights activists in the region, Tharcisse Karugarama, Minister of Justice, declared this week that the Rwandan government "cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality", reaffirming that sexual orientation was "a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation – this is not a State matter at all."

The proposed Bill had been condemned by LGBT group Horizon Community Association of Rwanda (HOCA) and the Coalition of African Lesbians. HOCA president Naomi Ruzindana said back in December: “Our country and our people refuse to recognise the fact that we exist. As far as they are concerned, there are no lesbians or gays in Rwanda. Well, we are here, we exist. We are ordinary people like everyone and all we want is for our people and our government to recognise our existence and the fact that it is our basic human right to live our lives the way that we want and choose.”

Michael Cashman MEP, Co-president of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights, has congratulated the Rwandan authorities on their decision, saying: "In a context increasingly repressive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in African countries, Rwanda did the right thing by refusing to criminalise homosexuality. This is yet another example of Rwanda being a role-model for African nations. The European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights calls on other African nations to follow the lead of Rwanda, and abide by Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights."

In November 2009 Rwanda became only the second non-former British colony to be admitted into the Commonwealth.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is deeply involved in Rwanda as well as Uganda, but there is no record of him making a statement opposing the bill in Rwanda. Neither has AMiA, the Rwandan branch of ACNA, issued a statement. In February 2007 the Archbishop of Rwanda, Emmanuel Kolini, equated homosexuality with moral genocide, and the consecration of Gene Robinson with “satanic attack on the church of God.” In September of 2007 he made it clear he favours the criminalization of homosexuality, saying, "Even when the government decides to legalise homosexuality our church will not accept it its totally illegal and un-Godly." There is no record of Archbishop Kolini having spoken about the Rwandan bill.

I was curious as to why the Bill in Uganda has received such huge attention in the media and why the Rwandan Bill has been quietly dropped with no apparent discussion in the media nor reaction from conservatives in the church. One of Changing Attitude’s Rwandan contacts tells me that it’s a difference of culture. No-one commented about the Bill in Rwanda because people don’t say what they really think. As a result of the genocide, Rwandan’s now make decisions as if they were a family, and once the government dropped the Bill, they all dropped it. The government does all the talking, and if the government isn’t saying much, the people don’t say much. The contact described Ugandans as being more liberal than Rwandans. Liberal isn’t how I’d describe Uganda attitudes to sexuality! Others will know Rwanda culture and society better than me and may have more information as to why the Bill has been dropped.

Lord Alli's amendment - what do pro-gay Christian campaigners really want?

Yesterday peers voted by 95 to 21 in favour of Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill which would allow, though not compel, religious organizations to host civil partnerships in church buildings and permit religious language to be used in the ceremonies.

Conservatives Christians maintain that as a result there would be effectively no difference between marriage and civil partnership within the church.

What do pro-gay Christian campaigners actually want?

We want honest recognition that those of us who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are holy people of God who fall in love and create relationships that are the equal of heterosexual relationships, equal to marriage. As committed Christians with a deep faith in the blessing God bestows on our relationships, we want them recognized by our church and we want to celebrate them in church with our friends and families and members of our congregation.

Does Lord Alli’s amendment achieve this? No, but it moves us in the right direction and begins to create equality of practice.

Is Lord Alli’s amendment a Trojan horse as some claim? I very much hope so. There are many priests and parishes where civil partnerships are already celebrated and blessed in church and bishops who either turn a blind eye towards what is happening or positively encourage priests to contract a civil partnership. Conservatives would be surprised to know which bishops and how many there are.

Conservatives are now attempting to close the stable door well after the same-sex mare and stallion couples have bolted. Our bishops are in disarray, but not enough disarray as yet. Too many of them are still in the closet or in denial about their attitude towards gay relationships, or half in/half out of the stable.

Conservatives continue to claim that the Anglican Communion and the Church of England have definitively decided the issue. On Peter Ould’s blog, David writes: “… the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion, have both re-affirmed the scriptural and traditional belief - that same-sex sex is against Biblical teachings and should be met with a call for repentance (GS '89 and Lambeth '98) ...while striving to listen... and that CofE clergy must agree to conform to live according to this standard (HoB "Issues" '92). He says: “Just 'cos "liberals" keep a challenge to Biblical teaching alive does not mean that a matter is not decided - any more than when conservatives keep challenging the ordination of women!”

Bishops, priests, deacons and lay people in the Church of England have been ignoring these teachings ever since ‘Issues’ was published as a discussion document, which then morphed into policy. Disobedience and denial have been the reality ever since the church started to publish ‘official teaching’. The horses will never be put back in the closet. Nothing will return the Church of England to where the conservatives want it to be.

As Winston writes (again on Peter Ould’s blog): “…the Church that you want to resist the developments … does not exist. It is not cohesive, the House of Bishops does not speak as one, our theologians radically differ in their perspectives, Gene Robinson remains in situ, the Episcopalians remain part of the communion, people like me bless gay relationships, our partners get pension rights, our congregations affirm us, unmarried people in relationships serve on our PCCs, teach Sunday School etc.”

The discussion on Peter Ould’s blog covers the familiar ground very well. Conservatives hold on to their particular Biblical principles and teaching – they claim them to be unchanging and universal when clearly they are not.

Andrew Goddard’s detailed historical analysis of marriage and dissection of what Lord Alli’s amendment will achieve is as always, helpful. Andrew’s position has integrity and he offers our church material by which we can judge the effect of the revised Bill. Andrew and I are friends in the Church of England even though we want very different outcomes for LGBT people in the church and think very differently about the place of gay relationships in the lives of Christians. Andrew is one of those who believe he would be forced to leave the church if it enacted the changes advocated by Changing Attitude.

In yesterday’s debate, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a patron of Changing Attitude, argued: "Religious freedom is indivisible." He denied the amendment would undermine marriage. "It actually strengthens marriage," he said. "The real enemy (of marriage) in our society is promiscuity, not permanent faith-based relationships."

In contrast the Rt Rev David James, the Bishop of Bradford, voted against the amendment, warning of "unintended consequences". He said: "When we consider changes to the law, we need to be clear about what they are meant to achieve and what, in practice, they do achieve." There had been "no practical difficulties so far" with the existing legislation, he said. "The fundamental difficulty that many churches and faiths will have with this argument is that we, like the Government and the courts, have been quite clear ever since civil partnerships were introduced that they are not the same as marriage."

He stressed that civil partnerships were "not in substance or in form" same-sex marriages. No change should take place before the issue had been fully debated in the synods and congregations and councils of the churches, the Bishop argued. "We should not muddle up the debate about civil partnerships with the debate about same-sex marriage."

Thinking Anglicans reports that the Bishop of Newcastle voted in favour of the amendment and Lord Eames voted against.

The Promised Land to which conservatives want to lead the church will never be reached. Lord Alli’s amendment is a further step on the journey to a very different Promised Land, one which I believe will create a healthier, holier, genuinely more inclusive church, not only for LGBT Anglicans but for all Christians.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Civil Partnerships in religious buildings - at last, ‘moderate’ dissent among the bishops, and dishonesty from one who should know better

Lord Alli’s amendment to allow civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises is to be debated in the Lord’s today. It would amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to provide that premises approved for the registration of civil partnerships may differ from those premises approved for the registration of civil marriages but would place no obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have decided that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises.

Lord Alli’s original amendment was debated on January 25 and opposed by the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester among others on the grounds that, if passed, it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England. The former said that ‘churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, the distinction’ between marriage and civil partnership,” ignoring the desire of three faith communities to be granted the freedom to do just that.

The bishops of Winchester and Chichester are among those consistently opposing equality for LGBT people in the House of Lords. Winchester’s argument has now been turned against him - if the Church believes in pluralism, then it should allow pluralism within the religious constituency.

The Bishop of Salisbury and five retired bishops were among twenty people (including several patrons of Changing Attitude) who wrote to The Times last week arguing in favour of Lord Alli’s amendment. The letter urged every peer who believes in spiritual independence, or in non-discrimination, to support the amendment when it was re-presented by Lord Alli on March 2.

Ruth Gledhill reported in the Times that the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Rev Timothy Stevens, who convenes the 26 bishops in the House, was likely to back the amendment. Bishop Tim was interviewed with Quaker Michael Bartlett on Radio 4’s Sunday programme. He had been approached to sign the letter but had declined, he said. He was sympathetic to the idea of covenanted love between same-sex couples and believed that religious freedoms are important.

He then undermined his argument by saying that the amendment would lead to confusion in the public mind between marriage and civil partnerships. Marriage, he said, has all kinds of ingredients which civil partnerships don’t have – marriage requires a covenanted relationship, intends the procreation of children, makes provision for the mutual society, health and comfort the one ought to have for the other – and because of this, the bishops will want to resist the amendment.

Bishop Tim confirmed the bishop of Winchester’s position that the Church of England, because of its established status and representation in the Lords, has the right to impose on other denominations and faith communities its own attitude towards marriage and civil partnerships. He spoke as if the House of Bishops is of one mind on this issue, when we know perfectly well that it isn’t. One day, hopefully soon, this charade of unity within the House of Bishops has to stop, and Bishop Tim does neither his own integrity nor the integrity of the House any favours by colluding in the charade.

Bishop Tim articulates a particular, increasingly desperate need of some conservatives in the House of Bishops to maintain a rigid distinction between marriage and civil partnerships. Conservatives still seem to be holding their brother bishops to ransom. One recently retired bishop described the House as totally dysfunctional to me. The demands of conservatives in the Anglican Communion are also, almost certainly, driving the bishop’s policy.

Bishop Tim was also incredibly patronizing in daring to suggest that the public are confused about the distinction between marriage and civil partnerships. The public is not at all confused – they understand that both are about acknowledging love, fidelity and covenanted relationships. Some bishops don’t want to allow the public to determine the nature of gay relationships.

He hoped a mature Anglican Church could support other organizations who want a different policy. The House of Bishops seem to be anything but mature in their incapacity to be honest, acknowledge differences between them and affirm the integrity of fellow bishops who stand with the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews in their understanding of marriage, covenanted relationships and civil partnerships.

As someone commented online, in opposing the amendment, Anglican bishops revealed that they are not democrats. They do not believe in the equality of all believers and non-believers in the eyes of the state. They want the state to exempt them from uniform laws that oppress their religious liberty (not necessarily an unreasonable demand) - but they also want the state to impose a uniform law that accords with their religious views even though this will oppress the religious liberty of others.

We wait to see which bishops turn up to vote in the Lords today, and whether any who support the amendment will have the courage to distance themselves from ‘the mind of the House’ and vote in favour.

Campaigners opposing Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill deliver online petition to parliament

On Monday a group of activists from various organizations in Uganda delivered a petition to the Speaker of Parliament, Edward Sekandi, protesting against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The online petition, organised by the campaign group Avaaz, has been signed by over 450,000 people worldwide. Eventually they hope to reach one million signatures. The petition calls on the government of Uganda to withdraw the Anti-Homosexual Bill and to protect the universal human rights embodied in the Ugandan constitution.

Pictured are Bishop Ssenyonjo, Frank Mugisha, Canon Byamugisha, Major Rubaramira

The petitioners included bishop Christopher Senyonjo from Integrity Uganda, Canon Gideon Byamugisha , an Anglican priest, the HIV/AIDS activist Rubaramira Ruranga and Noerine Kaleeba from TASO. Gug’s partner was there, being one of the people organizing the presentation. Gug had predicted that a surprise person, a Prince of the Church, would be there, but they didn’t turn up.

A letter accompanying the petition read: "This is a bill that requires various members of community, family members, service providers and spiritual mentors to "spy" on one another." Those who delivered the petition could face jail for failing to inform the authorities if somebody confided their homosexual activities to them. They say the bill does not protect Ugandan cultural practices as it violates traditions that teach against intolerance, injustice, hatred and violence. In particular they oppose the clause that requires family and community members to report people suspected to be gays, which they say could be used for a political and religious witch-hunt. They are asking Parliament to instead enact laws that will protect people and not humiliate or kill them.

The BBC East Africa correspondent Will Ross said the fact that the vast majority of the signatures were from outside Uganda is significant, as the MPs would be more likely to take notice of Ugandan rather than international opposition to the bill.

The government has indicated it expects the final bill to be amended eliminating the more extreme proposals. However, it is a private member's bill and so the government says it cannot directly intervene before parliament votes on it.

To add your signature to the petition go the Avaaz web site.