Wednesday 29 September 2010

Gay bishops still don’t exist in the public domain (except in the USA)

"Gay bishops are all right by me, says Archbishop" was the front page headline in The Times on Saturday. More accurate but far less enticing might have been the line proposed in a comment on Thinking Anglicans - "Single, celibate, preferably virgin and never-once-promoted-gay-equality bishops are all right by me."

I’ve now read the Times interview with the Archbishop in its entirety and want to begin by focussing on something that wasn’t reported elsewhere but is key to my Christian life and witness. Archbishop Rowan told his interviewer that “... the point of praying is to open yourself up to God so God can do what he wants with you. You come with empty hands, as silent as you can be and say, ‘Over to you.’ So you could say the function was to make you the person God wants you to be – in the full awareness that that might not be quite the person you think you want to be.”

Yes indeed. Prayer is opening yourself up to God and both ++Rowan and I pray in a similar way. The intention is to make you the person God wants you to be, and there’s the rub. Does God want me to be a priest? Does God want me to be gay? Does God want me to be celibate? Does God want me to love my partner and enjoy my life with him to the full? What do I do when these conflict, as they do at the moment? When I centre in prayer and say, ‘Over to you’, God still seems to be saying that each of these aspects of me are part of the person God wants me to be.

When Tom Butler became Bishop of Southwark in 1998 I had been given Permission to Officiate (PTO) by his predecessor, Bishop Roy Williamson, having left parish ministry and licence in 1995 when I founded Changing Attitude. Tom arrived having accepted a mandate from Archbishop George Carey that Southwark needed sorting out and the liberal, pro-gay tendency brought to heel. When my PTO needed to be renewed, I met Bishop Tom and he asked me to write a letter confirming my pattern of life. I said I could write such a letter but we would mean different things by it. He acknowledged that would be so. I wrote the letter and my PTO was renewed.

A year later, I came out as having a partner and not being celibate in front
of Bishop Tom at a meeting of the Southwark Lesbian and Gay Support Network. Twenty minutes later, David Page, then Vicar of St Barnabas Clapham Common (with freehold) and chair of Changing Attitude Trustees, did the same, telling Tom that he was about to celebrate his 25th anniversary with his life partner. David continued as Vicar, Tom refused to renew my PTO.

I met David Stancliffe, then Bishop of Salisbury, for the first time in the garden of Buckingham Palace at a garden party held during the Lambeth Conference of 1998. Later, hearing that Tom had refused me a PTO, David offered me one in Salisbury Diocese, where I had no connection apart from my parents living in the diocese. Questions about relationships and celibacy weren’t asked. A year later I accepted, so that when I moved to Devizes 7 years ago with my partner I already held a PTO in the diocese. The PTO was renewed for 3 years on 14 May 2007 by Bishop Stephen Conway of Ramsbury.

In the Times interview, Archbishop Rowan said “there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop … there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.” The interviewer commented that it is an unappealing idea that the Church makes such unnatural demands on its clergy.

If there is no problem with a celibate gay person being a bishop, why are none of the 3 gay Primates in the Anglican Communion able to be open about their sexuality and why are none of the 10 to 13 gay bishops in the Church of England able to be publicly open? Some are married, some or single and celibate, some are not, all are closeted. The recently published survey estimated that 1.5% of the UK are gay or bisexual. Eight percent of Anglican Primates are gay and 10% of Church of England Bishops.

Why have I tucked these statistics away so far down this post? - because it is dangerously unsafe in the Anglican Communion to be openly gay in Nigeria or Uganda and still unsafe to be openly gay (and partnered) in parts of the Church of England. I feel less safe this morning than I did 6 weeks ago before the question of our Civil Partnership became such a contentious issue at the local, diocesan, national and international church levels.

Gay bishops and LGBT clergy are able to exist in the Church of England under two separate conditions. Either they stay in the closet and the Church doesn’t know they are gay (or pretends it doesn’t know) or they live under the care of a bishop who ignores church teaching and the claims made by the Archbishop of Canterbury and licenses and PTOs are given in full knowledge of someone’s sexuality and relational status.

This is intolerable and is what makes me so angry with the Church. Gay bishops are clearly not all right, and it is still impossible in England for the Archbishop to preside over a Church which ordains bishops who are known to be gay. At the moment, we don’t, knowingly, have any gay bishops. Instead, we have don’t ask, don’t tell (Tom Butler’s preferred model in his early Southwark days), dishonesty, duplicity, secrecy, denial – anything but transparency and truth. This is not conducive to a good, holy, Christian pattern of life.

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to further our campaign to change Anglican attitudes. To contribute to our work by becoming a supporter, please click here; or to make a donation click here.

Monday 27 September 2010

Yearning for change in the Anglican Communion - discrimination wrong, affirmation right

I want to add my thoughts to those posted by Christina yesterday on the Times interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ruth Gledhill’s blog and The Times leader. I haven’t read any of The Times material directly, only what is available outside the firewall, so I may be commenting on inaccurate reports and I’m going to be cautious.

The Archbishop, according to Ruth, seems to have said both that he has issues about a "particular choice of life", which makes the question of gay ordination more problematic than the ordination of women because for women, that’s simply about who and what they are.

I think (though I can’t be sure) that the Archbishop is not saying that being gay is a particular choice of life (because he then goes on to say that gay celibate Christians can serve as bishops in the Church of England) but that a choice to live a non-celibate life as a gay priest or bishop is problematic.

Canon Dr Vinay Samuel has commented on the Archbishop’s interview on Anglican Mainstream. He questions the Archbishop’s assumption that being gay is who some people are, that we are not simply different in the way that some people are male, some female, some white, some black. He claims that there is still “no incontrovertible evidence to suggest that orientation is not a choice but an inherited characteristic … although many liberal proponents used orientation to mean an inherited trait.”

Orthodox Anglicans insist, he says, that gay sexual orientation is “a feeling, a choice or even possibly an outcome of certain psycho-social pressures and upbringing” and “[m]ore than two decades of research in many fields has failed to confirm that gays are born that way.” This is Anglican Mainstream’s belief and Vinay Samuel disagrees with it. He says that “if someone believes strongly that they are gay, the church is not rejecting that self understanding out of hand. It may challenge it but it is willing to accept as the way that individual understands his/her sexuality.”

I believe in the core of my being, my identity in creation and in Christ, that I am gay. To suggest, as Mainstream does, that I am mistaken about my core identity, is wounding and destructive of my whole being. Whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury says about what I am and am not allowed to do as a gay Christian priest, I need to know incontrovertibly, to use Vinay Samuel’s word, that who I understand myself to be is who I really am, and that the Church of England acknowledges my self-identity and the Anglican Communion acknowledges the identity of those across the Communion who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

If there are minority campaign groups such as Anglican Mainstream who wish to argue that I am mistaken in my self-identity, they have to freedom to do so, of course. If the Anglican Communion, in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the other Instruments of Communion, fails to recognise me for who I believe I am, along with tens of thousands of other Anglicans, then our differences are profoundly serious.

The Archbishop says that from his appointment to Canterbury eight years ago he was “conscious” of the issue of homosexuality as “a wound in the whole ministry”. I hope this means that there is a wound in the whole ministry of the world-wide Communion because gay people are present as priests and bishops and parts of the Communion experience our very presence as problematic, a wound – not that being gay itself is the wound.

He said that being gay is no bar to being ordained as a priest or bishop. “To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” I take that to mean that the concerns I express above are answered by the Archbishop. I am gay and I am a priest. But Ruth queries the Archbishop. Is there really NO PROBLEM with being gay and ordained?

There are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe, such as fidelity in marriage. Lesbian and gay Christians are not challenging the church’s traditional, historic standard of the expectation of fidelity in relationship. We are questioning why lesbian and gay adults who form permanent, faithful, stable relationships should not make vows to each other in the presence of God and our congregation and have our covenant relationships blessed by the church, at least equivalent to marriage.

Ruth asked the Archbishop what is wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it...” When asked if the Archbishop personally wished it could be overcome in some way there was silence and then: “Pass.”

It’s true that the Church corporately doesn’t know what to make of it. I would disagree that the scriptural and traditional approach doesn’t give much ground for being positive and here is one of the places that much more work needs to be done.

Is it really so difficult for the Archbishop to say what’s wrong with having partnered gay bishops, asks Ruth. He continued: “We’re in the middle of vastly difficult conversations about it, and I don’t want to put thumbs on scales.” I don’t think I understand what he means by thumbs on scales, but I most certainly understand that the conversations are vastly difficult, and not only in Africa, South America or Asia.

The conversations in my home church in Devizes about our Civil Partnership and the intention to follow it with a Communion service celebrating friendship have been intense. Some people who have been friends for 6 years have shuned me, others have left the congregation. The added pressure on our incumbent became intolerable with the result that he has taken time off. At the micro and the macro level, conversation is difficult and relationships become severed.

I am committed to developing relationships across difference following the example modeled by the Archbishop. It means going out of your way to take risks, cross the street towards people, not the other way in order to avoid them, and turning up in places where you are unlikely to receive an enthusiastic welcome from other Anglicans. The Anglican Communion, local, national and international, is not very good at doing this.

The Times leader says that in seeking a settlement within Anglicanism: “Dr Williams risks diminishing its prophetic voice. If he were to worry less about politics, he might find the resources to strengthen Anglicanism and find spiritual fulfillment of his own. For with his profound theological insight, Dr Williams is better placed than anyone to, in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, discern the signs of the times.”

Rowan’s spirituality and profound theological insight has been a core part of my inspiration since I learnt from him in lectures at Westcott House and more crucially, from joining him every morning in the chapel for 30 minutes of contemplation.

Meditating with other people every day in this way leads into an experience of prayer and encounter with God that has deepened with the passing years and infuses my work for Changing Attitude as much as it infuses the Archbishop’s ministry and role in the Communion. I can’t help but wish, with The Times, that he use his historic role of interpretation in the tradition of Christendom to affirm as a Christian leader and a theologian that discrimination against homosexuals is wrong. I wish for more, of course – that he positively affirm that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are loved by God and welcomed unreservedly by the Church, with our partners, into the threefold ministry.

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to further our campaign to change Anglican attitudes. To contribute to our work by becoming a supporter, please click here; or to make a donation click here.

Sunday 26 September 2010


of The Times is an extensive interview with Archbishop Rowan, recorded just prior to the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom. Many items were covered, apparently, but it is the Archbishop’s remarks about gay bishops that have been extensively reported and commented on.

According to the summaries I have seen, Archbishop Rowan acknowledged that it is acceptable, according to Scripture and Tradition, for someone who is gay to be ordained as a bishop, but not for them to enter into a same-sex relationship. They must, he contends, be celibate and remain so.

This is very much the line taken by Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) with regard to the clergy as a whole, but clerical celibacy has never been an expectation in Anglicanism, indeed, from the days of Archbishop Cranmer and his – initially ‘secret’ - wife, the reverse is true, and it seems very strange that Anglicans should be advocating this particular option at a time when, according to recent polls, priestly celibacy, a requirement of the Roman Catholic priesthood, is being questioned, for various reasons, by the laity of that Church.

According to the summaries I have read so far the Archbishop bases his argument on Tradition, but the tradition – or traditions – within the Church, especially the Church of England, about same-sex relationships have been extremely varied. A study (such as Peter Coleman’s Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality) of the relevant texts, be they biblical or ecclesiastical, will, almost inevitably, give the impression that the Church has taken a mainly negative view of homosexuality, but beyond and around these texts has been the pastoral practice of clergy and congregations, which has often, in past years at least, been welcoming and friendly to gay people. Indeed, whatever the number of gay people as a percentage of the total population, it is well-known that the priesthood, certainly in twentieth century England, has been a gay-friendly profession, and hence the significant number of gay clergy.

The support given by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, and other bishops in the House of Lords, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 is itself part of the Anglican tradition, and while it may be argued that they were only keen to end the scandal of police entrapment, and were not advocating homosexual equality, this piece of our history is a reminder that, since then, we have been in an entirely new situation as regards same-sex relationships, rendering it insufficient simply to invoke Scripture and Tradition – except in the broadest sense of loving fidelity. The emergence of gay couples and families has presented the Church with a novel situation (though there are historical examples of same-sex covenants of friendship) which is not properly addressed by simply restating the Christian ideal of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, unless perhaps, behind that, there has been an intuition, never actually stated but almost implicit, that marriage might provide a model for same-sex couples as well.

However, let us accept, for a moment, the idea that a gay person called to be a bishop must be celibate; why then, we may ask, was it not possible in 2003 for Dr Jeffrey John to be consecrated as Bishop of Reading, given that he was known to be celibate at that time? The interviewer asked this question and in answering it Archbishop Rowan apologised for the episode, but, as I recall, the objection to Dr John was not that he was sexually active, it was that he had advocated, in contradiction to ‘the Tradition’, Christian partnerships that were ‘permanent, faithful and stable’. His preferment to the episcopate was quashed on the basis of his teaching something other than the official party line on this matter, a test of religious orthodoxy that has become even more stringent since then, in that every ordinand, as well as every bishop in the Church Of England, is required to ‘submit’ to the teaching on homosexuality contained in the ‘discussion document’ Issues in Human Sexuality, a step that has made the Church of England, in spite of repeated denials, institutionally homophobic, and that is completely contrary to the spirit of intellectual freedom and enquiry that has, hitherto, been one of Anglicanism’s most prized traditions.

Thursday 23 September 2010

The Global South missionary delusion

Shopping for yam and Knorr chicken stock cubes in Brixton market last week, I was served by a Nigerian guy who had arrived in the UK 10 years ago when he was 22. He asked if I had visited Nigeria. Nope, I said. Why not? I told him that I’d visited Ghana 4 times and felt safe there, but was uncertain about safety in Nigeria. I should go, he said, Nigeria is safer than Brixton. After a few more exchanges, I decided to take the risk of telling him I was afraid to visit because I’m gay and have a public profile. Being gay is not a problem for him, he said. Would it have been a problem when he was in Nigeria, I asked – Yes. Have his views changed as a result of being in the UK? Yes.

In an article for Evangelicals Now entitled The Africans are coming, available on Anglican Mainstream, Canon Chris Sugden writes about the second all-African Bishops Conference in Entebbe, Uganda. He says the African Anglican Church is now going to move on to the front foot and actively promote orthodox Christian faith “from everywhere to anywhere.” They think that the Anglican Church in the West has forgotten or abandoned many of the foundations of the Christian gospel that we brought to Africa. Africa will now take responsibility for bringing that biblical gospel back to the missionary homelands.

Oh the glory of the conservative evangelical world view, shared by Canon Chris Sugden and, as I think he assumes, millions of Anglicans in every part of the world apart from those white, western Provinces infected by the terrible disease of liberal revisionism. Conservatives, of course, are faithful, orthodox and Biblical in a way which I, gay, white and western, am not according to the judgment of Global South leaders. I would like to suggest that their judgment has a tad of a tendency to arrogance.

What they fail to understand in their myopic wisdom is that there are tens of thousands of African and Caribbean Anglicans in this country who do not share the Global South theology and message. Africans living in the UK do not hold the attitudes expressed by some (and I stress that it is not all) of the bishops in Entebbe. Many Africans arriving in the UK and the USA are changed by their experience and revise their views on issues such as homosexuality.

The congregation I served in Wandsworth, South London, was 50/50 black and white, the black members coming from west and east Africa and the Caribbeans from Jamaica, St Lucia and other countries. All of them were at ease with me being gay.

Anglican Mainstream and their allies in the Global South live in a fantasy bubble in which they fantasize about rescuing western Anglicans from our faithlessness and perversion. Such arrogance …

They are not alone in failing to have an accurate picture of the UK, thanks in part to the work of Anglican Mainstream. The Pope is reported as having had an about-turn, saying yesterday that his visit to Britain had enabled him “to see how much the Christian legacy is still strong and active at every level of social life” and how he had the opportunity to get to know “a people rich in culture and faith”. This is in stark contrast to the warning he had issued before arriving and experiencing the UK for himself. He had warned against “aggressive forms of secularism” and an aide had described Britain as prey to an “aggressive new atheism”.

Chris Sugden concedes that none of the conservative primates claims to know or possess the whole truth but continues that church has been entrusted with the “faith once delivered to the saints” and to witness to the truth entrusted to it – as if we in the west do not have such faith but the conservatives do.

There is something appallingly wrong in Chris’s description of African and Caribbean Anglicans who have come to live in the UK. We have long welcomed overseas Anglicans to the UK and treated them as “objects of mission”, says Chris. Well, excuse me, but I have never treated overseas Anglicans as “objects of mission”. I have welcomed them as co-workers in the Gospel. Those who have worked with me would be shocked at Chris’s description of them.

Chris then makes another grave error of ignorance or deliberation. They live here, he says, with children and grandchildren born in these islands. Many have senior roles in public life – members of the House of Lords, leaders of Trades Unions, senior doctors. He then writes about examples of recent months (well-publicised by Anglican Mainstream) of Christians of African origin standing up for Christian witness in their workplace and losing their jobs as a result.

These people are a tiny minority of the African and Caribbean Christians living in this country, who have integrated into UK society and continue to live their faith with commitment and passion, but without some of the prejudices that the Global South would like to import to the west.

Chris quotes Vinay Samuel who asks: “What is the new that the African Anglicans will bring to Britain? What has God given them in their experience in the intervening century which is something that Britain needs?” It’s a question worth asking, because they do bring new perspectives and insights. African Christians do themselves less than justice in claiming to bring back to the UK solely the gospel we have forgotten, says Chris. The African peoples have faced the legacy of slavery, colonialism, racism, their own internal conflicts, the oppression of their own rulers and the challenges of economic poverty. They have a rich understanding of the nature and resources of the Christian faith in addressing such matters.

This is indeed a valuable resource. And we have other, equally valuable resources to contribute. I’ve just finished reading A Simplified Life by Verena Schiller, a member of the Community of the Holy Name who has lived as a hermit in North Wales for the last 25 years. She writes that “Our masks do not fool God but neither are they removed until the time is right and we begin to see them for ourselves. There is a great deal of painful discovery on this journey to where God is the centre and the context.” “[I]n a life that is attuned to the sense that we are not ultimately in control this transformation does begin and we are gradually brought home to ourselves.”
“Through prayer, through attentiveness and stillness at our heart’s centre, we are gradually transformed and begin to discern the way forward, the path to tread. And this ‘transformation’ is contagious; it ripples out in ways of which we are unaware. We respond where we see compassion and love in others. Love stands at the intersection of our inhumanity to one another and our ravaging of the earth, and begin to transform it.”
Verena writes from her roots in the Celtic eremitical tradition. It is a Christian path shared by many in Changing Attitude and amongst those working for a transformed, inclusive church. We in the west still follow an authentic Christian path, steeped in prayer and faithful practice, whatever the Global South leaders may think about us and however much they believe us to be in need of missionary endeavour because we have lost the true Gospel. We haven’t!

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to further our campaign to change Anglican attitudes. To contribute to our work by becoming a supporter, please click here; or to make a donation click here.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Changing Attitude's contribution to the House of Bishop's working groups

The Archbishop of Canterbury appointed two groups with four bishops in each, one broadly conservative, the other broadly liberal, which John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln and CA patron, has convened. He aksed Changing Attitude to send our thoughts and after consulting with our local groups and supporters online, the following comments have been forwarded:

Issues in Human Sexuality
Issues in Human Sexuality should be abandoned as a document defining Church of England teaching about the sexuality of LGBT people. Public perception is that the Church has a pathological pre-occupation with human sexuality. The official Church of England position is deeply at odds with what the majority of people in our congregations think and the practice of many bishops towards LGBT clergy and laity. For the majority of church goers human sexuality is not an issue. They want the church to welcome and grant equality to LGBT people. People find the church's teaching about homosexuality wrong or irrelevant, reinforcing the view that Christianity is irrelevant and repressive. The churches disapproval of homosexuality has driven many people away from its doors and caused considerable pain to others.

Positive same-sex ethic
The church should develop a positive ethic for same-sex relationships stressing fidelity and commitment.

Mission and evangelism - the gospel for LGBT people
What is the gospel of Jesus Christ for LGBT people as they discover that they are accepted by wider society? The secular world is setting the agenda for liberation in the UK and western cultures and society accepts LGBT people and grants equal rights. Conservative Christian attitudes lead many LGBT people who attend church to hide or deny their sexuality. Some LGBT people still experience bigotry, hatred, and prejudice. The church should speak out strongly against bigotry and prejudice.

LGBT ordination and ministry
A vocation to the priesthood for LGBT people should be tested without reference to their sexuality. The recommendation sometimes made to become a Reader isn't a solution – some bishops impose ‘Issues’ as a requirement for Readers. The House of Bishops should adopt a policy that Canon C4 paragraph 1 (ordination) does not exclude men and women whose sexual orientation is to persons of the same sex, and who are "of virtuous conversation and good repute and such as to be of wholesome example and pattern to the flock of Christ". Many LGBT clergy are forced to live a lie and hide their sexuality because they fear disclosure may affect their chances of preferment or appointment to a new post within their diocese.

Relationships and Civil Partnerships
Faithful committed gay relationships have positive moral value and deserve the church’s support not condemnation. Civil partnerships should be celebrated and blessed in church. General Synod should approve a public liturgy for Prayer and Dedication of a Civil Partnership. Commitment to a life-partner should be equally acceptable for clergy and lay people. Acceptance of gay relationships does not weaken or undermine heterosexual marriage. Heterosexual marriage is not the only place for children to be raised. Gay couples can be good parents too.

Nurture or nature
Homosexuality is not a matter of choice. Gay identity is real, not chosen.

Reparative therapy
The experience of LGBT people who have undergone reparative therapy is that it is harmful and should not be approved by the Church.

Intersex and Transgender
‘Issues’ is deeply flawed because it takes little account of intersex and transgender people. Both transgender and intersex are matters of gender identity rather than sexuality. Intersex is a medical condition not necessarily related to either gender identity or sexuality. Intersex disturbs hetero-normative assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality.

Anglican diversity
We need to affirm Anglican diversity, living with widely varying Christian attitudes. The church should allow room for pastoral and theological development. Reality is more complex than the habitual conservative/liberal dualism.

House of Bishops
There is a diversity of opinion and practice in the House of Bishops. Some bishops dissent from the Church's current official position. Bishops need to have the courage of their convictions and speak more truthfully.

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to further our campaign to change Anglican attitudes. To contribute to our work by becoming a supporter, please click here; or to make a donation click here.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Polyamoury right or wrong? – a response to Peter Ould

El-staplador posted a comment on yesterday’s blog: “…as someone who believes that Christians can be involved in polyamorous relationships with love and integrity, I was extremely disappointed to read your comment equating it with paedophilia and bestiality. Please don't dismiss other Christians' reality and truth because it doesn't match up with your own.”

Linking polyamory with paedophilia, bestiality and homosexuality is one of Anglican Mainstream's tactics and a particular obsession of Lisa Nolland with whom I was interviewed recently on Radio 5 Live. It is a strategy Mainstream uses repeatedly to denigrate all forms of relationship and intimacy which they categorise as deviant from their definition of God's norm. Anglican Mainstream’s strategy is to undermine the holiness and integrity of those who follow a Christian path different from theirs.

Because my reply to El-staplador was as carefully phrased as my original blog, Peter Ould asked whether I am in favour of (some) polyandrous relationships as within God's will for humans?

I am in favour of faithful, monogamous, life-long relationships between two consenting adults. (I was going to write ‘mature adults’ but that would beg a lot of questions. Are heterosexual married adults who obsess about bestiality, paedophilia and polyandry in order to denigrate gay relationships mature? Some people who marry are clearly not mature emotionally.) I am also in favour of same-sex life partnerships and I would like the church to make provision for Civil Partnerships to be contracted and blessed in church. I would further like there to be greater spiritual and symbolic equivalence between marriage and civil partnerships.

I condemn relationships which are abusive. Paedophilia and bestiality are both abusive of others and self. My attitude towards paedophiles is nuanced because I have in the past been friends with people who were themselves abused as children, some of whom went on to abuse children themselves. I have no experience of bestiality.

Changing Attitude exists to advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans Christians. We are not advocates of polyandry and I have no direct experience of polyandrous relationships or those who advocate for them and I do not personally advocate for equality for polyandrous relationships.

My moral opinion about and personal experience of relationships involving more than two people is that they can be unstable and painful for one or more of the people involved.

This week I have been hearing about the pain experienced by people in both heterosexual and gay polyandrous relationships. In one case, a second wife and child was brought into an existing African marriage with deeply distressing results, despite the determination of the first wife to be generous and try and make it work. In the gay case, three men who maintained a triangular relationship when one of the three was living in Africa have discovered that living permanently together in the UK is far more challenging and has destabilized the dynamics between them. But I know of many couple relationships that are unhappy and unstable. There are many reasons for this, not least that individuals mature in different ways and become different from the person their partner first met or married. All relationships are demanding and complex and need deep love and determination to make them work creatively.

Peter Ould’s morality is nuanced and so is mine. Peter says he can understand the situation where a polygamist becomes a Christian and where the moral thing to do is not automatically divorce the polygamous wives, since that would make them destitute.

Peter says he is happy to state that polyandry is not moral and Christians should not enter into polyandrous relationships, since the Biblical model for sexual activity is one male and one female for life, in marriage.

Those following the weekday lectionary will have been reading about King David’s concubines and are about to read of King Solomon’s love of many foreign women and his 700 wives and 300 concubines. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ tells us that Jesus was descended from a line including David and Solomon (through Bathsheba).

The model I take from the Bible is that God works creatively through varieties of relationships and human activity often without judging or condemning them. His Son is birthed through a family line which undermines the claim that the Biblical model for sexual activity is exclusively one male and one female for life, in marriage. Conservatives will disagree with me.

We live in a church which allows people who have been divorced to be remarried in church. This might be interpreted as faithful to Old Testament practice even if contrary to the teaching of Jesus. I believe there are models of fidelity which Christians should advocate and which are healthy models for all human beings, gay and straight. I also believe that human beings always have and always will have difficulty conforming to these models and pastoral sensitivity and human and divine compassion responds generously and appropriately to all of us.

I believe it is as important to learn compassion as it is to be clear about our moral stance, and that sometimes, a nuanced response is more appropriate and pastoral than making an unequivocal moral statement. If I fail sometimes to make clear judgments about the moral behaviour of particular individuals with the result that some see me subtly condoning polyandry, then so be it. I believe that anyone who takes the Bible absolutely literally, Genesis 2.23, Leviticus 20.13, 1 Kings 11.3 and Mark 10.11, must also allow for polygamous and polyandrous relationships as well as fidelity in marriage and the stoning of homosexuals.

I believe that the tactic of repeatedly linking LGBT people with bestiality and paedophilia in an attempt to insinuate that LGBT are abusive in the same way is morally wrong.

I live in world of dilemmas. I am a well aware that I don’t need to make ambivalent comments about polyandry to bring down on myself the vitriol of conservative elements in the church. A glance at the comments on Stand Firm or following the Daily Mail article about my Civil Partnership show how many Christians are ready to post poisonous judgmental comments. I’m not un-used to bad publicity but still take my time when writing for the blog in an attempt to be as honest and truthful as possible. It’s good to be challenged to come clean about my moral and ethical position.

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs all the help we can get to maintain our principled stance in support of LGBT people in the Anglican Communion. To become a supporter, click here; to make a donation click here.

Monday 13 September 2010

The turmoil of media attention

For three weeks I’ve been unable to settle and write for the blog. I’ve not been able to focus on any one event or experience because all of them seem to interconnect in various ways. We are about changing attitudes in the Anglican Communion to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people but I can’t quite work out how to do it at the moment - where our focus should be and what the next target is.

The event which triggered my inertia was the moment the news of my planned civil partnership, originally scheduled to take place on 9 October, hit the national press followed swiftly by international web reports. The CP won’t happen on that day for two reasons. We haven’t yet received approval from the UK Border Agency to register (my partner being a Nigerian national) and the fact that we most definitely do not want a media circus surrounding the communion service which will follow the CP.

News of the CP and celebration with friends in church went global when the Daily Mail posted a story from the Western Daily Press on their web site. It was picked up by the Sun, the Telegraph and the Press Association (who at least did me the courtesy of phoning and going through every detail to check accuracy). It spread swiftly on the internet with the result that my partner’s family in Nigeria were informed via the Nigerian daily papers and weekly magazines. The Primates and bishops meeting in Entebbe, Uganda for the All Africa Bishops Conference were also well-briefed – with misinformation, of course, because the Daily Mail headline alone contained 5 errors. This was partly my mistake – I didn’t take time to correct errors in the original June BBC Wiltshire interview on which subsequent reports were based. I’ve reported the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission.

Reactions to the news have been broadly predictable. Comments online ranged from warmly supportive to viciously bigoted and prejudiced. We received a number of hate mail letters which we reported to the police. They have been taken away for forensic examination. Yesterday morning I made a statement about the one letter containing a name and address and someone in Liverpool will be getting a visit from the local police. Anti-gay graffiti was scrawled in the porch of our church in Devizes (a C12th listed building, so delicate cleaning was required) following a news item about us in the Devizes Gazette. The local Anglo-catholic church (which opposes the ordination of women, claims to adhere to the 39 Articles, but uses the Roman Missal and has weekly benediction) wrote to the paper strongly opposing our intention of celebrating our friendship with a Communion service. They claimed that this is “not just inappropriate but disgraceful - even blasphemous” and that we are attacking “the Christian faith at its very foundation.” Three other priests in the deanery have said they want to be invited to the service!

Less expected for me was what happened in church Sunday morning a week ago when I presided at the 10.30 Communion. One person walked out during the first hymn and at least 3 members of the choir didn’t receive communion and refused to acknowledge me after the service (and have refused to acknowledge my partner in town). These are people I have come to know during the 6 years I have been worshipping in Devizes, key people in the congregation who have heard me preach, entertained me to supper, received communion from me, an openly gay man worshipping each Sunday with my partner. What has changed for them? They won’t speak to me so I haven’t been able to ask them.

The majority of the congregation have been affirming and supportive, many of them enthusiastically so. But it’s the minority who refuse to acknowledge us who create the pain and raise bigger questions. Who did they think I was prior to discovering that we are proposing to contract a civil partnership followed by a service in church? What Christian values and principles do they live by? What divisions has this created in the congregation? Do they reflect the fault lines in the Anglican Communion? I’ve found it hard to answer the last question as I’ve tried to process the events and experience of the last three weeks. There are, of course, various fault lines and ingredients that create the divisions.

Fault lines in the Anglican Communion were revealed on a recent visit to Nigeria by seven members of Guildford Diocese, including the diocesan bishop, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill and his wife Hilary. They met the Primate of all Nigeria, the Most Rev Nicholas Okoh.

The Archbishop re-iterated his assurance of unalloyed cooperation and partnership with people who have complete faith and confidence in the undiluted word of God. He said the challenge the communion is facing at the moment is that of a section of the West who are promoting homosexuality, lesbianism and approving liturgies for same sex marriage. He said this is an issue that must be seriously addressed if the communion is to sustain the unity and oneness that has existed over the years. So, homosexuality is the fault line, the issue which creates schism.

I live with my Nigerian partner, an Anglican, so in one respect the world of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and the Church of England are not worlds apart but intimately intertwined. Members of the Church of Nigeria co-habit and form or plan to form Civil Partnerships with members of the Church of England. My partner and I are not alone in this.

I suspect (though I may be wrong) that Archbishop Nicholas (whom I met notwithstanding his attempt to avoid me in Dar es Salaam) thinks this reality of gay people and gay relationships doesn’t exist. In his world there are no gay Nigerians, or no gay Anglican Nigerians, so the reality in which I live can’t in truth be real. In our interpretation of God’s word in the Bible and the place of power and authority in the church, we couldn’t be more worlds apart. Archbishop Nicholas thinks I am living a mistaken category of being – there is no such thing as a homosexual Christian, and I can’t be a true Anglican priest if I live with a gay partner.

A dogmatic allegiance to the undiluted Word of God could be said to identify those lying on one side of the Anglican fault line. The primacy of loving, open, generous, truthful human relationships might be said to lie broadly on the other, relationships which are sometimes confusing, vulnerable and tentative, not only with other people but with God, in prayer lives and with the Bible. I don’t dilute the Bible but I do interrogate it and mine it for truth and wisdom.

When you are being bashed about by strongly-opinionated people, some with deeply held prejudices and an intolerance of difference, it can be hard to remember that building relationships not only with the like-minded but more vitally with those of an opposite mind-set is the Christian task of Changing Attitude. I believe it is the vocation given to all by God who calls us to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, wherever he leads us.

There is no escape for me from trying to build relationships across the divide with all in the Anglican Communion. The vision we have is of a radically inclusive church, here in Devizes and across the dioceses of Nigeria. The changes we seek will only come about by crossing boundaries and creating radically transgressive relationships.

That’s a tough challenge when organists, choristers and readers refuse to acknowledge the presence and ministry of partnered gay priests at a local level and when on the international stage, a Nigerian bishop runs away from a gay activist priest, bishops refuse to attend the Lambeth Conference, others are refused admittance for being gay and partnered and Primates refuse to attend communion at which the Archbishop of Canterbury presides.

There are times when behaviour and attitudes to LGBT people in the Communion are not only intolerable but become almost evil. I hate it when people deliberately distort our reality and truth and link our campaign for dignified recognition of our place in God’s creation and the church with secular campaigns claiming acceptance for paedophiles, those drawn to bestiality and those advocating polyandrous relationships. This happened repeatedly in a recent interview I participated in on Radio 5 Live.

So, calm down, Colin, breathe deeply and slowly, keep praying, consult widely, remember who you are and to what God has called you, and keep the faith.

I bought a newly-published book last week by Verena Schiller, A Simplified Life. Verena is an Anglican religious sister of the Community of the Holy Name who for the last 25 years has lived as a hermit on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, close to Aberdaron where Jim Cotter is the priest. She writes:

“Unless we begin to know ourselves with greater honesty and truth, how can we relate to God and through him to the entire world? The masks that we wear and the defences that we erect all distance us from one another, let alone from God. No life or relationship that is not built on honesty and truth can develop wholesomely. Inevitably it will founder. Yet paradoxically it is the very search for God that opens the way to self-knowledge and the possibility of a growing honesty and truth of our whole being.”

Colin Coward