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


  1. I don't know what to say. I find it simply appalling that anyone suffers such abuse, and the fact that it is primarily the church that is the abuser makes it worse.

    I'm sure you must feel like giving up sometimes. If it helps, I'm a Christian who believes that loving, monogamous, homosexual relationships should not be tolerated, they should be celebrated, strengthened and upheld.

  2. My sympathies; it sounds like an extremely trying few weeks. Best wishes to you and your partner.

    However, as someone who believes that Christians can be involved in polyamorous relationships with love and integrity, I was extremely disappointed to read your comment above equating it with paedophilia and bestiality.

    Please don't dismiss other Christians' reality and truth because it doesn't match up with your own.

  3. el-staplador, thanks for commenting. I don't dismiss other Christians' reality and truth and do not judge people for their differences.

    The equating of polyamorous relationships with paedophilia and bestiality is one of Anglican Mainstream's tactics and a particular obsession of Lisa Nolland with whom I was interviewed.

    Lisa was asked three times to tell me directly what she wanted to say about my Civil Partnership and each time chose to divert attention onto her assumed connection between homosexuality, bestiality, paedophilia and polyamoury.

    It is a tactic Maintream repeatedly uses as a deliberate attempt to denigrate all forms of relationship which to them are deviant from their definition of God's norm.

    I was trying to be as concise as possible and to avoid personalising my comments, but that can lead to misunderstandings and for that I am sorry. I repeatedly remember my friend Terry's strictures to me about my use of the word 'promiscuous'. Anglican Mainstream is promiscuous in it's use of research to undermine the holiness and integrity of those who follow a Christian path different from theirs.

  4. Thanks for your clarification, Colin. I mistook Lisa Nolland's equation of three things that are obviously dissimilar for yours, and was disappointed - I regret the misunderstanding.

    I would like to reiterate my good wishes - and my prayers are with you.

  5. So Colin are you saying you're in favour of (some) polyandrous relationships as within God's will for humans?

  6. Hey

    I was recently speaking to an Anglican minister about the church's moral beliefs, and how old testament laws, like an eye for an eye, were actually progressive for the time, when a person transgressed against might murder the entire family of the transgressor. Than Jesus came and introduced some new, more progressive ideas.
    As long as religions stay open to new ideas and are willing to progress / do away with old laws, than they can be quite beneficial; but it's when a religion becomes stale and refuses to adapt that it becomes harmful.

    Anyway, I came from an Anglican church myself, so I know how it can be. This is a wonderful blog.

  7. Peter, I did not say that I am "in favour of (some) polyandrous relationships as within God's will for humans." That is your construction and if you read my comment carefully what I said and didn't say is very clear. Your tactic is similar to Anglican Mainstream's - to smear my reputation by implying I said something or support something that relates to your (or their) obsession. It is an unChristian tactic and I have come to hate it.

    My comment made clear that it was Lisa Nolland who made repeated attempts to link homosexuality, bestiality, paedophilia and polyandrism in the interview. She does this repeatedly on Anglican Mainstream's web site. Either Lisa thinks there is no difference between the four or she is being deliberatly malicious. To me there is a world of difference between an adult, consenting committed gay relationship and the sexual abuse of children.

    I'm not going to pose a question back to you nor assume that you share Lisa's stance in equating the four as being on a sequential slippery slope to ... where - hell?

  8. I don't have an obsession about polyandry. For a start I don't think my wife would permit it. And I certainly have no delusions that polyandry/bestiality/homosexuality/paedophilia are automatically the same.

    What I am interested in though is when you wrote in reply to el-staplador, "I don't dismiss other Christians' reality and truth and do not judge people for their differences". Can you not see that some might see that as a subtle condoning of polyandry? Are you saying that you're not going to judge because that's God's job. That's very true, but then one can agree to not judge and yet hold a moral opinion. The issue isn't whether you judge or not, the issue is what you believe about the morality of polyandry.

    It would, you agree, be very easy to come out and be unequivocal. For example, I am 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. At the same time, I can understand a situation (as happens in Africa often) where a polygamist becomes a Christian. At this point the moral thing to do is not to automatically divorce the polygamous wives, since that would make them destitute.

    This is similar to the case of a post-op transsexual who commented on my website a week or so ago. She had decided to remain female but be celibate, a eunuch. Although she understood her gender reassignment to be sinful (though I would suggest that might not always be the case) she realised that to "correct" her sin would cause even more problems.

    Now of course you could be taking Andrew Marin's position (which I have defended in other places) to not make a moral statement on a contentious issue in order to maintain a dialogue. I have to say though that it doesn't appear to me that polyandry is a subject over which you are publicly seen to be trying to engage in a conversation and bridge-building over.

    So I am left with the suspicion that you are having to respond in the way you did to me because you understand the dilemma for yourself you have created. If you come out and reject polyandry then your words to el-staplador might appear to be disingenuous, for you have said you don't want to judge but you have actually judged, even if you don't yourself bring down the justice's gavel. If on the other hand you support polyandry you bring down on yourself the vitriol of some of the more conservative elements of the church and perhaps wider bad publicity.

    Best to attack the motives of the questioner rather than actually deal with the question I guess.

  9. Hi Colin,
    Thanks for posting that quote from Verena's book. I was in Aberdaron and on Bardsey Island last week and heard about Sister Verena but wasn't sure of her last name or the title of her book. I've now been able to order a copy. Thanks.

    I am so sorry for the abuse and rejection you have received on account of your relationship. It's terrifying the way some Christians will act in defence of doctrinal purity. It's surely possible to disagree with love?

  10. “The issue isn't whether you judge or not, the issue is what you believe about the morality of polyandry.”

    Only as far as your own life is concerned.

    I don't know why we always conflate having moral opinions and applying those standards to our own lives with judging others for what they do.

    I personally don't like the idea of poly-anything because as far as I know, it never results in equal relationships between all participants, but I also know that I am not actually qualified to judge.
    In many countries there may be good economic reasons for it, at least historically, in some isolated relationships it might actually work for every single participant.

    But when it comes to it, unless something does actual harm to people and therefore has to be prohibited by society, applying my own moral standards to other people is precisely not what Jesus told me to do.

    I strongly suggest that whenever we're tempted to pronounce on others we sit down to 30 minutes contemplation instead and look for something that needs to be purified in our own lives instead.

  11. Good luck with the PCC but don't hold your breath. They are spineless.

  12. How very wonderful for you and your partner that you are consummating your love for one another despite God's little unhappy Pharisees on earth. And my feelings are for anybody brave enough to fight the good fight by leading by example, and you are doing it, plain and simple.

    Illegitimi Non Carborundum...or something like that.