Monday 1 November 2010

Two cheers for Bishop Stephen Platten

Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield, in an article in the Church Times last Friday has come out in support of a renewed listening, real listening, to the voices of LGBT people in LGCM and Changing Attitude. He says the Church of God and not just the Church of England should take a lead in encouraging real listening which allows for the possibility of a change of heart if not, he says, our own moral outlook.

The article was received enthusiastically by the trustees of Changing Attitude who met over the weekend in Tadcaster and they wanted me to blog about it, post an article on the web site and write to Bishop Stephen and the Church Times - and I will do all those things, starting here.

Having re-read the article, I want to be more critical, especially since bishop Stephen wants the Church universal to take a lead in ‘real’ listening. My first message back to Bishop Stephen is that it’s a bit rich to ask the Church to take a lead in ‘real’ listening. The Church is so far behind secular society which having undertaken a process of 'real listening' has mostly dealt with the ethical, moral, emotional and legal dimensions of homophobia and has already transformed the landscape for LGBT people. It is primarily in the church, and in particular pockets of society, in football, in schools that homophobia continues.

Bishop Stephen says the Church is not unlike our culture in which there are a variety of views with both calls for equality and rampant homophobia. I do not meet rampant homophobia in society, but in the church I meet an all-persuasive prejudice which has a rampantly homophobic effect. Try getting appointed to a new post in the church if you are in a civil partnership or recommending to a lesbian, gay or transgender seeker a church in which you can confidently guarantee they are going to receive a prejudice–free welcome. Changing Attitude has just 30 churches out of 10,000 listed in our Welcoming and Open scheme.

Perhaps the Church serves a purpose as a place where all this can be discussed, says Bishop Stephen, though he admits it would need to bring people together to claim to be that place. ‘All this’ is discussed freely in pubs and bars and cafes, homes and offices across the country. It’s in the Church that people have the greatest difficulty discussing human sexuality freely and openly. In my own church, which in a comment on a previous post a member denies is homophobic, I am told that it’s better for me not to constantly talk about being gay but keep it quiet. It isn’t something I talk about or preach about, but simply being there with my partner is too much for some of the congregtion – that’s homophobia, Frances.

Bishop Stephen thinks stereotypes would break down if Christians simply sat down with gay people, whether active, single, in committed relationships or not. I’m not so sure. For starters, outside the Church it’s immaterial whether gay people are active, single or in a committed relationship. The Church agenda is not society’s agenda. The moral and ethical attitude of the Church to gay relationships is not relevant and won’t be until the Church overcomes it’s institutionalized homophobia. Then people might attend to what the Church has to say about the ethics of gay relationships.

Bishop Stephen wonders when most diocesan synods last sought a presentation from gay Christians about their life in Christ or dioceses last held day conferences on sexuality and faith. The trustees of Changing Attitude wondered whether there was any chance of the newly elected General Synod passing legislation which might change the two most pressing issues for LGBT Anglicans – equality in selection and training for ministry and in clergy appointments and the blessing of gay relationships in church.

We concluded that there is almost zero chance of this happening in the current quinquennium. When General Synod or the House of Bishops finally get around to a homophobic-free discussion and attitude it will be totally irrelevant to LGBT people whose place in society was transformed by the legislative changes introduced by the last government.

The trustees were taken by Bishop Stephen’s use of the phrase ‘human flourishing’ in his last paragraph. The gospel, he says, obliges us to build a healthy society which is both sensitive to all and responsible in deriving a moral code that promotes human flourishing, and that’s not how it feels at the moment for lesbian and gay people. Actually, for many it does feel as if that’s what our society promotes – it’s the Church that doesn’t.

Can we now expect Bishop Stephen himself to take a lead by persuading the House of Bishops to listen directly to the experience of LGBT people in an open way that allows for a real possibility of a change of heart, and will he consult the LGBT Anglican Coalition, which includes both LGCM and Changing Attitude, to hear our proposals for legislation which we would like General Synod to pass?

Colin Coward

Changing Attitude needs your help to get the Church to listen accurately to LGBT people and to pursue our campaign to change to church. Please become a supporter or make a donation.


  1. I think that is a very insightful commentary. As you know, I left the Church, and for me one of the main reasons was that I could no longer handle the dissonance between living life in the world outside the church, where of course, homophobia remains present, but where laws and attitudes are moving in a strongly positive direction, and what I found in the church. Which, in my case, wasn't necessarily individual prejudice, but certainly the constant presence of an institutional homophobia which I felt as if I was sponsoring or at least going along with.

    The only option was to work to achieve change but the more I continued to do this, the greater the contrast was with developments everywhere else, and it got to the stage where it seemed somehow pointless - as no-one outside the church cared about its view, why spend my time bashing my head against a wall which seemed to be permanently reinforcing itself, almost in reaction to the threats it recognised from outside.

    This is the problem, Colin. I just don't think that an open approach is possible with the church as it is - the homophobia is so ingrained that it literally infects every aspect of what the church does. Literally, institutionalised - which is why so many gay people within the church actually contribute to their own oppression, whether it be by enforcing celibacy upon themselves even though they don't believe they should have to, by ignoring this and thus treated as pariahs and marginalised, or worst of all, by staying in the closet and sitting on their hands when the votes for change take place.

    The Bishops stance is one strongly rooted in radical community organising - I've heard it almost word for word by a good (straight) friend who is no longer in full-time parish ministry - and it would be a good place to start. But I'm just not convinced that the church will be able to do so.

  2. Yes, we were enthusiastic Colin and having read your critique of the article I have been asking myself why that was. Maybe because he admits the shame he feels about the way the Church has treated lesbian and gay people (in fact, as we thought, GAYLIC - gay and lesbian youth in Calderdale - is for LGBT people under 25 years of age) and how his visit to these young people made him realise the cost, in human terms, of the Communion's unity at recent Lambeth Conferences. Also, because a bishop has broken ranks on this issue - at last. I agree with you though that the project that he outlines seems to be a hopelessly idealistic one given the institutional homophobia that we have now begun to name.

  3. Trevor Thurston-Smith2 November 2010 at 16:30

    I agree with your analysis, Colin, and I concur that whilst perhaps deserving 3 cheers +Stephen deserves 2, and is way ahead of most of his fellow CofE bishops. It's interesting that it was in meeting a group of young LGBT people that the Bishop was most challenged. I have heard of other situations where bishops and others have been tackled on their attitude on the gay issue by young people, usually straight young people. In a church which is increasingly trying to focus on reaching out to the young, perhaps (rightly or wrongly) this is the constituency that is most likely to prompt change. By and large the CofE hasn't listened to the experiences of LGBT people, but it does seem to listen to the voices of younger people. Perhaps our time would be better spent talking with young people and ensuring that they're not corrupted by the homophobic bigotry of some strands of Christianity, than talking to bishops who have grown far too accustommed to sitting on the fence.

  4. Colin, I thought your comments were astute. To take one example, if you scour the diocesan websites all round the country, where, anywhere, do you find sections, links, and especially diocesan initiatives to highlight the needs of LGBT youth, LGBT Christians, the issues of LGBT discrimination, or LGBT support groups?

    It's as if, institutionally if subconsciously, because of the 'awkwardness' of divergent views in the Church, LGBT has been 'airbrushed' out of existence in the structures and initiatives and websites of the dioceses.

    Now, as a transsexual woman myself, I want to speak up for the humanity and kindness and acceptance I've experienced, both in my home church, and here at my church in Papworth, where I work on the critical care unit at the hospital: an ordinary person living an ordinary life and doing an ordinary job.

    Because the thing is, the majority of the British public these days are streets ahead of the institutional church in recognising and affirming LGBT people, their lives and their relationships. Which is exactly the point I think you were making. At a local church level, I have found love and acceptance.

    Yet... it cannot be denied that LGBT individuals... often marginalised and vulnerable to isolated abuse... seeking support... seeking the Church's clear affirmation of who they are... NEED the Church Establishment to get on board, take initiative, organise support groups within the dioceses, and generally treat LGBT issues as some already treat issues like racism.

    Why, at diocese level, on diocese websites, and in diocesan organisation, is there almost nothing? To me, this is a 'passing by on the other side of the road' syndrome. We may want the niceties of liturgy, and lovely buildings, and cathedral choirs (all of which I like too)... but there seems to be a cowardice and moral abnegation when it comes to unashamedly speaking out, and publicly arranging positive LBGT groups, and advertising events and meetings and initiatives on diocesan websites where all manner of other events and activities get aired.

    It is as if the church, at institutional level, is running scared of LGBT... in fear of the more militant groups in the church who hate homosexuality... and so, too often, the institution comes johhny-come-lately, dragging its heels, way behind society and its open-minded generosity of spirit and modern psychological understanding.


  5. (contd...)

    None of this is to decry the love and affirmation I know from individuals and local churches. But that just highlights the gulf between where ordinary people are at now, and the perpetuated fear of the organisation... that fears outcry from some evangelical Christians... fears outcry from provinces like Uganda and Nigeria... and would rather airbrush out the crying needs and justice and what, frankly, should be the celebration of diversity... than challenge the views of those who, were this slavery, would be crying out for justice.

    If you question my portrayal, take a tour of diocesan websites for yourself.

    There is almost *NOTHING*. LGBT doesn/t exist.

    And that reflects an issue and a problem right through the Diocesan structures.

    For non-Christians seeking values and meaning, the assigning of LGBT citizens to the margins, or at least a worrying reticence, must be viewed with incredulity.

    Because society, on these issues, has grown up.

    We have things to learn.

    It is woefully insufficient to resign. To say "We love you but we hate your sexual choices" as if the way a couple express fidelity, tenderness, long-term commitment, and intimate love is somehow detachable, rather than some of the best and integral parts of a human being." People sugarcoat discrimination like this, because they already know their views appear unacceptable to most ordinary people today, hence the need for nuance.

    But even if some groups believe, with their own integrity no doubt, that gay sex is wrong... in the face of commonsense and the generosity that prevails in the modern world... is that a reason for the dioceses to abdicate, to resign responsibility, to ignore the reality of LGBT bullying in schools, discrimination in employment, marginalisation in church positions, abuse on the street, fear at home, loneliness, and the crying out for help (which sometimes tragically ends on suicide)?

    The public face of the Church seems silent.

    The human face is far better.

    I know, because I am loved, respected, cared for - and know that I, just as much as others, must also love, must also seek God, because...

    ...we are all children of God.

    With love,

  6. Like you, Colin, my initial reaction to Bishop Stephen's comment in Church Times was very positive. Perhaps because 15 or 20 years ago, it would have been a very positive comment. But now, in the main, it's the Church which needs to be shown the way, not secular society.

    Ironically, it's perhaps because of the way that society has largely moved on from the homophobia of the past, that the task for us in the Church has become that bit more difficult. From the perspective of the LGBT community, we might see the animosity of the Church as one of the last few trees left standing in the forest of hatred, but for those who oppose CA's aims, the Church is now one of the last bastions of, as they see it, sexual morality.

    As each battle was won - equal AoC, the right to amend birth certificates, employment protection, civil partnerships - we might have thought that the fight would get easier, but I fear those victories may have in fact made the last few battles all the more difficult

  7. Did anyone else get the impression that, "current events" (e.g. recent suicides :-( ) references aside, this message sounded very much like something that OUGHT to have been written about 20 years ago?

    "Like a Mighty Tortoise, Moves the Church of God..."

  8. Too little, too late, as always.

  9. I put this into my General Synod laity election statement about
    "Marriage, the family, and ‘gay’ relationships" and I got re-elected (just).
    Marriage that works is a blessing, like any true friendship or relationship. The Church exists to sanctify the sinner
    within us all. We all count on God’s mercy. I believe the Church must welcome and help people wherever they
    are, and wherever they are coming from. The Church must encourage gay people who are being responsible and
    faithful in relationships. Traditional ‘Biblical’ teaching about sex reflects ancient patriarchal concerns about the
    purity of women who for millennia were the property of their fathers or husbands. Many homosexual
    relationships are evidently virtuous. In this age of global warming mainly caused by population growth, the
    Church’s traditional teaching about sexual orientation does not make sense. Jesus stood by the oppressed and
    outcasts. Yet Anglicans in Uganda are persecuting gay couples, even threatening them with execution.
    But these are tricky times for Anglicanism where there is no consensus, and there has not been the listening on either side that there should be. Stephen Platten is right about the need for some real listening. Gender and orientation are very important. But the whole issue needs to be contextualised. The Church is not very grown up about any of this.

  10. This is one example of the kind of ministry the dioceses should be initiating, reaching out to LGBT youth and students, and demonstrating pastoral care and support in an affirming Christian context, with a specific LGBT focus: