Thursday 2 December 2010

Are you still there?

'One thing surprises me: that you, Sharon and Robert are still members of mainstream churches'. We were at the LGBT Health Summit 2010 held at Hatfield University in September The Revd Sharon Ferguson, Metropolitan Community Church minister and CEO of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and Hospital Chaplain the Revd Robert Mitchell, had joined me there to lead the workshop – which has its origin in my collaboration with fellow Sibyl Michelle O'Brien - 'Gender, sexuality and spirituality: exploring the interplay'

Of the three hundred forty delegates fifty-five registered for this workshop, an indication of the huge interest in spirituality and it was a subject that sat well with the conference theme 'the emotional connection: healthy mind, health body' (the host organisation was an NHS mental health Trust). I spoke about sexuality, Sharon about gender while Robert focused on spirituality, emphasising its breadth, and that many people who do not belong to, or identify with, religious organisations, may have a profound and meaningful spirituality. Nevertheless, the three presenters were all ordained ministers – Sharon in suit and clerical collar – and hence the observation, made privately after the session, by one participant, who was surprised that we were - given the perceived narrowness of the churches, including a grudging attitude to gender equality, institutional homophobia, etc. - still willing to belong.

As a minister of a Church that was founded specifically to include gay people, and with a wonderful record of inclusion, Sharon's position, to me at any rate (I can't speak for Robert), looks less contradictory than mine, but maybe the comment was not just about the inclusion agenda but expressed an alienation from the whole culture of organised religion by those who were formed by it and once part of it, and who now, having 'moved on,' are surprised that others have stayed.

Over the years there have been a number of occasions when I have despaired of the councils of the Church of England. Now, in an era when HIV infection can be treated so successfully we can easily forget the hysteria of the mid-1980s and how some people, who disagreed with the Revd Tony Higton, signed his Private Members motion about 'personal morality' in order to separate the gay issue from that of HIV, which achieved the sensitive debate on AIDS that they had wanted followed by the catastrophic compromise motion now enshrined as official Church of England policy.

Some priests resigned then, Jeremy Younger's resignation being the most public, but resigning, as my husband pointed out at the time, would not help the people in our parish (though some might have been glad to be rid of me). Recently I found copies of the letters I wrote to the Synod members from my diocese prior to the 'Higton Debate' and its outcome, negative as it was, led to experiences that would have a profound effect on me personally, breaking down internal defences and barriers and enabling me to 'come out' publicly two years later, though that phrase 'coming out' does not do justice to what was, in fact, a confession or testimony to the Divine love.

A Mirfield Father, on being told of this, commented that my position was 'untenable' but he was proved wrong, and with the backing of my bishop, the loving support of parishioners, and – a not inconsiderable factor – the benefit of freehold, I was able to stay for another eleven years. Sometimes, as LGB or T people it is absolutely essential that we stay put and stand firm for by so doing we bear witness to the fact, for example, that one can be both a priest and gay or a Christian and trans.

This is not an easy calling to live out; to leave or transfer to another Church might – though who knows until you try it – seem an easier option; but somehow you are held there – it might be partly due to habit, or convention, or the need for stability, though my hope is that is mainly a response to God's call to be there, and stay there, because that is where you belong.

And if the institution should so change that it begins to deny and abuse you? What then? Have we reached that point now, considering the ease with which the General Synod has sent off the Covenant for consideration by the dioceses? Or is that (like 1987) yet another bit of tactical voting (in which case it will probably go wrong)? This post is becoming longer than I intended so let me come back to these questions in another one.

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