Wednesday 26 March 2014

My response to the House of Bishops' "Pastoral" Guidance

On 15 February, the House of Bishops released their "Pastoral" Guidance on Same Sex Marriage (text here).  That they would draw up the document on Valentine's Day is a kick in the teeth, that they would embargo it until the next day is less than honest.

Following on from an article in the Church Times, where I offered my view on the House of Bishops' "Pastoral" Guidance (see a copy here), I'd like to add to what I expressed there, and give some context.

Two sections are of particular interest to me:
Acts of worship following civil same sex weddings
21.  The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church's teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.Clergy and ordinands
27.  The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church's teaching in their lives.
When it comes to equality, unless we are capable of preaching a positive message, we are - in fact - preaching a negative one.  If you produce something that mentions that the LGBT community and/or their relationships are a deviation from the norm, it will be used to oppress people.

As a Church, surely we have to be sending out a message that affirms, includes & CELEBRATES our LGBT community - their gifts, talents, hopes & dreams & their desire to commit to loving same-sex partners that will benefit their local community & our faith communities.

Currently, the message being given out is that we endure or tolerate our LGBT members ... which is a negative message, not a positive one.  You tolerate or endure an illness or a mouth ulcer, not a human being.

What's more, if you send out a message of tolerating or enduring someone, you're encouraging them to see themselves as a burden, as somehow less worthy than other members of the community, thereby adding to issues of self-worth and mental health. I believe the Church should be affirming and blessing people, not making them feel inferior or imperfect.

Sadly, though, once again, we are being asked to create an "Us and them" mindset. We are being asked to make the LGBT people in our congregations feel inferior by discussing with them how they've departed from Church teaching.  There are those that can, by their nature, live within Church teaching, and those who now, simply because of who they are, can never comply with it.

There is no way that church can be a welcoming place, while the institution aims to highlight the reasons why you are departing from Church teaching, rather than celebrate your presence & your gifts.  In addition, this difference which we are being asked to highlight will, in effect, enable others to discriminate against LGBT church members.

To illustrate, I'll share some of my experiences under "Issues in Human Sexuality".  "Issues" was a guide to facilitate discussion in the Church on sexuality.

In reality, many Diocesan bishops, Diocesan Directors of Ordination and clergy used it as ratification to enforce their own bigoted views, and discipline anyone who didn't comply.  It was treated as Canon Law, rather than a discussion document. 

           I came to faith at the age of 17, and - at the age of 18 - entered into full-time ministry as a Pioneer Youth Worker & missionary in disadvantaged rural communities in South Africa.  From there, I entered into employment as a full-time Youth Pastor in my home diocese, where I worked for 6 years, developing a ministry across the city and across the diocese; training youth pastors, and running regional youth camps and mission and evangelism initiatives in several local schools, and - together with non-denominational groups - ran programmes that ministered to thousands of young people across the city over the summer holiday period.  I ran teen groups, junior groups, toddler groups, young adult groups and student groups, ran training events for youth groups and youth pastors.

            At the same time, I was struggling with my own sexual identity, but was aware of the wretched “Issues in Human Sexuality” document, and so remained celibate and desperately lonely, and even subjected myself to 3 years of reparative therapy and support groups aimed at making me straight.  They were the 3 single most miserable years of my life, where I began to believe that I either didn’t have enough faith to change who I was, or didn’t matter enough to God to be granted a change.  I lost contact with my family (the group & counsellor’s advice was that I was gay by nurture, and that I needed to distance myself from those that had caused me to have this “broken identity”), and I remember sharing with a friend that the only reason I did not commit suicide, was because I believed the hell I found myself in was somehow better than the hell I would go to for being gay.

            By this stage, I was also juggling a Theology degree by distance learning, and the Diocese had ordained me to the diaconate, and I was serving my curacy.  At my lowest point, my training rector asked me to confide in him what was going on in my private life, and I shared what I was feeling, grateful to get it out in the open.

            What followed was a systematic breakdown of my private and professional life; I was subjected to him spreading rumours about me around the parish, trying to force me into a relationship with the parish youth worker and - when we both refused - he tried to force us to cohabit in the parish house, he had public notices about me pinned to external noticeboards, stating that I had strayed and needed to be disciplined.

            When I approached the Diocese for help, I was reminded that rank mattered more than integrity, & was told that - as the junior priest - I would need to be disciplined.  I was removed from post and given 3 weeks to vacate the parish house, with no post to go to.

            Thankfully, I had the opportunity to leave there, and move to the UK.  After 9 years of ministry in that Diocese, the only sentence in my reference stated that, “it has come to our attention that this priest is gay, but this has not proven a problem yet.”

            That, thankfully is behind me, and I’m at peace with myself, and my identity, and am able to see that I am exactly as God intended me to be.  However, I offer all of that, as evidence of how misused “Issues in Human Sexuality” could be.  My superiors in that Diocese saw no incongruence between scripture and the way that they were acting, and “Issues in Human Sexuality” gave them the permission they needed to act in that way, and do so boldly.

I think the House of Bishops forgets how diverse the Church is, and how very differently authority, hierarchy, theology, exegesis and practical application are treated around the world.  I sincerely hope this is not the case, but there will probably be places where the new guidance is going to be used for a witch-hunt of LGBT clergy & parishioners.

In the same way that "Issues" gave bullies and bigots the permission they needed to oppress & punish people within their churches, the new "Pastoral" guidance will give them the permission they need to discipline and shame clergy.

LGBT Clergy often cannot safely engage in the debate about this matter, because being outspoken comes at a price to your career.  If you're not sidelined by your colleagues, you're overlooked for senior posts.  How can free and fair debate take place, when one side is allowed to be as outspoken as they wish, and the other fears for their careers, their families and their lives?

These are dangerous times for young LGBT Christians in many of our churches ... having been discredited and banned by professional psychotherapy & counselling bodies in the West, we're seeing an increase in courses in Reparative Therapy (and even Aversion therapy) being offered in churches across the world, where these harmful (& sometimes fatal) treatments can operate without regulation.

This is not a time where the Church can afford to be anything less than welcoming and affirming to the LGBT community.

If you have a voice, please do use it ... write to the Editor of the Church Times, or your faith / denomination newsletter.  For too long, people have been making decisions about the LGBT community without considering or consulting us.  That needs to stop for true communication and change to happen.

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