Today the House of Bishops published its proposal to February 2023’s General Synod (the Church of England’s ‘Parliament’) on same-sex marriages. Dr Wilson Wong, Lay Chair on St James’s PCC, gives us his thoughts on the Bishops decision and what it means to LGBTQ+ Christians.
This proposal bookends a FIVE-YEAR extended consultation period called “Living in Love and Faith”. Don’t hold your breath – it ain’t happening. Not in the Church of England (CoE).
This week I also met a man of courage, Dr Charlie Bell – psychiatrist, academic, ordained priest in the CoE, and author of Queer Holiness: The gift of LGBTQI people in the Church. In a House of Commons Committee Room on Monday evening filled with Bishops, clergy, MPs, activists and members of the public, Charlie spoke of the punitive treatment of LGBTQI members (especially clergy), the lasting harm to this part of the body of Christ, even as these LGBTQI members serve faithfully while offering themselves “patiently and sacrificially in debates about their very identity”. As Charlie himself argued calmly, theologically, scientifically, and pastorally, “…the Church has spent so long judging the lives and loves of LGBTQI people that it fails to recognise that it itself might be part of the problem”.
It’s a deeply personal book and the evening’s conversation was with Revd Lucy Winkett – herself bearing the scars of the institutional misogyny the CoE wears with such pride. Charlie loves God. He loves the church “not because of some slavish devotion to an institution, but because she was founded by Christ Himself”. He wants to marry his partner Piotr Baczyk in the church he loves.
While Charlie systematically takes us through many of the familiar myths and lies propagated by an immature, homophobic and frankly insecure church about the lives and loves of LGBTQI people, and the punitive manner the CoE terrorises LGBTQI clergy (of which more later), it is also filled with the joys of living honestly and out of the shadows offered by the institution. Charlie admits that many in the CoE would like him to go away and shut up.
But this book is also personal and professional statement of hope – He believes in God and that somehow, sometime, the CoE will understand that orthodox theology requires the full citizenship of LGBTQI members, not the limp-wristed statement from Archbishop Welby this week that LGBTQI members are “..are welcome and a valued part of the body of Christ.”(with huge caveats), should be grateful that soon they will be able to receive a blessing of their same-sex relationships (from non-homophobic clergy only) and that LGBTQI members should accept this crumb for the ‘common good’. LGBTQI members should be in no doubt that they are second-class citizens in the CoE. The bishops’ decision puts the Church of England at odds with its Anglican equivalent in Scotland, The Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which both allow same-sex weddings.
The CoE position on sexuality is entombed in Issues in Human Sexuality 1991 (IHS). It is required for every person going forward for ordination that they affirm that they have read and understand this document and will abide by its rules. Essentially, IHS lays down the law that CoE clergy are not permitted to have relationships (i.e., remain celibate), but lay people are. This is still the official position of the CoE.
Charlie, and many, many others have criticised the outdated views expressed in IHS, on the paucity of theological, scriptural analysis and scientific evidence. IHS underscores the violence done to many LGBTQI members, clergy, and their families. Charlie reflected that in his academic life, his students regard the CoE as misogynistic, homophobic, and irrelevant. The lack of theological integrity in the IHS merely highlights to the world how the CoE has tied itself in knots attempting to defend the indefensible. In IHS, I’d challenge anyone to find Christ’s love, so punitive is its effect on LGBTQI people.
One of the issues discussed that evening in the House of Commons was the unique establishment status of the CoE and whether the CoE’s position on LGBTQI warrants a re-evaluation of this legacy. Established church means that the CoE has the obligation to welcome all in marking, births, deaths, and marriages. Instead, the CoE ‘enjoys’ exemptions from the Equality Act 2010, in effect, ensuring bigotry and discrimination to be institutionalised and unquestioned.
At this meeting Ben Bradshaw, my old MP from Exeter, made a call that LGBTQi members should not accept the CoE crumbs as a given but to write to MPs, their diocese, ministers etc. to hold the church to account on equality legislation and to remind the church leaders that establishment requirements have been breached. That privilege should be debated thoroughly, and its status possibly revoked unless the CoE complies with all equality legislation.
I once stood for General Synod as a gay ethnic minority Christian under the banner of Inclusive Church. I ran supporting equal marriage, explicitly. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get very far. Maybe it’ll take the threat of disestablishment before the CoE is prepared to accept that on LGBTQI issues, it is as far from Christ-like as it can possibly be. What Charlie and many others have made clear is that LGBTQI members will find God in spite of the CoE and that the CoE has only itself to blame for its grassroots irrelevance as highlighted in the England and Wales Census 2021.