Peter Facey: Washout at the New Forest Show 2007
© Copyright Peter Facey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
One of the questions raised by the Church of England’s current disagreements on sexuality concerns how far it’s even possible to claim we’re one church when we hold such different opinions. It seems to be OK to keep together those with massive differences in ‘practice’; for example, to include under the umbrella churches who won’t use even the wide range of services in the Common Worship book, whether that means using Roman Catholic services or making them up from scratch. As an enthusiastic teenager I remember dragging my long-suffering father along to the next parish church along from ours, after finding out (via being one of the youngest members of Deanery Synod) that they were Anglo-Catholic and wondering what that meant. He went through the whole service under the impression that it was in Latin – in fact the priest just spoke very quickly – but the point is that he wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to find Latin being used in the C of E. After all, in everything other than language – the wording of the service, the vestments, the gestures – it was entirely unlike anything with which we were familiar. That church now defines itself as ‘modern Catholic’. Later on, I had a spell of regular attendance at All Saints, Margaret Street, where I experienced a form of Anglo-Catholicism which I found very much to my taste. Indeed, one of the most intense moments of religious experience I’ve had in my life happened there. The other happened in an evangelical church that was pretty well ignoring the fact that it was in the C of E. Both churches, I’ve just realised, were equally ‘gathered’ churches – bringing together people from a wider geographical area than the parish, that building block of the C of E. By definition, then, they held like-minded people – unlike your average parish church which brings together people with more diverse beliefs and opinions.
At the moment, the two areas where it’s difficult to ignore our differences and to keep everyone under the umbrella are gender and sexuality. Here’s a comment from a recently-published piece on women and leadership in the church. What is the message a woman hears from the C of E?
She hears that women can lead but she sees male leaders. She hears that she should marry and that her ideal leadership role is ministry alongside an ordained husband. She hears that she should not lead and that she is not capable of leading. She hears that she should lead, and as a woman she has a special contribution to make to the Church. She hears that she is created in the image of God, to live life in fullness and freedom and to use and develop her gifts as she becomes the person she was created to be.
It is hardly surprising if she is a little confused.
And then there’s sexuality.
The long reluctance of the churches to face the way in which some in authority have abused that authority remains an abomination. It’s been quite a week for that, as another survivor has gone public about her sexual abuse by a member of the clergy here. Yet in the very same week another member of the clergy has been prevented from taking services because he’s married his partner of thirty years. So, in one case a priest used his position of trust to abuse a young woman. In another, a priest affirms his loving relationship with another man in an entirely legal ceremony. But the first is covered up and attempts are made to preserve that priest’s ministry (scarily, he is now a minister in a non-Anglican church): and the second leads to curtailing the priest’s ministry.
Professor Julie Macfarlane, writing about her sexual abuse, concluded:
But my higher goal here is to expose the chasm between the public statements of the Church and their complicity in this immoral approach to sex-abuse litigation.
A different sort of chasm exists with same-sex relationships. Here’s one public document:
the 2014 statement from the House of Bishops included the wording that
We are conscious that within both Church and society there are men and women seeking to live faithfully in covenanted same sex relationships.
But being conscious of something doesn’t mean approving of it. The public statement isn’t an affirmation of such men and women, but we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.
So, we know that men and women are living like this, but we’re not going to call it marriage, because for that one person has to be a man and the other a woman. Yet we’re also finally realising that not everyone fits easily into the man/woman binary. Bodies are complicated. You may have the right organs to count as a man, but what if they don’t work? You may look like a woman but be born without a womb. Your body may not match how you feel about yourself. Who polices bodies to decide where they fit? The model Rain Dove is the most public face of those who call themselves ‘genderqueer’, whose bodies don’t fit into neat categories. I want to listen to voices that come from outside the binary. I find the voices of the public statements of the Church less and less reassuring. Maybe the umbrella will never be big enough to fit us all under it – and maybe there are some situations in which I’d rather get wet than be complicit with those who are holding it over me.