There are many people who feel I should not have been at the Church of Ireland’s conference on homosexuality this weekend. I wish I could agree with them. There are many, many other ways I would rather have spent this weekend than being the unwelcome guest at someone else’s party. It was not a nice experience. I hope never to have to repeat it. But a point needed to be made and I, and several others, saw no other way to make it.
No legislation was going to be voted on at this meeting. The Bishops always said the best work would be done in non-confrontational small group work. And, in this, they were almost certainly right. At the same time it makes all the more inexplicable their odd decision to make this a tight, invitation only, “closed conference” as the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe put it to me in person. Why not invite some of the people actually affected by this directly? I mean ones who could speak for themselves, unlike the many people I saw there who I know are LGBT and can’t speak out: clergy who face the sack, gay men in opposite-sex marriages, and many people who are comfortable in both their faith and their sexuality and simply lack the confidence to come out to a group of strangers.
There are more people who can articulate the LGBT Christian experience at the edge of the Church of Ireland than in its centre, and more can do so without fear among the laity than the clergy. We should have been invited, in reasonable numbers. Three gay speakers (one of whom was a conservative celibate) and a less than handful of out General Synod delegates among 400 attendees – and not one openly lesbian speaker! Do you really think this is fair?
The crisis leading to this conference was caused by a clergyman entering a civil partnership. The crux of the debate which conservatives tell me is potentially church-dividing, much to my own amazement, is whether or not practising homosexuals in monogamous lifelong relationships can serve as priests and, in particular, celebrate Holy Communion. The Church of Ireland has two publicly gay clergy. One is the proximate cause of the current crisis and in an incredibly vulnerable position personally. The other is a terminally ill man who, like me, was not a welcome guest at this conference. Do you really think it is possible to have a fair discussion in a conference taking place in that context?
The Archbishops, both of whom treated me with grace and gentleness over the weekend, nonetheless infuriate me when they claim that this conference “involved listening to the direct experience of gay Christians”. Well, it did if you mean listening to a handful of gay men (no women!) who don’t actually worship in the Church of Ireland regularly! I heard they all spoke very well and I met two of them and feel sure they did us proud – they were clearly fine people. But the House of Bishops did the bare minimum possible to avoid looking ludicrous. One cannot pretend that being gay in gay Paree is remotely comparable with being gay in Portglenone.
Three of us laypeople, in Ireland’s three major cities, and covering a remarkably wide range of cultural background and theological perspective for such a small group, wrote letters to the Church of Ireland Gazette explaining how excluded we felt by the conference process. Would it have been too much to do to invite us along to ask us why we felt this way? And maybe find a couple of dozen other people who also felt like us, and welcome us along, as Jesus Christ welcomed people. Wouldn’t it have been good to hear our stories, to have misconceptions challenged, to find the people who disagree with us are actually good Christian people, like ourselves. Because one of the tragedies of this weekend for me was that I didn’t come away thinking anything good about the conservative wing of the Church of Ireland. And I doubt many conservatives got the chance to see LGBT church people are decent Christian people leading decent Christian lives.
I know stable lesbian and gay male couples; I know bisexuals living in faithful, monogamous, opposite-sex marriages; I know transgender people; I know gay men trapped in loveless marriages that they thought would turn them straight – a lot of those; I know older gay men who fear their parishes will cast them out if they find out they’re more than a ‘bachelor’. I personally know at least one of all of these types of people who attend a Church of Ireland church Sunday by Sunday within 3 miles of where I live. You silenced all of them, all over Ireland and especially in Northern Ireland.
The sad thing is, I think some people didn’t want to let other people see us in that light. The demonising pictures of the Evangelical penny-dreadfuls of the cyber age – the queer as debased, lustful, repugnant to God, addicted to alcohol and drugs, prone to suicide – are so easily shattered by actual exposure to real gay men and women in the church, because we are in the main so utterly conventional. There are real problems with alcohol and drug addiction in our queer communities, and a reliance on cheap and unfulfilling sex, and a crashing materialism. Queer Christians see the problems every day, and we feel many of our problems as a community are made worse by your denial of our right to live convenanted, faithful, lifelong, partnerships. We also see much in our communities which is generous, open-hearted, accepting, loving, tolerant of difference, open to vulnerability, in short, so much that reflects the attitudes of Jesus Christ as presented to us in Scripture. Like you, we are sinners in need of Christ and yet we reflect in some ways the stamp of our creator.
Our creator also taught us that before we judge we should see if the had beam in our own eye first. Our crashing materialism? With your jumbo sized cars and jumbo sized homes and jumbo sized families on a vulnerable planet? And your chauvinism! You think I don’t understand why a literalist interpretation of Scripture appeals to you, despite all Scriptural evidence that it’s bunk? For a married, heterosexual male, having God tell your wife to submit to you like you were God (Ephesians 5:22) has an awful lot of advantages. So you ignore the conflicting genealogies, you ignore the Gospel and Pauline quotations of the Old Testament that clearly come from the Septuagint and are somewhat different from our Old Testament translations. You ignore all the things that argue against the idea that God’s conception of teaching us the truth through Christ was giving us a second rule book. And I know why – it suits so many of you to argue for literalism against the internal evidence of Scripture, because it makes life more comfortable for straight, married, men.
There were no lesbians at this conference. 14 Evangelicals wrote a book about sexuality and all 14 are men. Heterosexual men get to tell the rest of us what living a sexually moral life means. You people are just too easy to parody as a bunch of chauvinist, sexually self-repelled, bigots with a vested interest in maintaining straight patriarchy and keeping women down.
You’re saying Jesus taught in parables to give us a second rule book? If God wanted a revision of the law code, why incarnate Himself as man and go to die at Calvary? In the New Covenant, we are saved by grace through faith, not through works, although without works our faith is empty. But we are no longer under the Law. Conservatives are right to remind us that St. Paul argues for liberty, not libertinism. But I am not advocating for libertinism. I advocate liberty within a clearly defined framework – “same rights, same rules, same responsibilities”. In the world I want to see, we couple freedom with responsibility. Integrity as befits a Christian, both in our relationships with our sexually intimate life-partner, and with the rest of the world, applies whether we are straight or queer.
One shocking report I heard from the conference fringe – and although these tales can be magnified in the telling, it’s not an isolated story – claimed numerous clergy at the conference said they would refuse homosexuals in faithful relationships Holy Communion. I think we need to remember that we are judged by the measure of our own judgement, and refusing people the Sacrament is a grievous judgement indeed. If I were cutting people off from God and the fellowship of the Church in that way, I would have to be very sure of my ground. Jesus broke bread with Judas on the night he was betrayed. If you’re saying we queers are worse than Judas, I’d be very careful what standard I was setting myself up to be judged by. I would be very careful not to misrepresent the Lord and Saviour who supped at the well with the Samaritan woman. If you have a problem with me receiving communion in your church, you come and see me about it in advance and you read me the First Exhortation from the old Prayer Book. And then you let me make that judgement call, which is after all, about my salvation. And if you feel the need to read the First Exhortation to me, I hope you direct it back at yourself in the same measure.
I think some of you just wish we would shut up so you could get on with ‘more important things’. And personally, I could quite easily. I’m a layperson, I worship in a gay-affirming parish, I’m an out gay man in a loving long-term relationship, my family is pretty gay-positive. I’m comfortable and confident at public speaking. I’m the aristocracy of the LGBT hierarchy in the Church of Ireland. If I it’s impossible for me to get much of a spoke in, the vast majority of LGBTs in the Church of Ireland are completely silenced.
Elements in the Church of Ireland encourage people to become trapped in Mixed-Orientation Marriages, corrosive on them and corrosive on their heterosexual spouses. The people crushed by this burden are silenced.
Elements in the Church of Ireland refuse lesbians communion, form spiritual hit squads to cast lesbians out of the church, and squirm when asked to baptise the children of lesbians, trapped between the generous grace of Canon 26 yet making it quite clear they’d really rather these lesbians Went Somewhere Else. Lesbians are silenced.
In nearly every parish in the Church of Ireland, there is at least one elderly bachelor or spinster who is the pillar of their parish and whose social life revolves around the church, who fears that they will become an outcast if their fellow parishioners found out they were gay. They are often very lonely people. The people ground down by this loneliness are silenced.
For the most part, gays not especially visible in our churches, especially in the North. In the rural North they are entirely invisible. Lesbians are even less visible, unsurprising when open lesbians are repeatedly treated in vile and unchristian ways in our parishes, as documented in Changing Attitude Ireland’s Share Your Story booklet. Other types of queer people like transgender people are barely more than rumoured to exist, although that doesn’t prevent nasty displays of conservative Christian bullying of this tiny and peaceable group of people, as happened while the Gender Recognition Act was going through Parliament.
Although I found it incredibly wearing, not all was bad at the conference. There were also moments of extraordinary grace, the most exceptional of all I received at the hands of our Primate, Alan Harper. Many people criticise Alan, but he is a transparently decent, caring and honourable man and he did a lovely thing for me at a time when I was feeling very low and very hurt. He genuinely believes in servant leadership. We are fortunate to have such a good and genuinely kind man leading our Church at such a difficult time. Some other Bishops were welcoming and a few took robust criticism with generosity and grace. Others made it clear which rock they wished I’d disappear under.
My colleagues from Changing Attitude Ireland were, as always, such kind and convivial companions who made the tough bits bearable. Of those on the Committee, Paul and Margaret, Brian, and Ginnie put in the long, emotionally tiring, stints co-chairing sessions. Darren and Sandra will have graced the conference with their presence. Mervyn and Richard, Charles and I were the goats forced to sit separated from the sheep out in the foyer. The treatment of Mervyn Kingston really is unnecessarily spiteful in the case of a man with a terminal illness. He is not being punished for being a practising homosexual, but for being an honest practising homosexual, in one of the most loving and caring gay relationships I have ever known. If he dissembled and cloaked himself, he would be fine.
Thanks, from the bottom of my heart, to all those who those good church people over the weekend who took the trouble to speak up for queer people when others were condemning us, to those who took time to ask Bishops whether our treatment had been fair, and in particular to those who disagreed with us on the substantive issue but still felt our treatment was shabby. People like you give me hope that we can indeed agree to disagree, agreeably.
If there was a message I wanted to tell the conference that I was not allowed to, it is how dearly I love my partner and how dearly he loves me. We do nothing but good to one another. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to condemn me for it. I find encounters with people who think it does condemn me and that God agrees with them incredibly unsettling.
At one point during the conference, I thought that faith and hope had died, but thanks to some good Christian men and women I find them rekindled albeit in perilous vulnerability. And thus I am still able to argue for the greatest of those three last remaining things: love.