I was ordained over ten years ago in Durham Cathedral. On the actual day we waited in a row, fourteen of us eager and excited with family and friends awaiting our arrival inside. It was one of the best days of my life. It was truly thrilling. I was full of hope and expectation. The sun shone bright, casting shadows on the warm stone illuminating the cloisters. Everything was possible.
To rewind a few years, during the vocations process I came out to my DDO, the person in charge of vocations. To be honest, he wasn’t surprised! He quickly told me to ‘keep quiet’ about my sexuality, even though I was not in a relationship. ‘It will just complicate things, and you probably won’t get through selection.’ So I took his advice. I kept quiet. This was the first time in my adult life where I had actively been deceitful about who I am. Imagine. The church was asking me to be dishonest. The very institution that stood for truth and openness was asking me to leave out a massive part of my story, a huge part of what makes me, well, me.
I told myself that I could change the church from within, that someday soon I would be able to be honest and still find a job, live without fear of persecution or homophobia, or simply of being found out. I soon got used to how it is in the Church of England. I realized I was chasing shadows.
Now we fast forward to 2017. We have the shared conversations which I didn’t take part in as I was on adoption leave. We eagerly awaited the report and guess what, it’s a complete fudge. Actually, that would be an insult to a rather fine confectionery. It was adjacent to useless. We were told to ‘wait and see’. Some clergy, much more in the know than I suggested that we would see change, that some sort of liturgy would be available for couples who wanted to have a proper church blessing rather than the pathetic ‘informal prayers’ currently offered. For goodness sake, we even have approved prayers for blessing inanimate objects such as tractors and items of devotion (both forms were used in one of my churches on Plough Sunday), but not people. Not people who are less than, people who, despite being in secure loving relationships are, according to the church, living in sin. If marriage or indeed anything sacramental is not for the likes of us, then what else can the church mean? What about gay clergy like me who celebrate the Eucharist day in day out. Are we firing blanks?
The church to which I belong has got its head around divorce and remarriage. In fact, if you have been divorced at least once, you can be a Vicar. You can minister to your hearts content. You can even be a bishop if the church thinks you’re called to high office. No problem say the church. We’re all about forgiveness and generosity.
We have special advisers whose job it is to increase the number of underrepresented groups in ministry. We have Deans of Women’s Ministry and clergy whose job it is to encourage vocations from ethnic minority backgrounds, and quite rightly so. Do we have one for LGBTQ vocations? Only in the church of my dreams. Only in my imagination.
I have been to see my bishop today. He was polite, amiable and pleasant. I liked him. I was slightly nervous as it was the first time I had met him as he is newly appointed. I wanted to know what he thought and what he contributed to this document, years in the making. I wanted him to ‘own it’ particularly as several bishops appear to be trying to distance themselves from it, in between feeling sorry for themselves because folk suddenly don’t like them very much and are calling them rude names. The very people who wrote it don’t seem to want to embrace it. I find this rather odd. However difficult a piece is to write, it was presumably written as an accurate account of the mind of the House of Bishops. It came from a place of sincerity and after much soul searching and prayer, we are told. So where are the bishops on national TV, radio or in our newspapers championing it, rather than apologizing for it?
I wanted to tell him face to face what damage this report has done to the likes of me and those I minister to. I was angry and he knew it. I asked for a pastoral response, a way of explaining to those in my charge how everyone is still welcome in our church despite this retrograde piece of non-listening. I am hoping to receive one, something I can use to try and convince the young couples who have started to come to church, the teenagers at the school where I am chaplain who want to believe in an inclusive and loving God, the gay couple who can’t quite understand how I can continue working within a church that is structurally homophobic. I want something to give them, something that is of substance, not simply a handful of dust or a shadow to chase.
For me and for many others, NOW is the time for action. I have never experienced such a coming together of traditions within the church. Furious individuals, clergy and laity alike, Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and those somewhere in the middle have had enough. This report has changed me. I am finding my militant voice and I’m going to use it, and I suspect many others will too. In some ways, it is a wonderful thing to behold. As Trump fans the flame of protest across America, maybe in some small Anglican and rather British way, the bishops have done the same. I urge you not to simply tut about it and say how someday we hope things will change. If you believe this is unjust and wrong, do something about it.
Shadows can be very alluring. They give us a glimpse of something we cannot quite grasp however fast we run and however hard we look. They reflect a form of reality and lead us forward, but they don’t illuminate us, they make promises that then get broken and disappear as quickly as they came into being. Ultimately, we need substance, we need to be able to touch and feel, to grasp and know that something is real. If we want change, we have to make it happen.