Challenging power and privilege
February is LGBT History month. The theme this year is ‘Peace, Activism & Reconciliation’. In faith, as in politics, there seems to be much that divides us. In a recent conversation with a friend and colleague who is also a Muslim activist for equality, he mentioned that he felt that, “people have begun uniting around what divides us, not what unites us.”
This is certainly true in politics, and I think it possibly true in faith circles, too. It is easy to be discouraged by the increase in inflammatory and abusive language and the growing trend of othering people who do not identify with the mainstream groups, who enjoy both power and privilege. However, I think it is so very important to look back at where we have been and how far we have come.
If you look at the wall chart produced by the LGBT History Month team, it is rather striking to see how much progress we have made as a society in the last 3 or 4 decades. “Homosexual acts” (sic) were decriminalised as recently as 1967 in England & Wales (1980 in Scotland, and 1992 in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man). Section 28 was only repealed in 2000 in Scotland (2003 in England and Wales and 2006 on the Isle of Man), and then Civil partnerships are as recent as 2005, while the Marriage Act (Same-sex couples) only came into effect in 2014. While these changes are long overdue, and arguably should never have been necessary, that is a phenomenal amount of change in a relatively short time.
The history of LGBT+ people in the Church is also a long one, with joys and challenges, but let us look at some encouraging examples in the past; such as people like the Revd. Stewart Headlam, who raised half of Oscar Wilde’s bail money (not because he agreed with homosexuality, but because he believed that Wilde was a victim of injustice), or Bishop Mervyn Stockwood’s liberal theology and inclusion of gay people in leadership in the Diocese of Southwark in the 1970s (he even blessed a homosexual relationship). Many of our forebears would never have dreamed of entire denominations that proclaimed themselves LGBT+ inclusive, such as the Metropolitan Community Church, or that there was even the possibility of mainstream conversations in all denominations about the need for greater inclusion of LGBT+ people.
In more recent years, we’ve seen such notable moments as OneBodyOneFaith successfully getting General Synod to not take note of the House of Bishops’ report on the Shared Conversations process, and within the last four months, we have seen the letter from the Oxford Bishops to ‘Clothe yourselves in love’, calling for inclusion and respect, and the publication of the ‘Guidance for Gender Transition Services’.
All of these changes would have been beyond the imagining of those who have gone before us; those who fought for equality but did not see it. In one sense, presenting all of these changes in two paragraphs is encouraging, but it also does not portray how difficult and costly they have been, to individuals and to the LGBT+ community. They have involved years of intense theological study (and in some cases clinical studies), and the tireless and self-sacrificial campaigning of both LGBT+ Christians and their allies. Often, LGBT+ people have been asked to engage in processes that involve making themselves more vulnerable than they already are, opening themselves to both criticism and judgement, in the name of seeking understanding. Many of these processes have been frustrating, but some have produced positive results.
For those who have helped with all of these achievements, we remain eternally grateful. They, in turn, form part of a greater societal movement toward full equality, such as women clergy, women in senior Church leadership, a recognition in our faith communities of the need to engage with and involve people of other faiths or no faith, and discussions about how to make Church governance more accessible to people from other cultures and ethnicities.
It is right that we should take courage, but it is also right that we remember that there is much yet to do. Every step forward is met with a great outcry from opponents to progress and inclusion. Often, the language of ‘a betrayal of Biblical values’ or ‘departing from Christian Orthodoxy’ is used. Sometimes they revert to the overly simplistic interpretation of binary gender identities from the creation story or the banal ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.
However, we know that contextualising Scripture is not a betrayal of Biblical Values, but vital to keep alive the faith … if we don’t contextualise it, we risk making it an outdated book and consigning it to history. Some examples where we have successfully contextualised our understanding of Scripture are recognising that slavery is not God-ordained, that no ethnic group is superior (or inferior), and that women are not to be ‘owned’, silenced or oppressed. We continue to seek to make Scripture relevant to our societies, and in doing so, continue to throw open the doors of faith to all, so that all may know the Good News.
The Gospel for this Sunday (17 February 2019) is Luke 6:17-26. Jesus speaks about blessings for the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, excluded and insulted. Jesus shows us repeatedly that He is on the side of the people without power or privilege and the people who society rejects. Knowing this, our call is both to claim and to share the Good News ... the Good News of Christ’s salvation, and His theology of inclusion.
And so, this LGBT History Month, we remember the Good News of all that has already been accomplished. We remember, too, the Good News of our salvation. We remember the hard work of those who have gone ahead of us, and we commit ourselves to continuing the work that furthers the Kingdom of God, by making our worship spaces and our church structures accessible and available to all.
As it is LGBT History Month, do take a look at some of the stories of people who have been with us over the years, in our project “What does OneBodyOneFaith mean to me,” which you can see on this page. We are a member organisation, and we will continue to work hard for change. We do hope that you will join us in this important mission.
Andy Marshall, Trustee