During my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have come across a good number of families who were divided over sexuality.
Most heart-rending would be when visiting a family about the death of their adult son or daughter, I would suddenly realise that there was an unseen partner, not present at this key moment as we planned the funeral service.
It was an innocent question about girlfriend, boyfriend, or children which usually betrayed the guilty secret. ‘Well, he did have a “friend”’ or something similar was the typical embarrassed reply. This ‘friend’ in the days before Civil Partnerships was invariably of the same gender, and was excluded by the family from this vitally important part of grieving a loved one. After a while, I learned to look for them at the funeral. He or she would be the one whose grief was palpable, almost uncontrolled – far surpassing the grief of parents, brothers or sisters – and yet excluded from the family pew.
I would make a point of spending time with him/her after the service, but even then, their words to me were guarded as I tried to include them in a funeral which they had no part in planning.
The situation has improved over the years since then. Civil Partnership and now marriage have secured the right of the partner in a same-gender relationship to be the next of kin, but there are still situations when a loved one of the same-sex is marginalised or excluded.
I have done funerals for a parent of a LGBT son or daughter, where their partner has been marginalised of excluded. The person who would be the best support in a difficult time has been placed at the outer margins of family, or simply excluded completely by others in the family.
The typical line which would accompany this pastoral situation would be something like, “Mum (or dad) never really got used to – you know – the way they were.” The same gender couple were tolerated, occasionally welcomed at family events, but never really accepted into the family. There was no blessing, no celebration, no real acceptance. Now they were separated from each other in this most tender time by the ghost of family disapproval.
And that disapproval is the harmful and hurtful message which the House of Bishops have further enshrined in their recent statement on same-sexpartnerships, to be debated in the General Synod this week.
In recent years, LGBT Christians have put their head above the parapet, risked sanction and exclusion, by joining in the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ in the hope of recognition. Yet now they have been deliberately put back in their place on the margins.
In suggesting ‘maximum freedom’ for Church members, priests and bishops in same-gender partnerships, but refusing to change the church’s approach one iota to same gender relationships, the House of Bishops is saying we will tolerate you, but don’t get too close, don’t expect recognition, and don’t expect us to celebrate with you or bless you in your love – because at the end of the day, you are still living in sin against the will of God and his Church.
Not much of a welcome, is it?
Under their statement, same-gender Christian couples will still be refused public thanksgivings, blessings or acts of affirmation. They will still be pushed to the margins of church life – expected to live in the shadows. The House of Bishops doesn’t want them to get too close for fear of aggravating other members of the family – just like my funeral stories.
Very few people expected the CofE to rewrite its doctrine of marriage to include same-gender marriages anytime soon. What was hoped for, however, was the same recognition which people marrying after divorce received for years, before marriage in church was an option. A service of thanksgiving or blessing which did not rewrite the church’s doctrine of marriage “One man and one woman for life” but which did recognise that real life doesn’t always work out in the way the church expects.
Allowing such a liturgy does not require a change of the doctrine of marriage – it simply requires the same pastoral heart which prompted clergy to respond to divorcees in a more positive way.
What will be debated this week however, will be more of the same line which the CofE has peddled for years. You can’t be blessed – not in public at least – and we won’t sanction giving thanks for your love – but we will tolerate you with our new doctrine of ‘maximum freedom’ for the wretched sinner.
In the light of this report, the CofE remains a sadly fractured family, and yet again, gay and lesbian Christians are being asked to carry the burden of that division – just like the fractured families I have encountered.
Surely there must be a better way?
It is particularly ironic that the next agenda item after the sexuality debate at General Synod this week is entitled “Setting God’s People Free”. And it is particularly sad that the Church doesn’t seem to recognise the link or the contradiction between the two.