Thursday 26 May 2011

Archbishops haunted by a voice from the grave...

So now we know what really happened.
A bad tempered Archbishop shouting and losing his temper; mature, professional people being reduced to tears; back room deals or ecclesiastical arm-twisting in the toilets; all to exclude a gay priest and a pro-gay priest from being appointed to a top job.
It is hardly the atmosphere that one would expect to find amongst the Church of England’s spiritual leaders as they met to choose the next Bishop of Southwark – one of the most senior appointments in the CofE.
Before yesterday, many of us who were concerned by reports and rumours thought that we knew.  But last night The Guardian published a damning account of the last year’s secret meeting by one of the main participants – the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Colin Slee.
I knew Colin during my years working in Southwark Diocese.  He was a complex character – sometimes brash and bombastic – at other times deeply pastoral – but always a man of huge integrity.  He said what he thought, and told it like was, all through his ministry.  The Church of England has been lessened by his untimely death last November.
But it appears that he has left one last parting to gift to the church that both inspired and frustrated him – the gift of his account of the 2 days last year when the Archbishops and the Crown Nominations Commission met to choose a new Bishop for South London.  And now, following continuing disarray in the House of Bishops on the issue, his daughter has made the courageous decision to make the account public.
His account is not news to Lambeth Place.  It is the same account which Colin gave to the Archbishops’ enquiry which was investigating the leaks which brought this shameful process out into the open.  What is new is that ordinary church members and the public at large can now gain a glimpse behind doors that are usually guarded with such secrecy.
It is not a pretty picture.
When I first read the article last night, I posted a link to it on Twitter with the words “homophobic bullying” partly because I had also just seen a video account of such bullying that led a 15 year old to take his own life last year.  The Guardian article smacked of ecclesiastical bullying, with the Archbishops at the helm.  I also know some of the other people at the meeting.  They are strong, self-assured and mature individuals, and the thought that any of them could be reduced to tears shows be how thoroughly unpleasant the atmosphere must have been. 
But as I have reflected, I have realised how the reality is so much more complex than that.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is not homophobic.  Nor, I am sure is the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.  Therefore by definition, they cannot be accused of being homophobic bullies.
So where did this all come from?
The real issue is the homophobic bullying that goes on day in and day out in the Church.  Jeffrey John has experienced this throughout his ministry and particularly following his abortive appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003.  Other gay people have been systematically told that their ministry is not welcome in the church - or they have been told to keep quiet about their sexuality and relationships – to live a lie or face the consequences.
Even straight Christians such as myself, have been told that we are unfit for ministry and are wrecking God’s Church– just because we are advocating the acceptance of same-sex relationships in the church.  Once at General Synod, an Anglican Church leader who really ought to know better, implied to me in public that I should be careful about my salvation (a thinly veiled threat if ever I heard one) and should remember the reality of hell.
If I, a mere nobody in the structures of the Church of England, can be on the receiving end of such pressure, what must it be like for Archbishops whose private views are so at odds with the repressive policies they feel they have to uphold.
And there is the heart of the issue.  As a church, we have allowed homophobic bullying to become part of our institution – and allowed that institutional homophobia to corrode our leaders, our policies, our public statements, and our private decisions.
In the same way that the Steven Laurence enquiry came to the land-mark conclusion that the police were ‘institutionally racist’, so any independent enquiry into the Church of England would conclude that we are ‘institutionally homophobic’, and Colin Slee’s account of those 2 days last year proves it.
We have allowed the voice of institutional homophobia in the church to turn good people and gifted leaders into bad tempered bullies, desperate to defend the status quo, whatever that takes.  
It reminds me of a quote which I came across last year when I was doing some research before a speaking engagement.  It said,
"Considering all the evil that exists in the world, the fact that all of religion's condemnation is focused on expressing disapproval of two people loving each other proves just how evil religion is."   
Until we make a determined decision to be less ‘religious’ and more Christian – to be less concerned with upholding our corrupted institutions, and more concerned with following Jesus Christ, we will continue to allow our church to act like a bad tempered bully instead of embodying the loving God who sent his Son so to bring us life in all its fullness.
It is time for change.


  1. Benny, I commend you for a fine post. The quote and your final paragraph are excellent.

  2. Many thanks Grandmere Mimi.

    I pray for the day when there is no need to write such things.

  3. My heart breaks at the amount of time churches spend arguing about people who love each other and commit to faithful relationships - time which would be far better spent in building the Kingdom.

    May I ask the source of the quote?

  4. It is attributed to Jan deBoer but I don't know any more than that.

    I found it on a website which features anti-religious quotes and it is striking how many of them arise for the Church's condemnation of same-sex relationships.

  5. I'm not surprised. To many in younger generations, same-sex relationships are a non-issue, and they are puzzled and, in the end, put off by the attitude of far too many Christians.

  6. A bully is someone who uses their power to coerce someone else to do something they do not want to do. Do the archbishops fall into this category? Jesus invited people to follow his ways and he was bullied unto death.

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