Church of England Synod - GS2055 case studies

Church of England Synod - GS2055 case studies

The Church of England's Synod's case studies for GS2055 - what can we all learn?

We are pleased to be able to publish for you the “Case Studies” that General Synod members will be discussing tomorrow before the debate on GS2055. The whole exercise has not been well-received: LGBTI+ members are concerned that there is no guarantee of safety in doing group work facilitated by bishops. We have urged people not to attend, and that remains our advice. An alternative gathering of those who will not take part in the groupwork is now proposed.

But what of the “Case Studies”? At first sight these are deeply unsatisfactory. They do seem to problematise LGBTI people and those who engage sympathetically with them. They try to put these people at the centre of a storm, not usually of their own making, and imply that were they not there, the difficulties wouldn’t exist.

However, I want to suggest that this is not the only way to read these case studies. On another level, they are case studies that are nothing to do with LGBTI people, their lives and loves, or the engagement that other people have with them. They are case studies in, respectively, congregational spiritual immaturity, an incompetent clergywoman, a cowardly bishop, an avoidant parish, and serious and unpleasant parochial homophobia. These are the problems revealed by these case studies.

At one level, therefore, these have nothing to add to the debate that will follow the groupwork. What is worrying is that these have been offered in the belief that it is the LGBTI people in the middle of the incompetence, immaturity, ill-will, prejudice and hatred that are somehow the subjects of the matter. I don’t think that they are. They are tragic, distressing, angering stories of a church that has lost the capacity for empathy and love if people’s personal lives do not conform to a reassuring heterosexist norm. Here are my brief comments on each of the cases; you must read them and decide for yourselves if they tell us what I think we are meant to find in them, or if they actually throw rather more light on a dysfunctional institution flailing about and mishandling and damaging people because of its incapacity to behave in a grown-up way when talking about sex.

The first case study is about a parish that hasn’t learnt yet to accommodate difference in the opinions of the various members of the congregation and the PCC. The difficulty is not one about sexuality, but about how to treat diversity. Dogmatism and an insistence on one way of understanding something that is not an essential of the faith is a sign of an immature community. The vicar is clearly unable to cope with a curate who does not agree with him. As a PCC member I would be looking to take attention away from the presenting issue, which is not the issue, and get people to talk to each other about how and why they can’t accept and live with a diversity of views in the parish.

Julie, the rector in the second case, needs to step back and take some basic lessons in the law about when she can and cannot withhold the sacrament. She has gone too far. Where is the Archdeacon in this mess? There is no need for the Bishop to be attending the PCC, at least until the Archdeacon has failed to resolve this matter. There is a strong sense that the rector is not behaving in an adult way. I am not surprised at the threat of a CDM complaint. Again, this is about the exercise of power unaccountably and outside the clear frameworks set for it. It is a case for training and guidance of a rector who is too inexperienced to understand what rights parishioners have. There is also a signal failure of what meagre pastoral skills Julie exercises. How has she dealt with this couple? Where is her empathy? This really isn’t about sexuality – the problem is the inadequacy of the clergywoman in question.

The Bishop in the third case study has signalled clearly that he (and it is a he) does not want to know anything about the details of this matter. He is absolving himself of responsibility by pushing it all back on Michael. If Michael offers pastoral ministry and informal prayer the number of people in the room is irrelevant. Others among the eighty or so guests my wish to pray informally as well. There is no problem here. And the bishop can rest easy knowing that he hasn’t had to do anything as brave as really support one of his priests.

In the fourth case, Robert has realised the PCC has never thought about these matters or discussed them before. As a PCC member I am glad that he wants to have an open discussion about this, in which we can hear what he thinks, and he can hear the various opinions in the room. I don’t know what these are, because our last incumbent was so frightened of talking about sex that we never did. All out LGBTI members are “under the radar”. Everyone knows who they are, an they contribute greatly to the parish and its life, but we are never able to talk to them or listen to them because we never talk about it. I am a bit nervous, but relieved that we are going to start a conversation that seems to be unnecessarily difficult compared to the way we deal with this at work where we all have diversity and inclusion training and discriminating is illegal.

The church in the last example is a hotbed of homophobia. It needs rebuking for that. This is nothing to do with the merits or otherwise od David, and his own convictions. It is a congregation with some very toxic views. The challenge will be to find a diocese that is brave enough to say anything strong enough. How do they propose to deal with this – what teaching will they employ? I am not aware of any thought-through anti homophobia training programme in any diocese. Indeed, I rather think that any institution that can absolve itself of institutional homophobia by fiat like the Church of England does, will not be able to find an effective way to challenge this at a parochial level. Homophobia is best understood from the perspective of those who experience it – there is no sign that this is going to be the diocese’s approach here. The problem is the church’s homophobia, and the diocese’s unpreparedness to deal with it and the lack of pastoral care and support for that congregation. The problem in this case (besides the congregation) is the unseen actor, the diocese. Why are the churchwardens being left to call this meeting by themselves? Again, where, in a vacancy, is the Area Dean in all this, where is the Archdeacon?

This is how I read these cases. You must make your own mind up.

Jeremy Pemberton
14th February 2017

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