Bishops, where on earth are you?

Bishops, where on earth are you?

One of my childhood dreams was to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was on my way to celebrate Mass for the Feast of St Stephen on Boxing Day last year when the BBC News Alert brought me the news that, if I was to meet Archbishop Tutu, it would certainly not be this side of heaven…! When I think back I wonder what it was, specifically, that drew me to Archbishop Tutu. But when I stop and think deeply, it becomes quite clear. It’s because at a very basic level, he was one who lived like Jesus. Like the best of Saints, Tutu was no doubt imperfect but faithful – and most importantly as a deacon, priest and bishop, he was faithful to the people Christ bought with the shedding of his blood. 

What was attractive about Desmond Tutu was his joy in the Lord, what we might call the joy of the Gospel. But more tangible than his joy was his love for the world that God had made – and the beauty, worth and dignity of all God’s people without reserve. It is odd to me, as I reflect on his life, how rare that unmistakable quality, of love, appears in so much of the Church’s leadership today! 

The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar once wrote a book under the title ‘Love alone is credible’. Without love, no aspect of Christian truth can communicate itself with integrity, or attractiveness – without love, the Gospel loses its ability to quench our thirst and fill our hunger, without love lived out – embodied – made a verb in and through us, the Body of Christ, Christian faith loses its integrity in the world because love incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended is at the centre of what we proclaim. There are consequences of course to a church in which love is scarce…the writer of 1 John reminds us that: ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.’ (1 John 3:14). Death is the serious consequence of love’s scarcity. 

As I write this, Anglican Bishops are gathering in Canterbury from all over the world. From the 26th July to the 8thAugust those who have chosen to attend the Lambeth Conference (not all have) will be exploring various questions, not least on the subject of human dignity. Already, we have discovered that this will be no open conversation – but one which appeared at first to circumnavigate any radical option for inclusion in regards to human sexuality, and the dignity and worth of all people. For example, it is hard, near impossible to really test the mind of the Church, when our Bishops are being asked to vote on a series of ‘Lambeth Calls’ in a way which offers rather bland responses, and to which the option to vote ‘no’ had to be fought out. It is hard for the Spirit to move when the doors to the Spirit’s movement are locked firmly shut by the misplaced crozier of Canterbury. So once again, we who make up the LGBTQ+ children of God are left wondering just how much our lives matter to those who are, apparently, chief shepherds and pastors of our souls…who, as the ordinal says are ‘to have a special care for the poor, the outcast and those who are in need…to confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world.’ 

As a priest in the Church of England I know how impossible it is to live up to what the ordinal demands of us. But I hope I would know what to do in a situation where the violent forces of the world so clearly land upon the vulnerable lives of a group of people – and I hope that I would place my body, and the authority of my office, between the violence and God’s children. That I would raise my voice to protect and safeguard those who are told repeatedly that their lives and love are somehow less than, inferior to, and less sacred than heterosexuals. I long for the kind of leadership the Church saw in Archbishop Ramsey who in 1967 spoke in the House of Lords to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country – or of Archbishop Randall Davidson who in 1922 referred to House of Commons legislation to ban lesbianism as ‘a pile of nonsense’. The Church seemed to know how to be Christ’s voice in the Nation then. 

I know many of those attending the Lambeth Conference would have said something positive about Desmond Tutu when he died, many I am confident lauded him and spoke of the inspirational figure that Archbishop Tutu was – fewer however, want to take a serious lead from his life. It was Tutu, the father of a married, lesbian priest who said:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

It was also Tutu who said in 2010 at a United Nations high-level panel:

"All over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. They face violence, torture and criminal sanctions because of how they live and who they love. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy." 

And it was also Archbishop Tutu who shocked many by saying:

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, sorry – I would much rather go to the other place!” 

Many of our elders in the faith have spoken about the road to hell being paved with the skulls of bishops, priests and deacons – they did not have an Archbishop like Desmond Tutu in mind. Rather, I am sure they spoke of those who so regularly turn a blind eye to the obvious injustices right before their eyes and in which they are totally complicit. It is hard to come to a place where repeatedly, we who are LGBTQ+ are reminded by those who are shepherds to us, that our lives do not matter to them nor to the Church. Our lives do, of course, matter to God – though this is harder to believe each time our Churches fail to embody this for us. 

It seems to me important, that as we fight and work for true inclusion, we simultaneously call out what we see. We must call what our bishops are doing in England what it is – evil, spiritually negligent, an abdication of pastoral responsibility, a renunciation of ordination vows, and a failure to stand with God whose love knows no bounds. For me, this is not actually about marriage equality although I want it today. It is about something much more simple. It is about what is asked of us as the baptized children of God – it is about standing with the least of these against the forces of violence, exclusion and injustice. In a world where we die for who we are, it is not unreasonable to ask: 

Bishops, where on earth are you? 

Jarel Robinson-Brown, Co-Chair