Being who I am. An essay on human sexuality and the Church of England

Colin Coward

The question I heard the Church asking long ago in my youth and that I internalised and that continues to haunt me because people are still posing the question, is: “Am I allowed to be who I am, feel what I feel and think what I think?”

The question is rarely asked directly but is constantly present as an indirect question, posed in reports of meetings, in articles and letters in the Church of England Newspaper and the Church Times, in sermons and books, online, on Facebook, in blogs, by bishops and priests and lay people.

Am I allowed to be gay, am I allowed to love who I love, am I allowed to feel desire for whom I choose, am I allowed to think outside what still seems to be a narrow, dogmatic, Church-think box?

I live as I am despite the questions in the ether. I know who I am and what I do and don’t believe. I know what happened in 1957 when I was 12 and I fancied like crazy another boy in my class and knew there and then that this attraction was for life. I knew then, when I was confirmed a few months later, that I had made the choice between my desires and the prejudice against homosexuality that was the traditional, orthodox teaching of the Church, a Church that seemed to believe that God and Jesus and the Bible were of one mind in rejecting homosexuality, identifying it as evil, a great sin. I knew then that that was stupid, rubbish, prejudice. I knew then that I categorically did not believe in that kind of God. But that God has never gone away and never ceased to be present in the Church.

Being gay became an intensely pleasurable ingredient of my life and a deeply shameful ingredient of my life, these opposites co-existing in my mind and heart and soul. How did I resolve this impossible conundrum?

I was an Anglican. I gave myself the freedom, and the Church gave me the freedom when Honest to God was published six years later in 1963, to overlook the concrete, dogmatic realty ascribed by “The Church” to God, Jesus and the Bible. They simply weren’t true in the way Christians seemed to be required to believe they were true. Why, then, did I continue to attend church?

Because my church was generous towards me, tolerant, caring, my surrogate home, the community where I met boys I fancied, where I could dress up and look swish in the sanctuary and process around and think to myself that I looked more immaculate than anyone else.

Church was the place where fabulous fantasy stories were acted out, in an almost life-size stable at Christmas and in the exciting darkness of the church porch on Easter Eve when the new fire was lit. It was theatrical and dramatic and a tad pagan.

But did I believe? Did I not believe? No one asked. The question wasn’t of concern to the congregation or the vicar. The acting out, the social network, the youth club, the boys in the choir, my peer group, the drama group, the Christmas bazaar, these were the elements of my Christian practice and the reason why I became so involved in the church.

In 1967, four years after Honest to God, John Robinson published But That I Can’t Believe. The title was enough to confirm my position. In answer to his question, do we need a God? Robinson quoted an opinion poll in which 84% said emphatically that there is a God but in their answers to other questions, showed that in terms of that God they were practical atheists. That was the Church of England, that was. What happened to that Church?

What happened to Church that asked questions in an open way, a way authentic in my mind to the Gospels, to Jesus, and to the God of my experience. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures who names God’s self “I shall be who I shall be.” I can identify with that God. The God who poses the question “Who are YOU coming to be?” Who are you, really, truly, madly, deeply, authentically? What is you core, your essence? What is your journey about? Where are you heading? It is always a journey towards, and can only be lived by being as profoundly present in the now as it is possible to be.

It is enough, says this God, to be yourself, your true self. Today’s Church talks a lot of about Jesus and our identity in Christ, and I have no idea what the Church means. The content is a void because Jesus and the Christ are not the same thing, but dramatically different expressions of identity, one human, the other impossibly divine – unless we share, innately, that divinity as well as the humanity.

As well as being true to yourself, being Christian (or, to put it more openly, being a person of faith and spirituality) means spending your life working out who “I AM,” both in our person and in the context of ego eimi, created in the image and likeness of God, sacred, holy, divine, living in this impossible to really imagine unconditional love, infinite and intimate, infused in the universe, integral to creation and evolution, loved by the integral presence in the here and now that loves unconditionally.

But the Church of England as it presents its understanding of God no longer seems to “know” that Jesus or that God. The Church of England doesn’t teach about or proclaim that God. The Church teaches a diminished, shrunken God and a love that is conditional on behaviour and performance and, for me, a denial of my foundational identity relying on a reading of its manual, the Bible, that is in part literal and infantile.

The Church of England still teaches as if God is a being somewhere, with discernible anthropomorphic characteristics, a being who issues commands and has a set of red lines that have been communicated to the human race dogmatically and once and for all. They can be read infallibly from the Bible, dogmatically in the case of injunctions against homosexuality, and can be implemented and imposed on categories like our gender, our sexuality, and the nature of marriage. So although I am a married gay man, I can’t be because the Bible says I can’t be because God says I can’t be – and we the Church hierarchs know this is true. Really?

In the present moment, as friends who are trying to engage with the Living in Love and Faith process tell me, sexuality and gender continue to be discussed as if there are two opposite (and unequal) versions of reality, of what God allows or doesn’t allow people to be and do. How can those involved, people with reasonable awareness and common sense, not see the prejudice and stupidity that underlies this stance?

I feel sadness and anger. After fifty years of reports discussing my sexuality and the gender of some of my friends, the Church of England still lacks the courage to cross the red line my heart and soul had the guts to transgress at the age of 12, opting for life in all its fullness, with increasingly gay abandon.

Reprinted with the author’s permission