An Open Letter to Bishops – Your Pastoral Charge

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Again, Jesus said, “Simon son of John do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said: “Take care of my sheep”’ (John 21:16)

Jesus had just asked Peter a second time “do you truly love me”.  Peter’s answer was the same.  Jesus’ response wasn’t.

The charge Jesus left Peter, the ‘rock’ on whom Jesus said “I will build My church” (Matt 16:18), was first and foremost a pastoral one.  It was not a doctrinal one, or a call for unity but quite simply a charge to care for His people.  All of them.  Each and every of one of us – those that we know, those that we don’t know.  Those who are like us, those who aren’t.  Those we agree with, those that we don’t.  Everyone.  That is, unless you think there are any sheep that Jesus is not concerned about?

‘Take care of my sheep.’

It really is that simple.  A pastoral charge given by the Good Shepherd to the person who would go on to start His Church.  Peter is called to look after Jesus’ sheep and safeguard them from harm.  I would therefore suggest that it is this that you are called to – above all else! Taking care of people.

But I fear that many appear to have forgotten this of late – and instead have got side-lined into prioritising arguments around doctrine, around ‘unity’ and misplaced notions of collegiality.

‘Take care of my sheep.’

It may seem obvious to say, but a shepherd should never knowingly harm his or her sheep – they should never take a decision that they know will leave some vulnerable.  Indeed, quite the opposite – a ‘good’ shepherd will always prioritise protecting those in their care, particularly the most vulnerable, from forces that are seeking to kill and destroy.

So why then, bishops, are you so determined to sacrifice certain sheep on the altar of expediency?  Why are you protecting some and not others?  I for one know that you have been presented with reams of evidence of the harm that LGBT+ people have experienced in their churches, you have heard countless testimonies of how so many have suffered because of the religious teaching they have been subjected to, you have been made aware of the numerous research studies (including one from the UK government itself) stating the mental health outcomes of young LGBT+ people growing up under conservative teaching.  Goodness, even the UN are now commissioning a report to document the harm done by religious teaching on the LGBT+ community.  But for some reason you just don’t seem to want to engage with these facts or prioritise them.  So why, please, is that?

I’d love to know just how much time you have dedicated to listening to the impact of church teaching on LGBT+ people’s lives?  Indeed, how many LGBT+ people have you met who have attempted to take their lives (for there are far too many of them, but they may not feel able to talk to you about it – it would be interesting to reflect on why)?  Can you honestly say you’ve given as much time to listening to LGBT+ people as you have done to arguing about scripture?

Cutting to the chase.  Did you listen to LGBT+ people yourself, or did you try and create a short cut because of time pressures?  Perhaps you chose just to read the executive summary instead?

‘Take care of my sheep.’

Maybe you don’t think this is that important after all.  Or maybe you don’t really believe that LGBT+ people are getting hurt by current church teaching?  I mean, it would be difficult to hear that we have been causing so many people such deep distress, causing young people to hate themselves, leaving them in impossible situations at far too young an age, where they have had to choose between hiding who they are and being accepted and welcomed by their families and friends.

Or perhaps you don’t want to believe these truths because, let’s face it, it’s all a bit awkward?

Or is it because you just don’t care about the harm your teaching is inflicting on certain sheep?

‘Take care of my sheep’ 

Not just some of them.  Not just the religious ones.  Not just the good ones.  Not just the ones that conform to your understanding of what a sheep should look like.

As you may know, I had the great honour of meeting Pope Francis just over 3 years ago.  I was told I would have about 45 seconds to say something and was advised to choose my words carefully.

I wonder what you’d choose to say in my position?  As it happens, I spent many sleepless hours the night before trying to discern what I should say.  Here was a golden opportunity, and I wanted to make the most of it.  In the end I decided it would be best to reach out to his pastor’s heart – for that, ultimately, is what he is.  Christ’s pastor.

So, the next morning after introducing myself I held his hand, looked him in the eyes and said:

“Your Holiness, I grew up being told by the church that I would never be a wife, a mother or a grandmother – and sadly this nearly killed me.  This is my story (giving him my book) and this is some research showing that there are thousands more just like me.”

Before I could say anything else he grabbed both my hands, lowered his head and in what many witnessed as a holy moment, whispered softly “please pray for me – as I will pray for you”.

Two days later I was invited back to the Vatican to hear him castigate leaders who spoke out against LGBT+ people.  Two years later he then also chose to give a speech to various theologians urging them to engage with lived reality of people’s lives, not just ideological doctrine.

‘Take care of my sheep.’

Bishops, we have journeyed long enough on this road regarding whether we LGBT+ people have the right to be treated as equals, and to be honoured for our desire to love and be loved.  You may think that we have travelled it together, but I can assure you that there are many who have been lost along the way as they can no longer cope with the pain of it all.

If we are honest, we have spent hours discussing certain biblical texts, but we have spent precious little time discussing the harm that we have inflicted and continue to inflict on some of our most vulnerable members.

I know that many of you have chosen to stay silent through this ‘time of reflection’, which has sadly only served to strengthen the status quo. I can’t help wonder why you chose to do this? Perhaps it was because you were scared of upsetting some of your flock?  But I have to ask you, what about the sheep you left undefended on the margins?  What about those who needed you to protect them?

So please, as you deliberate this week ensure that you make have one thing central in your mind:

“Take care of my sheep.”! 

And that means all of us!