On Friday afternoon, forty one people gathered forming a huge rectangle in the room on the top floor of the Lambeth Palace library. Thirty four were representatives of progressive organisations and networks seeking the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the Church of England.
I think the meeting represents a turning point in the decades-long movement in the Church of England towards achieving the full and equal inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in our church – but although progress may now be made, the future is still very uncertain.
The invitation invited us to “a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the LLF Staff Team” for “a further engagement opportunity ahead of the meeting of General Synod in November, so that we are able to share with you the intentions of the bishops and so you are able to share your thoughts and concerns with us.”
Twenty three members of the progressive organisations met before the meeting for lunch in the cafe of the Garden Museum next to Lambeth Palace. We assumed the Archbishop would do most of the speaking, but this turned out not to be the case.
The meeting was chaired by David Porter, sitting across the circle from the Archbishop. After introducing ourselves around the circle, we were invited to speak, and over the next nearly ninety minutes, well over half of our representatives did indeed speak, some from personal experience, some about the anger in our community, some about their total shock at reading the General Synod paper GS 2328, some about the Synod process, some about years of frustration, some about our ultimate goal and some about Christian essence. Present were straight allies, long-time LGBTQIA+ advocates, and members both of long established and very recently formed groups.
It was one of the most significant, positive meetings I have ever attended in the Church of England. People’s contributions were universally thoughtful, heartfelt, and personal. Anger, frustration, and disappointment were expressed, plus repeatedly, disbelief at the content of GS 2328 and the retrograde step that it marks. I didn’t keep a list but I think one person at least from every organisation spoke.
There is no way to describe what next happened at the meeting without attributing remarks. At the end of the meeting I asked David Porter what the protocol for writing about the meeting was. Wasn’t it in the invitation, he said. No, it wasn’t, I replied. I’d thought of raising the question before the meeting got underway, but didn’t. I’ve got into trouble over this before, and maybe I’m about to get into trouble again.
At the end of the nearly ninety minutes, David Porter invited the Archbishop of Canterbury to respond, briefly. We had overrun the time allocated. David gave him two minutes. The Archbishop was objected, clearly (and understandably) angry. He had been listening to us almost without intervention for all this time. He was petulant (putting it nicely), saying that in that case it was a waste of time responding at all and closing his folder. “That’s it, I give up, if you’re not going to listen to me.” Archbishop Justin said he’d got a list of 30 points – no (consulting his pad), actually 15 points he wanted to respond to. David extended the time, calm was restored and the Archbishop began to go through his list. One of the progressive group members started to speak in reaction to the first point and the Archbishop responded angrily. The person, in a vulnerable state, burst into tears and eventually left the room.
The mood calmed. Archbishop Justin became much more positive and affirmative. “You are as firmly within the grace of God as I am, as is everyone who looks for that grace. Those who were here this morning also have that grace.” He talked about the Anglican Communion, saying he knows the Communion better than anyone else in this room, having visited every Province. Our relationships with the Communion are emotional for many people, both maintaining them and dealing with those Provinces and leaders where homophobic laws and attitudes are dominant. There was only one black progressive representative present. He spoke powerfully about the conservative homophobic forces in the Communion, their dangerous support for anti-gay bills and the myths that flourish.
I had asked early in the meeting what kind of God we believed in, do you believe in, does the Church of England believe in? Does the Church want to grant equal status to abusive versions of Christianity – misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, or can it focus on life in all its fulness, God as unconditional, intimate, infinite love? And what happened to the Archbishops commitment to a radical new Christian inclusion – of which there is no mention in the current documents? The Archbishop thought I had directed my comments personally at him, and staring intensely and angrily at me, defended himself, accusing me. In these few minutes he undid all the good that had built through the meeting to that moment.
He resumed going through his 15 points. There was no acknowledgment of the shock and distress in the room and no response to the heartfelt, personal stories and experiences that many had recounted. It was like being addressed by an automaton. The Archbishop defended and justified himself, setting out to persuade us that there was no alternative to the various timelines that accorded with Synod process and with likely the outcomes were the process to be delayed.
The issue here, said Archbishop Justin, is the how, not the what. It’s simple really. Over the next five years no one will change their minds, and equal marriage will be turned down because of the requirement for a two-thirds majority in Synod. He would prefer a short period, eighteen months, of experimentation, if Synod can be persuaded. Then dioceses can be persuaded under Canon B5A, say by 2006, and in 2027/2028 Synod could vote to decide. Those familiar with Synod elections warned that the result of the next elections are likely to result in a more conservative Synod.
Archbishop Justin said he was totally and unequivocally committed to the goal of a radical new Christian inclusion that embraced LBTQIA+ people and he was surprised and shocked that we ever doubted that. A number of people said they had never heard him say that before. If only he had said this loud and clear before now, it would have made a huge difference. Indeed it would, but it has until now clearly been too difficult to say. He was surprised that people didn’t know this is his position. He compared himself with all other bishops saying he was making the most diverse appointments. I’m not sure I believed him but I do believe his commitment to equality, to ending homophobia, transphobia, prejudice and abuse. His statement to us will make a difference, of course, and will reinforce conservative suspicion and hostility.
One of those present who had participated in recent group work said the conservatives had changed not an inch in the six years since LLF was launched or in the eight years since the shared conversations. Not much has changed since 2014, the last time I was in a meeting at Lambeth Palace, when it was said we were being told nothing that wasn’t also being said to the conservatives. I blogged about this and was banned from any future meetings. The ban was suspended on Friday but might be restored instantly.
Information was given during the afternoon, especially from members of the General Synod Gender and Sexuality Group, about the likely process at General Synod. There is genuine concern that if the House of Bishops motion were to be defeated the whole LLF process might be derailed. Amendments to the resolution proposed by the House of Bishops would be crucial, and if passed, could rescue the situation. This is going to require skilled coordination by the GSGSG members, and is indeed an activity at which they have become very skilled.
This was the most significant meeting to date I have ever attended in England. I recognise the huge significance of the Archbishop being present together with thirty four very committed members of progressive organisations, making himself vulnerable as we have often made ourselves vulnerable, all of us passionate about the Church of England, its life and health, and the damaging effect of continuing conservative homophobic prejudice and abuse.
The presence and witness of thirty four people at the meeting all wanting the very best Christian vision and truth for the Church was potent, but Justin gave the impression that he had been totally unaffected by it. It was as if he was the victim, and maybe he was, since he had been assailed by a smaller number of conservative evangelicals in the same room that morning. His inability to recognise the depth of anger and hurt among those gathered in the room and his failure to respond shocked me. I’m not sure what effect this will have on what happens at Synod the week after next. Thank goodness some elements of the Church of England function in ways that exemplify a radical new Christian inclusion, life in all its fullness and God whose love is unconditional, intimate and infinite.