by the Revd Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College Cambridge, and Assistant Curate, St John the Divine, Kennington
Over the last few days the official Twitter account for the Lambeth conference has sprung into action again with various quotes from bishops – and other well-meaning contributors – about how excellent the whole experience was, all starting with “I’m giving thanks for the Lambeth Conference…” But it’s fair to say that the Lambeth Conference was not without controversy.
One of those delights came well before the ill-fated attempts to include Lambeth I.10 and its homophobia into proceedings: it was the denial of invitations to spouses of bishops who happened to be of the same sex. While all active bishops were invited, with their spouses, this hospitality wasn’t extended to same-sex spouses.
The former Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, spelled it out just in case we hadn’t got the drift: ‘it would be inappropriate for same-sex spouses to be invited to the conference’. And that was that.
Despite pressure to relent (and, dare I say, repent), the Archbishop of Canterbury and his acolytes remained firm – no same-sex spouses allowed. Of course, this created a huge headache for the University of Kent, and it is somewhat inconceivable that that body would want to host another conference in the future that took such a rabidly and visibly homophobic position in who it invites, let alone in what it discusses. All, as ever, in the name of unity; and all, ultimately, damaging and somewhat pointless. In the end, a number of same-sex spouses were invited and housed – free of charge – by the university, there was a pride march and the presence of the same-sex spouses was celebrated by those present who didn’t find the need to throw gay people under the bus for the sake of spurious unity claims.
The official homophobia, however, does not come without cost. The husband of the Bishop of Toronto put it acutely, and painfully:
“I’d been out for 30 years. This was the first time I had been subject to such discrimination since then, and it felt very personal. I felt like a teenager having to navigate my sexuality all over again.”
Hardly the life in all its fullness that the church claims to offer, however hospitable individual bishops and their spouses, and the university, might have been.
And yet this sorry (and entirely avoidable) episode highlighted something which, as we move towards February and whatever is ‘offered’ by the bishops, becomes ever more important – the idea of good allyship. The sad reality is that, for all the warm words, the church is lagging behind on this in a very big way.
Allyship is not that difficult to understand, or even to support, at least in principle. Put simply, it requires those who are not victims of oppression to stand shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity, with those who are. It requires them to recognise their own power and privilege, and use it to build up, rather than cast down. It requires them to listen, rather than find the need to talk all the time. It requires them to amplify the voices of the voiceless.
And yet it comes at a cost, and time and again we have seen that those who profess the warm words are infrequently willing to take the fall. It requires allies to take just a hint of the heat that the oppressed might feel, and yet we know – from bitter experience – that allyship becomes a performative dance rather than a concrete reality. The time for this charade to end is now.
It’s not only in the structural oppression of LGBTQI people that this matters – it matters too for the continued oppression of people of colour, of women, of the disabled, and of anyone who faces ongoing hostility, however benignly disguised, of the institutional church. Yet a very brief glimpse over the recent history of LGBTQI oppression shows a huge number of examples of where allyship is ‘this far, but no further’ – the point of ‘no further’ so often aligning with the point where it might demand a real cost from alleged allies.
To return to the Lambeth Conference, it is a scandal that straight people who call themselves allies were willing to participate in the openly exclusionary spouses programme, whether as speakers or as participants themselves. There are surely exceptions to this – those who were public about their discomfort but felt better able to challenge the oppression within rather than without, or those who went having openly consulted with their LGBTQI counterparts. But in reality, how often did this happen?
We see it, too, in the way that ‘supportive’ straight people far too often drop back at the last moment, before it might cost them the honorary canonry in a cathedral, or a place at the top table, or the ‘respect and thanks’ of the diocesan bishop. We see it when straight ‘allies’ at a diocesan conference are willing to miss sexuality off the list of things of which the church should repent, because it’s ‘too difficult’. Too difficult for who, exactly?
And we see it in the writing of bishops who – whilst unusually willing to actually have an opinion on this – nonetheless ‘commit to abiding by whatever decision is made’ on LGBTQI people by their colleagues. So far, but not too far. LGBTQI people are important, but not that important.
Little of this is genuine allyship – it is a willingness to be brave just up to the point where you might have to face the consequences, and at that point to throw LGBTQI people back in the lions’ den. However it is dressed up – as a need to be a ‘focus of unity’ [sic], as respect for due process, as wanting to ‘work more from the inside’, or as the need for ‘more time’ – all of these have another name: cowardice. And this is a moral cowardice built squarely on the backs of LGBTQI people – a cowardice with consequences.
Now that’s not to say there aren’t serious and genuine allies in the church, who are willing to go to the wall for their oppressed friends. But it is a call to those who profess to support us to look into their own hearts and ask whether they are really willing to take the fall for us? Are they willing to educate themselves? Are they willing to take our place when the disciplinary is launched or when licenses are threatened? Are we really worth it?
Just imagine if bishops were committed to being true allies. Imagine if the Archbishop of Canterbury was. Imagine how prophetic it would be if actions actually aligned with words.
Allies are the way that battles are won, that systematic oppression is dismantled and that life changes for those at the receiving end of oppressive structures. Allies are those who come alongside and who recognise that the imago Dei in each and every person demands a response, and not just nice rhetoric. Allies are those who might encourage the LGBTQI clergy who have ‘managed OK’ and who don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ to raise their heads above the parapet and be counted too.
Rhetoric and words mean very little, if we’re not willing to see them through. The test is coming for those who profess to be true friends of LGBTQI people. Will you rise to the challenge? We – and surely God too – are watching.
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