Conspiracy Again


My ‘Conspiracy’ comments on Bishop Devine’s lecture ignited a lengthy sequence of comments – including a dialogue with Phil about the church’s treatment of gay people. You may be interested in exploring that because he moved me out of the comfort zone. I thought it had reached a natural end but maybe not …


In the final comment of the sequence, Kimberly neatly [and I think correctly] summarises the issue as

Phil’s concern that church sometimes denies the full humanity of gay people, and David’s concern that no one argument (either a particular view of scripture, or a particular way of expressing issues of justice and inclusion) trump all others without an attempt at mutual understanding.’


When I worked in Northern Ireland, I found myself sharing a church with some people whose views I found difficult, at times not recognizable in gospel terms and – at the extreme end – abhorrent. Some of them, I know, regarded my views as dangerously liberal. I wouldn’t use the word ‘discrimination’ but at times I paid a price for positions I adopted and argued for. I wasn’t seen as altogether ‘safe’.


I think that part of what lies behind our difficulties is the nature of the church – at times untidy to the point of incoherence. It is neither debating society nor democracy. Some of it is people who can hold and articulate strongly-held and opposing views – evenly matched intellectual, spiritual and emotional fire-power. But more of it is all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time stumbling about trying – as the first disciples did – to work out what it was all about. There will be incoherence and incompleteness – that is what the Spirit of Truth is for – rather too much standing for the wrong things and missing the chances of becoming what we are meant to be.


That doesn’t excuse failure to understand, care, include .. It just means that people haven’t got there yet. It explains why I see my task as trying to help a divided church hold together as it learns to find the way forward in this issue.


  1. Thanks – John
    It seems to me that churches are always an uneasy mixture of the unprincipled, the pragmatic and the principled. One hopes that, if they are moving, they are moving from the former towards the latter. Not least because it is only when we gather around a shared picture of what is ‘right’ that there is any stability.

    The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ position is clearly unstable. It is destabilised the first time anybody asks or tells.

    The present situation is equally unstable because it is threatens to become unmanageable every time the church chooses to do or not do something – the consecration of Gene Robinson and the failure to consecrate Jeffrey John are both destabilising in that sense. Tho’ it can of course be argued that the Jeffrey John response was done in the interests of stability.

    So it’s on the agenda and can’t/shouldn’t be got off it until we arrive an end point

  2. I’ve only just discovered this so I may be missing the starting point of the discussion. My impression of the various positions is that for many Scottish Episcopalians the starting point is a preference for the pre-1998 ‘don’t ask, don’t tell approach’, which was not satisfactory but permitted many gay people to at least ‘survive’ in the church. In England, I am not so sure what the dominant position is amongst the congregations, especially in those large evangelical churches with young congregations. On the one hand their churches will be preaching a traditional approach to sexual morality, on the other hand the young people will have been brought up in much more accepting cultural milieu. Have any surveys been done of people in the pews, as opposed to journalistic interviews which tend to polarisation.

    I think the other thing to note springs from Archishop Rowan’s comments last year that this is ‘not just about nice people who want to include gay and lesbian Christians, and nasty people who want to exclude them’. It is about power and politics, about race and gender, about resources, but it is also about deep seated beliefs about what it means to be a Christian. But as Kimberly says, it is also about how do you engage with the younger generation. This has struck me in my own family, where my father is an evangelical who cannot understand why the issue is even on the Anglican agenda when the Bible and the church’s teaching for centuries is quite clear, whilst my teenage son also cannot understand why this is on the agenda, for the opposite reason that he cannot understand the exclusion of gays. But equally, those of us who sit in middle of the road church and want a broad inclusive Anglicanism have to face the fact that it is the conservative more dogmatic churches that attract the younger generation, and generally not our preferred type.

  3. David, you said that most of the clergy you’ve talked with seem to have ‘made their peace’ with the issue.

    I wonder what that means.
    And how it relates to the majority of the church who are lay people.

    In my conversations with clergy, I often get the sense that people would rather not have to think about it and would like to go back to the time when we pretended there were no gay people in the church while tolerating those brave enough to stay. Or, alternately, they think that we should just wait a hundred years and it will all sort itself out.

    Several people spoke at the Listening Day about the impact the church’s position has on young people, and how it makes it harder for us to engage with this generation. Are the clergy you meet at peace with that?

  4. Kelvin – thanks for opening up some other aspects of all this.

    I think that I don’t altogether recognise some of what you say. I don’t see the church as a large group of un-aligned people, etc. But, on the other hand, my recent meeting with clergy in our diocese led me to feel that most of them – while not unaligned – have in some measure ‘made their peace’ with this issue and aren’t interested in being combatants.

    I haven’t claimed dispassionate/neutral observer/mediator status either for myself or for the College of Bishops. The March 2005 statement of the College of Bishops was not neutral in terms of the sexuality issue. I long ago learnt that one of the ways in which leadership can avoid taking responsibility for leadership in a situation of division is to pose as neutral or – worse still – as mediator. Thabo Mbeki in Zimbabwe is only the most recent of a long line. But I do think that it is reasonable to suggest that bishops have to resolve within their own minds and hearts – individually and collectively – a range of tensions: their own convictions and desire to offer prophetic leadership; their pastoral need to include and to be a focus of unity; the fact that they represent the connection of the local church with the church universal.

    Turning the face? I don’t think so. And the Edinburgh story is an example of what clergy and people can do with the assistance of some patient and compassionate episcopal leadership.

  5. David and Phil

    Thank you for continuing to engage in this dialogue together. Though it may sometimes be uncomfortable, it is a part of the conversation which needs to take place. Please do carry on.

    David, one of the things which I find very hard to hear in all of this is your apparent imaging of the church as consisting of a large group of unaligned people being pulled apart by 2 extremist groups. We don’t all see it like that. I don’t understand your view that bishops are best placed to hold things together. Are not bishops part of these issues? They are not dispassionate observers in the middle of it all.

    It is probably worth saying that my experience of speaking with those who take a different position to the one that I take on sexuality issues is very precisely that they are not intransigent, not bigoted, not extremists and they don’t differ from me in their views about all matters. The parallel with Northern Ireland politics just does not ring true to me.

    The only group that I am aware of which has turned its face from dialogue in all this is the College of Bishops. It is important that this is remembered whenever the Edinburgh motion is discussed.

    Would you support a return to dialogue between the College of Bishops and out, gay people in the church?

    Thank you once again for your willingness to engage in issues that matter via the blog.

  6. Thanks for coming back Phil

    Kimberly made a balanced statement and you have quoted it partially. The balancing statement was, ‘David’s concern that no one argument [either a particular view of scripture or a particular way of expressing issues of justice and inclusion] trump all others without an attempt at mutual understanding.’

    I think we need to address the whole of what she said.

    The mutual understanding which Kimberly talks about becomes very difficult in these circumstances. The issue becomes as much humanity as sexuality. As I read what you say, I actually feel that you are close to denying my full humanity. You obviously feel that I lack integrity. That is how it feels to be on the receiving end of some of your statements.

    Can you tell me how I am denying your full humanity?

  7. The problem you have to face, David, together with the College of Bishops, Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion as a whole, is that you choose to side with the fundamentalists by actively discriminating against Lesbian and Gay people. (Note how +Gene Robinson has been denied permission to officiate as a Priest, never mind a Bishop, when he visits the UK in the summer)Were you truly neutral in the argument as you appear to claim to be you would treat both sides as equal. But tell us in what ways you discriminate against the fundamentalists, and then justify why you continue to deny us, as Kimberly so eloquently expressed, our full humanity. If you are the peace-maker how can we trust you when you are clearly on one side and we on the other? When will you affirm Lesbian and Gay people in their God-given nature?

  8. No such comparison was implied, Kelvin. The point I was making was about precisely the kind of commitment to keep talking and listening that Edinburgh Diocese has splendidly exemplified. If people involved in a situation as extreme as that in NI could do this, there’s some hope for us yet.

  9. The parallel with NI might be helpful, in a strange way. I am close to someone who was involved in setting up the preliminary discussions which eventually led, years later, to the Good Friday Agreement. As with the debate about the Church’s attitude towards gay people, there were apparently irreconcilable views in play, to the extent that these early discussions were held in secret, partly for reasons of safety, but also to create a protected space in which people could speak their minds freely.

    The really crucial thing was that a commitment was made from the outset that, however difficult things became, no-one would walk away from the talks. If only we could get a similar commitment in the Church, we might get somewhere. If people are refusing to engage with different ways of being human, or walking away from their church community, it’s because they fear that acceptance of the other’s right to be different will undermine their own integrity. People have to feel affirmed in their own God-given nature, before they can begin to understand the equally God-given nature of others.

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