One of the films which screened in Out Takes this year was Love Free or Die; a documentary that followed Gene Robinson. Gene stepped into the international spotlight ten years ago as the first openly gay partnered bishop in the Anglican communion.
Although I already knew a little of Gene’s story, I was shocked by some of the details. I knew that he had received death threats, but I did not know that the police had arrested a man who seemed to be on his way to Gene’s house with a sawn-off shotgun and tons of ammunition. Living his life so openly is such a courageous act.
I knew that Gene had not been invited to the 2008 Lambeth conference. I did not know that the Archbishop of Canterbury (at that time) Rowan Williams had also banned churches in England from inviting Gene to preach. Williams’ behaviour disgusted me, especially given he was supposedly trying to preserve the unity of the Anglican communion. Vilifying individuals and trying to suppress minority views is not a pathway to unity. At the time of the conference Williams said “Some of the practices of certain dioceses in the American church continue to put our relations as a communion under strain, and some problems won’t be resolved while those practices continue.” The next year, despite Williams’ pleading, a substantial majority of delegates at the US Episcopal church’s convention voted in support of the ordination of gay and lesbian priests and bishops. Basically, Williams wanted to sweep the majority of Anglican leaders in the US and Canada (and many in other places) under the carpet and ignore their concerns.
There is now an openly lesbian bishop, Mary Glasspool. After she was elected as a bishop in Los Angeles, Gene realised he no longer needed to be the openly queer voice in the house of bishops, and that perhaps he was called to a new role. He has taken up a position with the Center for American Progress, working on faith and gay rights issues. It must be a relief to let someone else take a turn as a prominent face of queers in the church.
I am part of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Currently, our church bans gay, lesbian and bisexual people from becoming ministers, elders or leaders in the church. Anyone who is in a relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman is not considered fit for these roles (although those already ordained as ministers before 2004 can continue in that role). I was a youth commissioner at the General Assembly where this ruling was passed with 65% in favour. It was a deeply painful time. I hope I never again have to experience sitting in a room with 230 people who think I’m sinful and unworthy of having the same opportunities and fulfilment that they have. That’s what the church decided: some of us are not worthy of living full and happy lives. The church makes it clear that we shouldn’t be fulfilled in love (even if we are not called to leadership, our loving relationships are regarded as sinful). If we feel God is calling us to have a leadership role in the church, we cannot offer our gifts and our service and answer that call… unless we say no to love.
Watching the footage of the debates in the Episcopalian church, I felt sad and hopeful. Sad, because their discussions made me think we are a long way behind them. I wonder if part of it is that there is a big group of gay, lesbian and bisexual clergy there. Maybe not bigger as a percentage of the church, but more faces for others to have to look into before voting. I felt hopeful as well, because it was a reminder that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Change will come. Churches in other places have found different ways to move forward together. Refusing to invite people to the conversation, as Williams did, will not lead to unity and peace. We have to talk to one another.
In association with the Love Free or Die documentary, a project called the Friends and Family Plan has been launched. It provides people with information and resources to help them to have conversations with friends or family members about gay, lesbian and bisexual people and the church. It’s an exciting concept which recognises that “Change happens most powerfully person to person – loved one to loved one.” The website is targeted towards people in the USA, but some of the resources are relevant elsewhere.
Here, in the PCANZ, all that seems to be happening is that every two years some of us (often the same few) who dissent bring another motion for the ruling to be removed, and lots of people say they wish that the issue would go away and we could have nice peaceful gatherings.
I would love our church to create more spaces for conversation. Kanohi ki te kanohi. Face to face. Meeting together and facing up to those who are affected by these issues. Not shutting anyone out because we don’t agree with them. The very slow shift in attitudes, as the church gets dragged along a little by the changing tide in society, is not enough. We need to take active steps to move forward from this place.