If twenty-five years ago, when I got married, someone had said one day you will march with a group of Christians, lay and ordained, on an event called ‘Brighton Pride,’ I would have raised my somewhat less bushy eyebrows in incredulity.
In 1991 the memories of the tomb stone AIDS public health films were still ingrained in the national psyche and, homosexuals tended to be regarded in the public consciousness with a mixture of horror and pity. To be the parent of a gay child was to invite questions over your own man or womanhood and your ability to properly nurture your offspring. Nature or nurture, whatever, it was your fault.
There was a real sense that anything less than fully fledged heterosexuality was a fault, or more severely a sin, and certainly not something to be talked about, less still openly lived out, in polite circles.
If you were homo or bi sexual, well, you were probably better off keeping it quiet.To be gay and out was to be both highly outrageous and, socially courageous.
Times have changed, somewhat, and thankfully. Only somewhat because the homo, bi, pan, inter and so forth lot is still a heck of a lot harder than the heterosexuals lot, or at least the lot of the white, middle class and highly educated male. And, so it is ironic that conversations in the church, and the decisions that the C of E eventually arrive at in response to the question of what ‘rites’ to provide for the LGBTI community, will be largely decided by white, middle class, educated, and yes, heterosexual folk; the very epitome of mainstream C of E identity!
Over the last few decades, since the decriminalization of homosexuality (and lets not forget it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who led the debate in favour of decriminalization in the House of Lords) the so-called secular world has concentrated on ‘rights,’ whilst in the church we are preoccupied with ‘rites.’
My own perspective is that the two go together; ‘no rights without rites.’ Rites are the Church of England’s epistemology; until we have pastoral rites any talk of inclusivity and affirmation of identity, by necessity, carries little, real, substance. In the absence of rites all we are really left with, at best, is some form of weak form accommodation, or toleration neither of which, I would suggest, are distinctively Christian virtues.
Anyway, let’s get back to Brighton and the thoughts that have been circulating in my mind over the last week:
First, I was struck by the diversity within the group of clergy and assorted Christians. We were male, we were female, we were gay, we were straight, we were catholic, we were evangelical. We were priests, pastors, youth workers and parishioners. Among the clergy we were Fathers and, we were ministers. We were Cuddesdon, Trinity, Oak Hill, regional courses and, you might not believe it, St. Stephen’s House!
We were single, married and civilly partnered. We were in love and, weighting for love. We were old and, we were young. We were male and, we were female. And, we were hot! Not sexually, but physically, because it was a real scorcher of a day.
Take from this what you will. My take is that the move towards inclusivity in the Church of England is very widely held.
I have also been thinking a lot about how experience shapes response. Over the last twenty-five years I have met and become friends with members of the LGBTI community. Our children have gay God Parents, chosen because of the fruits of their relationship; ‘by their fruits you will know them.’
Walking alongside one of my children and her God Father, both whom were carrying a placard on which was written ‘This is the Gay that the Lord has made,’ was an interesting experience, one that I am ‘proud’ to have participated in!
Experience is an interesting thing. The relationship between experience and dogma can be, for Christians, a difficult thing. But, need it be as difficult as we sometimes contrive to make it?
The hospitality extended to the church group was the single thing that struck me most. As a friend of mine commented on Radio Sussex last Sunday morning:
‘All of us were glad to be there, but very conscious that for so many in the crowd we represented a Church who says no. And yet we were offered hospitality and welcome. In spite of our sometimes confused message, we were given a special place, our presence was celebrated by a thousand sweaty handshakes and a chorus of often surprised but disarmingly spontaneous roars of approval. And so I felt the power of unconditional inclusion.’
Irony of ironies, here we were representing a church that is tying itself in knots about inclusion being unconditionally included! There was a real sense that the so called secular world doesn’t quite want the divorce from the Church –its church– that so many secularists claim.
All week I have been thinking about how strange it is for the C of E to be restricting its conversations on human sexuality to those in the Church. Should we, could we, broaden the net and invite other, stakeholders, to take part as equal participants, we are after all an’established church,’ one that exists and is established for each and every person, irrespective of gender and sexuality?
The moment we forget this we, surely, loosen the bonds of establishment, for it is through the nexus of relationships that establishment is made fleshy, real and, incarnate? Loosen the bonds and we reduce establishment to an abstract, constitutional, theory.
Finally, I have been reflecting on identity. Pride, I think, is yes a celebration of LGBTI identity, but it is much more than this; it is a celebration of all forms of human identity, including heterosexuality.
I felt that my identities as husband, dad, christian and priest were all wonderfully and gloriously affirmed, through marching with Brighton Pride.
And this got me thinking about the notions of I-Thou (Martin Buber) and Ubuntu (Desmond Tutu) both of which stress the potential for divine revelation through human relationships.
As a relational being my distinctiveness is a function of the reverence I afford another person’s God-given distinctiveness. My ability to affirm that ‘I am a straight that the Lord has made,’ is contingent on me looking at my brother, sister, son, daughter and saying ‘this is a Gay that the Lord has made.’ As Tutu’s Ubuntu theology insists:
‘My humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say a person is a person through other persons.’
So what was Pride all about?
It was a celebration of inclusion and identity and one which I was ‘proud’ to participate in.