A Cautionary Tale for Justin Welby

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, featured in a recent Guardian report (28th August), concerned that his vote against gay marriage in the Church of England could be viewed as ‘wicked, ‘akin to ‘racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice,’ particularly by people under 35. However, he also added that he would not change his vote. Here is why he should – because here is what happens when we sit on our happily heterosexual behinds, watching our happy heterosexual-to-be children walking the heterosexual animals into the toy Noah’s Ark, comforting ourselves that everyone’s welcome, it’s just that no one here is gay, so it’s not an issue.

Come back with me to March 2012. The vote on women bishops is on the horizon – a positive outcome is inevitable – and Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m in church – my husband is playing quietly in the vestry with our four small children – a guest is about to ask the congregations’ prayers for ‘something important.’ It’s not very exciting. But it’s reassuring and stable and calm and predictable. It’s how I like it.

Enter the guest. A Lesley Pilkington, who had been invited – or who has asked, it’s not clear – to request the congregation’s prayers for something important. She introduces herself as a Christian psychotherapist/counsellor (slight alarm bells there, but nothing too noisy), and begins her tale.

It went like this: At a conference in London, a young man had approached her. He was gay and didn’t want to be; could she help him to change? But of course she could. A couple of ‘very successful’ sessions in, the young man told her that he was a journalist, that this was a sting and that he was reporting her to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She had duly been struck off, had appealed, and the appeal was due to be heard the following Wednesday, hence the need for prayers.

But she didn’t stop there. No. We had to offer these prayers because we, the congregation, didn’t realize how widespread this evil is becoming, how insidious its hold, how terrible in its consequences. We have to use the power of prayer to fight for what we believe. As Christians, we have to open our eyes to what is happening in society. Satan is at work and we have to resist him. Homosexuality is not only contrary to everything we believe, it undermines everything we believe, and the consequences of sitting by and allowing it to run rampant in society are too terrible to contemplate. We are already seeing them.

Are we? I thought. I am a woman, happily married to a man, with whom I have children. We married in church, our children are all christened, I believe in God. I am also a human being. I like living on a planet with other human beings, many of whom are not the same as me. And so, with my heart pounding horribly and my breath very shallow and my head very light, I accepted that I was going to do something I have never done before. I stood up. I apologised for interrupting. I apologised for the fact that the children had been running around before my husband had taken them out. I said how much we love going to church, how much we value its place in our lives. And  then – shaking and on the verge of tears – I said that I could no longer sit and hear people I love being called evil. People I respect and admire; people who are my friends. People who love my children. People whose lives – Christian or not – are happy and constructive. I said that I had no idea of the paths my children’s lives would take, and that I could not bring them into an environment where their paths – whatever they may be – would not be celebrated.

By this time the vicar was inviting me to sit down. And Lesley Pilkington – calm, beautifully coiffeured and tailored and looking so sure of herself– pointed at me with a shrug and said, ‘You see, this is how Satan works.’

I wish I could say that the service ended in uproar. I wish I could say that the congregation rose in a body and threw one or the other of us out. At least I’d know where I was. But no. I sat down. Mrs. Pilkington had the last word – that God is love, and we have to show that love – and sat down. Those would have been my last words too.

That was the last I heard from church until it came to time to do the Christmas choir (open to all comers, and the fact that there were two takers last year, both three score years and ten plus, is an accurate reflection of the size and age of the congregation). I couldn’t do it again, I told the vicar, until we’d talked. I won the battle, in that Mrs Pilkington had apparently left the church with a vow never to darken its doors again. But I lost the war. Homosexuality, I was told, is not God’s best plan. They meet in bars, you know, and they’re not really committed to each other.

Really? Really? Tell that to Yotem Ottolengi, who recently wrote a very moving article for the Guardian about his journey to fatherhood, with his male partner. To Patrick Ness, whose award-winning novels inspire countless young adult readers, just returned from his honeymoon. To a woman I count as one of my best friends, who was with her partner for twenty years before civil partnerships. To Claire Balding. To Mary Portas. To Jeanette Winterson. To millions of people, quietly living their lives (where they are allowed to) all around the world.

God’s best plan? Who knows a thing about God’s best plan? Isn’t that just to love our neighbours as ourselves? To judge not, lest we be judged? If we do anything other than that, we are buying into the very discrimination and bigotry we claim to abhor. Help me out here, Justin Welby. I want to go to church. To your church. I want to run my choir, and sing, and let my son have a go on the organ after the service. I can’t enjoy the peace and community I used to love, because I can no longer ignore the ugly morass that was revealed when the charming façade was peeled away. I could stick it back down. Except I can’t. I’ve stood up now. Thank God.

And so I offer this. By excluding couples who love each other, who elect to make an exclusive commitment to each other in church, the Church of England is signing up to every argument that has ever been made in favour of apartheid. They’re not like us. They’re different, their relationships aren’t as valid, God forbid we should allow them to breed. They can come in, but they can’t join in.

Listen to me, Justin Welby. I’m your everywoman. Women bishops, please, and gay marriage.  It’s time. Truly, and with great respect, it’s time.

177 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale for Justin Welby

  1. Pingback: Advent Day 15
  2. Hi Antonia, I’ve just had this passed on to me via Facebook. I’m an Anglican Priest n New Zealand and this is as spot on, as spot on gets. Perfectly expressed and goes to the very core of this whole debate. The way Satan really works is to convince people of their own righteousness over others. It’s actually tragic.

  3. A big thank. A little courage goes a long way – keep it up!
    Reverend Joan Lyon, Team Vicar, Sole Bay Team of Churches, Suffolk

  4. those outraged opinion are so lame. it is not a matter of sexuality, but of society. it is not a matter of equality (mind you, equality is not a new concept and has been enforced for a long time at constitutional level..), but of society.

    So your moral stances are just bigotism, pure and simple.
    One does not need any opinion on gay marriage to see that as plain and clear as it is.

    Also, to support the idea that all the society should abide by whatever need the smallest minority of a minority comes up with and declares a moral obligation is very much the definition of not having a society.

    Again, society is the choice. there are no morally superior choice.
    Clearly , and this has been recognized by the proponent of gay marriage, this is a ‘change of society’

    And, as we know since the enlightments, a nation has the right to determine its path.
    So good luck to all those societies, we’ll see where it goes, and if they’ll give to their children something in better shape than they received from their parents.

  5. Antonia, I am a retired priest who has always fought the battle for inclusiveness that you have so bravely spoken out for. Sometimes it is even a compliment to be labelled Satan! (I believe Jesus frequently was). I’m sure that in the eyes of the independent evangelicals down the road from me I was Lucifer at the parish church up on the hill. It’s just they couldn’t be openly impolite to the rector for social reasons.
    I wrote to Justin Welby two weeks ago detailing just how painful working for the church has been over 28 years. I told him that unless the C of E mends its ways on gay relationships and women bishops there will be an unenviable reckoning. In my farewell sermon I pointed out that it is Christ who has the right to ask in judgment ‘And where are my missing sheep?’ Laying unbearable burdens on those who are already oppressed and without a voice is no part of the gospel. The House of Bishops continue to fiddle while Rome burns. Preaching conditional love is staring into the abyss. So well done you and the Holy Spirit! I wish you and your hubby every blessing in your future ministry.

    1. So there is hope? Thank you so much. I don’t think Justin Welby has seen this post but I am sure he will read your letter – after twenty eight years of working for the church, I should hope so. Oh I do hope so.

  6. Thank you, Antonia, for your brave and principled stand – in a situation of imposed expectation of siding with bigotry against the gay community. For your Vicar to have either asked or encouraged this person to impose her will upon the congregation is hardly compatible with what Jesus had to say about ‘people on the margins’. God bless you for your bravery.

  7. Didn’t Mrs Pilkington loose her professional accreditation, and thereby her career, because this journalist ‘set her up’? She was trying to help with what he had *said* he wanted!! She didn’t ‘hate’ him because he was gay – or she wouldn’t have been willing to try to help him! It seems more likely the other way round – at least the journalist didn’t seem to care what happened to her. Didn’t he lie and deceive in order to make an example of her?

    *She* is the one who suffered here… What was the offence? In what way was she “homophobic”? Doesn’t the consequence seem out of all proportion?

    At least in that sense don’t you sympathise with her assertion that there are “terrible consequences”?

      1. Dear Antonia, that wasn’t my point at all. I wasn’t trying to justify what she or your vicar said..

        I was empathising with someone who probably felt very abused by a system that removed her livelihood because she didn’t refuse someone who was asking for help. Do you find that impossible to feel? After all it was not illegal in the UK… In fact I think that the Association had to make a new precendent in order to disclipline her!

    1. Forgive me, but it appears Mrs Pilkington was breaking the law, so why is the consequence disproportional? We have a saying here in the States: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

      Whether you agree with the “sting” or not is really immaterial. A good therapist should be helping people; “praying away the gay” has been shown over and over again to not only be harmful, but is actually unsuccessful in changing the basic nature of the person.

      Our sexuality is a God-given part of our nature. Homosexuality is seen in every species, and a conservative estimate indicates that at least 10% of our brothers and sisters are homosexual. What kind of loving God would create that number of people and then condemn them to Hell, or demand that they “re-orient” in order to be acceptable? That’s not the God I worship.

      I can sympathize with the assertion that there are “terrible consequences”; I just think it referenced the wrong person.

      1. Dear Cheryle

        It is not illegal in the UK – as far as I know – to offer to help someone manage unwanted sexual attractions.

        I agree that sexual orientation can’t be changed at will, but sexuality is not always fixed – many people discover they are gay after being happily hetero for many years (and occasionally vice-versa).

        In my opinion, there is too much of a culture war around the area of sexuality at the moment. The complexities of human sexuality, that should be the basis for reasoned understanding, have instead become part of the battle-ground.

      2. ps. I’m not aware that Jesus demands that anyone does anything to be acceptable.. other than “come to me” and “follow me”… But how many people do even that?

  8. Loved this very much. I find it abhorrent that anti-SSM advocates (like Ian Paul, an especially remarkable argument he set forth here) speaking about scripture will willingly dismiss certain prohibitions as “contextual” or dependent on the historical norms at the time, but will on the other hand ignore the clear reality that our cultural norms are changed. Not changing. They’ve changed. The only shred of any argument left – psychiatric arguments rejected, medical arguments rejected, well-being of the child arguments rejected (look at the statistics) – is the scriptural argument. To make it, one has to jump through several logical hoops – this one doesn’t matter! No! That was just how it WAS back then! But, THIS passage is the real thing! – but that doesn’t matter if you have faith. Not faith in God, because a faith in God, who is love, would never suggest exclusion, but faith in “I’ve got it right so LOVE can’t possibly apply here.” Please. Give me a break.

    I appreciate everyone’s willingness to engage in reasoned debate with certain detractors here. But this isn’t about reason.. It isn’t about love. And it isn’t about God.

    1. I’ve just reread some of these comments in the light of yours, and realise that you’re right. I’m so glad, though, that there is so much support. I’d only change one thing about my post in the light of all the comments – and that is that I’d have called it ‘equal marriage’ rather than ‘gay marriage.’ Thank you.

    2. But unless we either say ‘nothing in Scripture applies to us’ or ‘All of it does equally’ then we are ALL involved in this process of discerning what carries over and what doesn’t—even in the teaching of Jesus. The question is the grounds on which it is done. The ‘traditional’ view does this on the basis that it seems to be the consistent view of the text, from a wide variety of places in scripture in many different social and cultural contexts, and not simply on the basis of proof-texting.

      And (Antonia) I am not particularly bothered about my view specifically being labelled ‘abhorrent’…but it would be great to have a symmetry of respect for the views of others. 😀

      1. I respect YOU. I do not respect your views for they were arrived at in a way I can neither understand nor accept. I respect the fact you’re going about it in a way that is, at least, honest, but your end point is unacceptable.

  9. I applaud you for your courage – which is really doing something in spite of our fears. I am also “across the pond,” and many years ago left a Parish following the condemnation (from the pulpit) of homosexuals by a newly-installed priest. I had just learned that my oldest son – the one who was in much demand as an acolyte for weddings, funerals, baptisms because of his presence and attention to the details of his service – is gay. I did speak to the priest following the service, and he told me that my son would go to Hell if he didn’t change his ways and forsake his nature. When I continued to see this attitude in him, and as it began to permeate the congregation, I knew that I would be betraying my son to continue as a member.

    All of those who had so loved my son’s spiritual presence wanted nothing to do with him as a person. We shook the dust from our feet and moved down the road. Until more of us are willing to make our voices heard through respectful confrontation, this unloving behavior will continue. Since we in ECUSA have managed to elect and install gay bishops without the cataclysmic schism that was forecast, I have hope that, some day, the CofE will follow suit.

    God bless you.

    1. Sorry to hear that Cheryle. Your son deserved better and so did you. Well done for standing up for your son (though I’d expect no less of a mom!). And I’ve not yet said thanks to Antonia for the original blog above – thanks Antonia. Keep the faith!

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