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.