John Bell (Iona Community) interviews the Revd Nicholas Bundock about the death of Lizzie Lowe and how it radically changed his church: reflections by Susannah Clark
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In 2014, Lizzie Lowe took her own life. She was just 14 years old but she was already recognised as a lovely, caring, musical, talented individual with so much still to offer in her life. In writing this article I firstly want to say to Lizzie's family and friends how very sorry I am, because Lizzie's loss is above all a personal grief and devastating tragedy. As a parent I cannot imagine what your loss must be like.
~ her lesbian attractions and feelings conflicted with her life at church ~
Lizzie grew up in a loving Christian family, and she herself had a Christian faith, going to Church, and receiving love there. She loved helping younger children. She clearly had so much to offer. But Lizzie also knew that she had lesbian attraction and feelings, and that conflicted with her life at church, because the Church of England to this day, says sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is wrong.
I write this as someone who has worked for decades with young people: over 20 years as a teacher, and after I re-trained as a nurse, with 1200 teenagers at a large school, who would come to me with their physical ailments, their fun, their aliveness, and also with some of their emotional needs. I am familiar with how vulnerable and raw life can sometimes get for a young person, whether because of home life, or work pressure, or bullying, or sex, or gender identity.
Last week a video was released which features Revd John Bell of the Iona Community; Kevin and Hilary, the parents of Lizzie, in an introduction; and a very forthright interview with Nicholas Bundock, the priest at Lizzie's church.
~ the raw honesty needed to confront your own church's shortcomings ~
What comes out of this is not self-justification, but simply deep human sorrow at such irreversible loss, and something else… change. The tragic events radically changed the church that Lizzie went to. Somehow, instead of doing 'damage limitation' this local church community went through its own re-evaluation, confronted its own failings, and turned round its approach to LGBT people. Today it belongs to the 'Inclusive Church' movement, that affirms lesbian and gay people. In the past, by Nicholas Bundock's own admission, LGBT issues were erased and avoided. He recognises with raw honesty that this erasure may have contributed to Lizzie's own sense of isolation and paradox. She could not align two vital aspects of her life and identity: her faith and her sexual orientation.
While this particular church has confronted its own failings, and it must have been a painful process, the Church of England at large continues to be riven by disagreements over human sexuality, enforcing a 'party line' and 'status quo' that says that while it is alright to feel 'same-sex attraction', if you actually have sex, then that is wrong.
~ the theological vilification of gay sex ~
Facing pressure from a tide of social change that has won over the public, and brought in equal marriage, the Church of England has stood its theological ground. At the same time, it is quite probable - according to recent surveys - that most members of the Church of England now endorse and accept gay and lesbian relationships, including their intimate expression. This is putting increasing pressure on a church hierarchy whose continuing official position - which amounts to theological vilification of all gay and lesbian sex - is seen by many English people (and Parliamentarians) as frankly disgusting and institutionally discriminatory.
Archbishop Justin Welby, faced with these pressures, has called for Radical Inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England. However, what does that actually mean? As things stand, that is 'radical' inclusion on his own terms… in other words, 'we feel your pain at being gay, but if you have sex you are sinning according to our teaching'.
What kind of welcome is that? It's patronising. It is saying 'We accept you but not the whole of who you might be, or grow and become, as a lesbian or gay Christian.' The Church in its status quo teaching is still telling gay people to live celibate lives, by implying that sex outside marriage is sin against God. That religious vilification can have a terrible impact on impressionable young people.
It also impacts on adults in the Church. There is the travesty of the Church of England's dictat that gay and lesbian priests must remain celibate… in addition it blocks the way to ordination for people in active gay and lesbian relationships. To be the whole of who you are, in an intimate and loving relationship with your partner, invalidates your progress to ordination.
And yet, for most people, the whole of who you are is not to be some kind of celibate nun or monk. By imposing unnatural celibacy on potential (and present) priests, the Church of England could be seen as making people less whole, not more whole. Not to mention the cruel impact and frustration it imposes on partners.
~ distraction techniques and diversion attempts ~
Being called out over allegedly homophobic views and practices, Church of England officials like Justin Welby have clearly felt uncomfortable. It's not nice to be told you seem nasty. Institutionally it is a problem, at a time when Anglican church attendance in England has crashed and 75% of churchgoers are over 65. Apart from anything else, being tough on gay sexuality is - in this day and age - a PR problem. Predictably, distraction techniques have been deployed. The claimed championing of 'radical inclusion': how does that work if actively gay ordinands are being radically excluded? A listening process, the findings of which were then shunted off into the sidings: followed by three years - conveniently timed for release only after the next Lambeth Conference in 2020 - with selected bishops working on a 'teaching document' on human sexuality. This kick-the-can-down-the-road-into-the-long-grass approach has gone on for decades, going over and over the same issues, but officially maintaining all the while that gay sex is still a 'sin'. Meanwhile people's lives pass by, and LGBT Christians die waiting for the day when their precious partnerships will finally be celebrated as committed, sacrificial, caring, natural, and sexual.
Another recent 'diversion' attempt by C of E management has centred on other countries: 'we're not homophobic because we speak out about criminalisation of LGBT lives in those countries'… as if that makes its domestic shortcomings alright… and as if any sane person in England wouldn't condemn that criminalisation and imprisonment of gay people anyway. Yes, it was a 'nice' thing to say but it doesn't let the Church of England 'off the hook' for the way it portrays diverse sexuality as forbidden outside of a Christian marriage that is only permitted to heterosexual people, and thus requires automatic celibacy of all gay and lesbian people for life. The position is frankly untenable in our society (particularly if the Church of England wants continued recognition as 'Established' with places in the House of Lords and so on - it was interesting that while Justin Welby has threatened sanctions against the US Episcopal Church, the royal family invited the head of that supposedly 'rebel' church to give the sermon at the recent wedding).
~ the incongruence of a leader saying he is 'agnostic' about gay sex, while at the same time demanding celibacy for a whole class of people ~
Perhaps knowing the stir it would cause, Justin Welby has refused to say outright that gay sex is a sin… and yet he enforces that principle by constraints on gay Christian's lives. If gay sex is not a sin (or even, as Justin says, you are not quite sure) how can you justify forcing people in your church to be celibate… for what has now been decades? Demanding that celibacy for something you're 'not quite sure of'?
It might be reasonably argued that it is not gay sex that is perverse and unnatural, but that an unnatural perversity operates when you condemn gay or lesbian priests (and their partners) to live in frustration, to deny each other tender intimacy within dedicated, committed, sacrificial lives together?
~ a local church that recognised the need to change, and had the courage to do so ~
What is striking in this week's video about the death of Lizzie Lowe is that, in contrast to the Anglican establishment, the priest and local church involved have not attempted to sugar-coat, or divert attention. They have faced up to the world as it is, that came colliding into their theology through this young woman's lonely death, and they have admitted they were wrong, that they fell short, and that their lack of true radical acceptance, and erasure of the problem, may quite possibly have contributed to Lizzie's hopelessness. They resolved to change. The Church of England needs to as well.
~ the homophobic effects of erasure or condemnation ~
On the subject of erasure, check out the diocesan websites (a 'shop window' of the Anglican system) and measure how much support… or even mention… of LGBT lives there is (except as a problem). For fear of offending the (diminishing) conservative status quo, LGBT mentions are sparse and, frankly, avoided on many of these websites.
Where on these websites can you find the institutional systems of support for young LGBT people? I've worked with young people much of my life. They come to you with their problems, their sadness, their insecurities. A surprising number are trying to handle their sexual orientation or gender identities.
But what happens if a local church 'doesn't talk about it' and sweeps it under the carpet? Or what happens if young lesbians hear their potential futures described as sinful, and that beckoning sexual love and intimacy portrayed as 'a sin against God' (or as some would say, an 'abomination'). That is homophobic in effect, even if the teaching is claimed not to be homophobic in intent. And it was the effects that mattered to Lizzie and others who've felt condemned or alienated from the Church.
What happens when church youth groups or university Christian Unions project a dominant view that gay and lesbian sex is something to be turned away from? What does that do to a person who happens to be gay? In appropriating the pointed finger of God, some churches may not be literally 'phobic' or fearful of gay people (though that's psychologically debatable) but they are woefully homophobic in consequence, effect and impact on the individual.
~ 'we'll tell you who you are, we know better, you're called to be celibate' ~
What happens when, like Lizzie, you are a sensitive, very loving, talented, faithful person… but the representatives of your faith won't acknowledge the whole of how you feel, and who you might become? In some Anglican Churches it's like: 'We'll tell you who you are. We know better. You're called to be celibate. Praise God.' But celibacy was a specific individual calling for those actually called to a single life, not a generic state to be imposed on a whole class of people.
~ desire for control, and the attempt to enforce a status quo, instead of allowing freedom of conscience and recognising diverse church positions~
Part of the problem for the Archbishop of Canterbury is that he wants, almost it sometimes seems at all costs, to maintain a status quo prior to the next Lambeth Conference in 2020, so as to appease the Archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda, and other members of the GAFCON organisation who threaten schism in the Anglican worldwide Communion if gay sexuality is allowed to be celebrated. But there is a misunderstanding about Anglicanism. It is not a worldwide 'Church': it is a 'communion' or network of self-determining national churches, each serving its own people, their cultures, their outlooks.
When the Primates met in early 2016 they decided on consequences and sanctions against the (Anglican) Episcopal Church in the USA because it dared to celebrate and include and endorse the lives of LGBT people. That was really sad. The Primates were trying to impose uniformity on diverse self-determining national churches.
That desire to control, in what is seen by many as an increasingly managerial church hierarchy, is failing. It is no longer just the US church that is embracing the whole of who gay and lesbian people are, and able to be singled out for 'consequences'. It is the Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) Church. It is the New Zealand Anglican Church. It is the Brazilian Anglican Church as well.
More than that, it is at least half - and possibly more than half - of all the members of the Church of England. Reflecting the decent acceptance of gay sex in UK society generally, most people in the pews have uncles, colleagues, brothers… or daughters like Lizzie… who are lesbian or gay, and who are decent, valued, accepted.
'Radical inclusion' needs to follow the lead of the US, Scottish, New Zealand and Brazilian Anglican Churches, and embrace and celebrate the whole of who an LGBT person is, including their potential to be partners and lovers. At the very least it must allow local churches in all good conscience to offer that level of inclusion. Otherwise people will shrug their shoulders and turn their back on what seems to them to be a sad and prejudiced organisation.
~ theological domination ~
Meanwhile, one part of the Church of England, under the auspices of the Archbishops, is dominating the decent consciences of another part. It is theological domination. In brutal terms it is saying, 'You may be a hospital chaplain' (like Revd Jeremy Pemberton who the Church spent over half a million pounds confronting) 'but if we don't accept your private life we will take away your job.'
The very humbling repentance that is evident in the case of the priest and church where Lizzie Lowe was failed… is actually moving, because they now recognise and admit they got things wrong. They did not think they were homophobic, but by erasing the whole of what it means to be a lovely, caring LGBT person in effect they were.
~ inclusive church ~
Like Nick's church, my own church has recently joined Inclusive Church, one of the organisations seeking to support LGBT Christians in this country. The skies have not fallen down. Heterosexual marriage carries on, but my church recognises that people with other orientations can also be loved by God in their lives and intimate relationships. My priest is considering using the video at the top of this page as a teaching aid in our church. A growing number of churches are now members of Inclusive Church. Had Lizzie Lowe experienced more whole-hearted inclusion of her sexuality, and felt she could be open about her lesbian orientation, and able to envisage the church's acceptance and God's acceptance as a sign of the whole of who she would one day become, perhaps such tragic waste and such devastating personal loss might have been avoided.
That is not to blame any individuals in this sad story. I personally find the responses that people involved have made since that harrowing tragedy both moving and admirable. They have faced up to responsibilities, and primarily the responsibility to love. For them the Archbishop's suggestion that he can't make up his mind and doesn't know if gay sex is a sin (and anyway will carry on sanctioning priests if they have sex lives) must seem a dangerous agnosticism. The suggestion, even in our day and age, that gay sex or lesbian sex is a sin (even if sugar-coated by saying 'there are other sins too')… the implication that God condemns you when you are expressing intimate love with your partner… the refusal to even answer the 'Tim Farron' question "Is gay sex a sin?" (the avoidance of which smacks of political propriety whether a politician or an archbishop)… for Lizzie's church community today, these positions would probably seem inadequate, because of the grave harm that can ensue when people are not included for the whole of who they are.
~ it is time for spiritual courage ~
It is time for some spiritual courage. Because young people like Lizzie, the ones growing up today, deserve it from us. So does anyone who an institution tries to erase or marginalise. It is not good enough for one group in an evolving church to impose their own consciences on another whole group. And that is what has been happening for years in the Church of England. If a priest, and a local church community, want to celebrate gay and lesbian lives, or trans lives, and use a form of liturgy to bless and publicly celebrate and endorse a partnership… who is the Archbishop to tell them they can't? It really boils down to that. Instead of theological domination, let each church community listen to its own conscience and make up its own mind.
One of the biggest problems comes when a dominant group tries to impose their own 'uniformity' on everyone else. The recent wholly unrepresentative letter from William Nye to the Episcopal Church in the US seemed to me to 'follow the party line' in regarding that Church's championing of gay lives as a threat to unity (by which was really implied, uniformity on sexual matters). Last year I decided to write to all 105 Church of England bishops and I have enjoyed continuing correspondence since then, with some bishops expressing "huge disappointment" with the Archbishops' party line on gay sexuality in the church, and its illegitimacy because it cannot occur within marriage.
A growing number of bishops have privately expressed to me their desire for a policy of 'unity in diversity': where the reality of a diverse and divided church is reflected in church freedom to listen to conscience, and whatever your community thinks, to do the right and decent thing. Because Jesus talked about the primacy of love. If diverse church communities love God, and put that first, and love one another (as they are taught to do), then diversity need not mean division. It can mean service, and care, expressed according to different people's consciences in different communities.
~ the Anglican Churches of Scotland, the US, and Brazil have shown that we don't have to clone all churches in all nations to hold uniform positions on human sexuality ~
And of course, a community in Uganda - where, as it happens, my daughter works and serves as a Christian alongside desperately poor men, women and children - may conscientiously view gay sex in a different way to somebody living in England. But that does not mean that Justin Welby (who is tasked to be pastor of the Church of England) should avoid church change in England for fear of alienating a primate in Uganda who operates in a very different society.
Here, today, and tomorrow, and in all the years ahead, we have young people growing up in a society that accepts that gay and lesbian relationships are fine. Not sin. But rather, filled with loveliness and potential, just like a couple who are heterosexual. Here today, we need a leader in the Church of England who has the courage to say outright, 'Your sexual life with your lesbian partner is NOT a sin.' And to say to gay and lesbian priests, 'What you do in your private life is your business, and I hope you flourish, because we want priests who are the whole of who they can potentially be.'
Because this is not undoable. The Anglican Church in Scotland has simply been realistic. People there have diverse views on human sexuality, but as long as conscience is respected (and that works both ways) we can get on with what actually the Churches ought to be doing.
~ the Church's mission is damaged by obsession with other people's sex ~
And what the Church should be doing is helping people in their poverty, despair and loneliness: visiting the sick and the housebound and elderly, welcoming the stranger, being there for someone when they suffer bereavement, living alongside people out in the local community, championing economic fairness, justice, respect, the environment, and additionally, responding to the very severe needs and abandonment of many people overseas suffering terrible deprivations.
Those are the primary demands of love, around which the Church can find unity, and shared mission, whether people are heterosexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, single or partnered. Love is by very nature 'radically inclusive', and that message of inclusion, I fear, gets subverted by moral rigidity and exclusivity. In a country that has warm-heartedly chosen to love and accept the gay uncle, the trans daughter, the lesbian sister, the gay colleague, the son with a loving male partner… I fear that the Church's gospel message gets undermined by moral self-righteousness and the policing of decent people's tender and intimate love, devotion, and fidelity.
~ accepting people for the whole of who they are ~
Young people today often get criticised, or portrayed as problems, but one quality that really moved me as I worked in a large secondary school was their openness to diversity and their complete acceptance of me as a trans nurse. It wasn't begrudging acceptance. It was positive acceptance. After day one, they just liked me for who I was, and how I could help them, and then got on with their lives. I wish more churches would follow their example. I wish young people could see real inclusion demonstrated in church life as well as in school life. They have so much life, so many dreams, so much to offer, so much to become - and the Church needs to stop teaching people like Lizzie 'who they ought to be' and instead have the courage to truly accept people for 'the whole of who they are'.
Last week the Bishop of Maidstone wrote a public letter in which he seemed to suggest that priests under his pastoral care should maybe ask questions of gay, lesbian and trans people, prior to baptism or communion. Why? Is that the mindset of 'radical inclusion'? Sort of 'We're not sure you're ready to take communion… we're not sure your baby should be baptised… until you've had some counselling from us, because we really think we know better about your gender identity or your private relationship.' The Church still actively penalises priests if they have sex with their partners, or stops people becoming priests. And that gets mandated by an Archbishop who claims to be agnostic on the matter, and refuses to answer the 'Tim Farron' question: 'Is gay or lesbian sex a sin.' That's really not good enough, and it's certainly not 'radically inclusive'. On the Bishop of Maidstone's public letter, the Archbishops have remained silent. The Church remains condemnatory of intimate gay relationships, even if - as the Very Revd David Ison (the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral) pointed out this week, those relationships can be well-ordered and contribute to well-ordered lives as Christians.
~ 'life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage' ~
The country today understands that the Church is not inclusive enough. The status quo was deeply harmful to Lizzie Lowe. The status quo needs to change. As Anais Nin once said: 'Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.' Ordinary people in Britain have discovered that in relation to LGBT issues. The Church needs more courage today, including the many bishops who stay silent on the issue. That is itself a kind of erasure of gay lives. The status quo says gay sex is a sin against God. What does that say to young people who know, from within themselves, how naturally they are attracted to people, how much they long for tenderness, caring, intimacy - and the loveliness of that 'coming alive' and 'growing whole' as the person you are?
The deeply concerning question is 'Are there other Lizzies?' And the answer is yes, there are thousands of lesbian, gay and trans young people. But instead of truly 'radical inclusion' the Archbishop of Canterbury offers 'agnosticism' and a status quo that vilifies priests if they have intimacy with their partners. The Bishop of Maidstone implicitly advocates 'screening' of LGBT people before baptism or communion. The majority of Bishops - including, sadly, many female bishops who rightly pressed for justice for their own group interests - stay silent about the status quo when it comes to human sexuality. And that is a sad kind of erasure (or evasion of conflict with conservatives). It looks from the outside like political (or career) expediency, and a shortfall of courage. And so the can keeps on getting kicked further down the road. And the can is people's lives, people's integrity, people's vulnerability, and people's tender love.
To its very great credit, Nicholas Bundock's church faced up to the need to repent, to change, to find courage: the courage to love people and include people, right where they are, and more than that, to celebrate people for the whole of who they really are and know themselves to be, and share in their potential, and futures, and flourishing. The video released last week is raw and still shudders with hurt and emotion. But there is also an awakening, a realisation of the scope of love, and a determination to do better.
That is courage, and that is the beginning of radical inclusion.
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Susannah Clark has worked in the prison service, then taught for many years in schools, before re-training as a nurse. She is transgender. She belongs to the Fellowship of an Anglican convent, worships at an Anglican church, and practises contemplation in the Carmelite tradition.