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Sexuality and Human Flourishing
A Day Conference to explore and celebrate our relationship with God, with each other,
and with our inner selves
Saturday February 6th 2010
10.00 am – 4.30 pm
Church of the Ascension, Stirchley, Birmingham
This conference was organized by members of The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, Inclusive Church, Changing Attitude, LGCM, The Sibyls, and Church members in Norwich and Birmingham.
Rev Clare Herbert, Programme Director of Inclusive Church and Chair of the Grassroots Education and Support Group of the LGBT Anglican Coalition.
Sexuality and Human Flourishing – Day Conference
For me the word “inclusive” means reaching out to all – all parts of our church and world and all parts of me. The day conference of 6th Feb was trying to create a safe and holy space in which all sorts of people from within and beyond the Church of England could speak to each other about the discovery of God within their sexual identity and experience. In addition each of us was challenged to stretch beyond our “normal” way of seeing ourselves to ask whether there might not be whole spectra of experience and identity which we do not uncover for fear of disapproval and rejection.
Arnold Browne (1) led the day with a Bible Study on Paul. He demonstrated how Paul had been instrumental in holding together Christians of vastly different views in one emerging Church. Paul urged our submitting all things, including our sharp disagreement with our neighbour, to the overarching love of Christ as Paul did himself – remaining unmarried while other apostles married, calling uncircumcised gentiles to Christ while others adhered to Jewish practice, holding his own firm identity and opinions while permitting others to adhere to their own.
In her talk which followed Alison Webster (2) emphasised two points from her own experience which had included an outward shift from being lesbian to being married, while she herself resisted categorising herself as either. She suggested that the categories into which we fit people – gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, married, single, partnered – dictate the power people feel they have in our church and society and therefore deserve close scrutiny by Christians. She suggested there is not a broad hinterland of relationships in all our lives less easily categorised so mistakenly ignored and devalued.
The morning’s speakers argued for a diversity of sexual experience we ignore in the scriptures and in ourselves and hinted too that “the who” we allow to speak for ourselves as the Church, and “the how” we speak – by lectures , sermons , formal prayers , debates – are covering instead of unearthing the energy of God’s connection with us in terms of our sexuality and human flourishing.
How might the Church facilitate a wider discussion of these issues, a listening process for us all? A panel of speakers, sensitively chaired by Brian Thorne (3) took us to the heart of the matter: that the Church may be profoundly supportive of people grappling with difficult issues of human sexuality and identity and may also be destructive of self-esteem. Transgendered, gay, lesbian and heterosexual people, all at this stage of their lives in successful partnerships and marriages, gave moving accounts of being nurtured or in the wilderness in relation to Church at different stages of their lives.
Participants met throughout the day to ask what resources the Church might provide to facilitate rather than obstruct our flourishing as sexual human beings. Some suggested answers were these
Protection and support for LGBT ordinands and ministers in post
As a postscript, one of the most enjoyable features of the day was the working together of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, with two parish churches, a counselling centre, and member groups , including Inclusive Church, from the LGBT Anglican Coalition – . In the struggle to be both “real” and “Christian” we need all the help we can get. The temptation to be unreal – the punishment of honesty and the reward of secrecy – is alive and kicking in the Church.
Rev Clare Herbert, Programme Director of Inclusive Church and Chair of the Grassroots Education and Support Group LGBT AC. 10/02/10
A Model Conference
17 February 2010
The Revd Stephen Barton and other members of Changing Attitude
The title of the conference was reflected in the feelings of many at the end of the day: Sexuality and Human Flourishing. Six hours in church in conversation with such a wonderful variety of people about so many things that are often excluded from church-talk, it felt like we were flourishing.
On 6 February 2010 a coalition of groups, including The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, Inclusive Church, Changing Attitude, LGCM, The Sibyls, and Journey, the Metropolitan Community Church, created – in the Church of the Ascension, Stirchley, a safe and holy space in which nearly a hundred of us gathered. Lesbian and gay, transgender and heterosexual, and some who have little time for such labels, we gathered in the morning to listen to Arnold Browne, former Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Alison Webster, Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford.
Arnold gave an address exploring the issues of faith and culture that faced St Paul in working out his responses to the moral questions that various congregations raised. Contrary to some portrayals of Paul, he painted a picture of the apostle as a generous-hearted and compassionate man who recognised a variety of callings within the church and affirmed the importance of diversity for an understanding of God’s generosity.
Alison spoke very personally of her own journey of awareness about her sexuality, at the same time inviting her audience to reflect on our own sexual feelings and behaviour, especially in relation to the supposed homo/hetero-sexual divide. She challenged this divide at the same time as recognising the reality of power differentials between those who name themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered and those who are heterosexual.
Both speakers acknowledged the creative and energising power of our sexuality, as a key element in our relationships to one another and to God.
Discussion groups opened up opportunities to reflect further on what we had heard or to pursue other themes, including the way in which our thinking about sexuality is formed, our sexual behaviour governed and on issues relating to sexuality that arise in the workplace and in the church.
In the afternoon there were reflections on their lives from a panel of five people who between them have a fascinating variety of identities: transgendered woman, vicar, theologian, poet, minister, gay man, lesbian, heterosexual man, academic, hospital chaplain. Some spoke of their relationships to their own families, one for example of the change that came over her own father once his own body, and then mind, changed during cancer treatment. Others spoke of their varied experiences of acceptance or hostility from the church, their struggles to find an authentic place of faith and spirituality, the integration of sexuality into the wide range of relationships – not only those that are overtly sexual, but those, such as friendships, or even relationships with animals and landscape, in which the erotic may be present in a diffused but nevertheless significant way.
Above all, throughout the day there was a sense of the goodness of God’s creation and a hope for the redemption of the church, which both feeds us and also mistreats us. It was so good to hear of a congregation at present in “interregnum” that would not think of appointing a new vicar unless s/he was totally in support of the parish’s inclusive policies. And it was wonderful to see people come to church in couples, who would often hesitate to do so, and find in one another a welcome and encouragement.
Striking, too, was the level of maturity of listening and debate - sadly often missing in polarised and defensive church discussions of sexuality - as we attended to the complexity, fluidity and uniqueness of sexuality in each person’s life. This day was a model, not only in its content, but also in its process, of the kind of listening and sharing that could and should characterise conversation within the church around any of the issues about which Christians disagree.
Article first printed in http://www.birmingham.anglican.org