Listening? At General Synod

Much of superb value happened at the meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia in Canberra. This is just one small part of it.

In March 2006, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Church of Australia asked one of its members, Dr. Muriel Porter, in consultation with the Primate, to prepare a report on the question of a “listening process” with gay Anglican clergy and laity in Australia. The report was to canvass matters such as previous “listening” attempts in Australian dioceses and information from Canon Philip Groves [Facilitator for the Listening Process in the Anglican Communion] on process models. This related to the Australian response to clause (c) of Resolution 1.10 of Lambeth 1998, which committed the Church “to listen to the experience of homosexual persons”.

The report provided to Standing Committee and to last week’s General Synod meeting shows few of Australia‘s 23 dioceses had made “a concerted , diocese-wide attempt at ‘listening’ “. Others have undertaken other less wide ranging activities. “However, very few dioceses report that the experiences of gay people were actually able to be heard, either because the processes involved did not enable this kind of listening, or because gay people felt too vulnerable to speak.”

A positive aspect of the report is that “In most dioceses, the listening initiative has been almost entirely the bishop’s. It is good to report that most diocesan bishops take seriously the need to listen carefully to gay people in the Church at least, and in the case of Tasmania in particular, in the wider community as well. Most diocesans seem keen to offer sensitive pastoral care wherever possible, and encourage their clergy to do likewise.”

After making some recommendations, the report concluded that “The gay people Dr Porter spoke to stressed that they would like the opportunity to offer the Church in this way their experiences of caring, monogamous, long lasting some sex relationships and of their good experiences as Church members, as well as accounts of their struggles with their sexual identity and their hurtful experiences in the Church.”

All this led me to ask this question on notice at the Synod:

Appendix A (iv) to the Standing Committee’s report to this General Synod reports on a study into the implementation of the Listening Process in the Australian church

1. Other than by requesting this report and by providing for the synod session on the listening process to be conducted on Tuesday, what action has been, is being and will be taken by Standing Committee to implement whole heartedly the listening process in the Australian Church?

2. In particular, how has the Standing Committee acted in response to paragraph 9 of the report, which tells us that gay and lesbian people are seeking the opportunity to offer the church their experiences of caring, monogamous, long-lasting same-sex relationships and of their good experiences as church members?

The answer given by the Primate, the Most Revd Dr Phillip Aspinall was

(1) The Standing Committee has not undertaken any further initiatives, but it should be noted that compiling the report and preparing the Synod session are significant initiatives.

(2) The audio presentation offers some experiences referred to in part 2 of the question.

In the evening, we heard a sound recording of four stories, read to us by volunteer actors, to protect the identities of the story tellers. Yes, the audio presentation was significant. I’ll write more about that later. Barney Zwart of The Age picked up on my question and I find myself pictured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald today and wondering whether that’s a good thing.

On the brink of schism


Passionate: lay preacher Brian McKinlay says he confronts the reality everyday that he is part of “the problem” dividing the church. Photo: Andrew Sheargold

Barney Zwartz

27 October 2007

BRIAN McKinlay’s plea is simple but heartfelt. “I’d like people to appreciate how hard it is, almost every day of one’s life, to have crisis and division in a church I love because of something that is an intimate part of the way God created me.”

McKinlay, a Canberra public servant and lay preacher, is a passionate Christian who lives in a monogamous, faithful, committed same-sex relationship with another Christian. “Do you wake up every morning as a married person and think you are part of the problem dividing the church? I live with this nearly every day. There’s a huge cost,” he says.

“I’m nearly 60, I’m OK. What about the 22-year-old who has just discovered he’s a poofter, but he loves Jesus. How will he cope with that? Some kill themselves.”

McKinlay was one of 250 delegates at the Anglican synod in Canberra this week who sat in silence, lights dimmed, to hear the anonymous testimony of four gay and lesbian Anglicans.

Homosexuality has been a strong theme at the three-yearly synod, both as the issue that has driven the worldwide Anglican Church to the brink of schism in the past five years, and in discussions of whether anti-gay attitudes have hardened in the Australian church. A number of gay Anglicans were in no doubt about that, while Synod deputy chairman Justice Peter Young predicted the next big conflict in the Australian church would be between the hierarchy and gay and lesbian Christians.

“This is the issue of the day,” says a senior Melbourne priest who is gay. “For the younger generation, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ isn’t acceptable. For some people, honesty and integrity is much more important than discretion. We just want the sympathetic understanding that, as part of God’s good creation, this is how it is.”

The Anglican Church has always formally forbidden homosexual activity. Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen says the church standards are drawn straight from the Bible, they are perfectly clear, and are adhered to by all churches. “The stand of the worldwide church for 2000 years is that God approves sexual relations in marriage and disapproves of sexual relations, heterosexual or homosexual, outside marriage. This view is not against homosexuals but for marriage,” Dr Jensen says.

The synod “listening process” on Tuesday night represented a significant step, according to leading laywoman Dr Muriel Porter, who organised the presentation. “It says a lot about the church that these people have to tell their stories anonymously – that’s the saddest thing,” she says.

The room was still, and people filed out quietly and reflectively. Earlier attempts in a couple of Australian dioceses resulted in the listening process turning into a shouting process, which deterred other dioceses from even trying, according to Porter.

“I detect a willingness to listen now,” she says, “but if anything attitudes are hardening in response to what is happening internationally.”

Porter says there are fewer gay people in the church than 20 years ago, both clergy and in congregations. “The rules are getting tougher on who gets through. There wasn’t as much ‘putting a window into men’s souls’, to quote Elizabeth I, as now, and we lose some of the most promising people because they aren’t willing to subject themselves to an inhuman level of scrutiny.”

The four stories that were read to the synod reflected different experiences of homosexuality. One is a former priest who left the church because of its attitude to gays, another man stayed but is celibate because he believes that to be the biblical requirement, another is a woman who was a lesbian but through Christian experience has become heterosexual, and the fourth is a still-serving priest who keeps his homosexuality secret.

The former priest says he could not cope with celibacy, and not just because of sex. “I feared becoming a lonely single priest, emotionally empty, who could end up hitting the bottle.” He fell in love with a man (they have been together 35 years) and knew they could not live together openly, nor was he prepared to pretend. He left the priesthood and, eight years later, the church. “I did not want to be part of an institution that would not accept me as a whole person. If I had followed the church’s line and rejected this relationship and all it has given me, I would now effectively be dead.”

The second story is that of a layman, 53, who accepted he had always been gay but believed it was against Scripture to have sex. As a young man, he sought counselling from a youth leader who asked him for sex. He refused. Later, as a highly respected youth leader himself, he invited a young Christian to sleep with him and was rebuffed. “I felt such a level of shame and disgust at how things had come full circle that even now, more than two decades later, the emotional memory is still painful.” But his walk with Christ deepened, and he feels secure.

“I have sought to make my life’s focus not my sexuality but rather God’s grace in calling me to be one of his people … These things matter far more to me than issues to do with my sexual orientation and how I respond to them,” he says.

The third testimony is from a woman, sexually abused as a child, who was so certain she was a lesbian that she took male hormones, grew a beard and had her breasts removed. Becoming suicidal, she called out to God that she could not live like this any more. “It was like a decade of psychotherapy in an hour. I understood who I was. I was not a man, just a very injured woman.”

Now she is married, with three children. She say “It is a lot easier to be heterosexual; who would ever choose to be homosexual? I know that God has never rejected me and accepts me as I am. The God I worship would never reject gay people; he is a God of healing and restoration.”

The last testimony is a priest who lived almost 40 years in a monogamous relationship with another man, sometimes in the same house, sometimes not. This enriched his life and ministry enormously.

He says the climate in the church has become more fearful and mean-spirited, leading many gays to give up on it. “I do wish the church might let the question of homosexuality take the small place it needs in the tradition.”

Melbourne priest Nigel Wright, who “came out” 15 years ago, thinks anti-gay attitudes in the church have hardened. “What I call the horizons of imagination have narrowed. Systems have been set up that bid us identify with those who are in, and therefore not with those who are outside. It’s cruel as well as heretical.”

Father Wright lives with his partner in a legal British civil partnership, and says he has not found any objection from church authorities. He’s grateful for that, but he rejects the conservative line on homosexuality – that the orientation itself is not a moral failure but sexual activity is.

“That silly thing about love the sinner, not the sin, and it’s OK if you’re not practising – like I haven’t been practising for years! I’ve been up to concert standard for a long time,” he says. The senior Melbourne priest who did not want to be named feels the same way. “Never say it’s not personal, because people are affected,” he says.

Gays used to call themselves “friends of Dorothy”, a reference to The Wizard of Oz, and at St Agnes, Glenhuntly, the congregation has celebrated St Dorothy’s Day for years. Actually, there is a St Dorothy, who refused to get married and died a virgin martyr in the third century. Vicar David Still says the St Dorothy service gives the wider gay community a chance to experience faith together in a welcoming environment. “Half a dozen parishes at the Catholic end of Anglicanism are quite accommodating of gay people,” he says. “We would have four or five openly gay, including couples, and the parish is extremely welcoming.”

It was a warm welcome that led Brian McKinlay to reveal his homosexuality. At a Canberra synod a few years ago Bishop George Browning said he knew there were gay and lesbian members and he hoped they would feel welcome. “I stood up and said, if he had the courage to say that, the least I could do was have the courage to say thank you. They clapped and cheered, and that was entirely enough.”

But he wants gay and heterosexual Christians to remember what Christian priorities are. “For me, the work of the church and the gospel of Christ is supremely more important than anything I might construe as my rights. The Great Commission (Jesus’ instruction to make disciples) is best fulfilled if we open our doors to anybody and everybody. I pray that every person who comes seeking God will find a welcome. I don’t want myself to be an obstacle to achieving that.”

Barney Zwartz is religion editor

The Sydney Morning Herald ran the same story, with the headline A daily crisis of love and faith and this picture.

Earlier Zwart wrote this in The Age (24 Oct 07)

Australian Anglicans had become fearful and mean-spirited about homosexuals in the church, a gay priest told the church’s national synod last night, while a top Anglican suggested homosexuality would be the next battleground.

Justice Peter Young, the synod’s deputy chairman, told The Age that homosexuality would be the next problem for the Australian church now the debate over women bishops had been resolved. “We can see from England and New Zealand what the problems are. We can see that the next problem is between the (Anglican) hierarchy and gay and lesbian Christians,” he said.

The gay priest, 60, who has lived almost 40 years in a monogamous relationship, was one of four homosexuals whose testimony was read by volunteers to preserve their anonymity in a special session of synod. The priest said there was a much more generous attitude to gays in the 1970s and ’80s, and he knew many clergy living in faithful relationships. “In recent years the climate has changed. It is fearful and very often mean-spirited,” he said.

“Today there are few priests living in a same-sex relationship. My suspicion is that there are many fewer gay people in the church-they seem to have given up on institutional religion and certainly the Christian church.”

Dr Muriel Porter, who acquired the four accounts, said attitudes had hardened in response to international Anglican turmoil over sexuality. Dr Porter said there were fewer gay people in the church than 20 years ago, and it would be rare to find openly gay people, but if all gay clergy left they would leave a huge gap. “We lose some of the most promising people because they simply aren’t prepared to subject themselves to an inhuman level of scrutiny.”

The four stories told of different experiences. One was of a priest who left the church because of its attitude to gays, another man stayed but was celibate, another was a woman who had been a lesbian but through Christian experience became heterosexual, and the fourth was the priest who kept his homosexuality semi-secret for decades.

Australia’s Anglican leader, Brisbane Archbishop Philip Aspinall, said it was hard to get cool, rational debate on homosexuality.

The church needed space so people could engage with confronting ideas in a non-threatening way, he said. “We should listen compassionately, whether we agree with them (gays) or not.”