Which is of course not the same thing as saying it’s bad.
The official survey results are out and with it comes a press release that presents a number of the key observations in a misleading manner.
The churches were asked to choose one of four categories to describe their attitude to the LGBT community. These ranged from being fully affirming – ‘gay and lesbian people can be fully and openly involved in every aspect of the church’s life, including lay leadership roles’ through accepting, then tolerating, to condemning – ‘LGBT people would not be permitted to be in lay leadership roles….the congregation believes that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful and it is wrong to be in a gay relationship’.
A notable finding is that not a single church ticked the condemning box which represents the traditional teaching on homosexuality and which continues to be the official doctrine of the Church of England.
32 out of the 39 Church of England churches have responded so far, (responses are promised from the rest). Of these 9 (approx 28%) have declared themselves fully affirming, and a further 18 (approx 57%) say they are accepting and ‘recognise the equality and worth of openly LGBT people who are valued members of the congregation’.
Sounds good, but let’s have a look at the survey text itself to see the problem.
Yes, even if you click on the picture opposite the text is a bit hard to read, so let’s spell out what the four options are.
- Whilst openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people are welcomed they would not be permitted to be involved in many positions in the church and especally not in lay leadership roles. Leaders and congregations believe that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful and that it is wrong to be in a gay or lesbain relationship. Similar views are held about bisexual or transgendered.
- There is a variety of views on LGBT issues among the congregation, but the church is not comfortable having openly LGBT people involved in some aspects of the church’s life. Leaders hold to traditional bibilical teaching on sexual orientation but are willing to hold dialogue and to explore different interpretations.
- Openly LGBT people including those in relationships can be involved in every aspect of the church’s life, ublcuding lay leadership roles. The equality and worth of openly LGBT people is implici, but is not often explicitly discussed. There are few or no visible signs of LGBT people and organisations in the church.
- Gay and lesbian people can be freely and openly involved in every aspect of the church’s life, including lay leadership roles. A conscious effort is made specifically to include LGBT people and to affirm the equality and worth of their lives and relationships with explicit referencees in, for example, intercessions or sermons. LGBT Christian or secular posters can be displayed on church noticeboards. The church has already or would be willing to make a public declaration of its open and welcoming character through registering with a body such as Inclusive Church, Changing Attitude or a similar organisation.
OK, where to start?
- The first flaw with the survey is that the category titles allocated by CA were not made public when the survey was sent to church leaders. If you knew what the titles that were going to be used were (“Condemning” in particular is a highly emotive title – CA would have been better to use the kind of gathering titles that Andrew Sullivan used in “Virtually Normal” which were not value loaded) you might have been minded to not return the survey or to give a different answer.
- The survey options themselves make a number of assumptions that could be challenged. For example, the phrase “openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people” carries with it in this survey an assumption that such a person would themselves be affirming of gay relationships. This is simply not the way things are. The survey disregards the scenario of an openly LGBT person operating at the highest levels in conservative churches and yet being celibate and affirming that sex is only to be conducted within the marriage of a man or a woman. This means that the subtlelty of views on this issue (which is very important, since charicatures of positions lead to misunderstanding) could not be analysed. One might even go as far as to suggest that the wording was deliberate in order to impose this assumption in the wider debate that “openly LGBT” automatically means affirming revisionist positions.
- Perhaps a better way to survey would have been to present a number of different options on the different areas of interest. There could have been different options for theology, inclusion and ministry based on different combinations of sexuality and sexual practice, and open affirmation. This would have allowed churches to indicate in far greater detail their particular stance and would have enhanced the reporting of the results.
- There was no indication in the letter that accompanied the survey that Church’s individual written comments (rather than just their rating of their church) would all be publicised. This is very poor practice.
What is good about the survey? Well, it confirms what a lot of us know already, that the Brighton and Hove area has a large LGBT population and that many churches are accomodating to that population. That, however, is all it does tell us, and given that that’s something we’re already aware of, one wonders what the point really was.
On top of that, some of the language of the press release is pure hyperbole. For example, Dr Keith Sharpe is reported as saying,
There is clearly a vast gulf between the official views of Church leaders and the reality of the lived experience of gay Christians in actual congregations. This must surely mean that in time the Church will have to recognise the full humanity of LGBT people. These findings are of national significance. The outcome is so overwhelmingly positive it cannot be dismissed as just a Brighton phenomenon.
Just ridiculous. No-one in the conservative camp denies the “full humanity” of LGBT people – this is just posturing. And as for the results of one town with a hugely disproportionate LGBT population when compared to the rest of the country being “of national significance” and “so overwhelmingly positive it cannot be dismissed as just a Brighton phenomenon”, well that’s just so ludicrous that it can be safely discounted. Seriously – such a small skewed sample can’t be taken as a viable indicator of the rest of the country, and to argue so just makes you look uninformed.
The most damning statement of misinterpretation however is this.
“A notable finding is that not a single church ticked the condemning box which represents the traditional teaching on homosexuality and which continues to be the official doctrine of the Church of England”.
Many of those who ticked (2) will have agreed with the official CofE doctrine and it is likely that even some who ticked (3) may have agreement with doctrine in principle, if not in practice. The only way to find out whether clergy do or don’t hold to the official doctrine of marriage is to ask them directly, without adding on a number of presumptions which this survey does.
What do you think?