Comments: Opinion - 12 August 2017

Picking up on Colin's article: the 'teaching document' I would want to suggest may well become a theological train crash in its own right. What it mustn't become is the theological equivalent of a Haynes Manual. It must foster reflection through acknowledging the reality of different theological integrities. It must be careful in its use of language, avoiding ascribing words like 'orthodox,' 'faithful,' 'traditional,' or 'apostolic' to one side of the debate. Having accepted the reality of different integrities it must accept that different modes of practice will inevitably become part of the C of E's lived reality. It must also reflect on experience and the experiential nature of much of Scripture;; the psalms and the incarnational encounters for instance. It must be a grown up teaching document written for grown ups, otherwise it really will be a theological train crash and, with the most damage being done in the carriage reserved for the episcopacy. The desire to separate experience from scripture and tradition is in itself a denial of theology.

Posted by Andrew Lightbown at Saturday, 12 August 2017 at 11:59am BST

Andrew Lightbown: a big part of me hopes that a train crash is exactly what results. If biology (this is I suppose what people mean by 'experience') and theology don't agree, then theology must change. Theology is a product of the human mind. The human mind is evolving. Theology must evolve. I doubt that there are many members of the HoB with the wit to see the implications of this, and perhaps even fewer with the courage to articulate it. A train crash might show up the HoB for what they are - which is, I regret to say, irrelevant. Of course, I could be wrong .... But if I am I'll still listen to biology before I bother with bishops. I'm a cradle Wesleyan so I've never known what bishops are for except to look after the clergy.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse at Saturday, 12 August 2017 at 4:53pm BST

"Experience will decide...." - this line from a hymn gives due deference to experience as an integral part of the exercise of reason, which, in turn is an integral element of the Anglican genius. Thus, both Colin and Andrew have shown the relationship of experience to all 3 legs of the stool upon which our Church sets its integrity.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Saturday, 12 August 2017 at 6:50pm BST

'The desire to separate experience from scripture and tradition is in itself a denial of theology.'

Whose experience are you talking about? What if my experience is completely different from your experience, as it will inevitably be on a whole range of issues. Who then decides how to interpret scripture in a way which is not a denial of theology as you put it? Relying on experience is a very flawed way of doing theology because it is so subjective.

Posted by William at Sunday, 13 August 2017 at 5:21pm BST

Dear William; is not the readiness to accept the experience of others - as well as one's own experience - a vital factor in ongoing koinonia relationships in the Church? This really speaks of a 'Broad Church', which Anglicanism has claimed to be, but sometimes fails in the execution.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 13 August 2017 at 10:13pm BST

It is interesting that the only comments on this particular site for Opinions 12th August concerns Colin's article, and the churches continued obsession with sex and the male tackle.
While the church continues its debate young people are destroying themselves with drugs, or so lost that suicide becomes a good option for them.
When will the church face up to the needs of now several generations who have lost the meaning for life, and seek escape in drugs etc.
More than ever the folk of our nation do not need management speak, but real life loving speak. Speaking to their cry for a true meaning to life. It will be hard, but that surely is the mission of the church, both lay and ordained.

Fr John Emlyn

Posted by Fr John E Harris-White at Monday, 14 August 2017 at 3:00pm BST

When a whole group of people all report the same experience, that experience is no longer merely subjective but becomes an objective way of understanding that group of people.

It's the uniformity of that experience that requires theology to take note.

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 14 August 2017 at 3:16pm BST

Exactly Erika. Thank you. If theology is to be regarded as an academic subject, and not mere wizardry, it could do worse than adopt the principles of ethnography, building objective evidence-base on the actual experience of LGBT+ people themselves, and if bold enough initiate a form of 'reverse discourse' through which to critique the system and the status quo. There is arguably a significant lack of cultural competency in parts of the Church, extending to a discomfort and downright fear.

At the heart of much of this cultural competency deficit is a lack of knowledge and insight of the actual psycho-social challenges of living daily life as LGBT+ people. The social realities of being transgender, for example, are often difficult and insufficiently understood, and can lead to marginality. 'Listening to' LGBT+ experience is crucial to inform intelligent (and objective) theology, especially because of the background of social exclusion and erasure in the Church, or downright demonization (at the most basic, the vilification of tender sexual relationships as sinful and wrong).

An ethnographic approach is a respected methodology in many academic disciplines. Why not in theology? Are people frightened that the objective truth of LGBT experience and ethical relationships might disrupt preconceived dogma?

Posted by Susannah Clark at Monday, 14 August 2017 at 5:11pm BST

Thanks Erika - I thought it would be assumed that I was referring to collective and non subjective experience. The trouble is that this is a very difficult form of experience to engage with for those who wish to relegate experience to a simple mine versus yours tit for tat. If the other areas within 'theology' fail to take note what the church ends up with is a 'denial of theology.'

Posted by Andrew Lightbown at Monday, 14 August 2017 at 8:32pm BST

Experience is never uniform Erika and I'm thankful that it isn't. Every time I read a novel, I enter the world of another person's experience and I learn from it. So I return to my original question; whose experience counts here if it is so fundamental to an Anglican way of doing theology?

Posted by William at Monday, 14 August 2017 at 10:25pm BST

Why wouldn't experience be an integral factor? Jesus tells us that we can tell the real prophets from the false ones by the fruits of their labor. The homophobic position yields ill health, suicide, abuse, etc. The inclusive position is mostly very joyful, except for those who insist on their personal righteousness and entitlement to exclude others.

Also, prayer is left out of the three legs and it should be at the very heart. It is in prayer, collectively and individually, that we best discern the Good News of Jesus, our role as neighbors, the path of Wisdom and Compassion and Justice. My prayer has always been answered with love and the peace of God that passes all understanding. Never in prayer have I ever been encouraged to hurt another. And I can't believe that anyone has received that message from God. Exclusion hurts and God does not need a gatekeeper, from members of CEEC or the CoE House of Bishops, et al.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 5:19am BST

I appreciate the comments made about my blog. The first two, from Andrew and Stanley, referred to the possibility of a theological train crash, were experience to be separated from scripture and tradition. William, Ron, Erika, Susannah and Cynthia explore this in different directions.

I’ve ‘felt’ for much of my adult life, that as a gay man, I should conform my mindset to the three-legged stool imperative of a church that likes to do theology academically, in the head. I knew I was gay when I was 11 because I desired another boy’s presence. There was no thought of sex, but there was deep, passionate desire within my being. This morningwhat floated into my consciousness as I meditated was: “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God.” Desire – desire for the boy in my class at school, and desire now, both for my partner and for the living God. The soul’s desire for a partner and for God both stem from the same physical and emotional source. But what stimulates the desire? In God’s case (however we might imagine or construct God for ourselves) the desire comes to me as much as, or even more than, I am initiating the desire. As an eleven year old, the desire came to me with an almost overwhelming intensity.

Such desire has always been thought dangerous by the church. Experience and desire has a tendency to be chaotic and, of course, deeply emotional. My desire told me who I was. In maturity, I can see that desire for another human being and desire for God come from the same place and are about the same deep core of what it is to be human. The church wishes to regulate and control desire. What then happens? “They say daily unto me, where is now thy God? Why art thou so vexed, O my soul and why art thou so disquieted within me?” When my desire is constantly questioned by conservatives and conflicted bishops, both my sexual and spiritual desire, I lose faith and become depressed, disquieted.

I wrote the blog because I think Christianity urgently needs to value desire, not simply as integral to our experience, but as fundamental to our encounter with God and God’s encounter with us.

Posted by Colin Coward at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 10:08am BST

William, the experience that counts in terms of theology is that sexuality is not chosen, that trying to reverse it causes harm and that gay relationships have the same potential as straight ones. That there is no observable harm to society or to gay people themselves, but that not allowing gay people equality causes them harm.

Within that framework, every gay person's life is different, just like every straight person's.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 10:23am BST


I should like to pick up on Colin's open and vulnerable remarks.

To add this: God, also, desires us.

One morning, 35 years ago now, I woke in my attic bedroom to an experience of rushing wind. The windows of the room were shut.

I'd gone to bed the previous night full of guilt for something I'd done, and feeling unworthy. As I pulled off my shirt, my cross snapped off from my neck, and I went to sleep feeling miserable and worthless.

What I woke to, seven hours later, was wind. It started gently, but it quickly increased, and as it did so, I realised it was God, I felt God's embrace. The wind started growing ever more powerful, rushing around me and upwards, and the wind was like love. Like rushing, enfolding, passionate love. I started speaking in tongues, and all I could think was 'I love you'. But the core of the event was the other way round: I was receptive. And God seemed to be taking me, and loving me, and desiring me, in a way like a jealous, ardent lover. It was overwhelming.

The rushing wind continued, and I felt taken and held, until I felt like I could take no more, and sighed, 'Please, enough' but the wind didn't stop but increased until I experienced what I can only describe as 'orgasm' only it wasn't physically sexual, it was sensual, delightful, exploding, and more overwhelming than any physical experience I have had in my life.

And at that point I collapsed back on my bed, taken, loved, wonderfully loved, and still whispering and murmuring in tongues.

That was 35 years ago. I know it like it was this morning. It has never happened again. It was like a branding. It marked me for ever I suppose. I think - though I'm not claiming any holiness because as I say it occurred after sin - it's what medieval mystics used to mean by 'ecstasy'.

But my point is this: God, too, desires. I have no doubt about it. God is an ardent lover - and we are made like God, capable of ardent desire as well. All my life since, I have known God actually desires me with a sexual-like desire. We are that precious. Desire and feelings matter. Though religion tries to sanitise, contain and control the wildness and ardour of my God.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 11:39am BST

Obviously I feel exposed by my last post. But there was something very important about Colin's article, and Erika's comment incited me too.

I have had so many Christians lecture me over the years about the problem with 'feelings'. Feelings are an essential part of experience, and God deals with us through experience. But particularly some 'conservative' evangelicals seem to see feelings as subjective and needing to be controlled and subordinated to cold, hard dogma. I disagree. I think experience (and feelings) are an important component in a balanced approach to spirituality and theology. Including the experience and feelings of the bible authors, writing in the context of their times and understandings.

I have detailed one specific 'experience' in my life. To be plain, I don't go seeking 'experiences': they can distract from simply wanting God, if we go hunting them. My 'experiences' have all been unsought and receptive. They have just happened. My understanding of the supernatural, arising from these things, is that it is very physical - more deeply physical than anything we call physical in this passing world. More substantial and more tangible.

The wind I mentioned wasn’t all air-like and insubstantial. It was physical and tangible. And after encounters like these, when we find ourselves in our regular surroundings once again, this world around us seems almost flimsy and less substantial than what one's just encountered. Sort of lower-dimensional. As if you could almost put your hand through it. (Rather like the risen Christ could walk through locked doors, perhaps.)

I know exposing an experience - and a conviction of feelings - and the ardent desire of God - opens me up to sneers and thoughts that I am attention-seeking. In fact it is embarrassing sharing something private like this. Like talking publicly about your sex life (this was my sex life with God, after all). Sort of TMI.

But I am unashamed of the God I know and love. I know God really does desire us like a lover. Read Song of Songs. Good grief! There is the ardent, sensual, frankly sexual expression of God!

In the end, as Teresa de Avila knew all too well herself, and advised, experiences can distract, if they become what we go looking for, rather than simply God. On the other hand, they are also disclosures of the living God, God's impulses, God's longing, God's precious, tender love.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 12:15pm BST

I don't know if my last comment came through:

William, all our experiences of our lives are individual. But there are commonalities too. For the sake of doing theology, the experiences that count are that sexuality is not chosen and cannot be changed, that trying to change it can cause harm, that permitting people to be partnered opens up the same possibility of happiness straight people have, and that forbidding loving partnerships causes mental distress.

A theology that does not take this experience into account is not worth the paper it's written on.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 12:27pm BST

'the experience that counts in terms of theology is that sexuality is not chosen, that trying to reverse it causes harm and that gay relationships have the same potential as straight ones.'

This proves my point Erika; the only experience that you accept is the experience that fits your own particular world view. And you have no choice in this. As I said before, experience is never uniform and one person's experience has to trump another if we are going to use such a subjective tool for theological thinking.

Posted by William at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 1:16pm BST

Colin I read with understanding your additional comment to your article. Theology for me is made up of my knowledge from reading and study; my experience from life, and my spiritual journey fed from my prayer life, my sacramental life, and life in the body of Christ.
I very much respect the office of Archbishop and Bishop, but
I care nothing for those Archbishops, and Bishops who are so narrow minded they are concerned only for their own safety. Whilst a London hospital chaplain, I had to put up with a diocesan Bishop who thought Hospital Chaplains were outside the church. Fortunately I had the support of a retired Bishop.and fellow priests.
God called me, knowing of what I am made to be a priest in His church, supported by the selection board of those days 1958.
Like yourself from a very young age, 5 to be precise I preferred the physical company of my own sex. I objected to the teacher who told me I could not sit on my friends lap. I just did it !
God has never failed me, and yes desire for God, and my husband go hand in hand. They are one, as I know Gods love is for us both.
Not surprising Gods plan for my ministry included part time chaplaincy at a mentally sub normal hospital, followed by a full time chaplaincy at a county psychiatric hospital. Sadly closed by the government, when neeeded
more than ever.
Colin God never lets go of us, His love is constant.

Fr John Emlyn

Posted by Fr John E Harris-White at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 2:47pm BST

'It is interesting that the only comments on this particular site for Opinions 12th August concerns Colin's article, and the churches continued obsession with sex and the male tackle.'

Thank you, Fr. John. The Church is one of the very few institutions which has the ability to speak into a major issue like the north-south divide - and we have a gospel imperative to do it. 'He sent me to give the good news to the poor...'

Maybe if we worked together on something like this, we would get better at putting our differences aside and seeing what we can achieve when we work together.

Posted by Janet Fife at Tuesday, 15 August 2017 at 3:11pm BST

"As I said before, experience is never uniform and one person's experience has to trump another if we are going to use such a subjective tool for theological thinking."

How exactly can a gay person's experience "trump" another's experience? Straight people simply won't have the same experience, it isn't a matter of trumping, it's a matter of difference, which brings in all that stuff about "the other." And there is ample theological fodder for contemplating how we treat "the other."

Pain and agony and suffering of all sorts should be central for any meaningful theology - after all, isn't theology about relationship to God and to one another as God's created? Is love of God and one another exclusively an intellectual exercise? Love doesn't seem that rational to me. It goes beyond understanding. It causes people to do noble things and stupid things...

Posted by Cynthia at Wednesday, 16 August 2017 at 8:24am BST

William, you say "the only experience that you accept is the experience that fits your own particular world view."
No, that was not was I was saying. I was saying that this experience is the same for all lgbt people, and that it therefore differs from the purely personal.

It's like with straight people: they discover that they are straight without ever having chosen. What happens then is purely individual: some marry, some don't, some marry several times, others remain celibate all their lives. Some have children, others don't .Some are happy in their jobs, others aren't. Some are healthy throughout their lives, others struggle with illness....

Once you find a commonality shared by everyone in a particular group, that characteristic is no longer individual, but becomes an objective experience of the whole group.

And at that point, theology must take it into account or become irrelevant.

Posted by Erika Baker at Wednesday, 16 August 2017 at 2:14pm BST

Dear Erika,
The experience of gay people is vastly more complex than you suggest. They don't all fit neatly into the LGBT box of your own world view. For example many gay people are opposed to same sex marriage. Why? Because their experience tells them that children function best with both male and female parents. Other gay people embrace tradional biblical teaching and at great personal cost live chaste lives. Again, a different experience and viewpoint from your own. For the purpose of this thread, I am not arguing about the rightness or wrongness of this different experience. I'm simply putting forward the view that it exists. A theology based on experience is always going to have to make a choice about which experience is valid. This is why it is so problematic.

Posted by William at Wednesday, 16 August 2017 at 11:10pm BST

Maybe if Philip North preached on the North/South divide at a big evangelical festival, it would get some attention....?

Posted by Janet Fife at Thursday, 17 August 2017 at 9:27am BST


I very much agree with you. The Gospel imperative of care and love for all God's children is our God given task. Hence my blog. This Mornings reading from St Marks Gospel records our Lord's early ministry of all folk being brought to him, regardless of who they were.

But as we seek to obey his command, we must be mindful of many folk who have been hurt, and side lined by the official church, because they were different. A difference that was part of God's creation for them. God does not make a mistake, and in His creation there are many varieties, as in the animal world. We need to respect each others differences, and allow God to use us in His way.

Fr John Emlyn

Posted by Fr John E Harris-White at Thursday, 17 August 2017 at 9:41am BST

Janet Fife reminded me about Fr John Emlyn’s earlier comment that “It is interesting that the only comments on this particular site for Opinions 12th August concerns Colin's article, and the churches continued obsession with sex and the male tackle.”

Paul Bayes’ article for Huffington Post about the North-South divide which shames our nation concerns me as much as the impact on my life of the failure of the church after 50 plus years to honour my sexuality and my desires. If we were able to put our differences aside and see what can be achieved by working to together we would be doing it, right now.

I think the church is speaking into issues such as inequality in this country and inequality globally, but it is driven to obsess about sex because bishops lack the courage to make decisions that would at least bring a resolution, and others such as William who has been engaging Erika present the conservative Christian position on homosexuality as if the majority of LGBTI people in the UK

William says the experience of gay people is vastly more complex than Erika suggests, as if Erika is fitting all LGBT people into her own world view. William then generalises: “many gay people are opposed to same sex marriage . . . because their experience tells them that children function best with both male and female parents. Other gay people embrace traditional biblical teaching and at great personal cost live chaste lives.” And we are immediately drawn back into a futile religious dispute which is irrelevant to the lives of secular LGBTI people in the UK. William advances the opinions held by some LGBT Christians on the basis of their conservative faith constructs (which some people might label ‘orthodox, traditional’).

Experience is always, universally, problematic. Every human being’s experience is unique, subtly or radically different from others. I did not argue in my blog that theology should be based exclusively on experience. I am arguing that experience is a neglected, essential element of the way theology is constructed, alongside scripture, tradition and reason. Yes, William, we are always going to have to make choices about which experiences are valid - always. We are still at the point of arguing whether experience is a legitimate element on which to evaluate LGBTI people. Until the church gets over this, the obsessions will remain.

Posted by Colin Coward at Thursday, 17 August 2017 at 11:09am BST

'But as we seek to obey his command, we must be mindful of many folk who have been hurt, and side lined by the official church, because they were different. '

Fr. John, I very much agree with you and with Colin Coward, and have several times posted to that effect. There is still a lot of ground to be won re. recognition of LGBT+ (and of women's) standing within the Church. (I was tempted to reply to William myself, but felt that Erika was more than capable of handling it.)

But like Fr. John I note that issues such as the north/south divide, and care of survivors of abuse, get far less attention here. And I do wonder whether if we looked more at how to work together on issues like that, we might see some of our disagreements in a different light.

Could northern dioceses be encouraged to twin up with southern dioceses, or (better) southern parishes with northern parishes? It would be good for us to hear each other's stories and understand each other's challenges and blessings.

I had always lived in the south until I began to go through the discernment procedure, and had a concept of the whole of the north as 'dark satanic mills' and its people as a bit odd. So I was distressed when I sensed a call to the north very early in the selection process.And I was fed up when, in my first year of training, I was assigned to a mission team in Macclesfield. But as I stepped off the minibus in a grottier part of that old mill town, I immediately knew I'd come home.

I later returned to Macc for 10 years in a very tough parish there, and have in fact spent the whole of my ministry in the north. I wouldn't have it any other way. But there's no doubt it gets treated very differently from the Home Counties.

Posted by Janet Fife at Thursday, 17 August 2017 at 5:56pm BST

"For example many gay people are opposed to same sex marriage. Why? Because their experience tells them that children function best with both male and female parents."

First of all, I have never heard a gay person say or write this, but I have seen straight, non-affirming, people make the claim.

Second, the data show that children with gay parents do just as well as in hetero families. So that is the truth of the experience. To say otherwise is nothing but bias and prejudice and is no basis for theology or any wise and compassionate decision making.

LGBTQI in the church all have the experience of being an object for heated and controversial discussion and deliberations about whether we are equally created in the image of God. This is an experience that straight people do not suffer. LGBTQI people may indeed have an array of responses to it, ranging from Stockholm Syndrome to radical resistance.

Straight people do not have the experience of old geezers deciding whether their condition/orientation/attraction is nurture, nature, or choice. And if our suffering is caused by homophobic jerks or our own brokenness to degrees greater that straight peoples' brokenness.

Straight people can not know, first hand, of our encounters with the Living God and a Jesus who loves us as we are, tells us so, and commands us to be the Good News that Jesus brought to us.

LGBTQI people have a long experience with the church deciding that we, personally, our being, is valid.

Everyone's experience is valid, William. Everyone's. What matters is the Gospel call for love, compassion, and reconciliation. Theology is a verb in this case, it's doing onto others and loving our neighbor. Sitting around like Rodin's "Thinker" is not the path to a theology that embodies the love of the Living God.

Posted by Cynthia at Friday, 18 August 2017 at 7:18pm BST
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