‘When all’s said and done, there’s usually a lot more said than done.’ Bishop Paul Bayes realistic assessment of faith communities’ ability to describe problems rather than enact solutions is a comment that has stayed with me from the launch event of the Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ lives. When I was invited to attend, I was both excited and honoured to have been asked. A visit to the British Foreign Office was also a rather attractive prospect, if I’m honest! In the end, Covid-19 put paid to a physical gathering and we instead gathered around our computer screens in various places and timezones.
Having had a couple of days to digest and reflect on the events of the day, I am left with very mixed emotions. It was indeed a huge privilege to listen to such a diverse range of voices and experiences, and to share the pain of such courageous individuals from places where violence and oppression is all-too-real. It was heartening to see so many faith leaders prepared to sign up to the declaration. I was in danger of suffering the episcopal equivalent of snow blindness, such were the number of purple shirts on the zoom screen! And it was humbling to hear messages of penitence and regret from faith communities still in the very early stages of even acknowledging the presence of LGBTIQ+ people among them. A huge thanks goes to Jayne Ozanne and all those who brought us together.
I am also left feeling incredibly tired, impatient and not a little fed up. There used to be a joke about landing at Belfast Airport when the steward would announce: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Belfast. Please put your watches back 30 years! Engaging in conversations about sexuality, gender and relationships with religious people often feels like entering a time warp, where current basic understandings about human psychology and relationships comes as shocking news to many of the participants. Even in some of the more open discussions, it can feel like GCSE Biology all over again, where LGBTIQ+ people spend most of their time explaining current realities. This can feel, too often, like self-justification, and is draining to say the least.
So whilst I was delighted to hear some Muslim voices push for conversations about sexuality and gender to begin in mosque communities, I am also weary of hearing that this is still resisted in so many quarters. It is as if LGBTIQ+ people landed from another planet in the late 70s and people of faith were confronted with us for the very first time. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that EVERY person of faith has already met an LGBTIQ+ person, whether they know it or not. Despite all attempts at what amounts to genocide, LGBTIQ+ people continue to exist in every culture and community. It has never been a question of whether LGBTIQ+ exist or are present, but rather if they are able to be honest, open and truly themselves. You have no need to ask whether your community includes LGBTIQ+ people, but whether it is loving enough to allow them to come out.
Don’t get me wrong - I am not opposed to meaningful grand gestures. It is an important part of the process of change to have moments of reflection and public statements of support. The declaration on the sanctity of life and dignity of all includes a repudiation of gay conversion therapy, an abhorrent practice that the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, described as “inherently discriminatory ... cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and that depending on the severity or physical or mental pain and suffering inflicted to the victim ... may amount to torture.” The question is therefore, why should religious leaders sign it, but what are they saying if they don’t? To date, only half of the British Methodist District Chairs have put their name to it, and none of the senior members of the Connexional Team. No United Methodist leaders have yet signed up either.
There is an inherent danger in these kinds of statements that they allow faith leaders to virtue-signal in public whilst doing nothing to enable or drive real structural change. For Christian leaders, there is an incarnational imperative to make their words, flesh, to use the influence, power and privilege they have been given to see justice and love embodied in structures, policies and practices that are open, fair and inclusive.
Let’s hope and pray that, when all is said and done, what is said is seen in what has been done!