News of the death of Revd David Coles, beloved husband of Revd Richard Coles came as a shock to many of us. We have been incredibly privileged to have been invited by Richard into his grief which is heart-breaking to read. But what is much more heart-breaking - but not surprising to those of us who live openly as LGBTQ+ folk - is the vile homophobic, hate-filled responses to the announcement that Richard has had to read. That some people, including and especially those empowered to do so by their particular brand of religious belief, should think it right to attack a widower in the rawness of his grief, is a sign of just how much hate has control of their heart. Even though it is a tiny proportion of the huge outpouring of support for Richard Coles, it still makes me ashamed that many of those people claim the identity of Christian.
I have lost count of the times that Methodists tell me that it’s all getting better for LGBTQ+ people and homophobia will soon be a thing of the past. Rarely do they ever ask me how it is, but are confident my fears or misgivings are entirely misplaced. Yet, only six months ago, The Guardian reported that the ‘rate of LGBT hate crime per capita rose by 144% between 2013-14 and 2017-18. In the most recent year of data, police recorded 11,600 crimes, more than doubling from 4,600 during this period.
Transphobic attacks have soared in recent years, trebling from 550 reports to 1,650 over the period examined. Almost half (46%) of these crimes in 2017-2018 were violent offences, ranging from common assault to grievous bodily harm.’
In many ways things are better, and the police in some places are beginning to take hate crime seriously. Many schools now actively tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying among students (and staff) and more LGBTQ+ people are taking the risk and becoming more visible. When we are abused or attacked, we are also more likely to report it.
What also concerns me is the rise of the conservative martyr in our midst, those people who want to say whatever they like about people like me and be protected from any accusation of bigotry or hate. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth when some want to equate their experience of name-calling with the kind of intrusion and violence faced by at least 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ people. I am not, for one minute, conflating the peddlers of hate and violence who attacked Richard Coles with those conservatives in my own Church who are struggling with issues of marriage and same-sex relationships. But I am suggesting that speech and acts are not entirely divorced. All of us are responsible for what we say and how we say it. We cannot be held accountable when others twist our words or deliberately distort them for their own ends. But when some who claim to share or support our views engage in violence of any kind - physical, emotional or spiritual - we have a duty to distance ourselves from them and reject their actions.
I grew up in Ireland during the Troubles and saw at close-range the power of words to harm or heal. I also saw how silence or a refusal to speak can so easily inflict further pain on people who are already suffering. As those who affirm that the Word became flesh, Christians are called to speak healing words to a fractured world and to embody those words in acts of love and reconciliation. If our words jar in our own ears to the extent that we have to explain that they are said in love, then perhaps we shouldn’t say them at all.
It sounds strange to say it, but I am grateful to Richard Coles for sharing his pain and loss and allowing us the opportunity to respond. May all that is said be filled with love and hope and worthy of the Word made flesh.