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Piñatas for Christ?

It's always a risk to comment on what is going on in the life of another tradition, but the run up to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican and United Church Bishops has made me both horrified and frustrated in equal measure.

This is not to say that the denomination I belong to is much better - it truly isn't. Thankfully, all attempts at the World Methodist Council to impose blanket rules is met with resistance, for political and theological reasons. I feel compelled to speak out because of the toxic theology that seems to be at play on all sides of the so-called debate.

It would be bad enough if the damage wreaked was confined to Anglican churches but, of course, it isn't. Because part of the Anglican DNA seems to be setting itself up as chaplain to the State - even when it has not been given official recognition - its actions and words are often taken as definitive of the Christian Church to those of no faith. Sadly the Church of England especially does little to correct this perception or even to find out if its position is shared by its ecumenic partners. Some of us who have dared to point this out have usually been met with condescension, dismissed as tiresome or too small to be taken seriously, and so have chosen discretion as the better part.

The toxic theology I see at play involves a dangerous conflation of martyrdom and self-abuse on the one hand and pastoral negligence and dehumanisation on the other. As with most mainline denominations, Anglicanism has wrestled with sexuality and relationships over the last fifty years. Our denominations have tended, for the most part, to take the position of talking about, and not with. Since our leadership has been deliberately set up to exclude people with certain characteristics or experiences, this is hardly surprising. However, most have gone further and discussed LGBTQI+ people like laboratory rats, dehumanising them in the process. Loving relationships have been reduced to biology and families treated like sociological case studies. This has allowed for the intrusive and prurient interrogation of those offering for ministry or seeking new appointments, the type of questioning that simply would not be countenanced for cis-heterosexual couples and families.

The argument that we can arrive at a place of 'neutrality' where matters such as love, intimacy, marriage and family can be discussed on equal terms, is as naive as it is dangerous. No conversation I have been involved with on this subject has been neutral, where all participants feel equally vulnerable or equally powerful. When the church talks about human sexuality, we know that it is not ALL sexualities that are up for debate. To pretend otherwise is to give credence to an unjust system masquerading as fair. In such a system, LGBTQI+ people are forced to be vulnerable and listen while other Christian dismiss, denigrate or demonise them, usually without any consideration being given to the level of pastoral support needed either during or afterwards,

I was once asked to lead a workshop on relationships to a group of mainly self-proclaimed liberal Christians a few years ago. In the interests of full disclosure I mentioned that I had a child as well as being openly gay, etc. After the small group work, I was approached by an ordained participant who told me that their group had used most of their time discussing my parenthood. Then he asked: 'So was it natural or by adoption?'

On reflection, I asked myself why he felt he had permission to ask that question. He most certainly would not have asked that of a straight person, I am sure. But the consistent dehumanisation of LGBTQI+ people and relationships means that such microaggressions are the rule rather than the exception. From a theological perspective, refusing to recognise and honour the imago Dei in each human being is an affront to God if not blasphemy.

I also mentioned the toxicity of conflating martyrdom and self-abuse. The longer I am in ministry, the more I am convinced that the institutional church thrives on low self-esteem. Good, gifted, talented people often put up with stuff that, in other workplaces, would be deemed unhealthy, unsafe and even abusive. Like other professions, such as teaching and nursing, vocation used to be synonymous with bad terms and conditions, where a person's sense of calling meant they would put up with anything. Long ago, other professions saw through this abuse and fought to change their lot. I wonder whether we have still not done so because we do not really believe we deserve anything better?

John 13:3-5 gives the lie to the idea that martyrdom and self-sacrifice is linked to a lack of self-worth. Jesus is only able to wash the disciples' feet because he was secure in God's love and his own dignity. In the history of the Church, martyrs were not those who disregarded their lives as worthless, but those who recognised their infinite value in God's sight. Refusing to be treated as less than the beloved children of God may lead to abuse, violence, exclusion, and even martyrdom. Accepting such treatment because we believe ourselves worthy of nothing better is not.

A final word about the Lambeth Conference and its processes. Oppressed people through the centuries have come to see that the systems that caused their oppression can never be the source of their liberation. You cannot get good fruit from a poisonous tree (Matt 7:17-18). It is only by challenging those systems and exposing them for what they are that real change becomes possible. All of us must ask ourselves this question: how much do my actions, including my active participation and presence, confront, expose and dismantle the unjust systems at play and how much do they maintain them?

The average abused partner returns to the relationship 39 times in the mistaken belief that their partner will change. I worry that a desire to become a human piñata isn't, in the end, just abuse.

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