Unity and the Myth of Neutrality

by Charlie Bell

The Revd Dr Charlie BellThe Revd Dr Charlie Bell is a Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and curate at St John the Divine, Kennington.

In this article, first published in ViaMedia.news, he declares “There is no such thing as ‘neutral’ when it comes to our treatment of other people.” In the current period while the C of E waits to hear from the bishops what they are willing to ‘offer’ at the February 2023 General Synod, it is depressing to hear “how many self-identifying LGBTQI clergy – and, worse, our allies – seem to have been conditioned into believing that the most we should hope for is the scraps under the Table.” … “No more of this nonsense. It is time for the cycle to be broken.”

Unity and the Myth of Neutrality

There is no such thing as ‘neutral’ when it comes to our treatment of other people.

This is, of course, an obvious truth – one accepted for generations and across thousands of different particular circumstances. Refusing to take a position when it comes to the dignity of others is not morally neutral – it comes with a moral cost. Silence in the face of oppression is complicity.

Yet this seems to be something that people in the church – whether bishops, other clergy, or lay people – seem far too often to be unable or unwilling to accept. For years, with a few notable exceptions, the church has lagged behind in matters of social justice – acting not as a spur to change or even issuing a call to action, but instead bringing up the rear. Yet we have told ourselves, far too often, that to take a position instead and risk losing ‘neutrality’ is to do a disservice to our role in the world. We convince ourselves that silence is a moral good – often in the name of ‘unity’. Indeed, we convince ourselves that neutrality is possible.

There is so much wrong with this position that it seems almost embarrassing to engage with it. Taking a step back and looking in at the church from the outside, it becomes increasingly clear why nobody wants to hear anything from us. It is not only our open hostility to things the world takes as read that makes us irrelevant. Our ‘neutrality’ on matters of human dignity entirely compromises our ability to speak out and be listened to as well.

Silence is one end of the spectrum. A refusal to say anything, of course, is nonetheless a very clear statement. Silence means ‘we don’t have your back, and we draw an equivalence between “both sides”’. It means ‘we don’t care enough about you to stand up for you’. It means ‘you don’t matter’. It means ‘we will protect the institution of the church whilst using you as collateral’.

Yet silence is only one part of the problem. Alleged neutrality is, in a sense, far more pernicious. And that false sense of neutrality seeps into every aspect of church life. We have seen it in the ‘both-side-ism’ of Living in Love and Faith, and we see it still in the conflation of the vulnerability of LGBTQI people with the vulnerability of those taking a self-professed conservative viewpoint. We see it in false equivalence between the ‘concern’ to keep conservatives in the church and the need to be ‘pastorally sensitive’ to LGBTQI people. Enough with the patronising claptrap. Enough with the falsehoods. We are barred from ministry; our loves are called ‘ungodly and devilish’; our lives are pruriently pored over; we are condemned to second-rate tolerance – at best. We are bleeding LGBTQI people from our church. There is no equivalence here – we don’t want to push anyone away from the Table, we simply want to take our rightful place, each of us created in the image of God just as much as straight people. We want the church to see what is already blessed by God.

Yet within the church, we have departed so far from the reality of life that people live day to day that we have created our own ‘churchy’ culture that replaces real life with cis, heterosexualist fantasy. And far too many of us participate in it, LGBTQI or otherwise. We give it credence – we tell ourselves and each other how ‘brave’ it is for bishops and others to speak out in even lukewarm terms about LGBTQI people. We dance around ‘the issue’, and we ‘keep our heads down’ so as not to cause trouble.

One of the most depressing things I’ve noticed in recent weeks is how many self-identifying LGBTQI clergy – and, worse, our allies – seem to have been conditioned into believing that the most we should hope for is the scraps under the Table. I have sat with clergy who fear being ‘too pro-same-sex marriage’ despite living with their partner, who have bought so heavily into the need for ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’ that they are willing to disown the love of their life in the process. I have been told it’s a ‘step too far’, and that ‘well, we have managed OK’. ‘I’m not sure the church is in that place just yet.’ ‘These things move in long time frames.’ ‘We need some more theology’. ‘Let’s not rock the boat too much’.

It’s about time to take the blinkers off. The life-giving power of the Gospel is not about ‘privately managing’. ‘We’ might have managed so far, but since when has the church been a church for those already in the institution, those already in the know who can have a ever-so-secret civil partnership ceremony in church, against the rules but allowed with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. How have we gotten ourselves to a place where we – as LGBTQI clergy and those who profess to be our allies – will not be honest? Much criticism has been levelled at the bishops – and much of that is entirely valid – yet where is the ground-swell of truth-telling from clergy on the front line? Why are we so timid? Have we really drunk the ‘unity’ Kool-Aid, a ‘unity’ that is simply a false neutrality that tramples over queer people in the process?

The time has come for us to get off the fence – bishops, clergy, laity – everyone. The time has come for us to stop pretending there is something called ‘neutral’, and to call it out. There is nothing neutral about the current position of the Church of England as pertains to LGBTQI people – nothing whatsoever. In refusing to bless our relationships, it says there is nothing good in them – that we are unable to reflect the love of God in the same way that heterosexuals are. It says that we are somehow, innately, disordered. We are ‘less than’. Our love and its human expression is something that needs to be ‘excused’, something we should be slightly embarrassed about.

There is no neutral position on same-sex relationships – but there is cowardice. And it needs to be called out – in bishops, in clergy, in laity – in ourselves. Yet we continue to let people get away with it. We tolerate their warm words that lead to no action. We nod when we hear talk of ‘unity’, buying into the absurd suggestion that bishops create it and that Christ demands it at any cost – even the lives of LGBTQI young people. We call people supportive who won’t lift a finger to actually support us. We keep quiet in order to ‘keep the peace’. We deny the image of God in others – and far too often ourselves as well.

No more of this nonsense. It is time for the cycle to be broken. Our mission, our faith, our truth, our love, our relationships, our whole being depends on us loosening the shackles that continue to bind us, and our minds. The church can – must, surely – start to say what we believe it should say. But it’s not going to do it on its own – and if, as members of this church, we aren’t willing to play our part, then what are we for?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, and other bishops, may be willing to continue to construct the alternative reality of ‘neutrality’ and silence when it comes to the human dignity of LGBTQI people, but we do not have to accept this as the only way. It is not. It has never been so, whatever we have become used to believing that we believe. Rather, let us become the church he speaks of – excepting this issue – as wanting to become:

‘We acted rightly, we spoke clearly, and we loved generously and we believed faithfully’.

It is high time that this became true for our approach to LGBTQI people, our lives and loves, just as much as it is for anything else. To refuse to make it so is surely to cavort and collude with faithlessness, dishonesty and – ultimately – oppression.

If you sit on the fence too long, it becomes rather uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s time to offer a reminder of that simple fact – and time for the church to become the beacon of hope it is called to be.

This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 13 December 2022 and is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher. The original article is to be found here: https://viamedia.news/2022/12/13/6329/.