A Coward with courage – challenging the Church, changing our image of God

LAST WEEKEND, director of Changing Attitude Colin Coward came to our church to give a series of reflections inspired by twenty years working towards a more inclusive church around the world.

Colin Coward was awarded the MBE in June 2014
for serving the LGBTI community around the world.

Colin is an Anglican priest who originally trained as an architect and subsequently as a psychotherapist.  He ministered for 19 years in inner-city parishes.  In 1995 he founded Changing Attitude which works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the life of the Anglican Communion.  Colin is retiring as director in July this year after a brave and prophetic career.

In ‘A Conversation With Colin Coward’ on Saturday 18th April, around 25 people came to hear Colin’s thoughts on what has been achieved towards LGBTI equality within the church, and what more can be done.

He spoke of how he and the organisation has never stopped evolving in striving to achieve change within the Anglican Communion. He lamented that in many ways the situation is worse than it was 20 years ago, and certainly worse than it was 30 to 40 years ago.

Colin’s faith and ministry first formed in the Diocese of Southwark under Bishop Mervyn Stockwood in the 1960s, when ‘South Bank religion’ became a synonym for liberal theology. He said ‘I thought the whole of the Church of England was like that!’

He recalled the controversy around the publication of Honest to God by Stockwood’s suffragan bishop John Robinson, and suggested that if a bishop published such a book today it might cause event more controversy amidst the rise of conservatism in the Anglican Communion.

Colin praised UK governments over the last 20 years for legal reforms which have increased equality for LGBTI people, but he found it harder to identify what has been achieved in the church.

The Church Times reported that when the House of Bishops voted on the statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage in February 2014, 22 bishops voted in favour, 22 abstained or were absent, and one voted against. The statement passed with a minority vote but only one bishop spoke out. Colin wondered ‘where the courage of the bishops has gone.’

He shared that while he hears an increasing number of good news stories, he also hears of continuing and worsening problems, particularly for people considering vocations, facing barriers to ordination and inappropriate questions beyond what is permitted in the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance.

The timing of Colin’s reflection was particularly apt, coming at the end of a week in which two controversial conferences took place in London:

  1. The Global Anglican Future conference (GAFCON) which met to discuss forming a ‘parallel Anglican church’ in protest against women bishops and same-sex marriage.
  2. Transformation Potential: Is Change Possible? conference on ‘unwanted same-sex attraction’, a joint initiative of Anglican Mainstream, Christian Concern and the Core Issues Trust, which claim to act in the name of orthodox Anglican tradition in favour of ‘reparative therapy’ to ‘re-orientate’ homosexual desires.

Colin commented that the Anglican Communion is already effectively split, though not yet formally. He shared an example of a parish led by a prominent member of GAFCON which revolted against his leadership once they realised how far he was prepared to go in separating from the Church of England. Hence he believes GAFCON’s claims to represent the majority of the faithful in the Anglican Communion don’t add up, and the further they advance their ‘parallel church’ the more likely it is that they will face resistance.

He added that his main goal before he retires is to lobby the Church of England to speak out against ‘conversion therapy’ for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. NHS England and 15 other medical and psychological professional bodies (including the Association of Christian Counsellors) have endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding stating that such treatment is ‘unethical and potentially harmful’. Yet the Church of England continues to give a platform to the organisations which endorse it, as an alternative voice to Changing Attitude and its partners in the LGBTI Anglican Coalition. Conversion therapy is likely to be on the agenda of the next House of Bishops meeting in May 2015, and Colin intends to lobby each bishop before then.

The timing was also apt as the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’, a year of discussions and discernment around homosexuality, start next week. Colin spoke of Changing Attitude’s continuing campaign for ‘full equality in relationships and ministry’ for all LGBTI people in the Anglican Communion which means they will not merely ‘accept what is being offered’, such as blessings of same-sex relationships in church, which is likely to be the compromise reached at General Synod in February 2017 to appease conservatives in the Communion.

Colin also spoke of Changing Attitude’s plans for his successor as Director, and his plans to complete a book on his career, reflecting on ‘a journey towards a more healthy, generous, creative image of God.’

You can hear an extract of ‘A Conversation With Colin Coward’ here:

Colin spoke again at the Sunday morning service and gave what he described as a ‘sermon on the hoof’ – unfortunately this was not recorded, but here is my summary:

He began by telling the community gathered in Liverpool’s ‘creative, progressive, inclusive’ church: ‘This is church as I dream of it being’. He added that it is ‘curiously more difficult’ now than it was 30 years ago to practice liberal faith and worship.

Colin is currently writing his autobiography, reflecting not just on his career but also his whole life and recognising, perhaps for the first time, experiences which have formed his identity and faith.

He shared how he became aware of his own sexual orientation at age 11, in the last year of primary school. He described this awareness as ‘core to my being, which is never going to change’, and recognised that this is the ultimate reality for all LGBTI people, which drives his work for Changing Attitude. Colin said that being LGBTI, different, unorthodox, true to oneself in the Church of England is really important.

Colin reflected on the resurrection story from the Gospel of John 20:1-18. Lately in reflecting on Scripture, he notices what is intriguing, curious, unsaid or omitted. For instance, how did Mary get there, having been left behind by the disciples? Why did the disciples go home again? And what’s the significance of ‘disciple Jesus loved’, mentioned four times in the passage? The unnamed disciple is commonly identified as John since the Gospel is attributed to him. Colin argued that being unnamed means any one of us could identify with this disciple – being unnamed by the Gospel author represents a tension between ‘melting into the ordinariness of everybody’ while simultaneously ‘being special, singled out’.

Each of us needs to integrate our communal identity as one among so many, and our unique identity as an individual and a ‘beloved child of God’. This is profoundly challenging for both individuals and communities to hold these truths in tension and in prayer.

Colin commented:

‘Churches are not good at giving people the profound confidence to know they are loved with infinite, unconditional, intimate love’.

The phrase ‘infinite, unconditional, intimate love’ is also how Colin defines God.

Colin spoke of the ‘mystical otherness’ of Jesus’ appearance to Mary at the tomb, in contrast to the prosaic ordinariness of what is going on around them. The contrast between knowing and seeing versus not knowing and being unsure is significant, and characteristic of all of the reported post-resurrection appearances. Mary, thinking Jesus’ body has been moved, wants to ‘take him away’ so she will know where to find him and can revisit him. She is looking at him yet turns to see him again. She sees something totally other, which finally breaks through into her awareness. Jesus says ‘Do not cling to me’, in response to her concern for the presence of his body. His physical presence is no longer important. Colin commented that this is a lesson the Church of England needs to learn again –  or perhaps for the first time – not to cling to the concrete, visible, measurable, which can be destructive of mature spirituality and faith, yet the church continues to encourage it.

The key to this Gospel passage, which Colin finds very moving whenever he reads it, is that it is women who are the first messengers of the good news. They have an intuitive quality to see and experience it first. Yet the church has deprived itself of so much by marginalising women. While it clings to the concrete, the church will take time to deconstruct itself to enable women to be co-equal. Colin encouraged those present, especially women and LGBTI Christians, to be the bringers of this deconstructive and proactive Gospel message to the church to enable it to become transformed by full equality in relationships and ministry for all people.

Colin finally spoke on Sunday evening at Open Table, a monthly service for the LGBTI community of Merseyside.

He reflected more on the resurrection story from John 20, ‘this moment of mysterious presence and recognition, and otherness and uncertainty’ which is characteristic of resurrection experiences, which Colin describes as:

uncertain, numinous encounters with something so profound that you know you are meeting ultimate truth, reality, goodness, love, given-ness, presence, all the things that for me have become fundamental to what Christianity needs to be about, and in many ways isn’t.

He also shared more memories and insights from writing his autobiography, including:

  • the ‘emotional impact’ in his early teenage years of a parish priest with a ‘truthful, profound, holy presence’
  • another priest he knew in his twenties who was ‘so profoundly, really present…absolutely inhabiting his body and his emotions, and knowing the truth of what he was doing in breaking bread and sharing wine’
  • a youth worker who was ‘wonderful, and vibrant, and real, and connected, and vulgar and truth incarnate.’

He described them as ‘authentically Christian and authentically Christlike’ – they also happened to be gay:

‘gay people run as a stream through my experience, and I suspect through many people’s experience, of some of the best qualities in church life.’

Colin encouraged the community of LGBTI people and straight allies at this service to hold together the Christian and human truths of their experience, as his inspirational role models had:

There’s more truth and groundedness and reality here this evening…than I meet in almost every other church context that I worship in, and I thank God for places like this.

You can listen to a recording here:

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