Sorry seems to be the hardest word – On the C of E’s apology to LGBTI Christians

‘It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd.’

So sang Elton John 40 years ago – his lament for a lost relationship could have been written for the Church of England this past month.

At the first full meeting of its governing body this year, the General Synod met this week to respond, among other things, to last month’s meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, and calls for the church to apologise for its treatment of LGBTI Christians around the world.

I wrote a personal response to the Primates’ meeting before it began, not knowing that the truth of what would happen was stranger than any prediction I could make.

The expected walkout of senior conservative leaders who had refused to attend the last Primates’ meeting in 2011 did not occur, except for the bishop of Uganda, who claimed the week before that he would walk out if ‘godly order’ were not restored through discipline measures against the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church of Canada for ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages. When his resolution asking the North American Churches to ‘voluntarily withdraw from the meeting and other Anglican Communion activities until they repented of their decisions that have torn the fabric of the Anglican Communion at its deepest level’ was rejected, he withdrew as promised. No great surprise there.

Then, despite it being a private meeting, rumours circulated of delegates being ‘treated like children’ and having their mobile phones confiscated. The planned end-of-conference communique was sabotaged by leaked news of ‘sanctions’ against the Episcopal Church for changing its definition of marriage to open the sacrament up to same-sex couples. When the communique was published in full, it contained this statement of apology:

The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby echoed this with a personal apology at the press conference closing the Primates’ meeting. But for many, like myself, it felt like giving with one hand and taking with another. We have no way of knowing if this apology would have been forthcoming if it were not for an open letter from 105 senior Anglicans to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, asking for:

Acknowledgement that we, the Church, have failed in our duty of care to LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world.  We have not loved them as we should, and have treated them as a problem to be solved rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ to be embraced and celebrated.  We have made them feel second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, often abandoned and alone.

Repentance for accepting and promoting discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, and for the pain and rejection that this has caused. We, the Church, need to apologise for our part in perpetuating rather than challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people, such as the slanderous view that homosexuals have a predisposition to prey on the young.

Then there was the protest outside Canterbury Cathedral before the press conference by LGBTI Anglicans who had been persecuted in their home countries, putting a human face on the consequences of the Church’s action, or inaction, in the face of such suffering.

When news of the ‘consequences’ for the unilateral action of the Episcopal Church on its definition of marriage became known, alongside the apology for and condemnation of global persecution and criminalisation of LGBTI people, some commentators asked if church leaders who supported such measures would also face ‘consequences’, since several Anglican leaders in particular the Church of Uganda[1] are known to have supported criminalisation of homosexuality. It seemed just that they should if this statement were to have any validity.

That was over a month ago – it has taken time for me to make sense of my reaction to all this. Having rejected the inhospitality and inauthenticity of senior Roman Catholic leaders on these issues, I have now found a spiritual home within a liberal Anglican parish and am about to be commissioned as a lay leader in recognition of my ministry with and for the LGBTI community. This debacle led me to question whether I hadn’t leapt from the frying pan to the fire.

But on the Sunday after the Primates meeting, we held our monthly Open Table communion service for the LGBTI community, friends and family, and all who believe in a more inclusive church. We reflected on our experience of love, and of God, beyond the limitations of the institutional church. Some were angry, some were hurting (again), some asked how to join the Episcopal Church! We prayed:

Open our ears that we may hear the cries of those waiting for love.
Open our eyes that we may see new possibilities around us.
And open our lives to a different future.
One lit by justice and compassion, wisdom and peace.

Afterwards, one of the Open Table members wrote in our Facebook group:

Gorgeous service tonight and wonderful to see old and new friends. This Anglican Communion really is about things like this, not daft archbishops.

The evening reminded me that we don’t need the permission of those in power to love and minister to each other. I recalled the good advice of a Catholic priest when the LGBT Catholic group I ran was excluded from meeting on Catholic premises following conservative complaints: ‘Be on the margins – that’s where the Gospel is really lived!’

In the weeks between the Primates Meeting and General Synod, we saw a poll which revealed that, for the first time more Anglicans supported same-sex marriage than opposed it, despite leadership opposition. Then there was the  launch of the LGBTI Mission, a consortium of liberal Anglican groups ‘Working towards acceptance and affirmation of LGBTI people within the Church of England’. It sets out three priorities, each with three aims, and this intention:

Over the next five years we will do everything we can to remove the barriers to full participation by LGBTI people. We will bring together organisations, allies and friends including LGBTI faith groups.

It will be interesting to see how this develops.

So what news from the General Synod? Archbishop Justin gave his perspective on the Primates Meeting in his opening address, and confirmed that ‘consequences’ similar to those for the Episcopal Church’s redefinition of marriage as gender-neutral could equally face those churches which support the criminalisation of homosexuality. Even if you don’t accept the validity of the consequences for the Episcopal Church (and the Secretary General of the Anglicqan Communion doesn’t), at least there is some justice in them being applied equally on other issues.

Then came the response from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury to the open letter signed by 105 senior Anglicans, and subsequently online by around 5000 signatories including two bishops, calling for an acknowledgement of the Church’s failing in pastoral care for LGBTI Christians, and repentance for accepting a promoting discrimination. If nothing else, it provides a useful summary of where the CofE is on these issues now, even if it does not go far enough to address the issues the open letter raises.

It also raises an issue about whether an apology can be authentic without a commitment to act differently in future. To my ears, and many others, Justin Welby’s apology seemed hollow as it followed news of the ‘consequences’ for the Episcopal Church for having improved its pastoral care for LGBTI Christians without waiting until leaders of churches which have condoned criminalisation of homosexuality are ready to do the same. LGBTI Christians are often asked why they stay in an institution which discriminates against us – I have heard many times people identify characteristics similar to domestic abuse, where one partner apologises and promises to change, so the other partner stays, only for the pattern to continue indefinitely. If an apology doesn’t come with a true desire to reform, won’t it just perpetuate the cycle of abuse?

I have been reflecting on the significance of saying sorry since hearing Justin Welby’s words. I have written previously about the ‘I’m Sorry’ campaign, which involves Christians apologising to the LGBTI community for the ways they have harmed them. I took inspiration from hearing Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation speak at the Open Church conference in London about his work of reconciliation between Christian and LGBTI communities in Chicago, where the I’m Sorry campaign began in 2010. The campaign’s aim is for Christians to stand by the roadside displaying messages of affirmation and apology so that those in the Pride march can see them. If a negative Christian protest is present, as there is each year in Liverpool, the intention would be to offer non-violent resistance, to stand nearby, perhaps with backs to the negative protestors, as a barrier between them and the negative demonstration.

I began to explore the possibility of doing this at Liverpool Pride last year, and was committed to developing it further this year, but this debate in recent weeks has led me to think again. My aim was to create a space for a positive, affirming Christian presence to counter the negative presence of the anti-Pride protest. Having witness the calls for apology and the outcry when it came that it did not go far enough, I came to realise that I, as a married gay man who would not be accepted for licensed ministry, cannot apologise on behalf of the institution which still struggles to accept the gifts, talents and loving relationships of people like me. We have allies who are also interested in taking part, and personal apologies from non-LGBTI folk are an important part of the reconciliation process[2], but until the institution we represent has more deeply acknowledged and turned away from its failings in these areas, there is a danger that in extending an apology to the LGBTI community, we may be welcoming people to come to a church community that is not really ready to accept them as they are, or all they are called to be. We may be exposing them to the risk of further neglect, harm and abuse.

There is still a real need for a positive Christian presence of empathy, congruence and unconditional love and  for the LGBTI community, but it’s too soon to say sorry until our Church at the institutional level is courageous enough to admit where it has failed, and humble enough to look for new ways of relating to and being with those it has marginalised.

After days of reflecting on these issues, I woke with Elton John’s plaintive melody in my mind. For too long, LGBTI Christians have asked:

What have I got to do to make you love me,
What have I got to do to make you care…

What have I got to do to make you want me,
What have I got to do to be heard?

And too many have found their church family to be either absent in their hour of need, or to be the source of the ‘lightning’ that strikes them, until they have walked away or been excluded:

What do I do when lightning strikes me
And I wake to find that you’re not there?…
What do I say when it’s all over?

Why can’t we talk it over? asks Elton John. The I’m Sorry campaign grew out of years of challenging work in the ministry of reconciliation between conservative Christians and the LGBTI community. The Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality will conclude this summer with members of Synod taking part, but the outcome of this process remains to be seen.

It’s clear that many more conversations which move us towards reconciliation are needed before ‘sorry’ is no longer the hardest word, but the most natural expression of deep insight, empathy and love.

UPDATE 21/02/16:

[1] In the original article, I referenced a story that the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Office had supported criminalisation of homosexuality. I am now reliably informed that this is not (or no longer) the case, and that he has been disowned by the Church of Nigeria as a result.

[2] I received feedback suggesting I have downplayed the importance of individuals saying they are sorry. I have amended the text to acknowledge this – my concern is about apology at an institutional level, which individuals have power to influence and hold to account. Those individual conversations and relationships are what bring about cultural and institutional change over time.

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  1. We feel that we still need to apologise, for we were part of the Church who was so hurtful to the LGBT community. If every affirming Christian were to express that apology and through their love show that they were sincere we would start to see a great change. We accept that LGBT folk may feel it safe to go to a church and may still be hurt. This is so sad, really so. We encourage all to use the websites of Inclusive Church: or the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement:
    Jesus was the start of a movement which became a Church. Let’s us focus upon Jesus and his call to us all to Love one Another as He loved Us.

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