By Jim Naughton
Herb Gunn and I managed to get ourselves from London to Dover yesterday, and thanks to Ruth Frey we managed to get ourselves and our rented cars from Dover to Canterbury. We arrived on the University of Kent campus late in the afternoon, picked up our credentials, checked out the sparsely populated press room, and walked around lost for a bit before connecting with a few folks who I will write more about in a later dispatch. I saw Bishop John Chane and his wife Karen, and chatted with Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont on the telephone. They have been impressed with the conference’s opening retreat, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which concludes today at noon. Conversations among bishops, they say, are earnest and collegial. They seem to be having a good experience, and to be mildly surprised by that.
(This article in the Independent gets the mood right, I think.)
The fact that more than a dozen bishops are here against the wishes of their Primates has necessitated certain precautions, however. One bishop told me that participants in the conference will not process by province into Sunday’s Eucharist as is customary, but will simply choose a partner for the procession, thus making it harder for onlookers to identify bishops who might find themselves in trouble once home. Although I can’t put a figure on it, a significant number of the bishops who attended GAFCON are also here, which makes the notion that recent GAFCON releases speak for that whole gathering rather dubious. What we are hearing, as usual, are the voices of white Westerners who purport to speak for Africans, but whose movement has done nothing to improve the average African Anglican’s life.
After checking in at the Inclusive Church Network’s communications center at St. Stephen’s Church, which sits at the foot of a hill about a mile east of the campus, Herb, Ruth and I set out for dinner with Clare Herbert of Inclusive Church and Brenda Harrison of Changing Attitude, UK. They have spent much of the last few days either preparing the communications center, planning Sunday afternoon’s Integrity/Changing Attitude Eucharist, or preparing the Inclusive Church Network stalls in the Lambeth Marketplace, which opens for business on Monday.
On the way to dinner I spotted Bishop Jon Bruno and several other gentlemen wearing the purple lanyards given to bishops and their spouses on St. Dunstan’s Avenue. Bishop Bruno frequently moves at the head of a squad of other bishops at these sort of Church gatherings. Bishop Gene Robinson is in town, although I haven’t seen him yet, and probably won’t until the Integrity/CA Eucharist on Sunday. Seeing a few members of Gene’s small travelling party, and catching the tail end of a piece that ITV did on a lecture he gave earlier today, I was reminded of a story that I’ve been remiss in not writing earlier. A necessary vagueness will diminish the story, but I think it is worth telling just the same.
X, as I am going to call him or her, is a young person with a degenerative nerve disease. I first caught sight of X at Gene’s sermon at St. Mary’s, Putney on Sunday. X was there again on Monday night for Gene’s appearance with Sir Ian McKellen at the British premier of For the Bible Tells Me So. I later learned from a member of X’s parish that X is very devout and very active in the parish, as is X’s family. Not long ago, X came out, to friends and family, as a member of the GLBT community—a difficult moment in any life, compounded by the complications of X’s nerve disease.
Gene has been a beacon for X, the member of X’s parish told me. The fact that he is both proudly Christian and proudly gay has helped keep X in the Church. And remaining in the Church, a lifelong source of hope and comfort has given X strength for an extremely difficult journey. I spent several years as a sportswriter, and have profiled a few handfuls of famous people during my journalistic career. I am familiar with the look on fans’ faces when they meet their heroes. I saw that look on X’s face on Sunday when X had a chance to spend a few private minutes with Gene after his sermon at Putney. Excitement, admiration and gratitude passed in waves over X’s young face, but X wasn’t so star struck as to make conversation impossible. This wasn’t just a matter to getting an autograph, or shaking a celebrity’s hand—it was putting one’s self in a pastor’s hands, and trusting him to take good care of you. I don’t know what Gene and X talked about, but I know that X among the first to arrive for the movie premiere the following evening.
X and others like X remain in the church, or come into the church because they believe they can trust a church that counts Gene among its leaders. When you consider the issue of gay bishops, and same sex relationships it may be helpful to think not of Gene, or Susan Russell, or the other great advocates for the cause of GLBT people in the church. Think of X and all the people in X’s position, people who long to feel the love of God and experience the support of their Church, but who can feel neither, in most of the Anglican Communion, unless they deny who they are or accept the notion that the God who smiles upon heterosexual intimacy has created them for a lifetime of celibacy.
To argue against gay bishops and gay clergy is to argue against a Church that can reach out effectively to people like X. It is to argue that the good Gene has done in this person’s life is outweighed by the necessity of preserving a bitterly contested interpretation of the Scriptures. It is to argue that God endorses the concept of acceptable casualties, and is not troubled if X, and others like X, are among them.