The Church of England needs to learn sorry is not the hardest word

As part of our spirituality month Karen Pollock explores what actual repentance for past injustices towards LGBTQ+ people might look like

Last week, the long-awaited Church of England report into same gender relationships was released. Sadly, it was not even a curate’s egg of a report, good in parts. Instead it managed to fudge where clarity was needed, and offend both those who believe non heterosexual relationships are a sin, and LGB Christians who were hoping that finally the church might move forward. I have written previously of the failure of the Church of England, and other denominations, to act lovingly towards LGBTQ+ people both Christian, and of other, or no faiths. The House of Bishops report seems to recognise this lack of love, but still believe embracing those who demonstrate hate is possible.  There is an excellent response to the bishops report here, from the perspective of a cis het Church of England vicar.

One of the things that struck me is the assertion by the bishops that the Church of England needs to repent for previous homophobic attitudes by a change of tone and attitude towards lesbian and gay people.

Affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church, making their voices heard both within the document and in the life of the Church. There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church

Penitence is an active thing, more than a simple apology, but a making of amends towards those who have been hurt or damaged by our behaviours. Penitence is demonstrated, often visibly, through a series of actions. Penitents, historically went on pilgrimages, a concrete demonstration of both their transgression and their desire to repair the harm done.It recognises that sorry is not in fact the hardest word, and is very easy to say, and much harder to demonstrate through action (as anyone who has ever heard a small child apologise will recognise).

Whilst it is good to see that the CofE has recognised that it has done harm, the childish phrase “sorry not sorry” comes to mind. This has been exacerbated by the strange news story of a polari liturgy, as some kind of marker of LGBT history month. Polari was a slang used largely (but not exclusively) by gay men in the 20th century. Such private ways of speaking were a safety need when sex between men was criminalised, and stigma pervasive. Some terms such as cottage, camp, butch have entered our vocabulary, without people even being aware of their origins. Polari is by its nature a highly sexualised language, since it was certain forms of sex which were illegal. Even as the language has died out, terms like chicken hawk still sit alongside bears and cubs in the zoology of gay tribes and descriptors.

Penitence is an active thing, more than a simple apology, but a making amends towards those who have been hurt or damaged by our behaviours.

The tokenistic translation of the liturgy into Polari not only misses the point of penitence, but misses the point of Polari, it is the worst kind of “sorry not sorry”. I am reminded of an incident at my former church, if I may drift into the personal for a moment. There was a service based around water, which featured a film on the genuine trials which many across the world have to endure to access clean water. There was an appeal to donate to Water Aid, and then a very odd demonstration of how much water we might waste in a day, and an appeal to save water, to help those without it. An updated version of the old “eat your tea, there are starving children in Africa”. There was no mention of how the mobile phones of the congregation exacerbated warfare which led to multiple human rights abuses. No mention of food poverty caused by Western desires for the latest miracle food. I might call it performative penance: look how I am displaying my penitence, but do not look if I am willing to make any actual changes to my behaviour. Sorry, not sorry, indeed.

There are many ways LGBT history month could be marked by a service in Church. Praying for those who took their lives because of stigma seems an obvious one. A more important act might be to ask those who still harbour hate and prejudice in their hearts to repent. LGBT history month seems to have been chosen so that those involved could treat LGBTQ+ hate as a historical artefact, rather than the current experience of those who the Church continues to reject. By choosing a largely dead language as their method of “queering the service” they are positioning the need for penitence as historical, which it most certainly is not. It may be that as it is LGBT history month they thought that resurrecting a historical artefact was appropriate, but whilst the harm is ongoing, then the penitential response to the harm must always be about the future and the present, not rooted in the past. Apologies for past harms certainly matter, but they are empty words without changes of current behaviours.

It is also exceptionally saddening, and worth noting, that the word bisexual does not appear once in this report. A mealy-mouthed mention is made of “those who experience same-sex attraction” but nothing more. Perhaps the bishops do not want to think about the fact they have indeed married many non cis het people? Perhaps bisexuals are a group they prefer to pretend does not exist? To talk of changing tone, of penitence, but to ignore a whole section of the queer community suggests any change is superficial. If bisexual people want to marry are they supposed to remain silent on any feelings they might have which do not fit with a conception of the world which does not exist? How is this any different to the historical attitude towards gay and lesbian people?

Whilst the harm is ongoing, then the penitential response to the harm must always be about the future and the present, not rooted in the past.

The shared conversation was meant to expand ideas, however, it seems to have closed down who could be involved, who the Church considered before it even stated. The status of trans people is so complicated in Church law, hiding as it does behind legalistic  definitions of gender, and demanding gender recognition certificates.

The conversation may mention penitence, and inclusion, but, as actions speak louder than words it seems there is to be no change where it really happens, in behaviour.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingkaz)

One thought on “The Church of England needs to learn sorry is not the hardest word

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It was thought-provoking and well argued. The key to me was the line, “Penitence is an active thing, more than a simple apology …” I couldn’t agree more.


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