RADICAL INCLUSION .UK
please do not erase our lives, our love, and precious parts of who we are
'Life shrinks or expands, in proportion to one's courage'
THOUGHTS ON LIZZIE LOWE ~ and the implications for our Church
John Bell (Iona Community) interviewed the Revd Nick Bundock about the death of Lizzie Lowe and how it radically changed his church: I have corresponded with Nick and offer some reflections on this utter tragedy. I am hesitant to do so, because first and foremost Lizzie's death was a family tragedy, and that should not be casually politicised or capitalised on to win abstract arguments. I get past those reservations and post here because I know that Lizzie's parents want lessons to be learnt from their indescribable loss, but it's necessary to emphasise at the outset that this is about personal loss and words are never sufficient, only the grace of God and healing (I pray) over long years. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine what this absence in their life must be like, because I haven't been in their situation.
As a lesbian woman myself, and knowing the joy and inclusion that can be experienced when a church collectively affirms your relationship, I am so very sad that at many churches young lesbian (and gay) teenagers face conflict between their natural sexuality and theological condemnation, have to grow up in Christian communities with that potentially lovely part of their lives hidden, or feeling internalised shame, or making life so hard to handle.
Nick Bundock's church community has been on a raw and painful journey, but what I admire is that they confronted the way they had sort of avoided or hidden the whole issue of sexuality, and in the wake of awful tragedy realised this could go on no longer: and so they went through true contrition, to opening hearts, and a resolve to change. This is a change, an opening of hearts to love, a courage that can expand who we are as communities, that the Church of England so badly needs.
You can see the YouTube video of the interview here.
In 2014, Lizzie Lowe took her own life. She was just 14 years old but she was already recognised as a lovely, caring, musical, talented individual with so much still to offer in her life. She grew up in a loving Christian family, and she herself had a Christian faith, going to Church, and receiving love there. She loved helping younger children. She clearly had so much to offer. But Lizzie also knew that she had lesbian attraction and feelings, and that conflicted with her life at church, because the Church of England to this day, says sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is wrong.
To me the loss of so much potential and good accentuates the tragic loss when Lizzie could no longer handle her situation and took her precious life. What comes out of the interview with her priest Nick, introduced by Lizzie's parents, is not self-justification, but simply deep human sorrow at such irreversible loss, and the realisation that something has to change. The tragic events radically changed the church that Lizzie went to. Somehow, instead of doing 'damage limitation' this local church community went through its own re-evaluation, confronted its own failings, and turned round its approach to LGBT people. Today it belongs to the 'Inclusive Church' movement, that affirms lesbian and gay people, and seeks to include a wide diversity of people who each bring unique gift with them, even in difference and distinctive situations of their lives.
In the past, by Nicholas Bundock's own admission, LGBT issues were erased and avoided. He recognises with raw honesty that this erasure may have contributed to Lizzie's own sense of isolation and paradox. She could not align two vital aspects of her life and identity: her faith and her sexual orientation. While this particular church has confronted its own failings, and it must have been a painful process, the Church of England at large continues to be riven by disagreements over human sexuality, enforcing a 'party line' and 'status quo' that says that while it is alright to feel 'same-sex attraction', if you actually have sex, then that is wrong.
Archbishop Justin Welby has called for Radical Inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England. However, what does that actually mean? As things stand, that is 'radical' inclusion on his own terms… in other words, 'we feel your pain at being gay, but if you have sex you are sinning according to our teaching'. What kind of welcome is that? It's patronising. It is saying 'We accept you but not the whole of who you might be, or grow and become, as a lesbian or gay Christian.'
A kick-the-can-down-the-road-into-the-long-grass approach has gone on for decades, going over and over the same issues, but officially maintaining all the while that gay sex is still a 'sin'. Meanwhile people's lives pass by, and LGBT Christians die waiting for the day when their precious partnerships will finally be celebrated as committed, sacrificial, caring, natural, and sexual.
What is striking in the video about the life and pitiful death of Lizzie Lowe is that, in contrast to the Anglican establishment, the priest and local church involved have not attempted to sugar-coat, or divert attention. They have faced up to the world as it is, that came colliding into their theology through this young woman's lonely death, and they have admitted they were wrong, that they fell short, and that their lack of true radical acceptance, and erasure of the problem, may quite possibly have contributed to Lizzie's hopelessness. They resolved to change. The Church of England needs to as well.
What happens when church youth groups or university Christian Unions project a dominant view that gay and lesbian sex is something to be turned away from? What does that do to a person who happens to be gay. In appropriating the pointed finger of God, some churches may not be literally 'phobic' or fearful of gay people (though that's psychologically debatable) but they are certainly homophobic in consequence, effect and impact on the individual. What happens when, like Lizzie, you are a sensitive, very loving, musical, talented, giving and faithful person… but the representatives of your faith won't acknowledge the whole of how you feel, and who you might become?
'Radical inclusion' needs to follow the lead of the US, Scottish, New Zealand and Brazilian Anglican Churches, and embrace and celebrate the whole of who an LGBT person is, including their potential to be partners and lovers. At the very least it must allow local churches in all good conscience to offer that level of inclusion. Otherwise people will shrug their shoulders and turn their back on what seems to them to be a sad and prejudiced organisation.
Meanwhile, one part of the Church of England, under the auspices of the Archbishops, is dominating the decent consciences of another part. It is theological domination. In brutal terms it is saying, 'You may be a hospital chaplain' (like Revd Jeremy Pemberton who the Church spent over half a million pounds confronting) 'but if we don't accept your private life we will take away your job.'
My own church recently joined Inclusive Church, one of the organisations seeking to support LGBT Christians in this country. The skies have not fallen down. Heterosexual marriage carries on, but my church recognises that people with other orientations can also be loved by God in their lives and intimate relationships. Hundreds of churches are now members of Inclusive Church.
For them the Archbishop's suggestion that he can't make up his mind and doesn't know if gay sex is a sin (and anyway will carry on sanctioning priests if they have sex lives) must seem a dangerous agnosticism. It is dangerous and deeply harming lives... here, today, now. The suggestion, even in our day and age, that gay sex or lesbian sex is a sin (even if sugar-coated by saying 'there are other sins too' and 'we want to be nice to you')… the implication that God condemns you when you are expressing intimate love with your partner… the refusal to even answer the 'Tim Farron' question "Is gay sex a sin?" (the avoidance of which smacks of political propriety whether a politician or an archbishop)… for Lizzie's church community today, these positions would probably seem inadequate, because of the grave harm that can ensue when people are not included for the whole of who they are.
It is time for some spiritual courage. Because young people like Lizzie, the ones growing up today, deserve it from us. If a priest, and a local church community, want to celebrate gay and lesbian lives, or trans lives, and use a form of liturgy to bless and publicly celebrate and endorse a partnership… should they be dominated by another part of the Church who demand uniformity of practice when there is no equivalent uniformity of conscience and belief? It really boils down to that. Instead of theological domination, let each church community listen to its own conscience and make up its own mind. Otherwise this crisis, this logjam, this impossibility of doctrinal decision, never ends. There is no practical way out, except allowing churches and communities to exercise their own consciences and diverse integrities of faith.
The issue isn't unifomity, or 'which side is right?' The issue is diversity, and how we learn to respect diverse conscientious views, and still love one another. In short the key test we face is not 'who is right?' 50 years past we have seen that just can't be resolved. The key test is 'Do you love one another?' Can we respect local church communities enough to let them explore their consciences on the issue of sexuality? Can we respect the sincerity of churches who hold different views? Can we pray for one another's flourishing and ministry to the poor? Can we serve God alongside one another, even with diversity of views? This at least needs to be the first move: to allow churches freedom of conscience on issues of human sexuality.
'Unity in Diversity' was the route the Scottish Episcopal Church took, and it's a way forward in England as well. I appreciate that some people will say, no, radical inclusion needs to be enforced on every single community. But in terms of realpolitik that is not going to happen. So I believe that 'Unity in Diversity' would at least allow local churches to follow their own consciences, and I believe that would lead to more and more churches openly affirming diverse relationships, because many very much want to.
Love is by very nature 'radically inclusive', and that message of inclusion, I fear, gets subverted by moral rigidity and exclusivity. In a country that has warm-heartedly chosen to love and accept the gay uncle, the trans daughter, the lesbian sister, the gay colleague, the son with a loving male partner… I fear that the Church's gospel message gets undermined by moral self-righteousness and the policing of decent people's tender and intimate love, devotion, and fidelity. Young people today often get criticised, or portrayed as problems, but one quality that really moved me as I worked in a large secondary school was their openness to diversity and their complete acceptance of me as a trans nurse. It wasn't begrudging acceptance. It was positive acceptance. After day one, they just liked me for who I was, and how I could help them, and then got on with their lives.
I wish more churches would follow their example. I wish young people could see real inclusion demonstrated in church life as well as in school. They have so much life, so many dreams, so much to offer, so much to become - and the Church needs to stop teaching people like Lizzie 'who they ought to be' and instead have the courage to truly accept people for 'the whole of who they are'.
The country today understands that the Church is not inclusive enough. The status quo needs to change. As Anais Nin once said: 'Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.' Ordinary people in Britain have discovered that in relation to LGBT issues. The Church needs more courage today, including the many bishops who stay silent on the issue. That is itself a kind of erasure of gay lives: staying silent when you ought to say something. What does the status quo say to young people who know, from within themselves, how naturally they are attracted to people, how much they long for tenderness, caring, intimacy - and the loveliness of that 'coming alive' and 'growing whole' as the person they are?
The deeply concerning question is 'Are there other Lizzies?' And the answer is yes, there are thousands of lesbian, gay and trans young people. I've counselled many myself: lovely, vibrant, giving young people, with all their lives ahead of them - and so much prospect and hope in who they are and everything they will become. But instead of truly 'radical inclusion' the Archbishop of Canterbury offers 'agnosticism' in person and a corporate status quo that vilifies priests if they have intimacy with their partners. I have been grateful for correspondence with many good and decent bishops in the Church of England (including my cousin). But too many stay silent about the status quo when it comes to human sexuality. And that is a sad kind of erasure (or evasion of conflict with conservatives). It looks from the outside like political (or career) expediency, and a shortfall of courage. Whatever it is, grave harm continues to be done.
And so the can keeps on getting kicked further down the road. And the can is people's lives, people's integrity, people's vulnerability, and people's tender love. To its very great credit, Nicholas Bundock's church faced up to the need to repent, to change, to find courage: the courage to love people and include people, right where they are, and more than that, to celebrate people for the whole of who they really are and know themselves to be, and share in their potential, and futures, and flourishing. The video with Nick is raw and still shudders with hurt and emotion. But there is also an awakening, a realisation of the scope of love, the raw givenness of love, and a determination to do better. That is courage, and that is the beginning of radical inclusion.
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Susannah Clark has worked in the prison service, then taught for 25 years in schools, before re-training as a nurse. She is transgender, and married. She belongs to the Fellowship of an Anglican convent, worships at an Anglican church, and practises contemplation in the Carmelite tradition.
Two parallel sites have been created:
radicalinclusion.uk - the site you are visiting right now - is the 'quick read' version if you are in a hurry
radicalinclusion.co.uk is the in-depth site for reading more deeply on any section and to reflect further
~ click on any of the links below for more detailed versions of the pages available here in quick-read form: