Four years ago, Lizzie Lowe, a fourteen year old girl, took her own life. Thinking that she might be gay, she feared telling her parents, and was struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her devout Christianity. Now, the church of which she was a part, St. James’s in Didsbury, has formally adopted the status of an inclusive church.
This means that the church openly welcomes all people, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. In the case of St James and Emmanuel, its sister church, it means hosting talks from other faith leaders, embracing messages of inclusivity, and even organising a local Pride event. It seems that these two churches have gone out of their way to respond sensitively and proactively to Lizzie Lowe’s suicide.
While these churches should be praised for their efforts, there is something galling about the fact that it took the suicide of a young girl to bring about this change. Church leaders admitted that, prior to 2014, despite being inclusive churches in nature, sexuality was never openly discussed for fear of ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’. Indeed, although the churches have subsequently gained new members from diverse backgrounds, 25 parishioners have actually left the church as a result of its new chosen status.
But do 25 parishioners really make a hornet’s nest? Aren’t abusive messages to clergy, while unpleasant, simply a small price to pay for the greater wellbeing of the community a church serves? Because genuine inclusivity is vastly different to silent neutrality: it only comes with enthusiastic and vocal acceptance. An acceptance that is as unified and as total as it is strong. Based on the widespread support for the churches’ move towards inclusivity, it seems that their earlier fears simply pandered to an intolerant, if powerful, minority within the wider church.
The Church of England does seem to adopt a very confused line on homosexuality. Although more recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has admitted that LGBT+ people have been treated ‘appallingly’ by the church, this is not a problem that can be confined to the past. Officially, churches in England and Wales cannot hold religious ceremonies for same-sex couples, and clergy who enter into civil partnerships still have to take vows of celibacy.
While individual churches attempt to reform, conservative laws mean that those struggling with their sexuality are just as likely to stumble upon intolerance as acceptance. And it is that intolerance which the Church of England accepts as its official stance. No matter how many accepting voices call out from within the church, those most in need of that acceptance still struggle to find it.
Although not a landslide, the 25 parishioners who left St. James’s after its move to inclusivity indicate that for too long, churches have harboured small and influential groups of people who are not afraid to show their displeasure at progressive measures. These displays of defiance in the face of reform, the official policies that still prevail, and the historical relationship of Christianity to homosexuality all make for a situation where LGBT+ people continue to feel unwelcome despite the changes made within individual churches.
Because the church exhibits so much confusion in its official line on homosexuality, and because some churches remain silent on the issue, enthusiastic and unequivocal acceptance is hard for LGBT+ people to find. But that is exactly what is needed. Yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury may have said that he ‘rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it’, but making statements like this is not the same as refusing to tolerate intolerance.
In fact, continuing to allow intolerance to dictate official church policies gives all the power to those who wish to put a stop to progress. The Archbishop of Canterbury may understandably fear a schism within the church, but the church must now decide to be on the right side of history.
In the past few days, the church hasn’t been doing a brilliant job of that. Consider Justin Welby’s recent condemnation of zero-hours contracts, despite the fact many C of E churches employ people on such terms. Consider also that while he described Amazon as ‘leeching off the taxpayer’, Amazon is one of the church’s biggest investments. It seems that the current Archbishop of Canterbury may be developing the habit of saying the right thing, but doing nothing.
But this time, it really is a matter of life and death. The Christian charity Oasis has warned that churches’ attitudes towards homosexuality are driving people to suicide. If Justin Welby sticks to his current track record, then it won’t just be a case of hypocrisy but of lives lost needlessly. This is an issue that Welby must be bold and clear on.
Because although the nature of an inclusive church means that it should welcome all - from members of the LGBT+ community to those who aren’t able to reconcile their faith with an acceptance of homosexuality - this does not mean the church should support and promulgate any intolerant viewpoints. For while the church should embrace all people, it does not need to incorporate all opinions in its methods. Instead, the Church of England should take a firm and progressive line forward. Lizzie Lowe is sadly not here anymore, and the church cannot change that. But the church can and should strive to change itself in order to bring some justice to her memory.