"Being Gay in the Church" was the title of an evening held by CRC at St Mark's Church, Broomhill, Sheffield in 2017. Sandra Newton and Jeremy Pemberton reflected on their experience of being gay in the Church from their different perspectives of being a lay person and clergy.
Here is an outline of Sandra's contribution:
How would you describe yourself in a few words?
- Short version: ‘Lay, grey and gay’!
- Sociologist, career of 35 years as a civil servant in the various incarnations of the ‘employment’ department working mainly on policy and implementation of work and training programmes but also turning my hand to finance, IT and HR. Moved to Sheffield with the Manpower Services Commission in 1981.
- Partnered with Gill for nearly 30 years and have shared our lives with a number of adopted cats.
How did you get involved with the C of E?
- Originally through Brownies and Guides!
- ‘Grew’ into faith in my teens at a very good, open, evangelical church.
- ‘Moonlighted’ for the C of E since I was 18 in various leadership roles, most recently over 20 years in cathedral governance and project management before moving to St Mark’s [Broomhill, Sheffield] over 2 years ago and now being on the PCC here.
- I took early retirement from the Civil Service to become Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance in 2008. This led indirectly to membership of a number of national C of E committees, mainly involving resourcing, and currently being Vice Chair of the C of E Pensions Board and Chair of its Housing Committee.
When did you know you were gay? How?
- When I realised that I was in love with Gill. Really scary!
- I was staying with my parents in East Sussex when Gill let me know that her cat Prowker had had to be put to sleep. I was upset that I was not in Sheffield to be with her and realised that our friendship had become something more – at least to me.
- I’d had a number of very good, close male friends but the right ‘chemistry’ had never been there to develop those relationships further.
- Like becoming a Christian, I was a slow learner!
When did you ‘come out’?
- Again, a gradual process. First of all, Gill and I had to explore and discuss our feelings about each other and then it became clear to ourselves, and then others, that we were ‘an item’.
- With friends and family, we had to explain a friendship which then became something more. There was no antagonism, just a lack of familiarity with other gay relationships. Our parents could see that we made each other happy and it helped that they loved us unselfishly.
- For (at least most) people we knew at our parish , from the vicar outwards, they were delighted.
- At work, it was no big deal at all – except to be very popular with any team I worked with for having at least two key dimensions for their equal opportunity ‘scores’!
- Friends and brothers were completely accepting and welcoming –
- - as was Gill’s Mother. My parents were less opposed in principle and more concerned about protecting my ‘investments’ in case Gill was after me for my money! Quite soon they came to love Gill because she loved and looked after me.
- So, no real problems – I’m sure helped by being mature when all this happened and being lay rather than ordained.
How did you meet your [current] partner?
- It was all the church’s fault!
- I first saw Gill at a Lent group and a mutual friend introduced us to each other saying that she thought we might have some things in common. She meant initially as professional women but she was a very wise woman….
- We both became members of the PCC and were so frustrated by the poor chairing of the vicar that we resorted to having a drink together afterwards to let off steam. We went to the nearby pub, then each other’s homes and …. we talked a lot!
- (We were and are both great fans and friends of the vicar in everything apart from chairing meetings! He was a special guest at our partnership ceremony!)
Partnership or marriage route?
- We greatly welcomed the introduction of Civil Partnerships for both legal protection and a recognised public commitment to each other. We held our ceremony in 2006 at the Town Hall with a few special guests. A special occasion but not our ‘real ‘ anniversary.
- We are pleased that the marriage route has been opened up to at least most gay people but we both have problems with the language as applied to two people of the same sex. ‘Partnership’ really very well expresses what we have together and we have all the equivalent protections that marriage gives. We don’t feel the need to ‘upgrade’ our legal status, begin again or make a statement.
- What we would have liked, very much, would have been to be able to have had our partnership ceremony held in church and explicitly religious rather than having to do that it at home and then surreptitiously in a religious service!
Experience of discrimination in the C of E?
- Only once have I been aware of explicit discrimination because I was gay. When the Archbishops’ Council (a voluntary, national advisory body) was set up I reached the shortlist for lay members. On the journey down to Lambeth Palace I rehearsed and rehearsed what I would say about my sexuality. I was not going to deceive or surprise the Archbishops after the event, tempting though that was. At the end of the interview – which seemed to have gone well up to that point – I was invited to ask a question of the panel. I asked my rehearsed question that related to my status and the atmosphere froze. The members of the panel (all men!) were lost for words. I left the room knowing that I would not get the job. I didn’t – and never received the feedback I made sure to ask for!
- Sad, but relatively minor. My work colleagues were incredulous but, in retrospect, I was freed up to lead the project to design and fund the £4m extension to Sheffield Cathedral.
- Otherwise I seem to have been positively asked to do lots of things in and for the C of E that are both very visible and have nothing explicitly to do with sexuality. Whether that is ‘positive discrimination’ or merely irrelevance, I have no idea.
Clerical /lay contrasts in treatment?
- Being lay and a volunteer should not make any difference at all in how one is treated but it does. It is iniquitous – strong language - that different ‘standards of behaviour’ are expected by the C of E between clergy and laity in what should be a ‘ministry of all believers’ and all part of the body of Christ and the church. “Issues of Human Sexuality” has a lot to answer for in frustrated, blighted lives and ministry.
- I think it’s also perhaps easier for people in the church to invite – or ‘allow’ – me to work with money, pensions and housing than more ‘personal‘ matters? On the other hand Gill was the (paid) Diocesan safeguarding officer for 7 years.
Roles in the recent/ current debates on sexuality in the C of E?
- Several Diocesan bishops, senior figures in the national church and members of General Synod have received the benefit of my wisdom on the subject over the years!
- I was a member of the Sheffield ‘team’ at the ‘Conversations’ that stemmed from the Pilling report and wrote about my frustrations with that process to key figures – and the general lack of any real ‘listening’ since the Lambeth Conference statements in 1998.
How do you see its current position?
- Screwed up – a technical term!
- What I did realise from the Conversations is that the debates are not really about sexuality as such but rather how people (profess to) read the Bible. In this respect the debates are similar to those on women’s ministry and the episcopate.
- The C of E at the highest levels is deluded (or perhaps pretending?) that the C of E can compartmentalise things such as its complete quagmire on sexuality from what it wants to do on Renewal and Reform, development of the laity, and public positions on poverty and politics. It can’t. People inside as well as outside the church see it as a whole organisation that loses credibility by trying to preach to what it patronisingly calls (in the Conversations material) the “broken world” and demonstrating “good disagreement”. It is no surprise that attendance and church membership continues to fall as the Spirit keeps calling to the church from the world that is moving on with its lives.
- Listen to this quotation from Justin Welby last February: “Policies that are based in fear rather than confidence and courage and Christian values of hospitality, of love, of grace, of embrace rather than exclusion, are policies that lead to terrible results”. What was he talking about? Donald Trump’s election and policies! What could he have been talking about??
- The great fear of senior church leaders seems to be about ‘splitting the church’ without seeing that it is not united now, at any level from the Deaneries to the Anglican Communion. Another fiction that is perpetuated, seeking unity over truth and real love.
- Another quote – this time from the House of Bishops report that was not taken note of by General Synod this February : “ We do not offer ‘resolution’ in ways that will please some and dismay others but seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency”. What does that mean??
- There is one sad aspect of realism: the lack of a 2/3 majority for change in General Synod, particularly in the House of Laity. (Yes, I have stood for General Synod in the past, receiving very few votes and those mainly form the Cathedral and St Mark’s!)
And the future?
- I really can’t see where the courage, energy and realism is to come from to break out of the deadlock of fear of clear leadership and the complete focus on keeping the fictional unity of the C of E, at home and abroad.
- Each initiative seems to push the timetable back another 2 years at least – as the review group from the last House of Bishops report redrafting is said this week to need with multiple working groups. The long grass just gets longer!
- Meanwhile more people will be lost to God, let alone the C of E, more people’s careers and lives blighted, more loss of great gifts to a needy world.
- Not sure when and how the Spirit will really shake up the church but we keep trying to tune in!
- Justin Welby is both wrong and right in what he said in a statement after the last gathering of Archbishops from the Anglican Communion: “ At the heart of it is to come back to the fact that together we seek to serve the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and in whom there is never despair, there is never defeat; there is always hope, there is always overcoming; there is eventual (my emphasis!) triumph, holiness, goodness and grace”.
What keeps me in the C of E/church?
- God! So frustrating to feel daily called to hang in with this flawed institution – and to keep being asked to do things with and for it to try to make a difference to the organisation itself but more importantly the wider world.
- So many people, that I know and have known, clergy and laity, who ‘walk the talk’ of the gospel and keep me faithful in the widest sense.
- A key group here are the clergy and community at St Mark’s who show in their lives as well as their worship what ‘living, thinking, loving faith’ should be.
- But it’s all a daily struggle!