Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a business enterprise decided to sponsor an educational establishment. The business made widgets, and at the time everyone thought that widgets were just the bees knees. People bought the widgets; they learned about how widgets were made; they visited widget shops and even widget museums, dedicated to understanding all about the history of widgets. People wrote songs about widgets, and everyone sang these songs—even those who weren’t really convinced that widgets were the thing. So when the business decided to sponsor an educational establishment, although the programme of teaching followed the same broad syllabus as other educational establishments, included in the trust statement of this one was a commitment to ‘promote the understanding and appreciation of widgets’. And to that end, a special Widget Representative was appointed to the school, with the purpose of encouraging this to happen.
But times changed. Widgets became much less popular, not least because other companies were now making wodgets. In fact, many people became quite angry with the business that made widgets, because they thought that wodgets were much better than widgets, and why hadn’t they been told? In the educational establishment, the staff decided that they should tell all the pupils that wodgets were best. The Widget Representative found this difficult; what was he to do? He knew that the business that made widgets was in decline, that they were doing all sorts of things to help people appreciate widgets just as they used to—and besides, he still believed that widgets were better than wodgets. But he was employed by the school, so needed to be careful in what he said. He decided to tell the pupils that they did not need to reject widgets out of hand, and that many people still believed that they were better than wodgets. They shouldn’t be forced only to buy wodgets, but should think for themselves and consider the choice responsibly. And as they did that, they should respect those who thought differently from himself.
But when he did that, the staff reported him to the police. He couldn’t believe it! So he wrote to the managers at the widget business, to ask for their support. But they refused to speak up for him, support him, or agree that he had done the right thing! What will happen to that widget business?
You might have guessed by now that I have made this story up. But you might have also recognised a parallel—the case of Rev Dr Bernard Randall, who gave a talk telling the pupils at Trent College (two miles down the road from me, though across a diocesan boundary) that they did not have to agree to the ideas on gender identity currently being promoted in the college. As a result of this, the senior staff in the school reported him to the police’s Prevent programme for dealing with religious extremists who might lead pupils into terrorist organisations (yes, you read that correctly!).
A chaplain at a church school says he was reported as an extremist and forced out of his job after giving a sermon which addressed identity politics and LGBT issues. He’s now taking Trent College to court. Here is the full text of his sermon.
Like many media headlines, there is an important error here: Trent College is not a ‘church school’ but a private school whose trust deeds state that the goal of the school is ‘to educate boys and girls according to the Protestant and Evangelical principles of the Church of England’.
You can read the whole text of Dr Randall’s talk that got him into trouble here. At the heart of his talk are two key issues: respect for people who hold different views, including respect for those who are LGBT+; and the freedom to ask questions and disagree with contemporary gender identity ideology.
In our own school community, I have been asked about a similar thing [to Brexit] – this is one of the requested topics, and the question was put to me in a very particular way: “How come we are told we have to accept all this LGBT stuff in a Christian school?” I thought that was a very intelligent and thoughtful way of asking about the conflict of values, rather than asking which is right and which is wrong. So my answer is this: there are some aspects of the Educate and Celebrate programme which are simply factual: there are same-sex attracted people in our society, there are people who experience gender dysphoria, and so on. There are some areas where the two sets of values overlap: no one should be discriminated against simply for who he or she is – that’s a Christian value, based in loving our neighbours as ourselves, God making humankind in his image, male and female, and himself loving everyone equally. All these things should be accepted straightforwardly by all of us, and it’s right that equalities law reflects that…
You are perfectly at liberty to hear ideas out, and then think: “No, not for me.” There are several areas where many or most Christians (and for that matter people of other faiths too), will be in disagreement with LGBT activists, and where you must make up your own mind.
So it is perfectly legitimate to think that marriage should only properly be understood as being a lifelong exclusive union of a man and a woman; indeed, that definition is written into English law. You may perfectly properly believe that, as an ideal, sexual activity belongs only within such marriage, and that therefore any other kind is morally problematic. That is the position of all the major faith groups – though note that it doesn’t apply only to same-sex couples. And it is a belief based, not only on scripture, but on a highly positive view of marriage as the building block of a society where people of all kinds flourish, and on recognising that there are many positive things in life more important than sex, if only we’d let them be. This viewpoint is recognized by many people as extremely liberating. And it’s an ethical position which could also be arrived at independently of any religious text, I think.
You are entitled, if you wish, to look at some of the claims made about gender identity and think that it is incoherent to say that, for example, gender is quite independent of any biological factor but that a person’s physiology should be changed to match his or her claimed gender; or incoherent to say that gender identity is both a matter of individual determination and social conditioning at the same time, or incoherent to make claims about being non-binary or gender-fluid by both affirming and denying the gender stereotypes which exist in wider society. And if these claims, which do seem to be made, are incoherent, then they cannot be more than partially true.
It is for these statements that Dr Randall was reported to the police as part of the Prevent anti-terrorism/extremism programme.
All that was in June 2019. At the end of 2020, Dr Randall was made redundant. He is now suing the College for discrimination and constructive dismissal.
You can read Dr Randall’s case expressed in his own words in The Critic.
The Christian tradition has plenty of resources to help navigate such conundra as making sure that there is no tolerance for bullying — we’ve all heard of “Love your neighbour as yourself.” How about supporting teenagers as they work out what their identity is, and how they fit into the world. “Made in the image of God,” anyone?
And if something needs adding to this, then, yes, let’s have that discussion. But if you want to import a different belief system into the school, don’t expect the chaplain to sit idly by. And make no mistake, this is a different belief system. The sign was writ large on that day of staff training. You couldn’t miss it. It said that the Equality Act protected characteristics include “gender,” and “gender identity.” No. They don’t. “Sex,” (you know, that biological thing) is there, and “gender reassignment, (a process of change)” too. If this is just a benign programme, why start with a whopping great lie?
The answer is that this is not simply about supporting LGBT pupils — even supposing we think that LGB and T belong together (the LGB Alliance and many others don’t). It is about an ideology which wishes to break down society, and remould it into … well, I know not what. It’s about Queer Theory, and disrupting all categories. That’s why the mantra “smash heteronormativity” describes Educate and Celebrate’s work so very well. But as human beings we navigate the world by categories — it means we don’t have to process every piece of sensory input or information separately and afresh. The destruction of categories means mental overload, loss of the ability to make timely decisions, paralysis, and chaos. I’m pretty sure no Christian would support chaos. Nor would any reasonable person. Yes, categories, stereotypes, sometime mislead us, but the way to deal with that is to be alert to them, not to dispense with them altogether.
So, we have a situation where a Church of England chaplain, who must have held a licence from the Bishop of Derby, has been reported to the police (though they did not pursue it) for articulating the possibility of believing in something which is the current doctrine of the Church of England, and has been made redundant subsequently, which he believes to have been discriminatory and unfair. What would we hope that leaders of the Church of England might say publicly in support of him and his ministry? What might they say to other clergy who could be in a similar challenging situation? What resources could the national Education department have made available to give guidance to chaplains and Christian teachers in schools using the Educate and Celebrate material?
Answer came there ‘None’.
Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported on the case, and reported that Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, approached Libby Lane, the bishop of Derby, as well as the office of both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, for comment. Libby Lane was reported as saying:
Public statements in support of one side in a dispute, prior to the evidence emerging in legal proceedings, is neither in the interests of good legal process nor, indeed, likely to serve Dr Randall’s personal interests well.
York said that there is nothing to add, and Canterbury (in the absence of Justin Welby on sabbatical) said ‘No comment.’
I find that extremely odd. I don’t see how difficult it would be to say something like ‘We cannot comment on this particular case. But we support him in his ministry, and he was, of course, quite right to tell pupils that they can believe in the doctrine of the Church of England.’ The initial talk was in June 2019—nearly two years ago. People have had two years to make a comment, and a clear 18 months before this case was brought.
And I don’t need to take the Daily Mail’s word for the story, because Bernard contacted me himself, in June 2019, to check what he was planning to say, and whether it was a fair expression of Christian faith and Church of England doctrine. I affirmed that it was. And I have therefore also offered an ‘expert witness’ statement for the court case being led by Christian Legal Centre on Bernard’s behalf.
Why is all this particularly important for the Church of England at the moment? Why is it more than an employment storm in a gender identity teacup? I think there are three reasons, and the first is both the most obvious and the least significant.
First, as you will likely be very aware, dear reader, the C of E is currently engaging in the process of reflecting on the Living in Love and Faith resources. It has been repeatedly argued, including on this blog, that this is not a covert attempt to change the Church’s teaching, but a genuine resource for discussion, learning and debate, as we listen attentively to one another. How can those who believe and teach the Church’s long-standing doctrine have confidence in this, if no bishop will ever make a public statement in a case like Bernard Randall’s?
Secondly, the Church of England is asking, from the top, for significant changes to be put in place at the level of the local church. Part of that is through a quite radical strategy of planting new congregations using funding from the Strategic Development Fund, resourced by the Church Commissioners—which, while overall a very positive thing, has made many ‘ordinary’ parish clergy feel that they are not valued. Alongside that, dioceses have actually starting making parish clergy posts redundant in the face of their own financial difficulties, making clergy feel insecure in quite a new way.
And it is in this context that the silence around Bernard Randall sends a very loud message: bishops are not willing to speak up in support of clergy under pressure from what many believe to be anti-Christian ideologies in culture. Stephen Cottrell has been leading a discussion on future strategy for the Church, and one of the key terms in this is that we should be ‘bolder’. Where is the confidence, where the boldness, in this situation?
Thirdly, outsider commentators, including even ‘friendly’ atheists, cannot make sense of this kind of situation. This is yet another example suggesting that the leaders of the Church don’t actually believe in the ‘product’ that they are offering—and, interestingly, this is in marked contrast to consistent public statements by the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, where church attendance is now about double the Church of England.
I don’t write any of this out of a desire to finger-point and find fault; I am of an age where most bishops in the Church of England are my contemporaries (or younger!); many are friends; some I would count as good friends. But this silence seems to be to be a serious failure of leadership, lacking both courage and integrity. I write simply out of an overwhelming sense of existential despair.
In my opening story, the leaders of the widget company didn’t appear to believe that those promoting widgets were worth speaking up for. What will happen to that widget company?
And what will happen to the Church of England?
(The picture at the top is from an article called ‘How to pull a sinking ship off the rocks’. Sounds like important reading.)