Last weekend, Ely Cathedral flew a rainbow Pride flag in order to signal support for the Ely Pride festival taking place (for the first time) over the weekend. The decision was made on the recommendation of the Dean, Mark Bonney, and the cathedral chapter voted to accept his recommendation—though this was not a decision by the diocese or the diocesan bishop, Stephen Conway, since (like local churches) cathedrals have no formal need to consult. Bonney told the local paper:
I am pleased to lend my backing to this community event because it celebrates the breadth and diversity of the community in which we all live.
I am also very conscious that Christians have not always been perceived as being very supportive and inclusive as some of us would wish, and so I am pleased to fly this flag as a sign of the kind of inclusion that I wish to promote at the cathedral.
The Pride event was comparatively low key, and the flying of the flag by the Cathedral didn’t appear to attract much coverage. But there was the usual robust response from former Church of England minister Gavin Ashenden:
The Dean of Ely has adopted the secular values of a culture that has set its face against Christianity, and is waging a war against Judaeo-Christian culture. Sexual ethics have always been at the heart of the Christian’s struggle with sin, the world and the devil. But it seems the Dean of Ely is not over concerned with either sin, or the distinction between the Church and the world, or the struggle with evil.
Lee Gatiss, who is Director of Church Society and lives in the diocese, wrote a brief comment on the Church Society website:
Why is a Church of England cathedral promoting what is described as “primarily a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender celebration”? They are not naive, and know what they are doing. The flag will no doubt be a rainbow, but in reality it is a white flag, signalling their surrender of Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive in the church and endangering to the soul. There are better ways of rejoicing in the diversity of humanity — by proclaiming the joyful news of eternal life for every one of us who repents, turns away from our sin and turns to Jesus instead. Bring back the cross, the symbol of his kingdom. That is the banner under which Christians gather. But God says, “pride comes before destruction.”
On the other hand, I have no doubt that many will have written to Bonney at the Cathedral to give their support and approval—and of course it was well received by the organisers of Pride:
Fritha Love, one of the organisers of Pride in Ely, said she was “completely overwhelmed” by the decision, and believes it reflects Ely’s spirit of acceptance… “It goes to prove it doesn’t matter who you are, from whichever walk of life, we can all celebrate inclusion and have ‘pride’ in Ely.”
To make sense of these different reactions, we need to think about flags in general, the Pride flag in particular, and what kinds of signals it gives.
Flags are hugely emotive. They are powerful symbols which evoke emotional and even visceral reactions. Think about national flags at international football matches. Think about flag-burning protests around the world, used to express objection, disgust and even violent opposition to another nation. Think of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima as a powerful symbol of victory. Even think about the uneasy reaction when you see a cross of St George flag, or a Union Flag flying outside someone’s house, suggesting vigorous nationalism (rather in contrast to the presence of the Stars and Stripes in the US). Think about the controversies provoked by those in the southern US states flying the Confederate flag. I remember once being completely caught off guard by the unexpected and powerful emotion evoked some years ago on seeing the crest of my former college; I am hardly an ardent alumnus, yet my visceral response was there. These are the reasons why Andrew Goddard dislikes the idea of flying any flag over a cathedral or other place of worship:
To help me process some of this I’ve started reading Tim Marshall’s fascinating recent book “Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags”. His introduction explains some of the reasons why I dislike church flag-flying of any but a Christian symbol (and even that, to be honest, I think needs great care).
National flags, he points out, are about “trying to unite a population behind a homogeneous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs – an almost impossible task. But when passions are aroused, when the banner of an enemy is flying high, that’s when people flock to their own symbol”. But these features are not just applicable to national flags but all flags. They “have much to do with our traditional tribal tendencies and notions of identity – the idea of ‘us versus them’”. And so we find that “these symbols can still wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions”.
Flags are not symbols of inclusivity and diversity; they are powerful symbols of tribal identity (even where that tribe is a nation) and they function to define who is in and who is out. They are so powerful that people will, literally, die for them and their defence.
And that is why the rainbow flag has been central in the cause of seeking acceptance of gay and lesbian identity in Western culture. American scholar, author and LGBT advocate, Joshua Gamson explains:
Lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in this country over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what civil rights movements had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and cultural institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag.
Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share—the anchor of minority status and minority rights claims—is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is the denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethnic/essentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain.
What is most fascinating about this observation is that it flies in the face of the evidence—as set out by other LGBT advocates like Lisa Diamond, who notes that the instability of sexual ‘orientation’ means that campaigning should be on the basis of freedom and rights, and not on the basis of identity politics.
What, then, are the concerns raised by the action of the cathedral? I wrote to the diocesan bishop, Stephen Conway, to express my concern, not least because we have come to know each other well on Archbishops’ Council. He was away, and in any case his chaplain said that I should contact the Dean, which I did. My concerns were fourfold:
1. The Pride movement is not simply about ‘celebrating diversity’ but about campaigning for the acceptance of particular forms of sexual relationships which go against the teaching of the Church of England on sexuality and marriage. (The festival included an ‘adults only’ party in the evening from 7 pm…) In deciding to fly the Pride flag, the cathedral was therefore signalling their rejection of the Church’s current teaching, which in fact Bonney acknowledged in his comment to the press that the Church has not been inclusive ‘in the way that some of us would wish’.
2. Given this situation, I wondered what steps were taken to consult the diocesan bishop beforehand.
3. The chapter will have been well aware of the involved process of discussion on the question of sexuality in the Church, which has included the Shared Conversations and continues in the work on the teaching document Living in Love and Faith—all of which has taken up considerable resources of the Church in terms of time and money. By making a unilateral statement rejecting the Church’s current teaching, the chapter appears to be short-circuiting this process—and indeed, undermining its usefulness and questioning the value of the time and energy being put into it.
4. I don’t know the diocese well, but I am aware that some churches in the diocese are already finding it difficult to be fully involved in the life of the diocese, and that this action will further distance them and cause division in the Church. The action of the chapter will have a serious impact on Church unity in the diocese, and further undermines of the role of Bishop Stephen as a focus of unity around the teaching of the Church.
Mark Bonney was kind enough to reply to my expressions of concern:
I do not view the action here as undermining/rejecting the Church’s teaching in quite the way that you think it does – rather I see it as an entering into the debate , and a questioning of some of that teaching, as happens in many quarters – certainly it is being part of the debate.For me it is similar to the questions around remarriage of divorcees which was a very live issue when I was ordained. Throughout the time that that was being debated I NEVER did anything against the Church of England’s teaching beyond expressing views that challenged it – and this has been the same in the current sexuality debate.In retrospect Chapter may not have appreciated the extent to which this might be seen as some kind of statement on behalf of the Diocese or the Bishop – and of course it is definitely NOT that. This was something that Andrew Nunn, the Dean of Southwark, pointed out in his speech at General Synod on the Cathedrals Working Group Report in relation to the independence that currently exists between Cathedrals and Bishops and the opportunity that, at present, Cathedrals have to do things without seeking the Bishop’s permission. Southwark Cathedral flew the Pride flag I believe, the Pride march in York has begun at the Cathedral and has been blessed by one of the clergy – so I have not been alone in taking part in the debate in this way. The event in Ely was quite low key in comparison with the big marches in other places, no marching, just a gathering by the riverside opened by the City Mayor…….I might not have given consideration to the extent that what I knew was going to be a small local event here might have much wider ramifications.I did inform Bishop Stephen that I was taking this request to the Chapter, and , as I think he has said in replies to questions to him, it was a Chapter decision. And I have replied to others that this was a Chapter decision and not the Bishop’s.I’m aware that this has caused concern for some churches that are finding it difficult to be part of the diocese, and I will be meeting with a couple of clergy to talk further. I’m also aware of many within my own and other congregations who have been in contact with me to say quite the opposite.
I want to take this response seriously, but it raises so many other questions. First, there really is no parallel between the debate about remarriage and the debate here; it was not a church-dividing issue in the way that this is, and I do not recall anyone forming alliances with outside organisations which have, in their recent history, been highly critical of and antagonistic to the Church as is happening now. The idea that flying a flag signals ‘entering a debate’ is either disingenuous, or it shows a serious ignorance of human experience—and a pretence of ignorance about how important this symbol has been to the gay movement. Bonney is right to note that they have not been the first—but he must surely be aware of how divisive this has been in other dioceses, and when I asked him about this, he acknowledged it. So it seems that, rather than taking them into account, my four concerns simply did not register with sufficient weight in the chapter to counter their goal of making a statement.
The raising of the flag was not, therefore, a symbol of surrender so much as a symbol of blitzkrieg. In the Second World War, the German forces conquered so quickly by avoiding being bogged down at enemy strongpoints (as had happened in the First World War, to catastrophic effect) but instead driving around them and cutting them off as pockets of resistance to be dealt with later. They simply drove past them, and established their hold well beyond the line of conflict. By flying the Pride flag, the Dean and cathedral chapter are signalling that they simply do not have time to engage in the continued debate and discussion that is ongoing in the church, and will make their own unilateral declaration of belief. As Andrew Goddard observes:
The recourse to flag flying therefore sadly signals that, rather than “some of us” engaging with “them” in a careful, time-consuming, reasoned discussion, the preferred process of engagement is instead one which does what flags do: “wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions”. The Cathedral has sought to rally people to what Marshall calls “powerful symbols” by use of an “emotion-charged emblem” that “has the power to evoke and embody sentiments so strong that sometimes people will even follow their coloured cloth into gunfire and die for what it symbolizes”. The problem is, as Bruce Springsteen said in an interview with Rolling Stone about the Stars and Stripes appearing on the cover of his “Born in the USA” album: “The flag is a powerful image , and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know what’s gonna be done with it”.
The question, then, is how the diocesan bishop will respond, but also how other bishops and leaders in the Church of England will react. There is a strong resistance to bishops ‘interfering’ in what is happening in other dioceses. But this kind of action has implications for the relationship between other cathedrals and dioceses, for the teaching document, and for national processes. Why is it only ever those wanting change on this issue who are prepared to make bold and controversial statements?
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