I am wary of flags in general. For fairly flimsy pieces of coloured cloth, they are freighted with emblematic power which may both rally and defy, embrace and exclude.
It has certainly become clear to me that the Cathedral flagpole became a lightning rod for debate among Christians. What started out as a pastoral response to a request for solidarity – to fly a rainbow flag from the west tower of Ely Cathedral on the day of the Ely Pride festival – has gathered interest and concern across the diocese and further afield.
I have received messages of upset and sadness from those concerned that this represents a divergence from the Churches teaching on marriage. I have also had a large number of comments from people who have appreciated the willingness of the Cathedral to stand alongside the LGBTQI+ community in what they regard as a prophetic way. There have been emails and letters not only from gay people themselves, but from the faithful Christian parents and grandparents of people who identify themselves as being LGBTQI+ and who are concerned for their physical safety as well as their human flourishing.
All of the conversations and messages expressing concern which I have received from people I know in the diocese have been sober and nuanced and offering a welcome to LGBTQI+ worshippers. I have also received entirely reprehensible and violently homophobic messages from others who call themselves Christians who yet show no desire to practise the radical call to love that Jesus taught and demonstrated- at least in the way they expressed themselves in their correspondence with me over the rainbow flag.
The flying of this particular flag on a particular day has not changed or threatened the teaching of the Church on marriage or diocesan policy. The official agreed understanding of the House of Bishops of the Church of England is expressed in Issues in Human Sexuality (1991). Every Ely ordinand has to read this and agree to operate within its precepts. This has stood for twenty-seven years and there is no plan to remove it.
Looking back, Issues in Human Sexuality was quite a radical document when it was produced, in that it re-asserted traditional teaching about marriage while taking a new stand on the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in church life.
I am about to travel to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops, which brings diocesan and suffragan bishops together with the archbishops. We are spending the whole of our time together considering the fruits so far of the work of theologians and scientists on the Living Faith and Love material which will contribute to the teaching document of the House of Bishops, to be completed by the middle of 2020. This is a wide-ranging illumination of the fullness of human identity expressed in the Bible, theology, history, science and lived experience. The ambition of those involved from every part of the Church is to produce a landmark document or suite of documents that will help the Church as it engages with the rich tapestry of human identity, of which sexuality is only a part.
I said earlier that I am wary of flags. Not surprisingly, the two symbols which shape me are the cross and the crozier. We are all called to find our identity in Christ Jesus. With Mark the Evangelist we keep learning that we cannot understand who Jesus is or our destiny in him unless we come to the foot of the Cross. As we encounter our own sin and foolishness in that holy place we are in equal need of God’s mercy as any stranger.
As the bishop, the symbol of the crozier or pastoral staff is critical. We inhabit an ordered church which is open to all. As an episcopal church, the crozier is the sign of our unity in fellowship and in the calling of the Church to proclaim afresh in each generation the faith we have received.
Yours ever in Christ,
The Right Revd Stephen Conway