An Illness At The Heart Of The Church

by Tim Leeson March 21, 2019 A

There is an illness at the heart of the church. The main symptom is an unhealthy and obsessive fascination with gender and sexuality. Try as we might to be inclusive and tolerant, we seem to be incapable of getting past an infantile fixation on people’s private bits and what they do with them.

The past few years have seen a few apparently positive conversations about same-sex relationships: an apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the LGBT community for “the hurt and pain they have experienced by the Anglican Communion over the years” (Davies & Schjonberg, 2016), efforts to tackle LGBT bullying in church schools (Khomami, 2017), and just last week, the publishing of pastoral principles for welcoming LGBT people (Church of England, 2019). It looked for a moment there like the illness was in remission.

Then, this week, it flared up again. The Lambeth Conference website was promoting the 2020 conference. The theme for the conference is “God’s Church for God’s World: walking, listening and witnessing together” (Lambeth Conference, 2019). The front page on the website read:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is sending personal invitations to every eligible bishop and spouse (excluding same-sex spouses) and is looking forward immensely to hosting them.

Because the problematic bit was an active link, it was actually underlined. Walking, listening and witnessing together, unless you’re gay.

After a predictable public outcry, they changed the text, so that it now reads, “every eligible bishop and spouse”. Knowing what the word ‘eligible’ means in this context means that the sting has not been removed.

Of course, there are those who are more interested in religion than in humanity who will defend the original statement. I’m kind of surprised the Archbishop Cranmer blog hasn’t yet posted anything explaining why they should have kept the statement as it was because freedom of speech. I’m told that if the conference didn’t exclude people on grounds of their sexuality, then certain bishops would boycott the conference, and that would be a shame. In other words, we’d better be homophobic, otherwise the homophobes would be unhappy.

Whatever nice things we say, however many reports we produce supporting inclusive practice, we’re still sick. We still hurt people whose ideas about sexuality don’t conform to our post-war, middle-class, repressed ideals. We tell people (in our actions, when not our words), that if they don’t feel guilty about sex then something’s wrong with them, instead of recognising that there is something wrong with us. Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

In his amazing critique of youth ministry, Allan Clyne (2015) wrote that there is a Christian subculture which “turns young people into consumers, … keeps young people childlike and isolates them from the perceived dangers of a forbidding outside culture as well as appearing to excluding ‘undesirable’ young people from its groups” (p.35).

Is it any wonder, considering what our parents are up to? They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

I have the sickness. I am a product of the Christianized sub-culture. I have a persistent and eroding sense of shame about sex, rooted in years of teaching that sex was something bad. Through study, therapy and contact with people who don’t have the sickness, my ideas about human sexuality have changed, but the emotional baggage is still there with me.

The good news is that youth work, by keeping one foot outside of the establishment, has a better prognosis than the established church. Maybe we can be cured. But, increasingly, I am beginning to wonder if the only way to be cured is by resisting the temptation to bring the other foot in, and become part of the decision-making centre.

When three dioceses in the Western Cape of South Africa suggested that young people should be invited to sit on Synod, John S. Klaasen (2018) wrote a paper articulating the risks of such a move: young people would either feel alienated/condemned by the established church, or become coerced/co-opted into saying what the establishment wants them to say. It would be a way of transmitting the illness. Instead, he suggests, youth ministry should embrace its marginal position, looking for God where the young people are, instead of making them look for God where we are.

If bringing young people into the centre risks “alienation, co-option, coercion or condemnation” (Klaasen, 2018, p.2), meeting them on the margins opens up the prospects of empowerment, equality of opportunity, voluntary participation and informal education (National Youth Bureau, 1991). It also opens the youth worker up to the possibility of healing. Maybe young people could be the antibiotic fighting the illness. At the most recent Church of England general synod, it was the voice of young people which revealed the real, lived impact of the church’s homophobia.

That means we need to change the way with think about mission. Rather than working under the belief that Christ is to be found at the centre of the establishment, we are to look for God at the margins. By going the margins, we can learn, and heal, and grow. And by resisting the temptation to bring young people back to the centre with us, maybe we can spare them the shame we’ve grown up with, and allow them to grow up with a healthy attitude towards gender and sexuality.

We don’t need to fix young people. We need young people to fix us.


Church of England, 2019. Church of England launches Pastoral Principles for welcoming LGBTI+ people. Church of England, [online] Available at:
Clyne, A. R., 2015. Uncovering youth ministry’s professional narrative, Youth & Policy, 115, pp.19-42.

Davies, Matthew & Schjonberg, Mary Francis, 2016. Welby apologizes for persecution on the grounds of sexuality, Episcopal News Service, [online] Available at: [accessed 28/02/19]

Farley, Harry, 2016. Senior Anglican Bishop To Preside At LGBT Eucharist, Christian Today, [online] [accessed 28/02/19]

Khomami, Nadia. 2017. LGBT campaigners welcome Church of England guidance for schools, The Guardian, [online] Available at: [accessed 28/02/19]

Klaasen, John S., 2018, ‘Youth ministry at the margins and/or centre as space of the other: Reflections on the resolutions of the Anglican dioceses in the Western Cape 2017’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 74(3), 5056.

Lambeth Conference, 2019. God’s Church for God’s World. Lambeth Conference [online]. Available at: [accessed 28/02/19]

National Youth Bureau, 1991. Towards a core curriculum – the next step: Report of the Second Ministerial Conference. Leicester: National Youth Bureau.