Sunday, 3 July 2016
General Synod - Sexuality. Who's missing?
The CofE 'Parliament', General Synod, is about to meet. One of the big subjects this time is going to be LGBT and the church. There are going to be more shared conversations. Various people will be encouraged to talk, and to listen. Some in the room will be lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, I believe. It's a very confidential set of talks, this time.
We know that some 300,000 of our parishioners in the country are autistic and also part of the LGBT community. Yes, that many. At least. Probably 30% of autistic people. As we know, it's not a lack of empathy, a sign that someone is dangerous, or a 'disease'. It's a sensory processing difference, where we take in too much info from the world around us. And understand language very very literally. And need good clear rules. Result - exhaustion and real difficulties communicating, in today's modern fast-paced world. We know autistic people are generally more moral than others, more accurate, more dedicated to a task. Half are female. Nearly all are adults. Most are completely 'invisible'.
We know from research that autistic people are as likely to be Christians as anyone else. We're as likely to try to go to church as anyone else.
We're also an immensely isolated people. Most have only one 'real life' friend in the world, because our way of communicating is not the same as that of most other people. And because we cannot access the spaces where most people meet to make friends. Including many church events in busy, noisy halls lit by fluorescent flickering lights. Those can be like an intense strobe light for us.
What's it like to be doubly isolated? By being autistic, and by being gay?
What is it like to disclose that to a group of Christians?
I've had very mixed responses. I've been a pioneer of this work for some time. I wrote the autism guidelines for the Church of England. I'm an adviser to the Government on the subject, amongst many other places.
I've had some Christians who have been lovely. That's super. Including a few senior people in our church, and a good number in my local church.
I've had some Christians who have responded by actively shunning me. For an autistic person who already struggles to make and keep friendships, that's no small thing.I've had some who have responded by immediately taking jobs away from me. Or telling me that I must work for free, because they are doing me a favour in letting me be there at all. For a population of people who are rarely employed, often immensely talented, but who mostly live in abject poverty, that's no small thing. A very large number of the homeless are autistic people who found they could not live off nothing.
I've had some who have told me that I should be ashamed of myself. For an autistic person, that's no small thing. We've lived lives where from birth, we're told that everything about us is wrong. Or a laugh for others. Or something to be pitied. Shame? Yes, we know that feeling really well. The cold, lonely street of Shame is where we are already asked to live. Low self esteem is something we already know all about.
I've had some who have told me that they daren't sit next to me any more, in case people think they are a lesbian too. How does that work? Do they refuse to sit next to Black individuals, in case people think they are Black? Do they refuse to sit next to men, in case people think they are male? Do they refuse to sit next to someone who is diabetic, in case people think they are diabetic too?
We've barely begun to talk about the experiences I've had, with some Christians.
The ones who tell me that I am worse than a murderer if I am actively promoting equality and love for LGBT people.
The ones who tell me that I am a danger to young people, surely, if I have a different innate sexuality. In reality, I've advised on safety for young people for decades. And brought up a fab son.
There's ones who tell me that I should go into 'conversion therapies' to make me act totally non-autistic, at massive cost to my wellbeing, so that they can feel comfortable being near me.
It adds to the violence, sexual assault, defrauding, bullying and mocking I get already, because I'm female and autistic.
Imagine how hard it would be to work through all of that even without being autistic.
This is my experience of the endless, boundless love of Christ, as shown to me by some fellow Christians. Not all. Listen carefully; this isn't some paranoia. Nor is it unusual, alas. I am in contact with a very large number of autistic people through my work. My experience is far from unusual.
I am very grateful for the lovely people. I am very glad of my local church, who have been excellent in including me. I'm glad of an outside society that has taken such huge strides forward in understanding autism, and in understanding sexuality.
But I am very sad that we as a church have, as yet, nothing to say to the 300,000 who live a life autistic and LGBT. Not for us the shared conversations. Not for us the banquet of togetherness.
In the Bible, it tells me that we are to love one another. And pray. So I love all who have offered us 'othering', hate, pain, fear, and shame. Who have gone to others with false tales of how awful we all are. And I pray for each of them. One day, we will be together in God's heaven, and people like me will be sat with everyone else...next to them...at that banquet.
When, then, will there be the chance to say to my welcomer, our Lord Jesus, "I don't want her sort here". "She's not really suitable for this kind of banquet". "Can't people like her sit somewhere else?"
So, when, my friends, do we get that freedom to say it now?
Prayers assured for all in those continued shared conversations.
For peace, for good listening, for new friendships. For good disagreement that respects genuine prayerful scriptural theological difference.
And, most of all, prayers for those who are never at that table. Who are not able to share in those new friendships. But whose lives are as impacted as anyone else's lives by the decisions taken. Already-silenced voices, doubly and triply silenced.
We are your friends, and fellow Christians, too. Whether old or young. Whether of high IQ or any other IQ. Whether verbal or non-verbal. All are loved, and all are called as disciples by that same Jesus.
Wonderful, isn't it.
So, how do we find out what of God is autistic, and gay, together? Who is willing to share that journey?