Being a non-conformist at school was not cool. Doing anything other than the mainstream would have you maliciously assigned a detrimental label; some seemingly wore those labels with pride, like the Goths for example (am I showing my age now?) but others sought to distance themselves from such labels, especially when aspersions of sexuality were cast about.
It was challenging for me to be a conformist at school. I didn’t like PE (my proudest achievement in the class is getting a B in my end of year school report solely because I showed willing to help another student with the rules of Badminton. Oddly, I don’t think I knew then or know now the rules of Badminton…) and my PE teachers often didn’t like me, largely because I refused to cooperate with a look of disdain on my face that I have perfected over the years. I was also a bit of a boffin. Do the “youth” still use that word today? I’ve no idea. However, “BOFF” was often thrown at me, not because I was the smartest in my cohort (this could not be further from the truth, my closest school friends have gone on to become a Doctor, a Global Operations Manager and a Reverend, I was definitely the dunce of the four) but because I was well behaved, mostly wore my tie properly and generally toed the school party line on most things.
It also didn’t help that my most stylish item of clothing was a Diadora polo shirt (again, does Diadora even still exist?) and that I was only allowed to start wearing product in my hair from the age of 15 (looking at what I then did with my hair upon that freedom, I can’t say that I was better off). Conformity, it is fair to say, eluded me. But not through lack of trying. I desperately wanted to conform, perhaps not to the extent in which I got myself into trouble (my wonderful parents were not to be trifled with) but just enough so as not to stand out, that would have been marvellous.
Fast forward 12 years (crikey, that’s terrifying) and I am proudly non-conformist. My Baptist heritage was birthed through such non-conformity in the 17th Century and I’m now a fairly non-conforming, non-conformist Baptist. But let’s be straight, I don’t live in a yurt in a Nepal or live only off the fruits of my labours from toiling the land. I live, work and worship in London and there’s a level of conformity that does indeed come with that.
Perhaps it would be better for me to identify as an idealistic non-conforming non-conformist Baptist. That’s a bit of a mouthful though.
It is perhaps my (some might say naïve) idealistic non-conformity that leads me to experience such frustration with the latest revelations from the Church of England around the sexuality and relationship status of the Bishop of Grantham. Clearly I’m frustrated already (as several of my Anglican friends will confirm) with the idea of a conformist, state religion anyway, but attempting to put that aside I can only see the harm in which conforming or towing the party line seems to cause when it comes to issues of human sexuality.
It seems to me that conformity and integrity are tightly bound together. If you are forced to conform, you are likely forced to compromise your integrity. I do not know the Bishop of Grantham personally, nor am I an expert on Anglican Church Law or the ins and outs of their internal politics. It is certainly not for me to say that anyone in this current situation has behaved in any way other than with the upmost integrity. But one has to ask that if the Bishop of Grantham’s celibate (that’s a topic for another time) same-sex relationship is well within the bounds of the Anglican Church Law, then why was it not more widely discussed upon his announcement to the position? It is very much in our culture to discuss partners, spouses and familial ties when being appointed to new roles, both in state and religious contexts. It therefore seems odd to me, and perhaps disingenuous, for the Bishop’s appointment to be made and for the matter of his partner not to be discussed.
This, I believe, is the problem with a structure that is so tightly bound together by it’s rules, both written and unspoken, that it forces conformity at the detriment of integrity. For let’s not forget the hundreds if not thousands of LGBT+ people across the Anglican Communion who live hidden, dark lives because of their Church’s approach to sexuality. It seems to me that if the powerhouse in the Church of England are desperate to see inclusion in all of their Churches as well as across the wider global Anglican community, as we are led to believe is the case, then it appears to be a fairly backwards way of coming forwards in not previously commenting on the sexuality of one its senior officials.
It’s also hard to ignore that this “revelation” only now has come to light when the individual involved was under threat of a disgraceful public outing. No one should be forced to show their hand in such a way, but perhaps openness from the beginning could have avoided such a dilemma. Of course, it would likely also have resulted in the appointment not being made and the role of Bishop of Grantham imparted upon someone else. However, it seems to me that this is often the cost of integrity.
And please, do not hear me wrong. I only write this using the Anglican Church as an example because of what has been (repeatedly and alarmingly) headline news in recent days. Let’s not pretend that my own “denomination”, the Baptist Union, is exempt from such behaviour. Which is perhaps an even greater slap in the face of integrity, delivered by a group of Christians who have their foundations in pushing against the status quo but now who sit meekly, ostracising their own and focussing on petty internal squabbles instead of seeking the Kingdom of God. There are examples of those seeking ordination within the Baptist Union who have had to conform, hide their identity, bury their sexuality, sacrifice their integrity, all for the greater good of the work of the Kingdom, perhaps just as the Bishop of Grantham might argue he did too.
But I ask you, what Kingdom are we building and who is it for if we are so willing to sacrifice our integrity along the way? And all for the sake of conformity.