Saturday, 26 July 2008

On the fringe

Tucked at the back of the Lambeth Conference programme and event guide, following sixty-five pages of official events, there are listings of what are called "fringe events." These are stand-alone evening programs, sponsored by the many exhibitors here at the conference. As far as I can tell, one of the main purposes of these events is to attract the attention and interest of the bishops, media, and other movers and shakers so that the agendas of these interest groups might be advanced.

It is through these events, the display stalls in the marketplace, and personal encounters that the interest groups present at Lambeth - including Integrity - try to get their message out. To what extent we are successful, or whether we are talking into a metaphorical echo chamber is a matter of some fervid discussion. Certainly, the reactions we have gotten from our encounters with others, both at the stall and around the precincts of the university, indicate that the size of our receptive audience is considerably larger than those who refuse to hear.

There are notable exceptions, however. For instance, as Bob mentioned in an earlier post, copies of The Lambeth Witness have been removed and our newsstands vandalised. Another incident occurred yesterday, during my shift at the stall. A man hurrying along suddenly stopped, looked at our display, and then glanced up to see the names of the stall's sponsors (in this case, Integrity and Changing Attitude). The man's face reddened, and as I offered a cheery, "Good morning!" he said, "Changing Attitude? What attitude are you trying to change?" I tried to introduce him to the Rev'd Colin Coward of CA, but the man interrupted saying, "Are you pretend priests? Pretend homosexual priests?" Then noticing the rainbow ribbons we were wearing, he added, "Why are you perverting a children's symbol - the rainbow?" He then stomped off.

There are encounters in which you know the person is not interested in conversation. This man's questions were rhetorical, coming from a place of deep anger or shame. He was here to vent, and having done so, he left. My response in these instances is to shrug my shoulders, and let it slide off. But Colin was not going to let him get away with the verbal abuse. He leapt up and followed the man. Placing his hand on the man's shoulder, he said he wanted to assure him of his prayers for the man in his distress. "Get your filthy homosexual hands off me!" the man replied, and disappeared into the crowd.

It is hard to guage how widespread this sentiment is at this conference. As I said, our encounters have been generally positive. But how many people silently pass our stall, sharing the opinions of this man, but too polite or shy to voice them? I'm hoping few, but it is hard to tell whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Anglicans are still truly on the fringe at events like the Lambeth Conference, or whether we have entered the mainstream. Certainly for GLBT people from Nigeria - who are represented here - the mainstream is a long way away. For Canadians, the journey is well on the way to fulfilment. The positive and negative reactions - both of which have in many cases been surprising - represent the more ambivalent quality of diversity within our Communion.

Neil Fernyhough

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