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Men in Pink: The Church of England’s Gay Bishop Decision: Taylor Carey

 

 

One of the joys of the holidays is to wake up mid-way through the Today programme rather than at its opening six bleeps; the headline summary luxuriously accompanied by maternally-provided coffee and the gradual rediscovery of whatever book I fell asleep reading the night before.  Yesterday’s news that the church had lifted the moratorium on gay bishops thus proved the most effective alarm clock I’ve experienced in quite some time.

On 20th December 2012, the House of Bishops (the Episcopal portion of Synod responsible for church teaching) heard an interim report from a group set up in 2011 to consider ‘the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality’. The panel, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, continues to consider a wide range of issues concerning civil partnerships, in the wake of a moratorium imposed on the elevation of homosexual clerics to the episcopate after conservatives threatened schism in 2011. One of its key reference points is the pastoral statement which the House of Bishops promulgated in 2005 in response to the Civil Partnership Act. The document decreed that, whilst homosexual clergy were free to enter into civil partnerships, the church’s teaching remained that ‘sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings’.  Therefore homosexual priests, denied the institution of marriage, were expected to remain celibate. Quite how this applied to bishops was left unspoken and unclear, not least due to a perception that the issue would be fatally weakening for an already fractured church.

The 2011 freeze on gay bishops effectively promulgated the already implicit doctrinal stance that civil partnerships – or even homosexuality more generally – were incompatible with episcopacy. The December announcement effectively marks a rejection of this tacitly accepted position in confirming that

‘the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate’.

In other words, the House of Bishops appear to have aligned themselves with the view that civil partnerships need not be a bar to the episcopate for homosexual clergy who wish to live a companioned life and enjoy a legally recognised relationship, albeit on the condition of continued celibacy. The standards imposed on priests across the church can now be applied to and expected of those who lead them. As the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, stated:

‘The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate. The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline’.

Of course ‘the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics’ is, for homosexuals, far from clear. After considerable debate during the 1970s and 1980s, the House of Bishops produced Issues in Sexuality in 1991, which broadly affirmed the moral legitimacy of the homosexual orientation, whilst concomitantly opposing sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marital arrangement (see a useful discussion document here). But the dominance of anti-inclusive voices in the wake of the publication of Issues in Sexuality was made shockingly visible in 2003, when the Rev Dr Jeffrey John, besieged by a tirade conservative evangelical opposition, was forced to withdraw his candidacy for the bishopric of Reading. John, although living with a partner, remained faithful to the standards decreed in 1991; a fact that was well known in 2003. Yet the prospect of gay bishops quickly invoked ‘culture wars’ in the Church of England, fuelled by a language of mistrust which found an echo in the response of conservative evangelical groupings to yesterday’s announcement.

The mainstream media were quick to pick up on a narrative of injustice, inequality and exclusion. Giles Fraser’s valiant charge against the grotesque Lynette Burrows on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday PM (exchange begins at 18 minutes) made for amusing but also frustrating listening. The former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral is, in my opinion, correct to bemoan the church’s stance on homosexuality as a travesty – and to acknowledge that there is very little by way of sound theological argument against homosexual bishops – yet I can’t help but feel that we are seeking a scandal where there isn’t one. The House of Bishops hasn’t promulgated any further inequalities; it has actually lifted at least one – the exclusion of gay men from the episcopate.  I stand very much dissatisfied with the inequalities which remain – the exclusion of women, the continuing inequality between the enforced celibacy of homosexual clergy and the freedom of sexual expression of heterosexual clergy – but these have not been uniquely generated by the decision taken by the House of Bishops in December.  Indeed, yesterday’s announcement marks a cautious step in the right direction.

So where does that leave us? In the short term, pending further clarification from the House of Bishops, who are due to vote on the final report delivered by Sir Joseph Pilling later this year. But if the message emerging from yesterday marks a genuine change of direction, then prospects are looking up for a Rt Rev Dr Jeffrey John sometime soon. And, as we say a fond farewell to perhaps the most iconic and inspirational gay cleric the Anglican Communion has ever had, in the form of Gene Robinson, that might just constitute a ray of light appearing on the horizon.

The situation seems ripe for yet another reproduction of one of my favourite hymns by Donald MacLeod:

‘Courage, brother! Do not stumble,

though your path be dark as night;

there’s a star to guide the humble:

trust in God and do the right.

let the road be rough and dreary,

and its end far out of sight;

foot it bravely; strong or weary:

trust in God and do the right.’

 

The illustration is by Toby Melville courtesy of  Reuters, via The Guardian article by Riazat Butt on 29 July 2008

12 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...
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It seem despite the announcement, that nothing has really changed.

The criteria for the CNC includes that of the Bishop being the focus for unity within their dioceses or area (if a suffragan) and if a substantial number of people wouldn’t accept the ministry of a Bishop who lives in a civil partner, it’s unlikely that they will be appointed.

And, I don’t see the church moving very quickly on the whole issue of human sexuality, despite my strong feelings in favour of true equality in the Church, it appears to me that an issue of trust is involved, and can we actually trust the HoB to produce the sort of legislation that would get through General Synod on this – given the evidence of the cobbled together measure on women bishops, I doubt it very much.

What is a shame is the slowness of the Church moving forward at a snails pace, always looking over their shoulder in fear of those who use the language of conflict and who threaten schism or seeking alternative oversight from overseas.

If people wish to have alternative oversight, than they must be allowed to go their own way – schism is a hard word, but they threaten schism almost daily. Call their bluff.

Taylor Carey said...
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I would agree that little has actually changed, despite all and sundry jumping on the scandal bandwagon. As far as I can tell, the House of Bishops has in effect simply reaffirmed the policy stance held in 2003 when Dr John was nominated to be Bishop of Reading, via the 2005 pastoral statement and in the spirit on discussions around the 1991 ‘Issues in Sexuality’. This stance was, of course, implicitly dropped in the wake of the conservative evangelical outcry in 2003, and formally frozen in 2011 with the imposition of the moratorium on the consecration of homosexual clergy.

I’m with you on the difficulty of the present argument; as with women bishops, we find ourselves stuck on how to debate an issue around an office which is supposed to be a symbol of unity in the Church. Platitudes about ‘unity with diversity’ are all very well (I find myself offering them frequently) but the pragmatic realities of a significant portion of the Church refusing to recognise some bishops as validly consecrated proves a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. I think I would align myself with some of the sentiment of Archbishop Cramner’s (the blogger!) latest piece (http://bit.ly/SaO7qB), but yes, would the bold consecration of Dr John prove ‘the painful medicine the Anglican Communion needs’ (http://ind.pn/UtSx8X)?

06 January 2013 10:41
06 January 2013 10:06
Phil Groom said...
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Pardon me whilst I wax poetical, with apologies to any who’ve heard me say this before:

Am I straight or am I gay?
I truly find it hard to say —
and if I’m somewhere in between
is that really so obscene?
To speak the truth
or live a lie —
of these,
which is the greater crime?

This epitomises the Church of England’s problem: for too long it has lived a lie, attempted to hide under an umbrella of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, trying to maintain a fiction that “all is well and all is well and all manner of things shall be well” whilst it has become increasingly obvious to all and sundry that all is not well and the truth — not to put too fine a point on it — is now burning a hole in the Church’s underpants.

This is why the media is able to have such a field day: because the Church finds itself unable and/or unwilling to resolve — let alone live with — the tensions inherent within either its own or the world’s reality. Theology is full of tensions, places where opposites meet but don’t necessarily attract; we spend our time struggling to square circles when what we need to do is encircle the squares; we seek either/ors when we need to acknowledge both/ands.

Somewhere along the line the powers-that-be in the C of E (and associated spin doctors) seem to have forgotten that theology is dynamic: whereas the Creeds emerged as an expression of faith, they’ve morphed to become the definition of faith, so that where we once had open doorways and windows, we now have brick walls and blind spots. It’s as if someone in the C of E hierarchy has swallowed the idea that the conservative evangelicals must be right, but they don’t actually believe it, and consequently end up tying themselves and the rest of us in knots.

Until the Church finds a way to both speak and live the truth, rather than speak with a forked tongue, saying one thing, doing another, it will always be open to ridicule. Whilst the lies will always be wrong, perhaps, perhaps, the ridicule they open us up to is not such a bad thing: Jacob wrestled with God and walked away limping; he gained a new name, but did he ever live with full integrity? Is this not what it means to be human, to wrestle with the divine? The media frenzy will pass, the wrestling with reality will continue — and part of that wrestling is, of course, in the tension between that view that ‘sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings’ and the Church’s refusal to recognise civil partnerships as the equivalent of marriage — as my friend Emma Jayne observed back in 2009,

You say it’s OK to be gay as long as I don’t do gay: that I must remain celibate. You say that sex is for marriage, but you deny me that privilege. You put fences around me — for my protection, you say. But that’s not true, is it? The fences are for your protection, to keep you safe from me, from the threat that I and my friends supposedly present to your nice, clean-cut clearly defined community.

This is a crass and gross injustice practiced by the C of E and is one of the reasons why the campaign for Equal Marriage is so important: civil partnerships are not equal and until the C of E respects its gay members — including its gay clergy and bishops — as equals, the injustice will continue to be perpetrated and the hypocrisy will remain in plain view for the media to feast upon.

Lord, have mercy.

Taylor Carey said...
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No pardon necessary – thank you for summarising the case better than I could. I resonate particularly with the notion of theology as dynamic; to borrow a phrase from our former Archbishop it is ‘what happens in embodied lives of faith’. The courage to bear faithful witness to that messy and nuanced picture is what conservative fundamentalism lacks – as Emma says so powerfully, it flees from disruption of its ‘clean-cut clearly defined community’. If you will excuse my pomposity in citing my own work, I hope I managed to say something similar (from much the same perspective) in my earlier piece on rediscovering an inclusive theology (http://bit.ly/VbvvBt).

More singing of Donald MacLeod hymns necessary, methinks…thank you once again for your thoughts.

06 January 2013 13:08
06 January 2013 11:53
Wendy Dackson said...
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I’ll repeat what I said on Laura’s Facebook page:

“Seeking a scandal where there isn’t one.” Brilliant summary of so much in the Church. We also tend to claim “persecution” where no such thing is happening (see Andrew Shanks’ ‘Civil Religion, Civil Society’ for a critique of the ‘pastoral monoculture’ that has led to this). Thank you, Taylor.

Taylor Carey said...
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Thank you, Wendy. I would be very interested to learn more – I will look up Andrew Shanks!

06 January 2013 13:11
06 January 2013 12:47
Wendy Dackson said...
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Remember that the Greek ‘skandalon’ carried the meaning of ’cause for moral stumbling’. Perhaps the real scandal is that we spend so much time and energy on this rather than stuff that is more important. I wonder if at the final judgment, we will be asked ‘what else could you have done with all the time, money, and energy you put into debating homosexuality?’

Taylor Carey said...
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Indeed. A timely Tariq Ramadan quote has just appeared on my Twitter feed: “When you serve the poor you educate your heart”. As a Church, we are stumbling along with hearts that are far too cold and uneducated at the moment, I think.

06 January 2013 13:53
06 January 2013 13:35
Erika Baker said...
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Taylor is right, though, nothing has actually changed. William Fittal’s “note on the equality act 2010″ summarises:
William Fittal’s “note on the equality act” also lists the following considerations:

29. Relevant factors which can properly be taken into account include:

whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity;
- whether he was in a civil partnership;
- whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex sexual relationship;
- whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity; and
- whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.

Of these, only one has now been changed, and that has nothing to do with honest engagement with lgbt people but, as some suspect, with tidying up an anomaly between the treatment of priests and bishops, or, as I suspect, because in its opposition to marriage equality the CoE has suddenly discovered its long standing support of Civil Partnership, and in that context it looks more credible if it doesn’t prohibit its own bishops from being civil partnered.

No civil partnered priest is any more likely to become a bishop now than he was 10 days ago.

07 January 2013 09:49
Erika Baker said...
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I think the real crunch will come when the government introduces marriage equality. So far, the CoE has insisted that it is not discriminating against gay people because only married people can be sexually active. And there is a group of Christians who insist that gay people cannot be married because they cannot consummate a marriage, yet consummation is an absolutely essential part of it.

With those starting positions, will the CoE forbid its gay priests to marry? Would that even be legally possible? Will it insist on celibate marriages, and again, would that be legal? Will it come up with other strange contortions to try and square the circle? Or will it finally take a deep breath and grow up?

Taylor Carey said...
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Yes, it will be interesting to see how far the European Convention on Human Rights can be stretched. It currently exempts religious institutions from most employment inequality challenges (e.g. on gender grounds), but I find it hard to believe that can hold ad infinitum.

Of course, the dominant secular narrative sees this in terms of narrowly-defined rights, which is not exactly where I would want to begin a theological argument for same-sex marriage. Nonetheless I hold out some hope in a vaguely dialectical sense: with increasingly absurd contradictions between legally conceded and genuinely willed positions, some progress might just come about.

Having a candidate for a bishopric, who is in a civil partnership and conforming to the church’s standards in this regard does actually advance the argument one stage further. Of course, we did have this in 2003, but if we were to have it again, I find it harder to believe that we would get a repeat of the same unjustifiable bullying tactics…I hope my optimism is not misplaced.

07 January 2013 14:23
Chris Fewings said...
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Erika, I’m finally beginning to see the light. This is why the dictionary became, in 2012, holy writ. The *word* marriage must be defended at all costs. Many parishes accept ‘de facto’ marriages (gay and straight) – kinds of long-term relationships which have always existed but were kept quiet until the sixties, but are not accepted at official level – this is expressed by forbidding priests to live with their partners unless the official church pronounces the word ‘marriage’ over them; alternatively they can say the word ‘celibate’.

This comes apart when the government chooses to say the magic word *marriage* over gay couples. One likely outcome is that the official church will then develop a ‘theology’ of civil versus Christian marriage.

I’m more in favour than ever of that proposal of a moratorium on all church weddings!

07 January 2013 22:57
07 January 2013 09:54

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