Sexuality, Celibacy and Bishops

Chief Inspector of Sodomy

This weekend one of the bishops of the Church of England was outed. He was approached by a journalist who appears to have been in conversation with a great many people last week in the Church of England. The journalist apparently approached the Bishop of Grantham and asked him whether or not he was gay. The consequence of this was that the bishop chose to give an interview to another journalist and a story subsequently appeared in the Guardian.

I don’t wish to comment on the Bishop of Grantham’s situation other than assert that I don’t think that he was a good candidate to be outed and then to wish him well. It seems to me that enough people have had enough to say about him that we must leave him be.

As I have written before, there are some circumstances in which it is appropriate for someone to be outed. Indeed writing from Scotland after the Cardinal O’Brien affair, I think I’d say that there are circumstances in which to out someone who is engaged in the active oppression of other gay people is in itself a moral and commendable act. However, all outing situations have consequences, some of them unexpected.

I don’t happen to know the Bishop of Grantham and just about all that I know about his ministry is a report from someone who told me that he had been heard to preach in favour of the introduction of same-sex marriage. Now, one ethical matter does not make one a saint, but that’s enough for me to think that he was one of the good guys and might have been better left to work for justice and come out at a time of his own choosing.

There are a couple of things that do need to be commented on a little further though that are not immediately about the Bishop of Grantham himself.

Firstly, to note that we seem to be no further forward in getting either a common or a common-sense understanding of what celibacy is. The indignity of people being forced to declare what happens in their bedrooms is hideous. Moreover, the idea of someone being in a “celibate relationship” is entirely absurd.

I’ve written about celibacy at some length before in a blog post which enraged a good many people. (Beware of the Celibate)

I have not fundamentally changed my mind since then. It seems to me that celibacy in the Christian tradition is a turning away from romantic relationships in order to be able turn towards God and turn outwards to others. The idea of an exclusive partnership which is in some way celibate is bordering on being a contradiction of terms. What is really being discussed in England is whether individual bishops (and others) are choosing to abstain from certain sexual practises. There is an enormous difference between celibacy and abstinence and the confusion in the Church of England doesn’t just make Anglicanism look foolish but discredits Christianity as a whole, makes a laughing stock of the wider Anglican Communion and makes it much harder to share the love of God to those who need most to know about it.

I an indebted to my colleague in Edinburgh, Stephen Holmes for drawing to my attention that the idea of a “celibate relationship” is not in fact something that is entirely new within the sphere of Christianity and that something similar was condemned at the Council of Nicea and amongst many of the early theologians of our faith. The third canon of the Council of Nicea explicitly condemns the idea of clergy living in merely spiritual marriages. Basically, male clergy could only have close female relatives living with them. No chance then of having a bidey-in but telling the newspapers that it doesn’t matter because nothing is going on in the bedroom.

Check out this post on wikipedia if you want more on the idea of “celibate relationships” being condemned way back in the Christian tradition – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syneisaktism

Since the outing incident of last weekend, there has been considerable comment about the fact that the bishop has done nothing wrong because he has been celibate. Now, leaving aside that I don’t accept that he’s making a claim of celibacy so much as abstinence, it is worth seeing where all that leads us.

The first trouble is the Anglican Communion whose Secretary General this afternoon wrote an extraordinary note assuring others than he had been assured himself of the lack of hanky-panky in the Bishop of Grantham’s life and so all is well in the Communion. There are two dangers here. One is the danger that he will have to give a report on the sex life of every bishop in the Communion. (Something I can promise you I personally don’t want to hear about). The other is that the Secretary General finds himself unable to distinguish between the mores and norms of the Church of England and those of the Communion itself. He is dangerously close to this in his statement today, and perhaps needs to be reminded that a far greater sin than homosexuality is the inability in his office of being able to distinguish between the Church of England in particular and Anglicanism in general. There are, to put it bluntly once again, churches within the Communion which don’t accept the moral teachings of Lambeth 1.10, never accepted the moral teachings of Lambeth 1.10 and never will accept the teachings of Lambeth 1.10. For the Secretary General to persist in the fantasy that the Communion is united in believing in Lambeth 1.10 is the equivalent of believing that there are faeries (albeit perhaps celibate faeries) living at the bottom of the Lambeth Palace gardens.

The second trouble this weekend is what happens to the Archbishop of Canterbury when such a story as this comes along. The blunt reality is that there needs to be more to the role of being Archbishop of Canterbury than to be the Chief Inspector of Sodomy in the mind of the general public. I can’t believe that Justin Welby wants to exercise that function either in his own church or any other church but if he wants to avoid being thust into that role, he is going to need to do better than simply parrot the idea that just because someone claims their life is lived under the banner of celibacy that all is somehow well.

The banner that we are supposed to live under is love. And we are not yet seeing the Archbishop call us to a place where we can all affirm that as the birthright of all of God’s children.

If he is to do so, he needs to find ways of resisting being the Chief Inspector of Sodomy whenever Gafcon, the Church of England Press Office or any other conservative campaigning group try to nudge him towards that role. If he does resist it, he will find a world waiting to applaud him. When he doesn’t manage to do so he doesn’t just make a fool of himself but of the rest of us too. And I think people are wearying of that.

Justin Welby is a better man than these statements make him appear.

England will not be won for Christ whilst the structures of the Church of England make Christianity look like a religion for narrow-minded fools.

I happen to think that the next thing that we should expect to hear from the Bishop of Grantham on the matter of homosexuality is whether or not he agrees with the document “Issues in Human Sexuality” – the absurd pseudo-doctrinal statement that the Church of England has somehow committed itself to.

He should be expected to answer that question and do so clearly and unambiguously, but not, however, before every last one of the other bishops has had a chance to answer the same question in public. (After all, what is the point of a diocesan synod except for asking just that question of every bishop in England?).

I hope that comes soon. Very soon.

However, until it does, I think the Bishop of Grantham deserves a bit of peace.

The Columba Declaration – where are we now?

I was present this morning at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for the Church of Scotland’s acceptance of the Columba Declaration – the agreement that has been made between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England which has cause a huge amount of concern to Scottish Episcopalians.

It was good to be in the Assembly Hall – there’s an atmosphere there that can’t be replicated online. I’ve enjoyed dropping into the business of the Church of Scotland for years, since the time I was doing a degree at New College which is adjacent to the hall itself. The singing of the Assembly is spine-tingling and this morning there was a brilliant homily from the Moderator of the Assembly on the bible reading of the day which was of the two men who went up to the temple to pray.

I enjoy the way the Church of Scotland does its business. Utter courtesy is the order of the day and there’s always the most powerful attempt to ensure that all voices are heard.

I’ve often commented that a good Church of Scotland moderator would enable one of our synods to get through its business in a couple of hours rather than a couple of days and more people would feel that their opinion had been part of the discussion.

When I was an ecumenical corresponding member of a Church of Scotland Presbytery I gradually got used to the cadences and the humour and gentle stamping of feet to indicate agreement. I also realised to my surprise that the things which presbyterian  friends have often thought odd about Episcopal worship – bowing, standing and sitting every verse-end, a daring splash of lace and a smattering of Latin within the context of an experience that is both highly serious and highly camp are all present in the way the Church of Scotland does business.

This morning was a hugely important symbolic occasion. The Archbishop of Canterbury was present and had been invited to contribute to the debate. This was also an opportunity to try to put some of the ill-feeling to rest that has been stirred up in Scotland by the Columba Declaration.

I have to say that having read my social media timelines since coming home, it is very obvious that this hasn’t been achieved. Whatever was said in public in the Assembly today, there is still a level of outrage being expressed by Scottish Episcopalians which has led both journalists and people from out of Scotland to express considerable surprise to me about it in the last 24 hours. How can it be, they ask, that things are going on in public church gatherings which have these extraordinary levels of grievance attached to them online? My only answer is that those with the power in the equation simply don’t care about the members of the Scottish Episcopal Church enough to have paused long enough to try to put things right.

Full marks to Justin Welby though for trying. He got up at the Assembly and apologised for the hurt that had been caused to Scottish Episcopalians by the manner in which this had all been handled. Indeed, he said that he took personal responsibility for that.

This was highly commendable and might have worked if we had not known since Christmas that it was the Church of Scotland’s media office which leaked the details to the press with the express permission of “someone high up” in the Church of Scotland’s Ecumenical Relations Committee. (I know this because I was personally told so by the person who did it within 24 hours of it happening).

That’s been known for months and talked about for months, tweeted about for months and discussed for months. We know that the way in which this was handled wasn’t Justin Welby’s responsibility. Bless him for trying to pour Archepiscopal oil on troubled Episcopal waters, but Justin Welby was trying to take responsibility for things that he is known to have had nothing whatsoever to do with.

Here I think it is important to distinguish what has caused the trouble for Scottish Episcopalians. There are two issues. The first is the leaking of the report just before Christmas – this was unfortunate and made a bad situation much worse but it was a mistake and we can all move on from that. Indeed, I don’t think Scottish Episcopalians are that bothered by that now. The apology for that mess should have come from the Church of Scotland today though it was clear that the Church of Scotland was in triumphalist mode and there was little chance of any kind of apology from that quarter. But at the end of a rather long day, I think all we can do is shrug and acknowledge that it shouldn’t have happened that way. People make mistakes and I don’t think there’s any point dwelling on this any more.

The second issue is the fact of the agreement itself. This is much more problematic and this is the trouble that just won’t go away. The Scottish Episcopalians I know and whom I see posting at length online about this simply do not believe it is appropriate for the Church of England to be interfering in another Province. And that is, to so very many of us, exactly what this is.

For that, the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t apologise. And that’s the nub of the problem. Who cares about how it was announced? The fact that it was announced at all is what everyone I know seems to care about.

It is important to acknowledge that there are very real differences in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury is seen here in Scotland from that in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

This was a very public event with a public gallery but I only saw three Episcopalians whom I recognised there today. There were far more empty seats than Anglicans present.

Having got to know, for example, the Episcopal Church in the USA, my sense is that there they love and adore the idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury and indeed they pray for him at services. This means that when he is seen to misbehave towards America there is not so much anger as bewilderment that the one whom they have loved (and the England that he represents) has not returned the favour (or even favor). The pain of the US church is the pain of unrequited love.

Here in Scotland we are innately suspicious of the idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury (and very rarely pray for him in services) and when he behaves badly it confirms all our expectations. This tends to brew up into our righteous anger which gets very readily trumpeted abroad. We don’t do Archbishops generally. We don’t have one of our own and woe betide any Primus that doesn’t understand that from the get go.

I suspect the US position is a lot more painful in reality. Our pain here in Scotland is more easily expressed and has a historical context and many historical and contemporary myths about England and Scotland from which we can draw, in expressing our indignation. That indignation has once again been pouring out, even as there have been attempts to move on today at the General Assembly.

What I saw today was an attempt to try to make things right. It was largely unsuccessful. It was difficult not to listen and hear under the surface of so much that was said a desperation from presbyterian brothers and sisters to be recognised as a “real church”. One spoke with some pathos about the fact that Anglicans had simply not been able to recognise a Church of Scotland communion service as being the equivalent of a Eucharist celebrated by an Episcopally ordained priest. This one won’t go away with the Columba Declaration either – most Episcopalians I know would take that view whilst being perfectly happy to share in the  bread and wine if invited to within the context of the Church of Scotland.

That hurts for our Presbyterian brothers and sisters and that hurt is just as real and has to be taken just as seriously as any hurt that Episcopalians have been feeling for the last six months.

The Columba Declaration states that in both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England “Holy Communion is rightly administered”. I think Scottish Episcopalians are puzzled by that statement and don’t really know what it means. For what it is worth, Scottish Episcopalians are sometimes more bewildered by what passes for Eucharistic services in some parts of the Church of England as anything happening in the Church of Scotland but perhaps that is for another day. However, the fact remains that we care very much how Holy Communion is administered and this part of the Declaration makes us raise our ecumenical eyebrows.

In the course of today’s events at the General Assembly, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church were both sitting in the gallery for honoured guests at the beginning of proceedings. The Archbishop was then invited onto the Assembly floor where he had a voice and quite literally a place at the table. The Primus was left in the gallery and in course of the debate, people around him disappeared. It was as though whoever was in charge of the choreography had tried to recreate the slight to the Scottish Episcopal Church symbolically for all to see. The players enacted their parts. The Scottish Episcopal Church was isolated and patronised with invitations to join in by sending someone to join the ongoing conversations. The Church of England was invited to the feast.

The Columba Declaration is a major piece of ecumenical work that has been brought about at the cost of more ecumenical goodwill than I ever really thought Scotland had to lose. Looking at my social media timelines over the last 24 hours, it is very obvious that it will poison the wells of ecumenical relations for many years to come. Something has been broken and I struggle to see how it can be repaired.

And the outcome?

They set up a committee.