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 next five questions the Archbishop needs to be asked

First of all, we need to give some cheers to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He was asked some great questions about the Usual Topic this week in an interview and he gave some great answers.

The interviewer was Michael Gove and the interview appeared in the Spectator.

The crucial bit is this:

It would be a challenge for any Archbishop of Canterbury to accommodate both the concerns of the traditionalists and the evolving views of the rest of British society. But when I ask this, Archbishop of Canterbury he doesn’t prevaricate.

If one of his own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked his blessing, how would he react? ‘Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely. Would I pray with them together? If they wanted me to. If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend? Of course I would.’

But, I challenged him, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, wouldn’t you say to them that while you love them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate?

‘I would say, “I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.” Whatever they say, I will say I always love them.’

Listening to the archbishop, you get the sense that he is never calculating who might be offended, or attracted, by his words. He is following what he believes to be the path that Jesus has called him to take.

Those really are great answers and it is good to hear them coming from the leader of the Anglican Communion.

Now, I know what you are thinking – you’re thinking “Do we really have to give three cheers for someone simply behaving like a decent parent?”

Well, right now in the mire of the church’s troubles over sexuality, we do need to cheer him on when he says good things and we need to remember that it could be a very different message and a very different tone. Just the same week, a bishop in Greece has been reported to be lashing out at gay people and atheists, encouraged his ‘readers and followers to “spit on them” and “blacken them” with violence, stating that they are not humans’.

So, it really is three cheers for Archbishop Welby along with a cheer to Michael Gove for asking the right questions and getting the results printed. (And you are quite right, you are not going to hear me cheering Justin Welby and Michael Gove that often so make the most of it today).

One of the things that surprises me about the Church of England is that the bishops there are not subject to intrusive questions more often. I happen to think that Michael Gove’s questions were intrusive but necessary and reasonable. The Archbishop could have simply said, “Don’t bring my family and children into this” but it is to his credit that he didn’t. We need more of the same.

It is perhaps worth remembering in passing that one can sometimes experience ranting uncontrollable anger from bishops by asking questions about their own families (spouses, children, extended family members). I’ve experienced that and it isn’t at all pleasant. Rather oddly, some people think that they can pontificate (pun intended) about other people’s family life and personal relationships whilst their own should be utterly untouchable. It doesn’t work like that, of course, and Justin Welby was wise to give straightforward answers.

But what questions need to be asked of Justin Welby next?

Here’s my starter questions for anyone getting the chance to interview Justin Welby or any other bishops in the C of E at the moment. Or indeed those who can ask questions at Synods.

  • Do you think that you would take a different view on going to a same-sex wedding if it involved someone who had worked closely with you rather than involving a family member?  (Clue: The follow up question is “But what if that person was also a relative? And anyway, in what ways should one behave differently towards one’s family and towards the household of God?”).
  • Do you think that there should be a different moral standard for clergy from the membership of the church? Should clergy be held to a higher moral standard. (Clue – if anyone is foolish enough to answer “Yes” the follow up is “so what exactly can lay people get away with that clergy can’t whilst still being in good standing in the church? – which areas of morality are different – just sex or other things too?”)
  • Do you believe sex outside marriage is always wrong? (Clue: the follow up is “What proportion of people whom you have married have you believed to be virgins?”)
  • What should a same-sex marriage involve? What should the ceremony be like? (Clue: the follow up is “Do you think that God should be involved in a marriage between two people?”)
  • Do you believe that people are turned off from exploring religious faith or attracted to religious faith by the church’s prevaricating over this question? (Clue: Next question is to ask what the proportion of anti-gay people at Holy Trinity, Brompton actually is – both leaders and members of the congregation. Note that the Archbishop is likely to know how this has been changing).