Why outing [some] bishops must remain an option

Last weekend, an extraordinary letter was published in the Sunday Telegraph. It came from 300 Christians, mostly Anglicans who were offering support to their bishops should any of them decide to come out.

It was described by some as a love letter to gay bishops.

I had the chance to sign the letter and, though I have a great deal of sympathy with its aim, found that I didn’t feel that I could do so because the letter itself contained a line that I disagreed with. It said that those signing the letter were against involuntarily outing bishops. Though I don’t believe anyone should be outed for being gay, there are some circumstances where I think outing is justified and for that reason, I declined to sign.

I’ve since been accused on twitter by an someone of advocating a campaign of intimidation that is “pure hatred”.

This is nonsense, of course, and came from someone who hides behind an anonymous twitter account.

But it is worth looking at the issues again.

This is what the letter said:

We are lay and ordained Anglicans in the Church of England and other Provinces, who publicly affirm the episcopal ministry in its purpose and diversity.

We recognize that there is a cost to those who respond to the call to be a bishop. This is especially true for those who are not heterosexual and have kept their sexual orientation private. There is growing pressure on gay bishops to come out publicly. The signatories to this letter do not advocate the involuntary outing of bishops.

We write to assure those bishops who may choose openly to acknowledge their sexual orientation as gay or bisexual that you will receive our support, prayer, and encouragement.

Sadly, we live at a time when those who are honest about being LGBTI and Christian are treated with hostility by a vocal minority within and outside the Church.

We have no doubt that the vast majority of Anglicans will welcome and embrace those of you who are gay or bisexual for your courage and conviction if you come out: weeping with you for past hurts and rejoicing in God’s call as witnesses to Christ’s transforming love and compassion.

If you stand out we will stand beside you.

Yours in Christ

My problem came with the line “The signatories to this letter do not advocate the involuntary outing of bishops.”

You see, the trouble is, I think that must remain an option. I don’t like the idea of outing bishops and certainly have no plans to do so. But it must remain an option.

The reason I’ve come to that view is the Keith O’Brien affair here in Scotland. In short, Cardinal Keith O’Brien was conducting a vitriolic campaign against the rights of gay folk whilst himself apparently having secret gay relationships.

It was a devastating affair not only for his own church but for all Christians in Scotland. It was not merely Roman Catholics who were ashamed of what was revealed and it is not merely Roman Catholics who are troubled by the suggestion at the time that Keith O’Brien may have made appointments that were influenced by his private life, a claim which has never really been put to rest. My friends who are Roman Catholics still speak of their distress at what has happened. Some complain about the lack of any open investigation and many have questions about the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church’s Media Office in promoting what they see as an anti-gay message in Scotland.

Before this took place, I probably would have signed a letter like the one that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. However, now, having seen what has happened here amongst my friends, I can’t sign it. Sometimes, as a last resort, outing is necessary. If someone who is gay uses a position of power to attack other gay people and who is living a life inconsistent with the message being preached then I’m afraid that it may be the best thing for them to be exposed and removed from office.

When I weighed up whether to sign the letter or not, I simply asked myself whether it would have been better for Keith O Brien to still be in post, still campaigning against gay people, still bringing Christianity into disrepute by his message, whilst some people privately knew what was going on. (Incidentally, I was one of those who did know stories about Keith O’Brien before this broke). My conclusion was that the greater good would not be served by him still being in post. I don’t think he as an individual would be best served by his remaining in post.

So, my reluctant conclusion is that outing people in power must remain an option.

It also must remain an option to out straight leaders who claim in public to be supportive of gay folk but who privately act against them.

You are at no risk of being outed if you simply happen to be gay and happen to be in power.

Should you act against other gay folk, campaign against them and work to limit their human rights, then it seems not unreasonable for your own life to be exposed to public scrutiny.

I have great sympathies with what those signing the Telegraph letter were doing. Should any bishop decide to come out I’d be first in line to offer support, encouragement and advice on what it means to be gay and have a very public role in the church.

However, that one sentence meant that I couldn’t actually sign on the dotted line.

And though it may make other people, like my anonymous twitter troll, very cross, I’ve no regrets about that at all.


  1. Gryff says

    Whilst this is an understandable position, I can’t help but think that the Cardinal may be a red herring. My thinking around his resignation is that whilst the Cardinal was going against his vows, as well as the teachings that he preached and professed to confess, he was committing an additional sin in abusing his position of power, especially towards young and trainee priests. This behaviour would have been just as inappropriate if it had been directed towards young women over whom he was in a position of authority or guidance, and would have been just as worthy of being exposed.

    Can you distinguish between outing somebody, and exposing them for improper behaviour, which inevitably exposes their sexuality? I would argue that you can, and on that basis one could sign this letter in good conscience.

    • The justification for outing people is always about abuses of power. Though I agree that if it were young women the behaviour would have been reprehensible, what is unimaginable is that he would be persuing young women whilst simultaneously campaigning against straight people’s relationships. It is the campaign against gay people that focuses the argument and the inevitable news stories, on the sexuality of the perpetrator.

    • Bro David says

      I think you may be confusing bananas and pink grapefruits. There is a difference in the Cardinal’s situation, if he was physically/sexually abusing people under his authority, and a bishop in a consenting relationship with someone of the bishop’s same gender, but the bishop avails every opportunity to hender the advancement of GLBT folk in the church or, in the case of Lord Bishops in England, in the nation.

  2. Well, having finally seen the text of the letter – thanks – it certainly seems an unfortunate line to have included. It might have been a clumsy expression (“we are not trying to force your exposure”, although that is also suboptimal), but as you say it does invoke a lot of other unpleasant thoughts. You would have to be generally opposed to exposing others to sign it – choosing to restrict exercising the internal discipline of the Church can only lead to corruption.

    • I like that as an alternative; it would have allowed others to sign while still making the point that forcing people out is nof the point.

  3. Robin says

    Suppose Cardinal O’Brien was sincere in his upholding of traditional sexual morality, but – tragically for himself and others – was sometimes unable to resist what he, in line with his church’s teachings, would have regarded as a temptation to sin? He would then be no worse than, say, a cleric who campaigned against drunkenness but was unable on occasions to resist the temptation to drink to excess in private. He would have a human weakness and he would behave sinfully, but he would not be a hypocrite.

    • I think someone who gets drunk in private but can’t keep his mouth from railing against drunkenness is probably headed for trouble and I think most people would regard him not merely as a hypocrite but as a fool too.

      • Robin says

        I can see why people might do so, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree with them. One might say that his personal knowledge of the evils of drunkenness, and of the strength of the temptation to get drunk, would make him all the more anxious to preach against it. Of course, one would then hope that he would, as part of his anti-drunkenness campaign, own up in public to his personal temptations and lapses – something which Cardinal O’Brien didn’t do as regards homosexuality. I wonder what would have happened if he had done? The Church of England twenty years or so was able to accept Archbishop David Hope’s admission of a “grey area” in his sexuality, but I suspect that this wouldn’t be possible even today for a present-day RC prelate of similar rank, although I know it is possible for some brave priests.

        I was interested to see that, in a similar situation, Kieran Conry, the RC Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, said that he had tried to avoid preaching about sexual morality. But I wonder how many clerics who campaign against homosexuality are in fact campaigning against something within themselves which they dislike and fear, and which they regard as a dreadful sin, and are doing so as a kind of coping strategy and/or means of self discipline and self punishment?

  4. Matthew Pemble says

    “You are at no risk of being outed if you simply happen to be gay and happen to be in power.”

    You are at no risk from being outed by _Kelvin_. However, the niceties he partakes of are not recognised by many of the others who see bishops who merely happen to be gay as an entirely legitimate target.

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