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 –

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.

Beware of the Celibate

beware of the celibateThere’s rather a lot of silly talk going on online about celibacy at the moment. This is largely connected to a couple of recent publications, not the least of which is Richard Coles’s new autobiography. Rather a lot of the publicity surrounding the book has made much of the idea of someone moving from a rockstar lifestyle to that of a celibate vicar.

This is connected to the idea that gay priests are OK “so long as they are celibate”, an expectation which seems to have something to do with what gay people (by which we mean men) desire to do with bits of their bodies. (The unspoken and rarely challenged presumption being that straight men don’t do these things with their bodies).

Alongside this, we’ve also got a small number of the usual suspects saying that the churches can’t legitimately adopt a positive attitude to same-sex couples getting married because it would somehow invalidate the experience of those who reject the legitimacy of their own gay desires and have pledged to live without doing anything about them. This is linked with the specious phrase – “same-sex attraction” or even worse, “unwanted same-sex attraction”. This phrase is only ever used by those denying that God might delight in God’s gay children and have given them their desires so that they might delight in one another. Let me be clear – the phrase “same-sex attraction” is intrinsically homophobic and only ever used by those, usually motivated by religion, who have bad news for gay men.

In the midst of all this, it seems important to get back to first principles.

Let us begin with the bible and what St Paul had to say about marriage.

In 1 Corinthians 7 we find Paul saying that it is better to marry than to burn. Now, this is important. Firstly this is not an argument in favour of marriage – it is a rather sniffy comment from someone who thought that Jesus was about to return and turn the world so far upside down that marriage wasn’t really important. Secondly, it is important to recognise that this isn’t someone advocating celibacy as being a higher calling than marriage either. Rather it is someone usefully pointing out that enforced celibacy, particularly celibacy enforced for religious reasons, is a dangerous thing.

Enforced celibacy is something that we should all be wary of. I’m far from being the only person who thinks that all kinds of abusive behaviour can arise from enforced celibacy that is demanded of those who have no sense of vocation towards it.

Many years ago I knew a nun who knew a thing or two about psychology and she used to say, “Wherever you see a virgin, there you see a witch.” Now, virginity is not the same as celibacy but it is a comment that I often have reflected on. All kinds of behaviour are linked to psychosexual hopes and dreams. When we hear people advocating celibacy as a lifestyle we should at least see amber lights before us. It may be the right thing for some people and it quite certainly isn’t the life for everyone.

One of my big reservations at the moment about the current discussions about celibacy is that they seem to settle on the notion of celibacy as being about what one does (or doesn’t do) with bits of one’s body. In fact, Christian spiritual teaching about celibacy was always about something rather more than that. It was (and is) about someone responding to what they perceive to be a call from God to live a life free from distractions not simply for its own sake but so that they are then free in God’s name to love the world. What one doesn’t do with one’s bits is rather a secondary consideration.

The truth is, a couple of people who are living in respectable coupledom with all its compromises, arguments and trips to IKEA are not living in a celebate relationship in the grand scheme of Christian spirituality just because they declare (or are presumed) to be putting limits on what they do with their bodies. Christianity is certainly an incarnate religion and does indeed claim that bodies matter but it is also about more than bodies too.

Some Christians are called to celibacy. All are called to chastity. The trouble is, and it is interesting very interesting trouble indeed, we don’t all agree what chaste living is any more and that applies to straight people (including particularly those not yet married) just as much as it applies to those who are gay.

By all means let us talk about celibacy but let us do so in a grown up way, beginning from being cautious about those trying to argue either by their words or their lifestyles for the enforced celibacy of others. Let us also not confuse the idea of not having sex, with living celibate lives.

These things matter far too much. When you encounter the C word, let it flag up some warnings. Celibacy is a complex, tricky and fascinating thing. If we don’t have any knowledge of that or interest in understanding it then we should beware of the “celibate”.

Living together and not having sex is perfectly legitimate and perfectly uninteresting. Indeed it is no-one’s business but that of the couple themselves. We must ask couples wanting to make much of that way of life why they are doing so.

It doesn’t seem particularly godly to enquire about (or advertise) what is happening in particular bedrooms. That applies whether there is a lot going on there or not much going on at all.