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.

Peter Tatchell on Outing Bishops

I was in conversation with Peter Tatchell yesterday in St Mary’s after the Sung Eucharist yesterday morning. The whole of the conversation was recorded and can be seen on the cathedral website.

One of the things that I wanted to ask him about was whether he still thought it was appropriate to out gay bishops, something that he has done in the past. I wasn’t too surprised to hear him justifying the outing of gay public figures who use their own influence to inhibit the lives of other gay people.

I was interested to hear him say that he and those whom he works with are currently considering outing bishops again.

The whole of the segment on outing people is in the video extract above. The particularly relevant bit comes at the end:

Kelvin Holdsworth: For what it is worth, I find myself very often wondering these days whether we are heading back in that direction [of outing], with bishops in England directly preventing their clergy from marrying at the moment in a way that is not likely to happen in Scotland. And some of them perceived to be in partnerships. And that seems to me to be back in that territory.
Peter Tatchell: You are absolutely right, and we are amassing the evidence right now. I’m not saying that we will use it, but we are certainly thinking about it – because people have a right to privacy so long as they are not using their own power and authority to harm other people and when other people are being caused harm and suffering we have a duty to try and stop it. If this is the only way, it is certainly not the preferable way, it’s not the first option but as a last resort I think it is morally and ethically justifiable.

My own view that it is perfectly justifiable to out those who are gay who use their authority to inhibit the lives of those gay people in their care. It seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate for anyone with concrete evidence of a bishop who has supported an anti-gay policy such as the recent pastoral statement in the Church of England and who is in a same-sex partnership, to draw attention to that hypocrisy in public.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to out bishops who are themselves gay and in partnerships who are supportive of policies which would inhibit their gay and lesbian clergy from marrying?