Everybody Out!

I like this curt summary from the Church Mouse of the situation in the Church of England.

If you aren’t aware, some bishops are gay.  But we don’t talk about it.

That just about sums up what a lot of the anger over the past few days has been directed at since the leak of the Colin Slee memo written after the nominations process to appoint the new Bishop of Southwark. In the memo Colin Slee outlined his recollection of the events around those two days last year when the names of both Dr Jeffrey John and Nick Holtham (who subsequently was appointed to the See of Salisbury) were effectively stripped from the list of names to be considered. The core of the argument against having Jeffrey John as the Bishop was laid out in a legal opinion offered from the legal team at Church House. In it they suggested a number of issues that could be considered when debating how a particular candidate could be (or not be) a focus of unity for the diocese and the wider church. These were as follows:

  • whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity
  • whether he was in a civil partnership
  • whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex sexual relationship
  • whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity
  • whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion

These are interesting points for two reasons. First, they represent a particularly conservative position coming out from the senior church hierarchy. The five points see a clear distinction not just between sexual orientation and sexual behaviour but also between unrepentant and repentant attitudes to previous sinful behaviour (for it cannot be argued that the problem with a candidate having had previous sexual relationships outside of marriage is simply “what will people think”). Secondly, they are interesting because they are practically identical to the objections given for the appointment of Dr Jeffrey John in 2003 to the suffragan position in Reading, Oxford. The legal opinion is therefore also a tacit acceptance by the powers that be in Church House that the conservative objections to Jeffrey John back in 2003 were valid. In particular, it is the emphasis on the repentance from previous sexual activity that is the key factor. Of course, one might be repentant in a different ways, for there is a fair difference between, “I am sorry that I engaged in sexual activity that I now recognise was sinful”, and, “I am sorry that I disobeyed the church’s teaching”.

The presence of the five bullets though represents a present victory for the conservative position in the debate. The fact that it was suggested that any of these reasons were good enough to disbar any candidate (not just Jeffrey John) from preferment, and the recognition that these were the same arguments used in 2003, has led in part to the irritation of those in the revisionist camp. That irritation has been expressed over the past few days in blog posts and comments railing at the unfairness, the hypocrisy of this situation for, it is claimed, there are already gay bishops and if it is OK for these bishops then why not for Jeffrey John. Here though is the fundamental error in the revisionist complaint.

The error is not that there are gay bishops so the complaint of hypocrisy is not accurate (there are). The error is not even the fact that time and time again revisionists conflate sexual behaviour and orientation in order to deliberately confuse the issue as laid out in the bullets above, thereby giving rise to the cry of hypocrisy regardless of the sexual activity (previous or present, repentant or unrepentant) of the respective bishop. No, the error of the revisionist camp is more subtle that that.

It is not simply that time and time again they do not make the distinction between orientation and behaviour, but more fundamentally that they refuse to engage with that distinction in any meaningful way in the first place. Why is this a gross mistake? Well, it is very clear now that the church hierarchy does make such a distinction and is happy to apply such a distinction in matters such as the nomination of bishops. Even yesterday one leading revisionist on a number of occasions on replying to comments on a blog post (and in the text of the original blog post itself), fundamentally failed to engage with this fact and continued to publicly contemplate outing “gay bishops”. The fact that in making this threat he made no distinction between celibates and otherwise (and if there are gay bishops (plural) they are, to my knowledge, to a man celibate) demonstrated to everyone reading the comments that he not only rejected the church’s framework for discernment in these areas (the emphasis on behaviour rather than orientation) but that he was politically, naively blind to it.This is a dangerous position to be in, because it means that any attempt to actually out gay bishops is likely to backfire spectacularly.

Most readers of this blog would agree that it would be hypocritical for the Church of England to refuse to appoint Jeffrey John to a Bishopric whilst it continued to have bishops installed who were in identical situations as Dr John and his partner. But, I am led to believe, that is not the case and the bullet points above have been drawn up because they cover safely in their five points any of the men that some might wish to out in their angry response to the leaks of this week. If it were not so then the Church of England, quite rightly, would open itself wide up to the charge of blatant hypocrisy and despite the fact that people at Church House and in the highest echelons of the CofE do make mistakes, they do not deliberately make those kind of mistakes. Those kind of mistakes lead to resignations at the highest level. If that is all true, then what would the outing of gay bishops in the Church of England actually achieve?

Well firstly, it would expose to public view as homosexual a number of men who have been faithfully celibate and abiding to the church’s teaching steadfastly for all of their lives. They would be outed for the only reason that they were single and gay rather than single and straight, outed by folks who argue vociferously on their blogs and websites that people should not be singled out just because they were gay and for no other reason. Who at this point would be the hypocrites?

Secondly, it would expose to public view men who had in the past engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, who had repented of that sin and had then ordered their lives to be very clearly in line with the church’s teaching. Attempting to out these men would simply show for public view the glory of the good news of forgiveness for sin repented of. It would demonstrate to all that the church does grace and restoration and does it for any and all who will accept their sinful error. Whilst initially it might be embarrassing and uncomfortable for the individuals involved and their families and friend, it would then provide ample opportunity for the clear distinction in the church’s teaching between orientation and behaviour to be explained and to be shown to be perfectly manageable for individuals to live, even individuals who had erred in the past. The men outed would become instantly heroes of orthodoxy, icons of repentance and grace.

Thirdly, and controversially for some in the conservative camp, it might even expose to public view men who had managed for well over a decade to live in a “covenanted friendship” without any sexual activity whatsoever. It would demonstrate to all that deep friendships do not need to be sexualised and that Christians can find ways of ordering their lives clearly, of committing to others whilst staying faithful to the purity of the marriage bed.

Finally, it would not change the position of the Church of England. What it would do though is undermine the position of those who engaged in the outing, namely because the only direct effect of the outing would have been to shame certain individuals for not supporting the position of those who did the outing. Such a goal (the shaming of individuals because they do not agree with you) is base indeed and not worthy of anybody who takes clearly Christ’s call to love your neighbour as yourself. Those who engaged in the outing would be seen clearly by all to be self-serving and operating out of a position of anger, bitterness and envy, a position of sin. Moreover, they would not have demonstrated that there are gay bishops in the Church of England, for most informed people already understand this to be so. Rather they would have demonstrated that they themselves were willing to sacrifice on the altar of public intrigue the lives of men living faithfully to the full breadth of the Church’s teaching of holiness in present life and past reflection, a sacrifice that was entirely self-serving (so not a sacrifice at all).

It is increasingly clear that the Church of England needs to have an honest and open discussion about sexual practice and ethics and come to a clear resolution on the issue. There is also a need for the processes of the Crown Nominations Commissions to be more transparent, not that we should know the deliberations of the members but rather that we should know clearly the rules around which they frame their deliberations (and obviously some of the anger at the process for Southwark was that the “new” rules were imposed without prior reference). However, outing Bishops is not the way to achieve either of these things and might actually be a path down which the revisionist cause is damaged. Rather, those who seek to change the status quo need to engage with that status quo’s position on sexual behaviour versus orientation. Simply ignoring this distinction or claiming it is artificial will not convince any of the powers that be that the current position needs to change.

Please note, comment moderation is on for this thread. Your comments will be approved as fast as possible but I will not tolerate any discussion of the sexual orientation or behaviour of any specific individual. If you attempt to identify any individuals in this manner your comment will be be deleted and you will be banned indefinitely from this site without any further warning.

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