In the Guardian

Well not technically in the print edition, but I was commissioned to do a column for the Comment is Free Belief section on, what else, gay bishops. Enjoy!

The Church of England is in a mess and most of us know it. For more than two decades now, since the publication of the House of Bishop’s report Issues in Human Sexuality, the public policy of the church has been those in sexual relationships outside of marriage should not be ordained, let alone consecrated as a bishop. Those who publicly state that they are in sexually active gay relationships lose their licence or are refused preferment, while others in the same situation keep silent and find no problem remaining in post.

The key disagreement is whether it is right for the church to apply specific criteria to clergy when considering them for promotion. In particular, it is the fact that the list of possible reasons to reject someone as bishop – produced in the legal opinion that so split the crown nominations commission – included repentance from previous homosexual acts and a consideration as to whether a particular candidate (even if they met all the other criteria) might yet not be a “focus of unity” for the diocese and wider church.

Are these criteria just? The answer to that is ultimately a theological discussion, not a legal one, for most of us who watch the Church of England from varying distances realise that by its very nature the law of the land should not be the final arbiter of moral behaviour for a religious body. Just ask the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany. No, despite the fact that some might protest at the exclusions the Church of England and others have achieved from the Equality Act and other legislation, the final judgment for the church as a whole is not whether such a list contradicts the law of the land but rather whether it contradicts the law of God.

This is one of the reasons why the current debate in the Church of England is so distressing and debilitating, for time and time again the opportunity to grapple once and for all with the theology of sexual expression, identity and behaviour is being dodged by the hierarchies.

Whatever you think about the current course of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland’s debate on human sexuality, at least they decided to set up a commission and try to deal with the issue.

In contrast to this, the Church of England continues in an ongoing cold war over the issue. The official line is the traditional sexual morality of sex only permitted within the marriage of a man and his wife, and the demand that clergy adhere to this rule. In practice, in many places this official position, articulated in a number of General Synod motions, the 1991 House of Bishop’s paper Issues in Human Sexuality, the infamous 1998 Lambeth conference statement and most recently the 2005 pastoral statement on civil partnerships, is wilfully flouted and substantially ignored by the highest authorities. Indeed, might there even already be bishops in the same domestic situation as Dr Jeffrey John (or “even worse”) who are simply closeted for safety’s sake?

No wonder revisionists cry hypocrisy and threaten with increasing tedium to out the bishops who are gay and keeping that fact secret. Of course, in response to this allegation is the counter-challenge that these alleged gay bishops are actually celibate, repentant of previous sexual activity and therefore not at all like Dr Jeffrey John. Indeed, until someone actually names a name and shares a story, how are we to know?

Perhaps the real issue in the church at the moment is not the existence of a (now leaked) secret legal opinion but rather the lack of existence of a safe, open and structured way in which the Church of England can finally come to a resolution on these issues. Until that happens, or until one side of the debate takes precipitative action that turns the stalemate into a full-scale shooting war, we are destined for more newspaper and blog columns repeating what we already know: that the Church of England is fundamentally divided on this key issue. Wouldn’t it be much better instead to just have a full public discussion of all the issues, have an unambiguous vote in synod and get it all over and done with once and for all?

Then we could find something even more controversial to argue about. Anyone for speaking in tongues?

3 Comments on “In the Guardian

  1. I agree we should have the debate. The only thing I disagree with is that such a debate can be "once and for all." Issues such as slavery, gay rights, women in positions of authority, divorce and remarriage, transgender issues will change and have changed as our understandings and wider attitudes change.

  2. Well done Peter on an excellent article where you quite correctly take the debate to where it should be – theology and doctrine. Unfortunately, I think that the good old fuzzy Church of England will probably continue to prefer the fudged compromises that have been built into its DNA from the C16!

    >>Anyone for speaking in tongues?<<

    I am, let's go! Heck, if we could get the Holy Spirit moving in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is as high as kite, then I might even become an Anglican again!

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