Reflections on Outing
A reminder of some words I wrote a year ago.
The core of the argument against having Jeffrey John as the Bishop was laid out inÂ a legal opinionÂ 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 Churchâ€™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 â€œwhat will people thinkâ€). 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, â€œI am sorry that I engaged in sexual activity that I now recognise was sinfulâ€, and, â€œI am sorry that I disobeyed the churchâ€™s teachingâ€.
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 CofEÂ do make mistakes, they do not deliberately makeÂ thoseÂ kind of mistakes.Â ThoseÂ 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 churchâ€™s teaching steadfastly forÂ all of their lives.Â 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 churchâ€™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 beÂ embarrassingÂ andÂ uncomfortableÂ for the individuals involved and their families and friend, it would then provide ample opportunity for the clear distinction in the churchâ€™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 â€œcovenanted friendshipâ€ without any sexual activity whatsoever. It would demonstrate to all that deep friendships do not need to be sexualised and thatÂ ChristiansÂ can find ways of ordering their lives clearly, of committing to others whilst staying faithful to the purity of the marriage bed.
Finally, it wouldÂ notÂ 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 Christâ€™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 Churchâ€™s teaching of holiness in present life and past reflection, a sacrifice that was entirely self-serving (so not a sacrifice at all).