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 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”.

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).

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8 Comments on “Reflections on Outing

  1. I think this is a very clear analysis of the situation in which we find ourselves. As you know, Peter, my opinions on sexuality differ from yours, but I find myself entirely in agreement with what you say in this post.

    The only thing I would add, though, is that if any of the bishops in question decided – completely of their own free will and accord – to speak openly about their sexuality then that might remove some of the current toxicity. Whatever one’s position on the issue – progressive or conservative – it is very difficult to see how we are going to make any sort of real progress in this debate while people feel that they are unable to be open about their sexual orientation, and while it appears (note word choice, please!) that the CofE discriminates on grounds of sexual orientation rather than practice.

    • Thanks Justin,

      Yes, I would welcome those who are Bishops and who have same-sex attraction being open about it. The closest we’ve come in recent years is David Hope during his last few years in York. What I suspect though is that they do not wish to do so as they are probably all well inside the “guidelines” and might get a barrage of correspondence from those who believe that just because they are gay they have to agree with the revisionist position.

  2. I see what Justin’s getting at, but there’s the question of privacy.  Since when were men of the cloth obliged to be open about their sexual desires?  Even as a straight celibate person the jokes and innuendos, the skepticism from psychologists and other health professionals about the state of your mental health, and the general lack of comprehension from broader society can be embarrassing at best.  At worst you can experience what can only be described as sexual harassment.  I dread to think what it would be like for openly gay priests who chose to remain celibate.  Look at he vile abuse (words banned on this website) thrown at ex-gays in the US (eg. check out this headline in a GLB publication 
    http://www.queerty.com/shut-up-dyke-ex-gay-venus-publisher-charlene-cothran-needs-to-go-away-20090804/ ).  We’ve been forced to be so open about sex because of a society that’s obsessed with promoting it.  In some ways this has been healthy for the church, but have we forgotten that ultimately sex should be a private matter?  

    I wouldn’t put pressure on any bishop to cast his inner most thoughts before the rabble so that they can turn and devour him.  I don’t think there’s anything hypocritical about bishops who are reluctant to do so.  Of course, if people are living secret lives and then blocking promotion to people who are more open, then that is hypocritical and grossly unjust.  

    • It’s a very tight line that needs to be walked here. I have no desire to out anybody and whilst I think it would be healthy for the Church to have an unambiguously celibate gay bishop being public about his life, I wouldn’t wish the subsequent publicity on anybody.

      I agree however with your last sentence. As far as I am aware this hypocrisy does not exist and those who claim it does should put up or shut up.

  3. You’ve been stung over at the Changing Attitudes blog, Peter.  Apparently you are living in a fantasy land.  In a much politer way, Colin Coward’s blog today is another example of the lack of respect for celibacy in our society – including the complete refusal to believe that it exists!  Society is so uncomprehending that it thinks anybody who says they are celibate is a lying hypocrite.  Apparently it is only in my own fantasy world that I was celibate for the whole of my teenage years and my twenties until I got married a few months ago.  Apparently I was really having sex and just imagined I wasn’t.  Apparently all my friends who also didn’t have sex before marriage were also just imagining it.  Apparently it is impossible not to have sex.  

    The fact that there might be very good reasons for not having sex if you are a woman – avoiding pregnancy, abortion, the horrible side effects of the pill, the way guys have a habit of dropping relationships suddenly without explaining why (girls do this too, actually, it’s because you don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings by explaining why you don’t like them anymore, but the damage is already done if you’ve slept with them) – and that all these reasons might outweigh any desire to have sex.  Not to mention the fact that surveys show that many young women really don’t enjoy sex.  Has none of this ever occurred to him!  I can only imagine that it hasn’t because he’s gay and (without wishing to stereotype) gay men are often horrified at the idea of discussing female sexuality.  Understandable, but this becomes a huge problem when they then go on to set themselves up as experts on sex in wider society.  Like Peter Tatchell’s dismissiveness of any sex education that urges young people to wait for marriage.  Or the gay MP who lampooned Nadine Dorries sex education bill in the House of Commons (supreme arrogance from somebody who knows nothing about young women and how they feel about sex).  I would sympathise with Colin Coward, and many of the human rights causes that Peter Tatchell fights for are worthy causes, but, for me, they constantly undermine their own position by showing a complete lack of awareness or concern for the influence their views on sex have on wider society.

  4. The points raised about repentance from previous relationships are very significant, but once again I wonder whether the position is as well balanced as we might hope.
    While the church is considering the issues of previous and current same-sex relationships, we might also look at the possibility of other-sex relationships that follow the same lines.

    If we say that homosexual relationships outside of marriage are wrong, then isn’t it also true that heterosexual relationships outside marriage are also wrong?

    I have no figures, but do we have any knowledge of how many members of our leadership teams, whether lay, ordained or consecrated, have engaged in any heterosexual relations outside of marriage? If we believe that the figures resemble the numbers outside the church, then the conclusion is rather bleak. If we add on those who have been divorced and remarried, then the situation does not get any better.

    Yet I do not hear a great deal of condemnation here.

    nowconcerned makes some very worthwhile points: nobody seems to believe that people are not having sex – before my wife and I married, most of the people we knew outside the church assumed that we must be living together and sleeping together, when in fact this was not the case. Society has got no better in the intervening years.

    Also, if two men live in a “covenanted friendship” with no sexual activity, I contend that few will believe them. Similarly, if a man and woman chose to live together without marrying but stating that they were just friends and not lovers, wouldn’t that also raise eyebrows around the parish or diocese?

    If anyone is accusing us of hypocrisy, they are quite likely justified because homosexual immorality appears to be more roundly condemned than heterosexual immorality. On the other hand, pragmatism suggests that we shouldn’t antagonise those who potentially form a large part of our congregations. Or have I missed something?

  5. Good post, Peter,
    I particularly liked your point about ‘covenant friendships’. Tim Keller made the same point about helping young adults stay sexually pure as singles.

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