What Kind of Celibacy?

With the news this morning that Jeffrey John has apparently been short-listed for Durham, I thought it would be worth just exploring again what the House of Bishops intended when they issued their Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships and what we can learn from Jesus’ words on the matter.

The relevant section of the statement is as follows.

19. The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.  The wording of the Act means that civil partnerships will be likely to include some whose relationships are faithful to the declared position of the Church on sexual relationships (see paragraphs 2-7).

20.The Church should not collude with the present assumptions of society that all close relationships necessarily include sexual activity. The House of Bishops considers it would be a matter of social injustice to exclude from ministry those who are faithful to the teaching of the Church, and who decide to register a civil partnership.  There can be no grounds for terminating the ministry of those who are loyal to the discipline of the Church.

21.Nevertheless, it would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church for the public character of the commitment expressed in a civil partnership to be regarded as of no consequence in relation to someone in- or seeking to enter- the ordained ministry. Partnerships will be widely seen as being predominantly between gay and lesbian people in sexually active relationships. Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.

22. While clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the continuing debate, for a change in that teaching, they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside, simply because of the passage of the Civil Partnerships Act.  Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship.

Up the Chastity BeltAs the Bishops rightly point out, there is nothing in the Civil Partnership Act which requires such relationships to be sexual. Indeed, the very framing of the Act desexualises the relationship by removing from it the sexual components of marriage (for example the ability to divorce / dissolve because of adultery) whilst accepting that those who enter into it may be sexually active. Indeed, most people entering into Civil Partnerships do have a sexual relationship, so the Bishops quite rightly (again) insist that any clergy who enter civil partnerships should expect to be asked the nature of their relationship, particularly the sexual aspects.

All fair so far, but the impression given is that celibacy is all that’s required. As long as you’re not having sex that’s OK and there should be no problem with treating you in the same way as any other clergy person. And into this framework enters the Very Revd Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, in a civil partnership and declaring to all who will listen (or at least to those who asked and had the right to) that he is celibate.

It’s a convincing argument – why should he be denied senior office given that he’s obeying the rules? Well yes, but returning to the Bishop’s statement, the usual way to interpret it is to split the civil partnerships it is talking about into two separate types – those that are celibate and those that are not. This is the popular way of understanding what the House was intending, but looking again at what they wrote there is another interpretation which appears to be equally valid.

The Bishops wrote,

Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship.

and this is very interesting. Put another way, the Bishops are saying – “Look – you might be entering a Civil Partnership for the best of reasons, but the general impression is that those who are in a Partnership are sleeping together. Have a good long hard think about what others might think is going on behind closed doors”. And of course this is good advice, especially if you are deciding to live together with someone who you really fancy. You might say to your Bishop, “Yes, we shall remain celibate”, but others might challenge you in that are you really suggesting you will go back to your own bedrooms every night for the rest of your lives?

And this “enforced celibacy” is the point of contention. Many argue it is cruel, it is emotionally stunting (which has always struck me as a very poor argument because it seems to imply that all those who are single for one reason or another are equally emotionally crippled) and it is simply unfair. All those things may be true, but in making the argument its proponents inadvertently admit that rather than the two models of clergy entering civil partnership that we outlined above (celibate OR not celibate) it can be right to view clergy entering civil partnerships as one of three kinds.

  • Those who are sexually active
  • Those who are “intentionally celibate” in that they would not enter a sexual relationship even if they were permitted to
  • Those who are “accidentally celibate” in that they are only celibate because the rules insist they be so and that if the rules were lifted they would happily become sexually active.

Now, it seem to me that the House of Bishops in paragraph 20 are clearly upholding the second type in this list and is nodding to the third as “playing the game”. But now we have, liberals and conservatives alike, split out the clergy in civil partnerships into these three kinds, can we bring Scriptural principles to bear on assessing the validity of any of these types of relationship for preferment? Well, the first two seem obvious – the fornicators in category one are clearly out of the game whereas the perfect model of celibacy in type two seems a prime candidate for advancement to higher purple echelons (assuming he can convince Caroline Boddington he is good enough). But what about those who are type three (which are the majority of clergy in civil partnerships)? Perhaps Jesus has an answer for us.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew 5:27-28

Jesus’s point here is clear – it’s not what we do with the outside of our bodies that is the issue, it’s what happens inside our hearts. So for Jesus it doesn’t matter that you didn’t sleep with someone who you wanted to, it’s that you wanted to in the first place that is the issue. So how do we apply this to our type three Civil Partnerships? Well the answer is clear – those who are “accidentally celibate” are still “functionally sexual”. If I want to sleep with someone I’m not meant to and would happily do so if the rules changed, I’m still a fornicator. All I’m doing is white-washing the outside of the temple whilst inside the rebellion is still in place deep within. If to all intents and purposes I am sitting around waiting till I have the chance to commit a sin, frankly I’ve already committed it.

Whitewashed SepulchreThis is ultimately the spiritual issue with those clergy in civil partnerships. It’s not that many of them aren’t on the surface obeying the rules – they are – it’s that deep within they are actually disobeying them. The intent of the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Statement was not to enforce a chastity belt on clergy, it was to offer them the freedom to choose it willingly for themselves and to yet be considered of good standing. This of course is the true path of classical spirituality, not a tick box of rules to obey in order to get the best treatment from God and the Church (if that were the method of spiritual advancement then bring back John Tetzel) but rather a willing desire to crucify the desires of the flesh and to let God raise in their place something else.

It might be that the Crown Nominations Committee (and indeed the Pilling Committee) could consider this approach when trying to work out how to move forward in these matters. At the moment the simple divide between celibate and non-celibate clergy isn’t working, not least because it is naive in trying to really understand what is crucial in assessing the heart of a priest. Using Jesus’ approach offers us a better way forward.

23 Comments on “What Kind of Celibacy?

  1. Thanks Peter. I agree. But there is another issue here and that is to avoid all appearance of evil. In other context in 2 Cor 8:21 Paul says ‘For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.’

    When Jeffrey John and others in similar ‘arrangements’ close the door what do people imagine is happening behind it? Such ‘arrangements’ make the church a laughing stock as people will understandably guess that they are ‘doing it anyway’ despite all protests to the contrary.

    At very least they are also opening themselves up to considerable temptation with no witnesses present apart from an equally vulnerable second party.

    By making these compromises the church has already invited trouble.

  2. Regarding the Matthew 5 verses, I wonder if the issue there is – primarily – an issue of minimal vs maximal obedience, rather than outer vs inner? Perhaps people were saying that adultery is ruled out, but everything else is acceptable? But Jesus wants maximal obedience. So adultery is ruled out, but how about “everything but”? No. How about intimate kissing and cuddling? No. How about a quick kiss on the lips? No. Okay, how about the least possible expression of sexual intimacy – a lustful glance and catching of the eyes? No.

    If so, I think the verses are very applicable – as the discussion seems to be hinging on a minimal definition of celibacy. Celibacy is not just the absence of a certain kind of sexual activity.

    • In some senses we’re saying the same thing. Your “everything but” example is the exact same thing Gene Robinson says when complaining about celibacy. If not sex, then what? Well the answer seems to be clear – nothing.

  3. I don’t understand why they keep shortlisting JJ for bishoprics if he’s not eligible. I’m sure I’d be pretty pissed off if people kept shortlisting me for a job and then saying ‘oh, sorry, you don’t actually meet the job description criteria’. So, what did I do all that preparation and turn up to the interview for then? (Are there interviews for bishops?) Nevertheless, the whole thing is turning into a big joke. Are they going to make the guy a bishop or not? Why can’t they make up their minds!

  4. What an extraordinary article, Peter. Those of us in society, as well as in the
    Church, who consider that gay people are just like straight people, only gay, see
    Jeffrey John as someone who has been married to the same man for the last
    thirty-six years (only marriage has not been legally available for them). On this basis, they should be held accountable to God for the use of their sexuality in the same way that all heterosexual married couples are – the fact that Jeffrey John is held accountable to the House of
    Bishops is lamentable, embarrassing and completely unjustifiable. In twenty years’ time we will all be appalled that people were treated this way in the Church of England. I sincerely hope that Dean John is appointed as Bishop of Durham – not only is it entirely demoralising for someone to be continually nominated for jobs that others consider them ineligible for – but we are
    already a decade behind in receiving Jeffrey John’s ministry as a Church of England bishop.

    • Would you say the same about a father and daughter who had had a permanent, faithful, stable relationship for 30 years? How about two men and a woman? If not, why not?

  5. Hi Peter, sorry this is a bit off-topic (though not entirely in the current climate). Did you see this “anti-homophobia” film yet (link below)? I don’t know how to respond without offending my gay friends or sounding like I approve of bullying. It convolutes the issue of what is “normal” sexual orientation, what is Godly behaviour, and how we treat people whose orientation isn’t “normal”. http://youtu.be/3ROXTFfkcfo

    • It begs the question. We can take it seriously when there is a world that is like that.

      And if people just marry those of same sex, where do babies come from? The film assumes that kids don’t need their biological parents whereas all the research shows that kids do best in that environment, especially if parents were married before they were born.

      All the film does is highlight homophobic bullying which is of course wrong. It does not make a cogent argument for gay marriage.

  6. What is a marriage? A marriage is a relationship within which sex takes place. What is a friendship? A friendship is a relationship within which sex does not take place. A friendship is not a non-sexual sexual relationship, as that would be a contradiction in terms – the logical inverse of the illogical relationship of “friends with benefits”.

    Where a relationship is sexual, there is a relationship and sex, and therefore no celibacy. Where there is a friendship, there is no sex but there is a non-sexual relationship, and therefore no celibacy. An individual can be celibate. A relationship can be either sexual or non-sexual. By definition, there is no such thing as a celibate relationship.

    “So for Jesus it doesn’t matter that you didn’t sleep with someone who you wanted to, it’s that you wanted to in the first place that is the issue.” Exactly. In order to create the contradiction of a “celibate relationship”, Jeffrey John can only have, first, regarded himself (in mind) as being in a sexual relationship, and then regarded himself (in body) as being in a non-sexual sexual relationship. He is waiting for man-made law to give him what God never will – permission to regard himself (in mind and body) as being in a sexual friendship.

    • There must be quite a number of married couples (using the word “married” in its traditional, heterosexual sense) who, for one reason or another, have not had sex for years and maybe do not expect to do so again. Given your axioms that “A marriage is a relationship within which sex takes place”, that “A friendship is a relationship within which sex does not take place”, and that “Where a relationship is sexual, there is a relationship and sex”, are we to take it that these couples’ marriages have ceased to be marriages or even sexual relationships, and have evolved into mere friendships?

  7. Re category three: I have heard several RC clergy say “I did not choose celibacy,it went with the job” So the RC Church ordains those who are not intentionally celibate but just prepared to abide by the rules.
    I think JJ is on the “long ” list rather than the short one. I think anyone can nominate someone now…certainly a member odf Synod can. So I wouldnt be suprised if he doesnt appear on a lot more “Long lists” with so many dioceses vacant.

  8. >Indeed, most people entering into Civil Partnerships do have a sexual relationship

    That interests me. Do you have a citation?

  9. Can someone explain the difference between the long and short lists?
    The report from Ruth Says JJ is on the long list, Perry says anyone can get on that.
    Peter says JJ is on the short list ……..

    • Ruth originally said he was short-listed and now changed that to long-listed. That changes everything. Long-listing means nothing as anyone can be nominated. I doubt JJ will make the cut.

      • None of the above Peter!
        Trying to remember what it was like just thinking about a romantic evening group. And I bet there are a lot in that cohort.
        In fact your choices are far too few, I can think of several.

        In my view the choice of sacrificial love in Christian marriage

        • (Pushed the wrong thing)
          In my view the choice of sacrificial love in Christian marriage was a response to a heartfelt sense of vocation. Creating a safe place, a sacred place, for my mum and our kids (now very much young men) to flourish was only possible because of our love for the other born of our faith.

          We regularly hold each other in amazement at the journey and laugh, sometimes cry.

  10. You know, there are lots of priests who are in opposite-sex marriages who support changing the Church of England’s teaching on same-sex relationships. Do you think that they should be disqualified from becoming bishops? If you think that no-one who supports changing the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships is qualified to become a bishop you are in effect suggesting that only people who belong to your party within the Church should be consecrated as bishops, which is unrealistic, and, in my opinion un-Anglican. If you are suggesting that while any straight person is qualified to be a bishop, only gay people who think gay sex is sinful are qualified to be bishops you are discriminating against people on the basis of a sexual orientation which they did not choose and can’t change.

    I also take issue with your use of Matthew 5: 27-28 as a definition of proper sexual morality for a bishop. I would guess that all of the potential bishops in the Church of England have at some point in their lives looked at a woman who’s not their wife with lust. More then likely most of them use pornography and/or masturbate- most men do. This puts them under condemnation as “spiritual adulterers” according to Matthew 5 every bit as much as your “accidentally celibate” gay priest. Therefore if we’re going to restrict the episcopate to people who aren’t adulterers according to the Matthew 5 definition then we won’t have any bishops at all! That’s of course the point of Matthew 5:27- we have all equally sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s not a practical statement on standards of sexual morality, it’s one of the counsels of perfection which drive us to the Gospel. Or are you about to start cutting your eyes and hands off?

    • So this is a conflagration of three issues isn’t it Whit, and people from your theological camp like to confuse situations by conflagrating separate issues. Let’s pick them apart and see what the answer is.

      The first issue is whether sex outside of marriage is or isn’t a sin. I think the Bible’s pretty clear it is, and you and others say it isn’t. But let’s say for a moment I’m right – if that’s the case then you simply shouldn’t engage in any aspects of a sexual relationship that is always going to be sinful. And this *isn’t* an issue of what you believe, it’s an issue of what you do.

      The second issue is whether we all sin. Well yes we do, but what Jesus talks about when he uses the image of the whitened sepulchre is not just this fact (that we all sin) but the recognition of it. So true discipleship acknowledges brokenness and a tendency to sin. This is completely normal – yes. We are all at some point spiritual adulterers, but we recognise that and admit it. That’s what true confessional discipleship is about.

      Finally, you create a straw man by saying that I am claiming that Matt 5:27-28 is my standard for sexual morality. It isn’t. I used Matt 5:27-28 as an example how our sexual behaviour is not just what we do but also what we think. I didn’t say all Bishops should be sexually pure all the time in thought and deed, I said that Christians should recognise that our sex lives are about more than what we do with our genitals and rather what we wish we could do with our genitals and what we affirm about what we wish to do with our genitals.

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