Deciphering Michael Perham
The Bishop of Gloucester made the news this weekend for some remarks he made at a meeting with the “Gloucestershire Gay and Lesbian Community” (I don’t think that’s the groups’ actual name) where he made these remarks.
[The Church] has not treated the gay, lesbian and transgender community very well. The church may be moving slowly, but it will get there. The vast majority of Christians are moving relatively fast towards a more modern way of thinking and towards a position where they should be. It is a place where they should have reached a long time ago, but clearly not as quickly as the rest of society. The church is slow because it is trying to pull together this universal family from all over the world to have the same understanding.
The church’s view on same sex marriage is not sustainable. But homosexuals must realise that the church is not homophobic. We should all celebrate committed, faithful and loving relationships.
What to make of this. If it was any other bishop we’d just go “Yes, yes” and move on. A liberal bishop saying that gay people should be respected? Nothing new there. But Michael Perham is not any bishop. He is the senior bishop (and the only diocesan to boot) on the Pilling Report committee which is going to produce the most significant pastoral position statement for the Church of England in a generation. Sorry Nigel McCulloch, but homosexuality kicks women bishops clear out of the water on the “Likely to make the church implode” stakes.
So when *this* bishop says something about human sexuality we should sit up and listen. But why should we sit up and listen? What is Michael Perham trying to tell us?
Well, the first thing he might be trying to tell us is that he’s stupid. No seriously. He might be stupid. A stupid man would be a person who, knowing that he was involved in such an important process, blurted out his opinion right before the committee was due to report. Oooooppppsss, silly mistake.
But here’s the thing – Bishops are not stupid. They may be many things but they are not stupid. Some Bishops are the icon of grace and compassion. Some Bishops are utter bar-stewards who have no interest beyond safeguarding their own reputation. Most Bishops fall somewhere between these two poles and often on the same day can happily master both of these extremes depending on the company (or may be perceived to do so, which pastorally amounts to the same thing).
Oh Bishops are many things, but they are not stupid, so we can reject the hypothesis that Michael Perham forgot this other part of his job. So what then? Well the second possibility is that Michael Perham was signalling for us where Pilling was heading. His remarks are to prepare the ground for a Church of England that is moving towards formally recognising same-sex relationships.
Here’s the problem with that view – if the Bishop of Gloucester was signalling where Pilling was going he did an awfully bad job of it. After all, he managed to get an inside page of a local paper and nothing more. No nationals, no radio or TV time. Seriously, if this was an orchestrated attempt to signal the future formal direction of the Church of England it was incredibly stupidly handled. And of course the problem with that is that we already know that whilst Bishops are sometimes conniving manipulators or gentle shepherds,they aren’t stupid.
So Bishop Perham’s public quote wasn’t a signal that Pilling was going one way, but it might have been a signal that it was going the other. Imagine the scenario – Bishop Perham is 66 years old, nearing retirement and he realises that Pilling is his last chance to make an impact on the Church he loves. But unfortunately Pilling isn’t going the way he wants so Bishop Perham needs to signal what he wants. But he can’t do that formally in any way (because it would be discourteous to the other members of the Pilling committee) so he does it informally. He gets invited to meet local GLBT representatives and whilst there, knowing that his words will be reported, he signals what he would like to happen. He wants the Church to celebrate “committed, faithful and loving relationships” (though of course only the ones he approves of) but he knows that’s a long way off (and he knows this because he’s been on the committee that has decided it’s a long way off).
Seriously folks, if you know something is going to happen, you don’t go on record saying it isn’t (not unless you’re stupid and as we know…. oh you complete the sentence). So we’re left with the (uncomfortable for some) truth that Michael Perham has made the remarks he has on this subject at this time because he knows something we don’t and he doesn’t like that something. If he knew a change was going to happen he wouldn’t have said the Church would be slow about it.
Of course, none of this means that Pilling is going to come up with any substantive recommendations. The committee has been created toÂ advise the House of Bishops on the issue and the most likely outcome of the report will be a series of options that the House will have to wrestle with.
And it’s only at that point that we might see how stupid some Bishops are.