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.

Bishop Michael Perham[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 to 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.

13 Comments on “Deciphering Michael Perham

  1. That’s about as clear as mud then,

    Professionally I was well used to handling the deviousness of politicians but these people make them look like plain speakers, by comparison.
    If the equivalent intellectual effort was applied to building the Church, instead of this kind of manoeuvring, gamesmanship, the pews could look a lot fuller. What misdirected talents and effort !

  2. If I was in a gay relationship I think I’d be thoroughly fed up with the CofE by now. Various bishops, archbishops, clergy have been making these noises about the Church ‘catching up’ with the rest of society, but they don’t actually change the official teaching or rules around clergy sexual conduct. Surely the ‘we’re with you folks, we’ve just got a little behind with the paperwork’ excuses are wearing thin. It just looks very equivocal.

  3. If only nature were so clear cut! Then we could all easily agree with such a black and white statement.

    Just as saying gay and straight is *so* 20th Century, talking about male and female in binary terms is deceptively simple but ultimately fraught with difficult.

    If you accept the conventional opinion that 1% of humanity can be classed as intersex whereby an individual cannot be classed definitively as male or female, then your assertion is already false.

    And even if you take the most conservative estimate of 0.1% then in terms of the whole human population, that’s a fair number of God’s creation that is suddenly left stranded in limbo by such a simplistic view of what He has given us all….

    • I understand the point that you raise: if 1% of people – or fewer – are neither male nor female, then 100% of people are not male or female.
      You are not alone in this assertion, and so are not alone in your error: if a person is “intersex”, they are either a male with a disorder that makes their maleness difficult to recognise, or a female, with a corresponding disorder. Nothing else is possible.

    • If we were dealing with the age of consent, regardless where different individuals are on the continuum of psychological development, we would agree that society has to establish a specific age below which a person cannot be deemed to have legally consented or encouraged a sexual activity.
      Ethnically, we also difficult categorisations, but we live with them. While we might question, the binary classification of sex, we apply it rigorously in professional sport without question.
      When it comes to artifices used to change *gender* characteristics, we are told that society has a responsibility to support the change of sexual characteristics and documented sex in order to agree with a person’s self-identified pdychological gender.
      What’s simplistic is the view that insists in one place that sex and gender don’t necessarily agree, only to insist on medical treatments that demonstrate a need for them to agree.

      • A wonderful and correct insight, David. Indeed, Argentina headed off into this logical progression a year or so ago – a change of sex without a “sex change”.
        Consider this too: if we are registered on our birth certificate according to our Gender – and if our Gender is something that is “assigned” – then we are registered according to something that is not physically real. However, if our Gender is not physically real, then the person registered is not registered as a physically real person. Therefore, the factual correctness of the identity of our parents and the date of our birth need not accord with physical reality either.
        As far as I am aware, I am the first to suggest there is no longer any legal principle preventing us from changing our date of birth. How old/young do you feel?
        When a parent registers the birth of their child, they might think the details they give represent physical reality. In fact, the law now regards them as doing nothing more than assuming an identity for their child – an assumption the child can later alter.

        • Good point. Also, if biological parenthood can trumped by someone without a genetic connection by proving superior parental intention, by what principle do we prevent someone from choosing new legal parents and altering official documents to suit?

          Or don’t children have rights too?

  4. Goodness, can you hear yourself Peter? This is a stunningly tortuous reading of something which bears a much simpler explanation – that the things that several bishops are prepared to say have got noticeably more liberal in the last couple of months, and that they are clearly easing their way towards change – quite how quickly or slowly, we are to see. What are you going to do, or conclude, when a magic conservative save doesn’t appear from leftfield, and when space is made for the liberals on an equal footing? It seems at least very probable that this will happen – and in posts like this it looks as though your only psychological preparation is in going ‘No! It can’t be!’

    I think at least subconsciously though, you do know what’s coming: hence the repeated angry uses of ‘stupid’ all the way through this piece. Sure, I can’t see inside your head, but I am still pretty confident that my reading of you is a bit more sound than your reading of Michael Perham. We’ll know by Christmas!

    • I think at least subconsciously though, you do know what’s coming: hence the repeated angry uses of ‘stupid’ all the way through this piece. Sure, I can’t see inside your head…

      If you can’t see inside my head why are you assuming my use of the word “stupid” carries any particular meaning. Please be consistent if you’re going to be critical.

      • I’m being perfectly consistent: I’m assuming that my reading of you, drawing fro the evidence of this blog, is more insightful than your reading of Michael Perham – that’s all. And by Christmas or early new year, we should know which of us is the more perspicacious.

  5. I think the issue may be how important the church judges remaining Established to be. If important change must happen down as the present position isn’t feasible.

  6. Also, note Michael Perham ‘s response to Question 47 at Synod:

    In the recent debates on same-sex marriage in the House of Lords, Lords Spiritual have spoken of the bishops’ historic and present support for the legislation enacting Civil Partnerships. In preparation for the forthcoming debate in Synod on Mr John Ward’s Private Member’s Motion on the registration of Civil Partnerships will the House of Bishops:

    (a) take time to consider how best that support can be shown in the life of the church; and
    (b) during the course of that forthcoming debate report to this Synod its conclusions?

    Answer from the Bishop of Gloucester:

    In principle, yes, though that assumes that the Business Committee will be willing to give the House time to think through the implications of the same sex marriage legislation and consider the recommendations of the Pilling report before that private member’s motion is scheduled for debate.

  7. There are voices in the church that have asked for the same sort of pastoral accommodation that made provision for the church remarriage of divorcees and the baptism of African polygamists. In both of those cases, there are clear guidelines that inform the judgement of the minister.

    In the case of re-marriage after divorce, the House of Bishops issued a leaflet explaining the necessity of an interview, application form and background checks. African polygamists give an undertaking to desist from taking any further wives.

    It’s highly unlikely that any pastoral accommodation will apply such scrutiny to LGBT Anglicans, but in preparation for services of blessing and dedication after civil partnership registration, I thought I’d take a stab at re-purposing the guidelines for church re-marriage after divorce:

    There are many issues and questions you may wish to consider in the light of the Church’s pastoral accommodation of homophile relationships:

    It is your responsibility to form your own judgement as to whether to proceed with the proposed service of dedication and blessing, in the light of the Church’s teaching on marriage. You may find it helpful to that end in the course of your interview with the couple to satisfy yourself in relation to the following questions, which are intended to draw out issues relevant to the Church’s teaching:

    (a) Do the applicants have a clear understanding of the meaning and purpose of marriage and how it differs from a civil partnership?

    Do the couple understand that homosexual acts fall short of God’s will for human sexual intimacy?

    Have they a determination for their relationship to be a life-long faithful partnership?

    (b) Do the applicants have a mature view of the circumstances by which they discovered their need to desist from homosexual acts and are they ready to enter into this wholeheartedly and responsibly into this as a new life-long relationship?

    Do the civil partners appear to be relatively free of self-deception and self-justification about the past?

    Is there an attitude of repentance, forgiveness and generosity of spirit in respect of past homosexual acts so that the applicants are free to build a new non-active homosexual relationship?

    Has there been sufficient healing of personal and social wounds caused by past homosexual acts?

    Would the effects of the proposed civil partnership blessing on individuals, the wider community and the Church be such as to undermine the credibility of the Church’s witness to marriage?

    Would the service of blessing and dedication be likely to be a cause of hostile public comment or scandal?

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