The Church of England, and The Sex In Sexuality

The Church of England spent this last weekend finding that they have a gay bishop in their midst, and then by turns tearing its hair out about it and pretending to be completely relaxed about it.

Late on Friday, the news broke on the Guardian website that the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Reverend Nicholas Chamberlain, had given an interview to Harriet Sherwood about his sexuality and his relationship by way of pre-empting a Sunday newspaper that had threatened to out him. He is a gay man, and he is in a long-term relationship that he describes in the most positive of terms: “It is faithful, it is loving, we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company, and we share each other’s life.” It is also sexually abstinent — a requirement of all clergy in the Church of England in same-sex relationships, although not of clergy in opposite-sex relationships.

And — look, and let me just say this. It’s 2016. We’re post-sodomy laws, post-equal age of consent, post-Section 21, post-anti-discrimination legislation, post-marriage equality, for God’s sake. The fact that a journalist pitched a story whose hook was that a person who has broken no laws and harmed no one happened and by all accounts has conducted himself in a manner that was above reproach happens to be gay is horrifying. Tell me that we’ve won the fight; I dare you.

At this point, if you can imagine a response, it has probably been made.

There are parts of the LGBT community who are thrilled, and it’s difficult to blame them. There are parts of the Church who are calling for the Bishop’s resignation, and that was predictable.

And then there’s the vast majority of comments that I’ve seen online, and, honestly, this is from people who are trying to be supportive, and it’s a variation on this:

“… but he’s celibate, so it’s okay.”

Now, leaving aside the fact that the Church of England’s parlance of “celibacy” is inaccurate, which is not Bishop Nicholas’s fault, we’ll move onto this:

It isn’t okay.

It isn’t okay that anyone has to declare anything about the intimacies of their private lives to the newspapers before we decide that they’re good at their job, or that they’re a good person, or that we’re going to support them. It isn’t okay that a person goes for a job interview and is asked questions about whether they have sex and what kind of sex they have and they just have to accept that as a normal thing to be asked. It isn’t okay that the hierarchy of the Church of England claims to be supportive of LGBT clergy while also saying that “homosexual genital acts” must be repented of and banning its clergy from, you know, having them with their spouses, and no one calls them out on the hypocrisy. There are also people over the weekend who have said that those who are expressing concerns like mine are condemning Bishop Nicholas for “not being gay enough”, which is not it at all. I don’t condemn him; I am sort of broken hearted for him and for so many others like him. It’s not about his sexual abstinence. It’s that his choice was between choosing that or denying a call to God, and that that is a choice that more people than you can possibly imagine have had to make. It’s that he had to declare it to the papers and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to answer questions that no straight member of the clergy would ever be asked.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I don’t care what people do in the privacy of their relationships and their bedrooms, but that would be a lie.

I have a friend who was asked once, by someone who was meant to be respectfully listening at a shared conversation and whose parents never taught them to not ask questions they didn’t want answers to, what it is that gay people even do in bed. (If you were wondering: drink tea and listen to Radio 4.)

I’ve said sometimes that the tragedy of the Church’s obsession with sexuality is that I too want us to stop talking about it. I want us to be done with this conversation so that we can move onto talking about climate change and refugees and poverty and building the kingdom of heaven on Earth, and I do want all of those things.

But there’s something else I want too.

I want us to talk about sex.

You all think that I go away to Synod for three days and do nothing but talk about sex, but we don’t do that. In the Church, sex, particularly between partners of the same sex, is something dirty and something that we don’t talk about. TMI, we shout.

It’s time to stop doing that.

I want us to talk about marriage. I want us to talk about relationships. I want us to talk about what makes a good relationship and what makes a bad relationship. I want to talk about why someone might choose — actually choose — to be sexually abstinent, and why that would be fine. I want us to talk about the things that go into making a life together and go into making up a marriage, and I want us to be able to acknowledge that for a lot of people that includes sex. I want us to be able to talk about good sex and bad sex and sexual compatibility. I want us to talk, in the church, about protecting oneself from unwanted pregnancies and STIs. I want there to be conversations about rape and sexual assault and domestic violence among all kinds of couples.

God bless Bishop Nicholas, therefore. God bless those whom he loves and those to whom he ministers. And may God give us strength for a battle that some days it feels like we’re winning and some days it feels like we haven’t even suited up for yet.

These are the conversations that are important. They are the conversations that we do not have. And until we stop the obsession with what sex a person wants to have sex with, we will never be able to have them.

*

NB: This post previously gave the incorrect name of the Guardian journalist involved in the initial article, who was Harriet Sherwood. This has been corrected.

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14 comments

  1. Yes – and when you got to tea and radio 4 I did want to add ‘sometimes eat biscuits and cheese and drink wine and read books’. But I also want to add, that while prying into the private lives of others can be prurient, I think it matters to say very loudly that yes, sex really does matter, and having a fulfilling physical life with one’s partner matters very much. It is a vile strain and a horrible distortion when it does not work out. It is (and I know this from personal experience) much, much easier to be alone than to be tied to a partner who cannot offer one that kind of happiness. And a very great joy to be with somebody (as I now am) who can. And denying somebody that because one thinks it is in some way indecent makes me deeply sad and totally furious. That is vile and wrong and wicked.

  2. Exactly what I’ve been trying g to say for ages. You have put the words and thoughts of so many of us coherently together in this post. I will mention however Beth that I know of at least one Diocesan Bishop who has appointed openly gay priests without being intrusive about their intimate lives in the job interview . It’s a start. And this Bishop has faced the challenge when asked by the press about his gay priests simply by answering ….. And? How I wish he could train all the others….he is a very brave (straight) man.

  3. Thank you very much Beth – hasten the day when we can be the church and let love be love and we can use all kinds of love to be light to redeem the darkest parts of our common life. Love Wins!

  4. Thank you for your article

    I found this. The contributors have so many important insights here into how churches – of all denominations need to reach out:

    Would be interested in your thoughts Beth.

  5. As usual, you’ve nailed it. But I have to tell you that, pedant that I am, my first reading was that the bishop was in a relationship with someone called Harriet: “an interview about his sexuality and his relationship to Harriet Sherwood “. Better, perhaps, to put HS after “interview”?

    That said, my growing conviction is that people who think this is a problem and cling desperately to the all-rightness of celibacy in a partnership have themselves some kind of personality disorder – but hey, you’re the doctor!

  6. Thank you. I have daughter called Beth, so it’s no wonder you talk sense. But we’ll get there. The CofE that is, daft though we be. But we’ll have to ditch GAFCON and all its works on the way. BTW SEC should remind everyone that Scottish Piskies, not English Anglicans, are the source of the Anglican Communion as they ordained Bishop Seabury.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful post Beth, although I’m a little confused, and I’m going to play the part of detractor if only to try to probe a bit deeper:

    First, I’m confused by how you want so much detail (apparently) in our talks about sex, but then seem to deride the details surrounding “homosexual genital acts”. Is it therefore not fair to say that the church does talk about the specifics of sex, it just comes to conclusions you don’t like?

    Secondly, when/where do you want all this talking about sex to take place? Is this happening on a local level? Because honestly, I can’t think of much worse than talking about sex on anything like a regular basis in our parish church, and I don’t see a problem with that.

    Sex is, by it’s very nature, personal and exclusive. And if people are unhappily married, or unhappily single, whilst the church may provide some general level of support we’ve sure reached the level of societal development where they need directing to people trained to give more specialist support? Rape and sexual abuse are slightly different; we mustn’t be squeamish about doing what we can to help those who are victims. Even in our relatively elderly parish church, we regularly hear about the charities we support as a congregation, both of which work with current or ex-prostitutes. But that’s a bit different.

    Thirdly, as for the whole unplanned pregnancy/STI thing, I think there is a real problem with the church trying to be either a moral policeman or “cool aunt”. I mean, what exactly do you have in mind when you say you want there to be conversations about these things? There are plenty of resources available to people who want to learn about these things; your GP, school nurse, CASH/GUM clinic… How on earth do you think the church is going to reach more people than these services do, or provide better information?! Even if you mean the emotional impact rather than physical, there are Christian counselling charities dedicated to helping people (specifically unwanted pregnancies) in a non-judgemental way.

    And even if these “conversations” were happening, what line is the church supposed to take? Everything in moderation? As long as you practice safe sex, it’s all OK? Or, “whatever you do or choose, God loves you and there can be redemption” – which I hope is the message from the church regarding anything, not just the mess people can end up in sexually.

    I’m sorry if this sounds negative and pernickety. In truth, having read your blog post it sounds very grounded and sage-like… But without any idea of what any of this looks like in practice, it remains just talk, which the church has never had a problem providing. All these people have said how spot on you are, how you’ve hit the nail on the head, but I have zero idea as to how, if I were a parish priest, you might suggest I go about making changes in the life of our church.

    • Just to give my perspective to one of your points (your first), I think in the context of ‘shared conversations’ one ought to have educated oneself on the subject of discussion before going, although I am rather perplexed as to how someone can be so detached from our current culture and society that they don’t already know this. One also ought to inform oneself of what homosexuality is before forming an opinion about it. To ask the question directly to a gay individual in a context where they are meant to be listening is impolite and intrusive. If the question was asked in a group context – “I’m a bit vague about the specifics, is there someone who would be happy to enlighten me” is much less confrontational. The point is that we need to create a context where it is safe to talk about sex, without being ask specific and intimate questions about our own practices, but where it would be OK to bring that up ourselves. The Church can do this by demonstrating that it recognises that sex is a part of people’s lives and relationships; that it’s OK to talk about it, and in fact desirable to talk about it in the same way we discuss other aspects of our lives and the impact of our faith on that. For example, we could discuss contraception in terms of what is available, how the use of contraceptives fits within our faith, etc, but we don’t need to do it by asking a specific couple to explain their own practices. If they bring up their own situation, that’s a different matter. It doesn’t mean we need to come to a any kind of conclusion even, just to create an environment where different perspectives can be considered and discussed would be a massive leap forward. Personally I think very much along the same lines as Beth. I don’t want to condemn anyone for a differing viewpoint – I just want people to be respectful of each other, to listen, and to not brush these subjects under the carpet.

    • BethW seems to understand where I was going with this.

      The difference between the official guidance of the C of E on so-called genital acts and the kind of thing I think I want is about the motive behind having that conversation. Is it about policing the bedrooms particular couples? I want no part of that. Is it about fostering an open environment where it is possible for people to have these conversations without feeling as though they’ll be judged? I think that’s something we should aspire to. I don’t mean standing up in the pulpit and talking about one’s preferred positions, or having a meeting where we quiz everyone on what they do in the bedroom. I just mean an environment where people who want and need to talk to someone about these things can do so, rather than an environment where the merest acknowledgement that this is something that is an important part of a lot of relationships is seen as a taboo subject.

      You mention specifically that rape and sexual abuse are a bit different, but what happens when a spouse doesn’t talk about marital rape because no one really talks about that kind of thing and so they believe that this is something that is normal and that they have to put up with? It’s difficult to talk about bad relationships (which include sex) when we foster an environment where people don’t talk about good relationships (which also include sex), and it is incredibly damaging for sex to be a thing that we talk about only in the context of Bad Things That Happen.

      • We don’t actually talk about sex at all, do we? Not just in the relationships already mentioned, but in all our relationships. Is it the case that in fact the church is not the ‘safe environment’ we’d like to think it is, and therefore we either don’t discuss ‘what’s going on below’ (thanks, Leonard Cohen) at all, or rely on one best pal to share with? If I’m right, then there’s a massive mountain ahead.


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