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.