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.

The Anglican Church in Scotland, and Justin Welby

Tomorrow, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland are going to discuss and vote on the Columba Declaration. This is a partnership between the Churches of England and Scotland that was much lauded by the hierarchy of the Church of England at its General Synod earlier this year. This week, the Church of Scotland has its turn and Justin Welby will appear at the General Assembly to speak to the declaration.

I belong to neither of these churches, and there are people in both churches who would tell me that I ought therefore to butt out. As a member of a funny little denomination called the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Columba Declaration would seem to have really nothing to do with me. Except that as a member of the Anglican Church in Scotland, it has everything to do with me. I’ve previously written that I believe it represents a border incursion by the Church of England into a realm where it has no jurisdiction.

If the aim of Justin Welby was to unite all Scottish Anglicans against him, then he has met it overwhelmingly. Scottish Anglicans are not a force known for agreeing on much of anything, but on this he has succeeded where marriage equality, an independence referendum, and the filioque have all failed.

We have been told over and over and over that a border incursion is not what that is, that the Columba Declaration allows for the Church of Scotland and the Church of England to share their experiences of being a national church.

The trouble is, it doesn’t read like that. The trouble is, it reads like St Justin of Canterbury riding into Edinburgh to rid it of its snakes.

I have no patience for that. I have no patience for this method of “doing mission”, a method that reeks of colonialism and of well-meaning but ill-informed people who went off around the Empire on a mission to civilise that was such an unmitigated disaster we’ve barely even scraped the surface of the damage that was done. You can forgive the Christian missionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it’s a lot more difficult to forgive the Church of England who, having apparently failed to learn from that mistake, can most generously be characterised as people who are well-meaning, ill-informed, and wilfully deaf.

I have no patience for any of it, and I’m beginning to be a little surprised that the Church of Scotland does. The two churches may share a status and an experience of being national churches, but commentary from English Anglicans on the first few days of business done at the General Assembly makes it plain that most people in England have no idea of and no real interest in the many many ways that the relationship of religious institutions and national and civic life is different in Scotland.

During the General Synod debate in the Church of England, a room of old white men brushed aside the legitimacy of the Scottish Episcopal Church as the face and voice of the Anglican Communion in Scotland. Afterwards, my Primus wrote that he felt as if we were the ghost at the party. I felt as people down through history have done when they have watched rooms of old white men brush aside the legitimacy of women, and the poor, and LGBT people, and ethnic and religious minorities. Those who do not learn from history are indeed condemned to repeat it.

If I were Justin Welby, I would be coming to Edinburgh tomorrow with my proverbial mitre in hand and I would be apologising sincerely to the sister province into whose territory I had so egregiously and rudely barged.

The Columba Declaration

I have spent the afternoon watching the debate in the General Synod of the Church of England, on the Columba Declaration between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

Those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church have had concerns about the Columba Declaration ever since we were blindsided by its being reported in the media at the end of last year, and we have not been particularly reassured by reading the report in full. My general experience of the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we are not of one mind, we are not obliged to speak with one voice, and we consider one of our greatest strengths to lie in our respectful diversity of opinion and of action. And so it is not a matter of agreeing for agreeing’s sake that leads us on this subject to be absolutely united in our concerns about this agreement and our feeling that those concerns are well founded.

When the initial report of this agreement was released on Christmas Eve it was done in a manner that Synod have now acknowledged was “cack-handed”. It was disrespectful and has caused a great deal of hurt and anger in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Those communication errors have been profusely apologised for in this afternoon’s debate (although I note that it didn’t stop people continuing to get our name wrong while standing in front of microphones), but Justin Welby has missed the point completely if he thinks that our concerns are about style and not substance.

The Columba Declaration is being sold as a triumph of ecumenism between two churches that ought to develop a special relationship because of their identity as “national churches” within regions of the United Kingdom. The lightest scratch of the surface reveals that it is really about mission and ministry, and really mostly about the Church of England grievously overstepping its authority in a sister province of the Anglican Communion.

In the full text of the commitments within the agreement, it states that the Churches of England and Scotland will:

  1. contine to pray for and with one another;
  2. welcome one another’s members to each other’s worship as guests and receive one another’s members into the congregational life of each other’s churches where that is their desire;
  3. explore opportunities for congregational partnership, formal as well as informal, in those cases where there are churches in close geographical proximity;
  4. enable ordained ministers from one of our churches to exercise ministry in the other church, in accordance with the discipline of each church;
  5. identify theological issues that arise from growth towards fuller communion and be prepared to allocate resources to addressing them;
  6. work together on social, political, and ethical issues that arise from our participation in public life and be prepared to allocate resources to joint initiatives in addressing them.

Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, who was the co-chair of the Joint Study Group which proposed the Declaration, said in the Daily Telegraph that it was “catching up with the Queen”. I think that probably is its true intent, but I’m not sure he realises how discourteous that intent is — even after being told so in no uncertain terms by Mark Russell and Andrew Foreshew-Cain during debate today. Frankly, this is a border invasion by the Church of England into a realm where it has no jurisdiction.

The declaration is named for St Columba, the fourth century Irish missionary who brought Christianity to the pagan Scots. I am uncomfortable with that parallel.

I feel that this is a step in the Church of England trying to make the Scottish Episcopal Church substantively irrelevant to the Anglican Communion.

And doesn’t that sound sinister?

I was disappointed that the Synod approved the Columba Declaration, rejecting an amendment put forward that would have given all three Churches affected time for reflection and discussion before bringing it back to Synod. I note with gladness that the mood of the Synod was split and that the vote was by no means the overwhelming approval that had been called for. I believe there is a conversation to be had now by the Scottish Episcopal Church about what this means for our relationship with our sister province in England.

The Appalling Silence of the Good

This weekend, it was reported in the Salisbury Journal and then very quickly all over my social media feeds that retired Canon Precentor Jeremy Davies had been banned by the Diocese of Winchester from taking services.

Jeremy is the former Canon Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral. In 2004, he had entered into a civil partnership with his partner of (then) eighteen years, and continued to serve as Canon Precentor until his retirement in 2011. He seems to have remained very active since his retirement, preaching and lecturing on both sides of the Atlantic and, by invitation, taking services in both Salisbusy and Winchester Cathedrals. In 2014, he and his partner were married. He was formally reprimanded by the Bishop of Winchester for getting married — in this case, as in the cases of Jeremy Pemberton and Andrew Forshew-Cain, the House of Bishops have missed a couple of century’s worth of etiquette lessons on how not to congratulate an employee on the occasion of their wedding. In the report in the Salisbury Journal, it is reported that he has continued to officiate at services in Winchester since his marriage and has been invited back by the Cathedral to a number of future services. In the middle of last week, he received notice from the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin, that because of his marriage he was being denied permission to officiate in the Diocese.

The silence from the hierarchy of the Church of England has been deafening.

Senior figures of the Church have either been living under a rock since Saturday, or else they are all keeping their heads down and hoping that if they stay quiet then this will all go away.

For some time now I’ve been saying that my enemies in the Church are not the people who disagree with me. A lot of people disagree with me, and they are mostly people with whom I can have a conversation that is reasonable and respectful on both sides.  Nor are my enemies the people who have yet to make up their mind and are truthful with me about the fact that they are still working out what they think. My enemies in the Church are the people who claim privately to agree with me and in public refuse to support me — because they’re afraid of what their bosses will say, because they’re afraid of what the papers will write, because they’re afraid that it will stir up trouble, and because, in the end, it is much easier for them to keep quiet and offer platitudes to the people whose lives are ripped apart as they stand by doing nothing and then to be surprised and offended when we lose our collective temper.

Martin Luther King once said: “We will have to repent, in this generation, not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good.”

In our generation, too.

Earlier in the day on Saturday, the Spectator had run an interview given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He was asked by Michael Gove how he would react if one of his own children fell in love with someone of the same sex and asked for his blessing, and he told Gove that he would pray for them together, he would pray with them together, and, yes you bet he would go to their wedding. Asked whether he would say to them that while he loves them he would caution them that their relationship was sinful or inappropriate, he responded: “I will always love you, full stop.”

I was really pleased when he said that. It’s a big thing and a brave thing for the Archbishop of Canterbury to say that, and never mind that it shouldn’t be. I know that when I ask people to put their head over the parapet I’m not asking them to do something easy; if it were easy, I wouldn’t have to ask.

But a few hours later, this story about Jeremy Davies, which is in its way simply the next iteration of the way in which the Church has chosen over and over and over again to let down those who have asked nothing but to serve it.

I still struggle to find any love or common sense in the response of a Church that chooses to punish someone for marrying the person they love. I’ve witnessed it from inside the process — on this matter, the Scottish Episcopal Church cannot claim any moral high ground — as well as watching from the outside when something like this happens in England. I find anger and hurt and pain. I rarely find any sense of pastoral response or responsibility. I cannot believe I am seeing what God wants.

And three days after this story broke, still that deafening sound of nothing from everyone associated with the Church of England.

That is a strategy that isn’t acceptable and never worked anyway, and speaking for myself I find that I’m no longer able to pretend to respect individuals who are supportive of me just so long as I never expect them to say it out loud or in public or when it might matter.

Because here’s the thing:

Either people in the Church think that LGBT people are made in the image and likeness and love of God, and recognise that LGBT people are in and of the Church, and want the Church to value and cherish the hopes and dreams of its LGBT clergy, or they don’t.

The more we hear of stories like this one and the more senior figures in the Church of England avoid talking about them, the louder I hear their answer.

Dear England

It was with interest and a smidgen of what I recognised as hope that I watched some of the statements coming out of the General Synod of the Church of England earlier this week. From the Synod as a whole on the matter of bishops who happen to be women, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on the matter of the blessing of marriages between same-sex couples. It seemed, for a bright flare of a moment, that the Church of England might finally be nudging, slowly but inexorably, towards the advent of social change for which so many of us have longed for so long.

In the early hours of this morning, the House of Bishops of the Church of England released a pastoral guidance on same-sex relationships.

It says, among other things, that:

  • Issues In Human Sexuality is still a thing.
  • The Book of Common Prayer has scriptural authority.
  • The Church of England grudgingly acknowledges the existence of non-ordained LGB individuals who consider themselves to be gay and who reject the notion that this requires them to acquiesce to a life of celibacy. Grudgingly.
  • Individuals to whom the above applies are Other.
  • Two people of the same sex who have chosen to get married or who are planning their wedding cannot seek pastoral input or conversation from their priest without being required to be lectured at about their deviance from Church teaching.
  • Same-sex marriage is unwholesome and lacking in integrity.
  • An ordained person who is in a same-sex relationship cannot get married.
  • A person who is married to a person of the same sex cannot seek ordination.

And that:

  • The entire House of Bishops, all of them, which is fifty two people, agree that marriage is between a man and a woman.

This is a lie. It is a lie that by the very telling of it it shoots holes into what is left of the moral integrity of the Church. It is such a transparent lie that I’m moved to ask why the Church of England, which historically has admitted to the existence of shades that are neither black nor white, why divergence of opinion is allowed — encouraged, even — on every topic under the sun, but not on this one, on the matter of gay people and the kind of sex they may be having, the Bishops and the Church must speak with one voice. Why?

I was asked, prior to the publication of that pastoral guidance, to appear in my capacity as one of the convenors of Changing Attitude Scotland on the BBC in a debate about Christian unity, in light of disagreements around bishops who happen to be women, priests who happen to be gay, and marriages which happen to be between people of the same sex, and particularly in light of some of the things that were said at General Synod this week. I declined (and I’m far from the only one to have done so), principally because I don’t think it’s an appropriate conversation to be having in Scotland, where, because of the choices we have made and the issues that we have already resolved and the advantages we have by not being the established Church, that conversation would be a very different one, and also because I don’t presume to speak for the Church of England. Indeed, I consider it my great privilege, and, today, reading the deep and genuine pain that is evident all over my Twitter timeline, my great relief, that I am not a member of the Church of England.

If the invitation that I declined yesterday evening had been issued after the guidance from the House of Bishops had been published, it might have been that I’d have been tempted to accept it and to get very angry indeed, but that wouldn’t have made it the right or the appropriate thing to do. I do not speak for the Church of England.

None of this is to say that the Scottish Episcopal Church is perfect. I live in hope and perhaps a little bit in fantasy. But the battles that I’m steeling myself for in our Synod later this year are not the battles that are being fought by my friends to the south of the Wall.

I do not speak for the Church of England. I do not speak for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and, in this space, I do not speak even for Changing Attitude, but I do speak for myself and I suspect for others here too when I say to my LGBT friends and our LGBT allies to the south of the Wall that they are not alone, and that we share in their heartbreak and we extend to them our love and our communion.

(The full text of the guidance from the House of Bishops can be read on the Church of England website. Many thanks to Jeremy for suggesting inclusion of the link here.)

Westminster Vote on Equal Marriage

Tomorrow in London, MPs will hear the second reading of the proposed legislation for equal marriage in England and Wales and then they will vote on it.

I don’t view this as a flawless bill. It could have benefited from a longer period (or any period) of public consultation after the draft legislation was released. Specifically, I take issue with the restrictive provisions that have been written into it for the Church of England, and, unless I’m missing something vital, I think that those restrictions demonstrate a tragic misunderstanding of the relationship between secular law and Canon Law of the established church. (If the Church of England had been forced to change its Canons because of government legislation, women in England would have been standing for election as Bishop since 1975. I’m still waiting.) I was saddened and disappointed by the things that Archbishop of Canterbury-Elect Justin Welby said today about equal marriage, reaffirming the ridiculous and untrue notion that we should expect the Church of England to be a hive mind. These are things that Holyrood seems to be taking rather more of a considered approach to than Westminster, and I find that I don’t mind too much if it takes Scotland a little longer if that means that Scotland does this right.

So then, a law that will come not without scope for it to be improved upon. But a law that I think everyone expects now will come to pass. The signs are that the government in Westminister is going to do something tomorrow that I didn’t dare to believe might happen —  ten years ago when Section 28 was being repealed and eight years ago when the Civil Partnership Act passed and even five years ago when I started campaigning for this very change, I didn’t think I’d see the day come. And in spite of its flaws, it will be something done for the better.

It all kicks off sometime after 11.30am in the House of Commons — the Marriage Bill is third on the agenda, straight after questions about building regulations for load-bearing walls. It’s live on BBC Parliament and I will be live Tweeting from soon before it starts.

Ed Note: The debate will start at about 12.40pm and we are told to expect a vote at 7pm.

In the UK, February marks LGBT History Month. It’s time to make some history.