Giles Fraser: The split of orientation and practice helps none

25 July 2007

THE Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Anthony Priddis, is unrepentant. He still seems to think that he was right to refuse Mr Reaney a job because of Mr Reaney’s homosexuality. Actually, he would not put it like that. The Bishop said that the Church is against homosexual practice, not homosexual orientation. This distinction allows him to block Mr Reaney’s appointment, while also denying the charge of homophobia.

The argument goes thus: homophobia is prejudice against those with a homosexual orientation. We (the Church) are not against people with homosexual orientation; so we cannot, by definition, be homophobic. We are against homosexual practice.

Such is the usefulness of this distinction in fending off charges of bigotry that few question its validity. Yet I reckon that the distinction’s real function is to allow bishops and others to gush piously that a gay man like Mr Reaney is fully accepted, while at the same time saying that he is not fit for a job. That is sophistry of the worst kind. The Church deploys the orientation/practice distinction for the purposes of public relations.

Allow me a moment of philosopher-speak: can there really be such a thing as an orientation to X, if that orientation never actually results in X? Orientation makes sense only by virtue of its relationship to the actual doing of something.

What could it mean to say a person had a homosexual orientation, if he never once had any sort of sexual relationship with a member of the same sex? I suggest it would mean next to nothing. And, if I am right, then there can be no ultimate distinction between orientation and practice. The former cannot meaningfully exist without the latter.

Historically, of course, the very idea of sexual orientation is a modern one, no older than the development of psychology. No one has yet come up with a satisfactory way of measuring orientation, unless you think that photoplethysmography counts. Here, genital engorgement is measured as a response to erotic material. Many people who describe themselves as heterosexual can come out gay on this measure.

But the most telling argument against the orientation/practice distinction is that it protects no one. Mr Reaney was not in a relationship. But the Bishop wanted to know whether, one day, he just might be. Canon Dr Jeffrey John was celibate, but he was denied a job, too. The non-practising bit helped neither of them. That is because this dodgy distinction is a piece of psychobabble spin, and an alibi for engrained church homophobia.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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