In a recent TV interview, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, was asked whether he thought it appropriate that the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England cohabited with Kate Middleton before he married her. I have no evidence that they did; nor do I much care; that is their business.
But Dr Sentamu’s answer was interesting. Waving aside the issue with the breezy admission that he had married many cohabiting couples, he went on: “We are living at a time where some people, as my daughter used to say, they want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow. For some people, that’s where their journeys are. But what is important, actually, is not to simply look at the past.”
I repeat his answer, because it makes a fascinating comparison with the recently unearthed legal advice that the House of Bishops has commissioned on gay bishops (News, 27 May) — not least, that they ought to repent of any previous sexual activity (however long ago), before they could possibly be considered eligible.
This advice shows how much the Bishops have been straining every legal sinew to exclude openly gay bishops — even celibate ones — from their number. Do we really think that straight bishops have been challenged to repent of whatever they might have got up to at university, as it were? Of course not. And this double standard is a clear symptom of the fact that what is really going on here is prejudice, pure and simple.
The other weasel construction that those who pick bishops have alighted on is that a bishop must be “a focus of unity”. No: first and foremost, a bishop must be a man or woman of the gospel. Sometimes this means arguing for the right not to bring peace, but a sword.
To insist that bishops must be “a focus of unity” is a recipe for having bishops whose primary identity is that they are unobjectionable. Indeed, there is something almost heretical about this phrase; for it makes the quest for a quiet Church more of a priority than that of the preaching of the gospel.
The trouble is that, at the moment, a whole world of grammar is being invented with the express purpose of keeping gay people out of senior church positions. From the dreaded Anglican Covenant (whose purpose seems to be much the same) to this new advice, our Church is constructing its ground rules specifically to exclude homosexuals. And there is another phrase for that: institutionalised homophobia.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.