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The Synod must get real on gay sex

07 February 2014

IT IS difficult to know where to look for the good news in the Pilling report (News, 31 January). The Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed the very modest hope that it might improve the quality of conversation, and help the Church to disagree better.

The squeamishnes is about sex, of course. Pilling suggests that the Church is now prepared to endorse civil partnerships, and allows for the possibility that some gay couples might be blessed. But sex remains the dirty great elephant in the room. Pilling manages to imply that it might just about be OK for some lay people, but definitely not for clergy, and it goes beyond earlier reports in demanding even higher standards of rectitude for bishops. Meanwhile, homophobia is wrong, gay people are to be warmly welcomed in church, and so on and on.

I was present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference when I saw quite conservative proposals about the Church's attitude to gay relationships shot down in flames by those who found them too disgusting and immoral even to contemplate. I was a tutor at Westcott House at the time, and, in the following few years, I found myself having surreal conversations with gay ordinands who were hoping to train there.

Typically, they would earnestly declare that their bishop knew that they were in a relationship, but that it was "within the bounds of the Church's teaching" - i.e. celibate. I never knew whether to believe this or not, although on the rare occasions when I suspected that the ordinand was telling the truth, I wondered what effect the forced abstinence was having on the relationship. (Perhaps they just prayed a great deal: 1 Corinthians 7.7.)

What I could never understand was that if sex was important for successful heterosexual relationships (the Roman Catholic marriage counsellor Jack Dominian once described it as "the prayer of the marriage"), why should gay relationships be thought capable of flourishing without it?

Learning to disagree well is fine, but, on this issue, it leaves gay clergy bearing the weight of the Church's moral and pastoral ambivalence.

There are people who could help to advance the conversation. They are those serving bishops who know in their hearts that they are predominantly gay, and yet who participate in the debate as if it were about other people. There would, presumably, be quite a wide variety of points of view on offer. Married gay bishops, celibate gay bishops, those in partnerships past or present would all have something to say that would make the discussion real rather than abstract. Please, at next week's Synod debate, feel free to speak.

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