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If the truth be told

15 January 2016

Past revealed: new insights into the Bishop Ball case in The Sunday Times

Past revealed: new insights into the Bishop Ball case in The Sunday Times

THE former Church Times columnist Canon Giles Fraser argued in The Guardian that gay bishops ought to lie when asked about their sex lives. I disagree completely.

This is not because I think that gay bishops should be celibate, of course. And I think it is outrageous that they should be asked about their sex lives. What I distrust is the idea that lying in a higher cause is OK: it is just too easy to identify the higher cause with what seems good for us.

“Sometimes we lie for self-advancement,” Fraser writes. “Morally, it’s a no-brainer that this is wrong. But at other times, we lie because we don’t trust another with the truth. Because we have good reason to believe that they will use it to hurt us or others.”

But there really isn’t a clear line between self-advancement and avoiding hurt to oneself or to others. Someone lying about his or her sex life in order to become a bishop cannot easily be acquitted of all stain of self-advancement, no matter what conscience may tell them.

I do not share Fraser’s high opinion of the character of those called to the episcopate. In my experience, they are just as given to self-deception as humbler Christians (if such can be imagined). And it is dangerous for normal people to lie for a higher cause. By all means let bishops lie for small and squalid reasons, like the rest of us. But please may they not tell themselves that it is for a Higher Truth, when an incidental benefit is that they get to enjoy their sex lives in a palace.

For Fraser, the outrage lies in the rules themselves: “Those who enforce celibacy on the basis of sexuality are maintaining a system of oppression that brings misery and loneliness to many. I believe all Christians have a moral duty to resist this cruelty. Lying to the church authorities, in these conditions, is a bit like disobeying an unjust order. It’s a form of non-violent resistance.”

But for me this is too much the view from inside boarding school, when all means are permitted to resist the prefects. It is clearly sometimes right to lie about third parties to protect them. But it is very hard for an outsider to take seriously the elevation of personal politics in the Church of England to a matter of the highest moral principle.

 

IN AN ecumenical spirit, I cannot resist appending a headline from The Nation of Malawi: “Anti-gay messages dominate rain prayers”. Yet in this country, apparently, same-sex marriage leads to floods. It is all very mysterious. Perhaps it makes a difference which side of the equator the awful thing is done.

 

IN THE mean time, The Sunday Times dug up earlier evidence of episcopal lying, this time in a different cause. This is the report of the detectives who first prosecuted Bishop Peter Ball. They were told by his lawyers (who, I presume, were paid for by the Church) that he had made “certain admissions to them, and was prepared to accept a formal caution for gross indecency. The police were further assured that he would leave the country and work as a missionary.”

This last detail is revealing. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone to warn the recipients of Ball’s newly discovered missionary zeal. It reminds me of Trevor Huddleston’s hurried departure to the Indian Ocean in the 1960s, and does something to explain the rage of Africans if it was, indeed, accepted practice to ship out to the former colonies clergy who had been caught molesting English children.

In the event, it was all moot, because the Bishop was given a cottage on the Prince of Wales’s estate instead.

 

AND so, circuitously, back to Bishop George Bell (and Canon Fraser). The backlash that started with Charles Moore (Press, 8 January) has now spread to both The Times and The Guardian.

In The Guardian, Fraser argued: “Bishop Warner’s determination to cut through years of official obfuscation is absolutely right. The whole culture of secretive vestry solidarity, with its camply misogynistic, inward-looking, Anglo-Catholic, father-knows-best mentality needs busting wide open and throwing on the scrapheap.

“But the question won’t go away whether Warner, in his zeal, is skipping over important moral instincts about due process, and condemning a man, long dead, who has no opportunity to speak for himself.”

Peter Hitchens had an update in his blog for The Mail on Sunday which takes in Bishop Warner’s defence: “The Bishop of Chichester’s assertion that ‘The suggestion that we would trade the reputation of Bishop Bell for a moment of political, social, or even media advantage is seriously mistaken’ is pretty strong. But he offers no reason to disbelieve such a suggestion.” Ouch.

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