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Stained by prurient motives

by
23 September 2016

The C of E colludes with a sexualised culture in intruding on gay clergy, says Peter Selby

diocese of lincoln

Questioned: the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain

Questioned: the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain

FOR the Archbishop of Canterbury to say, in his interview at Greenbelt, that he was “constantly consumed with horror” at the way the Church had treated LGBT people was cer­tainly striking, and will strike a chord more widely than for that particular audience.

His horror is also a profoundly challenging context for the group of ten bishops who have now been charged with examining the Church’s teaching about sexuality, and how it is to be applied (News, 23 September).

Not alone in his horror, Arch­bishop Welby is also not alone in lacking any real clarity (as he said in the same interview) about the way ahead for the Church of England on this matter, in particular about the question of recognising same-sex unions.

The Churches’ ill-treatment of LGBT people has certainly played a part in exposing them to negative and prurient intrusion at the hands of the press — and, without excusing media excesses, there is no doubt that attitudes within the Churches, so far from showing compassion and solidarity, have in effect offered encouragement to the kinds of reporting that add to the burdens of those who may well have borne more than their share.

There is every reason therefore to be glad that the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, has been publicly supported in what he has recently faced (News, 9 September). And yet it has been at a price — one that draws attention to another and perhaps more difficult issue that the group of bishops will have to face: another cruelty that they need to help us to mitigate. It will be extremely difficult, because it is a cruelty that arises directly from the compromise that the Church of England has accepted in relation to gay clergy.

The guidelines assert that being gay and in a partnership is acceptable only provided that the relationship is celibate (meaning sexually abstinent). It is, therefore, a direct consequence of the guidelines that, when gay clergy and bishops are outed, they are put in the position of having to announce that their relationship is “within the guidelines” — that is, celibate.

At the time of the appointment of Dr Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, even that declaration did not help. That Bishop Chamberlain has been able to make the same declaration and still be appointed might be seen to be progress.

 

THE response from conservative An­­glicans suggests, however, that the objections have not been assuaged for many by a declaration of celibacy. In large parts of the An­­glican Communion, the fact of a same-sex partnership, whether sexually abstinent or not, is itself seen as an affront to received teaching. If there has been progress, it has certainly not been universal.

In any case, if it is progress when a gay person willing to make a declaration of celibacy can still be appointed as a bishop, it leaves unchallenged the essential cruelty at the heart of the Church of England’s compromise: the cruelty of requiring gay people to make a public state­ment about the intimacy of their lives.

Surely it is time for the majority community to reflect that what they would regard as a gross intrusion, if they were expected to make such a statement about the intimacy of their own lives, is no less an intrusion just because the victim of the intrusion happens to be gay.

Indeed, the intrusion is more serious, given the vulnerability of the LGBT community, and the experi­ence of prejudice which will have come the way of most of its members. The requirement on all of us to treat others as we would wish to be treated surely applies at this point.

 

IT IS perhaps a side issue, but important, none the less, that this particular compromise also seriously misrepresents the vow and practice of celibacy, by colluding with the cultural pressure to sexualise it.

The practice of celibacy certainly carries with it the implication of sexual abstinence; but celibacy is not primarily about sexual abstinence, but about a decision to make your­self available in generous love to all, by forswearing the joys and op­­portunities of joining your life to that of another person.

A person who binds his or her life to that of another is not celibate — whether the relationship is with a person of the same or the opposite sex, and whether or not the re­­lationship is sexually expressed. To receive the enrichment of friendship with celibate people is to know that the suggestion that the quality they give comes principally from their sexual abstinence is a profound debasement of their gift, and a grave underestimate of the challenge of the celibate life.

 

WHAT should chiefly concern us in this way of speaking about the lifestyle of gay clergy is that it involves, in the context of a prurient and sexualised culture, a require­ment that they should submit to the invasion of their intimate lives in a way that is unique to them.

This is the bitter fruit of this tree of compromise which inflicts an unnecessary further cruelty upon LGBT people. It is a cruelty that arises directly and inevitably from the requirement that a gay priest must be prepared to declare him- or herself to be celibate, in the debased sense of sexually abstinent.

The day must surely come when this grudging and conditional toleration of lesbian and gay part­nerships gives way to the recognition that, in disdaining such relation­ships, or making them subject to conditions that the majority com­­munity would regard as a gross intrusion, the Church is attacking what may be the best and most joyful steps that LGBT people take in their lives.

When the Church recognises the extra cruelty that it has imposed, the sharing of delight will replace the grudging heart; then, more than simply being outraged by cruelty, the Church will be offering real solid­arity to fellow human beings, who deserve no less. It will also be helping to bring to an end the cruelty that gay people have had to experience, and in which the Church has played such a sad part.

 

Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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