CHRISTIANITY is an embodied religion, and much theological energy in recent years has been expended on what it means to follow a God who “took upon himself human flesh”. One conclusion is that there can be no such thing as a disembodied religion, since the mind that dictates ascetic practices and dwells on the ineffable aspects of God’s nature is just one organ among many in a body that works in a far more connected way than previously thought. Thus abstract debates in the Church cannot long escape from the need to be grounded in how individuals are made and behave, nor should they. This week, the debate about homosexuality has been grounded in a particular individual: the Bishop of Grantham, the Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain.
It is no bad thing to be reminded that casual pontification on sexuality and its place in the Church touches real people, who, naturally, dislike the idea of being talked and speculated about. This heavy cross has been borne with remarkable patience and courage by the Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, ever since he was forced to withdraw from his nomination as Bishop of Reading in 2003 because he made no secret of his living as a gay, partnered man. This was despite an avowal of celibacy. It is no wonder, then, that Bishop Chamberlain chose to be reticent until nudged into the open by an enquiry from The Sunday Times. It seems that the C of E has moved at least one step forward since the Reading affair, though it is hard to know whether Bishop Chamberlain would have been nominated for the post had he been widely known as a gay man, whether he had a partner or not. Gay people in high office still tend to rely on secrecy and discretion, to the frustration of campaigners who, albeit sympathetic, rightly smell hypocrisy in the Church’s official stance.
And what of that stance? The Archbishop of Canterbury last week said of Bishop Chamberlain: “He lives within the Bishops’ guidelines, and his sexuality is completely irrelevant to his office.” Taken as a whole, this sentence reassures both those who have reservations about gay sex, and those who are bemused by the Church’s obsession with it. But, of course, the two halves of the sentence do not cohere: if Bishop Chamberlain’s sexuality is “completely irrelevant” to his office, there need be no reference to any guidelines, beyond the strictures of the Ordinal to which all bishops assent. The only way the two halves of the sentence can work is if “sexuality” is defined as sexual orientation, divorced from behaviour, which we suspect to be the case.
The absurdity of the Church’s position will continue to be remarked on by all sides until this false division is removed, and clergy can be judged by the same standards as the Church judges lay people, looking at the quality of their relationships rather than the gender of their partner.