THE first Church of England bishop to declare publicly that he is gay and in a relationship has referred to his critics as “brothers and sisters in Christ”.
The Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, gave an exclusive interview to The Guardian on Friday, after an approach by the Sunday Times.
“It was not my decision to make a big thing about coming out,” he said. “People know I’m gay, but it’s not the first thing I’d say to anyone. Sexuality is part of who I am, but it’s my ministry that I want to focus on.”
He confirmed that he was living in accordance with the House of Bishops’ guidelines, which state that gay clergy cannot claim the liberty to be in sexually active homosexual partnerships, and are not permitted to enter into gay marriage. He had been with his partner for many years: “It is faithful, loving; we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company, and we share each other’s life,” he said.
He declined to criticise the Church’s requirement of homosexual celibacy. “My observation of human beings over the years has shown me how much variety there is in the way people express their relationships. Physical expression is not for everyone.”
All of those involved in Dr Chamblerlain’s appointment, including both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, were fully aware of Dr Chamberlain’s personal situation when they appointed him last year, and were unanimous in their support.
“I am and have been fully aware of Bishop Nick’s long-term, committed relationship,” Archbishop Welby said in a statement. “His appointment as bishop of Grantham was made on the basis of his skills and calling to serve the church in the diocese of Lincoln. He lives within the bishops’ guidelines and his sexuality is completely irrelevant to his office.”
Bishop Lowson said in a letter to the parishes that Dr Chamberlain’s sexuality “is not, and has never been, a determining factor” in his appointment. Bishop Lowson had been “delighted” to appoint a priest of “faithfulness, energy, wisdom and experience”, and the diocese was already seeing “tremendous benefit”. In an interview with BBC Lincolnshire on Sunday, he said that it was not a “campaigning appointment or provocative appointment”.
Dr Chamberlain told the station that, while for some the news would be “very significant, and I want to say to those people that I do understand that. For very many other people, I would hope this is simply someone being who he is and getting on with life.”
He continued: “As with the discussions we have had about the ordination of women to the episcopacy, we need now to continue that conversation [about sexuality].”
Dr Chamberlain told The Guardian that he did not want to become known as “the gay bishop”, but that he hoped he would be able to be “a standard-bearer for all people as a gay man. And I really hope that I’ll be able to help us move on beyond matters of sexuality.”
While emphasising that he was “not brushing it aside”, he argued that the Church needed to focus on other issues, including deprivation and refugees.
The Church was “still at the beginning of a process of learning” about issues of sexuality, he said. “I don’t think we’ve reached a position where the Church is going to be marrying same-sex couples.”
He hoped to be “judged by my actions as a parish priest, a bishop — and by the Lord, ultimately. My sexual identity is part of who I am, but it’s the ministry that matters.”
The fact that Dr Chamberlain’s relationship was not made public at the time of his appointment was criticised by both LGBT campaigning groups and GAFCON.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which celebrated 40 years in existence this year, thanked Dr Chamberlain for his “courage, dignity and grace”. The news was “a small step — albeit one at significant cost to the individuals involved — towards a more grown-up and honest understanding, and away from secrecy and invisibility”.
It was, the statement said, “regrettable” that his relationship had not been acknowledged at the time of his appointment: “We need to see LGBT people in leadership roles in the church, and LGBT people can only flourish when they are able to be fully and openly themselves. We would not dream of expecting a straight person to keep a long-term relationship ‘private’.”
LGBTI Mission, launched this year, expressed a hope that the news would lead to “increased openness among bishops so that burden does not long remain on the Bishop of Grantham alone”.
It accused the Church of a “discriminatory policy of purposeful concealment” — a policy that had “led directly to the discomfort which Bishop Nicholas is now experiencing” — and concluded that “the need to review the absurd and cruel double standard still applied in relation to sexual conduct of the clergy remains an urgent task for the Church.”
A statement issued by GAFCON and the GAFCON UK Taskforce said that the appointment was a “major error” and a “serious cause for concern for biblically orthodox Anglicans around the world”.
It went on: “In this case the element of secrecy in the appointment to the episcopacy of a man in a same sex relationship gives the impression that it has been arranged with the aim of presenting the church with a ‘fait accompli’, rather than engaging with possible opposition in the spirit of the ‘shared conversations’.
“We remain opposed to the guidelines for clergy and Bishops, permitting them to be in same sex relationships as long as they publicly declare that the relationship is not sexual. This creates confusion in terms of the church’s teaching on the nature of sex and marriage, and it is not modelling a helpful way to live, given the reality of our humanity, and temptation to sexual sin.”
Asked about this last statement, Dr Chamberlain said: “I read it and listened to the news. I can well understand what is being said by my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Susie Leafe, who chairs Reform, told the BBC that she sympathised with Dr Chamberlain for having been “hounded by the secular press and forced into making a statement”: “All human beings have a range of complex desires. Who he is attracted to should not make any difference to his ability to do the job of a bishop,” she said.
The Bishop of Grimsby, Dr David Court, who trained at Oak Hill, and described himself as coming from a “more traditional part of the Church . . . who may struggle with some of the issues here”, joined the BBC Lincolnshire interview on Sunday to show support for Dr Chamblerlain.
“I think the challenge for those who come from that position is to work out how we bring together a traditional understanding of sexuality with some of the other insights that are around at the moment,” he said. “That’s an ongoing conversation we need to have. But, together, all three of us are committed to working together for the good of the Church, regardless of whether we have differences within this particular area. I am here to give credence to the fact that we want to work together, and that it is possible.”
Eight members of the clergy, all married to their same-sex partners, signed a letter to the House of Bishops, published in The Sunday Times this week, calling for “greater inclusion that will enable those parishes that wish to do so to celebrate the love that we have found in our wives and husbands”.
They wrote: “We encourage you to be bold, and to be honest about what many of you already believe from your own experience, and to what you know to be increasingly the direction of travel, not just in our Church but in many Churches in this country.”
The letter was also signed by eight same-sex married couples who are members of the laity. A “further seven clergy couples and Readers” had “indicated their support for this letter whilst wishing to remain anonymous in order to protect themselves, and often their bishops, from attack”.
The Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, who was the first priest openly in a same-sex relationship to be nominated to a Church of England see, expressed support for Dr Chamberlain, on Monday.
“I admire Nick and am praying hard for him and his partner, knowing something of what they are having to go through,” he said. “I am glad he is being supported so strongly, and hope he will now be allowed to get on with the job God has called him to do.”