IN SEPTEMBER 2016, a Sunday newspaper threatened to “out” the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, as gay (although his sexuality was no secret within the Church). In a brave move, the bishop decided to give an exclusive interview to The Guardian, and became the first Church of England bishop to declare publicly that he was gay and in a same-sex relationship (News, 9 September).
In response to the media coverage, some 500 letters and emails were sent to Dr Chamberlain, many arriving within a week. Anticipating such a response, the overwhelming concern of figures in his diocese was that the tone of the correspondence would be critical of the Bishop and damning of his theology and approach. To their great surprise, more than 90 per cent of the letters contained unequivocal support for him, and only a percentage of these letters were from people he knew.
So unexpected were the unsolicited expressions of love and respect that the Bishop’s staff employed us, as sociologists of religion, to analyse the letters with a view to helping them understand better their content and meaning. Our analysis was written into a report for the College of Bishops, as well as for an academic publication, which was launched yesterday in the Goldsmiths Faith and Civil Society Unit seminar programme.
These letters provide a unique glimpse into the struggle of the contemporary Church as it attempts to balance its relationship to the changing ethical mores of wider society while, at the same time, upholding its traditional status as a “guardian of truth”.
OF THE 493 letters that we were given, the majority came from men, although women and families, as well as representatives of intentional religious communities, had also written. Most of the letters came from within the UK. As expected, there was correspondence from other clergy; particularly striking, however, were the many letters (more than half) that came from people outside the Church of England, with a good proportion of the latter clearly stating that they had no official religious affiliation. For example, one correspondent wrote: “I’m not religious at all but I respect your bravery in what you have done and if God’s people can’t accept you it’s their loss.”
Only 30 per cent of the letters were written by people who knew Bishop Nicholas personally — all the rest, from what we could gather, were strangers.
Diocese of Lincoln/FacebookDr Chamberlain at the induction of the Revd Edward Martin as Vicar of Edenham, last Februar
Overall, 472 (96 per cent) of the letters were supportive of Dr Chamberlain. In these, support, prayers, best wishes, and blessings were offered to the Bishop, alongside statements assuring him of their admiration and respect. For example: “ . . . there are plenty of people fully supportive of you and many more upholding you in their thoughts and prayers.”
We described this in our academic writing as a “tsunami of prayer and love” (see the details at the end of this article). Some offered particular thanks to Dr Chamberlain for speaking out on the issue of homosexuality and the Church, and some wanted to question strongly the Church of England’s stance on same-sex marriage and rules of celibacy for homosexual clergy. For example, one correspondent wrote:
“As a gay, widowed priest, I have been angry and disturbed at the lack of integrity and on-going hypocrisy of the Church.”
Another wrote: “The Church claims to preach a gospel of love whilst failing to understand what love looks like in people’s lives. The boundaries that the Church tries to keep don’t make sense anymore.”
Some wanted to criticise the media, particularly the tabloids, for making sexuality a public issue (“The perpetrators of the unfolding events ought to hang their heads in shame”).
A small minority of the supportive writers identified themselves through their letters as gay, some describing deeply troubling experiences within Anglican church settings that they hoped Bishop Nicholas’s public stance would begin to change. As one author explained, “Thank you for giving so many thousands of gay people encouragement and hope after so many decades of being trampled into the mud by the Church they love.”
Through many of the letters, Bishop Nicholas was described as having the support of the majority of British people, both within and without the Church of England. For example: “I am neither a Christian nor a homosexual; I am just an average person you may walk past in the street and not notice. As you go about your business, please keep in mind most people are warm of heart and have no interest whatsoever in your sexuality. Don’t veer from this view because a few people behave cruelly.”
Despite this, there was a small percentage (four per cent) of authors who were explicitly critical of the Bishop and what he represented. These letters were written in graphic language and sometimes in capital letters; the Bishop was accused of breaking biblical prohibitions (“You claim to believe in the Bible but you are not living what it teaches”), of damaging the Church, and needing to seek forgiveness. Reading these letters was difficult and emotional, and they highlight the very real tensions that currently run through both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion in relation to sexuality.
SO, TAKEN together, what do these letters mean? Among other things, we argue that, in a context in which Anglican affiliation has declined sharply, these letters highlight a distinctive way in which the British public continues to relate to the Established Church. Even though roughly half of these authors were not affiliated to any particular religion or community, they still took the time to write to Bishop Nicholas, and to express their desire for the Church to behave differently — to be supportive, to be accepting, and to be kind.
The authors may never meet Bishop Nicholas, or seek his or any other clergy member’s ministry, and they may never attend an Anglican service on a Sunday or even at Christmas. But they reflect rapidly changing attitudes, and request that the Church be more responsive to the mood of the nation in supporting inclusive spaces for all people, regardless of sexuality.
None of the letters acknowledged the theological constraints experienced by the Anglican Church with respect to same-sex relationships, to which there are no easy answers. That is clear. They invite, none the less, serious thinking about what needs to be done to repair at least some of the damage inflicted on the lives of individuals and communities in the name of religion.
It was a privilege to read them.
Dr Caroline Starkey is Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. Dr Grace Davie is Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Exeter.
This article was first published (in modified version) on the LSE Faith and Global Society blog last month: blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2019/12/silence-and-words-unexpected-responses-to-a-gay-bishop.
An extended article published in Ecclesial Practices can be read at brill.com/view/journals/ep/6/1/article-p44_44.xml