The Synod must get real on gay sex
IT IS difficult to know where to look for the good news in the Pilling report (News, 31 January). The Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed the very modest hope that it might improve the quality of conversation, and help the Church to disagree better.
The squeamishnes is about sex, of course. Pilling suggests that the Church is now prepared to endorse civil partnerships, and allows for the possibility that some gay couples might be blessed. But sex remains the dirty great elephant in the room. Pilling manages to imply that it might just about be OK for some lay people, but definitely not for clergy, and it goes beyond earlier reports in demanding even higher standards of rectitude for bishops. Meanwhile, homophobia is wrong, gay people are to be warmly welcomed in church, and so on and on.
I was present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference when I saw quite conservative proposals about the Church’s attitude to gay relationships shot down in flames by those who found them too disgusting and immoral even to contemplate. I was a tutor at Westcott House at the time, and, in the following few years, I found myself having surreal conversations with gay ordinands who were hoping to train there.
Typically, they would earnestly declare that their bishop knew that they were in a relationship, but that it was “within the bounds of the Church’s teaching” – i.e. celibate. I never knew whether to believe this or not, although on the rare occasions when I suspected that the ordinand was telling the truth, I wondered what effect the forced abstinence was having on the relationship. (Perhaps they just prayed a great deal: 1 Corinthians 7.7.)
What I could never understand was that if sex was important for successful heterosexual relationships (the Roman Catholic marriage counsellor Jack Dominian once described it as “the prayer of the marriage”), why should gay relationships be thought capable of flourishing without it?
Learning to disagree well is fine, but, on this issue, it leaves gay clergy bearing the weight of the Church’s moral and pastoral ambivalence.
There are people who could help to advance the conversation. They are those serving bishops who know in their hearts that they are predominantly gay, and yet who participate in the debate as if it were about other people. There would, presumably, be quite a wide variety of points of view on offer. Married gay bishops, celibate gay bishops, those in partnerships past or present would all have something to say that would make the discussion real rather than abstract. Please, at next week’s Synod debate, feel free to speak.
The Revd Angela Tilby, former tutor at Westcott House in the Church of England, suggests here that the Church needs to shed it’s traditional reluctance to discuss the implications of requiring partnered Gay people to remain celibate, while acknowledging that heterosexual people’s marriages are all the healthier for an active sex life. Here is her basic premise:
” What I could never understand was that if sex was important for successful heterosexual relationships (the Roman Catholic marriage counsellor Jack Dominian once described it as ‘the prayer of the marriage’), why should gay relationships be thought capable of flourishing without it?”
Whatever we may think of the propriety of discussing people’s sex live in the course of a General Synod Meeting, I think Angela has a very valid point that needs to be raised. It has been acknowledged that human sexuality is ‘implanted by God’ for the purpose of cementing a human relationship between the two partners of a marriage (not only for the purpose of procreation). Granted that the Church of England has not yet accepted the prospect of Same-Sex Marriage (as will shortly become legal in England). However, in accepting that Same-Sex Partnerships are a possibility, the Church seems not yet ready to accept that they may have a legitimate sexual component.
Full discussion of this anomaly – as Angela sees it – would surely help to open up the Church’s polity to a more honest and faithful solution to the problem of institutionalised hypocrisy; where Bishops are well aware of co-habiting clergy, while yet refusing to openly acknowledge their presence within the Church community. In such situations, this lack of honesty about such relationships is causing hardship to the couples concerned – together with a lack of credibility in the minds of those ‘in the know’ who are aware of what is actually going on, and who wonder what all the fuss is about.
It may well be, as Angela suggests, that some members of the House of Bishops could also be intrinsically homosexual, but who are scared to speak up for fear of persecution by the apparently homophobic culture of the Church hierarchy. When jobs are at stake, this is a big incentive to not admit to being part of a Same-Sex relationship that is forbidden by the authorities, officially, while being tolerated, de facto, by some bishops.
The biggest casualty in these matters, as always, is the credibility of the Church – to those outside and inside of it, who struggle for transparency in the Church’s moral disciplines. It has been said that, if all the LGBT people engaged in beneficed ministry of the Church were to suddenly ‘come out’ in force; the Church would have to admit it’s duplicity and repent.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand