Recent news items have raised serious doubts about the Church of England’s commitment to equality and justice.
In 2003, Church of England priest Jeffrey John was chosen as Bishop of Reading, then forced to back down because he was gay. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, though a friend of his, was afraid that appointing him would harm church unity. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGB&T) people felt hurt and betrayed.
In 2010 John – an outstanding pastor and preacher – was one of the candidates for the vacancy of Southwark. John is in a longstanding but celibate relationship with his civil partner. But there was a huge row over an alleged breach of confidentiality when the press found out, and he was not selected.
A Guardian article by Andrew Brown in May 2011 contains disturbing revelations about what happened, and ongoing attempts by top church leaders to prevent even celibate gays from becoming bishops.
According to the newspaper report, based on a memorandum by the late Dean of Southwark Colin Slee, who was involved in the selection process, Williams was fiercely opposed to appointing John. Both he and Archbishop of York John Sentamu apparently put intense pressure on other panel members. Slee believed that the source of the leak was Williams’ approach to lawyers when he sought legal advice on how to block any chance that John would be selected. The archbishop’s staff dispute some aspects of the account by Slee, who later died of cancer.
Secrecy around LGB&T clergy is heavily entrenched in the Church of England, which is hardly the most healthy environment for spiritual flourishing. According to Slee’s memo, there several gay bishops "who have been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions".
Bishops are reportedly now divided over whether gays in civil partnerships but pledged to celibacy should even be considered for episcopacy, in case this upsets those Anglicans in England and abroad who are most hostile to homosexuality. Church lawyers have reportedly said that, while candidates cannot be turned away simply because of their orientation, those in sexually active same-sex relationships should be refused and acceptance of even those who are celibate but partnered might be in question, since bishops must "act as a focus for unity".
Equality, prejudice and power
This raises an important issue: is it lawful, let alone ethical, to discriminate against minorities on the grounds that others might be prejudiced against them? No doubt there are parts of England where anti-immigration sentiment is running high and some congregations would find it hard to accept a black person born abroad as their new bishop. Should this then be a bar, or should the church instead challenge such views and work with those congregations to help them to live with diversity?
But there is another factor besides prejudice at play here: power.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of theologians, and others in church and society, have come to believe that, in the words of a Church of England working party report in 1979, “there are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage".
This proved too radical to be accepted at the time, but eminent Anglicans including Williams – then a professor of theology – and John continued to make the case for acceptance, as attitudes shifted.
In 1991 the House of Bishops produced Issues in human sexuality. This set out the official line that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, but accepted that there were people who were homosexual in orientation, who should be treated with respect, and that laypersons might, in good conscience, enter into faithful and committed sexual relationships with the same sex. Clergy however were expected to abstain. It was accepted that ongoing discussion was necessary.
There was however no ban on loving lifelong same-sex friendships, involving emotional intimacy and mutual support. Some, like John and his partner, deferred to church discipline and accepted this, a huge (some might think excessive) sacrifice, while continuing to hope for change.
Many Anglicans – including a number of conservative evangelicals – were prepared to continue discussing the issues involved. But some insisted that their interpretation of the Bible on this matter was sacrosanct, and threatened to leave if there were moves towards greater inclusion.
Increasingly in Anglican circles in England and particularly overseas, this faction gained ground. Some, especially in churches other than the Church of England, were openly homophobic, showing hostility or contempt towards those of lesbian or gay orientation (since they believed that those with sufficient faith would not even be attracted to the same sex) and/or regarding sex between two men or two women as worse than heterosexual ‘sin’.
When Jeffrey John was chosen as Bishop of Reading in 2003, nine Church of England bishops (one of whom later apologised) wrote a public letter of protest, stating that:
Dr John has many admirable qualities for the work of a bishop. But the issue is ‘what is acceptable sexual behaviour in God’s sight? By his own admission he has been in a same-sex relationship for twenty years. We value, of course, the gift of same-sex friendship and if this relationship is one of companionship and sexual abstinence, then, we rejoice. We warmly commend such relationships to the Church as a whole.
We are glad at the reassurances from the Bishop of Oxford that Jeffrey John’s life is now celibate. But it is the history of the relationship, as well as Dr John’s severe criticism of orthodox teaching, which gives concern...
We must... express our concern because of the Church’s constant teaching, in the light of Scripture and because of the basic ordering of men and women in creation.
We must also express our concern because of our responsibility for the Church’s unity, both in this country and throughout the world.
Yet theological diversity has long been accepted within the Church of England. For instance, though for decades there has been official acceptance that women can validly be ordained, people are still free to argue against this. Indeed, the Church of Englsnd has tied itself in knots to try to accommodate the small minority opposed to women’s ordination. Again, the notion that Christ’s death was the work of a wrathful Father goes against official church doctrine, but those who argue for this view have not been barred from becoming bishops.
Some of their overseas allies were less tactful about gays and lesbians. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria wrote that “if homosexuals see themselves as deviants who have gone astray, the Christian spirit would plead for patience and prayers to make room for their repentance. When scripture says something is wrong and some people say that it is right, such people make God a liar. We argue that it is a blatant lie against Almighty God that homosexuality is their God-given urge and inclination. For us, it is better seen as an acquired aberration... Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.”
It is noteworthy however that, in England at least, there was acceptance in principle of celibate but loving same-sex relationships even by those strongly opposed to full inclusion.
Unity in diversity
When Dr Williams gave way to this faction, he encouraged them to become bolder in their demands. This in itself became a strain on church unity, as they came to see any refusal to accept their own views as rebellion against God.
When civil partnerships became law in the UK, a 2005 House of Bishops pastoral statement was issued. This stated that “The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality. The wording of the Act means that civil partnerships will be likely to include some whose relationships are faithful to the declared position of the Church on sexual relationships”.
Since then, the case for full acceptance has been increasingly strongly made by Anglican and other Christian theologians, and many in the Church of England now fully accept LGB&T people in loving and committed relationships. However, others have continued to push for an even narrower stance, and the archbishops have shown great reluctance to offend them, while being quite willing to alienate those who feel that exclusion goes against God’s will for the church.
If Church of Engalnd leaders continue to discriminate against even those lesbians and gays who have made considerable sacrifices out of respect for church discipline, there will be considerable damage to its credibility as a force for love and justice in the world. It will also be harder to have a reasoned debate on sexuality and related issues if senior clergy are afraid to express their views, and indeed share their experience, with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Andrew Brown, 'Church of England tied in knots over allowing gay men to become bishops' (Guardian, Wednesday 25 May 2011) - http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/25/church-england-gay-clergymen...
© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.