I’ve thought for a while about whether to write about this subject or not since this story blew up on Friday afternoon. In one sense it’s not really news at all but the way the media has latched onto it says something for their desire to make headlines of any story that involves the clash between churches and gay rights.
The news that the Church of England’s House of Bishops has announced that gay clergy are now able to become bishops has been public knowledge since the 20th of December having been recorded in the House of Bishops summary of decisions published on the Church of England website. However in the build up to Christmas this appears to have been overlooked by pretty much everybody until Ed Thornton wrote about it in the Church Times yesterday. The BBC got hold of the story in a big way which prompted a clarification from the Church of England and now it’s reached the front pages of the national newspapers.
The actual House of Bishops’ summary (point 7) notes that: ‘[The House] confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.’
That probably doesn’t make much sense to most people but in July 2005 the Church of England issued guidance on how churches should deal with the newly introduced civil partnerships and this included an outline of how gay clergy would be allowed to enter into civil partnerships provided that they remained celibate. No specific mention was made of whether this ruling did or did not include bishops. In July 2011 the church launched a review to deal with this omission, whilst at the same time imposing a moratorium on nominating clergy in such partnerships as bishops while the study was conducted. This review came a year after the openly gay Dean of St Albans Cathedral, Jeffery John who is in a civil partnership was reportedly blocked from becoming a Bishop of Southwark.
In effect the Church of England is now back to how it was pre-July 2011. The House of Bishops has said it will not comment further on civil partnerships until the review group publishes its report later this year. Things may change again once this is released.
The media does appear to have got very excited over not very much. Despite this announcement it is unlikely that we will have an openly gay bishop for some time as such a move will face considerable opposition from many quarters in the church, as happened when Jeffery John was made Bishop of Reading in 2003 and then subsequently him being forced to resign. Quite often Christians are accused of being obsessed with sex, but maybe that’s because the press loves to talk about Christianity and sexual matters especially when it involves gay relationships. As orthodox Christian teaching becomes increasingly counter-cultural it becomes even easier to point a finger and say, “Look at these funny Christians with their strange views!” Admittedly the church often doesn’t help itself by complicating things and the in-fighting between different factions. It does seem bizarre that the Church of England is happy to potentially have male bishops in civil partnerships but not female bishops given that there is undoubtedly more support for women to be allowed to become bishops than for gay men.
The Church of England is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this sort of thing. It has decided that gay clergy can be in civil partnerships, but then how far can you probe into personal lives to establish if these are celibate relationships? If I was told I had to live a celibate relationship with my wife, I don’t think I could resist the temptation indefinitely, but at the same time there has to be an element of trust when it comes to the way clergy conduct their private lives irrespective of whether they are gay or straight, single or in a relationship. Exactly the same should be the case for bishops and if someone is willing to lie over their behaviour in order to gain a position of authority then that suggests they are not suitable for the job.
This tension goes to show yet again that life is not simple. We face ethical and moral dilemmas regularly, whatever our beliefs. When we follow God we choose to try to live the best way we can rather than in a way that suits us most conveniently as an individual. As people within the body of the Church, we have a job to do our best to understand how God wants us to live whilst at the same time acknowledging that we are all fallible and dealing with the messy lives we have.
Maybe this is why the media and press still love talking about the Church. It is one of the few places where people are still trying to seek an objective truth, discussing what is right and wrong and then actually trying to live by it. Many people now see the truth as subjective; what feels right for me, but when we see others looking beyond that and trying to grasp universal values, we often want to join in the conversation to see where they are coming from and decide whether we agree with them or not. The press knows that gay issues always sell, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they dive in whenever the Church mentions it. It’s just a shame that they rarely do the same when the Church discusses poverty, justice, compassion or even salvation, which are actually far more important to the vast majority of Christians than a decision made by a bunch of bishops in a meeting.