|Glynn Cardy Vicar of the GLBT-supporting St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland Glynn Cardy offers context and discussion on the Church of England's fresh confirmation that gay priests can be appointed bishops, even if they are in civil partnerships, as long as they are celibate.
To be a bishop or priest in the Anglican Church there is the expectation that the individual exhibits a high level of both public and private integrity and moral conduct. A bishop, like a priest, is not a role or a job, but a vocation. Once ordained you are never not a bishop or priest, whether in the bedroom, a boardroom, or on a surfboard.
There is also though in the English culture an expectation that the private expression of affection between consenting parties, especially if those parties are in a public committed relationship, is no one’s business except their own. This reflects the maxim: “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.
So, currently in the United Kingdom, unlike New Zealand, there are numerous priests living in vicarages with their same sex partners, some in Civil Partnerships and some not. Some conservative bishops make life difficult if not impossible for such priests, but many bishops tolerate same gender couples. As the Revd Colin Coward of Changing Attitudes UK says, “In practice at least half of the House of Bishops ignore the guidelines and do not ask clergy questions about celibacy, and many of them consciously put in place people in civil partnerships with the partner present and acknowledged as a partner.”
The English House of Bishops has deliberated for many years on the acceptability of LGBT clergy and their partners and, faced with the science and public support for the given-ness of most people’s sexual orientation, came to the conclusion in 2005 that publicly confessed and committed same gender love is okay but the expression of that love in ‘sexual activity’ is not. Civil Partnerships are okay, but not sexual partnerships.
However the conservative wing of the Church, while reluctantly prepared to accept this as a given regarding priests, were not happy applying this rule to bishops. Many conservatives still believe same gender attraction is a choice and a sin. Hence the committee under the leadership of the Bishop of Norfolk that has now given an interim report to the House of Bishops; and the House has seemingly decided to apply the same criteria in this regard to bishops as it does to priests. So, in theory, a candidate for bishop who is in a same gender relationship and who is prepared to say they abstain from sexual activity could be appointed.
The concern I have is not with the current decision of the House of Bishops but the 2005 decision of delineating between love and the expression of love. ‘Sexual activity’ is a very vague term. A look, a touch, and a kiss can all be ‘sexual’. If we are talking about sexual organs, then the biggest one is the brain. Are they suggesting love can happen without the use of one’s brain?? I think it’s impossible, immoral and reprehensible for the English Church to be advocating a division between committed love and its expression.
There is also the related question of how such abstinence is monitored and enforced, and whose task is such monitoring and enforcement. Do the English want parishioners to dob in their priests? Not likely. Are the English willing to institute a Saudi-like religious police force? Even less likely. I suspect this abstinence rule would be quietly kept as a reminder to LGBT clergy that their on-going ministry is contingent upon the goodwill of those in authority, so they’d better not ‘make waves’.
That said, the decision of the House of Bishops makes it possible for a priest who is not closeted, like Dean Jeffrey John of St Albans, who is in a Civil Partnership and is prepared to say that he abstains from sexual activity, a candidate for an episcopal vacancy, when he has been denied this in the past. In this sense the decision is progress.
I would commend for further reading Andrew Brown’s piece on this subject and its relationship to the same gender marriage debate.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2013/jan/04/gay-bishops-ruling-church-england. Glynn Cardy - 7th January 2013