The Church of England has now decided that gay clergy can become bishops. However, the decision surrounding this contentious issue, which has deeply divided the church, is unjust and unreasonable. To be ordained as a bishop, the prospective candidate must also take a vow of celibacy.
This discriminatory decision (on the basis of sexual orientation) could not be a more confusing, contradictory attempt from the CofE to shed its image as an archaic institution which is not in step with modern Britain. It may be that the Church of England are floundering and struggling to maintain a strong stance because of the lack of guidance and clarity from Biblical teachings regarding homosexuality. This is because the Bible actually says very little about homosexuality and much more about the importance of love and commitment in relationships, regardless of sex.
Understanding and interpreting the scriptures is of course speculative, none more so than Romans, 1: 26 – 27 that states:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
At a first glance it may appear that homosexuality is being condemned, but upon deeper investigation there is a strong argument that this is not the case. Firstly, there is no reference to homosexuality in the original language of the scriptures as the term homosexuality was not invented until the late 19th century. Paul in his teachings was referring to both men and women, who consumed by corruption, turned their backs on God in favour of idolatry, engaging in temple or shrine (as it’s also known) prostitution.
Gay clergy who have happily entered into civil partnerships (trusting and believing the Church loves and supports them) are now being forced to choose what is more important: joining the episcopate or maintaining intimacy with their partner. The House of Bishops in a statement said:
The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline.
The irony of this declaration is that the House is doing just that – unjustly excluding and removing an individual’s right to sex and love, which are fundamental needs in any relationship or partnership. The House also went on to say:
All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England.
However, the Church of England fails to elaborate on what a “searching examination” will reveal and how they plan to gain assurance that a prospective candidate for the episcopate is sexually abstinent. There is no appropriate (or indeed legal) way to monitor this apart from taking the individual at his word, possibly driving clergy to compromise the truth in fear of compromising their position.
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Also, how is celibacy intended to be defined? By kissing, arousement excluding penetrative sex or full sexual intercourse? This has not been addressed by the CofE, illustrating a reluctance to share their intentions outside the church and showing little awareness of how this skewed policy will work in reality.
A solitary, sacrificial outcome
The Anglican Church are not only dehumanising gay clergy, but also dictating that they are lucky enough to “progress” within the very organisation they have dedicated their lives to, only if they play by the CofE’s farcical rules. Insulting and instructing the priesthood by attaching conditions on how they should conduct their lives is igniting a dangerous cyclone of oppression. Depriving the priesthood of affection and affinity will bring intense unhappiness and isolation to many. Over time, their sacrificial decision will surely have a deeply detrimental effect on their teachings in the role they have given everything up for. Furthermore, this does nothing to help the Church dispel the image of them as an authoritative, hierarchical force that is not compassionate and reflective of the reality of modern society.
How do the Anglican church honestly expect to attract people into their dwindling congregations with absurd policies such as this and the recent ruling that women are not allowed to be consecrated to the office of bishop?
Worshippers within parishes are extremely frustrated by the decisions “from above” and strongly stress they are not representative in the slightest of what the congregation really feel. This latest decision reiterates the belief that the church is too controlling and inherently homophobic. This is illustrated by cleverly meeting legal employment requirements, but refusing to support their employees in career progression and development on the basis of their sexual orientation.
These rulings also do little to make a career in ministry seem an attractive possibility in the Anglican Church. The Church’s own statistics show [PDF] the number of stipendiary clergy has dropped since the turn of the millennium. It is projected to continue at a similar level with the net loss through the period 2010 to 2015 of over 700 from a current total of 8,120. The Church’s research warns: “The number of people entering stipendiary ministry is not sufficient to replace those who are retiring.”
The Anglican Communion, with around 80 million members across the globe, have been left waiting and wondering after their international leaders lined up to denounce the Church of England. The Global South Anglican released a statement beginning:
We, Primates of the Global South of the Anglican Communion, are deeply concerned and worried by the recent decision of the Church of England’s House of Bishops which approves that clergy living in civil partnerships can be candidates to the episcopate.
The letter, signed by leaders of the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia calls on the Church of England to reconsider this “divisive decision” urging:
Sadly, both the decision to permit clergy to enter civil partnerships and this latest decision which some call it a “local option”, are wrong and were taken without prior consultation or consensus with the rest of the Anglican Communion at a time when the Communion is still facing major challenges of disunity. It is contrary to “the inter-dependence” which we try to affirm between churches within the Communion.
The Church of Nigeria went one step further after their annual retreat stating the Bishops of the Church of Nigeria intentions:
If the Church of England continues in this contrary direction we must further separate ourselves from it and we are prepared to take the same actions as those prompted by the decisions of The Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada ten years ago.
The Church of England sadly is in utter disarray. They are dealing with the biggest crisis for decades with the recent vote opposing women’s ordination and now the ruling allowing gay bishops with outrageous terms and conditions attached. There is unfortunately little comfort, faith or reassurance for the powerless Anglican Communion who can do nothing but pray for the healing of the deep divisions within their church.
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.