Love it or hate it (and some people really hate it: see the website Platitude of the Day http://www.platitudes.org.uk/platblog/index.php) Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ can send out its listeners pondering, fuming, or laughing on their way to work. One of its best-known contributors – along with Rabbi Blue, Clifford Longley, Mona Siddiqui, Anne Atkins, Indarjit Singh and John Bell – is Bishop Tom Butler, the recently retired Bishop of Southwark.
Yesterday morning Bishop Tom woke people up, as they crunched their muesli, sipped their juice or second cup of coffee, by offering a gay-friendly ‘thought’. What! a Church of England bishop saying that gays are OK, civil partnerships acceptable, and Mary Glasspool, newly consecrated bishop of the Episcopal Church, a godly woman? Well, yes, and why not? Bishop Tom has used ‘Thought for the Day’ this way before, as when he famously claimed that women and gays were not a problem for the Church, but a gift (from God).
His latest comments, which go further than anything he has previously said, seem less remarkable when one takes into account the fact that he is now retired and can speak as a private individual rather than as a member of the House of Bishops, to belong to which one must subscribe to the teaching on (homo)sexuality contained in the document Issues in Human Sexuality. Why this discussion paper should have been accorded so much authority has never been satisfactorily explained, but the Church of England is saddled with it until more people, including those in authority, and with the power to challenge it, begin to publicly question it.
Which brings us back to Bishop Tom, who, yesterday, informed the nation that, like the Home Secretary, he has changed his mind on homosexuality, just as, a few years ago, he, and a majority like him, changed their mind about the remarriage of divorcees in church. Now, in fact, this is very different from the line Bishop Tom has taken hitherto. Previously, when questioned about his, apparently affirming, views on gay people, he has said that it is not so much him that has changed but the Church which has become more conservative and intolerant on these issues. Yesterday, however, he admitted that he has, in fact, amended his views in the light of experiencing the lives of faithful and loving gay couples.
Although this sounds contradictory both things might be true. Historically, it is the case, that the Church of England, like the Anglican Communion, has been altered in recent years by an intolerant neo-conservatism. It is reflected in the websites that are currently demonising Bishop Tom, based on his latest ‘Thought for the Day,’ for conforming to the misguided ways of the modern world and deserting the unchanging certainties of the Faith, whereas, in fact, it is their judgemental attitudes that are the novelty compared to the patient listening of the long Anglican pastoral tradition.
So, yes, it is possible for Bishop Tom to ‘have it both ways’ – to declare that the Church has become more conservative (thereby making him appear somewhat ‘liberal’) on sexual ethics, and also that, in recent years, life has taught him that gay couples can be loving and faithful. Am I alone, though, in feeling disappointed that Bishop Tom’s change of heart did not make him more critical of Issues in Human Sexuality while he was in office as a diocesan? Or maybe it came along too late for him to challenge the crucial role of that document in preventing the full acceptance of LGBT people in the life of the Church.