Sunday 26 September 2010


of The Times is an extensive interview with Archbishop Rowan, recorded just prior to the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom. Many items were covered, apparently, but it is the Archbishop’s remarks about gay bishops that have been extensively reported and commented on.

According to the summaries I have seen, Archbishop Rowan acknowledged that it is acceptable, according to Scripture and Tradition, for someone who is gay to be ordained as a bishop, but not for them to enter into a same-sex relationship. They must, he contends, be celibate and remain so.

This is very much the line taken by Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) with regard to the clergy as a whole, but clerical celibacy has never been an expectation in Anglicanism, indeed, from the days of Archbishop Cranmer and his – initially ‘secret’ - wife, the reverse is true, and it seems very strange that Anglicans should be advocating this particular option at a time when, according to recent polls, priestly celibacy, a requirement of the Roman Catholic priesthood, is being questioned, for various reasons, by the laity of that Church.

According to the summaries I have read so far the Archbishop bases his argument on Tradition, but the tradition – or traditions – within the Church, especially the Church of England, about same-sex relationships have been extremely varied. A study (such as Peter Coleman’s Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality) of the relevant texts, be they biblical or ecclesiastical, will, almost inevitably, give the impression that the Church has taken a mainly negative view of homosexuality, but beyond and around these texts has been the pastoral practice of clergy and congregations, which has often, in past years at least, been welcoming and friendly to gay people. Indeed, whatever the number of gay people as a percentage of the total population, it is well-known that the priesthood, certainly in twentieth century England, has been a gay-friendly profession, and hence the significant number of gay clergy.

The support given by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, and other bishops in the House of Lords, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 is itself part of the Anglican tradition, and while it may be argued that they were only keen to end the scandal of police entrapment, and were not advocating homosexual equality, this piece of our history is a reminder that, since then, we have been in an entirely new situation as regards same-sex relationships, rendering it insufficient simply to invoke Scripture and Tradition – except in the broadest sense of loving fidelity. The emergence of gay couples and families has presented the Church with a novel situation (though there are historical examples of same-sex covenants of friendship) which is not properly addressed by simply restating the Christian ideal of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, unless perhaps, behind that, there has been an intuition, never actually stated but almost implicit, that marriage might provide a model for same-sex couples as well.

However, let us accept, for a moment, the idea that a gay person called to be a bishop must be celibate; why then, we may ask, was it not possible in 2003 for Dr Jeffrey John to be consecrated as Bishop of Reading, given that he was known to be celibate at that time? The interviewer asked this question and in answering it Archbishop Rowan apologised for the episode, but, as I recall, the objection to Dr John was not that he was sexually active, it was that he had advocated, in contradiction to ‘the Tradition’, Christian partnerships that were ‘permanent, faithful and stable’. His preferment to the episcopate was quashed on the basis of his teaching something other than the official party line on this matter, a test of religious orthodoxy that has become even more stringent since then, in that every ordinand, as well as every bishop in the Church Of England, is required to ‘submit’ to the teaching on homosexuality contained in the ‘discussion document’ Issues in Human Sexuality, a step that has made the Church of England, in spite of repeated denials, institutionally homophobic, and that is completely contrary to the spirit of intellectual freedom and enquiry that has, hitherto, been one of Anglicanism’s most prized traditions.


  1. It saddens me that Rowan Williams personal views and the official line seem to be at odds. He seems to know that the situation is unjust and I think he hopes it will change ultimately (hence his "pass" when asked if bishops would one day be allowed to be in active gay partnerships.)He must know what this does to gay clergy, surely he must think about the way it affects faithful LGBT lay people who feel devalued by the church. No wonder he looks so troubled!

  2. It's not only faithful LGBT lay people who feel devalued by the church, but priests and bishops as well, of course. Quite how some of the closeted gay bishops square their formal conversations with their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy with their own inner world, let alone, for some of them, with worlds from their past, both pre- and post-ordination, I have always found it hard to imagine.