Saturday 2 October 2010

Do gay bishops and primates exist?

I am utterly fed up with being talked about as if I don’t exist, by which I mean don’t exist authentically as a gay man as if I am mistaken in my awareness of my own identity. I am utterly sick and tired of having Genesis 2 (male and female he created them), Leviticus 18.22 (you must not lie with a man as with a woman) and Romans 1.27 (and men, giving up natural relations with women, too burn with lust for one another) quoted and thrown at me as defining me as a corrupt, inadequate Christian.

For 55 years I have known my identity and I have never wavered in knowing my identity despite the 55 years in which the church has tried to undermine, chip away at and denigrate my own self-knowledge and self-confidence. For 50 years I have been maturing in faith and prayer. The constantly corrosive narrative of doubt about LGBT identity, gay maturity, gay love, gay fidelity, in the Anglican Communion and other faith communities sickens me every day (and at times in my life, literally sickened me).

Archbishop Rowan’s inability to be crystal clear about the identity, Christian fidelity and integrity of my many hundreds of LGBT friends across the Communion, some of whom are friends we share, is both intolerable – and understandable. I understand why people have a different perspective on life and life’s priorities from me – I try to be a tolerant, generous, inclusive Anglican.

I want to try and explain something which I have found hard to think about and articulate clearly but which has come increasingly into focus. I had an incredibly valuable conversation with Andrew Goddard of Fulcrum yesterday in Pimlico where his wife Lis is now Vicar of St James-the-Less. Andrew and I first met some 10 years ago and we have continued to meet regularly and enjoy an extensive conversation in which we have both travelled a long way. Talking with Andrew, who is evangelical, orthodox and traditional in his own terms, has helped me learn about myself and explore my own theology, ethics and faith. We are nowhere as far apart now in our theology and thinking as we were ten years ago, but there are still important areas of difference. Our extended conversation offers an important model to the Anglican Communion, one that I have no doubt has the blessing of Archbishop Rowan.

Yesterday with Andrew, I was able to describe with more clarity than ever before why I have deep confidence in my awareness of my sexual identity, my faith and life with God, my prayerfulness and the integrity of my calling as a priest who is gay and partnered and does not have a vocation to celibacy. What is unusual about the conversation with Andrew is that I can tell him these things, a conservative Christian, with such freedom and clarity. Usually I am conscious of the need to be cautious, defensive and self-protective when engaging with less-generous people.

Let me try and take a next step in my thoughts (in my mind these things are all connected, but it doesn’t appear quite so obvious when I try and write them down).

On Thursday I attended the Westminster Media Forum Seminar on Reflecting Diversity – the LGBT Community and the Media. Another element in my thought process came into focus. Peter Tatchell talked about the double-standard of the BBC towards LGBT issues compared with black, Jewish or Moslem issues. The BBC still sometimes presents inappropriate gay stereotypes and interviews people with extremely homophobic views such as Stephen Green of Christian Voice ‘for the sake of balance’ who, if he represents anyone, represents a tiny minority on the extreme Christian fringe. Despite this, he was given a privileged role in Sunday Morning Live on BBC 1 last Sunday, having been flown to the Belfast studio when Sharon Fergusson and myself were confined to web cams at home.

When dealing with black or Jewish issues, the BBC does not wheel out neo-Nazis or anti-Semites to provide balance but in discussions about lesbian and gay issues uses Stephen Green, a homophobe. In the context of the BBC it is generally to be expected that zero tolerance will be given towards racism or prejudice against Jews and Moslems whereas in parts of the Christian community prejudice against Jews, Moslems and women, let alone LGBT people, is held to be appropriate and justified by scripture and tradition.

NO PREJUDICE which demeans or diminishes another human being created by God is tolerable in my reading of the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus Christ. The first and greatest commandment is to love God, neighbour and self. My goodness, doesn’t Christianity have a lot to learn about prejudice, abuse and intolerance.

The next step in my thoughts – how to tackle this institutionalised, incredibly powerful prejudice against LGBT people in Christianity? Dealing with it in the BBC or the Conservative party has been child’s play compared with the Church.
Every week I discover more and more about the corrupting effect of secrecy in the Church. This week I learnt something more about the dynamics of the Crown Nominations Commission and the appointment of bishops, having already blogged about gay Primates and gay Church of England bishops. On Thinking Anglicans, Bill Dilworth questioned whether there really are 3 gay Primates and Doug said he is interested to know if there is some secret list of Bishops and Primates who happen to be gay
Why can’t I name them? Why is the Church left guessing as to their identity? It is because of the hostility, aggression, prejudice and homophobia that is unleashed in the Anglican Communion when a gay or lesbian priest is elected as a bishop in the USA or enters the frame as a candidate in England. I put these numbers into the conversation because of the invisibility of gay Primates and bishops. Their invisibility is connected not only to the culture of institutionalised prejudice in the Anglican Communion but to deeply corrosive and corrupting culture of institutionalised secrecy and fear in the Church of England. This culture inhibits me from freely naming those bishops and Primates.

The culture of secrecy and dishonesty, the inability to be open and transparent and to communicate effectively affects Lambeth Palace, Church House, the Crown Nominations Commission, the Anglican Communion Office, General Synod, dioceses and parishes. It means that people either second-guess information or are left in ignorance. The culture is rampant and is corrupting the life of the Christian community. Every dimension of Church life is affected. People are intimidated by those who I might sometimes want to describe as prejudiced, loud mouthed bigots but whose self-image is as defenders of orthodoxy and tradition. They intimidate the ability of the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak and act freely and they intimidate me – but I have far less to lose.

At the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica in 2009 I was challenged by leading conservative campaigners to justify why I claimed in the plural that there are three gay Primates. It was the claim of gay Primates in the plural that offended them. They demanded that I prove it by naming them. I refused to tell them because I do not believe it is right to violate people’s privacy and ‘out’ anyone who prefers to remain in the closet.

So how do I know there are three gay Primates? I know one of them personally. I know who the others are and the fact that there are three was confirmed in a conversation in the departure lounge at the airport in Cairo as we were flying back to the UK. I am tempted to name the person, but that would place him or her in a very difficult position and I have no wish to do so. This is the effect of the culture of secrecy and intimidation. It inhibits me from writing freely out of respect for a Christian friend and ensures the invisibility of so many potential gay and lesbian Christian role models.

How do I know there are between 10 and 13 gay bishops in the Church of England? Some I know personally. Friends and colleagues of other bishops repeatedly confirm to me that their friend or colleague is gay. One of them, Peter Wheatley, Bishop of Edmonton, was named as gay and partnered in the national press when first appointed, repeated at the time of Jeffrey John’s trauma in Reading. Two were members of my post-ordination training group in Southwark. One I trained alongside in Cambridge. Some are married, most are single.

The teaching of the Church of England says that being gay is no bar to being appointed as a bishop, and that even being in a Civil Partnership is no bar so long as the relationship is celibate. We know that these Church of England rules cannot be applied as a result of the aggressively hostile campaign against Jeffrey John when he was nominated for Reading in 2003 and the more recent furore over the possibility that he was being considered for Southwark. Bishops who are gay know that were they to come out and talk about their sexuality they would become the focus of abuse and a campaign by conservatives to remove them There would also be an inappropriate focus on their sexuality which would follow them wherever they went. Some of the homophobes in the Church of England would set out to research their past, and I know that some of them have pasts they would prefer to keep hidden.

So the 3 gay Primates and the 10 to 13 gay CofE bishops remain invisible. I understand why they are so discrete. As I know from my own bitter experience, the consequences of being open and visible can be traumatic - hate letters, innuendo, loss of PTO or licence, unwanted attention and media interest. But until openly gay bishops are able to be appointed or until serving gay bishops can safely come out, the Church continues to live with a false reality and their experience and witness is unavailable to the Church. There are no role models (except in the USA), no bishops who can describe their experience or be interviewed by the media (except in the USA), none who can talk personally about their experience in the Primates Meeting, English House of Bishops, in General Synod or their own Diocesan Synod.

Until the culture of fear and secrecy in the Church of England changes, the bigotry is challenged and our Church becomes a place which is free from prejudice against LGBT people, the Episcopal Church will remain the only place where LGBT people can come out and be elected as bishops. I’m tempted to start a new campaign. The culture of secrecy, intimidation and abuse in the Church of England has got to be challenged, undermined and changed.

Colin Coward

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  1. Thank you for this post, Colin.

  2. Well said Colin, why can't so many people see the hypocrisy that surrounds all this and why are people willing to maintain the status quo of secrecy being ok... you're so right when you say the culture of secrecy, intimidation and abuse has to be challenged, undermined and changed, but how?

  3. I cross posted...again, thanks!

  4. God bless you Colin. More honesty is needed, not less. Ultimately, who do they think they are fooling?

  5. The problem is that sexuality is absent in the tradition. (So is the round earth and the vast universe -- in Scripture, the sky is a dome hung with lanterns). We've managed to cope with Copernicus and Galileo, and we're working on Darwin, but Kinsey is too new. How could the great moral and ethical Christian tradition have missed a central fact of many persons' experience -- their sexuality? Paul dismisses the question, saying in the short time remaining, remain celibate or relieve your passions in marriage as necessary.

    Most people take their experience as normative, and most people are heterosexual -- so people who are different seem to be just making trouble. (In the parochial school I first attended, left-handed kids were punished for showing off or seeking attention.) But we know now that we are not male or female, but somewhere along a line of development (most at one end or the other, true, but some, the intersexed, demonstrably in between). So the existence of gay people is intrinsically a judgment on Traditional teaching, which has overlooked them for millennia.

    Reinforcing this blind spot is the usefulness to the institution of all the shame and guilt felt by those who are different. I was told for years to offer my "weakness" to God, that my longing was for Him, not for human love. I offered, and suffered from not changing despite prayer and effort (and some therapy). This cycle can be repeated endlessly. I finally noticed that my confessors' and counselors' and therapists' models had nothing to do with my experience. They were repeating what they'd been taught. (Even the monks I visited in the 1960s, who later turned out to be gay, couldn't share their experience with me, and the religion they practiced saw homosexual desire only as temptation and occasion of sin.)

    No, I finally found a gay Christian community and in one night with the man who's been at my side now for 27 years my whole experience of desire flipped from negative to positive. There is love and relationship for us and the church didn't know anything about it.

    Why stay with the obtuse and tradition-bound institution? Community, history (it's how we got to where we are), MUSIC, a forum for seeking justice, compassion, and mindfulness . . . But the old story (from Babylon back, it's legend, and the Christian writings are myth-making) has lost its authority. The people are moving on, and the institution must follow.

  6. Again as a previous commenter said, Well said - VERY well said. (And thank you for saying with such clarity.)

  7. For 55 years I have known my identity and I have never wavered in knowing my identity despite the 55 years in which the church has tried to undermine, chip away at and denigrate my own self-knowledge and self-confidence.

    Christianity, as a whole, has been PREDICATED on the ability of each of the Imago Dei, even when fallen, to know their identity [How can we know we need a Savior, if we don't know ourselves?]

    Yet for some (unreasonable!) reason, it is LGBT people alone who are deemed INCAPABLE of knowing ourselves: "You only THINK God made you gay" "You're just confused" "You have (disordered) same-sex attractions" "You have a demon!" "You're self-deceived by your sin!" "You can be cured!"

    Lives such as yours, Colin, are the most eloquent witness to the FALSEHOOD of these "We know you better than you (queers) know yourselves" claims.

    Lies live in closets. Once we leave them, the brightness of the Son burns the lies away. We're left---GIFTED!---with this simple Truth: "THANK GOD, God made me queer! Alleluia!" :-D

  8. This is the most sensible article I have read on this subject for a long time. I know of at least one grass roots church where the 'rules' are flouted without consequence and others where outdated teachings continue to be swallowed whole by well meaning, but conservative and impressionable congregations. It doesn’t take a lot for opinions to turn to judgement. Between these, of course, are many grey areas. My novel, ‘Benedict’s Carnival’, written as a result of my personal frustrations after Jeffrey John failed to secure the Reading appointment, is set in the latter type of church and deals with the dilemmas of a closeted gay vicar and his relationships within his church. Published in 2008, it was generously endorsed by the late Brenda Harrison. Over the following two years my older son’s illness and death (coincidentally in the same hospice as Brenda) prevented me from personally promoting the book as much as I had intended, beyond the normal marketing services of the publisher, but there have been some constructive and complimentary reader reviews on the Amazon site. If my creative efforts have helped to broaden the minds of a mere handful of blinkered readers, the book will have served its purpose.
    Elizabeth Wickens aka as Kate Wiltshire.

  9. I largely agree but I would say that sometimes the presence of Stephen Green can be a great advantage to our case. Having someone much more plausible and supposedly moderate may not help us whereas I think few people in the middle would see Green as anything other than 'on the fringes'

  10. Hiya,
    I included your post in my Sunday/Monday blogs round-up - 03 October 2010. All the best, cheers.

  11. Excellent - the campaign's time is now. The hour is already late.