In a desperate attempt to prolong its moment in the spotlight, the tired old Church of England has once again found a way to get what should be a positive step oh so very wrong.
It’s been a busy couple of months for the church. First, we had the unsuccessful vote to allow women bishops, followed by worse-than-expected census figures, and, finally, its bizarre exemption from upcoming gay marriage legislation. This time, there’s confusion all around as the church has moved to allow openly gay priests in civil partnerships to become bishops.
This should be a good thing. Under the leadership of Dr. Rowan Williams, the church has become a force for progressive and positive change in its approach to social justice and equality. It’s at least far ahead of the Catholics and Protestants — but, then again, that’s not really saying much. There’s just one caveat to this move. (Maybe the church thought no one would notice, or maybe they’re just too repressed to condone it.)
Gay priests must not have sex.
Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian, thinks this may mark the moment when the church has all but given up on fighting civil partnerships and shifted its attention to ensure that any gay clergy under its influence remain celibate:
In the medium term it is already clear that opposition to gay marriage is a lost cause for the Church of England. It’s not really one that the laity care about: although people used to sneer at the Church of England for being the Tory party at prayer, not even its worst enemies have called it UKIP at prayer, and UKIP is where the Tories who hate gay marriage will end up. Opposition to civil partnerships is simply unthinkable. Instead, the battle has shifted to whether gay clergy are celibate, and even whether the bishop can demand to know what their sleeping arrangements are if they announce they are civilly partnered.
It’s unclear exactly what motives lie behind this decision; there are probably lots of factors at play. Church leaders are all too aware of the PR-battering the church has taken over the past few months, and that will only hasten the decline in practicing Anglicans. This could be an attempt to appeal to wider society while still casting itself as a relevant institution in the 21st century. None of this was cleared up by Right Reverend Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, who announced the decision.
The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate [office of Bishop]. 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.
Some church members have welcomed the move; others have been distinctly unimpressed. Reform, an evangelical network which also pushes for the Church of England to be more traditional, issued a statement through its chairman Michael Lawson:
It’s a very worrying development. If someone were to be appointed who was in a civil partnership, that would be a very divisive step, both within England and across the Anglican Communion. Although the Church says they would be required to declare that they are celibate as part of their appointment, the fact is that this is unenforceable.
That last word sums this entire mess up in a single word. I welcome the church’s move to become more accepting of the gay community, and society in general, as it attempts to move with the times. But why, oh why, did it have to insist on this celibacy rule? It makes a mockery of the notion of a loving relationship and has annoyed people on both sides of the argument. All of this for a rule which is quite simply unenforceable.