In what became public yesterday, The Church of England is now allowing for gay clergy in civil partnerships to become Bishops. The only caveat is that they have to remain celibate within their government sanctioned civil partnership. This ruling puts the ethical bounds of individual clergy and the Church of England both at risk.
But before I go there, there has been a storm of opposition insisting that it is wrong to have to make gay clergy in civil partnerships remain celibate. Those saying such things, including my friend Rev Colin Coward–who was quoted in the linked BBC article–are fighting for the full inclusion of LGBT Bishops. That future goal notwithstanding, what I don’t understand is why people are so appalled and surprised the Church of England would put a ruling in place that gay clergy in civil partnerships remain celibate? The Church of England’s theological framework on same-sex behavior is one that believes it is a sin, and thus, prohibited according to their understanding of Scripture. My question is, why would they have done anything different?
As for the ethical bounds, the Church of England’s ruling puts many at risk. For gay clergy in civil partnerships the question becomes, if they are not celibate in their relationship, do they reveal that information? This dilemma is very real, and I know numbers of LGBT clergy that face it everyday. One of The Marin Foundation’s current interns, Michael Overman, publicly went through this during his ordination process. Michael stepped aside. I know many other who did not. Some are haunted by their decision, others not at all because they believe in order to live in their calling this is something they just can never reveal.
The other ethical dilemma is how will the Church of England police such a ruling? Install hidden cameras in the rectories? Tap the clergy’s phones and computers? I say those things in jest. But honestly, what will they do? The problem is that they have implemented a system set up to fail for most, in one way or the other. Let’s say a gay Bishop is in a civil partnership and celibate. What happens if he has a sexual encounter with the person he loves, lives with, and is committed to according to the government of England? If that gay Bishop tells anyone, he most likely won’t be a Bishop anymore. If he doesn’t tell anyone, he has to live with that hidden information (sounds like being in the closet again, doesn’t it?) but still keep his position. The rationale that I have heard from celibate gay clergy who believe in a conservative theological framework, and have “sinned” is that:
Grace is given for heterosexual “sin,” why not mine? I can confess to God and God will forgive me. This doesn’t have to be made public. Heterosexual clergy/Bishops don’t have to publicly confess all of their “sin.”
I am not sure why the Church of England would put gay clergy, as well as themselves, in this position in the first place. I want to believe the Church of England’s leadership was making this ruling with the best intentions, to be as inclusive as their theological framework allows them to be. I just don’t know if they thought through all of the ramifications that lie ahead. But who knows, I could be totally wrong and all gay clergy in civil partnerships will have no problem remaining celibate and the Church of England will never have to think twice about anyone not hiding any information. Unfortunately, history has shown that will not be the case. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the coming years.
What do you think the Church of England should have done? Kept their rule that gay clergy have to be single and celibate; or is their current ruling exactly what they should have done?