Celibate Gay Bishops in Civil Partnerships in the Church of England

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?

Much love.


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  • mj

    What about having both gay and straight clergy be single and celibate? Thats what they do in the Catholic church.

  • Jack Harris

    Beyond stupid! How insulting to GLBT clergy. Who is gonna police it? ROFL

  • The current theological framework in the Church of England is the problem. It’s based on the premise that women are equal to men, but still excluded from most leadership positions in the church. It affirms that sex is a good gift from God, but only if you’re heterosexual. The Church of England has inherited a tradition which has sought to be all things to all people in all times and all places. This tradition has been stretched to a breaking point as both conservatives and liberals have reached a point where they can no longer live within the system. The system must change, but the problem is that as the system changes, one side or the other will feel excluded and leave, thus splitting the CofE. It’s inevitable. The real challenge is how to move forward in such a way that honors the church’s prophetic integrity when it comes to justice and inclusion while also honoring the call to be “one body in Christ.” It is possible to do both. Liberals would like to move forward so that ALL people have a place at the table in the CofE and conservatives can’t quite go there. My guess is that society will drag the CofE forward toward inclusion and justice, thus keeping many of the liberals within the ranks while the conservatives will end up leaving as the church welcomes women and LGBT folks into all areas of life and leadership. This doesn’t mean that the ties which bind both sides together will be dissolved. It is possible to exist as one church within two structures and find meaningful ways to honor the God-given, indestructible unity through common efforts in areas of agreement. Can both sides agree that God calls the church to eradicate poverty? Then both sides can continue to work together in mission to be the one Body of Christ and do the work of Christ in that place and time. Disagreement doesn’t have to mean an end to relationships. That’s the important lesson that ALL of us need to learn in the midst of the Spirit’s call to justice and our stumbling attempts to respond faithfully.

  • Jeff Straka

    Considering the Angican church’s continued archaic stance against women bishop why is this a surprise? What SHOULD they have done on this particular issue? They should have followed the path of the Episcopal church here in the US on gay ordination AND women ordination. It seems that conservative churches that continue to obsess over “purity codes” really didn’t “go and learn what this means” (Matthew 9:13).

  • Tom Brazier

    Andrew, you raise some good questions. Personally, I would see a difference between an LGBT bishop who committed not to have sex with his (dare I say “or her”) civil partner but occasionally failed to live up to the commitment and an LGBT bishop who chose not to make the commitment in the first place. The former case requires nothing more than the rite of reconciliation of a penitent (where the sin, depending on theological point of view, may be nothing other than breaking one’s word). I wonder whether the recent ruling has this in mind, i.e. whether there really is a problem with confession.

    As you observe, this is an entirely different question to whether the CoE should have a different theological understanding of homosexuality. I feel unqualified to make any comment in this regard.