The real challenge after Pilling that no-one is talking about

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThe House of Bishops issued a statement in response to the Government’s introduction of ‘gay marriage’ on Saturday—just managing to avoid St Valentine’s Day. I suggested earlier that this was the next ‘banana skin’ that they faced, and (to mix metaphors) they have played it with a straight bat (no pun intended). The pastoral statement continues and affirms previous statements in relation to this matter since 1991 (and before) that

we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.

The statement says many other things too, though not surprisingly those seeking to see the Church’s position on this matter change have greeted it with disappointment and anger. I don’t find any of this surprising, but what I do find surprising is the particular charge (e.g. from Andrew Brown) that the statement is ‘dishonest’. Though I confess I had to think about it long and hard, it is not in fact ‘dishonest’ to set out different requirements for members and for leaders in a church. This is not to say that morality has a different standard, only that we require different things in the attainment of that standard.

In Issues in Human Sexuality the House affirmed that, while the same standards of conduct applied to all, the Church of England should not exclude from its fellowship….

This is no more or less than saying that Jesus accepts us as we are—but he does not leave us as we are, and leaders in particular are required to model maturity in faith and to have demonstrated that they have covered some distance in the journey of transformation.

Alan Wilson, suffragan Bishop of Buckingham, also pinpoints ‘dishonesty’ in his response. In it, he quotes Simon Butler’s speech in Synod:

My question requires a little context and a large amount of honesty. I’m gay; I don’t have a vocation to celibacy and at the same time I’ve always taken my baptismal and ordination vows with serious intent and with a sincere desire to model my life on the example of Christ simul justus et peccator. Those who have selected me, ordained me and licensed me know all this. My parish know this too.

My question is this: at the end of the process of facilitated conversations will the College of Bishops tell me whether there is a place for people like me as licensed priests, deacons and bishops in the Church rather than persisting in the existing policy that encourages a massive dishonesty so corrosive to the gospel? For my personal spiritual health, for the flourishing of people like me as ministers of the gospel and for the health of the wider church I think we will all need to have a clear answer to that question.

I don’t want to underestimate the felt need behind this challenge. I knew Simon well when we trained together for ordination, and I sat in the same chapel as we debated Issues in Human Sexuality. I remember his eloquence and insight as he spoke. But in the end I have not been persuaded. And the question he asks is an odd one. Lack of clarity? The one failing of the statement (for opponents of it) is that it is crystal clear. And in fact it has done more than that: it has rooted the current position of the Church in a whole series of statements, going all the way back to the liturgies of the BCP and Common Worship, to canon law, to the previous statements from the House of Bishops, the Dromantine Declaration, and including the Declaration of Assent which all clergy make at ordination. If, in two years’ time, there is a change of position, then the House of Bishops will have to explain why all these previous statements now need reinterpreting or abandoning. Given this, I do hope that the constant media pressure on this issue will now abate.

So where is the ‘dishonesty’? It can only be found in the assumption that if someone says ‘I’m gay; I don’t have a vocation to celibacy; I do have a vocation to ordination’ it would be dishonest not to act out all these dimensions—despite the fact that that would mean lying in a public declaration. It is this with which the statement takes issue, and for good reason. Alan Wilson, in his post, cites the Scripture readings for last Sunday, but omits to mention the Collect for the day:

Almighty God,
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes of this world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The theology behind this prayer sees that there is a deep fracture, a fault line, between our instincts, our desires, what we feel is innate within us, and the pattern of holy living God calls us to in Christ. It is the theology embedded in the Scriptures. This isn’t simply true for those who believe they are gay and not called to celibacy—it is true for all of us, and it is a point of tension and struggle for all who seek to live faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus. The chief dishonesty here has been amongst ‘liberal’ bishops who have ordained men knowing full well that they are living contrary to the bishops’ clear teaching on this issue. (I do also wonder how the many ordained single women who ‘don’t have a vocation to celibacy’ feel about this? We don’t give their voice on this much space.)

There has been some criticism that the bishops have made a rod for their own back—that when the first legal challenge comes, it will cause more distraction, focus yet again on this issue, and waste more precious resource. But what are the bishops supposed to do? Cave in on every issue where a pressure group is determined to challenge? Abandon Christian teaching where it is likely to cause trouble? The Church of England has all too often been addicted to the idea of Christendom—that the Church is essential part of the establishment, and that therefore the only option is more or less to swim with the tide of culture and society. We might swim at a slight angle to it at times, in the hope that the flow might adjust a little, but we would never countenance swimming against it. Many in other churches are longing for this addiction to be broken, and perhaps this statement is a sign that the bishops are ready to do this.

But that then leaves the question I began with: What is the real challenge facing the church in the UK? In all the discussion about gender and sexuality, about women bishops and the response to gay men and women, there is a massive paradox. The Church which is apparently almost irredeemably misogynistic is numerically dominated by women in its membership. The Church which is, it seems, deeply homophobic has a disproportionate number of gay people in its ranks, and especially in its clergy—in some dioceses, vastly disproportionate. Yet one group is consistently under-represented, and rarely discussed: men, and particularly working class men. And if all the recent media coverage has done anything, it has pushed them further away through painting an unremitting picture of the church feminised.

I look forward to the time when the agendas of Synods, the headlines in the papers, and the tweets and posts in the social media are dominated by the importance of the offer of purpose, direction and wholeness to the men of our nation found in the message of the gospel, which has become the preoccupation of the Church.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Good comments that engage with the content of the post, and share in respectful debate, can add real value. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Make the most charitable construal of the views of others and seek to learn from their perspectives. Don't view debate as a conflict to win; address the argument rather than tackling the person.

12 thoughts on “The real challenge after Pilling that no-one is talking about”

  1. The only dishonesty is (a) the determination of a considerable cohort of people to seek ordination, knowing that they did not accept the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and having been ordained, to engage in precisely the kind of relationships which the Scriptures expressly rule out for those who wish to live godly lives; and (b) the willingness of any number of bishops to accept such candidates for ordination, knowing that these candidates did not intend to live according to the Church’s doctrine and discipline, or worse, that they intended to teach and advocate an ungodly lifestyle.

  2. Thank you for your comment Ian and for your kind appreciation of my contribution to the ongoing conversation.

    I’m not going to enter into endless debate about what I said at General Synod (I think I am about to learn what it means to have people talk about me who don’t know me: you at least cannot be accused of that! I hope you readers will have a conversation as if I were listening, because I am!). However, I wouldn’t want your readers to be confused about the target of my question, which was not same-sex marriage. For the avoidance of confusion, my comments were made in respect of the facilitated conversations and the historic policy of the House of Bishops in respect of LGBT clergy, not about same-sex marriage (and the Bishops’ statement from Saturday, issued after my question was asked).

    I entirely agree with you about the policy being ignored by bishops but disagree that it has been only ‘liberal’ bishops who have acted in this was. Not that long ago I found myself at the induction of someone who is openly gay and happily settled in a long-term relationship: the joint patrons of the parish are both Evangelicals (I would happily tell you who they are but for his sake – not theirs – I will refrain) and yet there were were, knowing full well the situation, presenting him to a bishop of that diocese as a suitable candidate. So, let’s not make this into a “liberals are dishonest”, “Evangelicals are not.” The problem is that the vast majority of bishops simply are not prepared to ask the sort of questions, or enforce the discipline that the policy requires. That’s why it’s unclear and dishonest and – in the end – unworkable and unenforceable.

    There is then the question of ‘fruits’ (unfortunate choice of word in this context possibly!): in my diocese, as elsewhere, men and and women are led to Christ, fed the sacraments, counselled in times of crisis, visited, prayed for, discipled, vocationally-discerned at endless amounts more by godly men and women who happen to be LGBT. Many serve in parishes that “those who experience opposite sex attraction” would simply not consider as contexts for ministry. That these clergy have someone to share their life with seems to be a normal, healthy human need. Such godly ministry and mission seems to me to be unappreciated by a narrow focus on whether such clergy are sexually active.

    Moving to your final point about men, it is well made, and one you feel passionate about I know. But, adding a historical dimension, in December I made the last entry in our 150 year old confirmation register. Looking back at the hundreds who were confirmed on these occasions in the late 19th century in this one then solidly working class parish, one thing stood out: the ratio of women to men confirmed was even then 3:1. Perhaps its not as recent a phenomenon as you might think – and maybe the ‘feminisation’ of the church is not as connected to recent social trends as you are claiming.

    This is the first time I can publicly acknowledge your kind care and prayer for me when we shared training together at St John’s Nottingham. I will always remember your willingness to journey with me as I became aware that I was gay. It was a very significant act of care at a vulnerable time. I give thanks to God for it still.

  3. “Yet one group is consistently under-represented, and rarely discussed: men, and particularly working class men. And if all the recent media coverage has done anything, it has pushed them further away through painting an unremitting picture of the church feminised.”

    You’re assuming that “men, and particularly working class men” are put off by a “feminised” church. That the church’s appeal to men would increase if it had fewer women and gay people.

    Have you considered the possibility that a majority of men don’t share the thinking behind your assumption, and this disconnect is why most guys, blue or white collar, aren’t interested in your organization?

  4. James, I am impressed that you are continuing to read and comment! I think that widespread anecdotal evidence suggests the contrary to what you say, but it is one of the most politically incorrect things to mention, combining as it does issues of gender stereotyping and questions of sexuality. So I have only heard it whispered…but confidently.

  5. Simon…I think I am almost lost for words.

    I am sorry not to have yet been able to read your whole speech; do let me know when they are available.

    I don’t think I want to disagree with you on who has been dishonest; I suspect my shorthand in the piece is reasonably representative, but I also know of specific occasions like yours, one in fact from the mouth of an evangelical archdeacon (who later rushed to reassure me that our conversation was strictly confidential). The question, though, is then: will the bishops, having issued this strong statement, enact it? My feeling is that they will. This is going to be very painful for those involved, but there is a wider question. Unless they are willing to act, on this and other issues, I don’t see how the church can survive proclaiming counter-cultural truth in a postmodern, post-Christendom culture.

    I don’t disagree with you about the historical nature of the challenge of men, but there are also some historical encouragements.

    I was very moved to hear that my response to you all those years ago was well received. I only wish that I could have continued that good start more proactively in the intervening years when our paths have diverged. Thank you too for your willing engagement in discussion recently, which I have greatly appreciated…

  6. On reflection I have come to agree that there are places where you can and should hold the clergy to higher standards than the laity. I suspect that most people who agree with me about sexual morality, and most who disagree, too, are quite happy with the Church Commissioners’ ethical investment policy. But few of them would deny communion to an executive in a tobacco firm, or someone whose pension was paid by the arms trade, or by a payday lender. So, yes, we do hold clergy to higher standards when it comes to money and might reasonably do so when it comes to sex. But – of course – the dispute is really about what the higher standard for sexual behaviour actually is.

    The dishonesty comes from the fact – going back at least as far as 1987 – that a sizable minority (at least) of bishops and possibly clergy as well have always disagreed with the official Higton/Issues/Lambeth 1:10 line. They have never had any intention of enforcing it. One effect of this is that the bishops now know it is unenforceable and while some may be keen for someone to enforce it, they would prefer it to be someone else. The last twenty years or more of trench warfare since Issues have surely established that neither side can push the other out of the Church. The present policy is in effect “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but pretends to be something else. That’s dishonest. And it relies on the tacit dishonesty of gay (and lesbian) clergy.

    There is a case that this is the least damaging course of inaction. I suspect it is not going to hold, if only because both sides more or less openly believe that God wants them to prevail and that the Church would be stronger and more popular if the others would only disappear. When you write “Unless the bishops are willing to act, on this and other issues, I don’t see how the church can survive proclaiming counter-cultural truth in a postmodern, post-Christendom culture.” When I read this, I want to ask how the church can survive proclaiming a counter-cultural falsehood, which is how the evangelical party line appears to me. The pass was sold, if you want to put it that way, with divorce.

  7. Andrew, thanks for taking the trouble to comment–much appreciated.

    When you say ‘The present policy is in effect “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but pretends to be something else.’ the difficulty is that a good number of us, probably naively, actually took the policy at its word and expected leaders to be people of their word. It is the sort of naive thing you do when you have given up a promising career in response to God’s call and committed yourself to a confused, contradictory process of training and deployment.

    ‘There is a case that this is the least damaging course of inaction.’ Yes, I think so. As discussed on the FB thread, I think this sets our course apart from the situation in the US. What I find odd, though, is that no-one who wants to see change has given a reason why, if we followed your advice, we would not end up like ECUSA–shrinking, divided, but in our our case without any of the money as compensation, since liberals here (unlike the US) do not give.

    I don’t believe that the pass was sold on divorce, since the church’s teaching on marriage remains the same. The parallel is not true in relation to ‘gay marriage.’

  8. I’m going to blog a bit about this myself later. So quick points: you grew up in the church (so to say) completely unaware that there was a diametrically opposed, mostly Anglo-Catholic culture. Similarly, the people who came up there had no idea that anyone who mattered didn’t know. Without that history, what has happened makes no sense.

    I don’t think that a church which remarries divorcees can possibly claim that its teaching on marriage remains the same as it was even fifty years ago and in this I would have the support of every Archbishop up until possibly Runcie. “One man, one woman, for life” is pretty unambiguous. You can stress different words: “one”, “woman”, “life” but no one now stresses all equally.

    Finally, would you rather end up like ACNA – shrinking, divided, and without any money? I don’t expect to persuade you on the substantive point, but is it really worth blowing the Church of England up for? I do quite see why anyone who worked for it might want to blow it all to smithereens but I don’t think this is a good enough, nor even the real, reason for that frustration and apocalyptic hope.

  9. Ian, is there anything beyond anecdote to back your claim? I accept that you’ve heard this line, but how widespread is it? Also, have you heard the opposite, from men and women who feel alienated by the church’s attitude to women and gay people?

    As for the Church of England’s disgraceful and discriminatory DADT policy, there’s no case for it. Like its late and unlamented namesake, it’s out-and-out duplicity born of cowardice in the face of prejudice. It is a straightforward example of a majority abusing a minority, one that has caused immeasurable harm to gay and lesbian people. Regardless of the measured tone that always does him credit, I’ve no doubt that Andrew Brown would share my disgust.

    I do wonder if there’s a link between fear of a “feminised” church, and the condemnation of gay men (focus does always seem to be on the men, with gay women an afterthought). Richard Holloway’s speculated that homophobia is rooted in patriarchy and dominance. Guy has a point, no?

  10. Thanks for this Ian – you know it’s close to my heart. I once heard Dave Why-men-don’t-go-to-church Murrow say in a talk that the evidence from the US is that the wider a church denomination opens up its leadership to women, three things happen: there is overall numerical decline, the gender gap increases and there are even more owmen to men, and the church heads in a theologically liberal direction. I have heard someone else say that the same is true in Oz and NZ. Does anyone out there have any documented evidence that this is the case? Not that I think Dave was telling porkies, but it would be good to see some objective research on this.

  11. John Leach – you may find this interesting, from Forward in Faith’s periodical New Directions circa 2002, entitled The Truth about Men.

    From the same source, at around the same time, came the ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey, which was widely reported in the media at the time. It shows quite clearly that women clergy are, by their own admission, considerably more liberal on both doctrinal and moral issues.


Leave a comment