The end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

shhh2Last Sunday morning I was speaking (briefly) on Radio Nottingham. I had been asked to come in because the presenter, Sarah Julian, had conducted an interview with Justin Welby. In it, she pressed him (several times) on what ought to happen to Jeremy Pemberton, who is the first ordained Anglican to enter a same-sex marriage, and has a license in this diocese. (You can listen here until 18th May 2014, starting at 02:09:30.) And, several times, Justin refused to be drawn.

I was asked to explain what was going on, why he refused to answer, and what would happen. My first point was that it is never right to comment on an individual, especially if there might be action pending inrelation to that individual. But I also felt it important to clarify two things of which observers are not always aware.

The first, as Justin Welby said clearly, is that the Archbishop is not CEO of the C of E, but is ‘first among equals’. Sarah’s line of questioning assumed that bishops are the ‘bosses’ of the clergy under them, and that the Archbishop is ‘boss’ of the diocesan bishops, so that they in turn do what he tells them. (Any clergy or bishops reading this are currently holding their sides in pained laughter at this notion.) The House of Bishops aim to work collegially, agreeing shared policy together—and in fact on this issue made a clear statement in February. I think Justin is right: it is not really his job to knock heads together to make people follow this; the bishops need to do this of their own initiative.

The second reality is that the C of E has, since the 1960s, been operating with two realities. On the one hand, there has been an official position, fairly consistently stated:

The one failing of the [House of Bishops’ February] 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.

(Here, I think that Mike Higton on his blog and Andrew Davison in the Church Times were quite mistaken in their assessments.)

On the other hand, there has been a ‘minority view’ which dissents from this, and has been encouraged by a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, where clergy are in same-sex relations which have been allowed to continue, so long as no-one makes a fuss. In many ways, it has suited both sides of the debate to allow this to continue. For ‘revisionists’, it has meant staying out of the media spotlight, and not having to fight big doctrinal battles over a personal issue. For ‘conservatives’, it has meant avoiding the risk of bad publicity and looking unpastoral.

But this era is now coming to an end—and not because of anything happening in the Church.

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking at a study day at a theological college in Cambridge. I made a passing reference to my recent challenge to Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, on what I thought was illegitimate use of ‘secret knowledge’ about partnered gay bishops. In a coffee break, someone pointed out that there is a Wikipedia page entitled ‘Gay Bishops‘ which lists all those who have been identified, by anyone, at any time, as being gay, and what their situation is. It doesn’t take long in reading this to find the person (under ‘Church of England’) whom Alan claimed was a ‘partnered gay bishop’, and also to see why Alan’s claim about this person is quite wrong.

The challenging thing about this is that, like all internet communication, it simply and immediately by-passes any attempt to disguise what is really going on. The Wikipedia page, for example, lists the ten bishops that Peter Tatchell had threatened to ‘out’ in 1994, something all of the print media at the time refused to reveal. Yet here they are, listed for all to see. And it is this which makes the past ‘two realities’ unsustainable; there can be no more ‘secrets’. One reality is going to have to converge with the other: either official teaching will need to align with practice on the ground; or practice on the ground will have to be (slowly, and painfully or perhaps quickly and more painfully) be aligned with official teaching.

One particular consequence of what this means is set out helpfully by Andrew Goddard in a recent article on Fulcrum about SSM and Canon Law. In it, he takes the most charitable assumptions possible about clergy who enter into SSM in the light of the House of Bishops’s statement, and draws some challenging conclusions:

If the analysis above is accepted then the situation seems to be as follows.  Those clergy who marry someone of the same sex believe they should live in accordance with canon C26 and that they are doing so and that their problem is simply with canon B30.  However, the general category of “according to the doctrine of Christ” in C26 has within the canons one very clear specification – the definition of marriage in B30.  This is the canon that, in a form of conscientious ecclesial disobedience, they are not only questioning and asking the church to reconsider but actively contradicting by their actions. I think this raises three key questions.

First, can the clergy concerned (and those supportive of them) recognise that given this situation they have a responsibility to seek an urgent change to canon B30?…

Second, can the clergy concerned (and those supportive of them) therefore recognise that any bishop would be totally justified, perhaps even have a moral responsibility, to take action against them when they enter a same-sex marriage? …

Third, what does it really mean simply to “agree to differ” over sexuality? …

The only other option for “agreeing to differ” is that those marrying their same-sex partners seek to establish, and the church should accept, the following:

•  despite the canons saying that Christ teaches something and that clergy should order their lives by his teaching, in practice clergy should be free to decide for themselves to live in a manner contradicting this teaching;
•  bishops should then accept the clergy’s own private judgment that, in this area, they are ordering their lives by our Lord’s teaching, over and above the church’s canonical statement of this teaching as regards marriage which clearly entails that the clergy are not doing so.

His conclusion is that, if we are to avoid ‘messy theological and ecclesiological incoherence’, then either Canon Law will need to be changed, or those breaching it will need to face discipline.

My final comment in the interview on Radio Nottingham was that cases like Jeremy Pemberton’s are forcing the collapse of the two realities at a pace no-one is ready for—so I think all sides would prefer that such cases do not arise. But the immediate question for the House of Bishops now is: do their statements actually mean anything? I hope they do, for many reasons, and I cannot see that it is in anyone’s interests for the bishops to be told (possibly by lawyers) that they are powerless to enforce Canon Law.

Prayer needed for all sides…

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30 thoughts on “The end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’”

  1. PRAYER ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can and
    wisdom to know the difference.’

    …’the collapse of the two realities at a pace no one is ready for’….. well put.
    It seems to have been a battle of wills, and those of us who’ve been thinking ‘Hang on a minute….’ are reeling with it all.

  2. I’m sorry – I forgot to attribute the prayer to Reinhold Niebuhr – but I guess most people are familiar with it anyway.

    I will now pray it as an intercessionary prayer for the House of Bishops.

    I’m thankful you are speaking out so eloquently about this.

  3. Wow, that interview was a trainwreck. Welby stonewalled ineptly. He came across rude, defensive, and evasive, his tone flinty throughout. The interviewer, by contrast, came over as patient, empathic and fair. I kept expecting Welby to refer questions to his attorney, and it would’ve gone better for him if he had.

    This wretched fence-sitting is destroying the church. It could scarcely be worse if Welby said plainly that he believes homosexuality to be a sin. Problem is, the moment he says that, he has to give reasons, and it boils down to “because the Bible says so.” If he doesn’t expect that to fly with others, he should take a long, hard look at why it flies with him.

    If it does fly with him. We can’t know, ’cause right now, he’s taken the Fifth.

    • ‘Problem is, the moment he says that, he has to give reasons, and it boils down to “because the Bible says so.” ‘

      He would hardly have to do that. As the February statement says, there is a long line of reflective, Anglican documentation to support this view. And Some Issues in Human Sexuality set out the case very clearly.

      I agree it wasn’t a good interview. I tried to say the things that needed to be said following.

  4. Scripture is the root of that Anglican reflection. For evangelicals, it boils down to a line from Paul that makes homosexuality a salvation issue, so we can’t agree to disagree. ‘Issues …’ is a bizarre document that spends four chapters being openminded about “homophile” relationships, before it leaps to condemn them for no stated reason (the real reason, of course, was political).

    This discussion would go a lot better for everyone if we all admitted that it’s realpolitik: the various factions form their beliefs according to incompatible theological frameworks, then vie for power. Welby could sell that in a radio interview, could even throw it back at the interviewer: “Look, I’ll level, it sucks, and it’s cruel. Here’s the hard truth: if we accept gay relationships, a lot of rich, powerful congregations will walk. The split could bankrupt the church. How do *you* suggest we proceed? ‘Cause I’m open to ideas.”

    Problem is, it’d make the church look all too human!

    • ‘it boils down to a line from Paul that makes homosexuality a salvation issue’. No it doesn’t. It is about the consistent witness in Scripture and whether we take that seriously.

      My reference was not to ‘Issues’ but to ‘Some Issues’, a completely different document. If you have not read it, you must.

      ‘if we all admitted that it’s realpolitik’. Except that it isn’t. Actually, I guess I need to let you speak for yourself. But it isn’t for me, and I don’t think it is for Justin Welby either.

      • Ah, sorry for the mistake, appreciate the correction. 🙂 ‘Some Issues …’ (have read it) is a much better document that its predecessor.

        By realpolitik, I’m referring not to the positions themselves, but to the relationship between the various factions within the church.

        The mistake has been to seek agreement where none is possible. Instead of “facilitated conversations,” we need negotiations, to see if there’s any way in which incompatible views can coexist within the same institution.

        For negotiations in good faith, we need to know where we all stand. Welby in particular needs to make his personal opinion clear. That would’ve gone over a lot better on the airwaves than what we got.

  5. Paul. Two brief comments in a busy day. The first is that the list in Wikipedia is so out of date that, I think, just one of the current list of gay Bishops is on it. You must know that so your citing of it is disingenuous. The second is that your repeated claim of a ‘minority’ positions also wrong – and if you’ve looked at Priofessor Linda Woodhead’s research you’d know that. The position is now roughly equal – and is moving consistently and inevitably in the direction of greater affirmation. True the older generation is predominately against full recognition of LGBTi rights but that ground will go the way of all flesh – and in even 10 years the position will be entirely different.

    Finally – for all those reading this and worried about Biblical witness – I would recommend God and the gay Christian bt Matthew Vines available on Amazon. A powerful evangelical examination of all the biblical texts, the history of their interpretation and misuse. A very easy read and, coming from a Biblicist from the most conservative part of the American Church, a powerful affirmation that can set people free of assumptions that open the mind.

    • Andrew, it is gracious of you to comment on an issue which obviously affects you directly and personally–thank you.

      Your comment on the Wikipedia page is interesting. No, how would I ever know it is out of date?! I think this touches on my critique of Alan Wilson previously; there are some ‘in the know’ who assume that everyone else is equally ‘in the know’, so to deny ‘reality’ is dishonest. But, amazing as it might seem, some of us, when ordained, did actually believe what we said in vows, and equally assumed others would too!

      The other thing to note is that anyone is at liberty to update the Wiki page, and to do so anonymously, so there is no obvious reason why it should remain out of date. I will look out for changes over the coming weeks!

      I am not sure I have made a ‘repeated’ claim of ‘minority’ views—I am here just recapping what I said in the interview, which I know you have listened to. I don’t think I am very convinced by Prof Woodhead’s research, as it makes a good number of assumptions, some of which I have critiqued here:

      I don’t think her conclusions are either objective or persuasive. If indeed numbers are about equal, I suspect that is a very recent thing, and since I was referring to the view ‘since the 1960s’ I don’t think the term ‘minority’ would be inaccurate. Perhaps a more catch-all term would be ‘dissenting.’

      Having said that, one of the commentators on the CA FB page (which I guess I was not supposed to read!) noted that I would say that numbers are not everything—and they are not. I’m not sure any of us would seriously suggest that theology should be decided by a simple majority view, else we would be in a mess on some much larger issues, as here: under ‘Ordinary Reading’

      I am aware of Matthew Vines; a similar case is put by Steven Schuh from a similar perspective. I don’t think the arguments stand up to scrutiny, and am about to publish on this. I do think it is much more coherent to admit that scripture does not permit same-sex relations, and should be set aside—but I also think that the C of E is not able to say this.

      My final observation is to note the oft-repeated comment that change is ‘inevitable’. This of course makes people like me appear no better than King Cnut. But I am not convinced the evidence supports such a position.

      Thanks again for commenting in the midst of a busy day.

      • The triumph of gay-affirming theology is, I agree, far from inevitable.

        Many, if not most, young Christians are evangelicals who hold a traditional position, particularly in the Christian Unions. Many of those who’d be inclined towards liberal Christianity have given up on the church altogether. I don’t, for a second, buy the claim that young people are passionate supporters of gay rights. Stonewall and Canterbury agree that homophobia is endemic in schools. For most, I suspect, indifference is the best that can be hoped for.

        If the church is to retrench around a traditional view, there’s hard questions to be faced about numbers and funds. Who’ll replace the gay priests who resign, and the liberal and moderate laity who go? Will establishment be tenable? How will the church cooperate with secular bodies?

        Traditionalists victory will come at a high price.

        • James, I think this observation is spot on.

          However, if the Church sticks with the traditional line, I don’t think (unlike with women’s ordination) there will be a sudden exit, just a slow withering. But, if you believe some reports, this is happening already…

    • “The first is that the list in Wikipedia is so out of date that, I think, just one of the current list of gay Bishops is on it. ”

      Oh well there’s a very easy way to fix this problem. Update it.

  6. I dread reading about the triumph of one group of Christians over another. Divisions in the heart of the church should be a matter of shame.

    I am not a great theologian, just a parish priest and pray that we may all be one, understanding that the death of our savior was for all regardless of the lot nature, socialization or aspect of life has dealt a them.

    Years ago men hid their homosexuality, in some it no observable difference in others it made them clearly bitter but to all it hurt and when one part of the body hurts so do we all.

    As much as I find the present situation difficult it is at least tolerant and until recently was caring.
    Sorry to rant

  7. “…if we are to avoid ‘messy theological and ecclesiological incoherence’…”

    One should never underestimate the ability of the Church of England to tolerate messy theological and ecclesiological incoherence.

    • Indeed! But Andrew was making a specific point. The three options he sets out are:

      1. Change canon B30 so that marriage is not defined, is re-defined to include same-sex marriage, or is defined without reference to “our Lord’s teaching”
      2. Take some form of disciplinary action against those who act contrary to canon B30 and thus canon C26 by marrying someone of the same sex
      3. Abandon the responsibility to uphold a canon which claims the authority of Christ himself and take no action against ministers who are licensed by bishops to minister in the name of Christ and his church but are openly living in a manner which contradicts what church law says is the teaching of Christ.

      and it was this third one he was describing. To abandon the canons is a level of incoherence that I think even the C of E has not contemplated previously.

  8. A comment and a correction from me. The comment is that it is strange to find my actions and motivations and their impact discussed widely. Some people are better than others (and I really am not taking aim at anyone in particular here) at remembering that behind the speculation and the theorising lie real people and their lives. I am grateful for those who do. So far only a very few people have heard the story from the horse’s mouth. And that, I’m afraid, is how it is going to stay at the moment.

    The correction, Ian, is to make clear to you and your readers that I do not hold a licence in the Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham.

    • Jeremy, thanks for commenting. But given this is the number 1 topic of discussion just now (for good or ill) and you are the first to test the HoB statement, you surely cannot be surprised at the interest?

      I hope you noticed my refusal to comment specifically on any individual case…

    • “The correction, Ian, is to make clear to you and your readers that I do not hold a licence in the Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham.”

      Yes, but do you (or did you until recently) hold PTO?

  9. No, Ian, I am not surprised – just reminding people that there is a human being in here!
    Peter, I am not commenting on what you ask (though I was expecting you to do so).

    • So you’re happy to be totally open about a licence (or lack of it) but when questioned about PTO you clam up?

      We understand loud and clear Jeremy. Sorry to hear you lost your PTO.

  10. Does this mean that disciplinary action has been taken against Jeremy Pemberton because of his marriage?

    If so, doesn’t that make Dr Welby’s refusal to answer the interviewer’s questions seem like an attempt to conceal the truth? Does he think that uncomfortable questions will simply go away if he avoids them?

    • Who knows? I don’t think information about individuals would be announced, so we don’t know unless Jeremy tells us.

      On the second, no…because Justin is not CEO of the church! Why would he know what a bishop in a diocese does?? That was the whole point….

  11. So are you seriously telling me that on such a politically sensitive topic bishops are not consulting with each other and not keeping each other informed of developments?

    Quite frankly I find that hard to believe. It sounds like an exercise in plausible deniability to me. Only it isn’t very plausible.

    I suspect that Dr Welby and the entire HoB know full well what has happened in Jeremy Pemberton’s case. I also suspect he’s been disciplined and enjoined to silence. If you’re telling me that only he and his bishop can confirm this and that if they say nothing about it, the rest of us will just have to move on as if nothing’s happened, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. This is an enormously important issue and it cannot be swept under the carpet by dint of a conspiracy of silence.

    • All I am saying is ‘I don’t know. Ask someone who does.’ And I would really beware making assumptions about how coordinated the bishops are amongst themselves. They have lots of other things to do…

  12. So, Jeremy Pemberton … apparently you read and comment on this blog, so can (or will) you tell us if you’ve been disciplined by your (or any) bishop as a result of your marriage?

    It’s important for the gay community to know if the Church of England really does punish gay priests for exercising their legal right to marry. The HoB statement of intent to punish was insulting enough, but if a policy of bluster followed by inaction has now been replaced by one of active and decisive retribution, we have a right to know.

    This is not just a personal matter. It affects every gay Anglican. How many of us will choose to stay in a Church that treats us as second best, and our marriages as so leprous and unclean, they render us unfit for priesthood?

    Silence on this subject may be interpreted by many as collusion with institutional homophobia.

    • Silence is key right now.

      If Jeremy has lost his PTO for marrying, an interview with a press contact would be devastating for the hierarchy. They’d be put on the defensive, and as Welby’s flustered interview shows, they’re on the brink.

      I know it’s hard for him, but he did choose to confront them, and for the confrontation to be effective, it’s got to be followed through. Silence benefits them, and only them.

      If they’ve done something, make them step out the shadows, and justify it. Sunlight is the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.

      • Yes, the silence is deafening, isn’t it?

        As I thought Jeremy Pemberton might be disinclined to answer my question (or just plain gagged), I also asked it of the other person directly involved in this sordid little abuse of moral and spiritual authority.

        So far, no reply from him either.

        Let’s see how effective radio silence is as a PR tactic once the national press gets wind of this.


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