Thursday, July 08, 2010

rant alert factor 7

So: in a re-run of 2003's debacle, the press has been carrying stories of how Jeffrey John, the infamously celibate gay Dean of St Albans, will soon be a bishop. Or not.

Today, both the Telegraph and the Guardian say it's all over, after posting breathless articles to the contrary for days. And of course, Rowan Williams is the bad guy in all this for not standing by his friend.

Jeffrey John, for those who don't know, is in a civil partnership (the closest thing in British law to gay marriage) with another cleric, but always declares their relationship to be celibate. And yes, that's part of the problem. If he were single, that word "celibate" would be so much clearer!

But actually, it seems to me there are two issues in play that need to be remembered.

First: who cares if he's celibate or not? Where does that distinction come from? It comes from the Anglican Church's rules on clergy behaviour which say lay gay people can be in sexual relationships, but not clerics. It comes from a strange understanding of Scripture that says it's OK to be gay, but not to act on it, because the Bible doesn't condemn being gay, only explicit homosexual acts.

I feel a need to ask some questions here. Because somehow the church is in danger of handing out overalls with pink stars on them and guiding folk into ghettos, and doing it with a smile on its face because we are being kind. I need to ask - are there second class people? Is there a sub-set of humanity that exists beneath the majority with fewer rights, or are we all equal? We may not like everyone the same, we may disagree with people (quite a lot) but are we all human?

If it is OK to be gay, then it is a tortuous route that takes away the right to act in a way commensurate with that nature. If it is OK to be, it is OK to do. Relationships are part of our human condition; to deny some people access to relationships on the basis of who they are is to make some people less human than others. To then go on and say - "this gay person is OK because they are celibate" is to say "this gay person is OK because they accept their overall and pink star; they know they are second best; here is their address in the ghetto". It is a shocking theology. Shocking.

Aren't we the people who believe there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus? (Galatians 3.28)? One humanity. And in St Paul's day, that thought was anathema to many in the church, who saw Jews & Greeks as quite different, slaves and free and simply different races, male and female as completely distinct in their life roles. St Paul argues that in Christ all these barriers were broken - smashed - because before Jesus we stand equal, and equally loved. Jews may not like the smell of Greeks, but they are human. Straights may not like everything gays do (and sometimes with good cause) but they are human.

The possibility of preferment for Jeffrey John on the basis of his celibacy is abhorrent. Abhorrent. It enshrines in stone that gay people are second class and may have certain rights only at the behest of their straight masters. Either gay people are people or they are not. Period. Let's honestly deal with that.

Now. That debate is not over in the church. It's hardly happening. What is happening is people shouting at each other from roof tops. Yes, I believe that the Scriptures don't address the issues we shoe-horn them into; it seems to me they write of straight people getting into idolatrous orgies and then indulging in sexual excesses, one of which is homosexual acts that are quite unnatural for them. These are condemned (rightly) as perverse. But these texts don't begin to talk about what happens when two men (or women) who are naturally attracted to each other fall in love and want to commit to each other for life, and the forcing of that situation into the other is unfair and simply bad scriptural exegisis. In the wider sphere, we see Jesus often working with people that society (religious society) places on the margins and he enlarges their lives, accepting them, making them more, rather than belittling them - which is the result of the attitudes and rules of the keenly religious. We have to look fully at that process and work through it. What does it mean to "make life more"?

But the church is painfully working its way through these things, and this is my second point. In his Pentecost Letter Rowan Williams talked of the need for churches not to act individually or precipitately beyond the agreed limits of the whole. That's why he was harsh on The Episcopal Church (in the US) - not because he is anti-gay, but because they agreed to work with everyone else, and then stuck two fingers up at the Anglican Communion and said, "we don't care about you, we're going to do our own thing anyway". So how could he allow the promotion of a gay bishop in England under these circumstances? It would make him guilty of exactly the individualism and lack of care for the whole body of Anglicanism which has been his gripe against TEC. That JJ is celibate is smoke and wind, the kind of thing that the press thinks matters, and which liberal churchmen with more enthusiasm than theology or sense grasp hold of, but it is ultimately meaningless.

Until the debate has been properly conducted, and the mind of the church has moved on, then it is inappropriate for any one part of that church to enforce a change unilaterally by just appointing someone to a bishopric that everyone else would find problematic. That has been Rowan's position, and clearly remains so, regardless of attempts to use words that make no sensible difference, but rather make everything ultimately much, much worse.

A person is a person. There are no second class people. No "pet gays" in order to keep the rest happy.

Rowan is right to put this one to bed. And to take the stick for it. It's not bad leadership - it's consistent and ethical and I only hope we do have proper debates and get past the impasse of where we are. Sooner rather than later. So that papers can stop running these stories. And people can be free to be loved by God and love him in return.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking about blogging on this myself, but you have have said much of what I think on the matter.

I strongly believe that the Church has got itself tied up in a ridiculous knot over "sexual acts", specifically gay ones. this sort of arbitrary "line in the sand" drawing is pointless, and divisive. "Perhaps we could have gay bishops so long as they don't have X or Y sex, but they can fill their boots with Z kind."

Either it is ok to be gay; as they think in TEC. or it is not, as they Think in Nigeria.

Drawing a distinction between what is ok for clergy, and what is ok for laity is perverse. and a complete rebuttal of the teachings of Jesus.

I cannot in all good conscience throw my lot in with the more reactionary elements within the communion, despite my best efforts to be conservative. So I find myself backing TEC, despite the arrogance and trouble-making I seem to find there.

I apologise for my generalisations.

I think that we should have a moratorium similar to that suggested by Rowan. Only I think we should go one further. No more Bishops until we work out what we (as a communion) believe to be important. It might take us 20 years, but it would help.

Marcus Green said...

OK - I don't back TEC.

They acted unilaterally, and in a very un-Anglican way. And then they promised to do something (or, rather, to NOT do something) before doing completely the opposite without any remorse.

It's hard for me to say "I agree with their ethical stance" when whatever they have done seems to have very little to do with ethics.

Barry would expect me to entirely agree with you in calling for a Communion-wide ban on all new bishops for 20 years! And there is something remarkably attractive about that prospect... we could hardly be any worse off...

But that's not the point either. Anglicanism is a church whose structures and leadership is supposed to be about bishops in council. Not just bishops doing their own thing. Bishops in council with the whole church. A little more of everyone leavening the episcopal loaf might well help.

Still, just cos this might get quoted somewhere - I like your style!

Anonymous said...

As I see it, one of root-causes of all our problems is this:

Anglicanism was founded to be THE CHURCH in England. That is to say the Body of Christ locally adapted. We had seen the error of a forced uniformity (in the shape of Rome), and decided that each Sovereign state should be responsible for applying the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Keeping some rituals, banning others. Keeping some Titles, banning others.

The modern Communion is a very good idea, one I would love to buy into. A faith that respects its sibling denominations, the diversities within itself, its own past, and importantly its own future.

But without wanting to sound to apocalyptic; how can the Communion serve Anglicans, and the unchurched, when each sovereign state has such differences of opinion? When there really is no agreement between feuding brothers? Are we to say that Christians from one province are not to involve themselves in the affairs of others? or are we to have dual competing "franchises" of Orthodoxy side by side.

I believe that the Communion has a future, but as a much looser federation of diocese... maybe...

Marcus Green said...

The Bishop of Croydon has some very sensible words on the selection process in Southwark in today's Guardian of all places.