The intolerable silence of the Church of England closet

‘My task is to bear witness to the truth. For this I was born; for this I came into the world, and all who are not deaf to truth listen to my voice.’ John 18:38

Bisi Alimi speaking at the launch of Kaleidoscope

Yesterday evening I attended the reception hosted by John Berkow, Speaker of the House of Commons, to launch Kaleidoscope International Diversity Trust. John Berkow introduced the evening, Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition spoke next, followed by Lance Price Director of Kaleidoscope and finally, Bisi Alimi, who talked about the trauma and violence in Nigeria following his interview as an openly gay man on Nigerian TV.

Among the 150 people present were Ben Bradshaw MP (who will be speaking at Changing Attitude’s Civil Partnership Conference), Alan Johnson MP, Glenda Jackson MP, Andrew Mitchell MP, Matthew Parris, William Chapman, Angela Mason, Amy Lame, Jide Macaulay (House of Rainbow Nigeria) and Godwins Onwuchekwa (Justice for Gay Africans). Four Anglican priests were present including Nigerian Ije Ajibade but no bishops or other senior clergy.

Kaleidoscope plans to work alongside other groups internationally, lobbying against homophobic legislation, facilitating groups who take a stand against injustice and discrimination in their own countries, and engaging with governments, religious leaders and opinion formers.

Changing Attitude was present because of our commitment to justice for LGB&T people in the Anglican Communion, our engagement with bishops and councils of the Church and our direct support for LGB&T Anglicans in the Communion.

There were no bishops present yesterday, let alone the Archbishops of Canterbury or York. None of the fourteen bishops know to be gay were present. Those reading this blog will know that Changing Attitude has brought to public consciousness the reality that fourteen of the 114 Church of England bishops are gay, some of them married, some single, at least one partnered. We have been challenged to name them but Changing Attitude is not in the business of abusing people or outing those in the closet.

We had to hide the faces of all except Davis and Colin when we published this photo of the 2008 CAN Leader's Meeting in Togo. We would have to do the same for gay CofE bishops.

The Anglican Communion’s Primates and bishops are part of the problem that Kaleidoscope has been created to engage with. This is a disgrace. It has become more and more shocking to myself as Director of Changing Attitude and to the trustees that we have two Archbishops who by allowing their voice for compassion, justice and truth to be contained by the anti-gay rhetoric, based on ‘Biblical teaching’, which is a constant in many parts of our Communion, allow prejuidce to be maintained. Archbishops and bishops who are in private supportive of individual LGB&T people are tyrannized by homophobia, both virulent and mild, in the Church.

As damaging for us, for the Church, and for their own Christian integrity, is the silence of the 14 bishops who are gay, married gay, or bisexual. In the context of British civil society and yesterday’s Kaleidoscope launch, where lesbian and gay MPs were named and applauded, isn’t it shocking that gay bishops are so intimidated by hostile forces in the Church and their internalised fear for their ministry and reputation were they to be as open and honest as +Gene Robinson and +Mary Glasspool, that not one of them is out. Even I have never had a conversation with them about their sexuality – though of course, mine has often been part of the conversation.

It is intolerable that meetings take place, clergy appointments made, decisions taken which damage the career chances of gay clergy at which everybody present is allowed to assume they are talking about some alien other ‘them’, and the bishop may well be gay himself.

I write this in the hope that at least one, just one of the fourteen, will have the courage to talk with me about his sexuality and come out to the wider Church. What’s the big deal? What are they and the Church so frightened of? Well, we know what – it’s the bullying, prejudice, homophobia and foul un-Christian attitudes that both Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson had to endure.

The Kaleidoscope launch material said it is now widely accepted in the UK that a diverse society that respects human rights of all its citizens is stronger, more prosperous and more just than one that discriminates against people for the way they were born.

Not in the Church of England, brothers and sisters – we have to endure secrecy, collusion, dishonesty and lily-livered weakness.

For God’s sake and for the sake of LGB&T people across the world (and across our Communion) who live in fear and secrecy of a rampant prejudice often fuelled by Christians, now is the time for bishops to come out and take a stand, those who are gay, those who are gay affirming. Failure to do so is a failure to stand for truth and stand against ignorance and prejudice.


  1. Erika Baker says

    Colin, I agree!
    But I think you underestimate what existing closeted bishops have to lose. It’s not just their safe and respected place in the church. Coming out so late in your life affects every aspect of it – can you imagine how the wives and children of the married bishops would feel? Friends, wider family – absolutely everyone who ever met you and who has to reassess who you are. Not only do they have to take in that you’re gay, they have to take in that you lied to the world for most of your life. And that in a vocation that is about following the Way, the Truth and the Light.
    I would be very surprised if any of these people every came out.

    We can hope for a public pro-gay stance from them, one that might make it easier for future priests and bishops to be honest about who they are. Maybe we have to be content with that.

  2. phillip brombley says

    i hope the bishop will stand up for all gay and lesbian ppl and that there will be better understanding of ppls lives and i pray that this will happen soon

  3. Changing Attitude says

    I have some idea of what closeted gay bishops have to lose – we only have to look back to 2003 and Jeffrey John’s appointment to Reading to see what forces might well be unleashed against any bishop who decides to be as open as Jeffrey.
    To set against that, there’s the human cost of staying in the closet, which has its own affect on the individual and their wives and children, familes and friends. One bishop is on extended leave at the moment because he was unable to maintain the split between his true, gay self and the heterosexual identity adopted, possibly to secure preferment in the Church.
    In my experience, people are far more understanding when you come out. They do not accuse people of lying but are compassionate, understanding the huge pressure in the Church to maintain a false identity.
    One day, a bishop has to find the courage to be open about his sexuality or the Church has to overcome prejudice and make it possible for a priest who is gay to be appointed as a bishop.

  4. Erika Baker says

    I hope you’re right, Colin. I really do. And I agree that people will act (come out) when the personal cost of not acting becomes greater. It must be getting to that time now!

  5. says

    From Latin America it looks as if ¨saving face¨ for Dr. Rowan Williams is the name of the ¨prime time posturing¨ Episcopal game– as you say, it ought be way past time for our homosexual/bi brothers who are Bishops at the Church of England to step up, step forward and be honest with themselves, and the the rest of us, regarding their sexual orientation if for no better than to stop The Very Reverend Jeffrey John from being hung out, way out and being left high and dry. With the great mess Rowan Williams has made of self-honesty/accountability and true personal integrity avoided, denied and/or pretened away, it seems no one at the C of E has the ¨huevos¨ to embarrass/shame Dr. Williams for cowardly. and dishonest, leadership at Church — sad, sad, Dr. Williams, who hopefully is running away from us (and his own dark shadow of truth) as fast as he can and his departure will end a era of the demonizing of LGBT Anglican at all levels of Churchlife…let the hissing of LGBT Anglicans/others stop as Dr. Williams curtain comes down.

  6. phillip brombley says

    The only time it is acceptable for you to look down on anyone else is when you are reaching for their hand to help them back up again…

    somthing for all church ppl to think about

  7. C. Bowman says

    I am not too sure how much tongue in cheek Erika writes with! Yes the poor dears – who have had to live a false life in seeking preferment which would otherwise have been denied them otherwise to serve the Church & thereby proclaiming the liberating truth and love of Christ?
    I am becoming hard of heart in my advancing years perhaps..? All those people who have had their lives devastated by the church due to their sexuality (mine included..) Years of soul searching and service to the church – put aside and undermined (Three years of my life!) Nicely couched in words like ‘A lack of maturity’ – is precisely what church authorities say to a Youngman – who has come to terms with his sexuality. And the folk (Christians!) who were advancing such – some of dubious sexuality & to my mind in denial!
    I listened with intent to a radio program recently – an interviewee having to explain away how she thought in looking back – that her husband was gay (possibly bisexual). Poor dear now feels as though she was never married to the person! Just imagine what good we could do for these poor ‘immature’ dishonest bishops.
    It might be an idea – to write individually to each bishop and ask them whether they are straight, bi or gay… help them get in touch with their inner-self? Or simply let’s have them declare that they are not gay? I would gladly collate the findings. It is after all with the blessing of Episcopal authority that I was asked to declare my sexuality – I don’t mind asking the same question in return!

    Further, I tend also to go with the Greatest Happiness Principle.. it would do far more good to have bishops ‘outed’ than not… it might give the church just a hint of integrity!
    And a last note: the Roman Catholic Church has come under criticism… for supposed hindering the facts coming out about child abuse within the clergy. The CofE will look well – if one of those bishops also has a predisposition for a younger male! I wonder how changed attitudes will be then!

  8. Erika Baker says

    C Bowman, no tongue in cheek at all, I’m afraid.
    We might not like it, but there are always two sides of any story.
    I have been involved with Changing Attitude for a number of years, I am civil partnered, I know exactly what it’s like to be on this side of the problem. Well, not exactly, I have never been threatened, physically abused, beaten up, threatened with imprisonment or death like so many of us all over the world. But I have experienced enough discrimination to understand “our” side in this very very well.

    On the other hand, people are complex. No-one wakes up as a 15 year old saying to himself: I’m gay but I’ll pretend I’m not so I can infiltrate the church and wriggle my way to an elevated position in a life of deceit and lying and of oppressing others.

    I have no idea why each one of these individual bishops ended up where he is, but I don’t buy the image of the gleeful James Bond style villain who is happy with his lot, doesn’t give a stuff about other people and is only interested in himself.

    I have seen people in all kinds of twisted lives and it’s usually a rather sad tale of how they got there. Often, the road to hell is paved with the very best of intentions. And it really doesn’t do to demonise these people.

    Not if you want them to change, to mature enough to come out and live lives that are true to who they are.

    You don’t have to understand them, or to like them. But the contempt you are showing here is precisely what they will be faced with when they come out. Colin, in his reply to me, said he thought they would meet with understanding and compassion. I am not half as hopeful as he is. There will be hatred from those on our side who see them as traitors and who will kick them hard once they’re allowed. There will be hatred from all the conservatives who, although small in number, still have the loudest voice and the most damaging influence in the church. Moderate people with integrity will wonder just how these people could have lived apparently deceitful lives for so long and will no longer trust them either. Oh yes, there will be compassion too and there will be some amazing discoveries of friendship.
    But there will be broken marriages, traumatised children, and just because we know of some marriages where the betrayed partner eventually felt reconciled or freed does not mean it’s like that everywhere.

    What I’m saying is not “Poor poor them little diddumses”. But unless we provide the kind of safety and compassion people need to trust in order to take the next step towards genuine maturity, we’re only pushing them further into the closet.

    Anyone on the brink of risking Truth reading this: “the poor dears – who have had to live a false life in seeking preferment which would otherwise have been denied them otherwise to serve the Church & thereby proclaiming the liberating truth and love of Christ?
    I am becoming hard of heart in my advancing years perhaps..?”…. do you think they will feel encouraged or do you think they will feel that it’s probably safer for them to stay where they are?

    We only ever change our course of action when not doing so becomes more painful than change. If we’re serious, we need to make that change as easy and possible as we can.

    • Chris. B says

      Erika, if I may speak from experience: A former bishop of Glasgow – came to terms with his sexuality some years ago.. he had been married & his wife had passed on from this life! But he championed the gay cause in his latter years (he also blessed the union between myself and my partner – now 20 years). But I also hear he was a bit of a ‘sod’ to his known gay clergy in his day. Things are never black & white – but I do worry that in the likes of Colin knowing aspects of peoples persona & their own partners not privy to such – Colin is in a sense wedded to them.
      We had an embarrassing moment the other eve.. when a friend was surprised to see her former husband with yet another female. She pointed such out to us & further went on to say that the Lady must be blind to his sexuality – as she had been. She suddenly rounded on us & said, ‘You must have known!’ Sure we did! I felt most awkward… She felt she had wasted 20 years of her life. I did point out the fact of her 2 beautiful children. They are as it happens reasonable friends still & she has more pity for him than most other emotions. But it rather does seem to me that these bishops weave others into their deceit unwittingly. I know when I was at college – we all knew what was what. And also in visiting places like SSH Ox students seemed to know & speak openly about activities of even staff members.. and what they got up to in their spare hours & noting their guests too! Frankly, it smacks of hypocrisy and illustrates some very grey areas indeed! I myself happen to think it gets in the way of the Gospel and trust.. But then again the church is a human institution. But when all other institutions are cleaning up their act – accountability and openness – frankly because of the age in which we live… when is the church going to catch on? I do feel terribly for some people who have hid behind veils or have a skeleton in the cupboard.. BUT – suffice it to say – that they often simply do the gentlemanly thing!

  9. Laurence C. says

    “One bishop is on extended leave at the moment because he was unable to maintain the split between his true, gay self and the heterosexual identity adopted”

    A couple of minutes’ googling and it’s pretty clear who it is – there aren’t many bishops on extended leave! And if it’s not one, it’s the other.

    Either CA doesn’t want to ‘out’ bishops or it does – a halfway house of giving obvious clues muddies CA’s stance on this somewhat.

  10. Erika Baker says

    Chris B
    I absolutley agree, people in the closet, especially married ones, weave people into their deceit.
    That, precisely, is why I don’t believe we can simply demand that they come out of that closet, because unravelling the deceit hurts more people than the bishops themselves.
    The bishops alone are the ones who can decide whether their families could cope with this, whether they could cope not only with the private but the public exposure and humiliation.
    Yes, 2 children might be a consolation, but a woman can still grieve that she didn’t have those children with someone who was genuinely committed to her.

    There is no question that the whole thing is hypocritical! I am not really supporting closeted people at all! But basic compassion helps me to understand why they took a first step towards hypocricy and how, once taken, the next steps just follow.
    And basic psychology make it seem likely that people will only come out if they believe it to be safe.
    For a married man with children in a high profile job in an organisation that preaches personal and corporate morals every day of its existence, the risk is enormous, the promised or hoped for safety possibly quite elusive.

    It would be wonderful if they all followed Colin’s call. I’m not holding my breath.

  11. Chris. B says

    A notable silence from Colin? I suppose one could conclude that gay clergy do enter the ranks of the episcopate – providing they are dishonest.. possibly are given to cheating on their wives? And of course prove themselves being able to live a double life.. one maybe not christian in fibre? Plus – being spineless in allowing others who share their god-given sexuality to be downtrodden.. I am sure I could come up with lots of biblical quotations to back it all up!

  12. Changing Attitude says

    Chris, it’s been a somewhat overwhelming week and I’m busy preparing for the consultation next Saturday. I’ve read the comment thread, especially between you and Erika. I have complex reactions to what both of you have been saying and I sat and started to compose a response this morning, and then life took over once again. Tomorrow afternoon I promise I’ll respond!

Join the discussion