Gay bishops – it’s the Church of England that’s in the dock

I’ve been spurred into further thought by comments on the previous post and a conversation I’m told took place on Facebook where a friend of mine was urged to stop me doing what I’m doing “before it goes too far.” The person doing the urging thinks the House of Bishops will wreak a terrible revenge on anyone who outs any bishops.

Harold Stassen wrote that so long as we think that being in the closet is an amusing secret among the sophisticated and tolerant or allow people to not be asked questions while remaining in power and hurting others, this situation will remain. We’ve allowed the closet to become a sniper’s nest.

I should contact the men involved and say that we will out them unless changes are made. Any good we might have thought was being done (protection for them or the churches where they work from physical attack) is clearly now outweighed by the gap between the law against discrimination and the moral opinions of a growing majority in the Church.

This provoked me to think further. To some it looks as if Changing Attitude is repeatedly coming close to outing those bishops known to be gay.

The primary problem isn’t with the gay bishops, who are perfectly entitled to remain in the closet and either pass as straight (though I think that’s a pretty unhealthy state in which to live) or simply avoid ever revealing personal details of their lives. As I’m repeatedly told, why do gay people need to tell others they are gay – heterosexuals don’t go around confronting others with their sexuality? No – exactly – people just don’t get it.

The problem is with the corporate culture of the Church of England in 2012. Human sexuality is, with the ordination of women to the episcopate, one of the two biggest issues in the Church. Internationally, in the Communion, it is the biggest issue. And the pressure that brings, I understand perfectly well, is one of the reasons the 14 bishops are all in the closet.

Except of course the closet has various layers of invisibility. It is no secret to many people in the Church of England, and certainly in the circles in which I mix, who the gay bishops are. They are out to various friends and colleagues. They have histories, both at and after theological college, when friendships, relationships and passing intimacies were enjoyed.

Changing Attitude puts the Church of England in the dock.

A mostly white, mostly male, often public school-educated set, in the House of Bishops and at Church House, maintain a corporate culture of shame about being gay in the Church. What’s wrong with being gay in British society in 2012? Anything? No – nothing wrong in being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In this context, the Church looks pathetic and ridiculous and it is – yes, all those supposedly mature adults who tiptoe around whether X or Y is gay – and that includes me. I have never had the guts to ask any of the 14 directly if they are gay, even though I know perfectly well they are.

This impacts at every level of the Church and on all of us in the Church.

  • It allows Anglican Mainstream, the Church of England Evangelical Council, The Christian Institute, the Anglican Mission in England, to continue their campaign and their rhetoric as if there were no gay bishops in the House and no gay people in their own ranks.
  • It leaves LGB&T lay people and clergy second-guessing their status in the Church all the time – and I’m sick of it. I have daily conversations with people who are plagued by the failure of the Church to be honest with them.
  • It maintains a culture which is unchristian, lacking in integrity and unfaithful to Jesus and the Gospel of liberation and truth and above all, love.

The problem isn’t with the bishops who are gay. The problem lies with the institutional inability of the Church to create an environment where being gay isn’t a big issue, it’s just normal, and it’s been a normal part of my life for 50 years, ever since I began to work out that the diocese of Southwark was staffed by a significant number of gay priests and bishops who were people of great pastoral warmth and exciting vision – Eric James being but one of the many.

The Church has a crisis now, not because I keep reporting that there are 14 gay bishops but because the Church of England can’t break the strangle-hold of the conservative evangelicals and the closeted Anglo Catholics whose campaign maintains so many in what is a very unhealthy closet.

This is having a terrible effect in particular on the lives of people in various forms of ministry, lay and ordained. People have repeatedly to second guess whether it’s safe to be open about their sexuality, when becoming a Reader, thinking about ordination, training for ministry, applying for a job, meeting the Rural Dean, Archdeacon or Bishop, moving diocese. There are so many moments in the life of the Church when this is a live issue.

We are now waiting for two House of Bishop’s working parties to meet and report. We do with little confidence in their ability to deal with the crisis. They are formed of people who collude in the dysfunctional culture.

How to break the log jam? Keep raising the issue. Keep the pressure on. Keep blogging about it. Until somebody has the courage to be more open and honest, and ideally, that many people do, gay and straight. Because the challenge absolutely is not going away and the urgency of breaking the closet isn’t going to diminish.


  1. says

    Perhaps someone should organise an independent, cross-“faction” (as it were), representative Working Group to produce an alternative report?

  2. says

    I don’t agree with you entirely about gay priests. Since, at least, the 1920s the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England has been a relatively safe and comfortable place for gay men). People are not stupid, not even the laity 🙂 Most members of Anglo-Catholic congregations, including the sweet, grey haired old ladies, know that their priest is gay and regularly joke about it. Gay priests have been able, within this community to be themselves far more than anywhere else, except probably the higher reaches of the Civil Service. They were able to call the shots within their wing of the church and, to quite a high extent during the latter part of the 20th. Century, within the wider church. It was these people who scuppered the talks about union with the Methodists in the 70s. They had got used to winning. Then they lost over women’s ordination. There are plenty of Anglo-Catholic women. It is my contention that gay Anglo-Catholics saw the possible demise of their club with the new possibility of a less camp Anglo-Catholicism. It is also my contention that these same gay priests do not want to make being gay and Anglican ordinary because, again, it would result in the demise of their club. I don’t think they are particularly worried about being known to be gay. If they were they wouldn’t mince around in pre-Vatican II finery and talk like Kenneth Williams on “Round The Horn.” The current cleric under discussion has never outed himself. People have jumped to the obvious conclusion based on the observation of somebody who doesn’t disguise his personality in the slightest.

    Basically, Colin, I think you give to much credence to the poor victimised gay priest propaganda. They have taken on the Church and risked being defrocked over so many things since 1832 that I very much doubt that they are that worried about the Church knowing for certain their sexuality. However, it is not your job to out them. But it could well be somebody else’s.

  3. Laurence C. says

    “we will out them unless…” Colin Coward
    But you *have* just outed one on your last log blog post:
    “It’s depressing that yet another has been added to their number. ”

    If there had been half a dozen new bishops last week we wouldn’t know which one it was. But as there has only been one it’s perfectly obvious who it is you meant.

  4. Richard Ashby says

    I am probably one of the few people reading this blog who has ever been ‘outed’ as gay. In the mid 80s I was working in a fairly senior librarians’ post in a local authority. I wrote an article for a professional journal about public library services for gay and lesbian people, somthing in which I was interested as part of the then popular expression of ‘community development’. Some weeks later I had a phone conversation with a feelance journalist which resulted in a Page 3 headline in the Sun ‘Give us more gay books says library boss Dick’, with the informastion included that I was gay as I had confirmed. The next day I was on the front page of the local paper along with the Kings Cross Station fire )a sure sign of local priotities). At the time it seemed as if all hell broke loose, the library and local authority switchboards were jammed and I was advised by the Director of the Department to make myself unavailable, which I did. I had done nothing wrong, merely contributing to a debate which was around at the time yet I thought myself a marked man. I feared repercussions; but nothing happened. I feared that my career would stall or fail, but in the long term quite the reverse. I was very lucky in that the local authority had had an early equal opportunities statement which included sexual orientation and I also had a sympathetic Director who understood what I was doing and turned out to have a gay brother. I shall for ever be grateful for the way in which he protected me. I went on to compile a report with other gay colleagues on our library services to GL people and I believe that I helped to bring our library service into the later 20th century.

    It was not a pleasant experience but it did me no long term harm, moreover it meant that speculation was at an end and colleagues had to manage with that confirmed knowledge of me. I recieved one illiterate and practically illegible anonymous letter. That was all.

    So I am equivocal about ‘outing’ others, having experienced it myself. Yet my experience, bad enough as it was at the time, was within an affirming local authority, even though it was in the middle of the Aids crisis and Section 28.

    The church of course, notoriously isn’t an ‘equal opportunities employer’ and doesn’t suscibe to the concept of human rights for GLTB people. The church isn’t a comfortable place to be oneself (lay or ordained) for all sort of reasons, many to do with the often outdated, harmful and false expectations which are placed on its members and those who serve them and the false and hypocritical ‘standards’ which it expects to be maintained.. No one in the church will protect an out gay priest or bishop, preferment is at risk as are livings and livelihoods, as we have seen over the years with good honest priests driven out because of their ‘notoriety’. Yet is there more ‘notoriety’ in being closeted with the waves of specualtion over sexual orientation obscuring the merits of the person subject to this speculation?

    I agree that the institution needs to be loudly and continuously challenged, but we are frail humanity and not all of us have the strength or courage to undertake the task. A priest I once knew said that the congregation left its brain parked outside the church doors with the result that only platitudes could be preached in church. And I am sure that this is still largely so today, for both priests and laity. I was already ‘out’ to family and many friends and work colleagues, I would probably have preferred not to hve been outed in such a way but to have continued to do it in my own time and my own way. Within my own congregations, then and now I am out and proud, having, I hoped helped to change opinions by my own activities and presence.

    Sometimes it is better to work within an institution for change, which is what many of us are doing. I would like to know that those Bishops who are gay are working away with their colleagues for organic change. Yet collegiality is a recipe for stagnation and this has to be broken. The real problem comes when those who are gay connive or acquiesce in the continued mis-represntation, demonising and oppression of GLTB people. It is hypocrisy that needs to be challenged, not a natural instinct for self protection and preservation.

    • Erika Baker says

      I would agree with you that being out is the only liberated way of living and that it has almost nothing but positive and healing consequences “in real life”.
      But being out and outed in the church is still different. You just need to look at the Jeffrey John tragedy to see how the bayers for blood will bay for blood and will win. How they will keep changing criteria to make sure that the out, celibate gay person is still kept out.
      A lesser man than JJ could not cope with this level of abuse that’s lacking any kind of Christian charity and has no integrity.

      Until the day an openly gay man is actually accepted properly and can become a new role model for closet gays in the church, JJ is a stark warning of what will happen to anyone who tries to be honest about himself.

      By all means, we must continue to challenge the hypocricy. But not by criticising those who have made very understandable choices.

  5. Christopher Bowman says

    Well said Laurence! Colin, it seems to me time & time again – that you (albeit Changing Attitude) miss the opportunity and fail to go with the mainstream!
    Today, we read the headlines ‘ the tory party’ are backtracking! I for one cannot help but feel it is because the ‘tory party at prayer’ are gaining an upper hand! Society has moved on & the CofE fails to make itself relevant – but instead is a stumbling block to a credible faith & gospel (of truth).

    It has been put about for some time now that 2012 – will be a year of revelation (or was that just it.. ? your publicity here.. Now of course, why point a finger at the new boy on the block & fail to be honest about he others?

  6. says

    I particularly liked your ending about the urgency of breaking the closet. There’s something there about “way, truth and life” belonging together.

    The above link references a paper I wrote in January 2011 (in the Australian/Melbourne context) on Dismantling the Anglican Closet, and seeks to explore the evil inherent in the continuation of the closet structure. Perhaps we’re our own worst enemies ??

    My personal bio is available at the top of that page, by hitting the “Me” link.

    Melbourne, Australia

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