Yesterday I wrote about some of the parallels between the experience of women and LGB&T people in the Church of England having read Maggi Dawn’s recently published book Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women bishops and the Church of England.
Maggi identifies flourishing as a quality obviously desired by God for humankind. It is impossible to flourish in a Church that denies the fullness of human love to LGB&T people. It is impossible to be physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy when the Christian environment is so prejudiced and detrimental to human flourishing.
LGB&T have been subjected to prejudice in the Church for years. Some endure this in situations which become highly-stressed, leading to depression, anxiety and for some, breakdown. We have tolerated prejudice in the Church for far too long.
The last two years have witnessed a steady stream of people leaving the Church having endured years of prejudice and intolerance and repeated prevarication from the House of Bishops. Christian attitudes have come to look so utterly unjust.
Changing the culture of the Church is a huge task. On the surface the Church of England looks to be functioning much as it has always done. Under the surface, there are deep, systemic practical and spiritual weaknesses which are far more problematic for the Church than declining numbers and income and the energy-sapping maintenance of historic buildings.
The effect on gay clergy of Church prejudice and hypocrisy
Sarah Maxwell is the author the recently published Transcendent Vocation: Why gay clergy tolerate hypocrisy, a research-based book that explores evolving attitudes to homosexuality in secular society and the Church during the years 1967-2007.
These forty years saw a complete reversal of attitudes in secular society. In 1967 the idea that homosexuality was not a perversion was still relatively new. Now, sexual orientation is seen to be a human characteristic formed early in life, with a spectrum of attraction between a significant minority attracted almost exclusively to the same sex and a significant majority attracted almost exclusively to the opposite sex.
In marked contrast with developments in secular society, the Church has been determined to maintain the traditional stance that same-sex expression of love is against the will of God. In setting out to do this, says Sarah, the Church has had to employ a range of hypocrisies.
The interviewees found the Bishops transitory support for their gay clergy to be hypocritical. There’s nothing new in what Sarah discovered but it’s helpful to have it described in an authoritative way. Every bishop clearly needs to be sent a copy of the book, some more than others!
It’s the collective power held by the bishops in determining the Church’s approach to gay clergy that leads to the charge of hypocrisy. It’s no surprise to discover that the Don’t ask, don’t tell attitude is the prime culprit, the adoption of an unwritten agreement between bishops and gay clergy that the one won’t ask if the other doesn’t tell
As a result, LGB&T clergy struggle to live honestly in an episcopal context that is complicit in maintaining secrecy and has been punitive towards those who have dared to be truly honest and open.
We know perfectly well that when appointed to the hierarchy, bishops are required to subscribe to Issues and suppress their personal views rather than honestly trying to change the Church’s position to one which they privately or publicly believe to be just.
A significant reason for the hypocrisy is anxiety on the part of the House of Bishops not to antagonize the evangelical wing of the Church, who not only condemn homosexual practice increasingly strongly as being incompatible with scripture, but also wield a lot of financial power.
The most significant finding from the interviews Sarah conducted with gay priests was that the vocation of gay clergy is stronger than the stigma under which they are compelled to work. Sarah describes this as the “Transcendent Vocation”.
The gay priests were secure in their knowledge that their sexuality is integral to the person created by God in God’s image. Their security played a significant part in their ability to transcend the hypocrisy they encountered in the Church’s approach to them.
There was a unanimous lack of shame about their sexuality amongst the gay interviewees. They were in no doubt that they were loved and valued by God as gay representatives of God’s diverse creation. They felt, however, that the Church encourages gay people to be ashamed.
It was their sense of vocation to serve God as priests that took precedence over concerns about issues to do with their sexuality. The certainty of God’s call to them enabled the gay priests to transcend everything to which they were subjected by the Church. However great the negativity they encountered, they were determined to be faithful to their vocation.
Sarah Maxwell contends that clergymen (she interviewed 10 male gay priests) in same-sex relationships are principled people with a strong sense of vocation, anxious only to do God’s work of building up the Kingdom. They are doing so against a background of prejudice on the part of sections of the Church and of hypocrisy on the part of the House of Bishops.
Sarah hopes that her presentation of the lived experiences of these priests might play a part in prompting the hierarchy to consider whether it is desirable for the future of the Church of England to follow the agenda of vociferous evangelicals or whether it should be possible for bishops and archbishops to stand up for the equality of LGB&T Christians without fear of evangelical reprisals.