When it comes to homosexuality the Church of England loves euphemisms. Back in the late 1980s, the General Synod debated the Revd Tony Higton’s private member’s motion on ‘personal morality’. The outcome – still part of the Church of England’s official teaching on sexuality – contrasted heterosexuality and homosexuality. No prizes for guessing which was considered the superior of the two.
Personal morality, it seems, was what some of us (heterosexuals) do rather well, and others (homosexuals) much less well – their genital acts (no euphemism there) ‘fall short of the ideal’. So personal morality is really about homosexuals who have a lot of catching up to do in this respect, but we must all be terribly compassionate towards them. That was the 1980s.
In the 1990s and in the twenty-first century the Church of England and the Anglican Communion had some fierce debates about human sexuality, but this too was another euphemism. Human sexuality sounds wonderfully expansive and inclusive, but what made these debates so heated was that they were about homosexuality, which, as we’d learned in the 1980s, was short of the mark and generally not up to scratch in Christian circles.
Human sexuality turned out to be the term for homosexuality that really caught on. The House of Bishops’ Working Group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling was tasked to look at ‘Human Sexuality’ but it didn’t, nor was that the intention. If you read the Working Group’s Report, published in November last year, you’ll see that it is exclusively about homosexuality.
The Church of England is on the brink of two years of shared conversations – starting this week with the College of Bishops – on the subject of … sexuality. Now, the question is: does sexuality in this context mean everyone’s sexuality or is this yet another euphemism for homosexuality? It would be incredibly healthy and enriching if the Church of England could have a shared conversation about the full range of human sexuality, but what it desperately needs, at this juncture, is to address the elephant in the room, namely that its constant problematizing of homosexuality is causing acute unhappiness among its LGBT members, appalling discrimination and undermining its mission to the nation.
While the bishops are sharing in conversations about ‘sexuality’ the effects of their ambivalence towards, and unease about, homosexuality have begun to manifest on their very own doorstep as the church in which they are praying this week has become the subject of controversy. The local parish priest proposes to celebrate his civilly partnered relationship there with suitable prayers later this month, but a parishioner is complaining that it amounts to ‘a gay wedding’ and flouts Church of England policy.
However hard it might try to avoid it, the Church of England needs to have a full and frank conversation about homosexuality. The time for euphemisms and evasion is over. This is a subject that is just not going to go away.