Last Friday’s Church Times Books for Christmas supplement features an interview with Richard Coles about his autobiography by the Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard.
The interview is revealing. Hugh describes the autobiography as an unvarnished summary of Coles’ sexual history up to the point where he started ordination training. He wonders whether Richard’s openness about his sexuality had ever put him on the wrong side of the Church’s hierarchy. I’m wondered about that too, given the way other prospective ordinands are being treated. Perhaps there has been a steady negative change in the 11 years since Richard arrived at Mirfield.
Richard says “They have been uniformly supportive, the bishops in particular. My own bishop has been unfailingly pastoral, wonderfully supportive . . . I went into this with my sexuality as a known quantity . . . and so I’ve never felt vulnerable in the way that people might do if they wanted to keep it entirely private. And of course, we all live in a world where being gay is no longer remarkable . . . nobody really cares any more.”
This is not true, of course. There are people in the Church of England, including some of the bishops, who are totally obsessed about gay people and what our private lives are like and what kind of sexual activities we get up to. Their attitudes are affecting the whole of the Church and every member of the Church directly or indirectly.
As Hugh says, some people really do care whether the clergy are gay, and some bishops are less than “pastoral” in their approach.
Richard says: “I wouldn’t want to minimise the iniquity of the Church of England in its treatment of gay people, but it’s complicated. I just don’t think we should slam doors. Try to understand where [people] are coming from, and why it’s difficult for them. We should not forget that bishops need praying for because they are in an impossibly difficult situation.”
Hugh is slightly taken aback by Richard’s sanguinity (and so am I). The Holy Spirit, he says, surely needs help sometimes in challenging those in power. Hugh writes:
“So, is it out of obedience to his bishop that Coles and his partner are celibate? Is this their own lifestyle choice? Or perhaps just the waning of desire?”
“It’s all those things. Sex life faded away and became physical intimacy, and that coincided with a degree of clarity from the Bishops about what their expectation was about how clergy should live. Not that I think that’s a good thing. I don’t. But, none the less that’s where we’ve got to.”
The article concludes with a paragraph about the four dachshunds that share the rectory. Two Vicars, four dachshunds is not – or not yet – a model envisaged by the Ministry Division, says Hugh.
There are bishops and DDOs and members of MinDiv and of CNCs who do not differentiate between a sex life and physical intimacy but think any physical contact is a sign of sex and therefore taboo. And therefore any LGBTI person admitting to being in a relationship is rejected whether or not they describe it as chaste or celibate.
And there is no clarity at all about the expectations of the Bishops about how clergy should live nor any consistency whatsoever in the way different bishops allow LGBTI people to be selected and appointed.
I’m stunned that someone who has such a prolific sexual past and has written about himself with such honesty and transparency survives in the Church of England and is treated with such generosity by the Bishop of Peterborough. Richard’s experience is very atypical. Other clergy survive because they continue to be discrete about their past and present lives. Those seeking to test a vocation, as we are beginning to learn, are being rejected with often devastating effect on their lives.