Thanks to those who have told me they have missed this blog. Now that same sex marriage is a reality in this country, I have been off writing a book to help resource a Christian response to its challenges and possibiities. It's an attempt to work out some scientific, moral, Biblical, legal, historical, cultural and missional positives now that gay people can marry.
The church has arrived at another round of shared conversations. In my optimistic moments I'd like to think that after thirty years of going round and round in circles about sexuality we could be getting somewhere. I wanted to produce something grounded in Scripture, tradition and reason, to capture the possibilities as they appear right now.
In my less optimistic moments I wonder why we are so uniquely hung up about sexuality. When I was ordained the Church was a comparatively compassionate and safe place for all. The end of “Don't Ask Don't Tell” has got us to a place where things are actually worse for gay clergy. Every ten years or so of the 35 I have been ordained we have held portentous conversations and listening exercises but nobody seems to heard anything and as the pattern repeats, everyone else has moved on. One wag recently quoted me Proverbs 26:11 about this — "As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools return to their folly." We really do have to punch our way out of this paper bag this time.
Meanwhile, in publication week I experience a phenomenon all preachers do — In the course of your killer sermon on the Trinity you tell a joke about something that happened to you in Croydon high street and all anyone wants to talk to you about afterwards is Croydon. In the book I articulated the drearily obvious and well known fact that a fair number of bishops in the past and present have been, in fact, gay. These people have particular vulnerabilities. This has inaugurated a furious spat on twitter with Peter Ould I have no integrity if I don't report all names to him forthwith. Curiously he's also written a piece pointing out the wrongness and futility of outing bishops, so I've no idea why he's so angry with me for not doing it. So here, for the record, is why I don't and won't out people.
What matters to me is the fact that bishops have a range of sexual orientations including gay, not which bishops have what. Which particular bishops are Saggitarian, left-handed or red-haired? I know not in detail, neither do I care. I can, however, understand that curiosity about this is greater than it would be for a group of people who did not set themselves up as professionally straight whilst behaving in discriminatory ways towards gay people. Why not, someone asked me, just put everyone out of their misery and name names?
(1) Me no expert. I have not undertaken detailed postgraduate research about bishops' sexuality. I have had all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people, including bishops, often on terms that exclude leaking personal information about this or anything else. There are journalists out there with far better and more accurate information than mine which is anecdotal and incidental. But I long for the day we are grown up enough for this to be a non-subject. Let's make it now.
(2) On a Meta level, Outing legitimates assumptions I believe are profoundly wrong. It assumes there's something wrong with being gay. It belongs to the world in which I grew up, of shame and guilt. If being gay is not an objective disorder and there's nothing to be ashamed of, its rationale collapses, inviting the response "your point being..."
(3) Peoples' Sexual identity and orientation is a significant part of who they are — that's the basis for my argument that the Church needs to stop being ambiguous about the full human dignity of gay people. If this is true it is always abusive to disrespect anyone's right to hold their own identity. In a world where people take responsibility for their own feelings and identities, outing is out.
(4) Time was a story about a high court judge, military officer or MP who was gay would have been big potatoes, but those days are gone except for bishops. We set ourselves up for this kind of prurience. The remedy lies in our own hands. As long as the House of Bishops continues to victimise gay clergy and ordinands, we have a problem.
People have asked about the process of shared conversations last week. We were encouraged the share the experience, but of course, to respect the confidences of others by not attributing anything.
The facilitation was excellent and the bishops, individually and in threes, as honest and engaging as any people you might hope to meet. Facilitation was state-of-the-art. En masse, however, the story was different. The oddest part was where four professionally gay (but not in too angular a way) people were lined up to present their stories to 110 professionally un-gay people, as though the human beings involved were some kind of other species. That geometry felt ultimately dishonest and degrading to everyone involved. It doesn't matter the slightest who is who, but the professional pretence that no bishop is gay reproduces in the room the reason the Church, almost alone among public institutions these days, is so stuck about this.
Many drew attention to the cognitive dissonance between pastoral practice and theory right now. One or two even used the obvious "H" word. The Church must be do better if we are to fulfil our overriding mission to bring the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and make him known to those in our care. Right now what's on offer is rather like one of those time share or bank adverts where the small print at the bottom says “Terms and restrictions Apply.” The love of God is bigger than this. You may say it was ever thus. Jesus walked into the room and outcasts were healed, whilst the scribes and pharisees sat at the back being snide about his disregard of the small print and plotting how to get rid of him. I know where I belong in that scene, and where the Church should be. Right now we've got this wrong, and we have to change. We have to follow Christ, not Caiaphas.
If shared conversations are to bear fruit we bishops require a higher degree of corporate truthfulness than we have achieved yet. But if we did achieve it, and the individual truthfulness I experienced at times in Market Bosworth was a great sign of hope, what other good results might come for the Church and, perhaps, the peace and salvation of the world?