Saturday, 15 March 2014

A speech to Ely Diocesan Synod regarding the response of the House of Bishops to the Pilling Report

I should firstly like to thank the Bishop and the chairs of Synod for this opportunity to speak. I am aware that many of you may not have seen the Pilling Report in its fullness, nor the response of the House of Bishops to it, both in the immediate aftermath in January, and then following discussion in February. However, given the seriousness of what has been said, in a sense on our behalf, as ‘The Church of England’, and its far-reaching and frankly damaging ramifications, I feel that it is never too early to reflect and respond. I should also ask you to bear with me; some of what I say is uncomfortable and some regards sex – but if we can’t talk about it at synod, then we might as well pack up and go home. I may go a little over the five minutes I have been asked to stick with, but we are talking about the future of the church, and I ask your forbearance.

When the house first responded to the Pilling Report in January, many of us who come from a place of thinking and listening within the church were pleasantly surprised. The bishops committed themselves to conversations – indeed they said that ‘human flourishing’ was their goal. This goal, when considering the plight of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians, to me sounded like a real attempt to deal with the terrible abuses that the church has dealt to our gay young people. One only has to consider the horrendous suicide rate, both here and abroad, of young people who are confused and destroyed by society’s, and yes Christians’, attitude to their sexuality to realise just how desperately such a commitment to flourishing is. Maybe it was time that we apologized, rather than pontificated.

How na├»ve we were. So much for facilitated conversation, for out came the great pontification from the house on Valentine’s Day. It has been made clear that the practice of the church (and its associated pastoral guidance) will not change, whatever the conversations; instead, it will become hardened.  Where the genuine opportunity for discussion was mooted, the doors have been slammed shut – in a shameful, intellectually unsound and hypocritical way. And don’t take my word for it – take the word of the laughable number of bishops who have had to apologise to their flocks since.

Let me take a few examples. I don’t think straight people understand just how boring we gays are – there seems to be a belief that every night is spent injecting heroin and having sex with strangers. Let’s take one of the more patronizing phrases in the house’s February guidance. ‘Same sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity’. I’m not quite sure why ‘often’ was required – or why this is so specific to same-sex relationships. Do straight relationships always embody mutuality and fidelity? Indeed, do we ask our bishops to inform us and repent of particular non-reproductive sexual acts they have performed in a straight relationship, like we apparently expect of our gay bishops, in line with the guidance on celibacy last year? No, of course we don’t, because it’s ridiculous. And I begin to sense a theme.

Because of course most of this is inconsistent. We are told that ‘man and woman become one flesh’ in marriage – a central doctrine. Yet we permit divorce (and Linda Woodhead has highlighted the frank idiocy of the house’s view on the alleged first ever redefinition of marriage found in the equal marriage bill). The bishops say that ‘abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage’ and yet we know that gay priests and laity are having sex, and lets be frank, our bishops know all about it. And let’s just think about what sex is, exactly. Some gay laity, we hear, ‘chose to enter into a faithful, committed sexually active relationship’. I’d be intrigued as to where sensual behavior ends and sexual behaviour starts. Where exactly are priests, expected to give a ‘wholesome example’, meant to stop their heavy petting? But then again, it’s essentially impossible to enforce this guidance, so is it anything more than hot air?

We are told that ‘no Lord Spiritual voted for the legislation’ for equal civil marriage, yet most of them didn’t bother to even show up. We are told that many gays want ‘formal status’ for their relationship, including ‘the joys of exclusive commitment’ and ‘legal recognition’. Not a word, of course, about the public nature of declaring yourself to want to model a life of love, commitment and, yes, a ‘pattern and example’ to others. And civil partnerships are of course just fine now – unlike the disgusting and openly discriminatory behavior of the bishops led by Lord Carey when they were first brought in.

But let me briefly turn to the two things that make this recent guidance so impressively, frustratingly, offensively inconsistent and ridiculous. Firstly the question of ordination and secondly the utter drivel surrounding same-sex marriage and its role in the church.

Ordination – the end of a process of individual and collective discernment that the Holy Spirit is calling a person to the priestly ministry. Or at least that’s what it used to stand for. But not any more. The bishops’ guidance states that the house ‘is not willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry’. A man, committed to his husband, hearing the unavoidable call of God in his fifties? Persona non grata. A woman, torn between love of God and love of her lesbian partner? Persona non grata. And why? Because they have taken part in an act of public, and civil, commitment. It is the church that is stuck in the whale’s belly. It is ludicrous in the extreme. And if it’s enforced, what can we say about the nature of ordination from now on? A fundamental change to the meaning of marriage? More a fundamental change to the meaning of ordination.

But wait, there is more. The church authorities would prefer that any gay committed relationship is solemnized and dealt with entirely outside of the church. The church must not ‘provide services of blessing’ for those in civil partnerships, although ‘more informal kinds of prayer’ might be offered. Let me just repeat that. No ‘blessing’ but some ‘prayer’. Are we being serious? What exactly is a blessing other than a prayer? But wait  - there must be ‘a pastoral discussion’. What exactly is envisaged by this? Of course, there’s no answer, but instead a further message. ‘Services of blessing should not be provided’. Clergy must respond ‘in other ways’. Is this really the best we can do? Apparently so. And it is an utter disgrace. We are telling gays in committed relationships that there is no place for them in the church; and it is an outrage.

We say we ‘profess the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and the catholic creeds’, yet permit divorce and women bishops. But gays are a step too far. Why, exactly?

All these examples remind me of the words of a senior clergyman in this diocese – ‘in the church, there are at least some things we are able to discriminate in’. A continuing theme of the Church of England, and one that has been discussed in this diocese, is that of evangelism. If this Synod, and indeed this Church, believes that you will encourage and retain young people coming through the church doors whilst continuing to persecute gays, then you are unbearably foolish.

Gays are fed up of being told to wait – much like those women who were told not to speak in church, and who soon, God willing, will practice authority over men. It’s not good enough. In fact, it’s a disgrace. And it’s about time it changed.

Thank you.