The innocent must be praised, the guilty stigmatised

The churches are bedevilled by sexual scandal. What should the Church of England do about it? Deal dramatically with offenders, says Andrew Brown.
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The Independent Online
A fairly prominent member of the Church of England's General Synod has just sent me an article from Penthouse magazine. It was only published in the American edition, and describes at considerable length the antics of a group of middle-aged homosexual priests in Long Island who used to import rent boys from Brazil until one of them fell in love with one of his imports, and "married" him in a ceremony conducted in church one evening, with the priest in full drag as Madonna.

It's difficult to tell this story tastefully, and Penthouse didn't try very hard. The Episcopal Church of the USA has now launched a formal enquiry; and the bishop in whose diocese all this happened has withdrawn for six months to seek treatment for alcoholism.

The priest who sent me all this material was not, I think, trying to prove the superiority of American Penthouse to its British edition. He had a theological point to make. Like most conservatives in the Church of England, he believes that the Episcopal Church of the USA epitomises everything that can go wrong with a liberal Christian denomination, and can be used to prove that liberalism in the pulpit must lead to sodomy in the pews. While the Penthouse article was light on theological detail, the consequences in the pews were revoltingly clear.

The original article came out in the autumn of last year. But it will undoubtedly hang around for years as an Awful Warning of what happens when you let the liberals take over. I have to say this reading of it seems to me nonsensical. The link between right belief and right behaviour is elastic at the best of times and the pathways of sin are subtle. First, there is the problem that all Christians, from St Paul onwards, or downwards, know that they have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; and that this will happen to them again. Then, there is the still more horrible truth that these sins are usually the same ones; and that no amount of orthodoxy can by itself ensure good behaviour. There seem to have been plenty of impeccably orthodox Roman Catholic priests who exploited their mistresses.

Still, the Penthouse story does show that the Church of England has been fairly lucky in its scandals. I am reasonably certain that no priests here have ever been caught going through homosexual marriage ceremonies in drag; it may even be the case that none has even done it. In their place is the steady dribble of heterosexual scandals, which were what I had actually meant to write about until the e-mailed Penthouse story appeared on my screen. And they pose a difficulty for the Church beyond the mere sinfulness involved. The problem lies exactly in the fact that they are scandals: they are public dramas, which require a public resolution. This is not just an argument about hypocrisy. Whenever a priest does something ridiculous or disgusting it will be blamed on his theology; but that does not make him a hypocrite.

The problem lies in the theatrical aspects of a scandal. Though it is often said that the Church of England does ceremonies better than almost any other body, it has grown less and less confident about performing. In fact Dr Carey's apparently unshakeable self-confidence as a performer, his certainty that there is an appreciative audience for whatever he has to say, may be his greatest gift to the Church of England. There are signs the Church is recovering its theatrical nerve, so to speak. But the public resolution of scandal is still something it does badly and needs to do better. Pastorally it seems to do fine. I can't imagine any Anglican clergyman anywhere being as crashingly insensitive as Cardinal Winning appeared to be in the Roddy Wright scandal.

Yet the public, dramatic side of the business is still mismanaged. There needs to be a dramatically satisfying resolution to a scandal if it is not to be poisonous; it is one of the great strengths of conservatives over liberals that they understand the importance of this. The innocent must be praised, and the guilty stigmatised. The resources for any amount of public drama are still there: later this month a County Durham priest will be tried in the palace at Bishop Auckland on charges of seducing a parishioner he should have been counselling. This is rather distressing for those of us who have spent much of last year explaining that the mechanism would never be used again. It is of course a great deal more distressing for the participants.

But it is a necessary opportunity for the Church to establish, through the cruel theatre of the law courts, that priests do not abuse their position and their parishioners - or that, if they do, they stop being priests.