The clergymen came out two by two

Is there no end to it, the travail of the church of england in the matter of gay priests? As Andrew Brown sees it, the answer is... probably not
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
There are two ways of looking at the whirlwind of sexual politics now sweeping over the Church of England. The first is biblical: if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind, observes the prophet Hosea. It is undoubtedly true that what is now being reaped was sown in wind and hypocrisy over many years. You can also look at the story in human terms, where it is a tragedy. It is a tragedy not because it is sad, cruel, or unfortunate, though it is all those things, but because it is a disaster brought about by virtue. Everything that is most lovable about the Church of England: its charity, its belief in discussion, and respect for the knobbly individualities of people, has led it into the present mess.

In the Eighties, when church politics were still a kind of liturgical dance for educated gentlemen, a gay priesthood was like Victorian architecture: one of the special glories of the Church of England, even if not doctrinally essential. This sophisticated viewpoint seemed almost a badge of the membership of the inner circles of the Church of England in the Eighties.

Two things happened to shatter that view of the church. The most terrible blow was the ordination of women priests; but the first was a private member's resolution from the floor of the General Synod that was debated in November 1987. The Rev Tony Higton, a vicar from Essex who had come to prominence in the agitation against the heterosexual bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, put down a motion asserting "that fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are sinful in all circumstances; and that Christian leaders are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, as a condition of being appointed to or remaining in office".

It was the most popular private member's motion in the history of the General Synod: it tapped a deep vein of evangelical distrust of the squirmy liberals they believed to be running the church; it sounded from the outside like stuff the church already believed - and it terrified the House of Bishops. Even the evangelical ones still squirm at the memory and mutter that it shows the essential wrongness of private members' motions. The 44 diocesan bishops and nine suffragans on the General Synod generally reckon to be able to run the church if they can all act together and exploit the confusions among the clergy and laity. But in this instance they were powerless. They could not be seen to vote against the motion on sexual morality; some of them could not have voted for its substance and none could accept its unforgiving pharisaic tone.

In the event they voted for a watered-down version, which said that "homosexual genital acts fall short of [God's] ideal and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion". Only eight synod members had the courage to vote against this; 13 abstained, and 403 voted in favour. All the bishops, including the few who had then and subsequently ordained practising homosexuals and protected them, voted in favour of the motion. What they really meant, and still mean, is that what goes on in bedrooms should be no one's business outside. But they could say that only in private. In public, they sowed wind.

Even at the time, it was astonishing how far removed the public speeches were from the world of private conversation about real people. With the benefit of hindsight, the ironies are scarcely bearable. Only one man, a JP from Hereford named Barnaby Miln, admitted to being a homosexual. Later, he was to live with the Secretary-General of the General Synod, the Rev Sir Derek Pattinson, after the couple had been on a tour of southern Africa partially paid for by SPCK, the oldest missionary society in the Church of England. Mr Miln was last heard of in Hereford jail, serving six months for defrauding the inmates of an old people's home.

The most energetic, ingenuous and implacable campaigner against gay clergy, then as now, was the vicar of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, Dr David Holloway. As sowers of wind go, he has few equals. He said that "charges of a homosexual mafia in the church, even in high places, are being made". He did not name the people he had in mind.

The chairman of the business sub-committee, who allocated time for the debate, was Canon Brian Brindley, a leader of the Anglo-Catholic opposition to women priests. Three years later, he made a convoluted pass at journalist on a local paper, who had taken the precaution, before accepting his invitation to supper at the Athenaeum, of wearing a tape recorder under his best suit. He sold the tape to the News of the World. Canon Brindley maintained that he had merely been fantasising about young men on the beach at Brighton, and refused to resign either from his place on the General Synod or from his parish of Holy Trinity, Reading. His bishop, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, took the view that nothing had been proved against the canon.

So Dr Holloway sent to all synod members a photocopy of the News of the World article ("We name the kinky canon; Runcie's pervert pal exposed") along with an unctuous letter explaining that he had been forced to do this because Canon Brindley refused to resign. After that the persecuted canon did retire to Brighton and was later received into the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.

The letter went too far for the broad sentiment of the Church of England. So long as the debate deals in abstractions, it is happy to take a hard line. But if real people end up suffering real pain, then there is a backlash in their favour. Dr Holloway lost his synod seat at the next elections, but he in his turn rebounded as the co-founder of Reform, a federation of conservative evangelical parishes opposed to women priests, gay clergy and the bishops running the Church of England.

Homosexuality is not the issue most important to Reform but it is the issue that it believes will enable it to wrest control of the Church of England from the liberals and evangelical sell-outs who seem to Dr Holloway to be running it. The synod vote of 1987 seemed to mark a turning point. Before then the momentum towards officially, as well as unofficially, tolerating gay clergy had seemed unstoppable. Since then, in the words of one bitter Anglo-Catholic priest: "The only thing that will always unite the evangelicals is a spot of queer-bashing."

Not all gay Anglicans, and not even all gay Anglican priests, are practising Anglo-Catholics. But the association goes deep, and helps to explain some of the bitterness about women priests. For homosexuality was a subtext in that dispute, too. One of the prejudices shared by almost all supporters of women's ordination was that their Anglo-Catholic opponents were fundamentally just gays who were jealous of potential priests who might look better in skirts than they did. On the other hand, it was reasonably common to encounter men who believed that any unmarried woman who wanted to be a priest was probably a lesbian. As so often in the Church of England, there was truth on both sides of this argument.

Women priests were in one sense a harder problem for the church to face than homosexuals. It is hard even for a bishop to ordain a woman without noticing what he has done, whereas practising homosexuals are difficult to spot when not, as it were, practising. But the theological problems raised by the women priests split the church irrevocably. The difficulties raised by ordaining gays may well do the same. As with women, the three parties in the church have three irreconcilable ways of looking at the problem and, apparently, no common language to help them to resolve it.

The evangelical argument is that homosexual activity is the expression of a disordered personality, whether or not this disorder is manifest from birth; and that is always wrong, and cannot be tolerated in priests even if it is not worth a crusade against in lay people. Sin, in this view, must be publically repented, and if you go on sinning, it is because you haven't repented hard enough.

The Anglo-Catholics are more subtle. They appear to start from the observation that about half the priests one knows (and some of the best ones) seem to be homosexuals, and that this is just a frailty, like drinking too much, which can well be overlooked if the rest of the personality in question is congenial. In other words, it may be sinful to go cottaging, but this is not nearly as wicked as sanctimony or heresy. Sin, here, is something to be confessed privately and repented. But Anglo-Catholics, like Roman Catholics, have a realistic view of repentance. They do not expect it to transform the character.

The liberal position comes in two flavours. Intellectually, it is held by a tiny minority, who would argue along with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement that God made homosexuals, whatever the authors of the Bible may have believed, just as he made the world round, despite the belief prevalent in Biblical times that it was flat. Therefore, the liberal intellectual argument goes, God wants gays to find some way of expressing their personality sexually, just as he has instituted marriage for the sexual expression of heterosexual personalities. Very few churchgoers would buy the argument in those terms.

Put as an emotional proposition, it would be immensely popular. Then the liberal position would say simply that it is wrong to persecute people for their nature, and bad manners to inquire too closely how they may express that nature. "What goes on in the bedroom is no concern of the people outside it," a bishop once told me.

This is tolerant, decent and admirable in the face of prejudice. There is only one thing wrong with it: it is absurd. A religion that stays out of the bedroom cannot long survive, if only because religious belief is, for most believers, something inherited from their families. The Church of England has traditionally stood for a clear body of doctrine that the nation can understand and ignore. That is what establishment is about. By searching humbly for the truth, and confessing its profound and sincere disagreements and confusions, it will do itself no good at all.

Comments