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Camp, the closet, and the Church's confusion

Faith and Reason In the week when a bishop `outed' as homosexual has announced his retirement to a monastery, Andrew Brown urges the Church to define its position on all sexua l relationships.
Listening to strange men talking about their sex lives is one of the less appealing parts of a journalist's life, even if it is at times essential in covering religious affairs. I still remember with squirming embarrassment an interview with Lione l Blue, who had found he needed a sympathetic journalist in a hurry before an unsympathetic one caught up with him. Nice man; brilliant broadcaster; but I would rather have talked about anything, even cricket scores, than his sexual history.

Similarly, when an invitation came through last week to talk to the Bishop of Portsmouth before he announced his retirement, I was not looking forward to the dirty bit of the conversation, if such there was to be. I didn't know whether his decision had been precipitated by being named by Outrage, though I now believe that it had not: certainly not in his own mind. But there was a sporting chance that he would want to talk about that side of life if only to deny everything; and, though it might have madea juicy story, it would have made an unpleasant conversation.

However, perhaps unusually for a bishop, he wanted to talk about God and monasticism. So we talked about that instead, as darkness drew on in a vast empty house. It seemed full of the evidence of jollity: there was still a great Christmas tree in the hall; every flat surface in the living room was concealed under a thicket of Christmas cards: there must have been 500 at least in that one room. The effect was of huge solitude concealing an inviolable privacy. Somewhere in that rather difficult silence lies, it seems to me, the roots of the Church's problems at the moment with homosexuality. It is a part of private life. It is something that properly belongs to a person, not a public figure. It is discussed as if it were a condition, a virtue, or a vice;yet it is something which must be incarnated if it is to exist at all. The churches talk often as if an instance of homosexuality were an act; in fact each instance of it is a person. The difficulty is particularly acute for the Church of England, whichhas for so long been hypocritical for the very best reasons. It has in consequence been forced into an almost impossible position. The evangelicals dominant at present cannot concede that any homosexual acts can ever be right. On the other hand, they have not got the stomach to drive out or even very vigorously to repress the homosexual clergy in the Church.

This is a policy - or an equilibrium of inaction - which relies on most gay Christians, especially those employed by the Church, being more or less camp and more or less closeted. There are signs that this is changing. Gay Christians must, eventually, come to terms with themselves; and, if they have reached a point where they can forgive themselves their nature, and are confident that it is God-given, they are less likely to acquiesce in their condemnation by others. Evangelicals have never, by tradition, been very good at coming to terms with human nature. On the contrary, their role is to condemn and transcend it. But the larger and more powerful the "evangelical" party in the Church of England grows, the more it must come to terms with the problems of responsibility and comprehensiveness.

One of my evangelical friends, a devout and unwillingly celibate woman who believes it wrong to settle for anything less than a husband of her own is given to lamenting her state towards the end of boozy lunches. But, she said once, at least she had the hope that it would some time end. God would send her some perfect or at least tolerable man. She did not have to believe that she must spend the rest of her life alone. And that knowledge, when she looked around her gay friends, seemed to her what they were being asked to bear by the Church. She could not feel this was right.

Now somewhere in that confusion, in that inchoate sense of wrongness, must lie the way forwards. Almost everyone who has gay friends discriminates in practice between gay relationships. The difficulty for the Church is to decide which relationships, and on what grounds, can be accepted, or more nearly accepted than others.

What is needed is a clear, comprehensive and convincing theological account of the purposes of human sexual relationships. There is only one problem with this conclusion: the only church document of recent years with the necessary scope and ambition is Humanae Vitae, which will not, I fancy, dig the Church of England out of its hole.