Sex, personality and priesthood

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement celebrates its 20th anniversary with advertisements in the church press this week. Andrew Brown wonders how it has lasted so long.
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The Independent Online
Now that liberalism has become the cement of society, to be a liberal means being ready with the sort of pious conservative lies which any society needs to keep it going. One of my favourites is that I don't really care about the sexual orientation of my friends: I'd like them just the same if they were gay or straight, whichever they aren't. This is a thought I find comforting because it suggests that the gays I don't like are nasty because of their personalities, not their sexualities.

The trouble is that the two can't be disentangled. Sexual attraction and sexual enchantment are among the deepest currents of the imagination, and the imagination is almost always the most attractive part of someone's personality. Conversely, when I find that I loathe someone, their sexuality is an important part of their loathesomeness. This would appear to be the common experience of humanity, to judge from the enormous popularity of sexual insults for non-sexual disparagement.

This may seem to have nothing to do with religion. Worse, it might sound like one of those sweatily pious talks about celibacy delivered by Catholic priests . But it is actually an important part of the explanation of one of the more interesting religious phenomena of our times: why are there so many gay priests?

The way the question is characteristically framed, it suggests a dereliction of duty on the part of those whose job it is to keep the gays out. And there is no doubt that some such job description obtains in every church that tries to maintain a strictly heterosexual priesthood. It has to.

Yet it is not enough, if such a policy is maintained, to guard the gates. At the moment it is only the Roman Catholic Church, as it examines the Anglican supplicants for ordination, which can be confident that it is dealing with candidates whose sexuality is set in a mature pattern. Elsewhere, ordination can be a means to defer questions about sexuality. It can seem to sidestep the whole business of becoming an adult in favour of becoming an authority. This deferment is less than satisfactory for both ordinand and church, but for the church it means that a guard must also be set up within the gates. Homosexuality stands constantly ready to break out in people who before displayed no symptoms of it, like a science-fiction plague.

This is a dispiriting way to view people. It leads eventually to the sort of madness which gripped James Jesus Angleton and the other paranoid obsessives of the CIA. So it is soon abandoned. Most organisations and most churches most of the time must extend the benefit of the doubt to their members. Their behaviour is not to be ransacked for possible signs of homosexuality. In fact, unless they turn up in a brass-bound queen- sized bed in the middle of a London square, flanked by a guardsman, a curate and a Tory MP, their eccentricities are seen as evidence that they are odd, not queer.

The death last week of Maurice Chandler, a characteristically equivocal operator in the Anglo-Catholic shadows of the General Synod exposed the drawbacks of such fuzzy tolerance. "He never married," the obits said, but it was not so much scandal that clung to him as a rather gamy whiff of intrigue. He greatly enjoyed rumours that he worked for MI5 or MI6; an Archbishop of York once credited him with the creation of the diocese of Gibraltar, which may or may not have been a more substantial achievement. He was one of those people who worked tirelessly for union between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, yet - as one Catholic observer remarked - would have been horrified if it had happened.

He was a great figure of the high age of camp in the Church of England. It was an age when numerous gays were ordained, or rose to positions of power in the church, as a result of personal recommendations. It was not so simple as that they promoted one another. They were promoted and protected because they were liked as people. So any policy to rid the Church of gays would suddenly involve ridding it not of an alien threat, but of people, known and liked. That discovery is the root of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which has - unofficially - been in operation in all the churches for the last 20 or so years, and which is now breaking apart. For you may mean to ordain people, and find out you have been ordaining gays all along.