Sex returns to agenda as bishops urged to back celibacy

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SEX, OR the lack of it, is back on the Church of England's agenda this week as bishops meeting in Westminster prepare to debate the merits of celibacy.

Horace Harper, a prebendary of Lichfield, Staffordshire, is calling upon the General Synod to support single people who have chosen to remain celibate because of their religious beliefs. His private member's motion urges Synod to celebrate those who "fulfil their Christian calling in lifelong celibacy, and honour their vocation".

The debate on celibacy outside marriage comes just a day after William Hague gave his own view that living with someone outside wedlock was not a sin. The Conservative Party leader, who lived with his wife, Ffion, before their marriage last year, said that it was not "going against what Christians believe, particularly when it's people who are engaged to be married, who are going to be married, who are so clearly committed to each other...

"What churches have really been arguing against, or what I see Christianity being opposed to, is promiscuity and people entering into intimate relationships with no intention of carrying them on."

Others believe that celibacy is the only Christian alternative to sex within marriage. Asked about sex before marriage, Mr Harper, who is celibate, said: "That's not how I would understand Christian living. If other people perceive it to be within their Christian liberty I would not want to trace my conscience over theirs, but I wouldn't agree with them."

Mr Harper hopes that tomorrow's Synod debate will not be dominated by the question of whether gay clergy must remain celibate, a subject which dominated the worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference this summer. However, the Rev Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, believes that the church cannot possibly discuss celibacy without reference to homosexuals.

"In any discussion about celibacy within the Anglican tradition it must be remembered and acknowledged that celibacy is not a mandatory obligation on any member. We don't have a celibate tradition in our clergy or laity other than among those who choose. The way celibacy is used at the moment - and most often invoked - is as a way of controlling the sex lives of gay clergy."

Mr Kirker expects that this week's meeting of bishops will be "a rather chastened" affair. The conservative resolution, which ruled out the possibility of the ordination of practising gays and the sanctioning of same-sex blessings, had prompted "a torrent of apologies" in the aftermath of Lambeth, he said.

This autumn the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, agreed for the first time to meet lesbian and gay Christians regularly.

Mr Kirker is encouraged by Dr Carey's willingness to listen, but added: "Many people ask me, `What's the point of us attempting to talk if the church has already pre-judged the process?'"

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