What would Jesus have done about gay vicars?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first drive mad" - or, in the case of the Anglican bishops, they get them talking about sex.

"Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first drive mad" - or, in the case of the Anglican bishops, they get them talking about sex.

No doubt as a society the modern world is obsessed with the subject. But take it from a practising Anglican, those of us in the church pews are getting heartily sick of the subject and this climactic struggle of absolutes in every synod or convocation. It's just not what ordinary churchgoers think about as they struggle with their consciences and their prayers. And it's not what they want their bishops to concern themselves with, either.

You can always tell an institution in decline. It loses the sense of what it looks like to the outside world as it pursues ever more internalised conflicts. One could see this happening with the British government in the Major years after Black Wednesday. I suspect that we are seeing it today with New Labour and the death of Dr Kelly. On the broader level, it happened towards the end of the Habsburg empire, and the Ottoman and Byzantine ones. The eyes of their leaders turned inward to internecine squabbles while the outside world moved inexorably on, leaving them beached in irrelevance.

It is not difficult to see why the Church's hierarchy has pursued the gay issue with such ferocity. The Anglican Church is riven between an inclusive, middle-of-the-road approach born of being the established church of England that would open its doors to all who might wish to use its services, and the energy and success of the evangelical wing, which sees the Church's role as more proactive, more absolute and ultimately more restrictive. The question of bishops has become a battleground for the evangelicals just as women priests became the line in the sand for the traditional high church clergy. Take these questions away and the various factions would still find some point of disagreement on which to concentrate their fury.

For the Roman Catholic Church, which has now joined the fray with a particularly fierce paper from the Vatican, the problem is a little different. Charges of paedophilia against priests have rocked the institution throughout the West and threatened its economic viability in countries such as Ireland and America. It has become easier for the Church to put the conflagration down to perverse sexual desires rather than to consider the real problem of a celibate priesthood and whether it can be sustained in a modern world.

In the end, the issues of gay, married and women clergy will be decided simply by the pressure to fill posts. In the Western world, the church is suffering not just from a lack of churchgoers but a desperate lack of priests. And the two are connected. Without a congregation, the church will wither. But without priests the congregations will dissolve. Forget the theology, sheer practicality will bring the requirements of the church into closer balance with contemporary mores.

For Anglicans, this should in theory be easier than for Catholics. The basic relationship of the individual to his or her God is a direct one, requiring no intermediation, although it is hopefully facilitated by a good parish priest, whose job it is to serve the local community, to "feed the flock". There have always been gay vicars, just as there have been heterosexual ones. It's never been a problem so long as they carried out their primary duty of pastoral care. As for bishops, most of us have never met our local bishop except perhaps at confirmation and I can't say any of us feel the lack of contact.

In that sense, I'm not sure that whether the Anglican Church splits or doesn't split over the question of the ordination of a gay bishop matters very much on the ground. If the Anglicans of the Church of South India feel differently on the issue to the episcopalians of America, then let them follow their own courses. The parishioners will finally make their own accommodation with what is or what isn't acceptable to them.

In the wider sense of the unity of the Church, even there a unified Anglican order doesn't seem to me to be as important as the growing rapprochement between the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant churches. Under that great umbrella, a fragmentation of episcopalians is neither here nor there, however uncomfortable it may make the position of our now nervous and vacillating Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The simple point for me, as I suspect for many others in the Church of England, is that the sexual orientation of our priests is just not our business any more than the proclivities of our neighbours. What matters is the honesty of relationships and integrity of our promises. Christ was no wet. He posed uncomfortable dilemmas over wealth, love and the treatment of our fellow men. But on the inner workings of our sexual lives, he did not make any judgement.

If I were to make a plea from the parish pew to the Palace of Lambeth, it would be this: forget all the demands on you to take sides and approve or disapprove of this appointment; set aside, too, the call on you to act like the president of a multinational conglomerate impelled to defend the integrity of the corporation. Just get up and say what is the truth: "The Christian church is about the teachings of our Saviour. What goes on in the bedroom is not our concern, amongst us priests or amongst our flock."

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Comments