It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the latest Houdini-like attempt by the Church of England to extricate itself from the mess it has created over gay sexuality. Its bishops have announced, to the inevitable annoyance of conservative Anglicans, that gay men can now be accepted as candidates for the episcopacy – but only if they declare themselves to be celibate.
This is the opposite of the line taken 10 years ago when the furore broke over the appointment of Jeffrey John, a gay man, as Bishop of Reading. He had to stand down despite announcing that he and his partner were celibate. Nothing material has changed since, which rather exposes the paucity of the theological argument used to force him to withdraw.
Celibacy is not generally regarded as an Anglican obligation, as it is for the Roman Catholic priesthood which has been far more open in its stridency on homosexuality in recent times. At Christmas a number of senior bishops and priests, instead of focusing on the Nativity's message of peace and love, devoted their sermons to attacks on gay marriage. One bizarrely compared the Coalition Government to Hitler. More recently the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, has ordered a halt to Masses for gay Catholics and – in a move heavy with symbolism – handed their Soho church over to the Ordinariate, the body set up by the present Pope to poach Anglican defectors, many disaffected at the ordination of women priests. The crackdown may get the Archbishop a cardinal's hat but it will do little for the national credibility of the Church at a time when the census has revealed a collapse of four million in the Christian population in just the past decade.
To the secular world there is something profoundly unconvincing about the Catholic Church insisting on loving pastoral care for gay people while simultaneously describing homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered". A latent homophobia seems to be there among some Anglicans too, as was revealed by the recent words of the Ugandan archbishop, Stanley Ntagali, linking gay relationships with "rampant evils such as defilement... child sacrifice and domestic violence". For all the theological twisting and turning such rhetoric suggests that what religious conservatives really want is for gay people to be ashamed or, at the very least, cowed.
Thankfully secular society has led the way on sexuality as it did on the place of women, anti-Semitism and racial discrimination – on all of which the Church has been at least decades behind humanist thinking. Rationalist logic should now be applied to those in the Church tying themselves in knots over whether, or how, to police the relationships of gay priests or bishops to enforce celibacy. Such a suggestion would provoke outrage were it to be applied to heterosexuals. The idea that there will be searching questions about the sleeping arrangements of gay clerics is as risible as it is lacking in human dignity. It is not for ecclesiastical police to probe into men's souls.
All this is the more ironic since it is done in the name of a faith whose founder suggested – in the teeth of the censorious zealotry of the religious leaders of his own time – that no one should be excluded, and that all should be welcomed. The sooner our churches embrace the notion that full equality for gay people is a Christian imperative, the better for us all.