The news that the Bishop of Grantham is gay, and in a celibate relationship, prompts Karen Pollock to ask why the Church of England puts the feelings of homophobes above those of LGBTQ+ Christians.
Sometimes it seems as if a news story has floated to us along one of those Pratchettian wormholes which cause so much disarray in his stories. Somewhere Leonard of Quirm is trying to convince the Patriarch that he should wear a spangly jacket and take part in a dance competition. Whilst here a newspaper threatened to out a Bishop due to their sexual orientation.
The very title “Bishop of Grantham” seems more fitting to a novel by Trollope than a headline in 2016, but it seems he is real, he is gay, and he is in a celibate same sex relationship. This combination of factors seemed to be enough for a newspaper to decide to publicise his sexuality, causing him to have to “out” himself first.
First things first, outing is, in my opinion, always wrong. I know some have seen it as a radical way to challenge hypocrisy, but they seem to always speak from a position of privilege, and relative safety. The very concept of “coming out” is an outmoded, binary one. I much prefer the idea of “inviting in” which reflects the reality, and complexity of peoples lives. Just because someone is out in some spheres, but not others, does not mean they are somehow a worse queer, they are simply human. As we navigate the complexities of human interactions, with work mates, partners, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, we have to decide where our boundaries lie. I am sure many will have had the experience of a work colleague who overshared, unaware of the embarrassment this might cause to the unwilling listeners. Good boundaries are about recognising, and owning, the appropriateness of any disclosure. Who we decide to “invite into” our personal worlds, which include our gender and sexuality, must always be our own choice, never forced upon us.
Indeed, for many, being outed is an act of violence. Many trans people have been murdered at the moment of disclosure, or rather at the moment a cis person decides the trans person does not fit with their concept of male or female. Across the globe LGBTQ+ people have to hide their identities, from fear of violence, arrest, or both. Outing is used a weapon against them, and the only universal rule must be that it is a weapon no one should wield. If you have an argument with someone, be it political, moral, religious or personal, how they have sex , or who with, should never be a supposed killer punch. (This extends, in my view to MP’s who pay male sex workers for sex).
The very concept of “coming out” is an outmoded, binary one. I much prefer the idea of “inviting in” which reflects the reality, and complexity of peoples lives. Just because someone is out in some spheres, but not others, does not mean they are somehow a worse queer, they are simply human.
The decision to reveal that Nicholas Chamberlain is gay may be simply about internal Church of England politics, as homophobes resist being dragged into the twenty first century. Some may recoil at the word homophobe, arguing that their attitude towards sexuality is based on scripture, not personal prejudice. That is simply, hogwash. The interpretation of the Bible, which Levitical laws are applied, and which ignored, revised or adopted has always been around the personal prejudices of the time. Under the Celtic church, until the Synod of Whitby, men and women were largely equal within the church, reflecting the attitudes of the Celts to gender.
As the Roman church gained the upper hand so its attitudes to women in positions of authority were imported. Whilst Johnson may have found the idea of a woman preaching worthy of mockery, today female lay preachers are common, and largely accepted by even those who stand against the ordination of women. We must always be careful around the argument that bigots like to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they adhere to. It is generally true that those who oppose equal treatment of LGBTQ+ Christians do not insist women cover their heads and refrain from speaking in church. I myself have seen the unpleasant spectacle of a homophobe railing against same sex marriage supposedly on biblical grounds, then proposing a divorced woman for a position of leadership. Those driven by personal animus are rarely logical, nor do they see the “mote” in their own eyes. However some would happily return to an age when no women spoke in church, where they remained silent and head bowed. They might also frown upon divorce, preferring to live in an age when child labour, rape in marriage, and slavery were all legal.
The interpretation of the Bible, which Levitical laws are applied, and which ignored, revised or adopted has always been around the personal prejudices of the time
I am not a member of the Church of England, and it might be easy to say #NotAllChristians and demand people move on. However we have an established church, intertwined with the structures of power in the United Kingdom. Bishops sit in the House of Lords, influence government policy. On a far less quantifiable level, but no less important, they are deemed to be newsworthy, and as such, the attitudes, and opinions of the Church matter. These attitudes are absorbed by the wider community, and impact on the way LGBTQ+ people are seen. The inequality with which gay (and we are largely talking about lesbian and gay clergy here) are treated should not be acceptable in the twenty first century.
Enforced celibacy for one group is not an acceptable compromise, it is in fact saying that the prejudices of homophobes matter more than treating LGB people equally. Regardless of how the Bishop of Grantham feels, and without excluding asexual clergy, it is wrong for different rules to be imposed on certain relationships because the idea of two people having sex offends. This is not about scripture, this is about pandering to those who would arrest an 8 year old as a lesbian. Compromise has its place, but for far too long queer Christians have been the ones asked to wait, to be patient, to show love and forgiveness in the face of hate, violence and prejudice. It’s time that ended, and it is time that the Church thought about what matters. Protecting those driven by hate, or protecting those who just want to be free to love?
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