Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans, accuses Rowan Williams of hardening the Church of England’s attitude to gay marriage
The most senior openly gay cleric in Britain has accused the Church of England of pursuing a “morally contemptible” policy on same-sex marriage, denouncing it for moving “in the opposite direction” to society and criticising Rowan Williams for changing his “public position” on the issue as soon as he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.
In a new preface to his 1990 booklet on gay relationships, Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, writes that, by setting themselves against same-sex marriage, the bishops of the Church have prioritised the union of the Anglican communion over the rights of gay Christians.
“This policy may be institutionally expedient, but it is morally contemptible,” he writes in an abridged extract of the preface published in the Guardian. “Worst of all, by appeasing their persecutors it betrays the truly heroic gay Christians of Africa who stand up for justice and truth at risk of their lives. For the mission of the Church of England the present policy is a disaster.”
John writes that, contrary to the expectations of those who had expected Williams to introduce a new tone in the Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Church’s line has in fact “continued to harden” during his near-decade as Archbishop of Canterbury.
John – who was forced to withdraw his appointment as bishop of Reading in 2003 due to fury from conservative evangelicals – says that as Archbishop of Wales Williams had made the case for an ethical framework for gay relationships. “Tragically, he changed his public position as soon as he reached the throne of St Augustine,” he adds. “Since then the Church’s line has continued to harden.”
In Permanent, Faithful, Stable, republished this week as Anglicans prepare for a stormy autumn of debate over same sex marriage, John outlines the theological case for gay people in stable and faithful relationships to be offered the same recognition as heterosexual couples. While superficially there is “little difference”, he writes, between civil partnership and marriage, the official distinction “helps perpetuate a distinction in status”.
The fight for gay equality won a boost today after Nick Clegg revealed he will push for same-sex marriages in church.
The deputy prime minister told the Evening Standard that religious organisations should have the choice to hold same-sex weddings if they wanted.
“I think that in exactly the same way that we shouldn’t force any church to conduct gay marriage, we shouldn’t stop any church that wants to conduct gay marriage,” he said.
The comment takes the prime minister’s promise to legalise gay civil marriages one step further. Under the present consultation on gay marriage there is no option for willing churches to be able to hold same-sex ceremonies.
Yesterday, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper held a conference in Westminster with leaders from the Quakers, Church of England and liberal Jews to push for gay marriages in church.
“I have a very strong sensation that once the dust settles everyone will look back and think, ‘what on earth was the controversy about?'” Clegg said.
“It just seems a perfectly natural thing to do. I don’t think it is anything to get hot under the collar about, or aggressive or polemical.”
However, the topic is still causing deep rifts within religious organisations and Tory MPs.
Canon Chris Sugden of the pressure group Anglican Mainstream said: “If you remove gender from marriage, then nobody ends up married.”
Religious figures who support gay marriage will today launch a fightback against church leaders who have come out against same-sex marriage.
Representatives from the Church of England, liberal Jews, the Quakers and the Unitarian and Free Church will join forces at Westminster to declare their backing for the Government’s plans to legalise civil gay marriage, which have provoked strong opposition from leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches.
Some faiths want the Coalition to go further by giving churches the freedom to carry out religious same-sex marriage.
Those attending the conference will include Giles Fraser, a priest who resigned as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral last autumn following the Occupy protests; Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans; Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for the Quakers; Rabbi Roderick Young; Derek McAuley, chief officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches; and the Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
Mr Parker said the Quakers believe that all committed relationships are of equal worth.
“The new proposals allow civil partnerships in Quaker meeting houses, but that is not a marriage; it is a legal contract, not a spiritual one,” he said. “We don’t seek to impose this on anyone else. For Quakers this is an issue of religious freedom.”
Rabbi Young, who will represent the Movement for Reform Judaism at the conference, said: “The proposal to extend civil marriage to gays and lesbians is greatly to be applauded. However it is not enough. It is a bizarre situation when lesbian and gay rabbis may perform a legal religious marriage for heterosexual couples, but are denied the right to experience that joy for themselves with their partners.”
Today’s meeting has been organised by Labour, which backs David Cameron and Nick Clegg in their efforts to bring in gay marriage, despite vocal opposition from many Conservative MPs. Labour also wants the Government to give churches the freedom to carry out religious same-sex marriages – without forcing them to do so by law.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said last night: “Many religious organisations and people within different faiths support same-sex marriage.
“Whilst opposition from some church leaders has been strong, other prominent church figures are supporting same-sex marriage. It should be recognised that there are many views within and between different faiths. If you believe in religious freedom, those organisations that do want to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies should be allowed to do so.”
She said Mr Cameron must not be deterred by opposition within his own party and beyond and urged him to call an early debate in Parliament rather than stall on the issue.
The Government is expected to reject the calls to allow churches to “opt in” to religious same-sex marriage, a proposal which could fuel the Conservative revolt on the issue.
But church leaders fear the planned civil marriage law would spark legal challenges in the European Court of Human Rights by gay rights campaigners, which would force churches to conduct religious same-sex marriage against their will.
Dr Rowan Williams acknowledged that the Church was still “scratching its head” about where it stands on issues like same-sex marriage despite its vocal public opposition to the Government’s plan to legalise it.
In his most frank public comments to date on the subject, the Archbishop accepted that the Church was in a “tangle” over homosexuality.
On one hand many Christians may themselves be “wrestling” with their own sexuality while others appeared to display only strong feelings of revulsion, he said.
The issue of women bishops – due to come to a head at the Church of England’s General Synod in York next week – was another matter which helped give the impression that sex was “the only thing the Church is interested in”, he remarked.
His comments came during a discussion day for a group of Christian teenagers at Lambeth Palace.
Two bishops have broken ranks to speak out against the Church of England’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
They say that the Church’s official position does not speak for them, nor for a substantial number of clergy and churchgoers.
Their intervention comes as critics prepare to challenge the policy at General Synod next month, exposing faultlines within the Church.
It now faces a second highly divisive row in the coming weeks – as the leadership struggles to avoid a disastrous split over women bishops.
Two weeks ago the Church published its formal response to the Government’s proposal to allow same-sex couples to marry, declaring itself firmly against the move.
The two bishops are the most senior figures to attack the stance. The Rt Rev Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, said: “The statement is narrow and legalistic … Jesus didn’t say anything about being gay, but he said a certain amount about loving your neighbour as yourself.”
The Rt Rev Tim Ellis, the Bishop of Grantham, said the official position did not reflect the true “mind” of the Church.
Bishop Ellis said he was concerned about the “freedom” of bishops like himself and objected to being bound by a “party line” on the issue. “In truth, the bishops in the media have not spoken for me or the way in which I understand this thorny matter,” he wrote on his blog, “and I suspect they do not speak for a sizeable minority or even majority within the life of the Church.”
Bishop Wilson said: “The statement doesn’t speak for me at all, frankly. There is a groundswell of opinion that says, ‘This does not speak for us.’
“That’s just a matter of fact. It corresponds with the feedback I’m getting, and other colleagues are having the same experience. There is a sea change going on.”
The story of Rev. Sally / Selwyn Gross neatly encapsulates the challenges of intersex people to Roman Catholic rules on the ordination of women. Male-identified at birth, Selwyn was raised as male, and became a Catholic priest. When medical tests revealed that internal biology was primarily female, Sally transitioned – and was forced out of the priesthood.
In the Anglican church, there is no problem with the ordination of intersex people, as there is no bar to women’s ordination in the first place, nor are there barriers to promotion – up to the rank of bishop. Then the stained – glass ceiling is struck, for intersex people and for women. We know from science that the intersex phenomenon is entirely natural and complex, including a small but significant proportion of the human population. The absolute division of us into a neat two-part binary, is simplistic and a dangerous ground on which to base rules for ordination (or for marriage, for that matter).
The theologian Dr Susannah Cornwall has specialised in the intersex challenge to theology, notably in her book “Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ” . In a new paper, reported on in the Church Times, she applies these considerations to the debate raging in the English Church over women bishops. The trigger for her intervention came in a paper by those opposed to women bishops,”The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”which argued “When we stop receiving Christ in his essential maleness, his humanity becomes obscured”.
Intersex conditions undermine the assumptions about the clear delineation between male and female which underpin the theology of Christians that oppose women bishops.
Dr Cornwall says that many contemporary theological accounts of sex, gender, and sexuality take too little heed to the existence of physical intersex conditions.
“The important question is what definition of maleness the authors of The Church, Women Bishops and Provision are using, and what it is in which they believe that maleness inheres,” she writes. “Intersex disturbs the discreteness of maleness and femaleness, and might therefore also disturb the gendered roles which are pinned to them.”
Dr Cornwall believes that “very little” has been written about the impact of such conditions on theology and the Church’s ministry.
“Generally, there has been a growing awareness that intersex exists but not specifically theological reflection,” she said. “The pastoral concern is the big impetus for my project, but I don’t think it’s possible to do that without thinking about the theological considerations.”
A fundamental problem with the argument that women bishops obscure Christ’s “essential maleness” – is that it is by no means certain that Christ was in fact essentially male: he may in fact have been intersex. The Church Times avoids reporting on this aspect of Cornwall’s argument, but there is a summary at the Telegraph.
In her paper “Intersex & Ontology, A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”, she argues that it is not possible to know “with any certainty” that Jesus did not suffer from an intersex condition, with both male and female organs. In an extraordinary paper she says: “It is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness. “There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some “hidden” female physical features.” Dr Cornwall argues that the fact that Jesus is not recorded to have had children made his gender status “even more uncertain”. She continues: “We cannot know for sure that Jesus was male – since we do not have a body to examine and analyse – it can only be that Jesus’ masculine gender role, rather than his male sex, is having to bear the weight of all this authority.”
For years, the major focus of controversy in the Church of England has been over the appointment of women bishops. That debate has now been all but settled (even the opponents agree that change is inevitable). Issues around full LGBT inclusion in church will now move to centre stage.
One sign of this is a bishop who has spoken out publicly in favour of gay marriage:
The new Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nick Holtam, has spoken out in support of gay marriage.
Bishop Holtam made the comments in an interview with the Times today ahead of the meeting of the General Synod next week, where civil partnerships in churches and equal marriage are to be discussed.
He said: “We are living in a different society. If there’s a gay couple in The Archers, if there’s that form of public recognition in popular soaps, we are dealing with something which has got common currency. All of us have friends, families, relatives, neighbours who are, or who know someone, in same-sex partnerships.”
He said he was “no longer convinced” marriage should be between a man and a woman.
He continued: “I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage.
He is not alone. The Times interview, in which he was speaking about full marriage, followed an earlier report that over 100 Anglican clergy from the diocese of London have signed a petition asking that the synod next week agree to allow local discretion on conducting civil partnership ceremonies on church. The background is that parliament last year changed the civil partnership legislation, which previously prohibited these from being conducted on religious premises, to permit such premises where church authorities give explicit approval. Up to now, the public stance of the Church of England has been that permission will not be granted. Next week’s synod will show that there is significant opposition to that stance.
A letter signed by 120 clergy is calling for the Church of England to reverse its ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in churches.
The signatories, from the diocese of London, want discretion to uphold loving homosexual relationships.
It is the first sign of significant resistance within the Church to its refusal to permit civil partnership ceremonies in Anglican churches.
The law has allowed them in English and Welsh places of worship since December.
In their letter to the London diocese representatives on the General Synod, the signatories stopped short of calling for same-sex marriage.
However, they said they should be given the same discretion in deciding whether to hold civil partnerships in church as they currently have in deciding whether to remarry divorced people.
One of the signatories said they were dismayed at having to deny “the Church’s fullest ministry” to increasing numbers of gay couples with loving relationships, said BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.
The public dissent over gay marriage / civil partnerships is part of a much wider ferment in the Church around matters of sexuality, including that of openly gay clergy, and the very fundamental matter of homoerotic relationships themselves.
Recent reports that Jeffrey Johns is considering legal action against the church over its twice passing him over for promotion to a bishopric, solely on grounds of his orientation, has highlighted glaring hypocrisy in the church. Technically, the regulations that the church may ordain priests who are openly gay or lesbian, provided that they are celibate. It is widely recognized that this is a mere fig – leaf: what goes one in one’s bedroom is private. What is really required is not that priests should be celibate, just that they should declare that they are. In other words, lie. (There is also a blatant double standard here. Unmarried heterosexual candidates are not asked to declare that they are celibate, or facing the degree of intrusive question on past behaviour that lesbian and gay candidates are subjected to).
Once ordained, further gay priests have further barriers placed in the way of promotion, as the case of Dr Johns has shown. Although partnered, he has declared that the relationship is celibate, and so complies with the regulations for gay priests. Denying him further promotion puts him in exactly the same position that female priests have been in, up to now. Ordination to the priesthood and promotion to the rank of dean is permitted, but no further. This is blatant discrimination, which diocesan votes on women bishops last year showed is no longer acceptable. The church also has to take account of secular legislation, and growing public pressure for honesty.
Hardly anybody believes that the many unmarried Anglican priests, or even the existing bishops, really are celibate. The Pink News report on Bishop Holtam’s support for gay marriage makes a further important point. Writing about John’s cancelled promotion to Bishop of Southwark, it notes
The 58-year-old, was forced to give up his appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 due to his relationship with another priest and was blocked from the post Bishop of Southwark in 2010, a position Bishop Holtam was also considered for. It is now held by The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun.
A memo leaked by Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral made the claim that there were already several gay bishops who had “been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions”.
It added: “This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear.”
The extraordinary thing is that this memo was not an appeal for openness and honesty in the appointment of gay bishops, or an attempt to bar them completely, but an attempt to ensure that they simply remain more or less closeted, and removed from the public eye. Pressures for greater honesty and consistency will grow. Already, there are ongoing discussions and investigations by church commissions, passing under the radar for now. Once the issue of women bishops has been resolved, public and synodal debates over LGBT clergy will begin in earnest.
In the background and informing these discussions, and those on marriage and civil partnerships, will be another set of formal investigations. The church has recently appointed Two Groups to Advise on Sexuality . Previously, a 1979 report Homosexual Relationships: A contribution to discussion, was published, but was considered by some to be too liberal. Subsequently, a working group set up in 1986 prepared a fresh report (the “Osborne Report“), which drew on the direct testimony of gay and lesbian Anglicans themselves.
The Osborne report was an advisory document for bishops, and it reminded them that they had an important part to play both in affirming “the catholicity and inclusiveness of the Church”, and “in helping the Church live with unresolved issues”.
Crucially, and ironically — in the light of events that would unfold a decade-and-a-half later — the group reminded the Bishops that “The way to resolve the conflict and tensions between groups is not by the exclusion of one or more minority groups. We have been very conscious of the poor experience of the Church encountered by many homosexual people. . . The Bishops, as the chief pastors of the Church, have a particular responsibility to set a tone of welcome and acceptance in these matters.”
However, when the controversial report was leaked and met with fierce resistance in conservative quarters, the bishops responded with a much more cautious booklet, “Issues in Human Sexuality”, which was intended only as a discussion document, but came to be seen as the Church of England’s definitive statement on homosexuality. Its distinction between laity and clergy was considered of particular significance.
The new groups will update the Osborne report, and should lead to a fresh statement by the bishops. I would not presume to anticipate the commission’s findings, but its fair to expect that a quarter of a century after the Osborne commission, with the outpouring of queer affirmative biblical scholarship and theology that has followed it, and the increasing visibility and acceptance of openly queer clergy and bishop in many denominations and different geographic regions, the findings will be even substantially supportive than those of the Osborne Report.
The new commission will also have to consider one factor which simply did not exist in 1986. The politicians have promised that by 2015 at the latest, and probably by 2013 in Scotland, full gender neutral equality will apply to civil marriage. Church commissioners will have to consider the implications for religious marriages, including the partnership positions of their own priests. (When equality came to New York last June, some Episcopal bishops wrote to their priests requiring that those in same-sex partnerships should marry).
We cannot be sure of timing, but of three things I am certain:
Continuing study and discussion of sexuality in the Church of England will lead to an acknowledgement, at the very least, that there is room for disagreement on the validity of homoerotic relationships.
The church will face up to the dishonesty of the current practice of DADT, and the discrimination faced by its LGBT clergy. The current barriers will go, just as they have done in several other denominations, and other provinces of the Anglican communion.
Civil partnerships in church, and later full weddings, will come (initially perhaps in selected dioceses only), just as they already take place in some Episcopal dioceses.
The ferment in the Anglican Church is part of a much broader process at work in all Christian denominations in all regions of the world, as well as non-Christian faiths (even touching Islam). In the middle of the twentieth century, we were totally invisible in church. The sixty years since have already seen extraordinary change, and much more is to come. Thinking specifically of the Catholic Church, John McNeill has written repeatedly of the work of the Holy Spirit, creating a Kairos moment for LGBT Catholics (and other Christians). There’s a verse for it, in Scripture:
Behold, says the Lord. I am doing a new thing. Can you not see it? (Is 4:19)
This transformation over sixty years of Christian responses to homoeroticism is a subject that I will be discussing in an address to the Quest annual conference in September this year, under the title “Blessed are the Queer in Faith, for they shall inherit the Church“. I shall be returning to the theme here, repeatedly, over the next few months.