A Bishop coming out as Gay has highlighted, once again, the muddled and inhumane thinking of the Church of England
(other insane church’s rules are available).
The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he knew he was bestowing the famous funny hat on someone, ‘in a committed gay relationship’, but that he was happy that they were obeying the Church’s rules on celibacy, or abstinence, within that context.
So what are ‘the Church’s rules on celibacy’ for its officers?
How does the Church of England define this rule it has made?
The generally accepted dictionary definition of celibacy includes the idea of ‘not being married’, but more pertinent to this rule within the church is this subset definition of abstinence:
…abstaining from some or all aspects of sexual activity, often for some limited period of time. – (Wikipedia)
More significantly for the topical news case, the Anglican Church also ruled in 1998 that ‘homosexual practice’ is ‘incompatible with Scripture’ – (Lambeth conference).
But what is ‘homosexal practice’?
I could find nothing in the Church’s rules that comes close to defining the boundaries of what this means, ‘in practice’, so I asked an authority on the Church of England and Biblical issues, how the C of E might be defining ‘Homosexual practices’, in the context of rules for gay bishops happily living together in a committed relationship. We met in a private location in Gloucester and in this interview he is referred to as Paul. For obvious reasons, he asked to remain anonymous.
Smile of Decade: “Can we begin, Paul, by defining “celibacy” in the context of the Church of England?”
Paul: “Well, Patrick, it is perhaps not as tightly defined as one would hope, given the immense amount of time and effort that Synods and conferences have spent discussing the issue of homosexuality within the church, and at what level of involvement this becomes a problem..”
SoD: “By ‘level of involvement’ do you mean in terms of differentiating between members of the congregation and then priests and bishops?”
P: “Yes, we do have a different approach to the expectations placed upon those in holy orders from those members of the congregation, and this has been historically the case in many areas…Priests, monks and nuns have taken vows of celibacy for many centuries prior to the establishment of the Church of England, and rules regarding their standards of behaviour have been stricter than is now the case… and yet only enforced to varying degrees. There have also been rules regarding what is acceptable behaviour among those accepting communion…”
SoD: “Such as with adultery, divorce and remarriage?”
P: “Well I don’t want to get too deeply into the detail or we could be here all day (laughs) …but there are different expectations placed on priests and bishops that are an essential part of remaining in that role, yes”.
SoD: “Avoiding the other details then, how do you define celibacy, as in the topical case of the Bishop of Grantham. He has the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said he, ‘knew he was in a committed but celibate gay relationship’, when he was appointed as a bishop?”
P: “I am of course familiar with the news story and, whilst wishing to keep my discussion to generalities rather than specific cases, my understanding of this case is that they have long been committed to each other in a loving way that involves no sexual practices whatsoever, and this is what the Church means by acceptable celibate behaviour in this context”
SoD: “So that means they have sexual feelings but must not express them in any way?”
P: “…any physical way, that is correct”.
SoD: “So, no holding hands?”
P: “No, no, I wouldn’t go that far, holding hands in a non public place would be seen as acceptable, I’m sure”
SoD: “so, at home – but holding hands in public, say in a park, or walking up the aisle of a Cathedral..?”
P: “Let’s be clear, there are no written rules that speak to these precise details, it is a generalised position concerning homosexual practices that is the rule of the Church”.
SoD: “But a married bishop holding hands with his or her straight partner is OK?”
P: “Yes, yes, that sort of behaviour has been accepted for many years, ever since clergy have been allowed to marry. This dates I would say, from Martin Luther in 1525, but I would suggest that walking down a church aisle holding hands with one’s spouse is a situation that just would not arise”.
SoD: “…except at the actual wedding ceremony perhaps..”
P: “(laughs) yes – there I think you may have the exception”
SoD: “So, are there any practices that a straight married couple are also prohibited from doing when one of them is a member of the clergy?”
P: “I believe that the Church has never set guidelines on this, apart from requiring all its clergy to follow those laws of the land in which they are performing their duties. As you know, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the Worldwide Anglican community and laws in each nation can vary greatly”.
SoD: “Well, here is where I have some difficulty in understanding what the Church means by ‘homosexual practices’ – I mean, if there are no definitions of prescribed or sanctioned heterosexual practices, what is it that is proscribed within a committed, loving, homosexual relationship?”
P: “The Biblical references would of course be to the practices of sodomy as generally attributed to the historical town of Sodom in the book of Genesis…”
SoD: “But even in the Genesis story there is no specific mention of practices that God found so abhorrent, is there? I mean none of the Genesis translations even mention homosexuality explicitly”.
P: “It is the accepted meaning rather than the literal text, I grant you that, but as you say, more importantly for the purposes of our discussion, there are no specific definitions, beyond the Leviticus verse concerning, the prohibition of a man “laying as he doth with a woman”.
SoD: “The same chapter that condemns to death those who pick up sticks on the Sabbath or wear clothes made of two different fabrics?”
P: “I feel we may get lost in the interpretations of the Old Testament here, which do not, in any case, provide us with the answers you are seeking regarding the modern day church practices”.
We broke at this point due to an interruption from a cleaner who did not know the room was occupied and it was only after a cup of tea and some further personal conversation that Paul returned to the subject at hand.
SoD: “It seems to be a given that the Church has some rules that govern what is permitted behaviour in the privacy of the bedroom, particularly among those in the most highly paid positions within the organisation, is that a reasonable comment?”
Paul: “In the context of any committed relationship within the roles and duties of the clergy it is clear that ‘homosexual practices’ are forbidden, that is correct”.
SoD: “Excuse my explicitness here but it seems to me we have to actually define what constitutes ‘homosexual practices’, for this discussion to have any meaningful outcome at all, so can we be specific and say that anal intercourse is what is banned?”
P: “that much I would say is very clear – very clear indeed”.
SoD: ” and this would apply, for example, to a bishop and a straight partner of whichever gender as well?”
P: “Yes, that is my understanding, though I must reiterate, these are matters of interpretation when it comes to heterosexual relationships, and not church rules”
SoD: “So straight couples are not in fact governed by the exact same rules regarding types of sexual practices?”
P: “In practice, I would say not, and this is to admit that the Church has not discussed in depth any aspects of heterosexual behaviour, which is why this does not really apply”.
SoD: “but the same physical practices that are seen as forbidden in gay relationships among the clergy do in fact occur, and frequently, within many loving straight relationships. Does this not strike you as, at least, an inconsistency?”
P: “the rules are set regarding…”
SoD: “but even the law has trouble here, typically, Sodomy is understood by courts to include any sexual act deemed to be ‘unnatural’ or immoral. Sodomy typically includes anal sex, oral sex and bestiality, there is no differentiation between heterosexual and homosexual involvement in these.
So I am getting the impression that the Church has no problems with straight couples having oral sex but that this might well be included in ‘homosexual practices’ that the Bishop of Grantham and his partner must be expected to avoid?”
P: “As I said, the Church does not go into detail about what goes on in the privacy of the bedroom…”
SoD: ” …and is in denial about the whole idea of it being for pleasure rather than just procreation?”
P: “Now you are touching on the whole nature of the Church’s historical attitude towards sex, and that is a minefield… going back before Henry VIII, Martin Luther, back to the very foundations of the Church as we know it. “Go forth and multiply” is interpreted by the Catholics as implying that sex without the purpose of procreation is not to be encouraged, a sin even. The whole premise of Anglicanism, of Protestantism, is that we are more liberated than that. We regard the use of condoms as entirely acceptable and encourage all members of the clergy and the laity to rejoice in the pleasures of a loving relationship, but still – we only sanction the practice of sexual intercourse once married”.
SoD: “But gay priests can’t marry”.
P: “That is correct, but it is still an issue for future debate. The church is moving forwards all the time and who knows where the public mood and Synod may take us by the end of this millennium”.
SoD: “I don’t believe we have settled on a practical definition of celibacy but I suspect that this is, in fact, beyond the capacity of such an institution as the Church of England”
P: “It may well be so, yes”.
SoD: “Thank you for your time.”