A couple of days ago I encountered some rather misleading news reports on the internet, largely the product of some of our more excitable journalists.
At first glance it appeared that the Church of England was willing to make overdue progress on at least one element of equality. Gay bishops are to be allowed, they declared. Finally, the church was seeing sense...or was it?
The short answer - no. In fact, what has actually happened is that the church has reinforced its identity as institutionally discriminatory and made clear its determination to continue to discriminate against a minority group on the basis of something it cannot change.
In the aftermath of the women bishops vote, perhaps one of the of church's advisors - or what passes for a PR expert in the CofE - decided that the best thing to do was to make a statement to the effect that gay people aren't really that bad and yes, they could be bishops so long as they're gay men and not those lesser beings known as lesbians and also so long as...you know...they don't do what gay men do. Shhhh. Don't you know sex is a four letter word?
Well, I'm a bisexual person who once considered entering the ministry (not of the Church of England, admittedly) but felt that my sexuality would be too much of an issue and that expectations would be made of me that simply wouldn't apply to heterosexual ministers. There are other reasons why I think I made the right choice, but I remain concerned that openly gay people who are active in ministry have to answer questions about not only their sexual preferences but their sexual activities. What kind of equality is that?
What kind of equality is it that has separate rules for how opposite-sex and same-sex priests conduct their lives? What kind of equality is it that removes distinctions based purely on orientation to replace them with those based on declared sexual activity?
I agree with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, of which I am a supporter, that the original ban was "farcical" and that it was illogical to allow gay men to enter one type of ministry but not another. I do not agree, however, that this announcement in any way represents "good news". It simply reiterates the already well-known fact that the Church of England doesn't treat gay people very well.
There has been much talk about prospective divisions, as if the risk of schism is somehow more newsworthy and meriting of deeper consideration than the essential human rights issues at the heart of the matter. Of course there will always be those who interpret scripture in very narrow ways, often in ways that were not intended by their writers, and make unfounded claims for both Biblical authority and Biblical inerrancy - usually those for whom the issue of homosexuality is so super-significant that rational compromise is impossible. Attempting to keep these people onside is both futile and undesirable. The traditional minority may indeed opt to form their own church and that would be regrettable - but strenuous efforts to keep them on board will not help heal the church's many wounds but only exacerbate them and prolong the pain. Those energies would be better expended elsewhere: ideally in forging a new, genuinely inclusive church. (And, actually, I'd certainly prefer to be able to bowl bouncers at them from the other end than maintain the pretence that we're somehow better off all sharing the same dressing room.)
The announcement that gay priests will finally be allowed to be bishops simply confirms that the church's previous line was discriminatory without actually removing such discrimination altogether. The Church of England will continue to discriminate against gay people, only not in the same way. Perhaps the church needs to realise that discrimination is discrimination. It is always evil, but when it seems aimed merely at appeasing a reactionary but vocal minority it is particularly objectionable. What was particularly offensive as the church's reference to celibacy as "a calling"- a calling that gay clergy must enter irrespective of whether they feel personally called to it or otherwise; a calling determined by the prejudicial attitudes and closed minds of others. Why sexual wholeness cannot be considered a calling within the civil partnerships that the church otherwise accepts as good the statement refused to explain.
And so the Church of England has vowed merely not to "exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity to the Church's teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life". The key word there is conformity. What has effectively happened is that the church has declared adherence to its rigid and plainly contradictory orthodoxy to be the ultimate determinant of suitablity for episcopal duties. That, for me, is a huge step backwards. It suggests the need to control and ensure unquestioning obedience.
One has to wonder whether the Church of England has learned anything from the experiences of the Canadian Episcopalian Church that has so often led bravely from the front on equality issues. The fears of schism and division have been overplayed, usually as a convenient excuse for inactivity. The reality, as we learned from the Canadian Anglicans, is that hostility often fades away when faced with loving tolerance - just as discrimination would disappear if confronted with a true inclusivity.
What the Church of England continues to do is redefine same-sex clergy as second-rate. In doing so, it diminishes the humanity of men of faith and that of gay people more generally. It excludes such people from fulfilling their potential; something which, in my view, is far more sinful than attraction to members of the same sex. The church must realise that it is called to enhance life in all it fullness - not to reduce it; that it is called to love fully and wastefully - not conditionally; that it is called to be a witness to all - not merely some.
The idea that gay men can serve as bishops so long as they remain celibate is, in any case, an objectionable and intellectually unsustainable argument. The same criteria that the church uses to determine whether opposite-sex relationships are whole should also apply to same-sex ones. And so, if the sexual act makes marriage whole for one so also it does for another. The notion that celibate relationships are somehow holier or purer in the case of gay people than are loving, caring sexual relationships is absurd and devoid of any Biblical defence whatsoever.
No doubt the Church of Scotland will be anxiously watching this from a distance. While the Kirk has admittedly been more careful in its pronouncements it is recognising that it too will shortly have to make a firm decision that will inevitably inflame existing passions, heighten tensions and perhaps lead to painful division. No-one relishes such an outcome (apart from, perhaps, one or two traditionalists) but it might be the necessary price for creating a new, inclusive, welcoming, compassionate, socially relevant, diverse and tolerant Kirk. Perhaps also one in which sexuality will no longer be an issue and in which the private lives of its clergy are just that. Perhaps one in which Rev Scott Rennie could be welcomed as the moderator...or perhaps in which I could feel sufficiently welcomed to again entertain notions of entering ministry. Actually, I'd just settle for a church in which no-one's gender, sexual identity or orientation would ever be an issue.
To paraphrase Stonewall: some Christians are gay...get over it. Some of them might aspire to church leadership...let's welcome it.
Certainly, the Church of England shows no aspiration to be that kind of church, with its intolerance towards gay people and its poor treatment of women. It has instead surrendered leadership on equality issues and I now only hope that the Kirk, and other denominations, move forward willingly to seize the opportunities that the Church of England has surrendered or abandoned. Wishing the "issue" to resolve itself will not work. Taking a lead to defeat intolerance and discrimination may - perhaps - be what rescues the church more widely from cultural and social irrelevance.