The Church of England has always struggled with cultural change that diverts away from what it doctrinally and traditionally holds dear. The dialectic between Church and society is difficult because the Church is wedded to the notions that tradition has a rightness within it and that text, whether it be Scripture or Canon Law, somehow communicates truth in a monosemic way. The Church having a meaningful conversation with itself about the complexity of human sexuality is a big ask since it seems to come down to social justice being at odds with unchangeable doctrine and the problem of getting everyone to agree.
At the start of LGBT history month, the Bishops have shown themselves to be fairly tone-deaf to social change. The Shared Conversations on gay marriage was summed up in a document to be debated at General Synod on 15th February. This is either poor accidental timing, or cultural myopia, since the House of Bishops seemingly has absolutely nothing to add to the celebration of LGBT communities and their QIA allies. LGBTQIA is easily searchable – something the Bishops really should have done to get their ‘tone’ about sexuality more aligned with the society they hope to reach. The recent queering of liturgy (this is a must-read) by some gloriously rebellious ordinands has attracted opprobrium. I leave it to LGBTQIA friends to judge whether it was appropriately done, but at least there’s a pulse in the deadish sexual vocal chords of the Church.
The Bishops certainly do not waste text on displaying any kind of sexual or cultural savoir-faire and, cutting to the chase (which the document fails to do), they are pretty well reasonably agreed on being fairly decisive for the time being about doing nothing to change doctrine regarding gay marriage. And really who can blame them? Since changing Canon Law would be tiresome, protracted and a bit complicated – and it would piss off the conservative traditionalist. It is though, in my view, with breath-taking cheek that the Bishops want to establish a more welcoming atmosphere in the Church for those in the LGB community (trans people don’t get a mention). This duality in thinking is featured in the expectation that clergy are held to a higher moral standard than laity and so clergy who are not heterosexual are absolutely expected to be celibate, even in a civil partnership. This is how to say gay sex is morally wrong without actually spelling it out. There is a heart-warming preamble towards a possible apology sometime in future written statements for the hurt caused by the Church in its past treatment of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. ( Just say ‘sorry’.)
When, by pardoning gay men of convictions under previous pernicious laws, a right-wing government throws shade on your efforts to come to terms with human sexuality, you know you are in deep cultural shit.
There is no eye-contact in this document. It’s a manifesto for retreat into tradition, Canon Law and particular scriptural hermeneutics. Worst of all, the House of Bishops hides behind their obsession with unity. They have never achieved unity before and women clergy will testify to their own continuing liminality. The ship is sinking fast, you’re losing another generation, but as long as you all go down with one voice, then let her go down. None can speak out in favour or against gay marriage for the sake of collegial unity. I don’t pretend to be a theologian and I am playing fast and loose here, but what’s that verse from Revelation 3:16? ‘Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth’. It is all a bit vomity. However, it is clear that there is agreement on the bottom line – that the Church should continue its privileging of sex in permanent heterosexual unions preferably for procreation. No gay marriage in sight, but the 1950s are nipping at our ankles.
This dreary hand-wringing is the result of months and months of weak tea and cheap biscuits – what on earth have they actually said during these Conversations? The document finds its centre of gravity plummeting to the lowest common denominator, which leaves the Bishops tinkering round the edges with talk of written guidance on how to be nicer to gay people (and cohabitees interestingly) and other such flimflam. It is all just ecclesiastical white noise. How can Synod possibly debate this vacuous nonsense? There is more spiritual depth and integrity in my shopping list.
After contextual throat-clearing, the Bishops are saying that, according to ‘the Lord’s teaching’, marriage is between a man and a woman in a permanent union for the procreation and nurture of children. I don’t want to pull attention away from the debate about gay marriage, but let’s look at the discourse that is underpinning this tract.
The apotheosis of the heterosexual nuclear family puts a whole swathe of the UK population off-side. The divorced, the childfree by choice, the co-habiting and of course ‘those who experience same-sex attraction’ are all deviating from the sanctified and idealised family unit as enshrined in Canon B (church law). In my view, privileging the heterosexual family unit is dangerous. Not everyone thrives in the nuclear family, some people actually mentally, emotionally and physically perish there, and not everyone experiences marriage or having children as a way of self-actualising. The nuclear family’s genealogy, if you chose to believe some of the socio-historical narratives, is ignominious. Rosemary Radford Ruether (in Womanchurch, 1984) describes it as a social ouroborous, constructed to mirror the patriarchal divine hierarchy; as God is over man, man is over woman and children. Or consider Engels’ version that the nuclear family developed as a way of establishing patrilineage tied into private property. Either way, women and children have not always fared well in this institution. The notion that this is God’s ideal and everything else is on a spectrum of deviancy and ‘sin’ is stifling, oppressive and fast becoming ridiculous.
The Shared Conversation document is a fumble with human sexuality, showing the Bishops are not just a beat behind social mores, but an entire song. The House of Bishops is part of the House of Lords, part of the governance mechanisms of this country. I would like the Church of England to come under as much scrutiny as other State institutions. The fact that it exempts itself from equality legislation should be problematic to us all, especially since it cannot handle social change. But then, for an institution that has structurally legitimated no-go areas for female clergy (politely and oxymoronically known as the ‘two integrities’), why would it be capable of dealing with the huge variations in human sexuality that the rest of us long ago began to celebrate?