Vocations in the Cupboard?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral


The Church of England is working to increase vocations to ordination by 50%, including making them more diverse. This is most obvious in relation to ethnic origin, where there is a tiny percentage of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic priests, even compared to the rather larger per cent of BAME church members. But it’s also visible in relation to young women, where some of the evangelical churches providing younger male ordinands don’t support women who feel called to leadership and service through ordination because of complementarian views of the role of the sexes based on biblical interpretation not shared by the rest of the Church of England.

There have been efforts to encourage and work for more vocations among BAME people and young women, to redress the imbalance and encourage priestly diversity. Much of the problem comes from inbuilt discrimination in a Church which still allows legal discrimination against women and which has belittled the equal humanity, ministries and gifts of women and ethnic minority people for centuries.

But there’s another area where attitudes to diversity in ministry are unenlightened – in relation to gay people. This is normally hidden; but an article by Vicky Beeching in The Guardian on 5th September opened a window, not only onto the dilemmas facing young gay Christians feeling called to be ordained, but also the unkindness and hostility with which they can be treated. Beeching’s article was honest in expressing doubts, shared by many she knows, about offering for ordination in a Church which tells her that, while committed same-sex celibate relationships are OK, her belief that gay Christians can marry is wrong and is a problem for ordination. If, however, she embraces celibacy then she could be ordained; a policy which, as she points out, is for many ‘a cruel and unhealthy strain on their partnership that straight clergy couples don’t have to face’.

What do you do when you’re gay, don’t feel ‘called’ by God to celibacy, but do feel ‘called’ to offer yourself to the Church for ordained ministry? Does that mean you’ve got it wrong? That’s what was being said to all women feeling a call to priesthood until very recently in the Church’s history. And it was 25 years ago that Issues in Human Sexuality stated that, although the Church’s teaching might not allow it, gay people might in good Christian conscience live in a committed relationship as part of their Christian discipleship – but not if ordained.

That means that a gay, lay person feeling a call to priesthood is in the same position as a Roman Catholic heterosexual, because they have to deny themselves ever having an intimate exclusive relationship if they are to be ordained a priest. That creates either an absolute bar to gay people who are not also called to celibacy offering for ordination, or else a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture in which people don’t tell the truth about who they are and what they do. No wonder gay people feeling called by the Church to explore ordination look at this and wonder what it means for them. They see gay people in partnerships in ministry, some openly and some not, some acknowledging celibacy and others not, and agonise about what they would have to go through, whether they are really able to exercise ministry or not, and the inconsistency of the Church which, if Hilton’s position is strictly followed, would deny ministry to any gay clergy not willing to make a commitment to celibacy, and which for some gay Christians means ending relationships which the Church has allowed them in good conscience to have as lay people.

The blogger Adrian Hilton aka ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ responded to Beeching’s article with a scathing article which belittled her and the dilemma about vocation she exposes, accusing her of ‘selfish obsessions’, ‘wailing in the Guardian’, and being unwilling to accept Christianity’s ‘harsh rigorism’, anguish and sacrifice.

It’s not just that Hilton’s article lacks the compassion which he calls for in his final paragraph. It’s not only that it misrepresents Beeching by using the term ‘selfish ends’, when her article is making a plea, not for her personally, but for all gay Christians who want to serve Jesus Christ and would like – in response to the Church’s need – to have their sense of vocation to priesthood fairly treated, but don’t have confidence that it will be.

Hilton’s article is a good illustration of what Beeching is talking about: although he calls for sacrificial vocation, he doesn’t show the corresponding compassion called for 25 years ago in Issues. He doesn’t seem to understand that gay people not only face a level of public interest in their situation, but that the Church itself has been inconsistent over the issue, and told people to hide their sexuality or their beliefs. The case of Nicholas Chamberlain to which Hilton refers is a case in point: he became a bishop with his situation known privately but not publicly, and didn’t make it public until he feared it would be made so without his consent. He was appointed while not being publicly gay, whereas Jeffrey John who had been honest about his situation by being in a civil partnership and was likewise in a celibate relationship was forced to step down from ordination as a bishop, even though he meets Hilton’s criterion for being able to exercise ministry. How is that going to encourage gay Christians to respond to the Church’s call?

The irony of Hilton using the moniker ‘Cranmer’ is of course that the genuine Archbishop Cranmer got secretly married, breaking his vow of celibacy, and hid his wife in a cupboard when required until his objective of legalising clerical marriage was attained….

That’s why we need a process of growing trust and openness so we can face these things with honesty and compassion. In interfaith dialogue one of the key ways in is to treat your dialogue partners with respect, and to look for the best in what they say rather than look for the worst and how to attack where you disagree.  There are many conservative in theology who are unconditionally compassionate for gay people in the Church, and vice-versa; and such compassion comes, not through duty or in theory, but through empathising with the situation of others.

Most of us will have had to make significant sacrifices in our discipleship of Jesus Christ: if we remember what that meant for us, and the pains they caused us, then we can stand alongside those who grapple with them now. But belittling Christians different from us is no way to encourage a strong and diverse set of vocations for the Church’s ministry.

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5 Responses to Vocations in the Cupboard?

  1. Stuart says:

    Amen, Amen, Amen!

  2. Olivia Graham says:

    Thank you David. Very well said.

  3. kiwianglo says:

    This is a scandal in the Church of England that might well be replicated in other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Despite the fact of official assurances that it is OK to be gay, the Church still puts a fence around the ministerial priesthood, condemning all homosexual aspirants to live a celibate life – a status that – unlike the Roman Catholic Church – is not applied to heterosexual Anglicans. There is still a whiff of hypocrisy about this situation that needs yo be dispelled.

  4. This double tongue talk has only increased, and made more obvious by the many women who feel called to the ministry of the priesthood, who are in a loving relationship with their partner. Like us male gays, they too are being forced to live a half truth, don’t ask don’t tell. Only when the church accepts who they are, in all their fullness, will the church receive the full Blessing of their wholesome ministry.

Any thoughts?