by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology
One of the slightly tiresome things that British people seem to do is say one thing when they really mean another. I find myself doing this all the time – it’s far easier to talk in riddles or to talk around the point rather than be direct and honest, even blunt. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of Living in Love and Faith. I’ve sat through a number of meetings, and read the book, and talked about it to a group of people from a variety of different viewpoints, and it’s all been described in rather beige terms. Words like ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ feature, as do discussions of ‘good disagreement’ or ‘bible based’ this or that (whatever that actually means?). Yet one word about which there has been far too little discussion has been the word sex.
It’s all a bit icky, I suppose. Nobody really wants to talk about sex to a group of ‘church people’, and prejudices still remain when talking about gay sex between men. The old tropes are never far away from the surface – it’s disgusting, it involves body fluids, and it’s just not polite to talk about it. Sex might be all well and good and produce children, but please let’s not chat about it over coffee. However, the current position of the Church of England is all about sex – and ultimately boils down to who does what to whom, when and even,what goes where. Until we grasp that, we will get nowhere.
The current position of the Church of England is clear – if you are not in an opposite sex marriage, then you should not have sex, full stop. All such extramarital sex is sinful and must be repented of. And as the Church, in their wisdom, blocked gay people from getting married, then gay sex is entirely banned. That is really what the marriage debate is ultimately all about.
Civil partnerships were originally vociferously opposed by bishops, seen as the root and source of all evil, but once it became clear the world was not ending, they warmed to them. Yet it is a lie that “the bishops support civil partnerships” – what most support is the legal protections that civil partnerships bring LGBTQ clergy, provided they promise they’re not having sex. That’s not support – that’s a redefinition of civil partnerships. It is ludicrous to suggest that most clergy in civil partnerships are refraining from sex (willing or otherwise), any more than those in opposite sex marriages are – yet this is the falsehood the Church of England holds onto. It is nonsense. Meanwhile, those that do remain celibate are doing so under duress from a church pursuing a policy that flies in the face of the vast swathes of psychological evidence on wellbeing. Talk about rock and a hard place. Anyone who defends the current position of the church shares culpability in this denigration of LGBTQ clergy.
In my professional life, I have seen a number of different definitions of what sexual intercourse is. What has both bemused and appalled me in equal measure is that whenever this question is raised with those who so vociferously oppose same sex marriage, I am told that it’s a facetious question. It really isn’t – if you oppose something, you need to be able to define it. When does the sensual, for example, become the sexual? When does intimacy become ‘sexual’? Being blunt, does something need to penetrate something else for it to be classed as sex? One particularly useless definition I’ve heard is ‘something you wouldn’t do with a friend’ – is this really the best we can do (and is it even true)?
And the interesting thing is that I, and many who support same sex marriage, have no truck with a ‘what goes where’ understanding of sex. For many of us, sex is fundamentally part of relationship forming – something that comes from within and builds up a relationship in love. Sex is not some strange “add-on” – it’s central to the development of relationship. By telling someone they can have a civil partnership but cannot have sex, you are fundamentally assigning their relationship as second best. In fact, you are actively doing violence to it. You are demanding that a key part of the human story is withheld – that something which dignifies the human person is forbidden. You are placing an erroneous separation around the sexual act. This is plain and simple for anyone with even an elementary grasp of human psychology.
Yet that is what ordinands are asked to sign up to when going forward for ordination – ‘do you agree to abide by Issues in Human Sexuality?’ means ‘will you promise to agree with this false divide, and make sure you don’t have sex and thus deepen your relationship with the person you love?’. The justification, of course, being that clergy are supposed to set an example to laity – so ultimately, the position of the Church of England is threefold: firstly there is a distinct dividing line between sex and relationship, secondly that all sex between people of the same sex is entirely unacceptable, and thirdly that their relationships are thus of a lower quality than opposite sex marriages. It’s ridiculous. And intolerable.
The problem is that no-one in the hierarchy seems willing to admit this.
Likewise, far too many clergy are forced to be complicit: ‘yes, we have a civil partnership, and strictly speaking that means we are celibate, but…’ Some bishops even seem to encourage their archdeacons to do the dirty work for them, going in after an interview to make sure the new vicar understands the ‘policy’. Civil partnerships only – no marriages. And “you need to sign up to Issues…if you know what I mean”.
It’s time this nonsense was blown out of the water!
Clergy in civil partnerships are having sex, and the church rules mean that they are forced to lie about it. This is not healthy sexual politics. Meanwhile, clergy still cannot enter a civil marriage with someone of the same sex, based on the House of Bishops’ ‘pastoral’ letter issued seven years ago on Valentine’s Day, ostensibly because of sex. Yet even the application of this rule is subject to a postcode lottery, with different bishops interpreting it differently.
This damaging farce needs to end. Clergy need to be encouraged to be honest, not duplicitous. Bishops need to openly refuse to abide by the 2014 statement and turn the conversation out into the open.
And we need to start talking about sex.