Current Affairs

Comment: Is the Church of England homophobic?

Stuart Ross July 13, 2012
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The Church of England (CoE) is the established church in England, which leads to a focus on the organisation as one of the religious leaders within the nation. It is more than this, for some, who have a range of views of the CoE. Some, see the CoE as “a vibrant community”, “a group of individuals who encourage each other and seek to support their communities”, “a focus for worship” etc. Others outside the CoE regard it as irrelevant, dogmatic and lacking perspective on today’s issues.

The CoE state part of their purpose is to be “A Christian Presence in Every Community”. If the CoE are to succeed in reaching every community, they need to engage with the LGBT community the communities which have LGBT people within them.

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has criticised some in the CoE and wider church for feeling so ‘embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted’ over homosexuality that they seem unwelcoming to outsiders and convey a lack of understanding or a lack of patience. Dr Williams, when commenting on the CoE and how it has responded to homosexuality, commented that often the impression is given ‘that sex is the only thing the church is interested in’.

Homosexuality is clearly a divisive and difficult issue for the CoE to deal with. Within the CoE and wider Anglican Communion there are those who have the view that homosexuality is a sin and those who disagree with that theological viewpoint. Currently, the CoE states that heterosexuality or celibacy is expected of Christians. This, whether intentional or not, can give the impression that LGBT people are not seen to have the same value or significance as heterosexual counterparts. Orientation is innate and not a choice, yet some within the CoE (and other churches and religious organisations) place restrictions on LGBT people due to their orientation (which they did not choose and which they can not change). There is a spectrum of responses from within the CoE with regards issues concerning homosexuality; ranging from total acceptance to total rejection.

A number of recent issues have led to an increased media focus on how the CoE reacts to issues connected to homosexuality. Two of these examples have been the CoE submission to the government consultation on equal marriage and the disciplinary action initiated by the Diocese of Chichester concerning Rev David Page. There has been a growing sense amongst some LGBT people that the CoE is institutionally homophobic. If this is the case, perhaps these two issues are symptomatic of the issues within the CoE that need addressing.

The CoE have stated in their submission concerning equal marriage to the government that they do not support the government proposals to enable same sex couples from entering into a civil marriage and celebrating their love, commitment and fidelity. Many have questioned whether the CoE has any credibility in seeking to deny equality for LGBT people. The Law Society stated that the current situation of permitting marriage between heterosexual couples only ‘constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation’ and that ‘such an important ‘societal institution’ as marriage should be equally accessible to all’.

In an article in The Guardian, Archbishop of York, John Sentamu appeared to begin his comments with thoughtful, considerate words “I will be the first to accept that homosexual people have suffered discrimination and sometimes worse through the decades” but then went on to state “Defining marriage as between a man and a woman is not discriminatory against same-sex couples”.

It was to many gay people a slap in the face, a rehashing of that old offensive, hurtful dichotomy that some in the church use “love the sinner, but hate the sin”. What Sentamu was saying in effect was that a gay couple’s love, fidelity and commitment matters less than if it were heterosexual couple. A number of senior clergy (and many more lay people) have publically stated that Sentamu does not speak in their name, nor does the submission to the government speak for them. Bishop Tim Ellis has gone on the record as saying “I am forced to say that those of my colleagues who have spoken out on same-sex marriage do not speak for me and neither, I dare to say, do they speak for the Church of England-they are rehearsing their own opinions.”

There has been some hysteria created by the CoE in their comments, responses and actions. Some of the comments in their submission to the government consultation and the associated comments by various senior clergy are factually incorrect – some have suggested deliberately misleading. There has been some suggestion by the CoE that they might be forced into conducting same sex marriages against their will by the European Courts. This is refuted by comments from various members of senior legal counsel, the Law Society and Liberty.

As Shami Chakrabhati from Liberty said: “The debate around same-sex marriage becomes hysterical when people don’t understand relevant law and principle. As this country’s national Human Rights organisation, we have a long tradition both of promoting equal treatment and defending the rights of those whose opinions we do not share. We are not religious experts but, frankly, neither are the Bishops human rights lawyers. The Church of England should have greater confidence in the strength of freedom of conscience protection under Article 9. As our leading QC’s opinion clearly demonstrates, provision for gay marriage in the UK could never result in religious denominations opposed to it being ordered to conduct such ceremonies.”

In the Diocese of Chichester there have been some allegations of homophobia in the manner with which they have handled concerns regarding Rev David Page.

Rev David Page is a retired CoE priest. He retired in 2008 as vicar of St Barnabus, Clapham Common and moved to the Chichester diocese. Rev Page was a founder member of the Southwark diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network and is an openly gay member of clergy. Rev Page lives with his civil partner within the parish of St Thomas the Martyr in Winchelsea, Sussex.

When Rev Page retired in 2008, he applied to Bishop Wallace Benn for permission to officiate at services within the parish he resides in. Rev Page refused to answer questions concerning his relationship with his civil partner, deeming them to be intrusive. As a result of refusing to answer these questions Bishop Benn refused to grant the permission to officiate in the diocese.

The rector and parish of Winchelsea are supportive of Rev Page and his partner and appealed against Bishop Benn’s refusal – they state this appeal was ignored by the Bishop and diocese.

The rector then encouraged the parish council to pass a motion inviting Rev Page to lead worship and preach regardless. The motion was unanimously carried and Rev Page willingly lead and contributed to the worship of the church in Winchelsea. The current rector is himself nearing retirement and, as a consequence of this, Rev Page decided to submit a further application for a Permission to Officiate (PTO).

A PTO is a concessionary licence granted by a CoE bishop to enable a retired deacon, priest or reader to perform duties within a specific diocese for a period of time. In order to be able to perform these duties a PTO must be in existence and failure to have such a PTO is a breach of ecclesiastical law.

Rev Page states that the only response to the second application was that the application was ignored and for a formal complaint to be lodged against Rev Page for officiating without permission and a further complaint against the rector for permitting it.

Rev Page acknowledges that equality exemptions for religious bodies enable them to legally ask for assurances about relationships which would be illegal in any other context.

The parishioners and community of Winchelsea are very supportive of Rev Page and some have stated that the exercise of Episcopal authority is a ‘persecutory and homophobic exercise that is out of tune with the views of the local church and community’. Rev Page has now been banned from preaching at the church by the Diocese of Chichester.

The Acting Bishop of Chichester the Rt Rev Mark Sowerby said: “The CoE lays down very clear regulations concerning those who officiate in our churches. Those regulations should not be disregarded even in the case of sincere disagreement with Bishops. Apart from considerations of Canon law this is central to the integrity of our safeguarding policy.”

The diocese have also issued a statement regarding the matter being sub-judice and that further comment will not be provided.

Concern has been addressed on a number of discussion groups concerning this matter that the Diocese of Chichester, and the Acting Bishop of Chichester in particular, have sought to link issues of homosexual relationships and child or vulnerable adult protection. Some have voiced concerns that there is the implied suggestion, from the Bishop’s statement, that a homosexual relationship brings with it concerns about risk to children or vulnerable adults.

It is perhaps useful to consider some context in relation to this matter. The Diocese of Chichester has in recent years had to deal with serious allegations concerning child abuse and failures in terms of administration of safeguarding matters. An external observer would anticipate that this might make the Diocese, understandably, defensive on issues concerning safeguarding.

Safeguarding, whilst arguably being principally concerned with child and vulnerable adult welfare, also extend beyond this to issues such as appropriateness of appointments, health and safety etc.

A diocese spokesperson confirmed that the use of the word safeguarding was not intended to suggest any improper risk to children or vulnerable adults from Rev Page or his partner due to their orientation and was meant to refer to the checks that are required for all clergy to protect all parishioners and church contacts. These checks are unable to be verified if a PTO has been refused.

The Diocese of Chichester is a large diocese in the CoE. It is reported by Changing Attitudes to have “a higher than average number gay clergy and gay friendly congregations”. A diocese spokesperson confirmed there are a number of clergy within the diocese who are in open civil partnerships and that the diocese was supportive of these clergy.

The CoE seems to find itself repeatedly in a clash by trying to be all things to all people. It seems to try and unite those (like the Winchelsea congregation) who support clergy who are gay and in committed relationships with those who seek to deny LGBT a voice in church. By trying to appease those who are LGBT Christians (or allies of LGBT Christians) then the CoE infuriates those who hold strong views opposed to homosexuality. By appeasing those who are opposed to homosexuality, the CoE behaves in a homophobic manner and segregates and harms gay people.

Some people within the CoE have bravely spoken out, such as the Bishop of Salisbury and Bishop Tim Ellis. Gay clergy have also voiced concerns about how the CoE has handled situations concerning homosexuality. The Vicar of Lancaster, Rev Nicholas Reade said that there is a glass ceiling in the CoE for those who support same sex marriage.

He said: “There are bishops who say you will not get a job because you are in a civil partnership.” He explained that he viewed the CoE as experiencing institutional homophobia and said: “People do not want to put their head over the parapet, because when they do they are put down”. Some people, however, are being brave and putting their head over the parapet and voicing their strong opinions.

The CoE needs to listen to people like the Bishops of Salisbury, Buckingham and Grantham; the Vicar of Lancaster, the parish of Winchelsea and many more. If they do not listen, and respond, then they will be seen not only as institutionally homophobic but as being so entrenched in their homophobia that they do not care about changing. As Dr Williams has said, they will appear to be obsessed with sex.

There are those within the CoE who shout out loud and proud in an attempt to support LGBT people. There are those who appear to believe that they support LGBT people, but their behaviour is actually damaging gay Christians. There are those who seek to exclude and segregate LGBT Christians.

Whether intentional or not the CoE’s recent public exposure has been negative towards LGBT people.

In terms of the Rev Page situation, it’s clear that administratively there are issues that the Diocese of Chichester can legitimately have concerns about. However, many of the checks and balances that would need to be verified were already previously in existence before he applied for PTO.

It is the author’s understanding that Rev Page’s partner has himself obtained a PTO for the diocese. There would appear to be no discernable risk to the diocese or those it has contact with. It is brave for the parishioners of Winchelsea to take on the Bishop, but sometimes structures need to be robustly challenged.

If this is really a matter of form ticking then those checks should be done and the diocese should be able to state that the only reason for denial of the PTO is due to refusal to answer questions that would be illegal for any other employment arrangement.

If the people of Winchelsea wish to be ministered to by Rev Page, and he is prepared to do so in his retirement – then why should the Bishop stand in their way? In terms of the equal marriage debate the church has adopted an approach which many commentators have said (including some senior clergy) does not voice the opinion of most clergy or parishioners in the CoE. An opinion that alienates and demonises gay people. Some of the language, particularly that of Archbishop Sentamu, has been aggressive, arrogant, harmful and hurtful.

The image the CoE is portraying is one where the leaders are exhibiting a mix of intentional and coincidental homophobia. Some of the homophobic decisions are not intended to be homophobic, but that nonetheless is the outcome. That, surely, is the key issue in the CoE being seen as homophobic – its institutional basis – it drives down deep into the decisions and it effectively, regardless of motivation, alienates and harms LGBT people.

The CoE needs root and branch reform to resolve this.

More: Anti-gay, Church, Church of England, Gay, Religion

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