“Church of England lifts opposition to gay bishops” declared the headlines. It took only a glance to realise that the news is not as good as it sounds. Clergy in same-sex relationships will be allowed to become bishops – as long as they don’t have sex.
Gay bishops in the Church of England must be “celibate”. What’s celibate? Will a bishop with a same-sex partner be allowed to kiss him? To hold his hand as they walk down the street? To engage in genital activity short of penetration? Celibacy, like sex, is rarely defined.
Celibacy (like marriage) is a gift from God. It is a calling. Some are called to it, others are not. What an insult to people with the gift of celibacy to present their calling as some sort of second-rate option for people treated as second-rate Christians.
The announcement may, or may not, come as good news to gay and bisexual clergy with a hope of becoming bishops. But many more people will be affected by this news.
For queer Christians, it is another message telling us that we are not welcome as equals in the Church of Christ. For many lesbian, gay and bisexual people outside the Church, as well as others committed to equality, it is the latest announcement of Christian hostility to them, the latest factor on top of many others to deter them from Christianity.
With some Christians preaching blatant homophobia, and others failing to challenge it, it is understandable that some grasp at any sign of progress towards equality and justice. With right-wing Christian lobby groups leading the virulent opposition to equal marriage, with Tory MPs using Christianity to justify homophobic comments in the House of Commons and with homophobic “therapy” on the rise, it is tempting to welcome any sign of change in churches with open arms. I suggest it is a temptation into which we should not be led.
This announcement is not progress, however much it may have annoyed the most extreme homophobes, who claim to be concerned about sexual behaviour but don’t want gay or bisexual bishops even if they don’t have sex. The Church of England has merely clarified that its bishops must abide by the same discriminatory rules as its clergy: rules that have already pushed many able, devout and Godly individuals from the ranks of the Church.
Theologically speaking, this ruling is another triumph of law over faith, of human rules over human love, of the letter that kills over the Holy Spirit that gives life. It is an insult to the Gospel proclaimed by the Christ who said that rules were made for people, not people for rules and who modelled relationships based on love, equality and integrity rather than selfishness or convention.
In 1964, fresh from the wave of civil rights demonstrations that had swept the US, Martin Luther King wrote of “those people who seek to apportion to us the rights that they have always enjoyed”. He suggested that they were asking people who were facing inequality to “accept half the loaf and to pay for that half by waiting willingly for the other half to be distributed in crumbs over a hard and protracted winter of injustice.”
Today, queer Christians – and others affected by church discrimination – are treated as if we have to bargain with church leaders for the equality that rightly belongs to us. It is no more possible to be half equal than it is to be half alive.