The Celibacy Question

I like to wake up to Christian radio, in the hope that the music might help me to start my day in an attitude of worship. This morning I didn’t awaken to worship music, but to a discussion of the Church of England’s decision to allow gay men in Civil Partnerships to become bishops. Instead of the opening of my heart into worship I  felt my heart shrink and a knot of anxiety in my stomach, as I always do whenever I hear Christians discussing issues that impact the LGBT community.

faith mandala

Image © Hannelie Grobler (www.jezreel-art.com)

This is not a very “new” decision. The C of E announced it just before Christmas on their website, but I imagine it wasn’t noticed by many because the attention of the church was elsewhere in the festive season. Nor is it entirely unprecedented – since 2005 Anglican vicars and lay leaders have been given this same “option”  to be celibate if in a civil partnership and in leadership. The radio station interviewed a member of Anglican Mainstream, a conservative group within the C of E. His concerns? That it would be too hard to “police” the situation. That “bishops wouldn’t ask ” and vicars would simply choose “not to answer” the celibacy question.

The Celibacy Question.

This is the question that bishops and vicars are allowed to ask LGBT people in leadership about their sex lives. When asked, there are two options if you are not celibate: lie and get to keep your ministry, or tell the truth and leave your ministry. Unless your bishop or vicar decides to go for the “don’t ask don’t tell” approach that the Anglican Mainstream interviewee was so concerned about, that is. The problem is that you are likely to suffer whichever answer you give.

I was asked the Celibacy Question by the curate at the Anglican church I joined as a student. The Christian Union at my university had found out (via a friend of mine, who I had trusted), that I was living what they termed “a lesbian lifestyle.” The first thing that they did was phone the church where I served on the Student Ministry Team to demand that I be taken in hand.

“They” were one of the leaders of the smaller college CU I belonged to, the leader of the University-wide CU, and, believe it or not, the leader of the organisation of Christian Unions to which my university CU belonged. Meanwhile the same “friend” who had outed me in the first place also met with the church leaders to air his concerns.

I was pulled in for a meeting with the curate, who was also the overseer of our Student Ministry. In fairness, she was considerably upset both that the CU had intervened in the ministry and that they had tried to strong-arm the church into the action that they wanted (my removal from the team). She had also not been impressed by my “friend”, with whom she had met and it had become clear that he had been motivated by jealousy that I was on the team and he wasn’t. However, she was also considerably upset that I hadn’t told her or the team about my “lifestyle” and couldn’t get her head around the fact that I simply hadn’t thought of it as being such a big issue. I didn’t think of myself as being “in leadership” and therefore didn’t see a problem.

“But are you celibate?” she asked me. The Celibacy Question. But first I had some celibacy questions of my own.

“How do you define celibacy?” I asked. “Is it just not having sex, or am I forbidden from kissing, hugging and holding hands too?”

Come to think of it, how do you define sex? (I added in my head) Is it just the whole heterosexual thing or does lesbian sex count? (I couldn’t voice this to her, though. I was 19. I was already blushing furiously and feeling protective of my intimate life.)

Her answer was that celibacy meant that my partner were to do nothing that “good friends” wouldn’t do. We were allowed to hug, to kiss each other on the cheek and hold hands in a “friendly” way. We were not allowed to share a bed, but we were allowed to share a house. Sex was definitely out, and so was kissing or anything that “might lead to sex.”

“No” I said “in that case, I am not celibate.”

I couldn’t lie about it and then go on living a lie every time I went to Student Ministry Team meetings or worshipped in that place.

She asked me if I could be celibate, in order to continue my ministry. This was such a loaded question. To say “no” felt like saying that I valued my sex life more than my calling. To say “yes” felt like a ticking time bomb – eventually, I felt, I would break my promise and to this church that would have seemed like rebellion and betrayal and it would have broken my heart even further.

So I said “no”, lost my ministry, and lived with the pain of feeling I had let the church down, the embarrassment of having to tell my (much loved) colleagues on the ministry team why I was leaving, and the brokenness of having to walk away from a church in which I felt spiritually fulfilled and a ministry to which I had felt strongly called.

The Christian Union pretty much disowned me, but the Student Ministry Team expressed anger over the way the CU had acted and, bless them, continued to invite me to their social time as a team. There was uncounted blessing in their actions, but recovery has taken years, and I am still not over it. I distrust churches. And when I heard the conversation on the radio this morning, the hurt flooded back.

I hate that the Church of England is doing this. In asking celibacy of those in Civil Partnerships, from lay people all the way up to bishops, they are treading a dangerous line. I am not worried about bishops secretly having gay sex. Or rather, I am, but not in the same way that  the Anglican Mainstream guy on the radio was…

I am worried because the Church of England demands celibacy but fails to explain what it really means.

I am worried about bishops in Civil Partnerships choosing celibacy in good faith only to “fall short” and be unable to talk about this in fear of losing their ministries.

I am worried about the burden of guilt this would place upon individuals.

I am worried that “scandals” will erupt, exposing bishops to the same pain, embarrassment and brokenness that I felt.

I am worried that people who were not asked the Celibacy Question or refused to answer it will be stigmatised within the church, or in certain parts of it at least.

And I am worried that this decision intended to release people into ministry will bind them instead.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy
Psalm 130:1-2

More posts on Middle Ground about sexuality:
Finally Willing to Talk 
“Gay Cures” – Were LGBT Activists Right About Desert Stream?
Coming Out…or Not.
Proud of Pride?

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18 thoughts on “The Celibacy Question

  1. davidsja says:

    Reblogged this on Davidsja's Blog and commented:
    We need to hear the voice of those hurt by decisions made in the House of Bishops. It is not abstract ethics but people’s lives being affected.

    • Thanks for the reblog! Yes I think this is the “missing piece” that is forgotten when Christians discuss these issues – they make them “issues” instead of very real people with very real feelings.

  2. davidsja says:

    Thanks for writing such a clear assessment of the impact this House of Bishops decision will make (has made) on ordinary LGBT people seeking to live their Christian life in the light & with the integrity God gave them.

  3. Thank you so much for this blog. The situation you describe is frankly appalling, and my heart goes out to you. Nobody has a right to ask anyone else to be celibate, no matter who they work for. If the Church of England is going to ask the Celibacy Question of its ministers, then let it go the whole hog and ask it of them all, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or other.

    That’ll show them.

    Anne B

    • Gosh, this comment has really made me think! Perhaps this is, after all, a good reason to have celibacy for all ordained ministers, like in the Catholic Church?

      I have always said that I just wish churches would be clearer about LGBT issues, even if it means saying “we don’t allow gay people into ministry”. At least I would have avoided a lot of hurt if the position of that church had been made clearer to me (I am not Anglican, just happened to end up there). I kind of think churches should choose and stick to their choice – the problem with the C of E is that they send out very mixed messages about lots of issues. I am sure there are Anglican churches around for whom it would not have been such a huge issue but this makes churchgoing very complicated for LGBT Anglicans – how does one know whether one’s church will be ok or not?

      For me, there are two options for churches: be fully inclusive of LGBT people at all levels, or not. This is one place where the “middle ground”, ironically, is not working in anyone’s benefit!

      • I can see your point about Anglican muddle and how it caused you pain. But I’m not sure about having only two options. How would an excluding church become an inclusive one? For most Christians of my generation who now want LGBTQ people fully included, it’s been a process of many steps to reach that view, and it’s an even slower process to achieve a critical mass.

        Having said that, the Church of England seemed to be making a lot of progress in its awareness at the end of eighties, but since then those who cannot accept actively gay people have been at pains to keep them out as far as possible.

        • I didn’t really express that very well…what I mean is that I think churches (individual churches, even if part of a wider denomination) should state very clearly what their inclusion policy is so that LGBT people won’t be caught unawares. I suppose this is unusual, but I am actually ok if individual churches think that being gay is a sin (I was there once too!), but I wish that they would be clearer. Too many churches throw out statements like “come as you are” and “all are welcome” and don’t really think through what that might actually *look like*. A lot of churches seem to be ok with LGBT people coming along (sort of) but are definitely NOT happy with LGBT people being involved in leadership or having ministries. As for the Church of England, it frustrates me beyond belief (as an outsider) that each individual church can have a vastly different way of dealing with this with bishops etc making statements that seem to contradict each other. The problem with making complicated rules like this new celibate gay bishops rule is also that they are open to interpretation (as I found out…I didn’t think I was “in leadership”, I just knew that I was on the Student Ministry Team and I was in charge of catering and hospitality at our events.) In the end, I choose which church to go to and I’d like to be able to make an informed choice.

  4. Tiggy Sagar says:

    Thank you for this. Hope you don’t mind, I reposted it on the Facebook page of Christians for Equal Marriage, UK. I probably should have asked first. I know some of the people at MCC Newcastle. I go to MCC Bath.

    • You’re welcome :-). Of course I don’t mind – the way I think about it, i put this stuff out there for the world to see, so anyone can share it anywhere they like. Say hi to Rev. Kieran for me, he came and preached at MCCN a while back and I really enjoyed it!

  5. Until I read this I thought that I had said everything I needed to say on the subject in my various comments on F/B but this article says it with much greater eloquence. So on behalf of my many friends – Thanks

  6. Graham Smith says:

    How distressing for you. And how unnecessary.

    I despair at those so-called Christians who wish to sit in judgment on others in this way. They clearly lack both knowledge of the very practical circumstances that lead to requirement that priests be celebate in the first place (which was to prevent the priest’s sons from inheriting church property), and the ability to follow both the second commandment (to love your neighbour as yourself) and Christ’s own commandment to his followers (that you love one another as I have loved you).

    My only response can be to quote the shortest scriptural verse I know: “Jesus wept!”

  7. Stephen Peters says:

    Just one thought. In the Church of England there is the possibility of Confession and Absolution for those who require is – but no priest/minister is given the right to demand this or to cross question people about their private/spiritual life and make judgements. Equally, this must apply to people’s sexual/private life. There is no tradition of asking and expecting to be told. It is between the self and the Almighty. And those who received the information from your “friend” should have told him to mind his own business, to put his own house in order and to move on elsewhere – not accept what he told to make judgements on you. It really won’t do.

    • I have been thinking about this and wondering if the church would have acted differently had the Christian Union not been on their back. After the event I realised that the CU had a lot of power over this church because they were one of the three churches that the CU “recommended” to new students and they held a lot of their events there. I am wondering if the church felt pressurised to act a certain way by the influential Christian Union or risk being “struck off” the list. When I met with the curate she informed me that there were other gay people in the church and that the church was encouraging them to be in relationships and I always thought this information jarred rather with what I experienced.

  8. I agree with Stephen here. When that friend went to complain to the church leadership, they should indeed have got short shrift (in the nicest possible way …) and the information should have been ignored. That would have been the honourable thing to do, and twice in the past – though under different circumstances – I have done exactly this.

    Anne

  9. IpswichBrian says:

    Thank you for this insightful piece on the difficulty of the position the Church of England has taken. I agree with the observation that this requirement should apply to all or none. Are 19 year old heterosexual student volunteers required to make statements and promises about their sexual activity and agreeing to remain celibate?

    In reality God made us all sexual beings. Any advice the church has to offer about our sex and sexuality should apply to everyone, not just a small “sub-set” of those who are seeking God.

    • Good points here! I was never asked to make any statement before volunteering with the Student Ministry Team (which I was invited to join by that same curate who could “see my potential”. The curate in question did tell me that she would have said the same thing to a heterosexual member of the team had she discovered that they were having sex outside of marriage. However, when asked whether I could carry on the ministry if my partner and I got a Civil Partnership she said I would still have to be celibate. I think this is known as a double standard…

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