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.
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
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?