Bishops to show us the way

Today, the story trending on Twitter is that Phillip Schofield has come out as gay, at the age of 57. He has spoken movingly and passionately about the damage that concealment was doing to him and said that ‘all you can be in your life is honest with yourself’. He insisted that the timing was his decision; in other words, that he wasn’t doing this to preempt some sort of outing. This made me think once more about the current House of Bishops.

The previous day, I’d happened to hear again Flanders’ and Swann’s A Song of Patriotic Prejudice (1963). If you haven’t heard it, or just haven’t heard it for a long time, it’s worth a listen in the aftermath of the first stage of Brexit, not least for the the ‘Scotsman’ who ‘hasn’t got bishops to show him the way’. In his introduction, Michael Flanders presented it as an attempt to write a national song for England. He said

in the old days, you know the good old days when I was a boy, people didn’t, we didn’t bother in England about nationalism. I mean, nationalism was on its way out. We’d got pretty well everything we wanted. And we didn’t go around saying how marvelous we were – everybody knew that – any more than we bothered to put our names on our stamps. I mean, there’s only two kinds of stamps: English stamps, in sets at the beginning of the album, and foreign stamps all mixed at the other end.

When listening to the song now, its original humour and satire don’t really work. Is it funny, or do the national stereotypes feel so uncomfortable that a laugh isn’t the right response?

That line about bishops feels particularly odd in the fallout after the House of Bishops (un)Pastoral Statement and the minimalist apology from the archbishops, about which I’ve co-written a blog post for Via Media. Is this ‘showing us the way’? It does seem very odd to me that a statement like that could come out of a group who’ve been having sessions on the process of LLF for years now. That word ‘pastoral’ in particular: there have been attempts to suggest that we silly people didn’t understand that ‘pastoral’ has a special technical meaning here and that this somehow exempts the statement from its absence of any sense of understanding the flock to which it is apparently addressed. Well, in that case, how come LLF includes a Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG)? I’ve met them as part of LLF. One of them was a complete star when I had a tearful meltdown during a residential meeting; I say ‘star’ because they made the point that I could just withdraw from the whole process and everyone would fully understand and would thank me for what I had been able to contribute. Hearing that ‘permission’ helped me to stay on.

So, were they involved in issuing something that claimed to be ‘Pastoral’? PAG issued their ‘pastoral principles‘ last year. They are

  • acknowledge prejudice
  • speak into silence
  • address ignorance
  • cast out fear
  • admit hypocrisy
  • pay attention to power

Excellent stuff. These principles have been commended to parishes. ‘Admit hypocrisy’ includes ‘We do not commend intrusive questioning’ – yet the (un)Pastoral Statement states

Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into civil partnerships must expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.

Issues in Human Sexuality, 1991: the document which states that the laity can, but the clergy can’t, ‘claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’ (p.45). The report rejected the proposal ‘that bishops should be more rigorous in searching out and exposing clergy who may be in sexually active homophile relationships’ (pp.45-6), mentioned clergy ‘who feel it is their duty to come out, that is, to make known publicly either their orientation or their practice’ (p.46), but had a problem with those ‘who are themselves in active homophile partnerships, and who come out as a matter of personal integrity’ (p.46). So how ‘rigorous’ is that ‘searching out and exposing’ to be? Diocesan Directors of Ordinands currently have to check that those recommended for training will ‘live within the guidelines’ of Issues, shorthand for ‘it’s OK to be gay but only if you’re not “sexually active”‘. With its expectation of ‘asking for assurances’, this new (un)Pastoral Statement is continuing that tradition of asking questions about what goes on in the bedroom. Yet the pastoral principles include ‘We do not commend intrusive questioning’…

And as for bishops showing us the way, the only ‘out’ bishop remains Nicholas Chamberlain, Bishop of Grantham, who is on PAG. When he came out and announced that he was in a relationship, he received hundreds of letters, overwhelmingly supportive. Many people in the Church of England know that he is not the only gay in our village. Outing bishops, as practised just this week in Private Eye, is wrong: the timing must be their decision. But hypocrisy is also wrong. That PAG pastoral principles list, again under ‘Admit hypocrisy’, asked parishes the question

Can it be right that there are situations where people who might wish to be open about their sexual orientation feel forced to dissemble, or when parishes find themselves evading issues of sexuality?

A House and a College of Bishops containing people who conceal their sexuality and yet endorse statements which condemn their own relationships: how does that help us to trust them? Is this the only ‘way’ they will show us?

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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