Yesterday a spokesperson for the Church of England accused Changing Attitude, and me in particular, of irresponsibility for saying there are at least ten gay bishops in addition to Nick Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham, who revealed on Friday that he is gay and partnered. I was repeating a truth I have on previous occasions, a truth the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, stated in ‘More Perfect Union’ and reported in the Telegraph on 28 September 2014. The exact number fluctuates as bishops retire and new bishops are appointed but has always remained at about 13% of the College of Bishops because gay priests continue to be appointed as bishops.
The presence of God
When I sit deep in the presence of God every morning for 30 minutes, sometimes contemplating a crucifix of the self-emptying Christ, sometimes eyes wide shut, I don’t experience the presence of God as hostile to or negative about my sexuality, my relationship, or the pleasure of intimacy with my partner.
On the contrary, I experience the presence of God as caring about and affirming my love, my fulfilment in relationship and my openness to and love for my partner. God cares that my self-giving mirrors the self-emptying of Jesus the Christ.
Jesus and the crowd
This morning my mind roamed over the Gospels and the narratives of Jesus’ ministry, actions and encounters. Crowds clamoured after Jesus, pursuing him across lakes and up hills and mountains. He often tried to escape. They clamoured because they knew they were in the presence of someone who held the key to the transformation of life, not in a purely verbal or intellectual way, but emotionally and holistically, by his real presence. This man told the truth about life, its challenges, and the offer of life in all its fullness. I sit in the presence of this divine witness to God’s unconditional love every morning.
The crowds I encounter in congregations and at wedding breakfasts and the blessing of same-sex relationships are wholeheartedly supportive of equal marriage. There are occasional dissenters, of course, those who don’t get God as infinite love, and their presence is also very biblical.
The door opened by Nick Chamberlain
Bishop Nick Chamberlain says he has been in relationship with his partner, also a priest, for thirty years. David Page, a founder member of the Southwark Diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network in 1991 and the first chair of Changing Attitude trustees has been with his partner (also a priest), on my reckoning for about forty years. Faithful, loving, long-term relationships characterise the lives of many lesbian and gay priests and Christian couples, despite the refusal of the church to publicly and officially affirm, celebrate and bless our relationships.
This weekend, a door to radical change was opened in the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, confirmed that they knew Bishop Nick is gay and in a committed long-term relationship. Archbishop Justin said Bishop Nick’s sexuality was completely irrelevant to his office – as presumably is the fact that he is in a committed relationship. At Greenbelt recently the Archbishop said we have to find a way to love and embrace everyone who loves Jesus Christ. The Archbishop values and welcomes gay people in relationship. So did Archbishop Rowan, but Justin has gone further and acted with greater effect to make real the implications of “The Body’s Grace”, Rowan’s Michael Harding lecture delivered in 1989.
In an interview with the Guardian Bishop Nick said he hoped he could move the church beyond matters of sexuality being the central point of interest but added that the church is still at the start “of a process of learning” about issues of sexuality. Indeed there is more work to be done in the church, but those needing to do the work are primarily the reactionary forces holding back progress by continuing to intimidate bishops who may wish to come out and bodies wishing to implement change as well as intimidating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people of faith, many of whom are still told that being “actively gay” or experiencing gender dysphoria is incompatible with being a Christian and contrary to God’s natural creation.
The crowd and the reactionary lobby groups
We have vocal individuals and lobby groups in the Church of England, controlling, reactionary forces who want to impose their version of “the tradition” on everyone else. Amongst them are people who denigrate the work of Changing Attitude and other LGBTI campaign organisations.
In contrast to them we have “the crowd” of witnesses, the people who pursue Jesus, the man who holds the key to the transformation of life. They know that same-sex secular marriage is “the real thing”, whatever the “traditionalists” think. The people pretty much got it from the moment civil partnerships were introduced, referring to couples as being “married”. The orthodox, conservative, traditionalist teachers of the faith think differently about orthodoxy and tradition and what the Bible teaches about the basics of God’s love from the crowd of people in many congregations and in the country at large.
The Kairos moment
The Kairos moment, the time for change, has arrived. It’s time for the hierarchy of the church to join the crowd and, as a minimum first step, authorise clergy to bless same-sex relationships and celebrate the joy of human love inside churches as an integral part of congregational life.