How comfortable are the bishops with the Love that Dares to Speak its Name?

Forty-two years ago on 3 June 1976, Gay News published James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. The poem, written from the viewpoint of a Roman centurion, graphically describes him having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion. The poem also claimed that Jesus had had sex with numerous disciples, guards, and Pontius Pilate. I was preparing to begin ordination training at Westcott House when the poem was published. My feelings about the content were complex and uncomfortable. I think I wished it hadn’t been written or published. It was graphic and forced me to think about and imagine things I wanted to keep in the taboo box.

In early November 1976, Mary Whitehouse (the Andrea Minichiello-Williams of her day) announced her intention to bring a private prosecution against the magazine. The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion". The trial, held at the Old Bailey, commenced on 4 July 1977. On Monday 11 July, the jury found both defendants guilty. An appeal to the House of Lords was lost. I’m assuming Mary Whitehouse brought the prosecution because she hated the idea that Jesus was gay, that he had engaged in sexual activity with several men, and that he enjoyed it.

I have no doubt that in 2018, forty-two years later, the idea that Jesus might have been gay and enjoyed sex with men still disturbs people – even LGBTI people. People react with anger when Jesus is portrayed as a woman, or as black – or even in some absurd cases, as Jewish – but a gay Jesus! How we react emotionally to the thought that Jesus might have been gay continues to be a key signifier as to people’s ‘real’ feelings about homosexuality.

The Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, has written a blog for Via Media News titled Changes – Facing the Strange . . .  Bishop Paul looks back forty-seven years to 1971/2 when David Bowie’s song “Changes” spoke to England of its changing life. England, it seemed, was turning and facing the strange. Paul travels forward seventeen years to May 24 1988, thirty years ago last week, when Section 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted and on a further fifteen years to 18 November 2003 when Section 28 was repealed in England. He travels forward another ten years to July 2013 when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed by the UK Parliament, coming into force on 13 March 2014.

Four years ago, the state approved equal marriage. Bishop Paul says “the Church and the lawmakers were sundered by these changes.” That’s a curious statement and I don’t think it’s true. Bishop Paul says the Church is having to “engage with the work of trying, slowly, falteringly, to decide together what that sundering might mean for us and for our witness.”

Bishop Paul has become the one diocesan bishop who is unafraid to commit himself to and write about LGBTI people. His is not the only voice in the House of Bishops, but the number of vocally supportive bishops is small. Bishop Paul writes about same-sex marriage but avoids using the phrase equal marriage in his blog. He recognises that the introduction of same-sex marriage has ‘sundered’ something, but fails to address its impact on LGBTI people, on our families, friends, colleagues, congregations, and on those of us who are now married. He funked the issue. His attention is on the Church having to work out slowly what it might mean. What it means is that lesbian and gay couples can now marry, but not in the Church of England thanks to the quadruple lock – that’s what it means, Bishop Paul.

The House of Bishops effectively hold total control over any attempt in the General Synod to overturn the quadruple lock, revise the marriage canons and change Church of England practice to allow truly equal marriage in church and society. When equal marriage is eventually debated in Synod a vote by Houses will be called for, and if any House is going to vote a motion for equality down, it will be the Bishops.

This is why I’ve spent today wondering how comfortable the bishops are with the love that dare not speak its name. They have passed the buck for the moment by setting up a complex, time-consuming process to enable the bishops to write a new teaching document. What chance the document will recommend equal marriage? No chance if the bishops are still infected by an attack of homophobia, whether mild or acute. If Bishop Paul represents the most radical episcopal position, imagine what the rest are like.

I want to see change now, ASAP. I don’t want to wait another 2 years for the teaching document to be published, a year or two for it to be digested, a year or two for the bishops or the Business Committee to summon up the courage to schedule a debate, and then, assuming equal marriage is voted down, another half-decade while the bishops engage in more listening and process. In total that’s another decade from now. Scotland, the USA, Canada and Brazil have already changed their teaching. A bishop has described the Church of England’s slow, faltering process to decide together what the sundering might mean for us and for our witness. The rest of us need to organise to bring the bishops up to speed with the rest by giving them an intensive therapeutic course in recognising prejudice, dealing with anxiety and overcoming internalised homophobia.