After long, sustained pressure from conservative evangelicals, the Church of England agreed to revive the vacant see of Maidstone and appoint Rod Thomas as an advocate of male “headship”. As chairman of Reform, Prebendary Rod Thomas was the leader of the campaign against women bishops in the Church of England. In Reform language “headship” means “helping local churches (i.e. conservative evangelical parishes) whose understanding of the Bible leads them to conclude that men and women should have complementarian, rather than identical, ministries in the Church.”
We have learnt this week, thanks to the open letter sent by the Bishop of Maidstone to the Bishop of Lichfield, that the Church of England also unwittingly created a bishop to enshrine prejudice against LGBTI people in the Church of England. It was implicit in the appointment, given Rod Thomas’s known attitude to homosexuality, but it is only this week that the prejudice has become explicit.
When the House of Bishops announced in January 2013 that the CofE would allow gay clergy to become bishops providing they remain celibate, Rod Thomas warned that any appointment of a gay bishop would create "huge divisions". "It will put the divisions over women bishops in the shade. If the Church goes ahead with this it would finally divide the Anglican Communion completely.”
Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight in December 2017, Bishop Thomas said: “Whereas with women bishops we decided as part of the negotiations that it was not one that ought to cause disunity, it ought to be one where we could agree to disagree, the issue of sexuality is different.” He went on to say: “The Bible’s teachings on sexuality seem to be so clear and therefore it becomes a primary and not a secondary issue. Because it’s a primary issue it’s got the capacity to split the church.”
Prejudice and discrimination
Writing about Bishop Thomas requires the use of words that have been taboo when used in the context of equality for women in the church: prejudice and discrimination. The Church of England is not prejudiced against and does not discriminate against those who cannot accept the ordination of women as priests or bishops. This policy is enshrined in the five guiding principles commended by the bishops in May 2013 when submitting legislative proposals to the General Synod for the consecration of women to the episcopate. The PCCs of 122 evangelical churches have now passed resolutions under the House of Bishops' Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests. A key phrase adopted in the guiding principles is that of mutual flourishing.
It is now possible to create a map of the parishes prejudiced against LGBTI people in the Church of England by identifying these parishes that have passed resolutions. Bishop Thomas’s letter to the Bishop of Lichfield is clear that teaching about sexuality in those parishes will be prejudiced and will support homophobic attitudes.
The Archbishop of Canterbury knows there must be change and is committed to creating a church that welcomes LGBTI people. At the end of the debate in February 2017 when the General Synod rejected the House of Bishops report on homosexuality produced at the end of the two years of shared conversations, the Archbishop called for a "radical new Christian inclusion". He said it was right that this needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity, of our belonging to Christ, all of us without exception, without exclusion. This desire cannot be achieved in the church when prejudice against LGBTI people is enshrined in Reform, Reform parishes, and the teaching of the Bishop of Maidstone. They might like to think they are welcoming in the context of traditional Christian teaching. They are not. They are prejudiced. Their right to maintain their prejudice is confirmed by the outcome of the Pilling Report and the shared conversations.
In these circumstances it is impossible for the Archbishops and other, open, positively welcoming and affirming, pro-LGBTI equality bishops to overcome the small but entrenched and enshrined groups in the church determined to defend their prejudices against LGBTI people and women.
The church has been engaged with thinking through its attitude to homosexuality since 1952 when a process of theological reconsideration and behind the scenes lobbying lead by a relatively small group of thinkers made the Church an initiator in the reform process. The Church of England Moral Welfare Council published The Problem of Homosexuality in 1954. Sherwin Bailey, a member of the Council, published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition in 1955. The Church of England has been engaged with “the problem of homosexuality” for over six decades and has still not overcome its problem with the problem.
The House of Bishops Teaching Document
The prejudice enshrined in the authority and teaching of the Bishop of Maidstone raises great concerns about the lengthy, complex process now being undertaken to produce what the House of Bishops clearly intend to be a new, definitive Teaching Document.
I am now wondering whether those with given authority to discriminate against LGBTI people will be amongst those appointed to the Co-ordinating Group, one of the four Thematic Working Groups or the Pastoral Advisory Group. If so, will the resulting Episcopal Teaching Document legitimise yet again homophobia and discrimination against LGBTI people in the Church of England? I flag this question now to every person involved in the process and to the LGBTI+ groups and individuals anticipating the end result and longing, hoping, begging and praying for a transformative report that changes attitudes and practice.
It is time for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to renew their personal commitment to a church working with deep resolve to free itself from the systemic, embedded discrimination against LGBTI people. This discrimination corrupts the Christian message of God’s unconditional, inclusive, infinite, intimate love for all people.
The conflict about gender and sexuality for LGBTI people has a different dynamic from the conflict over women in the church. We are a minority, and minorities within the minority. Women are 51%. Women were campaigning to be ordained for the first. There have always been LGBTI priests and bishops in the church, but we have been invisible for most of history. Women have now achieved a less than equal but secure place in ministry. LGBTI people have always had a precarious place, conditional on our invisibility, always fragile and reliant on our willingness to suppress desires and conform to authority. This is no longer the case. Lesbian and gay people are now free to marry, but not in church and not if ordained. This has become intolerable for more and more of us. I can see no way in which this conflict is going to be resolved by the House of Bishops Teaching Document. In another five years, the church will have become an even more intolerable environment for us. How, Archbishops and bishops, are you going to resolve this? More fudge, more capitulation to prejudice and homophobia, more internalised suppression of the natural, God-given desires of LGBTI people?