Honesty and Truthfulness in the Church

In his latest newsletter, James Alison, the well-known gay Catholic theologian, describes what he has learnt through the process of becoming a source of information for Frédéric Martel, the author of In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. The book is the first attempt at a properly researched answer to the question: “How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level [in the Catholic Church] appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?”

The book builds a picture: that of the systemic way dishonestly-lived homosexuality creates a self-reinforcing culture of mutual cover-up. In other words: the structure of the clerical closet. This is the first time all this evidence has been linked together worldwide to bring out the workings of a system which those involved think they are running, but which in fact runs them, sadly and cruelly.

Martel’s book is about the worldwide Catholic Church. My canvas of interest is primarily the Church of England, with regular forays into the Anglican Communion, also a worldwide denomination. Reading James Alison’s newsletter gave me new insights into my own thinking about the Church of England, the Living in Love and Faith process and the way in which the leading LGBTI+ church networks engage with the institution.

The Church of England has similarities and dissimilarities with the Catholic Church. We do not have a celibate priesthood. We do not describe homosexuality as intrinsically disordered. We do have a problem with systemic abuse. All but one of our lesbian and gay bishops live in the closet. We are having difficulty in processing the place of LGBTI+ people in the Church.

We share something else identified by James Alison, though to a lesser extent. Senior clergy have failed to engage fully with the public learning process concerning homosexuality that has to a greater or lesser extent characterised all of us, in all cultures, over the last fifty years. You may think this is not true, but this year alone, I have been given several examples of key bishops, bishops we might identify as “gay-friendly”, who have required education at the most basic level. It has become obvious that this is the most important process happening in LLF – bishops in particular are being educated by the few open LGBTI members and those appointed for their expertise who also have open minds.

James Alison says the overall picture that emerges from Martel’s book is astounding. James admits he had nothing close to an accurate sense of the size and density of the clerical closet and how much it distorts every aspect of the life of the Church. He was stunned at the dimensions of what has come into view - the basic structure of induction into, and reproduction of, dishonestly lived homosexuality. Only an outsider, with a great deal of patience and diligence, had the capacity to give the first ever X-ray vision of the whole. None of the insiders, those within any of these closets, have more than a perfunctory awareness of what is going on in other than a few nearby cells of their honeycomb.

The post-war movement towards the visibility and non-pathological normalcy of gay people has proved to be a genuine process of human learning of something true about ourselves. “People now have ever higher expectations of honesty in this area. More and more young people can detect straight away that a clergyman who refuses to say whether he is straight or gay, but hides by saying that he is celibate, is in fact a dishonest gay man, with all the resulting social dysfunctionality which can be expected from that.” Martel’s book shows that gay men with double lives are even more present in the traditionalist, and publicly gay-hating, wing of the Church than elsewhere. In the Church of England the real problem is the lack of public honesty about who is gay in the hierarchy. This alone corrupts the ability of the LLF process to overcome fear and

Honesty and Truthfulness in the Catholic Church

The really hard nut to crack in the Catholic Church, says James Alison, is the issue of honesty: the need for truthfulness of life to be lived by sufficient numbers that the possibility of blackmail under the shadow of badly-lived homosexuality is no longer a real threat. A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received. In the Catholic Church, bishops hope that gay clergy are discreet, and will beg not to be told so that they don’t have to “know about it” on the record. This real dilemma for those with a priestly vocation is that the price for a quiet life is not being able publicly to challenge the institutional lie.

Only when Bishops themselves are honestly living whatever their orientation is, in a way that is publicly known and accountable; only when they are able to offer a context of truthfulness within which their ordinands can make promises or vows without both parties playing some sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” game; then it will be reasonable for there to be an expectation of honesty among the clergy.

Truthfulness from gay Bishops, will only be possible when authentic Church teaching relating to what is genuinely the case about the human beings involved has asserted itself. Learning, and then teaching, the truth concerning the regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition called “homosexuality” is what will set us free.

Honesty and Truthfulness in the Church of England

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” continues to be common practice in the Church of England, despite the widespread presence of lesbian and gay clergy living in relationships, both informally and in civil partnerships. This gives a false impression of the situation in the Church. Not every bishop or every diocese is safe if you are partnered. Clergy living in one diocese and working in another may be granted a licence or PTO in one and refused in the other. Our system is also dishonest. Our bishops collude in corporate dishonesty.

I’ve already noted that all but one of the twelve lesbian and gay bishops live in the closet. The only (reluctantly) out bishop is not contributing to a public conversation about the need for honesty and transparency. The eleven closeted bishops communicate silently the truth that the Church of England is unsafe as a place for LGBTI people, where gay and lesbian bishops deny their identity and construct a false persona. We in the Church of England share the failure of the Catholic bishops. Our bishops have failed to engage fully in the learning process about human sexuality and gender that has transformed society. This is proving to have a huge, subtle, negative influence on the Living in Love and Faith process. It will take a huge effort on the part of Eeva John to overcome this resistance to openness and truth. She won’t be able to do it. The final publication of material lies in the hands of the House of Bishops.

The inhibiting effect of honesty and truthfulness is also present among the LGBTI+ networks in the Church of England. As I write, the second meeting of the Co-ordination group of LGBTI+ organisations is being held in London. Because a condition of strict confidentially has been imposed on the meeting, none of those present (some twenty people) has made public the fact that the group is meeting today.

We collude in the hypocritical, dishonest and unhealthy culture of the Church by adopting for whatever reason a culture of secrecy about what we are doing and planning. Changing Attitude England was instrumental in bringing together for the first time on 29th March 2009 representatives from all of the then known groups. Catching the Vision was the name given to the first meeting. It evolved into the LGBTI Anglican Coalition. The statement of purpose adopted was: ‘The Anglican Coalition is here to provide UK based Christian LGBT organisations an opportunity to develop resources for the Anglican community and a shared voice for the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Anglican Communion.’ Among other things on the March 2009 agenda were:

  • Keep conversation going in Synod

  • Church recognition that same sex relationships are morally equivalent to marriage

  • Challenging the moratorium (I’m not sure what the moratorium was back then)

  • Pastoral care for clergy in civil partnerships was considered a priority

  • C of E approval of same sex liturgy and renewal of Baptismal Vows following a change of gender (Yes, ten years ago we were discussing the need for such a liturgy)

Confidentiality is necessary in specific, agreed circumstances, but we become dangerously collusive with the Church of England’s and in particular, the House of Bishop’s unhealthy, collusive, dishonest culture when the groups supposedly representing the passionate longing for justice and equality in the church meet in conditions of such secrecy. What are they afraid of, or who are they supposedly protecting?