Anthony Saville describes how a failure to stand up for gay clergy led to the impression that traditionalists were anti-gay
It is easy to be wise after the event. If we got things wrong over the gay issue, how could it have been otherwise? The extraordinary sexuality agenda, that coincided with the New Labour era in this country, that swept across Europe and North America at the same time, and that dominated Lambeth 1998 and 2008, was a Western social phenomenon of exceptional power and speed. It is now, for most, all but inconceivable that we will not soon have gay marriage in a few years, or in other terms, the end of marriage as accepted and understood for the last so many centuries.
It was not civil partnerships that drove this agenda, but something wider – that strange androgyny so sharply analysed in our own ‘Way we live now’. Who could have imagined even ten years before it was law that a Gender Recognition Act would allow individuals to change their gender and with it their birth certificate? or that the whole process of adoption and adoption agencies would be thrown into disarray?
These are big changes, unexpected, unpredictable, and for many hard to explain. If we were wrong-footed, then so was everyone else. The only effective response, as most in the secular world realized, was to keep one’s head down and say nothing about anything. There were times when we should have been quieter.
Evangelicals have a cultural knowledge of the biblical Word that we do not entirely share. There were times – hindsight is a wonderful thing – when we should not have shared their condemnation of partnered gay clergy. We did not have the same rich foundation on which to base the condemnation, and so it sounded mean and unworthy.
A scandalous affair
The appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading was a scandalous affair, but it was not Dr John who was the scandal. I do not think there was ever what you might call an AngloCatholic basis for condemning him personally. If it was the teaching then his successor, Stephen Cottrell, was equally guilty. If it was the partnership, it was celibate. If it was a lack of ‘repentance’, frankly, that would have been a vicious and unworthy demand.
So, yes, there were times when we could have held our counsel and been more cautious in our words. But such mistakes are almost inevitable in so turbulent a cultural upheaval. And anyway, who in this case is ‘we’? New Directions, the PEVs, Forward in Faith, the Sacred Synod?
Where we went wrong – the more serious error – was not in speaking, but in not speaking. To a great extent, we allowed the Evangelicals to dictate the agenda for us. We never in any of these different fora took the time to think through and articulate a sufficiently sophisticated policy/ statement/understanding.
Why do I say this? Because of the success of Affirming Catholicism. I don’t intend to be patronizing, but I think it is fair to say that in the mid-Nineties, traditional Anglo-Catholics held the centre ground. AC was a small, sophisticated fringe, centred around Richard Holloway, Rowan Williams and Jeffrey John. How did AC come to be an important force among ordinary clergy? Because it was gay-friendly. Or more to the point because FiF, ND, etc, were seen as gay-unfriendly or plain homophobic.
Any statement would have had to be carefully nuanced; it would never have satisfied everyone; but we still needed to face the issue. We did not create it, but in Anglican terms it landed on our lap from overseas. And here we were as Anglo-Catholics and we could not stand up for gay clergy.
Some (more than some!) of our best clergy are gay. Does that mean they are not moral, worthy and upright priests? Of course it doesn’t. It didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t now. There are issues with the status of civil partnerships, and there are particular problems for those in public positions, and marriage is a sacrament, and so on, and so on, but none of this means one should be anti-gay, either individually or institutionally.
By our silence, by seeming to acquiesce in the harsh statements from others, we alienated many of our gay clergy, and if they are now affirming Catholics, we are in large part to blame. I feel ashamed that we did not say more to keep them on board. I do not think there was, then, a clash of morality and theology; instead there grew up an impression that traditionalists were anti-gay, and that was the end of it. We should have done more.
Of course it was, and is, a difficult issue, tearing apart the whole of the Anglican Communion. We played safe, and rather than say the wrong thing, we said nothing. And we have lost a number of holy men, and with them their people. ND