So at least one Bishop has now made the decision to enact discipline with respect to a priest who has entered into a ‘gay marriage’. As Ian Paul rightly asserts, the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has now come to an end, and the Church of England is going to have to choose where it stands with regard to non-tradtional sexuality.
There is a remorseless logic to the situation that the Bishops now find themselves in. The remorseless side of things stems from the nature of the society that we now live within, which will consistently seek to assert pressure from the progressive side of the sexuality argument. The logic, however, is an internal one. After all, it was the acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference which has led directly to our present social understandings of sexuality. The Roman Catholic hierarchy recognise that the logic of accepting contraception leads inevitably to a much more progressive understanding of sexuality tout court, which is why they have held out against it.
I can see any particular Bishop resting safely on a traditional Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality. That much could be argued for, and we don’t have to go far to see how it could be argued for. To my mind, those who oppose modern sexual mores need to accept the internal logic of their position and accept that, if they are to reject gay marriage (for example) then they are also required to reject contraception and re-marriage after divorce and so on. There are people who have made that argument within the Church of England and it seems to me to be an honourable position to hold.
However, what of those who do not wish to accept such a stance? What might be a place of ‘Bishop’s rest’ – that is, how might a Bishop exercise due authority within his Diocese when it comes to questions of priesthood and sexuality? Is there a place to stand at the end of the progressive path?
I am concluding that there is, and I believe that the new substantive policy would rest upon: an acceptance that questions of sexuality and marriage are second-order issues; an acceptance of the authority of the individual baptised conscience; and an acceptance that we are called to exercise a radical non-judgement.
Practically, the outworkings of such a framework would mean a repeal of Canon B30 (which articulates the traditional view of sexuality) and an understanding that the sexuality of any particular priest is first and foremost a private matter for the priest themselves. I think that there would still be some room for the exercise of discipline over a wayward priest, but it would have to be on the grounds of either a) illegality (in which case the church disciplinary process would follow the secular one, as in other areas of misbehaviour) or b) bringing the church into disrepute. For the latter, an individual bishop would have to discern whether there was in fact clerical misbehaviour or whether there is simply a faithful position which is out of step with wider cultural mores (in other words, the Bishop needs to discern whether the disrepute arises from waywardness or a prophetic vocation).
Article 32 might be rewritten in the following form, to articulate the new perspective: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from sexual relations: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to develop lawful sexual relationships at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”
One last metaphor to assist contemplation: there is a remarkable sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’ when the ship’s captain has to take the momentous decision to sacrifice the life of one crewmember. A storm has stripped away a canvas-filled mast from the main body of the ship, with the man on it, and the detached rigging has begun to work as a sea-anchor, and will eventually cause the entire ship to sink. The captain has to cut the ties to the lost mast in order to enable the ship itself to come right and continue to be a safe vessel for the other sailors.
I see the traditional view of sexuality within the Church of England as being that broken mast. Unless we cut ourselves free of it we shall all sink.