As the Spiritual Friendship blog’s resident Episcopalian, this is the kind of thing I gather I’m expected to have opinions about:
The bishop of Grantham has become the first Church of England bishop to publicly declare that he is gay and in a relationship. In a move that will be embraced by campaigners for equality but is likely to alarm conservatives who fear the church is moving away from traditional teachings, Nicholas Chamberlain said there had been no secret about his long-term — albeit celibate — relationship with his partner.
What should those of us who are traditional Anglicans—who continue to believe the Scriptural teaching that marriage is the union of male and female, with openness to the gift of children—make of a story like this?
For starters, we should make sure we get the facts straight. Bishop Chamberlain is accountable to his ecclesiastical superiors, and they have found his life to be in accord with the Church of England’s traditional teaching on marriage. As the Guardian story notes,
Chamberlain was consecrated last November, and all those involved in his appointment — including Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury — were aware of his personal situation. During the process of being appointed as suffragan bishop of Grantham, he said, “I was myself. Those making the appointment knew about my sexual identity.” His appointment was made by the diocesan (senior) bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, and endorsed by Welby.
Chamberlain said he adhered to church guidelines, under which gay clergy must be celibate and are not permitted to marry. In the appointments process, “We explored what it would mean for me as a bishop to be living within those guidelines,” he said.
In a statement, Welby said: “I am and have been fully aware of Bishop Nick’s long-term, committed relationship. His appointment as bishop of Grantham was made on the basis of his skills and calling to serve the church in the diocese of Lincoln. He lives within the bishops’ guidelines and his sexuality is completely irrelevant to his office.”
Insofar as I understand my calling as a conservative lay Anglican, my job is to assume the best about the bishops in my Communion—to assume they are adhering to and defending the teachings of Scripture and tradition in the absence of evidence to the contrary. As Alan Jacobs once put it,
I remind myself that the churches of the Anglican world are governed by bishops, and I am not a bishop. One of the chief reasons I have held firm to Anglicanism over the years is that I believe that the threefold order of ministry—bishop, priest, and deacon—is the model taught by the apostles, the governance particularly approved by God. In this model I, as a layman—even though I am also a member of the priesthood of all believers—have a highly circumscribed role. If my pastor asks me to teach, I teach; otherwise I shut up. In the unlikely (and unwelcome) event of a bishop of the Church asking for my thoughts I would share them; otherwise I keep them to myself, at least in public. The decisions that will shape the future of the Anglican Communion will be made by bishops, not by laypeople, nor even by priests; if I care about that Communion—and I do—I had best be praying for those bishops, and not repeating the error of Job in darkening counsel by words without knowledge.
Having said all that, it is of course entirely possible that Bishop Chamberlain holds a view that goes something like this: He himself is gay; after studying Scripture and the Christian tradition, he has come to believe that the traditional view of marriage needs to be expanded to include same-sex couples; furthermore, he has come to believe that eventually the Church of England will affirm the legitimacy of same-sex marriage; and yet he also believes that he should not violate the standards of his church in the meantime, and so, in the interim, he is celibate out of deference to the longstanding Anglican tradition of sexual morality. I have no idea if that is what he believes, and there is, at present, zero evidence that he does.
One thing I do think is vital for us traditionalists to remember at this point is that the Scriptural, traditional teaching focuses on the prohibition of certain sexual acts, not on “relationships” (to use the Guardian’s word). As I have written before on this blog,
The so-called Great Tradition of the Christian faith, the ecumenical mainstream, if you like, has always held, since the earliest days of the apostles (see the infamous Romans 1 passage of St. Paul), that sexual coupling between members of the same sex is immoral. But that traditional teaching has focused its condemnation on the sex acts themselves, not on the legitimate human desire for closeness that may or may not accompany those acts. In other words, traditional Christian teaching has said that gay sex misses the mark of the Creator’s design of human bodies and of marriage: it takes something intended for procreation and male-and-female spousal bonding and care and makes it about something else. (This was the point of Melinda Selmys’ recent post on concubinage.) But that same teaching certainly isn’t condemning all the things about “gay culture” that give us those weepy chills when we see them at their best. Historic Christianity certainly isn’t saying that gay people themselves or their partners are somehow irretrievably perverse and that all their longings and loves are any further removed from God’s design than their heterosexual neighbors’ are.
It would be good, at this time, for us traditionalists to remind ourselves that Bishop Chamberlain’s commitment to his partner most likely involves the kinds of virtues traditional Christians have long celebrated between people of the same sex: loyalty, comradeship, kindness, and a host of others. The fact that the bishop practices these virtues while experiencing himself as same-sex attracted is no proof that those virtues are thereby diminished. And it is also no proof that he is living a so-called double life.
But maybe I could also say something about what I find myself wishing Bishop Chamberlain might say publicly someday. I find myself thinking about something another Englishman, Martin Hallett, wrote several years ago:
There are probably nearly as many Christians with homosexual feelings who do not believe that homosexual sex is right for Christians as there are those who are advocating its acceptance…. A friend of mine in Sweden (Erik) is a Lutheran priest who believes in the traditional biblical teaching on sexuality and has homosexual feelings himself. He determined, from the beginning of his call to the ordained ministry, that he would be open about his sexuality at every stage…. Ultimately, as more evangelicals make such a public stand, it will seem less costly and will, I believe, have a tremendous impact for the kingdom of God…. [I want to] encourage those leaders in the church who have homosexual feelings but who believe homosexual sex is wrong to be more open. People like Erik… are not a tiny minority in terms of all homosexuals in the church…. I wish their voices could be heard saying that “We believe our homosexuality is part of our value and giftedness to the church, but homosexual sex is a sin.” What a difference this would make to the life, witness, and future of the body of Christ.
What a difference indeed.
Without intending to overstep any of my boundaries as a layman, here is the kind of thing I would love to hear Bishop Chamberlain say one day:
Yes, I am in a committed, faithful relationship with another man. I love him deeply and hope to spend the rest of my life in his company. And no, we don’t sleep together. But I think it’s important for you to know that we don’t sleep together because of our love for each other. You see, we’re Christians, and Christians believe that God has made us and that He set up sexual relations for a specific purpose. God intends sex to bind a husband and wife together in intimacy and to lead to the gift of new life through procreation. And, likewise, God intends same-sex closeness, guarded by chastity, to build up each of the same-sex friends in love of Himself and love of neighbor. It would actually, then, diminish the closeness my partner and I enjoy if we were to sleep together. It would be taking one thing—sex—and using it for a purpose other than what its Designer intended it for. And, as we all know, when we misuse the Creator’s gifts, we don’t gain more intimacy; we simply find ourselves further alienated from Him and from one another. So, no, we’re not having sex. And we’re living our lives as celibate men in the hope that we’ll be able to love each other more deeply, more truly, and more in line with how God in Christ has made us and redeemed us to be.
Something like that, at least, is what I find myself praying for Bishop Chamberlain—and for all the gay folks in my broken, beloved Anglican Communion.