EDIT: This post was written in response to a debate at the Oxford Union. Feel free to comment below, and join the discussion but please note that although I have shared some of my feelings on the issue I think that there are far more important issues for the church to grapple with. If you are new to my corner of the Blogosphere please don't let some of the heavy discussion put you off.
Last night the topic of the weekly debate at the Oxford Union was “This house believes that a homosexual lifestyle is no bar to becoming a bishop”. Controversial, perhaps, especially given that the speakers included Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire.
I decided to go along and enjoy the debate – I live next door to the Union, after all – and I will attempt now to give some form of report back from it.
I am obviously not able to sum up 2 hours of debate here, and I fear that anything I say will fail to do it justice. But throwing caution to the wind I would very much like to share a few of the thoughts and ideas that emerged from what turned out to be a very interesting evening.
Aside from Gene Robinson, the other guest speakers included Rev Richard Kirker (president of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) in proposition of the motion and Rev Dr Andrew Goddard (Tutor in Ethics, Wycliffe Hall) and Right Rev. Colin Buchanan (former Bishop of Woolwich) in opposition.
After the usual ceremony at the beginning of a Union debate – including the reading of the librarian’s book list for the week – the debate kicked off. Two Oxford students introduced the motion, and in a bit of a twist the guy in opposition was a practising homosexual and an agnostic.
Things started off well when the proposition speaker introduced the debate with a request that it was a serious debate above the petty arguments and cheap shots that so often characterize the topic. I’m pleased to say that that turned out to be largely the case, but this particular speaker let himself down almost immediately by then introducing his side as “angels” and the opposition as “fallen angels”. How hypocritical, and sadly, rather typical of such self-righteous ‘liberal’ types.
The main theme which came across – particularly from the proposition – was the need to separate the idea of the wider acceptance of homosexuality from the question of whether a ‘homosexual lifestyle’ was a bar to taking on a senior position within the church. As Andrew Goddard said, backed by others, homosexuality is not a bar to becoming a Christian.
The difference, it seems to me at least, between being a Christian and being a Bishop is that a Bishop has a much more prominent position which should ideally involve leading a life of example. This idea emerged last night. Everyone has fallen short of God’s ideals, but I do believe that those called to leadership roles are particularly called to do their best to live exemplary lives in the way God desires of us. I don’t wish to single out practising homosexuality though – I would struggle with an unmarried heterosexual Bishop who was sleeping with his partner, for example.
The homosexual agnostic who kicked off the opposition pointed out that in a truly liberal society, groups such as the church should be able to select who they want, and don’t want as leaders. Any society which doesn’t allow that freedom is not liberal, but tends towards a society in which everyone must conform to set opinions and beliefs.
If the church was denied such freedom, perhaps the next step would be to suggest that you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Bishop? Would you suggest that to be an Imam you don’t have to be a Muslim?
Interestingly, it was pointed out during the course of the evening that to suggest a homosexual lifestyle is a bar to becoming a leader is common to all major monotheistic faiths. Yet in my observation at least it is once again only the Christians who have come under fire.
Richard Kirker’s speech annoyed me greatly on the whole. He rambled on in a smarmy manner, sucking up to Gene Robinson at every opportunity and failed in some ways to grapple with the debate. Yet he did come out with one or two interesting points. One point which struck me was the need for honesty – he pointed out that many gay clergy have thus far been living a lie. In my mind this is wrong, and it is important to encourage openness and honesty. Andrew Goddard acknowledged this too, but he did point out that being honest about something doesn’t make it acceptable. If someone were to admit to living in an adulterous relationship, would it make it acceptable?
In opposition, it has to be said that I was also less than impressed with Colin Buchanan’s speech. He bumbled about and didn’t make many new points. He did however affirm a lot of what had already been said – that the decision to ordain gay bishops in the US went against an overwhelming majority for example. He also backed the view that 2000 years on, today’s leading Biblical Scholars still interpret the passages about homosexuality as negative, adding that Gene Robinson’s point about homosexuality today being different to that 2000 years ago and not what scripture talks about was “not a nuance, but a 180 degree turn”. For the record, it was pointed out that passages about sexual immorality are not just confined to laws in Leviticus, but are consistently found throughout both the old and new testaments.
In some ways I felt that Gene Robinson missed the point. He questioned what it meant to be a practising homosexual, saying that ‘celibate or not, everyone is practising’. I felt that to be wide of the mark, but a lot of what he said was worth listening to. I might not agree with his consecration as a Bishop, but I do feel that in his role he seeks to reach and serve others.
At that perhaps, is a good point. I’m finding it hard to come to some sort of conclusion here – I do not think that a practising homosexual should become a Bishop, but I also feel strongly that our task is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbour as ourself. So let’s not join in with the debate which the powers that be in the church need to grapple with but instead let’s try and adhere to the task in hand.