Gay Bishops

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.


AnthroPax said…
"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?"

Now that's a straw man arguement if ever I've heard one.

"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?"

You're surely not comparing homosexuality to adultery are you? 'Cos that would be kind of silly wouldn't it?
And what does Jesus say about Homosexuality? He is The Revelation, as my Christian Doctrin lecturer would have me believe, so surely He is the one to go for?
JP said…
Hello again Anthropax.

Firstly, can you explain why you think it is a 'straw man' argument. If the church is not allowed to put restrictions on who it has as leaders in this case then where do you draw the line? Surely a church that doesn't accept non-Christian Bishops is more exclusive than one which doesn't accept Bishops who see no problem with sexual practises outside marriage.

And in answer to your second point, no I am not comparing homosexuality directly to adultery. The point was purely that being honest about something doesn't always make it right.

The implication being of course that I view homosexuality as 'wrong'. Well, let's put it another way. I believe that God intended sex to be in the context of marriage between a man and a woman, and anything outside that goes against His ideals.

Jesus, incidentally, says nothing about homosexuality.
AnthroPax said…
Well then, Jesus is the Revelation from God, not the Bible, which is merely the record of his actions and sayings, similar to the hadith in Islam.
A straw man is hard to explain. Saying that Muslims should be allowed to become bishops is clearly quite ridiculous, and by using it as analogous to make the point that homosexuals should not become bishops is creating a ‘straw man’ i.e. one that is fake, and not real.
As far as I am aware, other than St Paul (who felt that people should not get married at all unless they can’t control their sexuality, and who declared that for women to speak in Church was an ‘abomination’) there are no other references to homosexuality in the New Testament. Does Jesus talk about homosexual ordination? No. Jesus never talks about the hierarchical structure of the Church to come. Leviticus is often a major source for condemnation of homosexuality. If interpreted as part of a moral code, then the Hebrew word used has a difficult meaning, that of either ‘man’ or ‘little boy’ – the two are clearly different. If taken as part of a purity law (as the major instructions occur in a list of purity laws), then should Christians also be prohibited from eating shellfish and wearing clothes made from two types of cloth?
I’m doing a little more research on the matter, and will get back to you.
Anonymous said…
Whoah, no dumbing down in this blog!
I feel the need to lower the tone:
"sucking up to Gene Robinson at every opportunity" - unfortunate choice of words Jim? ;)
JP said…
Whatever you think about the Bible, Anthropax, I am still simply amazed that a student like you feels able to discern which faiths are allowed to command respect for their book and which aren't.

Paul incidentally is in favour of marriage, and the issue of women speaking in church refers - as far as I understand - to the issue of women sat around gossiping during proceedings. It would probably be beneficial for you to read and study Paul's writings in depth; otherwise it's all too easy to fall in to the trap of using famous quotes out of context. (I should know, I've been guilty of that myself).

Leviticus is indeed an oft quoted source, but much of the original law laid down there is no longer directly relevant to us today - as through Jesus God has removed the need for us to ritually purify ourselves and make sacrifies for our sin. The reason that homosexual sex is still an issue is because it is condemned again in the New Testament. As I have said before, God intended sex to be within the context of what we would term marriage between a man and a woman. Anything outside this goes against what God intends, and it perhaps unfortunate that the argument has focussed only on homosexuals.

When it comes to your straw man argument, who are you to decide where the line is drawn? I agree that suggesting that non-Christian Bishops is ridiculous, but to many people the idea of appointing leaders who rather than living a life of example actively go against God's teaching is also ridiculous. (The statistics show that the majority were not in favour of gay bishops. I'm sure also that there is a minority who would consecrate non-Christian Bishops).

At the end of the day however, though I believe that leaders are called (more so than most) to live an exemplary lifestyle in line with God's ideals I am not in a position to pass judgement. I also feel that there is more to living an exemplary lifestyle than adhering to God's intentions with sex and perhaps we need to get out of the rut we seem to be stuck in around this one issue.
AnthroPax said…
I was merely stating that although The Bible is a 'Sacred Text', it is not in itself the revelation from God. That is Jesus. Would you agree with that? The Qu'ran, although also a 'Sacred Text' is itself the revelation from God, through Muhammad. The text itself is Holy and unchanging, something that cannot be said of the Bible, with it's many translations and editing by people.
Paul was rather sexist, and stressed in Corinthians that as the day of judgement was at hand, people should avoid sex at all, and if they couldn't control themselves, then to get married.
He never mentions the Lord's Prayer, the Transfiguration, the Sermon on the Mount, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the Wise Men, Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, Galilee, Nazareth, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Gethsemane, Calvary, the Temptation by Satan etc etc. He never refers to Jesus as the 'Son of Man', one of Jesus's favourite ways of describing himself.
According to the Gospels, the Pharisees were bitter enemies of Jesus, yet Paul makes no mention of this and regards his having been a Pharisee as a sign of his having tried to lead a righteous life.
Paul's personal history as a Pharisee would perhaps have funnelled his ideas and views. Although not a Judaizer, it isn't hard to think that his personal background would have affected his views on things such as homosexuality and sex outside of monogamy.
I'm tired now, but I'll come back to this.
Anonymous said…
What an interesting debate! However, I think that you may be missing some key points and understanding of the message Paul is giving in his writings. But before I come onto that, I think its good to look at your point about the different translations and see that the message is the same even if the words have changed slightly, and thats what its all about. The Qu'ran has, I'm sure, been translated into languages other than that in which it was written, much the same as the bible. But the core teaching and message remain the same.
As for Paul and his letters, I agree they sometimes can come across as sexist, but to fully understand you have to look at the context, which goes some way to explaining the meaning. I trust you're familiar with the place of women in society when the letters were written and how that has changed since, and consequently it can seem that some of Paul's attitudes are sexist. However, the message he gives is more than trying to put women "in their place". If you look at some passages, such as that about women having long hair and men short hair, it is more about observing customs and respecting God in line with those customs than forcing people today to observe the same customs. As with much of the bible I think you have to look at the message and what it says, and reading and studying the letters of Paul in depth, and in context, will hopefully lead you to understand this.
AnthroPax said…
Granted, the Qu'ran has been translated, but in, for example, the english translation, certain words that convey a special meaning in arabic have multiple translations in order to give across a more accurate picture of what is being said. For the most accurate meaning of the Qu'ran, the original Arabic is needed, as translation will always change meanings somewhat.
I feel that I am aware of Paul's context, as a religious man from a patriarchal, where homosexuality was regarded as unclean (a loose aproximation of the ideas that underpinned Judaic Law, involving religion and nationalism). If a modern Christian who lives in a society where it is no longer a social requirement for men to have short hair, and women to have long hair, and where homosexuality is rather mainstream (Civil Unions et al), then are you saying that as "It is more about observing customs and respecting God in line with those customs than forcing people today to observe the same customs", homosexuality should be perfectly acceptable to Christians?
Anonymous said…
Bizarrely, as I consider myself fairly liberal and tolerant and anti church establishment etc etc, having read your account of the debate I found myself agreeing that gay bishops should not be allowed - my mind is likely to change on this one, but at the moment I'd say that the point you make about sex in the context of the marriage of a man and a woman being within God's acceptance and anything else going against it seems to make sense. A bishop should, as a figure of authority and potential role model, embody or at least aspire to the Christian ideal. An openly adulterous bishop, or unmarried cohabiting bishop, while not necessarily immoral or 'wrong' in the eyes of today's society, would be against God's teaching, just as homosexuality is. You can be gay and Christian just as you can be adulterous and Christian - not to compare adultery and homosexuality on an ethical level, but in that they are both sex outside of heterosexual marriage which is what God allows. I would say that you can't choose the bits of a religion that you like and leave out the bits you don't, so to be a practising homosexual christian has got to be problematic, in the same way that sex before marriage would be problematic.
What if the choice of bishop was between a gay but highly qualified, charismatic, influential chap and a heterosexual but not so good one? In the real world do we have to be pragmatic about these things and go for the better man for the job, or is the adherence to an ideal the central issue for a religious figurehead?

apologies for the essay, there's another essay i should be writing which is far less interesting.
JP said…
Homosexual-well-qualified, or heterosexual-bit-of-a-damp-squib?

There's a question. I know that this sounds like a cop out but if it were my choice I would take neither and re-open applications.

Of course, in the real world, one does indeed have to be pragmatic. If the homosexual in question was celibate then I don't see why he shouldn't get the job. If he wasn't celibate then I guess it boils down to an issue of how far you're prepared to go to stick to your principles and how much authority you feel that Scripture holds.
TGV said…
Gays should not be priests, let alone bishops! Politcal correctness has gone to far yet again. it's just another attack on the family. What happened to the mother staying at home, looking after that, and the husband earning the bread? That's what it says in the bible. Oh, don't get me started on gay marrage.

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