A gay bishop and loving everyone: the dilemma of church leaders

By Savi Hensman
September 4, 2016

Nicholas Chamberlain, the Anglican Bishop of Grantham, has come out as gay and in a relationship, though sexually abstinent in line with church rules. “Sexuality is part of who I am, but it’s my ministry that I want to focus on”, he told the Guardian newspaper.

He spoke up because he was reportedly afraid that his situation was about to be revealed by a Sunday newspaper. His story hit the headlines on 2 September 2016, after a week of news about debates on sexuality in the Church of England and beyond.

“I am constantly consumed with horror at the way we have treated LGBTI people”, the Archbishop of Canterbury had said on 27 August. But it was also important to welcome Christians who “feel same-sex relationships are deeply, deeply wrong, or live in societies that do.” He admitted he could not see a way out of the dilemma.

Soon afterwards, in a Telegraph article, Dr Peter Sanlon, a vicar speaking on behalf of a handful of parish clergy, warned of a split if the Church of England moved forward on inclusion. A Nigerian archbishop, head of a global grouping with followers in the UK, joined in the threats.

But at grassroots level, pressure to adopt a more flexible approach continued to grow, especially in the aftermath of regional ‘shared conversations’ on sexuality, aimed at deepening mutual understanding. On 4 September, the Sunday Times published a letter to members of the College of Bishops from a number of couples, clergy and lay, who are married to same-sex spouses, urging “a clear lead that offers a way forward to greater inclusion”.

There is now a compelling case for change. Many theologians have made the case for celebrating faithful, self-giving same-sex partnerships. Numerous churchgoers have lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) relatives and friends, even if heterosexual themselves, and want greater inclusion. Non-Christians are often put off Christianity where it is seen as unjust and prejudiced.

Yet when churches have allowed freedom of conscience to ministers and laypeople who want to welcome everyone equally, others have become distressed and angry. Even limited gains have led to threats and splits have sometimes occurred.

In considering how to move forward, it may be helpful to look further at the Church of England’s recent experience and examine more deeply the concepts of exclusion, love and mission.

To love and embrace all who love Christ

When Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was interviewed on stage at the Greenbelt Festival, he said: “I am constantly consumed with horror at the way we have treated LGBTI people and constantly consumed with an urge to find a way of changing that in the right way but I don’t know what that is yet.

“We have to find a way to love and embrace everyone who loves Jesus Christ without exception and without hesitation. But that includes those who feel same-sex relationships are deeply, deeply wrong, or live in societies that do.

“The inclusion of LGBTI people in the church is essential. We cannot pretend that inclusion from the point of view of someone from a same-sex relationship that falls short of the blessing of the Church is going to feel like inclusion. We’re conning ourselves if we think we can do less than that and it will feel like inclusion. But when you do that, if you do that, it will feel like exclusion to other people.”

Meanwhile about half-a-dozen churches in three dioceses – Rochester, Canterbury and Chichester – were preparing for a ‘synod’ which might pave the way for schism at a later point.

Dr Peter Sanlon, the vicar of St Mark’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, who was hosting the gathering, said, “If senior leaders of the Church of England water down the teaching of the Church of England on key issues like homosexuality, then this synod could easily evolve in to a new Anglican jurisdiction in England.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has signalled that he is aware of the possibility that a significant proportion of the church will not accept a change in the church’s teaching. This could be the beginning of that playing out.”

Earlier in the month, Sanlon had verbally attacked the Diocese of Chichester for advertising a Pride tea party on its Facebook page, in language that even some of his allies might find offensive.

He wrote, “Given your diocese has one of the worst records on historic child abuse in the C of E, and even now has a special procedure of investigation to discover what went on and who in addition to the bishop currently in prison was involved – one would think your diocese would have the humility and wisdom to stop pushing sexual boundaries. Have you not done enough damage to the church of England?”

This was not only deeply disparaging of those in loving same-sex partnerships and those who believe they are led by Christ to celebrate these. It was also hurtful to survivors of sexual assault to liken their ordeal to a tender, consensual relationship.

There are other groupings too which might be part of such a movement (as well as others who are less extreme but against any softening of the stance on same-sex partnerships). These generally insist that their own interpretations of the Bible should be obeyed, which causes problems for Christians who believe this would involve disobeying Christ. Some are connected to the international Anglican faction Gafcon.

In an August 2016 letter, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria, the Chairman of Gafcon, criticised churches which were considering becoming more inclusive, stating that “Even now the Anglican Church of Southern Africa is contemplating the overturning of Scripture by legitimising the blessing of same sex unions in breach of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 of 1998...

“However, the greatest cause for concern continues to be the British Isles. The Scottish Episcopal Church has already opened the door wide to conducting same sex ‘marriages’ while in England, Salisbury Cathedral has become the latest of a growing number of cathedrals which publicly support and even bless ‘Gay Pride’ marches. Chichester Diocese has issued a statement commending those of its churches ‘with open doors to celebrate all that the Pride Festival stands for’...

“... the English House of Bishops has failed so far to demonstrate that it has the will to resist compromise and I therefore call on Gafcon in the UK and the Anglican Mission in England to demonstrate that they have the necessary courage and faith in a context which to a large extent they alone can grapple with.”

Okoh had notoriously warned in 2010 of an “invading army of homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual lifestyle”, including the odd claim that “The Church in the West had vowed to use their money to spread the homosexual lifestyle in African societies and Churches; after all Africa is poor. They are pursuing this agenda vigorously and what is more, they now have the support of the United Nations.”

A vocal champion of further criminalising LGBTI people in Nigeria, he had further said in 2011, “The fight against homosexual had been on for quite some ... that type of sexual orientation is unbiblical, ungodly, unnatural, unacceptable.”

The sexual orientation of bishops

The impossibility of pleasing those with such views has been highlighted by the aftermath of the Guardian interview with Nicholas Chamberlain, who said that “Those making the appointment knew about my sexual identity.”

This was confirmed by the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, and Justin Welby, who 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.”

Chamberlain described his relationship as: “faithful, loving, we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company and we share each other’s life.” While emphasising that he did not want to be seen as 'the gay bishop', during the College of Bishops meeting later in September, when sexuality is discussed, “this part of me will be known. I hope I’ll be able to be a standard-bearer for all people as a gay man. And I really hope that I’ll be able to help us move on beyond matters of sexuality.”

To abstain from sex even with one’s life-companion so as to conform to church rules might be seen as an impressive sacrifice, indeed one which nobody should be required to make, except for the small minority called to celibacy. However it is not enough for critics.

Archbishop Peter Jensen, the General Secretary of Gafcon, and Canon Andy Lines, Chairman of the Gafcon UK Task Force, condemned the fact that Chamberlain had been made a bishop. They wrote: “Our understanding is that the nature of his relationship conforms to the guidelines set out by the Bishops, and that he has not been campaigning publicly for a change in the church’s teaching on sex and marriage. We do not doubt that he has many gifts as a leader and pastor.

“However there are aspects of this appointment which are a serious cause for concern for biblically orthodox Anglicans around the world, and therefore we believe that this appointment is a major error...

“We remain opposed to the guidelines for clergy and Bishops, permitting them to be in same sex relationships as long as they publicly declare that the relationship is not sexual. This creates confusion in terms of the church’s teaching on the nature of sex and marriage, and it is not modelling a helpful way to live, given the reality of our humanity, and temptation to sexual sin.

“This news story will be seen by many orthodox Anglicans as yet more evidence that the clear biblical teaching in the Church of England on sin and salvation, human personhood, singleness, sex and marriage is being eroded and conformed to the values of secular society...

“Gafcon UK exists to provide fellowship and if necessary, an alternative oversight for Anglicans committed to biblical orthodoxy in England, Scotland and Wales, from a range of ecclesial traditions, evangelical and catholic, with special focus on those who are losing confidence in local and national church structures to maintain faithfulness to doctrinal and ethical norms.”

However Susie Leafe, the chairwoman of the conservative evangelical group Reform, was reported in the BBC as sympathising with Chamberlain for having been "hounded by the secular press and forced into making a statement.” She added that "All human beings have a range of complex desires; who he is attracted to should not make any difference to his ability to do the job of a bishop." Later, though, she indicated that her position was not different from that of Gafcon.

However to numerous Anglicans and other Christians in England and beyond, there is no valid reason why LGBTI people should be discouraged from expressing their love physically within a committed relationship and praying for God’s blessing on their partnered life. A letter in the Sunday Times to the bishops, signed by a number of married clergy and laypeople and their spouses, outlined their hopes:

“We fully appreciate that the time may not yet be right for a change in the Church’s official understanding of marriage. But many in our parishes have already made that move and it is time to respect that a diversity of theology within the Church now exists and that there is more than one understanding of what a faithful Christian may believe on these issues.

“As you meet to discuss we seek from you a clear lead that offers a way forward to greater inclusion that will enable those parishes that wish to do so to celebrate the love that we have found in our wives and husbands. We hope for an outcome that will enable those who wish to do so to publicly celebrate where we see God at work in the lives of our congregations without fear and in openness.

“We encourage you to be bold, and to be honest about what many of you already believe from your own experience, and to what you know to be increasingly the direction of travel, not just in our Church but in many Churches in this country.

“We will always want to see the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church, and we will continue to work towards it. We look forward to welcoming a first step in that process and a move away from the harm and hurt that has so often been done in the name of the Church.”

Finding a way forward

Archbishop Justin Welby was quite right in saying that it is important “to love and embrace everyone who loves Jesus Christ” – and, one might add, to love one’s neighbour as oneself and even one’s enemy, in line with Christ’s teaching and example. That includes “those who feel same-sex relationships are deeply, deeply wrong, or live in societies that do.”

However there is a difference between being excluded by being treated with hostility, looked down on or discriminated against and feeling excluded because certain others are included.

For instance, when I came to Britain in the 1960s as a small child, open racism was still respectable. Many white British people (including Christians) sincerely thought that they would be negatively affected if people like me moved nearby, their culture, and maybe their Christian heritage diluted. This included many who were happy for someone else to work night shifts or plug skills gaps but did not want us next door.

So a fair amount of exclusion, from the subtle to the brutal, went on (though I was lucky compared to many and knew some brave white people unafraid of being labelled as ‘race traitors’ for their inclusive stance).

It could be said that families such as mine were just as guilty of excluding others because we ‘caused’ what was known as ‘white flight’, when members of the ethnic majority left areas where more than a handful of black people settled.

However I would plead ‘not guilty’ to that charge since I believe that they were excluding themselves.

And I do not think it helped those people when politicians seemed to agree with them that ethnic minorities were a ‘problem’. In fact I think in the longer term they benefited emotionally, practically and spiritually when they learnt to accept those different from themselves.

I am not trying to imply that all the Christians strongly against accepting same-sex partnerships have an aversion to LGBTI people or to expressions of same-sex attraction or nonconformity with gender norms. Some do, but many do not.

However when people say, for instance, they ‘cannot’ remain in communion with those with whom they disagree, this should not necessarily be taken at face value. This is especially the case in the Anglican Communion, which has historically brought together people with profoundly different views.

I do not underestimate how difficult it can be to worship in spaces when what one regards as profoundly wrong is condoned. I have had that experience myself on issues such as militarism. Some people may understandably join other churches because they do not want to be compromised in this way.

But this is different from being cold-shouldered or driven out.

It should be borne in mind that some of those in favour of full inclusion find it hard to accept that, even if the Church of England moved forward, clergy and congregations would still be allowed to treat LGBTI people unequally to some extent. Accepting some measure of theological diversity would be costly for those on both ‘sides’ in the sexuality debate.

When Jesus welcomed those who were marginalised in his society, and appeared to go against Scripture in order to bring healing and to witness to God’s all-embracing love, he caused a furore. The powerful, the respectable and the guardians of religion were often outraged. This did not mean that he did not love them.

There is an additional tension about mission. It is profoundly damaging to the credibility of the church in modern Britain, especially among young people, because it has been seen as anti-LGBT. However there are countries where being hostile to LGBTI people increases popularity – as indeed would have been the case in England not so long ago – and Anglicans might lose potential followers to other churches, indeed get some flak, if the Church of England were regarded as too positive about same-sex partnerships.

It is understandable that the Archbishop of Canterbury is concerned. However it is worth emphasising that the Communion is made up of churches which traditionally make their own decisions, albeit in consultation with one another. Church leaders unhappy about what is happening overseas can point out that, as in other families, brothers and sisters do not run one another’s lives.

What is more, while difficulties can arise if a church is perceived as being at odds with the prevailing culture, there is an even deeper problem if it seems to spurn values of compassion and justice. This is the perception that many have of the Church of England – not that it expects too much of its followers but too little.

And this is what is likely to happen in other countries where at present, LGBTI people are openly targeted by the authorities. It is all too easy to forget how quickly things change and those who were once seen as outcasts are now viewed as valued citizens.

The risk then, is that the church, or Christianity itself, may be blamed for having encouraged people to mistreat their sons and daughters, workmates and neighbours for being LGBTI.

Indeed, there are many parts of the world in which sizeable numbers of Anglicans are currently considering how to be more welcoming to, and respectful of, the LGBTI people in their midst, and at least listening to the case for accepting same-sex partnerships. Even in provinces where leaders are in Gafcon, not everyone agrees, though a high price may be paid by LGBTI people and dissidents who dare to speak out, as they follow the way of the cross.

If the Church of England were to continue to move in the direction of greater inclusion of partnered as well as single LGBTI people, this would deepen its ability to connect with those who have a deep spiritual yearning but who are put off by what they see as injustice and dishonesty. And in the long term, it would help the worldwide church to witness more authentically to God’s love for all.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.