Sex, hypocrisy and the body.

This is a reply to Neil Patterson’s blog on Via Media News:

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your Via Media contribution. You rightly identify some dishonesties amongst gay men that greatly hinder a grown-up discussion about sex and sexuality. But it is not a gay male problem only, as you rightly hint. I want to set our part of the problem in a context which unearths some of the other as yet unspoken issues.

It may be that there is more of a problem with gay men in the church with behaviours that fall short of covenanted monogamy than with other people. The church needs to work out if its attitude to this group is going to encourage them towards fidelity and monogamy or not. If not, then it is hardly a surprise that those who do not have the gift of continence will seek other solutions. Social acceptance of homosexuality has made gay sex less dangerous and more easily available. There are now two generations of gay men who have experienced a world without criminal sanctions for loving. What started out as being presented as liberation and celebration we now know is prone to be a dangerous and self-harming world. Chemsex, body image problems, poor mental health and suicide are all big issues in the rackety end of gay male behaviour. Lots of gay male clergy have had, as part of their social world over the last forty years, a lot of contact with people whose lives are shaped around these kinds of behaviours. For some it has become part of their lives too. But we can’t talk about it.

The trouble is that I have never heard in the church a grown-up conversation about heterosexual clergy who cross-dress, or who are serial adulterers, or who swing or who have an extensive reliance on porn. But I have known all of them. It may be more unusual among heterosexual clergy, but it is far from unknown. And, in a heterosexual world where sexual mores have become much more fluid and where relationships between the sexes are informal and where first names and casual contact is perfectly ordinary, it is no surprise that in the course of long clergy marriages there are lots of examples of infidelity, some leading to divorce and some not.

Moreover, there are three other aspects of male heterosexual behaviour that need to be remembered. The first is sexual harassment. I am not sure that the Church of England has had its Me Too moment yet. Of course, it can operate from female to male and in same sex relationships, but it is clear that this is predominantly a male to female problem in society. Secondly, the huge industry of sex workers feeding male demand. This itself masks problems of human trafficking, slavery and so forth. Clergy are not exempt from being among those who have resorted to prostitutes. And lastly, domestic violence. Men who are frustrated about all kinds of things often take it out on the woman nearest them, and sexual components to domestic violence are not unusual. I am not saying that these are significant problems among heterosexual male clergy in terms of numbers, but even as I write them I am aware of clergy and those around them for whom they have been a very significant and very damaging problem.

Then again, there are also the significant numbers of male clergy who present as heterosexual, but who either want or have sex with men, for all of whom any move to satisfy their curiosity or their known longings will necessitate secrecy and deception. When, in the days when I presented as a heterosexual man, I came out to the chaplain on a clergy conference, he surprised me by saying “you are the sixth married man to tell me this during this conference”. It is not an insignificant group of clergy.

The aesthetics of sex and desire are such that for everything that I might think beautiful and desirable others will think “Yuck!” and vice versa. But these matters cannot be judged rightly when our personal aesthetics are allowed to intrude. For example, there is significant anxiety in church circles about gay men and their sex lives because of a masculine aversion towards anal intercourse. Just read the literature to see this popping up time and again. Gay men don’t all practice that kind of intercourse by any means, a significant percentage never have and have no interest in it. And more heterosexual couples than many church people would be comfortable with do practice it for a variety of reasons. So we do have to interrogate our aesthetic preferences before starting this conversation.

A chaste heterosexual monogamy as the ideal of sexual relationships is unchallenged in church conversations. It is a claimed Biblical standard despite the myriad examples of Bible figures whose lives were far from conforming to this ideal, and who were yet blessed by God and the instrument of God.

The problem is that all this standard does is mask all other sexual behaviour under a cloud of judgemental tutting or tittering. It doesn’t and won’t ever eliminate it. And it makes no effort to weigh or consider the moral value or otherwise of experiences that may be important in helping people grow up as full human beings. Doesn’t almost everyone have adolescent fumblings of some kind or another? Are they wrong or just normal? Who was involved? How were they involved? Was consent given? Was joy shared? What was learnt?

We never seem to be able to get to these questions because everything apart from missionary position sex within a marriage is suspect if not downright sinful. The ethical standard stands quite alone on an enormous pillar (I am aware of the symbolism, but the image does suggest distance and unapproachability, so we’ll go with it). It is the summit of sexual godliness. The problem is that there are no foothills, there is no approach, no ascent. You are either there or you are nowhere. I don’t believe this reflects the realities of most people’s lives. It probably never has.  It is overdue for reform.

If that is how things are, then I would welcome the kind of exploration you propose. But not for gay men alone. It has been far too easy for conservative critics of LGBTI Christians to point to the most permissive gay sexual behaviours and judge us by those standards, while never giving their heterosexual peers the same treatment. If heterosexuality and marriage were such panaceas why do we see so much unhappiness, domestic violence and divorce? Uncomfortable candour is almost certainly needed, but it is needed on all sides. I am all in favour of gay people coming out of the closet – from bishops downwards, but that isn’t going to happen unless they feel that there is a context in which heterosexual peers can tell of their sexual struggles. And those most certainly exist. There is a question raised here about secrecy versus privacy. That too needs to be discussed in depth. But one thing is sure; in these matters, hypocrisy and dishonesty afflict us all and the body corporate is very sick.

Best wishes



Honest to God: responding to James Alison and Richard Peers

James Alison:
Richard Peers:

I don’t think that a single day goes by when I am not genuinely thankful for the way God has led, guided and kept me in my life. Being very much on the downward slope I hope that I can continue to offer myself as I am for God’s use, and that I can continue to be changed and forgiven and transformed until the end of the road. And that is not without acknowledging that I have experienced some real challenges to faith, to sanity, and to health across the years.  It is with that all in view, not despite it, that I offer my daily Te Deum.

So it was with a great deal of discomfort that I read Richard Peers’s blog last night, and found it kept me awake. Then I read James Alison, whose writing I much admire, and found myself doubly disturbed. For both of them record the twists and complexities of institutional dishonesties so labyrinthine that it is no wonder that even a man of James Alison’s exceptional courage and candour can still only say of himself :

I am a priest who aspires to be a theologian, one who is entirely complicit with the realities involved. I realised, over twenty years ago, that the only thing stronger than the systemic trap in which I found myself, as it tried to spit me out, was forgiveness.

Richard Peers describes an agonizing dinner party conversation which unearths the impact of the Church of England’s systemic dishonesty on clergy couples of all kinds:

One male gay couple present initiated the conversation when the non-ordained partner referred angrily to the requirement of him and his partner to refrain from sex. Their relationship had begun as a sexual one, and still was, but now, for reasons of obedience to IHS, they refrained from sex.
Of the other same sex couples present one had tried to refrain from sex, sometimes succeeding for several months at a time. One (lay) partner had suffered mental health issues and been offered medication as a result, as well as advice from his doctor to either “stop being so ridiculous” or get out of the relationship. The other same-sex couples regarded the requirement of IHS to be beyond ‘what is lawful and just’ and therefore not requiring obedience. There was general recognition of the collusion and obfuscation of this. The married, heterosexual couple present expressed their horror at being in such a church but also their own collusion by having to agree, at ordination, that they “understood” the church’s current teaching.

What Alison describes as a clerical closet, a cabinet of lies that no member of the clergy, no matter how self-conscious they are of their own sexuality and behaviour, can escape, Peers describes in the context of the Church of England as something that makes bishops “impotent”, and that is part of a “toxic culture” of systemic dishonesty with a discussion about sexuality that festers in a “sterile, rotten state”.

Meanwhile, they both know and acknowledge that people outside the clerical bubble, both within the church and beyond it, are learning to incorporate LGBT people into the mainstream of life. Their sexuality and its expression and or their own gender expression is the reality for a minority. It is not sinful or perverted, but normal. Sexual behaviour and sexual relationships for LGBT people is a complex and as straightfoward as it is for heterosexual people; there is just as much potential for joy and cruelty, warmth and horror in the ways that LGBT people use their sexuality as there is for anyone else. For every sexually active adult, which is almost everyone, regardless of their sexuality, we may hope for sex to be sacramentally blessing and nourishing, and we know that there is redemption from the times that sex and relationships go wrong. But it is all ordinary.

Which is what makes the churches’ present teaching and discipline, particularly for its LGBT clergy, so dreadful. It more or less obliges them to hide and lie, or to submit and suffer.  As Peers puts it:

I see, over and over again, the damaging psychological and spiritual effects of the current practice of the church. Real people’s lives and those of their wives, husbands, partners, children and colleagues are paying the highest possible price – to the point of suicide, for our current practice as described in IHS [Issues in Human Sexuality].

So what I sense we have here is not a crisis of people, but a crisis of ecclesiology. It is not LGBT people who are the problem – as society knows, as lay people in our churches know – but the structures of our churches. What operated as a tolerant “Don’t ask, Don’t tell ” solution to the sexual difficulties of the clergy, when society was punitive, no longer works. James Alison draws a comparison:

Think of the politically inspired imposition of an already socially moribund “don’t ask don’t tell” on our militaries in the 1990’s. The result was an increase in persecution, dismissals, fearfulness, vindictiveness, loss of talent, and power to the zealots.

This is precisely how the church has been operating in the last ten years. The sterility and fixity of its “teaching” is exemplified in the way that Issues in Human Sexuality, despite being intended as a “contribution to a discussion” became elevated to the position of an unchallengeable dogma, acceptance of which became the necessary hurdle to ordination. Now the “teaching document” of the House of Bishops, whose very production has been severely criticised for not engaging sufficiently with LGBT people, or including enough of them in the process, has been transmuted into being a “mapping exercise”. Mapping what? Certainly not the views of the members of the Church of England as a whole. Were that to happen it would reveal the chasm that has been opening between English society and its established church over these matters.

I have not been a compliant clerical member of my church. I got married to my husband, though it was obvious that bishops did not think this was a good idea, because they had issued Pastoral Guidance that said, in a slightly unclear passive-aggressive Anglican way that to do this might be a disciplinary offence. The consequence of this, long-term, has been that I am a priest without portfolio of any kind. I get asked to take the weddings of young friends – I cannot. I cannot baptise their children when they ask me. I have not been able to celebrate a eucharist for over two years. Unlike a clergy person who had commited some recognizeable offence and who receive a penalty, my status will continue at the moment sine die .

I tell you this not because I want your sympathy, but because it illustrates what happens when you decide to be as honest as you can, and refuse to play games that draw you back into the labyrinth of lies. I am not complaining. Though the consequences were not at all clear at the time I took my decision, they at least have a congruence with the state of the debate.

The negative impact of this huge and systemic dishonesty upon the work and life and mission of churches is now evident. It is acknowledged even by those who would be opposed to a revisiting of the churches’ teaching on sexual matters. It explains the stagnation, the desperation, even the hysteria with which the Church of England tries to turn around its decline.

Is it possible to be a faithful member of the church and yet conscientiously decide to stand against part of its teaching? If the rottenness of the church has been exposed, then is there not a duty on the conscience of the Christian no longer to collude? The most horrifying part of Peers’s blog was reading what hoops, and at what cost, all these clergy were prepared to jump through in order still to remain aligned with the practice of a church whose teaching they did not respect or believe. The activity of the Holy Spirit is not constrained to the mechanics of the Church of England or of any other church. There is, in personal honesty, a costly discipleship to be discovered.

Clergy, as a whole, are hugely invested in the institution. It is their life. It is their livelihood and the provider of stipends and homes. It has its own internal greasy poles and all the politicking of any human institution. None of that will entirely disappear. But the rotten stagnant situation of the debates about sex can only be overcome by what those in Twelve Step Programmes describe as “rigorous honesty”. As Alison puts it,

It looks to me as though the Lord’s mercy, already reaching lay people as relief and as joy, is beginning to pierce the clerical closet in the shape of a firm, but gently upheld, demand for penitential first-person truthfulness as we are painfully let go from the systemic trap.

Pentitential first-person truthfulness? Or pragmatism? Emily Dickinson says

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Much of the time I feel, humanly speaking, laid aside, through no choice of my own – but I am daily grateful for the grace that freed me from fear and shame and allows me to live as honest a life as I can. As anyone who has come out knows, coming out is not something done once. It is a process of telling and retelling, of testifying to a liberation to many different audiences. So the church need not fear that starting to do it will be dazzling or blinding. Led by the Spirit and lit by the Light of the World, the church’s truth-telling escape from the labyrinth of lies can only be done by those who are most closely enmeshed – by bishops and clergy. Who knows? – it may even help us in finding God’s mercy to rediscover the direction and purpose of the church.