This is a reply to Neil Patterson’s blog on Via Media News: https://viamedia.news/2018/09/14/sex-lies-voting-records/
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.